How I Won The Ashes, 6th Newsletter 22nd January 2010

January 22, 2010

 

 
 
 
 
 
 

The Ashes

22 January 2010

Hello and welcome back to How I Won The Ashes

How I actually won the Ashes will be told at some point in the future, but I hope you are curious, because it’s quite a bold claim!

You can view this and previous postings by visiting

https://howiwontheashes.wordpress.com/2010/01/22/129/

I’m sorry that you didn’t get anything last week, but I thought it would make sense to wait until the dust had settled after the end of the Test series in South Africa.  I can now reflect on all the events of the last six weeks and assess what the England team need to do to kick on from here.  There is much to be optimistic about, but this England team is nowhere near the finished article.  I’ve got some thoughts on this, on the South African team and on the Review System which attracted so much comment.

Here’s what I will be covering this week:

Click meSouth Africa v England, 4th Test, Johannesburg

Click meSelection issues

Click meSouth African grit and Graeme Smith

Click meThe Review System

Click meBangladesh

See?South Africa v England, 4th Test, Johannesburg

Very little went right for England, from the very first ball of the match, after Andrew Strauss had won the toss.  It seemed a good one to win. The pitch, which was clearly prepared to produce a result, was unlikely to become any easier to bat on and there would always be something in it for the bowlers; so, provided a competitive score of around 300 could be achieved in the 1st innings, it would be possible to set a challenging  target in the 4th innings.  On that basis, batting first made sense.

However, from that point on, it was downhill all the way. The selection of Sidebottom for Onions made little sense.  There were no injury issues and Onions had earned a little bit of cult status by batting out not once but twice for draws that enabled England to go into the last match unable to lose the series.  Selection should not be based on such emotional issues, but there’s no doubt that Onions himself would have been buoyed up by his batting heroics; and he would have been determined to see the job through by bowling his heart out on a pitch which was always likely to suit him better than any other in the series. He would have been quite a handful. Maybe England were deceived by the forecast of damp and cloudy conditions into thinking that the ball would swing around a lot and that Sidebottom offered a different option and one to which the South African batsmen were less accustomed. Whatever, the thinking was flawed on both psychological and practical grounds; and on the basis that you do what your opponents least would like, it played into South Africa’s hands.

The shot that Strauss played  into Hashim Amla’s right hand off the first ball of the match was nothing short of miraculous.  Apparently, the last time an English batsman was out to the first ball of a match was way back in 1936. My first thought as Dale Steyn bowled a gentle leg stump loosener was: nice way for Strauss to start, clipping it away to get off the mark immediately.  It was with utter disbelief that, in a millisecond, I saw short leg flinging the ball skywards in delight.  That put South Africa on a high, where they remained for the entire match. There was only one point – early on the 3rd day – when England had the slightest whiff of a chance, which was when they had South Africa 5 down with a lead of only 55.  Had they managed to break through again and keep the lead inside 100, they might conceivably have been able to set an awkward target. This, though, would have still required England to score at least 250 in their second innings. Given the way they batted generally throughout the series, with the exception of Durban, and given the increasingly menacing and effective combination of Steyn and Morkel, that would have been unlikely. 

Indeed, Johannesburg showed up all the issues that characterised the series as a whole: England’s chronic inability to post competitive totals, despite having an extra batsman; South Africa’s strong and deep batting, made stronger by England’s lack of an extra bowler; their ability to seize vital moments; their general grit, determination and competitiveness; and, of course, the review system. Nobody could doubt that if England had won the series, it would have been, if not a travesty, certainly a misleading reflection of the two sides’ abilities and performances over the series as a whole.top

See?Selection issues

Any side with a player who can be relied upon both to score runs batting at No. 6 and to be a frontline bowler immediately has more attacking options in the field, assuming its wicket-keeper is also proficient with the bat. At their peak, both Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff filled this space, to England’s great advantage and success.

It is one of cricket’s great ironies that Australia, usually the strongest cricketing nation, have never had a truly world class all rounder to compare with the likes of Sobers, Botham, Flintoff, Kapil Dev or Imran Khan. Some have come close: one thinks of Alan Davidson or Gary Gilmour as bowlers who would get runs; or, in their early years, Steve Waugh or Greg Chappell, great batsmen who could take more than the occasional wicket.  But none of these could be selected as a proper all rounder.  On the other hand, when you have bowlers of the calibre of Warne, McGrath and Lillee, three of the greatest in the game’s history, plus wicket-keepers like Marsh, Healey and Gilchrist, you don’t really need one.

South Africa, of course, have been well served in this regard by Jacques Kallis, who is now probably more a batsman who bowls a bit.  But he still gives his captain options and the side balance, he still takes wickets and he gets through enough overs to let the other bowlers have a rest.  They will find him very hard to replace.  For England, on this tour, it has been the continuing conundrum.  Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but having the extra batsman in the side did them no favours, apart from at Durban when Ian Bell scored an excellent century from No. 6; even then, though, he came in when England were already close to parity on the first innings. In the other matches, the extra batsman made no difference. All it did was put extra pressure on the bowling attack. One of the reasons cited for Graham Onions being dropped for the final test was that he had no gas left in his tank, which was effectively an admission that England should have had five front line bowlers the whole way through the series.

If you analyse it a bit closer, this was also the case for South Africa, since they, too, picked six batsmen.  The difference was that one of them was a proper bowler (although it was actually the part time off spinner Duminy that precipitated the last hour panic at Cape Town.) However, most of South Africa’s runs in the series were scored by three frontline batsmen – Smith, Amla and Kallis – and by the reliable Boucher at No. 7. Prince and Duminy were conspicuous failures; and if South Africa had had the extra bowler, it might have got them the two extra wickets at Pretoria and Cape Town that would have given them a 3-1 series win.

England’s ability to stop South Africa completely dominating with the bat was mainly down to Graeme Swann, who bowled with both control and penetration and partially disguised England’s bowling deficiencies. That he occasionally also disguised the batting deficiencies coming in at No. 9 offered a clue as to how England should have considered the make-up of the team for the forthcoming series against Bangladesh and Pakistan.  This would have been the ideal time to play Broad, Swann and one from either Luke Wright, Liam Plunkett or Adil Rashid at Nos. 7, 8 and 9. If they could start to be relied on to contribute 100 runs between them each innings, it would provide the balance the side so desperately needs for next winter’s Ashes. In the absence of a proper all- rounder, that has to be the next best option.  Alas, the selectors don’t see it that way.

They are hampered in this by Stuart Broad not yet training on as a batsman.  At the moment, he only seems to score when England are either already in a very strong position or when the cause is completely hopeless, such as at Headingley last summer. It could instead be Swann who eventually makes the step up to No. 7.  As for Rashid, he seems to have fallen out of favour.  It’s tough being on tour and not playing and it may be that his attitude was wrong. It’s a shame that they have been so quick to discard him, because any leg-spinner is a one in a million in English cricket and one who can also bat is priceless. He should be nurtured and encouraged.  Bangladesh would have been the ideal time to give him a chance, but he has obviously said or done something to rule himself out.  His only consolation is that the last young spinner to tour South Africa, play no part and quickly fall out of favour for a bad attitude was none other than Graeme Swann, who has now become an automatic pick and a talisman.  Let us hope for his sake and the sake of the England team’s balance that Rashid presents an unanswerable case for his return sooner than it took Swann.top

See?South African grit and Graeme Smith

I previously expressed doubts that South Africa were worthy of the title of the No.1 side in the world, but this series has done much to dispel them.  They were consistently able to put together partnerships and bat as a unit.  Apart from their one blow-out at Durban, their lowest score in the series was 291.  They were also able to seize moments and initiative.  Both the drawn matches were close to the point when the captain of the fielding side would have said “Right, that’s it, let’s call it off, we’re not taking these wickets.” Not South Africa.  At both Pretoria and Cape Town, they stuck at it and made breakthroughs, which led to enthralling finishes, yet more advertisement for test cricket.  England would do well by learning from their example with both bat and ball.  If they do not, they are in for another disappointing time in Australia.

Graeme Smith has become a giant of the game.  His batting performances against England, ever since he scored consecutive double hundreds in his first two test matches against us in 2003, have been conspicuously excellent.  Like truly great players, he is at his best when the pressure is at its most intense.  His 154 not out at Edgbaston in 2008 to win both the match and the series was an awesome innings; his hundreds at Cape Town and Johannesburg, if not quite under such intense pressure, were further demonstrations of grit and determination. None of the current English batting line up can match this, with the exception of Paul Collingwood.

Yet I still find Graeme Smith unattractively accustomed to getting his own way.  On the pitch, this is fine.  A strong will is required to play long innings and win matches, and even the most passionate opponent will not begrudge him that.  Smith, though, has previous form in behaviour that crosses the line between legitimate competitiveness and unsportsmanlike conduct.  Three examples stand out. 

The first was at Johannesburg in 2005.  England were batting late in the second day, with a lot of time lost to rain.  But they had passed 400, and Michael Vaughan and Steve Harmison, of all people, were smashing the South African bowlers everywhere.  The light was gloomy, but playable, and Vaughan, anxious to score as many as possible because of the lost time, was not about to go off, even if he were offered the opportunity by the umpires. It was Graeme Smith who stepped in and forced the umpires to curtail play, in an effort to put a brake on England’s free scoring.  It was the only example in my experience of a FIELDING side successfully appealing against bad light.  Not even Moin Khan managed this in Karachi in 2000, when the mullahs were already calling the muslim worshippers to prayer at sunset as the England batsmen chased down an unlikely and historic victory.  Smith should not have been allowed to do this; yet he got away with it.

To add insult to injury, he then gave evidence against Vaughan in a disciplinary hearing held because of comments the England captain had made publicly about wishing the umpires could be consistent when it came to decisions about light.  Smith had no business being there and it seemed obvious he was doing his damnednest to get Vaughan fined, or banned, or both.  It was beyond the bounds of what is acceptable in the pursuit of victory.  At least Vaughan had the last laugh, because England ended up winning the match, and the series.

Unfortunately, Smith had the final victory in his long running feud with Vaughan three years later.  His aforementioned 154 not out won the series and caused Vaughan to resign the captaincy and retire from test cricket.  But in the previous match at Headingley, England, bowled out for 203, had South Africa in slight trouble at 76 for 3 late on the first day, with Smith and Kallis both dismissed cheaply.  It should have been 76 for 4 when Hashim Amla chipped a ball to mid off and Vaughan, diving forward, took the catch, scooping it up inches from the turf.  Everyone celebrated and Amla walked off.  There was no suggestion that it was anything other than a legitimate catch. 

However, he was sent back by Smith, gesticulating furiously from the balcony, urging him to seek a review, having seen a replay.  Amla was virtually on the edge of the pitch when he turned around and walked back to the middle.  Doubt descended and the umpires sought clarification from replays that the ball had not hit the ground before Vaughan made the catch.  Everyone knows  –  not least Smith in that situation  –  that when a catch like that is reviewed, it is virtually impossible to tell for sure that the ball definitely did not touch the ground and that the batsman will almost inevitably get the benefit of that doubt.  So Amla stayed and helped South Africa to go through the rest of a tricky session without losing another wicket, from where they ended up posting a giant score and winning by an innings. It was another example of Smith’s preparedness to do whatever it takes to win.  Again, he went beyond the boundary of cricketing morality.top

See?The Review System

Much has been written about the review system, so I don’t propose to spend too much time on it. Some key arguments emerge.  To start with, England are hopelessly inept with it.  They have always been hostile towards the whole concept of a review system.  Ironically, this probably cost them the match at Edgbaston on 2008 when Smith hit his match-winning century.  They had refused to allow the review system to be used in the series.  Yet how much must they have regretted that when Smith was stone dead lbw to Panesar relatively early in his innings. His wicket was clearly the fulcrum of the result and a reverse of the not out decision might have changed everything.

But now, having played under the review system, England tend to treat it as a fifth bowler that they keep refusing to pick.  They use it at a time when they are desperate for a wicket, i.e. when they are crying out for a fifth bowler.  The difference is that a fifth bowler can give you 15 overs in a day and maybe take a wicket or two; the review system is only worth two balls and once they have gone, for no gain, even the most blatant mistake by an umpire later in the innings, possibly when it matters even more, will go uncorrected.

The point of the review system is that it is supposed to eradicate obvious misjudgements that the human eye cannot detect, such as nicks onto the pad or catches that have clearly hit or missed the bat.  The original concept was designed to ensure that run outs and stumpings were correctly adjudicated. Once it became clear that it was possible for an umpire inside the pavilion to check the replay and quickly decide whether the batsman was in or out of the crease when the bails were removed, it seemed entirely sensible to give the on-field umpires this protection. It is now a totally accepted part of the game when there are TV cameras to supply the necessary evidence.

Technology has now progressed so as to give a third umpire reviewing an lbw decision the ability to assess, quickly and with reasonable certainty, whether the ball hit the bat before the pad, or, if it did not, where the ball pitched and whether it struck in line.  Where it is less satisfactory is in the predictive element, i.e. in establishing what the ball would have done after it hit the batsman’s pad.  There is still some debate about whether this is right.  The compromise seems to be to allow the on-field decision to stand unless the hawkeye technology clearly shows the ball missing or hitting the stumps, as the case may be.

Where the system is completely unsatisfactory is where not all the technology is being used to provide the third umpire with all the evidence to allow a miscarriage of justice to be quickly overturned.  It’s stupid, but I suppose inevitable, and true to the incompetence and greed that runs through the game’s administration, that this comes down to money; and it was deeply irritating that a dispute over funding prevented hotspot or snickometer from being available to the umpires in South Africa to judge whether or not, or when, ball struck bat.

However, one could not legislate for a third umpire having technology at his disposal and failing to make use of it. Darryl Harper made this mistake at Johannesburg when he forgot to turn a volume control that would have proved to him, beyond reasonable doubt, that the ball brushed Graeme Smith’s bat (it’s always him, isn’t it?) One should not blame Smith for standing his ground.  Batsmen do not walk in test matches, the game has become too hard nosed for that; and since Smith’s nose is harder than teak or diamond, one should not be surprised, either.  The ultimate insult was when AB de Villiers, another tough competitor, blatantly edged a ball to Matt Prior.  Replays showed that it was 100 per cent. out, even without hotspot or snickometer, yet it was not given.  The smug grin on AB de Villiers’ face said it all, because he knew England were out of reviews and could do nothing about it.

I will leave the last word to Michael Vaughan, a font of common sense and knowledge.  He argues that the system will only work if all the technology is made available to the third umpire. You know when you are batting if you have hit the ball, no matter how faintly.  So if you know that you are going to be found out by the third umpire, there’s no point hanging around if the on-field umpire hasn’t triggered you, you may as well walk.  If technology encourages walking, that can only be a good thing for the game.top

See?Bangladesh

Two things struck me about the selection of the England team to tour Bangladesh.  The first was the omission of Rashid, which I mentioned earlier.  The second was the absence of Strauss, to allow him to recharge his batteries ahead of a full year culminating in a winter Ashes tour.  I was horrified at the chorus of disapproval from former England captains, safe in their well paid ivory towers of punditry. It’s vital that Strauss isn’t burned out by next November and I think he and the selectors have done exactly the right thing.  It’s all very well for Botham, Hussain and Atherton to mutter about the England captain’s job not being one you can give up and take back.  But they should consider two things: first, Strauss has played a ridiculous amount of cricket in the last year, forced on him by the ECB’s gargantuan appetite for money, which exceeds that of even the most aggressive investment bankers. He needs a rest.

Second, he has been royally messed around by the selectors and the ECB, who gave the captaincy first to Flintoff and then Pietersen, with disastrous results.  Yet Strauss just got on with his role of opening batsman, without a word of complaint, even though he’d performed well as captain against Pakistan in 2006.  He has won the Ashes and come away from South Africa with a drawn series in not much more than six months.  He scored the first Ashes century by an Englishman at Lords for 20 years, an innings which set up England’s first test victory against Australia at the home of cricket since 1934. He has earned the right to that rest.  As usual, the only one speaking sense on this has been Michael Vaughan, who is probably one of the best captains England have ever had.  Alone of that group, he agreed with the decision to give Strauss a break.

Last time around, we went back to 1973 when Pakistan managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  The great Australian batsman who took five wickets in Pakistan’s first innings for the only time in his career was Greg Chappell; and the Australian bowler who destroyed Pakistan in the second innings was Max Walker, he of the ludicrous but highly effective action.

I haven’t been able to find a suitable match that happened on this day in the past, so there’s no trivia for you today.  I hope you all have a very good weekend and I look forward to hearing all your feedback.top

Delenda est ECB.

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How I Won The Ashes 4th Newsletter 18 December 2009

January 1, 2010

 

The Ashes

18 December 2009
Hello and welcome to the fourth edition of How I Won the Ashes.

How I actually won the Ashes will be told at some point in the future, but I hope you are curious, because it’s quite a bold claim!
 
Look out for occasional postings on

http://twitter.com/HowIwontheAshes

You can also reply to howiwontheashes@googlemail.com

This week is an especially long edition, as I won’t be back until the New Year.

Below is what I will be covering this week:

Click meNew Zealand v Pakistan, 3rd Test at Napier

Click meA rare thrilling One Day International – India v Sri Lanka at Rajkot

Click meThoughts on Stuart Broad, Jimmy Anderson and the IPL

Click meEarly views on South Africa v England, 1st Test at Pretoria and thoughts on Ian Bell

Click meAustralia v West Indies, 3rd Test at Perth

Click meEleven ideas for British cricket (Nos. 9 to 11)

Click mePolitical Correctness

Click meGovernment interest in cricket and playing fields

Click me Health & Safety

Click mePersonal Responsibility

Click meMemory lane – 18th December 1976, England v India, 1st Test at Delhi

Click meHappy New Year, especially to Giles Clarke

See?New Zealand v Pakistan, 3rd Test at Napier

What a shame that the weather in Napier spoiled what was shaping up to be an intriguing final session, with New Zealand eventually needing 118 more runs to win off 23 overs, and the openers well set, when the rain came.  It had been a fascinating match, New Zealand gaining a first innings lead of 248, and Daniel Vettori thoroughly justifying his move up the order with 134, which strengthened the view that he is a genuine all rounder.  However, Pakistan came back strongly and ended up setting New Zealand 208 to win.  It echoed the pattern of the whole series and showed how absorbing test cricket can be, especially when the sides are evenly matched and the pitch offers something for both bowlers and batsmen.top

See?A rare thrilling One Day International – India v Sri Lanka at Rajkot

I suggested previously that One Day Internationals are generally unmemorable, simply because there are so many of them.  This week, however, threw up a real gem, between India and Sri Lanka at Rajkot.  Again, Virender Sehwag was to the fore, smashing 146 off only 102 balls, allowing India to set a target of 415, only the third time a side has passed 400 in a ODI between two established test playing countries.  Yet Sehwag was outdone by both Tillikeratne Dilshan and Kumar Sangakkara, who both scored at a phenomenal rate. If they had stayed in for even 5 overs longer, Sri Lanka would have romped home. As it was, they ended up just 3 runs short in a classic finish. In the second match, just finished, it was an equally tight affair, with Sri Lanka this time successfully chasing 301 with 5 balls to spare. So perhaps I am being a bit harsh, but I stand by my original argument that there is way too much cricket played.top

See?Thoughts on Stuart Broad, Jimmy Anderson and the IPL

I also noticed this week that Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson publicly stated that they would turn down offers from the Indian Premier League.  Cynics would say that it was only because they had run the numbers and concluded there was not enough money on the table.  Perhaps naively, I am prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt and accept instead their argument that they would prefer to put their England careers first.  With an Ashes tour around the corner, it is most welcome, whatever their true motivation.  But it was slightly arrogant to assume that they would even receive an offer, although I think Broad has the potential to become a proper all rounder, well capable of batting at No. 7.  It’s only a matter of time before he scores a test match hundred.  Bangladesh next summer might represent his most immediate chance, if it weren’t for the likelihood that the batsmen above him will help themselves first and leave him just enough time to slog a quick fifty before a declaration. Batting is in his blood, though, with his father having had a distinguished tenure as an opening batsman for England, cut short by a combination of a suspect temperament and the emergence of Michael Atherton.top

See?Early views on South Africa v England, 1st Test at Pretoria and thoughts on Ian Bell

So to Pretoria, where South Africa have been in front for most of the match apart from the first morning and the last session of today, where a 100 run stand for the 9th wicket between James Anderson and the irrepressible Graeme Swann has allowed England to make up a little bit of lost ground, if not quite achieve parity. After losing Graeme Smith in the second over of the day and at one point being 93 for 3, Jacques Kallis (who recovered sufficiently to play, but only as a batsman) rebuilt the South African innings with a fine century, after Andrew Strauss won the toss and elected to field first. 

I’m afraid Strauss misread the pitch, though; perhaps a bit like Ricky Ponting at Edgbaston in 2005, he was suckered into thinking that all the recent rain would leave the pitch nice and juicy. Although there was some grass on the pitch, it was in fact pretty flat on days 1 and 2, so in hindsight England would have been much better off batting first.  If Strauss had had 5 frontline bowlers, it might have been a more plausible strategy to bowl first; but the missing bowler allowed South Africa to go on to score 418. 

Then, when England batted, the extra batsman, Bell, failed to deliver the goods, leaving a straight ball from Paul Harris, who has shown that he is not to be under-estimated.  I really am not convinced by Bell.  He was prematurely and ludicrously identified in his early years by several pundits as a once in a generation batsman who would follow in the footsteps of Hobbs, Hammond, Hutton, May, Cowdrey and Gower. But he is still failing to live up to this billing, even earning the nickname “sherminator” from Shane Warne for his timid presence at the crease.  Even now, Bell’s Test career could still instead go the same way as those perennial under-achievers Graeme Hick and Mark Ramprakash: voracious devourers of county bowling, but lacking the mental strength to cope with the pressure of Test cricket.

However, having the extra batsman may yet work for England if they are set a target of less than 300.  Anything more than that will be tough, especially if there is more variable bounce like the grubber Makhaya Ntini shot underneath Andrew Strauss’ bat; and Paul Harris was also extracting an ominous amount of turn even on day 3. England will have to bowl exceptionally well tomorrow to give themselves a chance. But a South African lead of only 62 was less than they dared hope when they were 242 for 8 not much more than an hour earlier; and removing the normally adhesive Ashwell Price just before the close today will have lifted them even further. I still think South Africa are favourites; and if they do win, it will be the second time in 3 tests that Strauss’ failure to take advantage of winning the toss has cost his team the match (he really should have fielded first at Headingly last summer).top

See?Australia v West Indies, 3rd Test at Perth

The match in Perth between Australia and the West Indies has followed a similar pattern.  Australia seized the initiative with a big first innings of 520. However, none of their batsmen seems able to reach three figures, with Watson, Katich, Hussey and Haddin dismissed for 89, 99, 82 and 82 respectively, and Ponting taking a vicious blow on the elbow forcing him to retire hurt. West Indies looked to be fighting back with a blistering century from that man Gayle; but the innings rapidly declined when he was out and Australia ended up with a lead of 208.  Australians are very wary of enforcing the follow on.  Only three matches have ever been won by sides following on and Australia have been on the receiving end each time; so Ponting duly batted again.  Like Strauss at Lords in the summer, it was clearly the right decision. More fireworks from Gayle, with some support from the other batsmen, could have left Australia facing one of those awkward targets, and throwing away the advantage afforded by winning the toss and bowling last on a pitch which is looking increasingly bowler friendly. 

Evidence for this was rapidly provided by the West Indies, who have reduced Australia to 137 for 8.  I haven’t had time to check, but it must be a long time since Australia last played a test series (albeit one of only 3 matches) where none of their batsmen has scored a century. I think, though, that they have already got enough of a lead and I take them to win, possibly as early as tomorrow.  You can never write off the West Indies completely with Gayle around, and South Africa did score over 400 to win in Perth last year; but the pitch looks a lot tougher than in that match, and I think Mitchell Johnson, in particular, will be too hot to handle.top

See?Eleven ideas for British cricket (Nos. 9 to 11)

Having outlined eight of my eleven point plan for British cricket (How I Won The Ashes 3rd Newsletter 11th December 2009), I ran out of time and space and saved for this week the issues of political correctness and government enthusiasm for the game; the availability of playing fields; and the insidious effect of Health & Safety on all areas of our lives.top

See?Political Correctness

The three are all related.  I am neither a political theorist nor a sociologist, so my attempt at understanding the origins of political correctness is inevitably crude.  What is political correctness, anyway?  As I see it, it is a form of thinking that crept into our society sometime around 1990. It may have been a backlash against the in-your-face, aggressive form of capitalism created by Margaret Thatcher’s and Ronald Reagan’s reconstruction of the British and American economies in the mid 1980s.  Its effect is that you are not allowed to express an extreme view on any subject because there is a chance, however slight, that someone, somewhere, might be offended.  In other words, its purpose is to protect minority rights.

Often, this is a good thing.  Those afflicted by injury, ill health, disability or other misfortune need help. A compassionate, civilised society has a duty to provide it.  But this desire always to be compassionate and protective can and does backfire and leads to ludicrous situations.  A school football team that was 5-0 up at half time was told that the match would start again, because “it was unfair” that their opponents were losing so heavily. 

And the language that is used to justify such things can almost be Orwellian.  I once heard John Humphreys interviewing a woman who was suggesting that it was wrong for children to pretend to be soldiers in the playground, because it encouraged aggressive behaviour.  She said that “practitioners were being asked to exercise a zero tolerance policy towards such behaviour.” You what?  Humphreys was merciless, especially since, by her own admission, there was no evidence to show that children who did indulge in such behaviour were any more aggressive.  “You mean, TEACHERS should BAN children from doing this,” barked Humphreys.  “That’s what you mean, isn’t it?”  She reluctantly agreed.  Look at the language she was using.  Teachers are teachers, not “practitioners”. “Banning” someone from doing something is a subjective word with negative overtones; so they use “zero tolerance” to make it seem more justifiable.  It’s no different to 1984, where something was not “very” good; it was “double plus” good.

Ultimately, it is to do with society becoming more litigious and adopting a compensation culture.  So we are all encouraged to use language that reduces our exposure to litigation for what we say and, by extension, what we think.  Call it far-fetched, but that is not a million miles away from thought crime.top

See?Government interest in cricket and playing fields

What has this got to with cricket? At first glance, very little.  But on reflection, there is plenty of evidence to show that cricket has been singled out by socialist governments as being politically incorrect.  Through their inability and unwillingness to bid competitively for the rights to broadcast cricket, the BBC could be equally culpable. First, cricket is competitive, and competition, wanting to win, is bad; second, it has elitist overtones, having for many years been the preserve of the upper classes and, sin off sins, the Empire.  The idea that, until as recently as the 1960s, there could be a match between Gentlemen and Players, is proof of this in the mind of the socialist Empire apologist.

Of course, any cricket follower knows that this is utter rubbish.  The whole point about cricket is that anyone can play it and anyone can become good at it, if they have the desire, opportunity and exposure (which brings up the point about television coverage – a pet subject, to which I will return next year.)  Cricket transcends backgrounds and cultures. And since today’s government has openly declared class warfare, let’s look at that.  Gordon Brown recently scoffed at the playing fields of Eton as a way of making political capital.  So if the argument is that only those from privileged backgrounds get the opportunity to become top cricketers, why is it that you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of Old Etonians to represent England in the last fifty years?  The same goes for Harrow and Charterhouse.  Tonbridge is slightly more successful, mainly by virtue of the Cowdrey family.  David Gower went to King’s Canterbury and the current England captain was at Radley.  There are others, too, but it would be a mistake to think that all cricketers all around the world come from privileged backgrounds.  Some do; and many don’t.  That is how it has always been, but on the field of play, all have the same opportunity to excel, both individually and for their team, in any number of ways. That is the unique beauty of cricket.

So what is the answer?  An overt recognition by the government of the importance of cricket to our culture would help. Don’t expect it, especially if Labour are re-elected in 2010.  Perhaps the Tories will help, but, to be fair, they will have many more important things to worry about. Nevertheless, a drive to preserve all forms of cricket and make the game more valuable is vital to our culture. This means ensuring that the organisation entrusted with the responsibility of running the game does so in the interests of all involved, most especially the players and the fans. They should do away with the self-serving chairmen and other hangers on, who sit in their ivory towers, tour around the world sipping their gins and tonics in their boxes, accountable to nobody.

Another priority is to do something about the steady swallowing up of open spaces where cricket can be played.  Not having ever been involved in, nor understanding the commercial or political intricacies, I am out of my depth in arguing this one; but it seems fundamentally wrong when a monstrosity such as the grey building above St. Paul’s underground station can be protected from being knocked down, yet open green spaces where cricket can be played are routinely ploughed up and built on.  If anyone can come up with a sensible explanation for this, I would love to hear it.top

See?Health & Safety

The final point is the growing influence of Health & Safety culture and how it affects all our lives.  Just as politically correct thinking and legislation was originally well intentioned, with the aim of protecting the rights of minorities, so health and safety legislation was quite rightly enacted to ensure that workers in mines, oil rigs, power stations and factories were adequately protected. Now that our economy has become predominantly service based rather than manufacturing based, the legislation is being applied in ways in which it was never intended – with disastrous consequences.  No-one is able or willing to take responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant urge to blame someone else and be compensated accordingly. No win no fee legal advice only contributes to this. It surely has no place on the sports field, yet it appears to be creeping in there, too.

A real life example from a cricket match in which I played illustrates this perfectly. I was captain of a team I assemble once a year and I was batting, shortly before lunch.  It was a glorious summer’s day at one of the prettiest cricket grounds in the heart of London.  The opposition’s opening bowler was a handy left arm seamer who had taken a few wickets in the morning session and was hard to get away.  Shortly after I came in, he bowled me a beamer.  It was so high that I was never in any danger of being hit on the head, but it was a surprise nonetheless.  The bowler apologised and it was clearly unintentional.  It was not that kind of cricket match, anyway.  A couple of balls later, he did it again.  At this point, the two umpires conferred with the captain of the opposition and formally warned the bowler that if he bowled one more ball like that, he wouldn’t be allowed to bowl again.  I found this faintly ridiculous and said so, but I was reminded that those are the rules.

In his next over, the last before lunch, he let slip a third head high full toss.  This time it was well wide of me and was never threatening to injure me. The wicket-keeper and slips were in more danger!  Nevertheless, the umpire immediately intervened and informed the bowler that he could not bowl again. 

This was a friendly game between two teams of players who had turned up because they love cricket and wanted to enjoy a fun, social occasion.  It’s played at a reasonable standard, and it’s taken seriously enough for there to be two umpires officiating.  But it’s not even close to being a first class fixture, let alone a test match.  Yet suddenly we had officialdom bearing down on us and that particular bowler’s enjoyment of the day – and that of his team mates – was ruined because of it.  There was a sour taste in the mouth. At lunch, I tackled the umpires and asked whether it was really necessary for that bowler to be taken out of the game.  Yes, they say, and this is why: if he is allowed to carry on bowling and if he happens to injure a batsman with a similar delivery and if that batsman decides to resort to litigation and seek compensation for his injury, they as umpires would be liable, on the grounds that their insurance policies would be null and void because they failed to apply the rules.

What utter nonsense, I reply.  Are you telling me that lawyers and insurance companies are now deciding how the game of cricket should be played?  Are the twenty-two players involved not capable of taking responsibility for themselves and their actions?  The umpires “hear what I say”, but they are having none of it and won’t budge from their position, even when I offer to get all the players to sign a disclaimer. Several years later, in the same fixture, I had a seventeen year old fast bowler playing for me.  He was still at school, but was fit and athletic; yet the rules now say he is not allowed to bowl more than seven overs consecutively, if he is under eighteen.  Why not?  Apparently for the same reason: if he injures himself in the eighth over or thereafter, the umpires who did not stop him could be liable to pay compensation.top

See?Personal Responsibility

The abject inability of individuals to take responsibility for their own actions, to seek to blame someone else whenever something happens to them, will cause untold damage if it is not stopped.  The same thinking means that in some places, you cannot ask for black or white coffee, it has to be with or without milk because to ask for black coffee might somehow be perceived as racially offensive and expose the speaker of those words to litigation.  Apparently, you cannot now even refer to the term “common sense” in court, presumably because it has elitist overtones.

The tragedy is that everyone you speak to agrees that all of this is wrong.  I’ve never met an individual who actually thinks it is a good thing, or speaks up for it. Yet it continues and nothing is done to stop it. The nearest we have had to a politician publicly opposing it was David Cameron, in a speech to the Conservative Party Conference two years ago.  He said he wanted to create a society where policemen could solve crimes without having to fill in endless forms; and where teachers could apply a sticking plaster to a child at school without fear of being branded a child molester.

The BBC asked ten people, randomly, to listen to Cameron’s speech .They were asked to press a + button when they heard something they liked, and a – button if they didn’t like it.  The more they liked what they heard, the longer they should keep the + button pressed, and the same for the – button.  It was a crude but effective gauge on what mattered to them most.  When Cameron said this, the needle swung violently into positive territory, which again shows how much the average person in the street hates the impact of health and safety.  So why does it continue to blight our lives? Cameron was clearly onto something.  His recent statements on attacking compensation culture are in the same vein and I think this could be a major vote winner for him. I hope he is able to follow it through. If he is successful, it might just persuade more people to start coaching more children and getting them enthused at an early age about sport in general and cricket in particular.top

See?Memory lane – 18th December 1976, England v India, 1st Test at Delhi

Last week we treated ourselves to the greatest test match ever played, the tied match between Australia and the West Indies in 1960, which ushered in a new era of entertaining cricket.  The batsmen who took Australia to within 7 runs of victory were, of course, Richie Benaud and Alan Davidson, who was run out for 80 by Joe Solomon, the same fielder who hit the single stump to effect the final run out and tie the match. Since Davidson had also taken 11 wickets in the match and scored 44 in the first innings, he had quite a game.

This week, we are going back to 18 December 1976, to Delhi, where England were playing the first of a five match series against India.  India had just soundly thrashed New Zealand, their spinners running amok on the dusty wickets of the sub-continent.  England, by contrast, had been blown away the previous summer by the batting of Richards and Greenidge and the fast bowling of Holding and Roberts.  An intriguing contest lay ahead. After an hour, England were right up against it.  Having won the toss, they found themselves 65 for 4.  However, an excellent innings of 179 by Dennis Amiss saw them to a total of 381, the recovery catalysed by a counter-attacking 75 from Alan Knott, in a way that too few English wicket keepers have been able to emulate since he retired.  The English bowlers then took the Indian batting apart, knocking them over for 122; and although India fared better when following on, the deficit was too big and they lost by an innings.  Two Englishmen made their debuts in this match, with contrasting fortunes.  One scored a duck; the other made 53 and then took 7 wickets in India’s first innings and a further 3 in the second.  Who were they?top

See?Happy New Year, especially to Giles Clarke

I won’t be posting another of these until 8 January 2010, because family obligations will take priority. By then, we will be through the test matches at Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town.  Having lost at Newlands on their last three tours, it would be nice if England could get that particular monkey off their back, as they managed at Lords this summer against Australia.  It’s certainly shaping up to be a tight series and I don’t think it will be decided until the final match in Johannesburg. Meanwhile, Australia will be up against Pakistan in Melbourne and Sydney.  Pakistan showed both steel and flair against New Zealand and I think they could cause Australia problems, especially if Ponting’s elbow rules him out. Umar Akmal, in particular, looks a natural in test cricket; I think there is some variety in their attack; and Australia, with the exception of Ponting and possibly Haddin, do not look world class.

By the way, I saw this headline on the back page of Wednesday’s Evening Standard.  If you read the attached PDF, you can see it in its full glory.  For those of you on Blackberry or something similar, it was a big fat headline that read CLARKE ADMITS: IT’S ALL MY FAULT.

Giles Clarke admitting he's wrong - I don't think so!

It was, in fact, West Ham’s Steve Clarke standing up for his buddy Gianfranco Zola.  I knew the moment I saw it that it couldn’t possibly be our esteemed ECB Chairman showing humility.  After all, Giles Clarke is the man who happily invited Allen Stanford to land his helicopter at the Nursery End at Lords and then accepted his $20 million in a suitcase, which was bad enough; and then, when Stanford was arrested on charges of fraud, Clarke was happy to insist that he’d done nothing wrong. 

This was the headline that should have been written at the time of Stanford. Instead, Clarke stuck to his “Edith Pfiaf, old boy.  Je ne regrete rien.”  And he still managed to persuade a majority of county chairmen, poodles that they are, to re-elect him as Chairman of the ECB.  The MCC, disgracefully in my view, followed suit, even though they know he is a nightmare, according to one friend of mine on the MCC committee. They were furious with him for allowing the Lords Test Match against the West Indies last summer to start on a Wednesday, knowing there was a chance the game would be all over in 3 days, which would mean writing a large cheque to everyone who had bought tickets for the Saturday – which is exactly what happened.  Yet the MCC still voted for him.  Why?  I think there’s more chance of the BBC outbidding Sky in an auction for the rights to televise cricket than Giles Clarke ever admitting that he’s wrong. Neither will ever happen.

Delenda est ECB.

I wish you all a very Happy Christmas and New Year.top

How I Won The Ashes, 3rd Newsletter 11 December 2009

December 31, 2009

The Ashes

11 December 2009

Hello and welcome to the third edition of How I Won the Ashes.

How I actually won the Ashes will be told at some point in the future, but I hope you are curious, because it’s quite a bold claim!
 
Every Friday, I will give all you hard working souls some light relief as you wend your way home and settle down to a nice quiet evening with the weekend ahead of you. Even if your evening is not quiet, it may provide some talking points in pubs and bars.
 
As the name suggests, the subject matter will be cricket.  There aren’t many weeks of the year when something is not happening in the world of cricket and I will be offering some thoughts on current topics and events. In time, I hope you will feed in some of your own views. Naturally I also hope you will forward this to anyone whom you think will enjoy it and encourage them to respond, so they can receive future editions and join in the fun.

Look out for occasional postings on

 http://twitter.com/HowIwontheAshes

You can also reply to howiwontheashes@googlemail.com

Forgive me if this week’s offering is slightly longer.  I said I would come up with a plan for British cricket and that is not possible in a few words.  I hope, though, that you will indulge me.

Below is what I will be covering this week:

• Click meNew Zealand v Pakistan, 2nd and 3rd Tests at Wellington and Napier

• Click meAustralia v West Indies, 2nd Test at Adelaide

• Click meThoughts on Chris Gayle, Brad Haddin and Australian wicket-keepers

• Click meEleven ideas for British cricket (Nos. 1 to 8 )

• Click mePreview of South Africa v England, 1st Test at Pretoria

• Click meMemory Lane – 11th December 1960, Australia v West Indies, 1st Test at Brisbane

See?New Zealand v Pakistan, 2nd and 3rd Tests at Wellington and Napier

First, a little bit of humble pie to be eaten.  I correctly predicted last week that Pakistan would win the 2nd Test against New Zealand in Wellington, which was a pretty easy call.  It looked like a bowler’s pitch and once Pakistan bowled out New Zealand for 99 in the first innings and secured a big first innings lead, there was only one winner.  But I do think low scoring games can be just as absorbing as high scoring ones.  You only have to think of the matches at Edgbaston in 2005 and 1981, when no batsmen on either side passed 100 (indeed, in 1981 no batsman made 50), and yet both matches are permanently stamped on the history of the game as real thrillers. The deciding test in Napier looks like it will go the same way, with Daniel Vettori elevating himself to No. 6 in the batting order to allow him to pick four seamers.  After day 1, he may have called it right.  The seamers bowled Pakistan out for 223, although the opener Imran Farhat has played exceptionally well to carry his bat for 117.  New Zealand are already 47 for no loss, so look to be in a fairly strong position, except that the Pakistan bowlers are well capable of engineering a collapse.  All to play for and another thriller is potentially developing.

I also correctly predicted that India, having piled up 726 in their first innings, would take advantage of a weary Sri Lanka and win the final match at Mumbai.  Only a fighting century by Kumar Sangakkara took the game into the 5th day. It may well be that the great Muralitharan has played his last test.  He was comprehensively neutralised throughout the entire series, taking 9 wickets in 3 matches, in which India only needed to bat 4 times and scored over 2,000 runs.top

See?Australia v West Indies, 2nd Test at Adelaide

Where I got it wrong, and for the second week running I owe an apology to the West Indies, was their performance in Adelaide.  They held the whip hand for most of the match and in a slightly less dramatic way, it was highly absorbing stuff. At the end of day 2, West Indies had done well to post 451 in their first innings, but the increasingly durable opening partnership of Shane Watson and Simon Katich put on 174 without loss. The obvious prognosis was that Australia, with their established middle order to come, would pile on the runs on the 3rd day and then squeeze the West Indies on days 4 and 5. 

It turned out very differently.  Watson tried to pull the second ball of the 3rd day for a boundary that would have given him his maiden Test century, but was bowled; Katich was out soon afterwards; and the Australians ended up falling 12 runs short of the West Indies’ total.  Chris Gayle then played a brilliant innings, carrying his bat for 165 and setting Australia 330 to win.  At one point.  Australia were 139 for 5 with more than 20 overs to go; but that was as good as it got for the West Indies, with Clarke and Haddin easily shutting up shop.top

See?Thoughts on Chris Gayle, Brad Haddin and Australian wicket-keepers

First Chris Gayle: a supremely gifted batsman, yet seemingly indifferent to Test cricket.  When you see him bat like he did in Adelaide, he is right up there with the great batsmen of his generation, and you wonder at his lack of enthusiasm.  He could reasonably be compared to Virender Sehwag, although the similarities are not immediately obvious. One is tall, left-handed and Caribbean; the other is short, right-handed and Indian.  Both, though,  are openers, have an innate disrespect for bowlers, attack the ball from the start, and once they get going, are hard to stop.  Both have carried their bat in Test innings; both have scored triple centuries; and both are more than handy off-spinners.  Indeed, Gayle once came within 15 runs of the unique achievement of taking 5 wickets and scoring a hundred in a single day of test cricket, against England at Edgbaston in 2004.

Yet when you saw him standing at slip in last summer’s test series, utterly bored, you really wondered if he cared about the long form of the game, and was more of a mercenary.  I once heard a story which, if true, sums him up.  He was at a dinner in the Long Room at Lords, sitting with sunglasses on (it was dark), saying nothing, staring ahead, perhaps thinking of his native Jamaica.  Some old buffer was trying to engage him, asking about this innings or that, and probably being deeply irritating, when he finally replied, as languidly as he might flick a ball over mid wicket into the crowd: “So, man. D’you get much pussy?” Complete indifference and then a flash of immense style.

The final match of the series is in Perth next week.  Gayle has never played a test match there before, so it could be interesting and it will certainly suit his game.  Australia are slightly vulnerable right now, Perth is usually a result pitch, and Australia have lost their last two test matches there.  If West Indies, led by Gayle, get a good start or at least a 1st innings lead, they might be on for a surprise.  It would really shake up the world order, which could only be good for cricket generally.  It’s always been said that a strong West Indies is a strong game, and it’s hard to disagree. The fly in the ointment is that the Australian batting has to fire sometime.  Let’s see. I know I was down on the West Indies only two weeks ago, but they have proved me wrong and I would be delighted if they continued to do so.

The other player to deserve attention is Brad Haddin.  Unspectacularly, but with a cool head, he stayed with Michael Clarke and snuffed out the faint scent of victory in West Indies’ nostrils in the last session at Adelaide.  England players and supporters are sick of great Australian wicket-keeper batsmen, who invariably seem to come in at No. 7 or 8.  Either they rescue an innings when Australia are 5 down for not many, or they pile on the agony when they are 5 down for a lot. Having endured Ian Healy getting under their skins with the bat and chirping away behind the stumps for the best part of twelve years, England thought they’d found relief when the unproven Adam Gilchrist took over.  How wrong they were.  In his first three Ashes innings, Gilchrist showed he was even more dangerous than Healy, smashing in successive innings 152, 90 and 54, which played a major part in Australia winning the first three matches of that series. 

So when Gilchrist retired and a new keeper in the form of Haddin took his place, we all thought that life might get a bit easier.  Wrong again.  In his first Ashes test, Haddin, true to form, scored 121 and set up a position which, had it not been for the Cardiff rain, Monty Panesar and James Anderson, would surely have resulted in a win for Australia. The whole summer of 2009 might then have been different.  He followed Cardiff up with a long partnership with Clarke in the second innings at Lords which, for a session, briefly had us worried that Australia might do the impossible and score over 500 in the fourth innings to win a test. He is arguably more technically solid than his predecessors.  What he lacks in Healy’s grittiness and Gilchrist’s explosiveness, he makes up for in that he is more correct and could easily bat higher up the order.  He may way well do so in future, once Ponting and Hussey retire.  It’s not a coincidence that in the two matches England won against Australia in 2009, at Lords and the Oval, Haddin failed in both first innings.top

See?Eleven ideas for British cricket (Nos. 1 to 8 )

The other big news of the week was that the ICC has stated it would consider allowing different cricket boards to negotiate their own schedules.  Given the incompetence and greed of a number of those boards, led by the ECB, don’t necessarily expect much.  But there is a glimmer of hope. There was a lot of excited debate on the Cricinfo bulletin board, much of it well reasoned and setting out grand and detailed plans of how test cricket might be shaped in the next few years.

Personally, I think everyone is worrying about the detail too soon. And it’s clear from many of the comments that they are thinking only of their own country, rather than the greater good of the global game. That’s understandable, and I myself have a few basic suggestions for cricket in the UK, outlined below. The moves to change the scheduling, though, are a step in the right direction, because they recognise at last that there is too much cricket played. This is a significant breakthrough. Let’s be happy with that and then move to the next stage, without getting too preoccupied with the detail too soon. That next stage should be to focus on reducing – massively – the number of ODIs. Three obvious benefits would immediately accrue. First, each ODI would in itself become more valuable and more iconic, through its rarity; second, players would have more time off; and third, there would be more time to fit in sensible schedules of tests that allowed everyone to compete against each other, without cramming in matches and necessitating back-to-back tests, which do nothing to ease the pressure on players’ minds and bodies.

So here’s my basic blueprint for British cricket. Appropriately enough, there are 11 points:

1. Abolish the existing ECB in its entirety (delenda est ECB). This would mean summarily firing every single officer, starting with the Chairman, Chief Executive and Communications Director, whose spin constantly makes Alistair Campbell seem like a novice.  He would be a ready recruit for the Labour party, and boy, do they need him right now. Since those officers are not paid a salary, no compensation would need to be paid.

2. Create a new National Cricket Board, answerable not the counties but to the government.  The current system is nothing short of a good old-fashioned gerrymander.  The ECB squeezes as much money as it can from the game, with no regard for its long term future. Not only does it deny hundreds of thousands of fans and would-be stars of the future access to the game through its mishandling of the broadcast rights; it also places ridiculous stress on the bodies and minds of the players , without whom the game would not exist. Far too much of that money is passed shamelessly to the counties, who become bloated and complacent and forget the disciplines of running a tight ship.  And who ensures that the so-called stewards of the game remain in office, even when they commit a crime as heinous as the Stanford business?  Why, the counties, of course.  As I said, gerrymander.

3. Elect a Chairman who has been a respected captain of industry with real experience of running big business, perhaps even a major FTSE 100 company or its equivalent. Naturally that person has to have a fundamental love for the game.  And he (or she) has to be paid a proper salary. A bit of charm and humility would also help. What we don’t need is a dilettante entrepreneur, with fingers in lots of pies and a few non-executive directorships, whose style is combative and who never believes he is wrong.

4. Find a full time Chief Executive.  Qualifications: British; lengthy experience of the game at the highest level, in all parts of the world; bright; broad-minded; articulate; hard; and prepared to take tough decisions.  The obvious candidate would be Mike Atherton, who ticks each of those boxes.  Could he be persuaded to give up his media interests? Probably not, unless he were offered enough money.  The money is available, of course, but it means the counties having to rely on less hand outs from the game’s governing body, which is how it should be and which is the next point.

5. Reduce, hugely, the amount of money that is handed to the counties from the top.  Let them instead apply innovation and imagination to find additional sources of finance.  For too long they have relied on subsidies to keep them afloat.  That has to stop.  If they can’t manage, tough shit.  They could start by slashing their staff.  Far too many players, who have not the slightest chance of playing for England, draw a salary from the game.  If their budgets were tightened, they’d soon work out who were worth paying and who was dead wood. It’s not as if there is a shortage of talent at the levels below the counties.  League cricket thrives all around the country. It would be up to each county to ensure that it was properly scouted and tapped.  Young , aspiring players could be paid on a per-game basis, if they were good enough.  In other words, make the first class game more competitive.

6. The big argument against point 5, of course, is that it can deny fans the opportunity to watch great talent from overseas and players the opportunity to learn from it.  I agree that there is room for overseas players in the county game; think of the pleasure given to Somerset fans by Richards and Garner; to Hampshire fans by the other Richards, Greenidge, Marshall and Warne; and countless others. But, at present, it has got out of hand.  Players, with little loyalty, come over to the UK for half a season or less, to suit their own agendas. Kolpak is a disaster.  So here is a solution, which was suggested by none other than Gary Neville, the Manchester United full back.  No mean cricketer in his youth, he came out with an inspired idea when he was recently interviewed by Michael Vaughan.

Neville envisaged the creation of a global league, which would see regional or state teams from other countries touring to play three or four day games against the English counties, and vice versa.  It’s difficult to see a reason why this would not work. Overseas cricketers could still play in Britain, only they would now be playing against their current employers. More real British players, in turn, would get a chance to experience conditions overseas. The standard would be higher.   Attendances and viewing figures would surely increase at the prospect of seeing Durham playing New South Wales, Surrey against Western Province or Yorkshire against Railways.  If it can work in the one day game, why can’t it work in the longer format? Especially if the next piece of the plan is adopted.

7. As argued previously, massively reduce the number of games played.  Rarity is a wonderful thing.  Diamonds and gold are valuable precisely because they are rare.  Why can this not be true of cricket matches?  It works in American Football.  Each team plays only one game per week in the regular season for 16 weeks, followed by the play offs and culminating in Superbowl.  The season lasts from the end of September until the end of January.  Players are given over half the year to relax and recuperate.  Standards are consistently high and each game is a valuable and treasured commodity.

8. Bring back uncovered pitches, at all levels.  At least do something to even the contest between bat and ball. In the back streets or parks of Leeds, London, Lahore, Kingston, Colombo, Cape Town, Delhi, Dacca, Auckland or Sydney, young kids and teenagers play cricket on grass, dust, gravel and concrete with tennis balls, bits of wood and anything else they can get their hands on.  One Australian friend of mine described how he and his son play with each other in their back yard with cellotape wrapped around one side of a tennis ball.  “Mate, you wouldn’t believe how much it swings.”  (A further example, by the way, of how sophisticated is the Australian approach to cricket.) If aspiring batsmen can adapt and learn skills against balls swinging and spitting at them from all directions, why can those skills not be applied at higher levels, even the very highest.  As I said earlier, low scoring games are gripping.  Cricket on a sticky wicket is a wondrous thing to watch.  Imaginative declarations and reversed batting orders could even return.

My nos. 9, 10 and 11 will have to come next week, as I have used up too much time and you are probably now close to your dinner or destination.  In summary, they revolve around the issues of political correctness and government enthusiasm for the game; the availability of playing fields; and the insidious effect of Health & Safety on all areas of our lives.

Fantasy? Perhaps, but it need not be, if someone with some guts and determination took all this on board and acted on it.  I would love to do so, but I can’t on my own, and besides, I have a daytime job and a family to look after.  But if you like the ideas, feel free to pass them on to those whose opinions carry more weight than mine do.top

See?Preview of South Africa v England, 1st Test at Pretoria

By this time next week, we will be into the third day of the First Test at Pretoria between England and South Africa. Both sides could be missing key players.  South Africa will definitely be without Jacques Kallis, who would almost certainly get in to an all time World XI.  Only the greatest batsmen score over 10,000 runs and average more than 50 over their entire careers.  None, except Kallis, have also taken 256 wickets, at an average of just over 30, as well as holding 147 catches. England may well have to leave out James Anderson, at present their most potent fast bowler.  I suspect South Africa will miss Kallis more than England will miss Anderson (who might yet play) and I therefore think England could upset the odds and win this one; but it is a shame that key players will be missing and, yet again, it is a product of too much meaningless cricket being played.top

See?Memory Lane – 11th December 1960, Australia v West Indies, 1st Test at Brisbane

Time for memory lane.  Last week, we went back 30 years to the Delhi test match of 1979 between India and Pakistan.  The bowling hero who skittled India in their first innings with 8 for 69 was not Imran Khan, who in fact broke down and bowled only 8 overs in the match.  It was the lesser known Sikander Bakht.  The centurion in India’s second innings was Dilip Vengsarkar.  Although he finished unbeaten on 146, he only scored 17 runs in the morning session of the final day and it was probably this defensiveness which ultimately cost his team victory.

This time 48 years ago, Australia and West Indies were taking a rest day in a test match at Brisbane which will probably be remembered as one of the greatest of all time, perhaps the greatest. It was, of course, the first test match ever to be tied.  When Australia scored 505 in reply to West Indies’ 453, no-one could have predicted the drama that was about to unfold in the final two days. At the end of the 4th day, West Indies were 259 for 9 in their second innings and ended up setting Australia 233 to win.  Australia were reduced to 92 for 6 making the West Indies firm favourites; but not for the first time, and certainly not the last, Australian grit and competiveness came to the fore. A seventh wicket partnership of 134 took them to within 7 runs of their target, with 10 balls left and four wickets in hand.  However, those four wickets then fell in 9 balls, three of which were  run-outs. This included the final wicket off the penultimate ball when the last Australian pair of Meckiff and Kline were going for a single that would have won them the match. The fielder at square leg had only one stump at which to aim, but hit it to produce the first ever tied match. The trivia for you: who were the Australian batsmen who put on that partnership of 134 that took Australia to the brink?  And who was the West Indies fielder who ran out Ian Meckiff?

Delenda est ECB.

Have a great weekend.top

How I Won The Ashes, 2nd Newsletter 4 December 2009

December 31, 2009

The Ashes

4 December 2009

Hello and welcome to the second edition of How I Won The Ashes.

How I actually won the Ashes will be told at some point in the future, but I hope you are curious, because it’s quite a bold claim!
 
Look out for occasional postings on

http://twitter.com/HowIwontheAshes

You can also reply to howiwontheashes@googlemail.com

Below is what I will be covering this week:

Click meNew Zealand v Pakistan, 1st & 2nd Tests at Dunedin and Wellington

Click meAftermath of Australia v West Indies, 1st Test at Brisbane

Click meLooking ahead to South Africa v England Test series

Click meIndia v Sri Lanka, 3rd Test at Bombay and thoughts on Virender Sehwag

Click meTest cricket v One Day cricket (continued)

Click meThe obsession with money

Click meCultural Vandalism

Click meOn this day: 4th December 1979, India v Pakistan 2nd Test at Delhi

See?New Zealand v Pakistan, 1st & 2nd Tests at Dunedin and Wellington

Well, I said last week the final day between New Zealand and Pakistan at Dunedin would be exciting and so it proved.  Pakistan ended up needing 251 to win and lost 3 early wickets; but they fought back and Umar Akmal, in particular, looked to have done the hard work and was ready to see them home.  New Zealand, however, got back into the game, Ian O’Brien getting rid of Shoaib Malik after a gritty stand with Umar.  Even then, the Akmal brothers might have won it for Pakistan, taking them to 195 for 5.  But they both fell in quick succession, the tail folded and New Zealand won by 32 runs: a fantastic advertisement for test cricket.  The 2nd test has now started and after day 2, it looks likely that Pakistan will level the series, having secured a big lead after bowling out New Zealand for only 99 and now 229 ahead with 8 second innings wickets still standing.top 

See?Aftermath of Australia v West Indies, 1st Test at Brisbane

Less interesting, but more predictable, was the West Indies’ capitulation to Australia inside 3 days at Brisbane.  It was, though, heartening to see Adrian Barath score a hundred in his first test match and then say that, as far as he is concerned, test cricket is the ultimate form of the game.  Perhaps I was being a bit harsh on the West Indies last week; but they still have some way to go to lose their reputation as permanent whipping boys in the long form of the game. I see they have stayed competitive in Adelaide, with Dwayne Bravo notching a century as they scored 336 for 6; but I still think the Australians will be too strong.top

See?Looking ahead to South Africa v England Test series

This week has also shown how schizophrenic South African cricket can be and makes their current No. 1 status pretty tenuous.  Having destroyed the English bowling last Friday, two days later they were bowled out for 119.  Admittedly they beat both England and Australia in their own back yards in the test series in 2008; but they then lost the return series in South Africa 2-1 to an Australian team that was pretty average.  You certainly can’t see South Africa dominating the way the great Australian teams used to, who twice won 16 tests in a row, under Waugh and Ponting; so I think the upcoming test series with England will be pretty close and I don’t think South Africa are as strong favourites to win as some people believe.top

See?India v Sri Lanka, 3rd Test at Bombay and thoughts on Virender Sehwag

I referred last week to the freakish Virender Sehwag and he has lived up to that billing in Bombay, having ended the second day of the 3rd test between India and Sri Lanka on 284 not out, scored in only 239 balls. He began the third day needing a mere 16 runs to become the first batsman ever to score three separate triple centuries, and had he got going, he might have challenged not only Lara’s test record of 400 but also his all time high score of 501. Instead he was dismissed for 293, somewhat anti-climactically. Nonetheless, he has put India in an impregnable position and with two days left and the pitch starting to take spin, Sri Lanka will have to play out of their skin even to avoid defeat, which would still leave India as series winners. Sehwag really is a unique and exceptional player.  Captains of opposing teams have to adjust their thinking when setting targets against India, because at the rate he scores, he is quite capable of completely reversing a game’s momentum.  Look what he did to England in Madras this time last year, when India faced a fairly daunting target of 389, yet romped home after Sehwag blasted 80 in little more than an hour.top

See?Test cricket v One Day cricket (continued from 27 November 2009)

Despite Dunedin and the Sehwag fireworks, there is still a vicious circle of dwindling interest in test cricket, which means less time and money being invested by sponsors and broadcasters, leading to it being seen as of secondary importance by many national administrators, with the focus switched, almost exclusively it would seem, to the short form of the game. I am constantly being told that test cricket is only for the purist, the cricket geek, the obsessive who will switch on whatever time of day or night it may be; that it is impossible to watch a test match because it lasts for 5 days and may still not produce a winner; and that the only way to maintain and generate interest in cricket is to make it more exciting and more watchable.

This, at least, is true.  Everyone wants cricket to be exciting and watchable, myself included. But it is wrong to assume that the only way to achieve this is through shortening the time it takes to complete a game.  It is certainly possible to enjoy test cricket without watching the whole match.  Each day, even each session, contains its own sub-plots and dramas. One day games can also be as tedious as the dullest test match; but there have been plenty of tests that could match even the most nail-biting of 50 or 20 over games for excitement, even some that ultimately end in draws: think of Lords 1963, the Oval 1979, Old Trafford and the Oval 2005, or Cardiff 2009; and a whole host more, including one the subject of this week’s memory lane.  And one day cricket has little room for variety in terms of how a match unfolds, especially when match after match is played.

Think of it this way.  There have been 1,936 test matches played since the first ever test was played at Melbourne in 15th March 1877.  Most followers of the game know that Australia won that dramatic match by 45 runs. They know that exactly 100 years later and at the same ground, Australia won the Centenary Test by an identical margin; and they would also be able to think of any number of great innings or bowling performances by cricketers of all nationalities that have happened since then: Hutton’s 364, Sobers’ 365, Lara’s 400, Randall’s 174, Laker’s 19 wickets, Massie’s 16 wickets, any number of Botham feats, Warne’s first ball in an Ashes test are just a tiny fraction of the individual performances that have become legendary. Sehwag’s 293 has just entered that pantheon; and that is before you even consider all the thrilling matches that have taken place over the years. 

The first one day international took place (also in Melbourne) on 5th January 1971.  Can anyone remember what happened?  I couldn’t, so I looked it up: it transpires that Australia (inevitably) won it, by five wickets, bowling England out for 190 and chasing down the target with plenty of time to spare and little apparent drama.  The match itself was only played to make up for the fact that the Test match scheduled to be played at the MCG over New Year was abandoned without a ball being bowled. 

But one little pebble can become a huge snowball and so it has turned out. Since then, there have been a staggering 2,931 one day internationals and 125 20:20 internationals.  The World Cup Finals of 1975, 1983, 1987 and, to a lesser degree, 1992 were all exciting, memorable matches.  The finals of 1979 and 1996 were won comprehensively by the West Indies and Sri Lanka respectively, but were lit up by the batting of Sir Vivian Richards, Collis King and Aravinda de Silva.  There was also South Africa’s famous chase of 434 against Australia at Johannesburg in 2006. There aren’t too many other matches or performances that are firmly lodged in the memory, simply because there have been so many of them; which shows a huge lack of respect to all the players who have graced them with great performances, but there it is.

I will leave the last word on this to the extremely eloquent Sambit Bal, the editor of Cricinfo, who only this week wrote:

“Test cricket is not merely a romantic ideal worthy of preservation, it is the game’s foundation. Without it, the core of the game will wither away.” (© Cricinfo 30 November 2009)

Quite.  Bal also pointed out in his excellent article the need for balance in all forms of cricket administration.  There is, alas, little of this to be found anywhere.  There is an obsession with money – immediate money –  and a complete lack of long term thinking.  This leaves the very real possibility that cricket could indeed wither away. If it does, the game’s administrators will be guilty of the most criminal act of cultural vandalism, on a par with the Romans’ destruction of Carthage or the dissolution of the monasteries.top

See?The obsession with money

There is a popular misconception, promoted by the ECB and others, that the only the way cricket can thrive is if its administrators generate more and more money.  As a result, broadcast rights are sold to the highest bidder, with no regard for mass exposure of the game. Far too much cricket is played, which places intolerable demands on its players.   The more cricket they play, the more they put their health at risk, both physical and mental; their marriages suffer; and the less inclined they are to play Test cricket. The one commodity that would solve the problem and make the players’ lives easier is the one seemingly the least appealing to the games’ administrators: moderation.

They fail to recognise that cricket’s biggest asset is the game itself: its players and the joy which the followers of the game experience when it is played.  If you tamper with either the players or its followers, you devalue the sport.  If the top players are injured or disillusioned through playing too much cricket, standards will drop.  If cricket fans are given too much of the same type of cricket to watch, they will lose interest, which will ultimately reduce the amounts broadcasters, advertisers and sponsors are prepared to invest in the game, which in turn reduces administrators’ ability to promote the sport and sustain its future. I am not so naïve as to believe that the game can survive without investment.  I just question whether so much of it is necessary, or wise, or properly applied.

There is a solution, which I will cover next time, as it’s too much for this week.  For now, I will give one final example of how the game’s administrators displayed a complete disregard for its traditions and values through their blind obsession with money.

It was at the infamous Oval test in 2006, between England and Pakistan. The story is well known, but to recap: on the fourth day, umpire Darrell Hair awarded 5 runs to the England team because he thought the Pakistanis were tampering with the ball.  Incensed, the Pakistan captain Inzamam-ul-Haq refused to lead his players out onto the field after tea. Hair warned Inzie that unless Pakistan took the field, they would forfeit the game.  Inzie still refused and Hair ceremoniously removed the bails from the stumps, indicating the game was over.  Pakistan forfeited the right to compete and England had the victory.

It was clearly a diplomatic crisis and frantic negotiations ensued. Hair himself was put under tremendous pressure by the ECB, among others, to reverse his decision.  Why? One can only imagine that the game’s administrators were thinking with their cheque books, and contemplating the lost revenue from a day of cricket that would not now take place.  How small minded is that?  The rules of the game are very clear, and they are sacrosanct.  If a team refuses to play, whatever its motivation and however wronged it feels, it loses the right to compete and the game is awarded to the other side.  Period. End of. One can argue that Hair was possibly acting in a high-handed manner when he accused the Pakistanis of tampering with the ball; and that, had he handled the situation with more sensitivity, the stand-off might never have arisen. The fact remains that once Inzie refused to play, he crossed a line from which there was no return and the umpires had no choice.  It was unprecedented and unforeseeable, but no more so than a bowler taking ten wickets in ten balls to bring a match to a swift conclusion: utterly improbable, but nonetheless possible.

It was disgraceful that for a time, the ICC overturned Hair’s decision and called the match a draw.  I’m glad that common sense has subsequently prevailed and that the original decision to award the match to England has been upheld; but my biggest complaint about the whole sorry affair was the idea that the ECB could seriously contemplate tampering with one of the basic rules of the game, for the sake of a few thousand pounds.  Shame on them.  It was petty and grubby and, more importantly, lost sight of a fundamental and dangerous precedent that might have been created: namely, that if they had had their way and Hair had been forced to change his mind, cricket sides in the future could refuse to play if they disagreed with an umpire’s decision, knowing that the financial implications would take priority over the basic laws of the game.  Shame on them, and credit to Hair for sticking to his guns.top

See?Cultural Vandalism

I mentioned earlier the Romans’ vandalism when they destroyed the city of Carthage in 146 B.C.  The Roman statesman who led the fight against the Carthaginians at that time was Cato the Elder. He was so intent on obliterating Carthage (which admittedly had been a thorn in the side of the Romans for over 100 years) that he ended every speech he made, no matter what the subject, with these words: “Delenda est Carthago”, or “Carthage must be destroyed.” Given that the ECB threaten to emulate the Romans through their appalling disrespect for the English game, its players and its traditions, I suggest that it should be disbanded.  I will therefore henceforth sign off every newsletter with the words “Delenda est ECB.”top

See?On this day:  11th December 1979, India v Pakistan 2nd Test at Delhi

Right, memory lane time.  Last week, we went back to 29 November 1986, when England piled on the runs in Perth but could not force a victory.  I asked you which England wicket keeper scored a hundred for England.  The answer was Jack Richards, who ended up playing only 8 tests for England, never again passing 50 and finally blown away by Ambrose, Walsh and Marshall in 1988.  The Australian legend who took 5 wickets was neither Alan Border, who certainly deserved that title, nor Craig McDermot, who I don’t think did. It was in fact the great Steve Waugh, very early in his career.

30 years ago to the day, India and Pakistan embarked on what turned out to be another draw, at Delhi.  This, though, was an exciting match, in which fortunes swayed one way and then the other throughout the game. Pakistan batted first and recovered from 90 for 4 to score 273.  They then bowled out India for 126, securing a lead of 147. Strongly placed at 209 for 5 in their second innings, they lost their last 5 wickets for only 33 runs, setting India 390 to win, still a formidable target. India, though, batted strongly through the end of the 4th day and into the 5th, and ended up needing just over 100 runs in the final 20 overs.  They had a stab at it, and for a moment the big hitting Kapil Dev might have secured an improbable victory.  But he was out too soon and India finished 36 runs short, with six wickets down.  It was generally felt that had India been a little more adventurous earlier on in the innings, they could have won the game. The trivia for you:  which Pakistan fast bowler took 11 wickets in the match and 8 in India’s first innings; and which Indian batsman scored a century in India’s second innings, almost taking them to victory?

Predictions from the matches currently going on: Pakistan to win against New Zealand in Wellington, sometime on Day 4.  Australia to beat West Indies in Adelaide by between 10 and 7 wickets early on Day 5.  India to win by an innings in Bombay, with Sri Lanka folding against the spinners on Day 4. Meanwhile it has absolutely tipped it down in Durban, so no play has been possible, handing England the One Day Series 2-1.  Roll on the First Test at Pretoria on 16 December.top

Wherever you are, I hope you have an excellent weekend.  Delenda est ECB.

How I Won The Ashes, 1st Newsletter 27 November 2009

December 31, 2009

The Ashes

27 November 2009
Hello and welcome to the first edition of How I Won The Ashes.

As I said, how I actually won the Ashes will be told at some point in the future, but I hope you are curious, because it’s quite a bold claim!
 
Every Friday, I will give all you hard working souls some light relief as you wend your way home and settle down to a nice quiet evening with the weekend ahead of you. Even if your evening is not quiet, it may provide some talking points in pubs and bars.
 
As the name suggests, the subject matter will be cricket.  There aren’t many weeks of the year when something is not happening in the world of cricket and I will be offering some thoughts on current topics and events. In time, I hope you will feed in some of your own views. Naturally I also hope you will forward this to anyone whom you think will enjoy it and encourage them to respond, so they can receive future editions and join in the fun.
 
If you twitter, there may also be occasional postings on http://twitter.com/HowIwontheAshes

Below is what I will be covering this week:

• Click meTest cricket v One Day cricket

• Click meIndia v Sri Lanka, 1st & 2nd Tests at Ahmedabad and Kanpur (and more on Test v One Day cricket)

• Click meAustralia v West Indies, 1st Test at Brisbane

• Click meNew Zealand v Pakistan, 1st Test at Dunedin and thoughts on Daniel Vettori

• Click meSouth Africa v England, ODI at Cape Town

• Click meOn this day: 28 November 1986, Australia v England, 2nd Test at Perth

See?Test cricket v One Day cricket

The theme of this week is test cricket, a welcome return to the long form of the game after several months of the 50 and 20 over formats.  There have been three test matches going on, between India and Sri Lanka, New Zealand and Pakistan and Australia and the West Indies.  India have now comprehensively beaten Sri Lanka in Kanpur, Australia have the upper hand in Brisbane and the final day in Dunedin could go either way.  There’s also the small matter of England playing South Africa in yet another one dayer.  More of that later.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not against games that take 3 or 6 hours to be concluded. They can often provide great entertainment.  The first World Cup Final in 1975, the first 20:20 final in 2007 and the first IPL final in 2008 were each cliffhangers which either side could have won until the very end. They gloriously showed that cricket can be the ultimate form of sporting drama, no matter what the format.  The fact that it can take place in a single day makes it, in many spectators’ eyes, even more satisfying.

However, I make no apology for being a traditional fan who believes that test matches are capable of engineering a more subtle and absorbing means of enjoying cricket.  Individual passages of play can be dramas in their own right: a batsman trying to reach a century, or, having done so, staying in until the end of the day; a side trying to achieve a lead or set a defendable target; and ultimately the entry into the final part of the match when either side can win, or, if it is late on the final day, where all four results are conceivably possible.  Or even when only one side can win, but is engaged in a struggle to take the necessary wickets to win the match before time runs out. Two innings matches where the final session begins with the match still on a knife-edge are , of course, very rare; but the build up to such a session can often be as stimulating as the denouement, especially if the two sides are evenly matched and the pitch allows an equally even contest between bat and ball.top

See?India v Sri Lanka, 1st & 2nd Tests at Ahmedabad and Kanpur (and more on Test v One Day cricket)

Which brings me to the first match to kick off the current round of test matches, the bore draw that took place in Ahmedabad last week between India and Sri Lanka.  To recap: India scored 421 in their first innings, only to be surpassed by a mammoth reply of over 750 by Sri Lanka, who went down the route of batting only once and then attempting to win by an innings. But the only winner was the pitch, which gave no help whatsoever to the bowlers, apart from early on the first morning when India found themselves 32 for 4 after only half an hour. From that point on, though, only 17 more wickets fell in the entire match. Seven centuries were scored, including 177 by Dravid and 275 by Jayawardene, India easily batted out the last day without ever having a chance of winning and the only point of interest was whether Sachin Tendulkar would register yet another century.  Once he did so, the two sides agreed there was no point carrying on and as dull a final day of a test match as ever can have taken place ended an hour early.

For now, I am not going to attempt to get into the politics or economics of the global game.  I may do so another time, as there is plenty to say. However, it is a complicated subject and many are better qualified than me to opine, though not necessarily the actual administrators of the game.  It has been alleged by several commentators that the Indian Cricket Board are intent on killing off test match cricket, so dazzled are they by the riches of 20:20 cricket. The thinking is that dull, flat pitches are deliberately prepared  to prove to the watching  public  that the short form of the game is so much more exciting.

The paltry crowd who watched the 1st Test at Ahmedabad could only agree.  However, those who romanticise about the old days when over 100,000 would cram into Eden Gardens in Calcutta or the Wankhede Stadium in Bombay need to remember that most of those spectators had neither televisions nor radios, so the only way they could indulge their inherent passion for cricket was to go to the game itself. Now, though, there is a more even distribution of wealth, cheaper consumer goods and an increasingly sophisticated and commercially astute media. As a result, the short form of the game, with all its scheduling predictability and razmattaz, is much more appealing to broadcasters and spectators alike, especially the younger generation, less wedded to tradition.

It looked like the 2nd Test between India and Sri Lanka was destined to go the same way, when India racked up over 600 on an equally flat pitch where the mystery bowler Ajantha Mendis, Muttiah Muralitharan and the more vanilla Rangana Herath struggled to make any headway.  Ironically it was Herath who took the most wickets of the three.  Not much more than a year ago, Mendis burst on the scene and reduced the fearsome Indian batting line up to quivering wrecks with his freakish assortment of googlies, off breaks, leg breaks, doosras and carom balls.  Admittedly this was on the spicier pitches in Galle and Colombo.  Had it not been for an extraordinary double hundred in Galle by the equally freakish Virender Sehwag, Sri Lanka would have won all three matches of that series. 

Now Mendis appears to be no more than a trundler and the Indian batsmen are scoring freely off him. The inexorable batting of the Indians broke the spirit of the Sri Lankans, who have meekly capitulated in the way they hoped India would in Ahmedabad after so long in the field. One of the key bowlers is not even a spinner, but instead was the fast bowler Sreesanth, who has not played a test match in almost two years.  Taking 6 wickets on a dead pitch (including 5 in the first innings) is arguably a more impressive performance than taking 8 wickets on a fast bowlers’ paradise in Johannesburg to help India to their first ever win in South Africa in December 2006.top

See?Australia v West Indies, 1st Test at Brisbane

Nevertheless, Kanpur was a one-sided, dull affair and hardly an advertisement for test cricket, even if it held the added significance of being India’s 100th test victory. Down in Brisbane, a similarly one-sided affair is taking place between two teams that, unlike India and Sri Lanka, are really not evenly matched.  At the end of day 2, West Indies are 134 for 5, still 346 runs behind Australia’s commanding first innings.  An Australian victory is inevitable, the only question being whether the West Indies have the gumption to take the game into a fourth day. Brisbane is, of course, a phenomenally difficult place for even the best visiting teams to win;  but the current West Indies team, even if it were interested in test cricket, must make the likes of Richards, Lloyd, Holding and Lara pull their hair out with shame.  Riven by strife with their governing body, and seemingly only interested in the one day game, there is a real case for barring the West Indies from test cricket, on the grounds that there is really nothing to be enjoyed by watching them.  Let them stick to the one day game, by all means, where they can be enormously entertaining. But their performances over the last few years show that test cricket is better off without them.  It makes their series win against England earlier this year even more embarrassing, although, to be fair to England, their downfall was caused by one crazy collapse in Kingston and a series of pitches and matches that made Ahmedabad and Kanpur seem spicy and vibrant by comparison.top

See?New Zealand v Pakistan, 1st Test at Dunedin and thoughts on Daniel Vettori

But it needn’t all be doom and gloom for the lovers of test cricket. Down in Dunedin, New Zealand and Pakistan are involved in a thrilling, absorbing game, which either side could yet clinch, unless the weather spoils things on the last day.  Given that this is the earliest ever test match to be played in a New Zealand summer, the equivalent of an April test match in England, rain is a real risk.  This would be a shame, because it has been a see-saw affair, exactly what one wants in a test match, and it deserves an exciting conclusion.

New Zealand did very well to score over 400 in their first innings, having been 211 for 6.  But you are never through the New Zealand innings until you have dismissed Daniel Vettori, and so it proved. As he has done so many times, he dug in and played an outstanding innings, only to be dismissed off the penultimate ball of the second day for 99.  At least he can comfort himself that he already has 4 centuries to his name, unlike Shane Warne, who once scored 99 in a test match but never notched a ton. Vettori is regarded by some as one of the best ever No. 8s, and at the moment he has attained almost god-like status in New Zealand cricket, as a captain, all rounder, selector, coach and administrator.  He has taken over 300 wickets and scored nearly 3,500 runs.  Given that he is only 30, and a spinner, there is a real possibility that he could eclipse the great Sir Richard Hadlee.  He already has more runs, more hundreds and a higher average than Hadlee managed as a batsman.

Later tonight, his skills as a captain and as a bowler will be required.  Pakistan have done well to fight back into the game.  At one point they were 85 for 5 but the Akmal brothers, Umar and Kamran, put on 176 and Pakistan clawed their way back so that New Zealand led by less than 100, when they had threatened to be out of sight at the halfway stage.  Pakistan’s bowlers have now brought them even closer to parity, reducing New Zealand to 147 for 8 (including Vettori) by the end of the fourth day.  However, on a wearing pitch, you’d still make New Zealand marginal favourites on the last day, especially if the last two wickets can muster, say, 20 or 30 more runs, setting Pakistan nearer 300 than 250 to win.  If the weather holds off, it could be very interesting, exactly what test cricket should be like.  Unfortunately for those of us in the UK, we will be fast asleep.top

See?South Africa v England, ODI at Cape Town

So, finally, as I conclude, I see that South Africa have flayed England all around the park at Cape Town in the 3rd One Day International, finishing on 354 for 6.  However, I wouldn’t rule out England making a decent attempt at chasing this down.  South Africa’s bowling has so far lacked conviction, although they will be bolstered by the return of Wayne Parnell; but any of Strauss, Trott, Collingwood, Pietersen or Morgan are capable of playing the big innings that will be necessary.  We’ll find out shortly.

So that’s it for this week.  I hope you found the arguments in favour of test cricket interesting.  There’s been plenty of evidence in favour of both points of view, from Ahmedabad, Brisbane and Dunedin.  In time, I will attempt to analyse the commercial issues and would welcome your views on whether you think test cricket can survive in the long term.top 

See?On this day: 28 November 1986, Australia v England, 2nd Test at Perth

One bit of nostalgia, which I will attempt to repeat each week: I will find an event from down the years that took place on this date and share it with you.  My choice this week is 28th November 1986, the first day of the 2nd Test at Perth between England and Australia on Mike Gatting’s tour, the last time England won in Australia. England batted first and Chris Broad and Bill Athey put on 223 for the first wicket, England racked up almost 600, with Broad making 162, one of 3 centuries he scored on that tour. Unusually for Perth, the match ended up as a draw, with Australia batting strongly and England not being left enough time to bowl them out a second time. 

Two bits of trivia for you to ponder (and I’d be impressed if you don’t look them up, though I obviously can’t stop you): which English wicket keeper also scored a century in that first innings? And which Australian legend took 5 wickets in England’s second innings, one of only 3 occasions he managed this feat?top

Enjoy your weekend. Look out for how New Zealand fare against Pakistan.  If you have Sky and are up late, you might even tune in, if you have nothing better to do.  I hope Sky don’t insist on beaming you into Brisbane, at the exclusion of Dunedin, because that would be a huge waste.

How I Won The Ashes 7 January 2011

January 7, 2011

Welcome back to How I Won The Ashes.

The concept of How I Won The Ashes was conceived during the legendary 2005 Ashes series, when I did crazy things that helped the England team home.  All cricketers, and fans, are superstitious: lucky sofas, not moving during a long partnership, not walking on a certain side of the street, avoiding the cracks in the pavement; basically, anything that will help their team win. 

You can follow on twitter at www.twitter.com/howiwontheashes  and this and previous blogs can be viewed at

https://howiwontheashes.wordpress.com/2011/01/07/how-i-won-the-ashes-7-january-2011/

 I’ve also been contributing to podcasts for the Barmy Army Ashes website.  You can hear them on http://www.barmyarmyashes.com

Hooray! As it turned out, my original 3-1 prediction turned out to be right, although not quite as I intended, and I admit that I just a bit carried away after Adelaide.  For the record, my sobriquet “How I Won The Ashes” is entirely inappropriate in this case.  I did nothing to help other than watch, because I didn’t need to.  England were too good in all departments.  It annoys me that the Australian media are bent on criticising their own team rather than crediting the English, because this is one of the best teams to have represented its country in a very long time.

By way of reviewing the victory, I have picked out my champagne moments, which neatly encapsulate all that was good about this team’s performance.  Feel free to feed back if you think I have got it wrong or missed anything.  I have chosen 11 of them, appropriate for a cricket team, even though the victory was earned by a greater number of people than that.  But, ultimately, it was the players who did the business on the pitch.

No.11 – Jonathan Trott running out Phil Hughes, second innings at Melbourne. Trott had made 168 not out to give England a huge lead, batting for more than 8 hours.  He then had to go into the field, where Australia got off to a good start in their second innings. But when Watson called Hughes for a dodgy single, it was Trott who swooped in from cover and got the ball to Prior in a flash to break the stumps, leaving Hughes a foot short. It was a perfect illustration of the strength of England’s fielding, and of their fitness and athleticism.

No. 10 – Ian Bell finally reaching a century in an Ashes test, at Sydney.  He’d looked in great touch all through the series and if he’d been batting higher up the order, he would surely have got to a hundred before then.  When he came to the crease at Sydney in England’s 1st innings, we were 5 wickets down and still 54 runs behind Australia.  When he was out, following big partnerships with Cook and Prior, we were more than 200 ahead. He completely snuffed out any chance Australia had of levelling the series.

No. 9 – Paul Collingwood bowling Mike Hussey with a peach of a delivery, 1st innings at Sydney.  This was the only time in 9 innings that Hussey’s stumps were hit.  It was the last ball of the 79th over and led the way to Australia being bowled out for a below par score, as Anderson immediately followed up with two quick wickets with the new ball. 

No. 8 – Kevin Pietersen persuading Michael Clarke to edge the last ball of the 4th day at Adelaide onto his thigh pad and into Alastair Cook’s hands at short leg.  It was Clarke’s only decent innings of the series and he and Hussey had held up England’s charge for victory. If he had been in at the start of the final day, things would have been much more difficult.  As it was, they secured a victory, originally made possible by Pietersen’s brilliant innings of 227.

No.7 – If getting rid of Clarke that 4th evening at Adelaide was a bonus, getting rid of Hussey the next morning was absolutely fundamental.  At that point, Hussey was in the form of his life and was cutting, pulling and hooking every short ball to the boundary. But when Steve Finn got a short one in at him that was too close to his body, the ball ballooned skywards to be caught by Anderson.  It precipitated a collapse quick enough to secure a victory that might have been denied England by the rain that came soon after, had Hussey managed to bat for even an hour longer. This could have seen them going to Melbourne 1-0 up after winning in Perth, so it really was a key moment.  Rather like Stuart Broad, Finn was almost forgotten as Bresnan replaced him for Melbourne and Sydney and did an outstanding job in those crushing victories; but Finn did an excellent job, regularly taking wickets and, in fact, his 6 for 125 in Australia’s 1st innings at Brisbane were an England bowler’s best figures of the series. If he is going to be a regular part of a 4 man attack, though, he is going to have to be more economical.

No. 6 – Graeme Swann having Michael Clarke caught at 2nd slip by Andrew Strauss coming around the wicket, 2nd innings at Melbourne. It’s a sign that things are going your way when you come up with a plan, put it into effect and see it come off only a few balls later.  It was a brilliant piece of captaincy by Strauss, who also gave the side great self belief with his confident batting; and equally brilliant execution by Swann.  The groundsmen left grass on the pitch in an attempt to negate Swann’s threat; but all it did was allow the fast bowlers to take advantage. And Swann was still good enough to put the squeeze on from the other end, creating even more pressure.

 No. 5 – Jimmy Anderson dismissing Mike Hussey in the 1st innings demolition at Melbourne.  Until then, Hussey had scored freely: two centuries and three fifties.  This was his first failure, although he’d played and missed often enough.  Anderson finally found his edge with a beauty and it completely took the wind out of Australia’s sails after their victory at Perth.  Hussey didn’t make another score of significance.

No. 4 – Chris Tremlett bowling Philip Huighes in his first over at Perth. We thought losing Stuart Broad would be a big blow to our progress but Tremlett ensured that it went almost unnoticed. Tremlett was seen as a “bang it into their ribs” bowler and he was certainly mean and menacing.  But he was also thoughtful.  Having dug it in short to Hughes, he then bowled one fast and straight, and sufficiently well pitched up to hit the top of the stumps, no mean feat in Perth, especially in your first over. He was all over the Australian batsmen for the rest of the series and he applied the coup de grace, bowling Michael Beer to seal the final victory.

No. 3 – Alastair Cook’s 235 not out at Brisbane.  After finding themselves 230 behind on the first innings late on the first day, many teams might have crumbled.  Certainly earlier England teams would not have survived and it would have been another defeat at Brisbane.  This time, though, Cook not only withstood the pressure but also established an unshakeable hold on the Australian bowlers that never loosened.  He ended up scoring more than a quarter of England’s runs in the whole series.

No. 2 – Paul Collingwood’s flying slip catch to get rid of Ponting early on in Perth.  If we’d won the match, I’d have made this number 1. One of the all time great catches, not just in this series, but anywhere. You don’t need 3 slips when Collingwood is around.  His fielding will be missed more sorely than his batting. What a great time to retire, though.

No. 1 – It has to be the first three overs at Adelaide after losing the toss on a belter of a pitch: Trott running out Katich, Anderson taking out Ponting first ball and then Clarke with the first ball of his next over, both with beautiful late outswingers that homed in on the outside edge, both smartly taken by Swann at second slip. It was a surreal moment.  Anderson bowled superbly all series and was justifiably the leading wicket taker.  Those opening moments at Adelaide were a microcosm of our dominance and of all that was good about England in the field: we bowled brilliantly, caught virtually everything and effected four run outs, without a single one of our batsmen suffering the same fate.

So, there we are.  Three victories, all by an innings.  If you discount the 1978/79 series (which was effectively against an Austrailan 2nd XI), it’s the first time since 1954/55 that England have won more than two test matches in an Ashes series in Australia.  It’s a hell of an achievement and what’s even better is that this side can go on and be the No. 1 team in the world.

Nothing more to add at this stage.  To keep you amused, though, I thought I’d give you another chapter from How I Won The Ashes – a vital moment in that dramatic victory.

The main character in this chapter is a lucky sofa.  I watched England win every one of their their matches in the 2003 Rugby World Cup.  Then, in May 2005, it was the Champions League Final in Istanbul, Liverpool v AC Milan.  By the way, I am a Liverpool supporter.

Liverpool were clearly the underdogs in that match.  Milan oozed class and experience:  Maldini, the brilliant Brazilian midfielder Kaka, Shevchenko and Crespo. That didn’t matter.  Most Liverpool supporters were happy to be there at all.  To have got to the final when they were five minutes from elimination before Christmas had exceeded expectations.  And perhaps, if they could just stay close to their more talented oponents, then maybe an upset was on the cards.  Within 2 minutes of the game starting, that hope was shattered.  Maldini got onto the end of a corner and it was 1-0.  Kaka was pulling all the strings in midfield and no Liverpool player could get near him.  Harry Kewell, fragile and flattering to deceive ever since he had joined Liverpool, came down with yet another injury and went off.  He had looked nervous before the start of the game, almost as if he didn’t want to be there, because he knew he’d let the side down.  It was all very depressing.  Then Crespo and Shevchenko both scored with crisp, incisive finishes and Liverpool went in at half time 3-0 down, apparently dead and buried.

I had been upstairs in our bedroom, watching on the television there.   I switched off at half time.  I couldn’t take any more.  It was horrible.  Liverpool were not even competing.  They were second to every challenge, they couldn’t string a pass together and Milan looked like scoring every time they attacked, which was frequently. I went downstairs and slumped on the sofa, where my wife was watching Phil Spencer and Kirsty Allsop relocating another couple.  “Oh dear,” she remarked.  “That bad?”  It was worse.  3-0 down and looking like more to come.  After all the expectation, it was a complete anti-climax.  What was worse, we’d never even come close.  We were always going to struggle, but not like this.  It was cruel.  I thought I’d perhaps have a quick glance at the score towards the end, in the hope that it wasn’t a complete slaughter, but, to be honest, I’d lost interest and hope.  Not exactly the sign of a passionate supporter, I admit, but I couldn’t see a way back from 3-0 down against such good opponents who were playing so well…

 The relocation programme finished.  My wife started flicking around the channels.  I didn’t want to see the football; but before I could stop her, she pressed 3 and on came ITV.  The first thing we saw was Vladimir Smicer wheeling away in delight, having just scored.  This wasn’t a replay, it had just happened.  The Liverpool fans were going mad.  Then I looked up to the top left corner: the score.  Jesus, it was 3-2.  We’d scored twice in the first 15 minutes of the second half. That was it.  Not even if a plague of rats or an army of Daleks had invaded the room would I have moved from that sofa.  It had become lucky. My wife shrugged and went upstairs, without a fuss.  I’m afraid I hardly noticed.  Suddenly it was game on.  Didi Hamman had come on for Liverpool and was adding bite and control in midfield, neutralising Kaka.  We were competing and there was a sense of self-belief.  The minutes ticked by.  Then Gerrard played a ball into the box, raced through onto the return pass and was tripped just as he was about to shoot.  Penalty!  The referee points to the spot.  Oh my God, it really IS a penalty.  The usual protests follow, but eventually it is Xabi Alonso against Dida. This is a horrible moment.  We won’t get another chance to equalise, so he has to bury this penalty, he absolutely has to…He steps up, strikes the ball low to the keeper’s right, Dida has guessed right and saves;  but before I have time to curse, Alonso has got to the rebound first and lashes the loose ball into the roof of the net. 3-3 and at that point, at least, it’s anyone’s game.

As it turned out, I don’t recall Liverpool creating another chance. The feeling was, if we win this, it’s going to have to be on penalties. I’m also thinking that the sofa I’m sitting on is acquiring significance. We’d been given it as a wedding present by my uncle.  Then it suddenly dawns on me:  I had sat on it during the Rugby World Cup quarter final, semi-final and final in 2003.  England won all three matches. I’d been sitting on it when Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal sailed over the posts to win the World Cup. Come to think of it, we acquired it in spring 2000.  In the European Championships of that summer, I sat on it when we beat Germany 1-0; but when we lost the next game to go out of the tournament, we were out for dinner.  In the 2002 World Cup, I watched every game in a pub, including the quarter-final defeat to Brazil.  And in Euro 2004, I never watched a single game on that sofa.  It clearly had a winning power.  That feeling is reinforced when, in the last minute of extra time, Dudek parries a point blank header from Shevchenko and somehow gets his hand to the follow up stab, pushing the ball over the bar.  One of the most amazing double saves, on a par with Jim Montgomery for Sunderland in 1973.  Now I am sure.  Provided I don’t move from the sofa, Liverpool will win.  The final whistle goes seconds later and it’s penalties. The rest is history….

 12.          SUNDAY 7TH AUGUST 2005

The day began with England needing 2 wickets, Australia needing over 100 to win to win the 2nd Test at Edgbaston.  It was hot and sunny, so with two full days left, a result was guaranteed and the game was unlikely to last more than the first session.  You’d think England should cruise it. The way they had bowled the previous day, it should be over in no time, especially with Australia’s last recognised batsman, Clarke, having been so wonderfully bowled out and thought out by Steve Harmison on the Saturday evening.

But I wouldn’t be watching it live.  My wife was flying to Italy for her holiday after her miscarriage and needed to check in at 10.30 in the morning, exactly when play was due to start.  Never mind.  I would record it, keep the radio switched off and do everything I could to avoid hearing the score.  Then I’d be able to watch it on the video as if it were live when I got back from the airport.  That’s what happened.  We arrived at Heathrow, queued at the check-in desk, had a coffee and then said goodbye to each other.  I drove home, arriving at about 11.45.  I was thinking that the match was surely over by now and I wanted to see how it had happened, ball by ball, exactly as if I had been watching it live.

Our video is in our bedroom upstairs, where I’d watched the first half of the Champions League Final.  I stopped recording, rewound the tape and started watching.  Warne and Lee looked worryingly comfortable.  The pressure was nowhere near as intense as it had been the previous evening.  Warne, in particular, was taking runs at will and England’s bowlers looked very sterile.  The target dropped below 90, then 80. I watched for about twenty minutes and finally lost patience.  Never mind about wanting to see every ball as if it were live.  Enough was enough.  I needed to know whether we’d won. 

So I turned off the video and switched to live Channel 4, hoping to see victory celebrations, players being interviewed or even another programme, which would instantly mean that the match had concluded.  But no.  Australia were still batting!  16 needed to win, 9 wickets down, Lee and Kasprowicz still hanging in and England now desperate.  Oh my God.  No. Surely we weren’t going to throw it away. 

My friend Justin, who was famously told by Dennis Lillee before the great England comeback at Headingley in 1981 that “You never know, cricket’s a funny game”, now found those words coming back to haunt him.  He was at Edgbaston.  He described to me how the atmosphere on Sunday morning had been funereal at that start of play, in contrast to the intensity of the previous evening – why could Brett Lee not have been made to come out and face the last two balls of the over the previous evening?  Slowly but surely, Warne and Lee started to whittle down the target.  Justin and his friends were surrounded by Australians.  A number of them had started to sing, each time a run was scored, “90 runs to go, 90 runs to go, ee-aye addio, 90 runs to go” and so on.  At the start, it was more in hope than expectation.  But as they got closer, the silence returned.  One Australian burst the tension: “For Christ’s sake, it’s like a f***ing funeral around here.”  Then a thought occurred to him: “I don’t suppose you Poms actually think you’re going to f**k this up, do you?”  An English supporter replied, in true style:  “Yes, sir.  That’s exactly what we think we’re going to do.”

Back in London, I watched in our bedroom, appalled.  We really were going to screw this up. Flintoff to Kasprowicz.  Short, outside off stump and he plays an upper cut.  The ball sails in the air, Simon Jones comes running in… and spills it.  That’s our last chance. Oh s**t.  Just when things looked like turning around, those bloody Australians are going to produce another never say die performance and ruin the summer, again.  They’ll be 2-0 up and that will be it.  You bastard Australians.  Why can’t you just give up?  Why can’t you lose?  Why d’you have to be so goddamned competitive?  Why can’t you just roll over meekly and die?  And why can’t we win?  Why do we have to make life so hard for ourselves? I thought of the Rugby World Cup Final.  We were miles the better side in that match, yet somehow it still came down to the last kick of the game. 

And then I remembered the sofa.

Quick as a flash, I turned off the television and ran downstairs.  I’ve got to give us every chance.  Maybe this will make the difference.  Please, let us win.  We have to win.  I switched on the television in our drawing room and sat down on the sofa. By the time I’d got there, Freddie had put a fast yorker down the leg side, a no-ball to boot, it had gone for four and now it was down to single figures.  This was it.  The whole summer, the whole dream hinged on the next few minutes. 

Lee and Kasprowicz each take singles and it’s 7 to win. Lee takes another single off Freddie. 6 to win.  Harmison now to Lee and he pushes a full one up to mid-on, another single. Kasprowicz somehow keeps out a searing yorker from Harmison.  This is a nightmare. It’s also why cricket is the greatest game ever invented. Lee gets a really hot one from Freddie, it knocks the bat out of his hand, but again they take a single and it’s 4 to win.  One shot will do it.  Surely they can’t.  They’ve put on more than 50 for the last wicket.  Please, don’t let the summer be ruined.  Come on, sofa.  You can’t fail me now.  Harmison to Lee, it’s a full toss outside off stump, Lee middles it, shit, that’s it…but there’s a man out on the boundary and it’s only a single.  5 yards either side of the fielder and it’s game over.  Come on, sofa.  We’re still alive. Kasprowicz on strike.  Harmison in, it’s short, rears up, Kasprowicz fends at it, gets a glove on it, down the legside and Geraint Jones pouches it.  The whole country goes up.  Benaud in the commentary box:  “Jones!” as the keeper holds the ball aloft.  The cameras switch to umpire Billy Bowden.  “Bowden!” as his crooked finger goes up.  The rest is mayhem.  We’ve won!  We’ve f**king won!  By 2 runs, maybe, but we’ve won.

Then all the emotion comes flooding out.  I’m on my own in the house, so inhibitions are gone.  I shout out for ten solid minutes:  “F**k off, Australia!  You thought you’d won.  You think you’re so f**king good, but you’re not.  We’ve f**king won and we’re going to win the f**king Ashes!  You bastards!  We’ve f**ing won!” And so on.  It was not just what had happened previously in the summer – the despair of Lords, the nightmare week in Devon – but years of suffering at the hands of those bloody Aussies before that was coming out.  This was the first time we had levelled the score in an Ashes series since 1981. Now the tide had turned. People walking past the house must have thought there was a madman in the house.  They were right.  I had gone mad.  So had the whole country.  It had caught Ashes fever; but let’s not forget:  it could not have happened without my curse on Glenn McGrath and, at the crucial moment, the lucky sofa.  I am still convinced that had McGrath played at Edgbaston, we would not have scored as many runs as we did.  He would have maintained his physical and psychological stranglehold over us and we would have capitulated.  I’m sure we batted as freely as we did in that 1st innings because our batsmen knew he was not there. Given that the final winning margin was only 2 runs, this was decisive.  And at that final, dramatic denouement, my sofa played its part.  Even then, Australia had a chance, but the sofa snuffed it out at the death.  We were alive and we had the initiative. We would win the Ashes.

How I Won The Ashes 23 December 2010

December 23, 2010

Welcome back to How I Won The Ashes.

The concept of How I Won The Ashes was conceived during the legendary 2005 Ashes series, when I did crazy things that helped the England team home.  All cricketers, and fans, are superstitious: lucky sofas, not moving during a long partnership, not walking on a certain side of the street, avoiding the cracks in the pavement; basically, anything that will help their team win. 

You can follow on twitter at www.twitter.com/howiwontheashes  and this and previous blogs can be viewed at

https://howiwontheashes.wordpress.com/2010/12/23/how-i-won-the-ashes-23-december-2010/

I’ve also been contributing to podcasts for the Barmy Army Ashes website.  You can hear them on http://www.barmyarmyashes.com

Oh dear. My predictions of a 4-0 scoreline after Adelaide have been made to look pretty foolish and certainly premature.  I should have known better.  A proud, aggressive animal is at its most dangerous when it is cornered and they don’t come prouder or more aggressive than an Australian cricket team. A backlash was inevitable, especially at Perth, where we can never seem to win.  I don’t think the England team was so unprofessional as to take its foot off the accelerator – after all, it did pretty well on the first day at Perth – but it’s human nature to assume a mentality of superiority when you’ve had so convincing a win as England did in Adelaide. It’s also difficult to sustain such levels of excellence.  Conditions are different and the opposition can only get better, especially when stung by its own fans and media and by the knowledge that it has massively underperformed.

I don’t buy the theory that this England team only bats well on good wickets and that when we come up against a pitch that offers help to the bowlers, we do poorly.  People talk about Johannesburg on our last tour of South Africa, when we were bowled out cheaply.  While that was undeniably a bad performance, the batting collapse on the first day which lost us the match was mainly down to horrible shot selection and a freak catch by Amla off Strauss from the first ball of the match that on most other occasions would have sped to the boundary.  My point is that this could have happened anywhere.  At Headingley in 2009, our fate was sealed by a mistaken decision to bat first by Strauss.  His mind confused by the last minute injury to Matt Prior and the 5am hotel fire alarm, he was probably less focused on the toss than he might have been. We also batted badly. This, too, could have happened anywhere.  As for the Oval last year against Pakistan, the pitch was not especially fast or bouncy, certainly not as it was in Perth. Our batsmen again batted badly on a pitch where at least one of them could and should have made a big score to give their bowlers something to work with.  Even when we had one last chance to put on a few extra runs to extend our lead, Stuart Broad lollipopped a catch to mid on with a terrible stroke in the first over of the day, when he might have eked out an extra 20 or so runs. Even that could have made the difference, so nervy was the subsequent Pakistan run chase.

To be fair to Broad, he made amends at Lords when our batting again collapsed, in very difficult conditions against some impressive Pakistan bowling.  This time, though, one of our top batsmen was able to get support from the lower order, grit it out until conditions improved and then build a big score.  This is what Mike Hussey is doing for Australia, and when wickets start tumbling, we have to see more partnerships like Trott’s and Broad’s, if not quite on such a gargantuan scale. 

There’s no doubt that our collapses are being accentuated by the failure of our lower order to contribute.  The absence of Stuart Broad doesn’t help (although he himself was out first ball in his only innings of the series), but we need to see a better contribution with the bat from the likes of Tremlett, Swann and, especially, Prior.  It’s really important that we post a few decent stands for our 6th, 7th and 8th wickets. So far, our bottom five have contributed 72 runs in 3 full innings, excluding the partnership between Bell and Prior at Adelaide (when runs were easy to come by ahead of the declaration). That’s unacceptably low and it means that a batsman in as good form as Bell is only making fifties when, with a bit of support, he’d be making centuries. It’s also another case for promoting Bell up the order.  I’d even go as far as to move him to No. 4 above Pietersen, who is more vulnerable to the new ball than Bell because his defence isn’t as tight.  With such little support from the lower order, it’s hardly surprising that we persist with the 4 bowler policy and I can’t see them dropping Collingwood now, even though he looks like a walking wicket.  Mind you, that’s usually when he performs best, so expect him to get a score at Melbourne.  But our top order has shown that it is still prone to collapse and we have got to learn to maximise the time between the fall of each wicket. I know Johnson’s spell was as good as anything we have faced all series, but we must be ready for him next time. The next man to the crease has got to put all thought of run scoring out of his mind for his first 30 minutes. And he has got to exude calm, because nothing gives a bowler more encouragement than a batsman who is visibly unsettled. This is another reason to separate Trott and Pietersen, both nervy starters.

One thing I would like this England team to bury for ever is the night watchman.  Rather like going off for bad light even when you are on top of the bowling, it has become almost Pavlovian for a team to send in a lower order batsman when a wicket falls late in the day.  It achieves absolutely nothing except disrupt the batting order.  It often doesn’t work anyway.  Take the penultimate day at Perth.  Trott had got out with only 5 minutes left in the day.  The next man in was Ian Bell, at no. 6, already at least one place too low in the order.  But they send in Anderson to “protect” him.  In the event, he faces one ball from Mitchell Johnson.  Collingwood takes what turns out to be the last over of the day against Harris.  Off the 5th ball, there is an easy single on offer, which Anderson turns down: evidently he doesn’t fancy doing the job for which he was sent in, namely face the bowling.  Collingwood is then caught at slip off the last ball.  So the net result is that Anderson has been sent in, he faces only one ball and England still lose one of their frontline batsmen.  The next morning, England start with Anderson, who is hardly likely to help assemble a meaningful partnership, and Ian Bell, now batting at No. 7.  It’s a complete farce.  It didn’t really matter, the damage had already been done, but Ian Bell could surely have come in at the end of the day, face a couple of deliveries and then come back the next morning. Anyway, until our lower order batsmen start showing that they can hold a bat, what on earth is the point of sending them in higher up the order? As for Anderson, I think he is living off his reputation for going so many innings without a duck.  True, he batted well enough to secure an unlikely draw in Cardiff in 2009 and he has occasionally scored some runs; but he doesn’t like the short stuff and is not adept and handling it, which doesn’t really make him an ideal candidate for the night watchman role.  And his lack of technique increases the risk of him getting injured, which would be calamitous.

On the bowling front, I think generally we are not pitching the ball up as much we should.  Our bowlers should have learned from the performances of Siddle in Brisbane and Johnson in Perth. When we do have success, it tends to be when the ball is pitched up.  Look at Anderson’s dismissals of Ponting and Clarke at Adelaide, or Tremlett’s of Hughes at Perth. So why not do more of it? We have also got to find a way of working out Mike Hussey.  We seem to be slightly bereft of ideas, beyond our quick bowlers feeding his pull and hook shot in the hope that he will put one in the air and Swann bowling around the wicket in an attempt to catch his outside edge.  They have managed to do this, to be sure, but not before Hussey has scored enough runs to lend the innings respectability (1st innings at Adelaide and Perth), build a big lead (Brisbane and 2nd innings at Perth) or come close to avoiding defeat (2nd innings at Adelaide). Swann’s field has also allowed him to take an easy single to deep mid off every time he plays an off drive.  If that route were cut off, with the cover region offering a gap, he’d be playing slightly further away from his body every time he played the shot, increasing the chances of an edge. Also, Swann hasn’t tried bowling over the wicket at Hussey, to change the angle of attack.  Nor has he been introduced early in Hussey’s innings. Why not?  And why haven’t our fast bowlers been firing in the odd yorker, especially early in his innings or straight after an interval? It’s all started to become a bit predictable.

That’s why I would pick Shahzad instead of Finn for Melbourne.  Finn is tired and it’s showing.  He is taking wickets, but it tends to be one per spell: he is not running through the Australian batting order and his bowling style doesn’t lend itself to doing so.  The argument against Shahzad is that he could be expensive, but so has Finn been.  With Shahzad, you have 4 bowlers who are of very different styles, giving a 4 man attack as much variety as possible.  He is also unknown to the Australian batsmen, who have got quite used to tall men bowling back of a length: Broad, Finn and now Tremlett.  And he could just have that X factor if he gets the ball to reverse swing unexpectedly.  The balls he bowled to get his wickets last summer against Bangladesh were good enough to dismiss much better batsmen and if he gets on a roll, you could see him doing to Australia what Johnson and then Harris did to us.

There’s also been a lot of speculation about the pitch at Melbourne: that it will be prepared to suit the Australian fast bowling attack.  This is laughable.  It’s as if Australia think they have suddenly got Lillee, Thomson and McGrath back in their attack. Suddenly, they are the greatest team ever.  Let’s put this into some sort of perspective.  Adelaide didn’t make a good English team into a great one, however tempting it was to think so (and I admit I was guilty of that).  Nor did it make quite a good Australian team into a poor one.  By the same token, Perth didn’t turn England into a poor team overnight, nor have Australia suddenly become world beaters. Perth proved that momentum can change very quickly; but, having done so, is it safe to assume that the Australian bowlers will be able to do the same damage in Melbourne? Are the English batsmen as psychologically shot as their predecessors were after three matches against Warne and McGrath, or Holding, Roberts, Marshall and Garner?  I think not. 

It’s true, Australia’s best chance may lie in a battery of fast bowlers, but these are the same bowlers whom our batsmen flogged for over 1,000 runs for the loss of only 6 wickets.  They seem to have decided on omitting a spinner, because they haven’t got one good enough.  That doesn’t mean they will win; and they may yet regret not having a spinner in Melbourne. Melbourne is a new match on a new pitch.  And it won’t be like Perth, whatever anyone says.  That sort of talk is childish mind games.  It could even be a crude attempt at conning us into dropping Swann, because there is nothing in the pitch for him.  Basic horticulture, not to mention common sense, will tell you that soil where there has been a completely different climate cannot suddenly became the same as one more than 3,000 miles away.

The perceived wisdom is that Australia have all the momentum going into Melbourne.  So what?  England had all the momentum going into Perth and look what happened.  And after being comprehensively defeated in Durban last year, the momentum quickly shifted South Africa’s way in Cape Town and then Johannesburg. Australia had all the momentum after Headingley in 2009, nobody gave England a chance at the Oval, and yet they pulled off a resounding win. Or think of England in South Africa in 2004/2005.  They won the 1st Test, their eleventh out of twelve, and went to Durban full of confidence. They were bowled out for 139 before tea on the first day, conceded a first innings deficit of almost 200 and were staring defeat in the face.  Three days later, they had South Africa clinging on for a draw, having racked up a huge 2nd innings score quickly enough to declare before the end of the 4th day and force a victory. Only bad light and bad umpiring stopped them finishing the job.  On that basis, you would have thought South Africa would be the ones feeling low, having failed to secure victory from such a dominant position.  They promptly won in Cape Town a few days later. Each match is different.  And the fact is that for all our deficiencies at Perth, Australia have more to worry about: three of their top order are walking wickets, their bowling is ordinary except when Johnson finds his radar and if it weren’t for him, Hussey and, to a lesser extent, Watson and Haddin, they’d be 3-0 down by now. And Hussey has to fail sometime, surely. All of our team have made a positive contribution, even Prior with his wicket-keeping and Collingwood with his outstanding catching.

There, I’m sticking my neck out.  I still stand by my original series prediction of 3-1 to England.  Perth was always the one we were most likely to lose, which is how it transpired, although I’d originally hoped our one loss would be an Australian consolation at Sydney, when our boys were still hungover from celebrating. If I’m wrong, who cares?  More knowledgeable pundits than me have got it equally wrong.  That’s the beauty of cricket.  But this England team don’t tend to lose consecutive matches and I don’t expect them to do so this time around. They remain the stronger team.

I wish you all a very Happy Christmas.  If you have nothing better to do, if you want something to read over the turkey sandwich with mayonnaise as you wait for midnight on Christmas Day, take a look at another chapter from How I Won The Ashes.  This is the key point which gave rise to the concept: when all I could think about was how to remove Glenn McGrath from the scene. 

7.            2005: DISASTER AT LORDS

How we criticised the ECB for leaving it until late July before the 2005 Ashes series got under way.  After what England had achieved in Test matches since 2003, we couldn’t wait to get at the Australians and finally compete. An endless diet of one day matches was all very well, but any real cricket fan will agree that, ultimately, those one day matches seemed pretty meaningless at the time.  They made money for the game and that cannot be ignored; and, admittedly, they built up the level of expectation, offering portents of what was to come.  Simon Jones’ showdown with the ultimate Aussie bully, Matthew Hayden, put blood in the mouth of every England cricket supporter fed up of being trampled on.  Harmison yorking Ponting first ball of one innings seemed massively significant. Then, only a few balls later, Collingwood leaped and clutched a Hayden square cut that, previously, only Australians were entitled to hold onto.  And, after an inevitable Australian comeback to bring England’s batting to its knees, in came Kevin Pietersen to bat fearlessly and take England home to their target, treating the Australian bowlers like village journeymen. Now, we thought, we really can compete. In retrospect, those moments were a microcosm of what was to come.

And so began the great emotional roller-coaster ride of the summer of 2005.  Until now, all I have done is echo what every English cricket fan must have felt at the time:  beat Australia – basically, nothing else mattered. Now, though, the story becomes personal. 

I have one daughter.  She was born on 23 August 2002.  The labour was long and arduous.  All I could do was be there and feel as useful as a hairdryer in a thunderstorm.  Even on that afternoon, though, there was a cricket moment I remember. Cricket and childbirth was to become a recurring theme over the next couple of years, as you will see.

My wife was asleep; her energy was sapped and still the baby would not budge.  I sat in the room, unable to do anything.  At least I could watch the cricket on the television.  India were batting, at Headingly, one-nil down in the series, one match after this to play, so needing a result.  The Indian batsmen were rampant and had amassed a huge score.  It was now a question of when they would declare to give themselves enough time to take 20 English wickets to win the match.  Ganguly, the Indian captain, was at the crease, scoring freely.  He had a flash at a wide ball, nicked it and Robert Key, at slip, put down a sitter.

Key had just come into the English side.  He had shown some guts in Australia the previous winter and by all accounts had handed back some of the verbals to the Australians.  On this occasion, though, he was under pressure.  He had not scored runs during the series, he was due to open the batting and now he had spilled a sitter.  As I watched, I couldn’t help thinking that a really hard captain like Steve Waugh would have declared then and there, thinking:  “Okay mate, you’ve dropped a catch, you’re under pressure, you’re not in form, now bat.”  With over 500 on the board, it would have been an easy option and might have earned India a cheap wicket.  Ganguly chose to bat on, however.  As it happened, India bowled well enough, England’s batting was brittle and India won the match, easily; but it was an interesting psychological theory and an untried insight into mental strength.

My wife got pregnant in the summer of 2004 but at the end of August the scan showed no heartbeat and the foetus had to be removed.  She coped with it bravely, but you can’t really appreciate as a man what it must be like.  The following May, she became pregnant again.  A scan was booked for late July: Thursday 21 July, at 4.00 in the afternoon.  The 1st day of the 1st Ashes Test at Lord’s.  Well, it’d be easy.  The scan was in the West End, no distance from St John’s Wood.  Everything would check out fine and I’d go back to Lords.  Our second child would be on its way, England would have done well and the whole country would start getting excited. 

The build up to the 2005 Ashes series, and that First Test, was as exciting as any ever in my life.  The previous summer, we had won 7 matches in a row, followed by an 8th in Port Elizabeth.  Despite our usual loss in Cape Town, we had come back to win the series, with an unlikely and spectacular win in Johannesburg. We had a settled and balanced team, an outstanding captain, an all rounder at the peak of his powers, a fearsome bowling attack and a will to win that produced victories from even the toughest situations. I started to dream about winning the Ashes.  The first time was very vividly, the night England won that decisive match at the Wanderers.  I found myself in the Long Room with all the members breaking into Jerusalem as Gilchrist walked back, for a duck, to put England on the brink of victory at Lords: for the first time in over a hundred years and only the second time ever.  Variants of that dream would be experienced a fair few times in the build-up to Lords.  But always Jerusalem. 

Lords.  The home of cricket.  I will not even try to do justice to the majesty and tradition of the place.  It is the Holy of Holies of cricket and both inspires and intimidates.  The litany of great deeds performed there is long and illustrious.  I will chose two examples, which neatly encapsulate cricket in general and Lords’ central position within it.

The first will be well known to many.  The 2nd Test against the West Indies in 2000.  The West Indies arrived there, 1-0 up in the series. England won the toss and asked West Indies to bat first.  Always a slightly risky thing to do, but they took nine wickets in the day and completed the job of bowling West Indies out for 267 with the very first ball of the second day, Caddick pinning Walsh leg before wicket.  It was only the prelude to an extraordinary day.  England were quickly bowled out for 134, conceding a first innings lead of 133.  At that point, most observers felt that on a difficult pitch and with Ambrose and Walsh as their spearheads, it was difficult to see anything other than a West Indies win.  Then, in the last part of the day, England’s bowlers completely changed things around.  I was in the Tavern Stand and saw Sherwin Campbell top edge a slash off Caddick, the ball spiral up in the air to be caught inches from the turf and a few feet from the boundary, right in front of us, by a diving Darren Gough.  It set the tone and inspired both the team and the crowd.  England simply ran riot and in the next hour bowled West Indies out for 54, so quickly that there was time left in the day for England to face one over of their second innings, now needing a very gettable 188 runs to win the match, with 3 full days left.  It was the only time in the history of the game that some part of all four innings of a match had taken place in a single day, and I was lucky enough to have been there.  One old buffer in the row behind us slept through it all! Suddenly he jerked awake at the fall of the ninth wicket and chirped “Howzat”, as if he had been dreaming what was going on. Of course, Ambrose and Walsh did not make things easy and England ended up winning by 2 wickets, just about creeping over the line on an equally dramatic Saturday.  I remember listening on the radio to one of those amazing denouements to a game, where every run was cheered to the rooftops, as England inched their way home.

My second example of what Lords can mean to people will be known only to a few; and for one person in particular, it may haunt him for the rest of his life.  At my school, the key match of the season against our oldest and greatest rivals was played at Lords at the end of term.  It is now a 50 overs a side game, but when I was at school, it was a two innings match, played over two days.  For many of those lucky enough to be picked for the 1st XI, it was the only time they ever got to play at the home of cricket.  I was never good enough, to my regret.  I do remember, though, in my first year at school, seeing the scorecard of the previous summer’s game at Lords and noticing that our opening batsman, H.L.A. Hood, was out first ball of each innings, bowled Pigott both times.  A king pair at Lords. Remember Atherton’s description of being run out for 99?  Nightmare?  This must have been worse for poor Henry Hood.  His nemesis was Tony Pigott, who went on to play for Sussex and, indeed, won a cap for England. Years later, I met Pigott, appropriately enough in the Bowler’s Bar at Lords.  I immediately asked him whether he remembered Henry Hood.  Yes, he did indeed, vividly.  Not only that, but in the first innings, the very first ball of the match, the middle stump had cartwheeled “twenty yards past the wicket-keeper.”  Such is the power of Lords.

Back to 21 July 2005. I had not managed to get any tickets, which meant I would head for the Pavilion.    My plan was to get to the gate early.  I’d queue and as soon as it opened, I’d be into the Pavilion and onto the top balcony, behind the bowler’s arm and grab a seat for myself and my friend Rory who was coming along later.  There are no numbered seats in the Pavilion, nor are there any in the guests’ stands, which explains the queuing that goes on.  But it’s no hardship.  You take a cool box that you can sit on full of food and drink, plenty of coffee, the papers and a book, if you don’t feel like being sociable.  Or chat to other members in the queue, if you do. 

All the talk was of how long we’d waited, why did the first Test against Australia have to be as late as late July?  It would have been much better to get them going earlier, the wickets would be greener, they’d have had less practice.  In short, we’d have a better chance of winning.  That was what I picked up most of all.  We absolutely had to win.  It would ruin the summer, no, the whole year if we didn’t.  This was the first time in ages that we realistically had a chance.  Why reduce it by giving the Australians time to get their eyes in? 

The gates open and we file in.  The top of the Pavilion is empty when I get there and I find a seat exactly behind the line of the pitch.  It is looking like a decent day, although there is some cloud around.  As the time of the toss approaches, the prospect of Trescothick and Strauss fishing at Glenn McGrath becomes more likely and the feeling is that this might be a good toss to lose, which Vaughan promptly does.  Australia are batting.  England supporters are anticipating our bowlers getting stuck in to them. 

And they do so from the very start.  The first ball whistles past Langer’s outside edge, very fast and the third, even faster, hits him painfully on the arm.  Hayden is then hit trying to hook and there is literally a taste of blood.  The England team got a bit of a hard time about their lack of sportsmanship during that passage of play, and a lack of apparent concern for the wounded players; but we were having none of it.  The Australians were on the back foot and if the only thing they could respond with were accusations of poor sportsmanship, they were clearly rattled.

The physical blows set the tempo but they also set up the first two wickets.  First Hayden, his ears still ringing, missed an inswinger from Hoggard; and then Ponting was also struck in the face by Harmison, a blow which drew blood.  A few balls later, he couldn’t keep another Harmison snorter down and was caught by Strauss at 3rd slip.  Imagine watching all of that live from above and behind Harmison’s arm.  Then Flintoff and Jones get in on the act.  In his first ever over in an Ashes test, Flintoff persuades Langer, who has looked solid until then, to pull one which isn’t short enough and he skies a sitter to square leg; next over, Martyn flashes at Jones’ first ball, but it’s too close to him and he edges behind. 

The Martyn dismissal is great cricket.  They’ve decided to feed his favourite shot, reasoning that he may well try to attack before he is properly set.  This is exactly what happens, so it is a well thought out dismissal.  Credit to Jones for getting it in exactly the right place.  But then, it is less than surprising: in the bowlers’ warm-up before the start of play, I remember noticing Jones ping the last ball of the practice session at a single stump and hit it bang on, on a length.  He clearly has good control.  Soon he has another one fast and straight, which does a bit and beats Clarke’s crooked defence to have him lbw.  Australia are now 5 down for under a hundred.  In strides Gilchrist.  This was what we wanted:  Gilchrist, under real pressure, in before lunch on the first session of the first day of the series.  He would often get his team out of trouble, very quickly; but England would be happier bowling at him when his team had less than 100 on the board.  It’s a real chance. Gilchrist quickly gets into his stride with some thumping drives and flaying cuts but there is a hint of desperation.  His game, which is inherently high risk, became a little too high risk.  Shortly after lunch, he had a go at one a bit too close to him and nicked it behind.

Steve Harmison then cleaned up the tail and England had taken ten Australian wickets in less than two sessions.  It has happened before, to be fair, in recent memory: Edgbaston 1997, Melbourne 1986, and, of course, Headingley 1981.  But to do it on what seemed like a decent track at Lord’s was unthinkable.  To be behind the bowler’s arm and watch every second was schoolboy dream territory.  And Lords just wasn’t stuffy that day.  Even among the members, as the Australian batsmen got hit and got out, there was none of the “Oh bad luck, old boy!” It was clenched fist in the palm and roars of “Come on!”, which got louder and louder as each wicket fell. Such was the intensity of the desire to pay the Aussies back for all the bullying of the previous sixteen years.

It was time to leave, to meet my wife for the scan.  As Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss set off down the stairs to the Long Room, I ran into them.  Stepping aside, I loudly wished them the best:  “Good luck, boys”.  As they walked into the Long Room, there was a great cheer.  This was it.  A decent partnership from these two and the match is ours for the taking.  Especially now that we know they’re scared of our bowlers.  Trescothick and Strauss have to face a few awkward overs before tea, which they negotiate safely and the opportunity becomes imperceptibly more attainable.

 And then it all went wrong.  I met my wife for the scan.  She was nervous, I was upbeat.  “Don’t worry about a thing.  It’ll be fine.”  Admittedly, I’d had a few drinks and was in a buoyant mood from seeing England rampant over the Aussie batsmen. We walk in to the room.  Our daughter was with us.  My wife lies down and bares her stomach.  The gel gets smeared on and the grainy ultrasound scan gets into focus. There’s the familiar shape of a foetus and I’m zeroing in on the pulse from the heart; except there isn’t one and I’m starting to wonder why there isn’t one and then the man says “I’m sorry” and you know straight away it hasn’t made it.  And you’re crushed and you know how crushed she is and the whole happy day has been turned on its head – and you burst into tears.  You soon have to compose yourself.  Your daughter is there and she’s not yet three.  Anyway, it’s far worse for my wife. She, though, is solid as a rock.  Come on, she says.  Let’s go.  I don’t think she even cried then.  I don’t think she cried till much later.  Right now, she just wanted to get it sorted.

Which meant hospital the next day to have the foetus removed.  She was booked into hospital at 8 am the next morning.  A charming doctor called her from his mobile as we were in the car, driving around, not really knowing where we were going.  He made all the arrangements.  It turned out he was at Lords! Then it dawned on me.  I’d left all my things at the Pavilion and I had tickets for the next day which I would need to give away to friends, as I clearly would have more important things to worry about.  I’d have to go back to Lords now to collect everything.  Anyway, my wife wanted to be with girlfriends who would understand, not a pissed bloke who wouldn’t know how she really felt. In that situation, a man is not in a position to make things better – even if he is sober!  We agreed to meet at home later.  So I returned to Lords, hoping at least to find England taking the initiative and putting some sort of gloss to the day. 

I walk in.  We are 5 wickets down. FIVE WICKETS.  For 27, at one point.  By the time I arrive, Pietersen and Jones are staging a mini-recovery.  But the damage is done.  McGrath has taken all five wickets, bowling straight and fast, with that tall, metronomic action that gives away nothing and takes wickets by the bucketful.  On this occasion, he’d found two outside edges and hit three stumps in less than 5 overs.  Few sides recover from 27 for 5 and the match was gone.  So in a matter of minutes I’d seen my Ashes dream – and our child – evaporate. 

Completely irrationally, I blamed it entirely on Glenn McGrath.  It was all his fault.  I shouldn’t have been surprised.  I’d been at Lords eight years earlier when he took 8 wickets in an innings and bowled England out for 84.  Yet here he was again, somehow even better and even more obnoxious.  Like saying England would lose the series 5-0.  The really frightening thing was that when he bowled like that, it was difficult to see why he’d be wrong.  He’d ruined the day and it looked like he would ruin the summer, not just for me but for the whole country. 

In a very drunken state, I have to confess to thinking that he had killed our child.  Those deliveries that skewered the stumps of Michael Vaughan, Ian Bell and Freddie Flintoff literally stopped our baby’s heart.  I cursed him again and again. Another example of how obsessed I had become.  And in the further depths of an emotional cauldron, I thought, “What can they do?” and I came up with “The England captain needs to be like Douglas Jardine.  It’s Bodyline time.  We have to take out their best player.  With Glenn McGrath in their team, we’ll never win. We’ve got to eliminate him. How do we do that?  We can’t seem to do it when he bowls at us, so we’ll have to do it when we bowl at him.” I wrote a letter to the England captain, intending to deliver it to the players’ dressing room, urging him to target McGrath when he batted. Then I went completely mad: I constructed an effigy from my daughter’s play-dough, pretended it was Glenn McGrath and stuck pins in it. 

I never got to deliver the letter to Michael Vaughan, but what I was suggesting nearly happened.  By Saturday morning, the game was out of reach.  Michael Clarke and Damien Martyn had seen to that the previous afternoon, with a stand that batted England out of the game.  It was all looking horribly familiar – expectation, only for stark reality to set in.  Of course, we didn’t help ourselves by dropping catches.  One, by Pietersen off Clarke when he hadn’t scored many, was especially costly.  Australia were 376 ahead by the time Glenn McGrath came in at No. 11.  He faced Simon Jones and got a brute of a ball that hit him on his right hand and ballooned up in the air.  Had Michael Vaughan read my mind, even if he hadn’t got my letter?  Geraint Jones ran forward and spilled the catch, which, to be honest, didn’t matter too much at that point, except that it seemed to sum up the gap in quality between the sides.  But was McGrath hurt?  We’d probably lose this match, but if his hand – his bowling hand – was broken and he couldn’t play, there was some hope for the rest of the series.  No, he was OK.  My curse hadn’t worked. England were set 420 to win and although McGrath was this time seen off in his opening spell, he polished off the innings on the next afternoon and England were comfortably beaten.

Early on the Friday, I took my wife to the hospital.  Her operation was due at 10.00, but the doctor was coming to see her at 9.30 and I wanted to be there.  I dropped our daughter at her nursery school at 9.00 and then drove back to the hospital.  The traffic was awful and I was running out of time.  A dust cart was turning right in front of me, but it was blocking the road, only about 100 yards from the hospital.  I lost patience and drove up onto the pavement in an attempt to get around it.  The kerb was very high and it was immediately obvious that I’d burst a tyre.  I managed to limp to the hospital, park the car and was in time to see the doctor. 

She went into theatre at 10.00.  I was told she’d be back in her room at 11.00.  That would give me time to sort out the car.  I went down to the car park, jacked up the car, took the wheel off and replaced it with the spare tyre; but it took longer than I had planned and for some reason, I couldn’t get the wheel nuts back on.  They were very stiff; and by 11.00 I still didn’t have the job done.  I went back to the room to wait for my wife.  But she was already there, awake. She looked at me accusingly, wanting to know where I’d been and why I hadn’t been there earlier.  I told her about the tyre and she was furious.  I explained it had only been because I’d wanted to get back in time to see the doctor and this bloody truck had got in the way, and, and, it wasn’t my fault, it really wasn’t my fault.  “There you go again.  You’re so impatient.  Why couldn’t you have kept calm?  Now you’ve wasted a whole lot of money.”  She was right, I had.  Anyway, all I could do now was get it fixed.  The telly was on.  A man had been shot by police on the tube.  It all seemed very dramatic, following bomb scares the previous day. To be honest, I wanted to know whether Pietersen was still in.  We’d heard enough about bombs and shootings.  I flicked to Channel 4. 

England were struggling to get close to Australia’s score and Pietersen, having launched a mini-assault on McGrath, including a booming six into the Pavilion, was out.  Caught – inevitably brilliantly – on the boundary by Damien Martyn.  My wife went mad.  “For f**k’s sake, all you can think about is cricket.  What about me?  How d’you think I’m feeling?  You don’t give a s**t.”  She had a point. I tried to persuade her that I did care, I knew it was horrible, but there wasn’t a whole lot I could do about it and checking the score in the Test match wasn’t going to hurt her.  She was distinctly unimpressed, to put it mildly.  But that was how I felt.  I was gutted that this had happened to her – again – but all I could do was be there for her, which I was, and look after her, which I was doing.  I suppose I should have forgotten about the cricket, but I couldn’t, I just couldn’t, I was obsessed with this series, now it was all going wrong, my wife had lost a baby and it was all down to that f***er Glenn McGrath.  I cursed him again.  If he didn’t exist, none of this would have happened.  After the temperature in the room had fallen a few degrees, I excused myself, explaining that I hadn’t finished putting on the spare wheel.  I’d need to pick up our daughter from school and time was pressing.  I went back to the car park and finally managed to get the nuts on the spare wheel tightened up.

I spent that afternoon at home, looking after my wife and daughter, feeling sorry for myself and then reproaching myself that no matter how bad I felt, she was feeling a whole lot worse.  I occasionally sneaked glances at the telly.  It was not good.  Clarke and Martyn had their stand and although there was a heartening last half hour when England took 4 wickets, including Freddie Flintoff sending Gilchrist’s off stump flying for a low score, one couldn’t help thinking that it was too late.  

I took the car to Kwik-Fit early on the Saturday morning to get a new tyre.  We had planned to drive down to Devon for a week in a seaside cottage with my family.  I had been looking forward to it for a while.  The scan was going to have checked out fine, England were going to win at Lords, I would set the Pavilion off singing Jerusalem and we’d then have a lovely holiday in Devon.  Originally the plan was that if England were in with a chance of winning, we’d wait until the match was over before going, or I’d come down later.  Glenn McGrath changed all of that. Things had not gone to plan.  At least we’d still have the nice holiday in Devon.  My wife insisted that despite what had happened, she was still up for going. It would be good to get away from London and our daughter would enjoy it.  All I needed to do was sort out this tyre and we’d be ready to leave for Devon on Sunday. 

Then the Kwik Fit man told me there was a problem.  I’d used the wrong nuts to fit the spare wheel.  Well, it would make sense.  The spare tyre was half the width of a normal tyre; so it was reasonable that the bolts to fit it would be smaller as well.  It explained why the nuts had been so difficult to screw in. All very logical, except that I stupidly hadn’t noticed that there were separate nuts for the spare wheel.  The result: a damaged wheel hub that needed replacing.  A specialist job.  Car not driveable until it’s sorted.  Chances of getting it fixed on a Saturday in time for Sunday?  Minimal, it seemed.

I phoned home to deliver the news.  It went down like a bucket of warm sick.  “Great.  So now we’re going to have to pay for a new wheel hub as well. Well done.  More money tossed down the drain.  I don’t know why I don’t just take a whole lot of ten pound notes and flush them down the loo.” Etc. etc.  I suggested hiring a car, to get us to Devon.  “No f***ing way.  You’ve wasted enough money already. You either get this sorted or we don’t go.”

I got it sorted.  It meant three hours in the morning on the phone trying to find someone in London who could do the job; then sitting in a café in Perivale for three hours on Saturday afternoon, waiting for the car to be fixed, when I should have been at home looking after my wife and daughter, which was quickly and forcibly pointed out, with some justification.  The cricket was no consolation.  Although Trescothick and Strauss briefly threatened a miracle in England’s second innings, Brett Lee and Shane Warne soon restored normality.  Vaughan’s off stump went cartwheeling again and Ian Bell was caught like a rabbit in Warne’s headlights. By Saturday evening, the only thing that could save us was the weather.

It was dark and rainy on Sunday.  We set off for Devon in the middle of the afternoon.  I was listening to the radio as Glenn McGrath took less than an hour to bowl England out.  I cursed him roundly again.  “Glenn McGrath, may you rot in hell.  You are ruining my life,” I thought to myself.  Play had only started at 4 o’clock, but it was more than enough for McGrath. In reality, of course, it was pathetic of England.  The weather was offering us a lifeline. A bit of grit and determination and we might have seen it through into the last day. Who knows, it could have rained all of Monday and we would have escaped with a draw.  Massively undeserved, but we’d go to the 2nd Test all square, knowing that while our batting was as fragile as ever, at least we could take 20 Australian wickets inside three days. With McGrath lurking, though, that would not be enough.  I cursed him again.  He was the single difference between glory and disaster.

When we arrived in Devon, the weather was awful.  It was windy, raining, cold and damp.  There was no heating in the cottage.  My wife was hating every minute.  The nightmare was continuing.  In retrospect, we should never have gone to Devon.  I should have put my foot down, but hindsight, as ever, teaches more than you can ever know when you need to.  At the time, it seemed right.  I wouldn’t be at work, I’d be with my family.  We would be in a quiet, pretty spot.  To be fair, it was pretty; but, in England, so much depends upon the weather.  And English weather is rather like its cricket team: when it’s good, it’s very good, but it doesn’t happen very often; and when it’s bad, it makes everyone miserable.  When you have to put up with both, it’s a nightmare.

How I Won The Ashes, 15 December 2010

December 15, 2010

Welcome back to How I Won The Ashes.

Those of you new to this may wonder what this is all about.  The concept of How I Won The Ashes was conceived during the legendary 2005 Ashes series, when I did crazy things that helped the England team home.  All cricketers, and fans, are superstitious: lucky sofas, not moving during a long partnership, not walking on a certain side of the street, avoiding the cracks in the pavement; basically, anything that will help their team win.  In my case, it was sticking pins in an effigy of Glenn McGrath after he’d skewered us at Lords in 2005, so obsessed was I with winning the Ashes, so convinced was I that we would not do so while he was bowling.  It was I that left that rogue cricket ball on the Edgbaston turf, which he tripped over and turned his ankle.

This led to a book on the thoughts of an obsessed cricket fan, and subsequently to a blog on all matters to do with cricket.  With the Ashes now in progress, I am going to try and give regular updates on the state of the match and views on the action so far. For those who like tittle tattle, I’ve also got a few thoughts on Warney’s recent activities away from the world of cricket.

You can follow on twitter at www.twitter.com/howiwontheashes  and this and previous blogs can be viewed at

I’ve also been contributing to podcasts for the Barmy Army Ashes website.  You can hear them on http://www.barmyarmyashes.com

Whew! How good a performance was England’s murdering of Australia at Adelaide? It was right up there with one of the most professional performances put in by an England cricket team in memory, because it was against Australia, in their own backyard.  All the hard work paid dividends: fielding, batting, fitness and bowling.  The Trott run out of Katich and two Swann slip catches in the first three overs left Australia in ruins; England finally started doing what they did in 2005 and posting a strong first innings total; and their fitness enabled them to raise the levels of performance and intensity an extra notch on the last morning, when they knew they were under time pressure to take wickets. The bowling of Swann and Anderson took all the plaudits, rightly so, because it was mightily impressive; but spare a thought for Steve Finn, whose bowling at Hussey was brilliant.  He knew Hussey likes to take on the short ball, but he bowled it just that bit closer to the batsman, forcing him to play it straight up in the air, to be joyously caught by Anderson.  The strength of character was even stronger when you consider that only a few balls earlier, Prior had missed a pretty simple chance to dismiss Hussey when Swann found his edge. Lesser teams might have allowed their heads to drop at that point, as Hussey is not the sort of player to give second chances.  But this England team is made of sterner stuff, and they maintained the intensity.  Even so, his removal was huge – and an equally huge relief for Prior. The next wicket, which of Haddin, was equally crucial, because he was well capable of batting all the way through.  It was a beautiful piece of bowling by Anderson, too: a perfect outswinger, indisputably edged behind.

The comprehensive victory at Adelaide finally laid to rest the ghost of 4 years ago, that ghastly last morning, when we were caught like rabbits in the headlights of Shane Warne’s beady eyes and Glenn McGrath’s noose. I remember how miserable I was, standing on a platform at London Bridge, on a cold foggy morning, utterly distraught at how we had contrived to lose a game that we should have drawn and might even have won. I also remember the smug headlines in the Australian press as the teams arrived in Perth for the 3rd Test: “Home and hosed” they ran, because they knew that English spirits were utterly broken.  That’s in stark contrast with the hysterical reaction of the press and the panicked juggling of players by the Australian selectors, as they try to stem the confidence bleeding from the Australian team.  Compare too Ricky Ponting talking in a high pitched voice at a hundred miles per hour on the radio this morning, clearly feeling the stress, with the calm and relaxed, but firm and realistic tones of Andrew Strauss.  One is in control, the other is not.  But the one in control is English. This is big payback time.

They are even suggesting a recall for Shane Warne, for goodness sake. Just as England struggled to find a replacement for Ian Botham, a once in a lifetime cricketer, so Australia are desperate for another Shane Warne – but he is nowhere to be found. For Chris Lewis, Mark Ealham, Craig White and Ronny Irani read Nathan Hauritz, Jason Krejza, Bryce McGain and Xavier Doherty.  It took more than 10 years before Andrew Flintoff arrived on the scene for England. It may take Australia just as long.  (Incidentally, it is a mark of the strength of this England line up that the initial difficulty of replacing Flintoff appears to have receded.)

Now Australia have gone for another unknown, Michael Beer.  One wag remarked how symbolic Australia’s demise has been that they are drinking Beer instead of Bollinger.  To be fair to the new spinner, we must reserve judgment until he has played.  After all, he could do a Phil Edmonds or Peter Such and take a hatful making his debut in an Ashes Test.

And we must not get ahead of ourselves.  We have a shocking record at Perth and the Australians will cling to that.  On the basis that no side, particularly not an Australian one, can be so comprehensively outplayed two matches running, we have to be ready for a fightback. How much of a loss will Stuart Broad be?  Although he has made little direct contribution in terms of runs or wickets, his bowling has been tight and aggressive.  Will his absence allow Australia to break the shackles?  Will the replacement bowler fill his boots?

There is much debate as to who that bowler will be.  I have to say that I am relaxed either way, such is the confidence I have in the England set up and their judgment.  If they go for Tremlett, they obviously think that on a fast pitch (albeit not as fast as in the past), he will be the most natural replacement for Broad in terms of bowling style: tall and bouncy, getting it into their ribs.  And Tremlett appears to be a thinking bowler, not someone who just runs up to the wicket and brainlessly pounds it in. On the other hand, they may think Bresnan will get swing and exploit the traditional Australian weakness against the moving ball; and Bresnan does enable us to maintain a reassuringly long batting line up. Or they may go for the outsider, Shahzad, thinking that he will generate reverse swing and give the England attack unexpected sting at the 60 over mark.

We mustn’t be overawed by the Australian record at Perth.  After all, they have lost there twice in the last three years, and in particular were undone by the Indians’ ability to swing the ball in 2008. I think this England team has gained sufficient mental strength to know they have the edge and to maintain that pressure.  I expect it to be closer than Adelaide, but I expect us to win.  For us to lose will require us to lose 4 consecutive sessions, and I don’t see that happening.

Finally, a mention of the irrepressible Shane Warne.  For years Warney demonstrated an insatiable appetite for English batsmen that surpassed his considerable sexual voracity.  He would toy with them, whisper sweet nothings in their ears, make them think they were on top of him…and then nail them good and proper.  Now he is apparently doing the same to one of our so-called “celebrities”.  Enjoy the experience, Warney, if it’s true. Personally, I think you are far too good for her. It’s a cliché, because it’s true: her notoriety (not fame) is based on others’ success.  You are only one of the greatest cricketers the world has known. And she is trouble.  A friend of mine flies long haul for British Airways.  He says when the cabin crew get the passenger manifest before a flight, only three names send them into a cold sweat: one is Naomi Campbell (obviously); the other is Cherie Blair (equally obviously); and the third is your new squeeze: “Do you want to have a f***ing job by the time we land?” This will be a cameo appearance at the crease, a whirlwind innings, with a few lusty blows, before you decide it’s time to send her back to the pavilion. But if she fields for you, presumably you’ll put her at fine leg.  If it were me, it would be silly point.

Perhaps, though, I am being unfair to the lady in question and, as one newspaper suggested, she is actually “taking one for the team”, so to speak. Perhaps she is lying back and thinking of England, so as to prevent Warney from answering the aforementioned desperate calls for him to come out of retirement and perform a miracle. Perhaps her old friend, the cricket mad Hugh Grant, has persuaded her to do this.  Perhaps. I don’t buy it, though. Apart from anything else, her track record suggests she has never done anything to benefit anyone or anything other than herself, her career and her bank account.

That’s all for now.  Good luck to those of you who manage to stay up and watch the first session at Perth (it’s probably the most anti-social start time of any venue in the world for someone watching in the UK).  And of course, good luck to England. On this occasion, it might be worth staying up to watch, if only to hear the banter that Warney will get when he arrives in the Sky commentary box. To give you some reading material while you wait, below is a (fairly lengthy) chapter from How I Won The Ashes (the book), which is reasonably pertinent. And for those of you who know that I have a daytime job, don’t worry, this was all written in my spare time!

 2.            [I DON’T LIKE CRICKET]…I LOVE IT

 I was born on 18 January 1965.  On 12 September 2005, I had been alive for 14,845 days. Australia held the Ashes when I was born.  So from the time I was born until then, England only possessed the sacred urn for 4,820 days.  For the remaining 10,025 days, Australia were the holders of the Ashes: more than two-thirds of my life.

I set up a spreadsheet to work this out. That’s what a sad git I had become.  Years of waiting for a winning series against Australia had turned me into a lunatic.  Cricket fans (and especially English cricket fans) will understand how I felt.  Psychologists might be curious why a grown, happily married man behaved this way.  Obsessed or bonkers would be two valid observations.  My wife is very definitely in the sad git camp.

But the thousands of people who lined the streets of London and turned up at Trafalgar Square to celebrate on 13 September 2005: were they sad gits as well? Many had driven hundreds of miles from all parts of the country just to be there. No.  That day proved to the entire nation just how important it is to beat Australia at cricket.  Since the game was invented, it was ever thus.  Those burnt bails in the little urn showed how traumatic it was for this country to lose to Australia more than a hundred years ago.

In the summer of 2005, with all the beatings we had taken for so many years, it was even more important.  People who had never shown the slightest interest in the game could now think of nothing else.  On the final Sunday of the series, when we needed to draw to recapture the urn, I had to fly up to Scotland to attend my aunt’s 90th birthday lunch.  We were held up by traffic and arrived late.  One of my uncles, who professed to loathe cricket and had never seen the point of it, greeted me at the door.  Did he say “Hello, how was your journey?”  No.  His very first words were an urgent “Is Gilchrist out?”

It was a very emotional time for me, not just because England won the Ashes, but also through personal circumstances.  My claim is that those circumstances were responsible for our victory.  It is a bold claim; and, of course, frivolous.  I can’t bowl or bat like Freddie Flintoff.  If I could, it would be me, not him, in the side, hitting Justin Langer’s head or stumps, or smashing Brett Lee for six after six.  I did not do the deeds on the pitch.  Yet I did certain things – crazy, meaningless things – which I will always believe helped us to win the Ashes.

This book will be most appreciated by those who see Test cricket as the purest, most absorbing form of cricket; by those who understand and enjoy the little games within games that take place within a passage of play, be it a few overs or a session, way before the climax of a game when one run or one wicket makes all the difference.  Will a batsman reach a century?  Can a first innings lead be established?  Will the follow on be saved?  Will enough time be left to bowl the opposition out?  Miracles can occur in all sports.  The beauty of cricket, and especially test cricket, is that the prelude to the miracle is often as absorbing as the miracle itself.  During the summer of 2005, fortunes swung so dramatically between one side and the other throughout many of the sessions and during the days that it was impossible not to appreciate the subtleties of the game and to see how the upper hand could move so fluidly between bowlers and batsmen and back to bowlers. 

At the Edgbaston and Trent Bridge test matches in 2005, in particular, the final moments were no different to what can happen in a limited overs match that takes a day to play.  Two runs needed by one side, only one or two wickets needed by the other.  Yet three whole days had gone before, each session dramatic in its own right, to reach that final conclusion.  No one day or Twenty:Twenty match could offer as much entertainment.  Even the drawn test matches were nail-biting as Australia clung on at Old Trafford, when England might have won the match right up until the very last ball; and then England batted through the last day at the Oval to secure the prize, when they were 5 wickets down at lunchtime and Australia sensed a last chance.  Draws can be entertaining.

But that is the beauty of cricket, in all its forms, over all other sports.  The rules are complicated and the permutations of what can happen each time a ball is bowled (and sometimes when it is not) correspondingly diverse.  While football is a truly global game, it is pretty simple by comparison.  There are ten different ways for a batsman to be dismissed in cricket.  Some of them, such as “Hit the ball twice” or “Handled the ball” are as rare as an earthquake in London. Nine players can position themselves anywhere on the field their captain and the bowler chooses, with diverse names such as “Fine leg”, “Silly point” or “Third man”.  The batsman can use his eyes, hands, arms, feet and legs to play a wide array of shots: pulls, cuts, drives, slashes and hooks. Many different skills are required and displayed; and some are blessed with the ability to do all the things that make a good cricketer: hit the ball to all parts of the ground; bowl batsmen out with fast balls, or bamboozle them with ones that move in the air, or which dip and spin; and catch the ball when it comes to you.

It is full of quirks, traditions and superstitions, more so than any other sport. Each cricket ground has its own features which are part of the game’s fabric: the slope at Lords and its iconic pavilion; the tree at Canterbury; the gasometer at the Oval; Table Mountain at Newlands; the afternoon breeze at Perth, the Fremantle “doctor”; the fort at Galle; and many others.  And, of course, it is especially vulnerable to the weather, so much so that it doesn’t even need to rain to halt proceedings.  “Bad light stopped play” is, unfortunately, an all too frequent expression associated with cricket, especially in England, and a huge source of frustration for spectators.  Then again, a cricket ball coming at you at 90 miles per hour needs to be as visible as possible, so it is perhaps understandable that umpires and players want this comfort.  Sometimes, of course, it suits a team to be off the pitch and the appearance of a few dark clouds can save a batsman an unpleasant time at the crease before the close of play and allow him to return to the safety of the dressing room, to fight the next day.  At the Oval in 2005, the Australians found themselves having to force the pace to get a result that would prevent England reclaiming the Ashes.  For once, English supporters were heartened by the sight of clouds and rain, as the more time taken out the game, the harder it would be for Australia to win, while England only needed to draw the match.  When Australia were batting, it got to the point on the 4th day when so much time had already been lost that they had no option but to stay on the pitch when, in most other circumstances, they would have accepted the umpire’s offer to go off.  Then, when England batted, the same offer was made and off they went.  To make a point, all of the Australians came out onto the pitch wearing sunglasses, suggesting it was not as dark as everyone thought.

Until quite recently, it was only the batting team that could be offered the opportunity to leave the pitch because it was too dark.  The fielding side never used to be able to appeal against the light, even if they were really struggling to see the ball.  England famously won a match in Karachi in such circumstances, the only time they have ever done so.  At the start of the final day, Pakistan were 88 runs ahead in their second innings, with 7 wickets still standing.  On a typically flat and dead Karachi pitch, a draw seemed the only possible result.  But Pakistan panicked, wickets fell and England suddenly found themselves with a chance of a win, needing to chase 176 in a little over 40 overs.  Time would be their main obstacle, as it gets dark very quickly in Karachi and the Pakistanis seemed pretty confident that if they slowed the game down, night would fall before England could secure victory.  But England were having none of it.  They stuck at their task, maintained a brisk scoring rate and got home literally as the sun was going down and the mullahs were calling the muslim citizens to prayer from the minarets.  It was a wonderful image and would have been thrilling to be there. It was so dark that the batsmen were able to see the ball more clearly than the fielders, because at least they had the benefit of the ball coming out of a white sightscreen.  I vividly remember Inzamam-ul-Haq standing, bewildered, on the boundary as the ball crashed into the advertising boards no more than five yards to his right. He simply hadn’t seen it.  But it was difficult to feel any sympathy after all the time wasting tactics he and his team-mates had used; and the umpires would not let them leave the pitch.

Cricket is also a statistician’s heaven.  Record scores, both by teams and individuals can stand for decades and then be surpassed and surpassed again.  For more than 30 years, Gary Sobers’ 365 was the highest individual score by a batsman, until Brian Lara went past it not once, but twice in the space of ten years.   When Mark Taylor reached 334 for Australia against Pakistan in 1998, he immediately declared the innings closed, not wanting to surpass the 334 scored by Donald Bradman, at that time the highest score in a test match by an Australian.  Such was the awe in which the great Bradman was held.  (Some years later, Matthew Hayden had no such qualms, butchering and bullying a weak Zimbabwe attack for 380 in October 2003, which became the world record only until Lara racked up 400 against England the following April.)

Certain numbers hold fears for different teams.  Australians are wary of 87, as it is 13 short of 100.  111 is a particularly bad number for the English.  Known as the Nelson, it usually heralds the fall of a wicket.  As to why it is known as the Nelson, opinions vary: some reckon it is because Horatio Nelson at the end of his life had one eye, one arm and one testacle; others contend it relates to his three famous naval victories: Copenhagen, Nile and Trafalgar – won, won, won! If the innings score, or a batsman’s score or a partnership stands at 111, everyone prays for another run as quickly as possible.  Some even try to keep their feet off the ground, famously the umpire David Sheppard, who would skip around when he was at square leg umpire when the score stood at that dreadful number.  I myself wrote this additional paragraph when I prepared the first manuscript and found to my horror that there were 111 pages!  Often, when two batsmen put together a long partnership, their team-mates will be ordered not to move from where they are sat or stood, in case it somehow disturbs the fortune that is running with the batsmen.  If they want to visit the loo, tough, they have to wait until the next break in play. Eccentricity, madness, call it what you will: the game, its protagonists and its followers are all caught up in it, as you will see from reading on, if you haven’t already worked it out.

Of course, cricket is associated most obviously with the British Empire; and the nations which play it most assiduously are those where the British Empire had influence. The great tradition of pace bowling in the Carribean is thought to be born from the fact that the colonial gentry preferred batting to bowling in the hot sunshine; but they needed someone to bowl at them.  Thus the slaves from the fields were given their only legitimate opportunity to take out their resentment at the white man – by bowling very fast at them.  Some see this as a reason to despise the sport.  It has horrible, colonial overtones; and, of course, in its earliest days, was seen an elitist sport, the preserve of the privileged.  The fact that a match would take place each year between Gentlemen and Players was, they say, proof of this.

To which I respond: yes, that is all true, and slavery was a terrible thing. But the differences of position were the characteristics of an earlier age when that insidious resentment that is called political correctness did not exist.  It was a more innocent time and it did not matter the way it seems to matter now.  Anyway, cricket has grown up and has moved with the times.  It is played by all sorts of people, all around the world.  That it is still enjoyed, in all its forms, by well over a billion people on the planet; and that it is played to a high standard in most time zones where there is habitable land, apart from the Americas, is testimony to that.

The term “Pom”, which is used by Australians with a mixture of contempt and affection to describe the English, has its roots in colonial history.  Many people think Pom stands for Prisoner Of Mother (England); but that’s them, not us!  The real derivation of Pom is this: in the early days of British involvement with Australia, there were naturally a number of people who left the mother country to seek a new life in the southern hemisphere.  They acquired the nickname “Jimmy immigrant” which was abbreviated to “Jimmigrant” or plain “Jimmy”.  However, many of them were fair skinned and, being unused to the strong sunshine that is such a feature of Australia, they quickly turned purple – roughly the colour of a pomegranate.  So, instead of “Jimmigrants”, they were known as “Pomegrants” or just “Poms”.

I love explanations for words that are steeped in history.  For years I was convinced that Kangaroo meant “I don’t know what the fuck you are talking about” in native aboriginal tongue.  Why?  Because when Captain Cook first arrived in Australia , he and his shipmates saw a strange animal with big hind legs and a long tail bounding around.  Having never seen such a creature before, they naturally enquired from one of the natives sitting on a rock nearby what it was called. The response was a curt “Kangaroo” (because he didn’t understand them.) 

Theories such as these abound all over the world.  My mother grew up in Peru and taught me a lovely story behind the Peruvian slang expression for a “spiv” or a “wideboy.”  It is “huachafo” (pronounced “Wuchuffo”).  It exists only in Peru and is not used anywhere else in the Spanish speaking world.  Its origins are from a group of enterprising English seamen from the East End of London who were taken captive by the Spanish navy on the west coast of South America.  They escaped from their captors and set up shop in Lima, where they quickly established a reputation for, shall we say, commercial agility: ducking and weaving, wheeling and dealing in anything they could get their hands on, they became known as los huachafos.  Why?  Because they came from Whitechapel.

I was recently disabused of the Kangaroo theory by Stephen Fry on an edition of QI; apparently the real linguistic reason is more prosaic, which is a shame, because the Captain Cook story is much more fun.  And kangaroos capture the imagination of non-Australians, with their extraordinary shape and athleticism.  Some friends of mine had an unusual encounter with a kangaroo on their travels.  They were driving through the night from Adelaide to Alice Springs, on a stretch of road in the middle of nowhere.  It’s so remote that there are signs on the road warning drivers to ensure they have enough extra fuel on board, because the next filling station is many hundreds of miles away.  Suddenly, a kangaroo bounded across the road and they hit it full on.  Fortunately for them, they were in a pretty solid truck, with crash bars on the front.  The kangaroo was pinioned to the vehicle, motionless.  Before removing it, they thought it would be an amusing photo opportunity, so they dressed the kangaroo in a jacket, baseball cap and sunglasses, before taking its picture.  But the kangaroo was not dead, only stunned.  The flash of the camera woke it up and it quickly dislodged itself from the crash bars, before bounding away into the outback, fully clothed.  To their horror, the travellers realised that the keys to the truck were in the jacket they had put on the kangaroo, as well as a wallet and a passport.  What stupid plonkers! It was eight hours before another truck went past and they were able to flag it down.  As for the kangaroo, who knows?  It probably went back to its friends in the outback, gleefully reporting that it had just turned over a couple of Poms.  “Jeez, mates, look what I’ve got.  This stupid Pom gave me his jacket, his passport, his wallet and his car keys.”  “Nice sunnies, mate.  Good on yer.”  And so on.

I nearly had a far more serious encounter with another Australian creature.  Not a kangaroo, but a crocodile.  I had been travelling up the east coast of Australia and had been enormously lucky to scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef, one of the wonders of the world.  On the way up, we had stayed with old family friends in Brisbane.  They showed us a video called Australian Killers.  My initial thought was that it was a historic drama about Ned Kelly, the bushranger.  It turned out to be a nature documentary about all the different creatures in the country that can kill you: funnel-web spiders, snakes, sharks, box jelly-fish, stonefish and some lethal crustacean that fires a poisonous dart at you if pick it up.  And, of course, crocodiles.  Whether they were trying to scare us or humour us, I don’t know, but it was a sobering thought.

After the Barrier Reef experience, we travelled further north, to Cape Tribulation, a wonderful part of the coast where the reef comes close in to the shore and the jungle is literally the other side of the road.  It really is very beautiful.  There are lodges on the edge of the jungle where you can stay and we booked ourselves in.  We were given an introductory talk, in which we were told some Do’s and Don’ts, but I didn’t pay much attention.  Several nights later, some of us decided to have a beach party.  After the bar had closed, we gathered up wood and beers and went down to the beach.  We lit a fire and had a great time, creeping back to our lodgings just before dawn.  It was nearly lunch time when we resurfaced, slightly the worse for wear, and I became aware of a bit of a commotion.  The lodge managers had heard that some people had been on the beach in the middle of the night and wanted to know who it was.  We owned up and I have never had such a strip torn off me.  We felt pretty stupid and it was obvious from the intensity of the bollocking that we had had a narrow escape:  “You crazy fools.  Didn’t you listen to us? Never, ever go on the beach at night.  It’s when the crocs are hungry and they go feeding.  You are fucking lucky one of you wasn’t taken last night. Stupid Pommie idiots! No wonder you’re so shit at cricket.”

Yes, the Aussies love to hand it to the Poms at every opportunity and much of cricket’s early history stems from this rivalry. The game is steeped in history and tradition and offers an amazingly rich kaleidoscope of stories, characters and statistics.  Above all, though, cricket has always stood for fairness.  The English have often been known for their sense of fair play and nowhere is this better illustrated than the expression “It’s not cricket”, which is still used to describe something that is less than above board. 

It is therefore one of the greatest ironies of the game that the Ashes – the symbol of the rivalry between England and Australia – was actually born out of a dreadful act of unsportsmanlike behaviour by W.G. Grace, the original English cricketing hero.  In 1882, England were playing Australia at The Oval.  It was a tight game and Australia were trying to set a competitive total in their second innings.  A lower order batsman, Sammy Jones, was tapping the pitch between deliveries, when suddenly Grace ran to the stumps with the ball, whipped off the bails and appealed for a run out, an act entirely contrary to the spirit of the game.  Incredibly, Jones was given out, although Grace was such a domineering character that few would have dared to argue.  However, it backfired spectacularly, because all it succeeded in doing was sending the Australian fast bowler Fred Spofforth into a fit of rage. England ended up needing only 86 runs to win the match; but Spofforth charged in like a mad thing, took 7 wickets and bowled England out for 77.  It was the first time Australia had beaten England on English soil and it prompted an obituary to be written in the the Sporting Times the next day, mourning English cricket, which had “died” as a result of the defeat (though not, it should be noted, as a result of Grace’s appalling behaviour.) When England visited Australia the following winter, their captain, Ivo Bligh, was presented by a group of Melbourne ladies with a small brown urn containing the ashes of what is commonly believed to be a burnt stump or bail. This is the same urn which now sits in the museum at Lords, and which has been contested by England and Australia ever since.

It always used to be accepted behaviour that if a batsman got a faint edge to a ball bowled at him and it was safely caught by the wicket-keeper, then the batsman would walk from the crease, even if the umpire had not heard the snick.  This became known as “walking” and was established practice for many years, even at the highest levels of the game.  Not any more.  The generally perceived wisdom now is that it is the umpire’s job to make decisions, not the batsman’s. If he happens to get it wrong and you benefit, take full advantage, because you never know when you will be on the wrong end of a shocker.  To some extent, there is logic in this, because fortune does have a way of evening itself out.  But to the casual observer, the idea that someone stays at the crease when he knows he hit the ball goes against the English concept of fair play.

Which was why the Bodyline series of 1932/33 was another watershed in terms of the cricketing relationship between Australia and England, far more serious than Grace’s running out of Sammy Jones.  Australia had become immensely strong in the late 1920s and early 1930s, most notably through the prodigious batsmanship of Donald Bradman. Nobody ever seemed able to get him out and he assembled innings after innings to drive the English team to defeat and its supporters to despair.  Then Douglas Jardine came up with a plan which involved using very fast bowling to target the batsman and intimidate him into giving his wicket away.  The tactic worked and Australia were battered into submission, with several serious injuries sustained along the way. The fact that Jardine – a cold, aloof man – was seen as the epitome of English colonial arrogance made it even worse and it led to a major diplomatic incident.  It also goes a long way to explaining subsequent Australian determination to beat the Poms as soundly as possible, in all sports, but most especially cricket.

 Bradman got his revenge years later, in the first match between the two countries that took place after the war.  There had been some speculation that he was no longer the batsman he was and he had been in poor form leading up to the first match.  Nevertheless, he was selected.  Shortly after he commenced his innings, he edged a catch, so obviously that it went to the slip fielder standing several feet to the right of the wicket-keeper.  It was clearly out, yet the umpire somehow did not agree, Bradman stayed at the crease and proceeded to score 187, followed by 234 in the next match.  Australia won the first two games by an innings and the series 3-0.  But how different might things have been if he had “walked” in that first innings, or if the umpire had taken the decision away from him and given him out?  Such are the delicious vagaries of the game. His career ended in a glorious last series in England in 1948, which was again convincingly won by an Australian side often regarded as the greatest ever.  And yet, at the Oval, Bradman played his last innings, needing just a single boundary to end his career with a batting average of 100.  He was applauded all the way to the crease; and some reckon he was so choked by the emotion that his usually laser-like eyes were not able to see with their customary precision.  Anyway, he pushed forward to the second ball he faced, missed it…and was bowled.  His average ended up as 99.94: another example of the unique relationship between mathematics and drama that defines cricket.

It’s not just Australians who don’t walk.  Alan Knott, probably the greatest wicket-keeper / batsman England have ever had, famously tore a strip off Dennis Amiss for walking in a test match.  When Amiss confessed that he wasn’t sure whether he had touched the ball but thought he “probably had” and gave himself out, Knott was furious.  Normally mild-mannered, he laid into Amiss: “What the hell d’you think you’re doing?  Don’t forget, this is a TEST match.” Knott’s attitude was that, at that level, you could never expect an opponent to play the gentleman and walk, especially if he was Australian; and you could just as easily be given out when you knew you had NOT touched the ball. So when you were lucky enough to be given NOT out when you knew you HAD touched the ball, take advantage.  Hard-nosed and, when you need to do everything you can to win a match against equally hard-nosed opponents, probably justified, but it’s “not cricket.”

 The thing that most cricketers despise is the selective walker: the batsman who walks when it suits him, but not when it doesn’t. The one who will happily walk when he’s on 65 or 120 or when his side are in a strong position, but not when he’s on 0 or 99, or when the situation is tight.  I have to admit, I have been guilty of this.  Early on in my own lowly cricketing career, I opened the batting for my prep school’s 2nd XI (I did say it was lowly).  We were playing Packwood, our most hated rivals.  Their headmaster was a deeply competitive and aggressive man and that meant it was all the more satisfying to beat them.  We had bowled out our opponents for around 120, but then came up against an opening bowler who was quick and aggressive and on a mission to force his way into the first XI.  He’d already removed my opening partner and I was still to get off the mark when he fired in a fast, lifting ball on leg stump.  It was the mid 1970’s and Tony Greig was the schoolboy hero.  I remember I wore those same St. Peter sandwich batting gloves that Greig used, which had a big fat wad of padding around the left thumb.  The ball caught it full on, ballooned up in the air and was caught by the wicket keeper.  It was clearly out, but the umpire (their own cricket coach, ironically) didn’t see it that way and failed to uphold the shrill appeal that followed.  I remained at the crease and was not out at the end, seeing us home to what ended up being an easy victory.  I have to say that, with our 1st and 3rd XI’s also winning, it was quite satisfying to leave Packwood on the school bus watching all thirty-three of them being made to do press ups on the front lawn by a furious headmaster.  Then I reflected that in the previous summer, I had scored 0 and 1 in the two fixtures against the same opponents.  On the first occasion, I was given out caught down the leg side when I know the ball had flicked my pad strap; and a few weeks later, I was given out LBW when the ball pitched at least a yard outside leg stump. So Alan Knott was right.

One time I had no hesitation in walking was some years later when I found myself being drafted in to a friend’s team to play what was sold to me as a casual game on Wandsworth Common.  I was happy to turn up, but not so happy to find myself being asked to open the batting on a pitch that had lumps and cracks all over it.  The opening bowler was large, surly, aggressive and very fast.  Inevitably, he was also West Indian.  The first two balls whistled past my head and I have no idea how I avoided them.  It’s the only time I can remember being truly scared on a cricket pitch. The third was fuller, I played forward, somehow got a touch to it, the catch was pouched, but the umpire didn’t raise his finger. Never mind, I was out of there, like shit through a goose: I have never been so happy to walk off with 0 to my name!

The modern attitude to “walking” can best by summed up by Adam Gilchrist.  Gilchrist is one of cricket’s gentlemen.  Immensely popular, friendly and softly spoken, his charm belied both the bullying image of the team for which he played and the brutality with which he hit the ball.  And my goodness, he could do that, as well as being an outstanding wicket-keeper. His batting feats are legendary, but one incident stands out. I remember seeing him bat in a test match against South Africa in Johannesburg. Goldfields, the South African gold mining company, had offered 1 million rand to any batsman who could hit their advertising board on the full.  The board was perched at the very top of a stand.  It would require a huge hit, well over a hundred yards, but Gilchrist lined it up and took it on.  One shot sailed only a few inches OVER the board and out of the ground.  The replays showed a close up of his face after he had played the shot, tensed up as he watched its trajectory, knowing that it would be close, and then wrenched in disappointment as it overshot its target.  In another game, Gilchrist got a thin edge to the wicket-keeper.  Being the gentleman that he is, he walked off, knowing that he had hit the ball; but the authorities, in their infinite wisdom, fined him because, in so doing, he had questioned the umpire’s authority.  There are many examples of how the game’s administrators have failed to cover themselves in glory and a number are described later in this book; but that was one of the more fatuous examples.

In this book, I am also less than complementary about some Australians, most notably Glenn McGrath.  That was born out of resentment of his skill and recognition that it stood between England and their followers’ desire to be avenged for all the beatings we had taken over the years.  I would like to say, for the record, that I have nothing but respect for Glenn McGrath, as a cricketer and as a human being.  The dignity with which he has born his wife’s death and previous illness has been humbling to those, like me, who have not had to endure such personal pain.  He was also a fantastic bowler.  It so happened that he was, literally, the difference between the two teams, most especially that summer and therefore became the enemy; and, at around 5pm on Thursday 21 July 2005, I wanted to kill him.

How I Won The Ashes 3 December 2010

December 3, 2010

Welcome back to How I Won The Ashes.

Those of you new to this may wonder what this is all about.  The concept of How I Won The Ashes was conceived during the legendary 2005 Ashes series, when I did crazy things that helped the England team home.  All cricketers, and fans, are superstitious: lucky sofas, not moving during a long partnership, not walking on a certain side of the street, avoiding the cracks in the pavement; basically, anything that will help their team win.  In my case, it was sticking pins in an effigy of Glenn McGrath after he’d skewered us at Lords in 2005, so obsessed was I with winning the Ashes, so convinced was I that we would not do so while he was bowling.  It was I that left that rogue cricket ball on the Edgbaston turf, which he tripped over and turned his ankle.

 This led to a book on the thoughts of an obsessed cricket fan, and subsequently to a blog on all matters to do with cricket.  With the Ashes now in progress, I am going to try and give regular updates on the state of the match and views on the action so far. You can also follow me on twitter www.twitter.com/howiwontheashes

I’ve also been contributing to podcasts for the Barmy Army Ashes website.  You can hear them on http://www.barmyarmyashes.com

I haven’t put finger to keyboard since Brisbane, so here are some final thoughts before we deal with the wonderful day at Adelaide.  I think my friend Andy summed up Brisbane perfectly: “Apart from the hat-trick and the 300 run partnership, we flippin’ murdered ‘em and they know it.”  Pretty much spot on.  Had we scored a few more runs in the first innings and broken the Hussey / Haddin stand early on the third day (which we did, except Aleem Dar thought Mike Hussey’s front pad was his bat and we couldn’t overturn it), we could have put ourselves in a position to set a target and win the game.  Mind you, the pitch was so flat that any kind of target was potentially reachable; so perhaps playing a rearguard was the best way of avoiding defeat at Brisbane.  Certainly at the close of days 1 and 3, we would have taken the draw, even if we ended up in complete control of the match by mid way through the last day. And fair dos to Hussey and Haddin, who played quite brilliantly.

The fact that we secured such control to get to the surreal score of 527 for 1 disguises how great an innings it was that Alastair Cook actually played, brilliant supported by Strauss and Trott.  To come in late on the 3rd day, having been in the field for so long and run ragged by that partnership, facing a deficit of over 200, and then to take England to a lead of almost 300, was nothing short of miraculous.  Cook’s 235 not out will rank alongside great English match saving innings, such as Dennis Amiss’ 262 not out at Kingston in 1974, Woolmer’s 149 at The Oval in 1975, Atherton’s 185 not out in Johannesburg 1995 and Pietersen’s 158 at The Oval in 2005.

The only other thing to add on Brisbane was our continued failure to use the review system properly.  We were too eager to pull the trigger when we were desperate for wickets and it enabled Mike Hussey to escape.  You could say that we were unlucky, because Michael Clarke WAS out on the review that could not prove conclusively that he had edged the ball (snickometer did so moments later). Ultimately, it did not matter, and these things have a way of evening themselves out.

I did think it was a bit rich that Ponting complained about his catch off Cook that was referred and then not given out.  He asks that batsmen be honest and trust a fielder when they say they have caught a ball; but would he ever walk if he knew he had edged a ball, or encourage his team mates to do so? It is a very obvious case of double standards.  Anyway, the fact that Cook was well past 200 at the time shows how much pressure Ponting must be feeling that he allowed himself to get upset at an irrelevance.

Turning to Adelaide, Ponting was again showing that he is not in a good place emotionally at the end of the first day.  His spat with Strauss was petulant and unnecessary.  As for Strauss, he must have loved it.  Being bowled out on the first day for a score at least 150 runs below par after winning the toss on a batsman’s paradise is the sort of thing English teams used to do.  How refreshing to see the roles reversed.  England’s bowlers were simply awesome and so was the fielding, right from the off.

I had worried that England would be a bowler light at Adelaide.  Here is what Iwrote the day after Brisbane:

I think Graeme Swann needs to calm down and relax.  From my own limited slow bowling experience, bowling short is a symptom of being tensed up.  He is trying too hard, almost as if he has become too conscious of his status as a potential match winner.  If he trusts his method and his ability and remembers how he became the world’s best spinner, he will bowl much better.

However, he is not helped by only having three other front line bowlers to support him.  On helpful pitches, when wickets are falling regularly, this is not so much of a problem.  But on flat wickets, the captain can quickly run out of options unless Swann is absolutely on the money, which is why Australia will always look to hit him out of the attack. 

This is why I think England must seriously consider a fifth bowler at Adelaide.  Six batsmen (including Prior) ought to get us enough runs. My advice would be to go for Tremlett or Shahzad.  For me, Bresnan is only a marginally better bet as a fifth bowler than Collingwood on a flat wicket.  You only bring him on to give the others a rest and any wickets he picks up are a bonus. That would not be true of Tremlett or Shahza, and the latter could well offer a reverse swing option. They are more threatening bowlers than Bresnan and Tremlett, at least, is only marginally a worse batsman. He is no bunny at No. 9 – which is why Panesar has to be ruled out of the equation.  Nos. 7, 8 and 9 have to deliver runs, but it’s that much harder when 9, 10 and 11 are very limited. 

What this is leading to is that Collingwood has to be dropped.  Heresy, I know, but he is the most expendable of the batsmen right now. 

I don’t think they’ll go for this, though.  They’ll trust Colly to take them from 60 odd overs to the new ball, but I don’t hold out any hope of any wickets from him and that means the new ball bowlers will be bowling at batsmen who are well set. Shahzad, in particular, could be at his most dangerous at exactly that time.

Clearly, that is already out of date.  Our four man attack bowled well enough not to need a 5th bowler and Collingwood only ended up bowling 3 overs.  Now that we have taken 10 wickets in a day, having the extra batsman really works in our favour.  We have to make it count, but I am confident we will do so.

Well that’s it, apart from a word of praise for my two friends Nick and Damian.  Damian took my instructions and eschewed the TV buttons, for fear of costing England a wicket (you will remember he turned on his television just as Peter Siddle was taking his hat-trick).  He can take credit for said miraculous scoreline at Brisbane.  As for Nick, he ensconced himself last night on THE lucky sofa, watched Anderson bowl 3 balls, and promptly announced that there would be a wicket in the first over.  We’re happy that he was inaccurate. As a lawyer, he shouldn’t be!

 

How I Won The Ashes 26 November 2010

December 3, 2010

Welcome back to How I Won The Ashes.  Those of you new to this may wonder what this is all about.  The concept of How I Won The Ashes was conceived during the legendary 2005 Ashes series, when I did crazy things that helped the England team home.  All cricketers, and fans, are superstitious: lucky sofas, not moving during a long partnership, not walking on a certain side of the street, avoiding the cracks in the pavement; basically, anything that will help their team win.  In my case, it was sticking pins in an effigy of Glenn McGrath after he’d skewered us at Lords in 2005, so obsessed was I with winning the Ashes, so convinced was I that we would not do so while he was bowling.  It was I that left that rogue cricket ball on the Edgbaston turf, which he tripped over and turned his ankle.

 This led to a book on the thoughts of an obsessed cricket fan, and subsequently to a blog on all matters to do with cricket.  With the Ashes now in progress, I am going to try and give regular updates on the state of the match and views on the action so far. You can also follow me on twitter www.twitter.com/howiwontheashes .  I’ve also been contributing to podcasts for the Barmy Army Ashes website.  You can hear the latest broadcast on http://www.jibbajabbapods.co.uk/xml/barmyarmyashes.xml .

 Day 3 at Brisbane.  It’s going to become a cliché, but the next session is going to be absolutely crucial.  If you think of test matches as series of sessions, and you look to win sessions, then Australia have been clear winners of 3 out of the 6 played so far, England have won the afternoon sessions on both days, with honours roughly even, despite the horrific start.  That’s probably a little generous to England, but the fact remains they are still in the game, despite a below par batting performance.  Having reduced Australia to 140 for 5, England had their noses in front, but Australia always have a habit of finding resourceful and gritty batsmen who can dig in, and Hussey and Haddin have regained the initiative.

 Now England have to win at least 2 of today’s sessions to stay alive.  They’ll want to get an early wicket, ideally Hussey’s, so they can restrict Australia to no more than 300.  Then they are going to have to bat a lot better second time around.  It won’t be easy, but it is possible and even the Australians, so used to trashing the Poms, recognise that this England team is made of stronger stuff.  But if Hussey gets in and marshalls the tail, he is quite capable of taking Australia nearer to 400, and if that happens, it will take a miracle to stop Australia chalking up yet another victory at Brisbane.

 We’ve got everything going for us.  The new ball is due immediately and if conditions are at all helpful, England will kick themselves if they don’t take early wickets.  It could work out perfectly, so that by the time they start their second innings, the pitch will have become more batting friendly, although there will always be something in it for the bowlers, which is why it is such an intriguing contest.

 There was quite a lot of talk yesterday about why the umpires took the players off just as the new ball became due.  Andrew Strauss was visibly irritated by this, as he obviously fancied his chances of breaking the Hussey / Haddin stand with the new ball in murky conditions.  The Sky team spent a ludicrous amount of time complaining about the rules and how umpires always seem to be getting it wrong when it comes to bad light.  It is true, umpires’ enforcement of these regulations is often deeply irritating and has sometimes cost teams the opportunity of victory: think of Durban in 2004, when England were forced off with only 2 wickets to take to win a famous victory (they had been almost 200 runs behind on the 1st innings).

But in this case, the rain came down virtually immediately, which rendered all this arguing irrelevant: they’d have had to have come off only a few minutes later anyway.  I’d have preferred Sky to show us the wickets which fell during the night.  The other point which no-one picked up on was that if England’s over rate had been a bit quicker, they would have had a bit more time with the new ball to break the partnership before the weather closed in; and then they could have come back this morning rested and refreshed, with the ball still new. For this reason, I think it suited England to come off last night. 

 I hope the English bowlers take note that, apart from Clarke, all the wickets to fall yesterday were from well pitched up deliveries and that they follow this through today.  Anderson and Finn were impressive and I liked the way they roughed up Clarke; and Finn’s caught and bowled to get rid of Katich was exceptional. I was disappointed by Swann, who bowled a worrying number of short balls, but he is surely good enough to come back, and if England do manage to set any kind of target, he will need to be at his best for England to bowl Australia out.

 But we are getting ahead of ourselves.  England have simply got to bowl Australia out for under 300, certainly no more than 350.  There is  too much in the pitch for England realistically to score the 350 or 400 in their second innings that they would need to clear a big deficit and then set a defendable target.  They will dhave to do so without the aid of the 3rd umpire, because they have squandered both their reviews.  Again, they are still using the reviews when they are desperate for a wicket, rather then when they are convinced the batsman is out.  This was certainly the case when Anderson thought he had Watson lbw but it was just too high.  The waste was then amplified when he induced an edge to slip the very next ball. 

 The second review was more unlucky and this brings me to another big gripe.  Why do televison broadcasters not allow the third umpire to use Snickometer, which appears to be as reliable a technology as Hot Spot or Hawkeye? (Apparently Australians, in their contrary way, call Hawkeye something else, but I can’t remember what it is!) The answer, as usual, is money, which is highly unsatisfactory, but such are the commercial realities. Anyway, if the umpire had been able to use Snickometer, he would have known that Clarke did indeed touch the ball that Finn bowled at him.  It was given not out on the pitch, the fielders were convinced they’d heard something (so must Clarke have done, but batsmen don’t walk).  Again, wasteful (but forgiveable), because Clarke did not last long and he was in no kind of form.

 Nearly time to start.  One message to my friend Damian.  I mentioned earlier that every cricket fan is convinced his own actions somehow influence what happens on the pitch.  Damo confessed to me that, having been woken up by his son in the middle of the night on the first day, he switched on to see what was happening.  The very first thing he saw was Cook edging Siddle to slip, then Prior being bowled first ball and then the hat-trick being completed on Broad.  Damo, for all our sakes, please, please don’t turn on the telly tonight if England are batting!

How I Won The Ashes 25 November 2010

December 3, 2010

Well, I got that wrong, didn’t I?  I knew the Australians would come at us hard, but even they couldn’t have hoped that our captain would slap a rank long hop straight at gully in the first over.  If that sets the tone for the series, then our batsmen are in for a lean time and we will struggle.  Credit to my Australian friend Phil, who told me to dream on and predicted 265-7.  Credit, too, to Peter Siddle.  Despite his appearance as an up and at ’em bowler with plenty of aggression but not much guile, he worked out that it is a pitch it up at ’em wicket and changed his approach in his 2nd spell, to great effect. A birthday hat-trick in a test match (and in his first Ashes test on home soil, to boot), must be unprecedented.

 So, what now?  After 4 sessions at the Oval, I had given up hope and thought the Ashes were gone.  4 hours later, everything had changed.  While this is only the first match of the series, the next 3 sessions will have a huge bearing on the series. Nasser Hussain made the very astute comment that, if the pitch gets faster, there will be plenty of opportunity to singe noses and chins, which looks very good, but doesn’t take wickets. If our bowlers can learn from Siddle’s approach, they may propser.  It looks like being a pitch where wickets fall in clusters, so if they can get one, they will be confident of getting several more.  Above all, they must be patient.   Even if we keep the Australian first innings to manageable proportions, our batsmen are also going to have to be patient and bat time.  The side that does this better will win the match.

 Any positives from yesterday?  Ian Bell looks the real deal, as he has threatened to for a while.  There is now a case for promoting him, becasue if he’d played like that at No. 4 or 5, he would surely hae notched that elusive first Ashes ton.  And we didn’t throw away a review on the shout that Broad had on Watson when the bowler and the skipper looked sorely tempted, yet it was clearly a big nick onto the pad.  As I’ve said before, the review system is effectively our 5th bowler, so we have to use it properly, not just when we are desperate for a wicket, as we may well be today. Hopefully Graeme Swann will forget that his first two Ashes balls in Australia both went for four.  He, more than most, must be patient and not throw away reviews.

 OK, action time.  Enjoy the night and pray for wickets.  Exercise whatever superstitions you think will work to help our bowlers.

 You can also follow on www.twitter/howiwontheashes.

How I Won The Ashes 24 November 2010

December 3, 2010

Hello and good evening to How I Won The Ashes.  An hour before it all starts, I thought I’d make sure you are all awake and safely esconced on your sofas or bar stools.  Midnight in the UK can’t come quickly enough, but the toss is going to be crucial.  I suspect the captain that wins the toss will bat – Ponting will never insert after Edgbaston 2005, which cost him the test match in Leeds last summer.  Yet another example of where Ponting’s capataincy is too mechanical, not thoughtful, and I think Strauss will have the edge on that front.

 One thing which I discovered at the weekend, on the subject of motivation, was the reception the Australians received when they returned home in 1989.  Remember that when England won in 2005, they were criticised for the bus parade to Trafalgar Square and the generally over-the-top reaction of the nation. According to some, this only served to make the Australians even more determined not just to win the next series, but win it in style, which, of course, they duly did.  The English could be forgiven for their celebrations in 2005: after all, we had not won the Ashes for almost 20 years.  But when Australia won the 1989 series 4-0, they received a ticker-tape reception, fireworks and all, when they brought the Ashes back.  Yet they’d only been without the Ashes for 4 years and they’d won the World Cup 2 years earlier.  As my friend Nick remarked when I pointed this out, “Well, it didn’t do much to motivate us, did it?” Those of Strauss’ team who experienced the horrors of 2 years ago will want to erase those memories; but Strauss has made a very sensible comment, when he says that his team’s real motivation is to be the best in the world.  I think they have every chance of attaining that status and winning this Ashes series will be a big step towards it.

 Although I think Australia will come at us hard, I still expect us to prevail, pretty convincingly.  I am puzzled by the selection of Xavier Doherty.  It shows the extent to which Australia have missed Warne and have never found a replacement.  But they have never given a spinner an extended run the way they did with Warne.  Mind you, it was easy for them to do so when they were generally winning matches and series.  It’s far harder to give any player an extended run when you aren’t consistently winning.  I do think they have taken a risk with Doherty.  I’m sure they haven’t been as obtuse as to pick him simply because he is more likely to exploit Pietersen’s hang up against left-arm spinners.  More likeley, they have taken note that between nos. 3 and 7, all England’s batsmen are right handed, so having a spinner who turns the ball away from the bat is going to be more threatening than an off-spinner.  But it says something for the paucity of their resources that their best option to follow this through is to pick a player with so little experience.

 Right, we have won the toss and we will BAT.  Good call by Strauss, I think.  First session will be crucial, because it looks like it could be a belter of a pitch, once the early life disappears.  We have to have 300 on the board by close of play, with a minimum of 4 wickets down.  Then we can be competitive and bring Swann into play in the 4th innings. At least wqe dn’t have to worry about an English bowler with the first ball of the series…

 One final thing.  Was it just me, or were Sky incredibly wooden in transferring from the studio to link up with Channel 9 in the middle for the toss? They only just got there in time as Ponting was flipping the coin. 

Game on.  I’ll be making an occasional comment on Twitter: you can follow on http://twitter.com/HowIwontheAshes

How I Won The Ashes 12 November 2010

November 12, 2010

HOW I WON THE ASHES

12 November 2010

 Hello and welcome back to How I Won the Ashes.  You can view this, and previous editions, on

https://howiwontheashes.wordpress.com/2010/11/12/how-i-won-the-ashes-12-november-2010/

You can also follow on twitter at http://twitter.com/HowIwontheAshes

First up, I owe an apology to my friend Norman, the criminal barrister.  You may remember last time, I told the story of how he avoided trouble at Stamford Bridge, because he had kept a Chelsea fan who stabbed a Liverpool fan out of jail.  I’d been under the impression that the charge was GBH.  It seems I was wrong.  Norman rang me immediately to point out that his client had actually killed the Liverpool supporter – it was manslaughter, not GBH.  He was concerned that his client’s street credibility might suffer amongst his fellow Chelsea fans if the wrong facts were being disseminated.  I am happy to set the record straight.

The other development has been the dramatic arrival in London of Zulquarnain Haider, the Pakistan wicket-keeper, who claims he has received threats from betting go-betweens.  This only confirms what I said last time: these people are not just using money to achieve their objectives.  It is no different to the mafia and it is very dangerous.

Build up to Brisbane

It’s getting close and I can hardly wait – less than a fortnight to go.  As usual, that first session will be absolutely key.  England have a pretty poor record with the toss at Brisbane, which is only partly responsible for our dismal record there.  There is an extract below from How I Won The Ashes (the book) which documents this in more detail.  But we can’t legislate for the toss.  If we find ourselves in the field, we have to have the same mentality as at Lords in 2005: in their faces, straight at them from the very first ball.  If we win the toss, it has to be an absolute green top, a bowler’s paradise, before Andrew Strauss should even consider fielding first.  Runs on the board are usually the first step towards winning a match. I’m sure the groundsman at the Gabba won’t be cute enough to sprinkle grass cuttings on a flat pitch to lure Strauss into fielding first and if he is, I’m sure Strauss and the rest of the team will be savvy enough not to fall for it.

We have been laying a few ghosts to rest of late: beating Australia at Lords, avoiding defeat at Cape Town (just) and winning the first match of a series (Bangladesh don’t count, but Pakistan do).  We have just added winning the opening match of an Ashes tour to that list, with an impressive win over Western Australia. It would be nice to add winning in Brisbane to that list.  Last week’s win in Perth was a big fillip.  Not only did most of the England team get a good work out and enjoy some success, it was clear that they really wanted to win the game rather than simply practice. The latest match in Adelaide looks like going the same way.  Encouragingly, everyone is chipping in with runs and wickets. I’m hoping to wake up tomorrow morning and find that we have forced another win.  Ricky Ponting has started the psychological warfare already by suggesting that England will find the Brisbane wicket too hot to handle, and that is another good sign, because it shows they are worried.  It’s ill advised, too.  I’m sure Stuart Broad and Stephen Finn are quite happy at the prospect of getting at the Australian batsmen on that sort of pitch.  My only concern is that we are peaking too soon.  Remember that England’s last victory in Brisbane came after it was reported that there were only three things wrong with the team: they couldn’t bat, couldn’t bowl and couldn’t field.  So we must not get ahead of ourselves.  

I don’t think England will make that mistake, though. The preparation has been very good.  Proper three day matches against state teams have been missing from recent tours, so to play three of them before the first test is a change in a direction, and a welcome one.  It looks like a thoroughly professional set up that England have adopted.  They are playing well together and they have a settled team. They are also looking to win sessions at a time, which is what the great Australian teams of ten years ago used to do. Almost every member of the eleven is sure of his place and there is good back up. The only one who might suffer is Bell, if the management change their minds and decide to go with five bowlers, which would mean dropping a batsman.  They have shown little inclination to do so and it would be a major surprise.  It basically revolves around their confidence in Stuart Broad as a batsman and Tim Bresnan as a bowler and a batsman.  Broad is almost good enough to bat at No. 7, but not quite; and Bresnan, while competent at both skills, also fits in the “not quite” category.  If only Adil Rashid had trained on.  His outburst on twitter did not help him, he has clearly alienated the England high command and it may be some time before we see him in the international frame again.

If Rashid could be relied upon to bowl 20 overs in a day and take one or two wickets for less than 70 runs on a flat pitch, it would be a no brainer.  You could play Broad, Rashid and Swann at 7, 8 and 9 and be reasonably confident of getting 100 runs between them per innings, especially if one of the top six were well set. In the field, it would give Strauss many more options. Rashid’s only consolation is that ten years ago, another young spinner went to South Africa, pissed off the management with his attitude, didn’t play on the tour and was discarded.   His name: Graeme Swann.

In two years, Swann has catapulted himself to become one of the world’s best spinners, now that Muralitharan has retired.  He has lovely variation, spins the ball prodigiously and has the habit of bowling magic balls that take wickets, rather than spin past the bat and stumps and produce nothing more than a frustrated grimace from the bowler and fielders. He also has a lot of left handers at whom to bowl.  Above all, a high proportion of his deliveries hit the stumps, which is why he gets so many lbws.   Here he is helped by the review system and it is this, more than anything else, that has persuaded the England management to go with only four bowlers. They reckon that Swann bowls accurately enough not only to keep an end tight, but also to bowl enough straight balls that he is almost bound to get at least one wicket per spell, especially when he has the back up of the third umpire.  He also has the uncanny ability to strike in the first over of a spell, which has become so well known that it has the affect of putting even more pressure on the batsman when he comes on to bowl. One word of caution about the review system: England do need to be astute with their use of the third umpire, because it is effectively their fifth bowler and they need it at hand for as long as possible during their opponents’ innings.

I do think how the respective 7, 8 and 9s perform on each side will have a major bearing on the series. Certainly Prior, Broad and Swann mean we bat pretty deep and provide some insurance against the top order collapses that have started to become a bit of a concern.  For Australia, runs from the lower middle and bottom order have long been a mantra.  Like England, their top order has started to look less solid.

Therefore, I think the key players for England will be Strauss, Trott, Pietersen, Broad and Swann.  If all five have good series, and if Broad and Swann also chip in with runs, England will win; and if they receive better than average support from the others, they will win convincingly.  By good series, I mean batsmen averaging fifty plus and bowlers taking twenty five wickets.  The players whom Australia will rely on most to stop this happening will be Watson, Ponting, Clarke, Hussey and Johnson. Of these, Clarke and Hussey look the most vulnerable, which in turn puts more pressure on Ponting in the batting stakes.  Marcus North is an enigma: England must not give him scoring opportunities at the start of his innings, as he seems as difficult to get out when he is over 20 as it is easy to get him when he has scored less than 10. As for their bowling, Johnson is the key.  If he bowls at his best, things will be very close; but he will need support from the other Australian bowlers and there England have the edge, although I do think England’s batsmen will underestimate Shane Watson at their peril.

So, assuming Swann and Broad do not break down and play the entire series, I am going to stick my neck out and go for England to win 3-1, with a draw at Adelaide.  And my Australian friends reading this can think what they like!

Now, to finish off, and set the mood, here are more extracts from How I Won The Ashes (the book). I am going to explain why the 2005 series meant so much to us Poms: after all the beatings, the bullying, the false dawns and the mental frailty, it was pay back time.

Wherever you are, I hope you have a great weekend.

HOW I WON THE ASHES – THE BOOK

4.            BULLIED BY AUSTRALIA

Anyone who watched the endless Ashes pastings during the 1990s and early 2000s endured them as torture.  For those of us whose formative cricket years were immortalised by the likes of Botham, Gower, Brearley, Willis, Gooch and Boycott, it was worse.  Younger fans were only used to defeat.  Losing all the time, when we remembered beating Australia, was a nightmare that recurred every two years.

I was too young to remember Ray Illingworth winning the Ashes for England in Sydney in early 1971, for the first time in over 15 years; my very first memory of Test cricket is Doug Walters pulling Bob Willis over midwicket for 6 off the last ball of the day at Perth, three years later.  It was to reach his century, his first ever against England: early evidence of the huge collective mental strength that permeates Australian sport.

Almost 30 years later, Steve Waugh would do something similar.  In Sydney, under pressure and his place in the side being openly questioned, he came to the crease with Australia in trouble on the first day.  As he did so often, he dug his side out of a hole and found himself on 98 facing the last ball of the day, bowled by the off-spinner Richard Dawson: flat, straight and on a length.  Most batsmen would have played it back to the bowler, walked off and started out again the next morning.  Not Waugh.  His desire to win the psychological battle ensured that his eyes, hands and most importantly his brain, were up to the task. He rocked back and pinged the ball through the covers for four to reach his century.  The Australians always seemed to prevail during those moments.

The 1970s, of course, were when Lillee and Thomson were at their peak.  I saw for myself how strong Australian cricket has always been.  My first two days at a Test Match were at the Oval, where I saw Australia clock up a score of over 500 on a sunny Friday and then bowl England out for under 200 on a cloudy Saturday.  Lillee, Thomson and the ludicrous Max Walker were almost unplayable. 

Three things became immediately obvious to me that day: watching Test cricket ball by ball is captivating, even when you don’t play the game; Australian batsmen, bowlers and fielders are generally the best in the world; and following England, until recently at least, usually meant supporting the team on the back foot.  Or with its back to the wall.

During my teens and early twenties, fate worked in England’s favour.  We were never able to beat the amazing West Indian team of that era in a single test match, let alone a series.  Nevertheless, England produced a crop of cricketers that saw off Australia more often than not between 1977 and 1987. Some of them often needed to be at their best and most inspired and we were also obvious beneficiaries of the Packer Revolution.  Too much has been written about the summer of 1981 for me to do it justice, but it remained the greatest summer of English cricket until 2005 matched it, possibly bettered it.

Maybe the feats of Sir Ian Botham and the rest took our luck away once they faded from the game; it was as if we’d had our fun in the sun and now there was to be a period of famine. There may have been pressure on the next generation of English players to match those achievements against Australia.  Unfortunately, those same achievements inspired the Australians – addicted to Ashes dominance – to ensure that such a Pom resurgence could never again be contemplated. 

What really took Australia light years ahead of everyone else was their system and a culture that places sport and the national team at the very top of its priorities. Having already produced Bradman, Benaud, Lillee, Marsh and the Chappells over 50 years, it then proceeded to deliver Gilchrist, Warne, McGrath, Healy and the Waughs in virtually the same team, certainly the same generation! And the common link between those two separate groups was one of the toughest competitors of all, Alan Border.

It was Border who began Australia’s recovery in 1989.  Remembering that four years previously, he had not only brought a fairly ordinary team over, they had also adopted an unusually friendly and social approach with their English opponents, who won the series pretty convincingly.  Border batted brilliantly, but he had little support.  In 1989, he returned, determined not to make the same mistakes.  He and his team adopted a much more aggressive, hard nosed approach.  There were fewer beers in the opponents’ dressing room, and fewer opponents in his. He told a thirsty Robin Smith in no uncertain terms that he could not have a glass of water but could wait until the interval like everyone else. He was also blessed with a much stronger team: there were some new players, such as Mark Taylor and Ian Healey, who quickly became major headaches for England; and Steve Waugh suddenly blossomed into the great batsman he would be for more than a decade.  It took England until the third match of the series to take his wicket, by which time he had amassed nearly 400 runs, including two big centuries.  Border also had much more penetrative bowling at his disposal. In a generally damp summer, Terry Alderman mesmerised England’s batsmen with his swing and accuracy, taking 41 wickets; and Geoff Lawson, another veteran, also enjoyed a revival with 29 wickets.

This set the tone.  The best part of the 1990 / 91 visit to Australia was the sight of David Gower and John Morris pretending to be Biggles and Algy and buzzing their team-mates in a pair of Tiger Moths.  Apparently Gower simply pulled out a wad of notes when he was fined for his actions by the pompous and humourless tour committee and paid up on the spot.  There was little else on the cricket pitch to remember, apart, possibly, from Mike Atherton’s century, the only one he would ever score in an Ashes test. It was an unhappy tour, and there would be plenty more.

Yet we hoped.  Each series would come around with a wave of anticipation. Sooner or later, usually sooner, it became clear that we didn’t have a prayer. Sometimes the gulf between the sides was evident immediately.  Michael Slater slammed the first ball of the 1994/95 series – a Philip de Freitas long hop – into the cover fence.  Eight years later, Nasser Hussain went one better by handing over the initiative before a ball was even bowled. He won the toss, got spooked about his best asset – the Trescothick / Vaughan opening partnership – being immediately asked to perform; and elected to field. Apparently he could “smell the panic” in the dressing room. (All the more reason, I would have thought, to have only two players on the pitch instead of all eleven!) Both times, Australia piled on the runs and in both series, we ended up losing the first two Test matches. In terms of playing ability, we were second best. In terms of mental strength, we were nowhere. Regrettably, after 2005, we reverted to type.  The first ball of the 2006/07 Ashes series at Brisbane was bowled by Steve Harmison.  It was too wide to be slammed to the cover boundary.  It was so wide that it ended up in Freddie Flintoff’s hands at second slip.  One friend of mine was there.  He was sitting at such an angle as to think that Justin Langer had edged the ball.  How else could it have ended up in the slips?  He stood up excitedly and cheered, a sole voice amongst a crowd of laughing Aussies. Australia went on to win the series 5-0.

That lack of mental strength meant that the key moments would invariably go against us.  Everyone remembers Gatting, our best player of spin, being done by THAT Shane Warne ball in England’s first innings of the 1st Test of 1993 at Old Trafford; but do they also remember the last ball of the 4th day of that same match?  England, having been asked to bat 4 sessions to save the match, have lost early wickets.  Gooch and Gatting are in, sticking it out.  If they can be there at the close, a draw is still a possibility.  Merv Hughes to Gatting, last ball of the day.  Full length ball and he is just … late on it. Awful shot. Jack Bannister in the commentary box:  “Bowled him!”  (to state what’s happened);  and then again “Bowled him!”  (in sudden, awful resignation, as if that signals the end for England, which, a day later, it inevitably does.)

Two weeks later at Lords, England are again having to bat resolutely to save the match. We watch as poor Mike Atherton, on 97, clips the ball to deep mid wicket. He runs 1, he runs 2, he desperately wants 3, the shot deserves more than 2, maybe it’ll go for 4. But the fielder, being Australian and therefore athletic, hauls in the ball and, in a flash, it is in the air back to the stumps. Gatting, his partner, suddenly remembers how short a boundary it is, shouts “No”. Atherton stops, skids, gets up, slips again and is run out, on 99.  It’s the nearest he’ll ever get to a Test century at Lords.  As he says in his own book: “Run out at Lords for 99: nightmare.”

Four years later, we win the first match at Edgbaston convincingly and are then bowled out by Glenn McGrath for under 100  in the first innings of the 2nd Test, at Lords.  We end up being saved by rain, thus dodging the usual Lords defeat, and go into the third match of the series one up.  3rd Test, Old Trafford, on a pitch that has result written all over it. Could this be the chance? We get among Australia early on and Steve Waugh comes in, Australia 4 down for not many.  First ball, he gets a yorker from Caddick, it has to be hitting, it has to be hitting, if he’s out we’re surely on to go 2 up in the series… but the man who matters thinks it’s missing leg stump and that’s the nearest we get.  Waugh goes on to make not just one but two centuries, Warne and McGrath are also at their best and we lose.

In the next match, at Headingly, we take early first innings wickets again, but then Matthew Elliot is dropped at slip and goes on to score 199. Warne and McGrath make it impossible for us to be competitive, we’re 2-1 down with 2 to play and that’s the series.  Four years later, it happens again.  With England already one down in the series, thanks mainly to a brilliant 152 by Adam Gilchrist, and bowled out cheaply in their 1st innings in the second match at Lords, Australia are this time struggling to gain a significant lead.  But Gilchrist, arguably the second best ever Australian batsman, is dropped three times, scores 90-odd and again marshalls the Australian tail to yet another big lead.  England crumble in their second innings and the game is over by lunch on the 4th day.

Even then, we have a chance.  In the third match of that 2001 series, we bat first, get bowled out cheaply, but take early wickets and the series is still alive; again Gilchrist bats powerfully and Australia draw level to turn it into a single innings game, with more than 3 days of the match left.  Atherton is solid and we are over 100 ahead with 8 wickets in hand and an opportunity to set a decent target.   It’s close to 6 o’clock and we need to keep wickets in hand for the next day.  On comes Warne: first he bullies the umpire into triggering Atherton on a defensive push where there is clear air between the ball and the edge.  Then Stewart chops a long hop into his stumps; and finally Warne gets inside Ramprakash’s head, he decides to pretend to be an Australian, except that he isn’t one, comes charging down the pitch on a mad counter-attack and is stumped by a mile. We are left with Ian Ward and Alex Tudor to put together a partnership.  Predictably, they can’t and the game, and series, is wrapped up by Saturday afternoon.

There were, of course, a few flashes of hope.  Hussain’s 207 and his massive stand with Thorpe, which put England more than 300 ahead in the 1st match of the 1997 series, after bowling out Australia cheaply.  Gough’s hat-trick in Sydney, when a drawn series was still on the cards in the last match of the series.  Goughy again in 1994/95, with bat and ball.  Big Gus Fraser and Phil de Freitas amazingly giving us the chance to level that series after such a dreadful start.  Dean Headley making Steve Waugh, for once, look foolish in Melbourne in 1998/99. And Michael Vaughan’s batting and the win, albeit yet another consolation, in Sydney in early 2003.

I can’t write about cricket, and Australian cricketers, without touching upon sledging – or “mental disintegration”, as Steve Waugh called it.  Some of it is humorous, sometimes it is out of order.  A line exists and cricketers all around the world, throughout the history of the game, have chosen to cross it in an effort to make a batsman feel uncomfortable and gain an advantage. 

We all have our favourite ones, and there are plenty of examples that are well documented, so I won’t go through them all.  They mostly feature Australians, as you would expect, and I think I can demonstrate where that tenuous line of legitimacy runs.

Think of Ian Healey, skippering Queensland against England.  Nasser Hussain comes to the crease, who could be fairly described as nasally superior.  Healey, behind the stumps, signals to extra cover, asking him to come in close, “Right under Nasser’s nose.”  When extra cover is about 5 yards away, Healey holds up his hand and says “That’ll do, mate.” Cue purple Hussain rage and a less than calm batsman facing his first ball. Is that legitimate?  Definitely.  Is it amusing?  Of course.   Did it achieve its objective?  It must have wound Nasser up.  If he took a sightless heave at his first delivery, then, clearly yes, which was the intention.

One of the best I heard was told to me by Ian Chappell.  I attended a lunch where he was interviewed by Sir Michael Parkinson.  They got onto the subject of sledging and Parkinson asked him the best example which he’d ever heard. He said that if the purpose of a choice comment to a batsman was to change his mindset and persuade him to make a mistake, then they came no better than Shane Warne’s dig at Sourav Ganguly.  Ganguly was batting with the great Tendulkar and was leaving a lot of balls.  Warne, aware of the rivalry between the two players, stood with his hands on his hips after yet another leave and complained; “Come on, mate.  They haven’t come here to watch you leaving the ball. They’ve come here to watch this fella play some proper shots,” jerking a thumb at Tendulkar.  It worked perfectly. A few balls later, down the wicket came Ganguly for the big heave, he missed and was stumped by a mile.

I encountered something similar on the cricket pitch myself, obviously at nowhere near those rarefied standards.  Skippering a team for a match I run every year in London, we found ourselves pushing hard for a victory against opponents determined to hold out for a draw and showing no ambition to attack and chase down the target.  Our off spinner was lobbing up invitations to “have a go” but one batsman, in particular, was resisting all temptation and studiously blocked every ball.  My friend Ron, a serious cricketer who once saw off Courtney Walsh in his prime, was fielding at first slip and enquired, less than politely, whether we had to watch this guy practice his forward defensive “for the next fucking hour.”  I was behind the stumps and could sense immediately that he had got to the batsman, not least because the back of his neck had darkened somewhat.  The very next ball was lobbed up, the batsman went for the boundary, missed and was bowled.  I have to confess, Ron and I collapsed in fits of giggles.  It’s terrific when it works.

Or when, in a village match, and I found myself facing a serious “pro” who was clearly several notches better than the rest of his team-mates and his opponents.  He bowled reasonably quick and was coming back for his final spell as we tried to put on quick runs in the last few overs of our innings.  I had my eye in and several runs to my name. I had been cunning enough to arrive late and therefore avoid batting up the order when I would have to have faced his opening spell, in which he removed three of our top order batsmen. The first ball was well pitched up outside off stump.  I went for a booming drive, got an edge and it flew over the slips for four.  The bowler growled “How about moving your fucking feet”.  That annoyed me, because I thought I had done so, even if I hadn’t middled it.  My blood up, I decided to advance at least three yards down the pitch to the next ball, which I was able to push through the covers for a couple.  I did enjoy enquiring whether that was enough foot movement for him.  The next ball was clearly going to be short.  It was, but I got a top edge and that was that.  I was seen off with a triumphant “Keep those feet moving” as I walked off the pitch.  Good sledging and I had fallen victim.

Of course, if a sledge is met by a counter-sledge delivered immediately and eloquently, it can be equally entertaining.  Jimmy Ormond was unable to apply the “actions speaking louder than words” maxim, but his response to Mark Waugh (allegedly the biggest sledger of them all) will go down as a classic for its quick thinking.  Ormond appears at the crease in an Ashes Test and Waugh pipes up from the slips “Mate, what are you doing here, you’re nowhere near good enough to play for England?”  Ormond replies “At least I’m the best player in my family.”  They must have chuckled at that, especially Mark Waugh’s twin brother.

The classic example of actions speaking louder than words, but accompanied by a counter sledge as well, was Merv Hughes.  Described by Javed Miandad as a fat bus conductor, Hughes had the great joy of dismissing Miandad himself not long afterwards.  As he rushed passed the departing batsman to celebrate with his team-mates, he shouted “Tickets, please.”

So sledging clearly has its place in the game, it can produce results on the pitch and provides plenty of good material for banter in the bar afterwards. It can go too far, though. And to return to the theme of bullying Australians – because, after all, they are the villains in this book – I think everyone will agree that they were out of order when Chris Cairns came in to bat for New Zealand.  He had recently lost his sister tragically in a train crash.  As he took guard, the Australians are alleged to have been making “choo-choo” noises. 

It was Chris Cairns who battered England to their lowest point in 1999.  A brilliant innings in the final test at the Oval consigned England to defeat.  The series was lost and England’s new captain, Nasser Hussain, was booed by the crowd. England had become so bad that we were now the lowest ranked test-playing nation.  But Hussain had some steel, and passion to go with it.  Aided by coach Duncan Fletcher, he brought in new blood and a new attitude.  Within the next year, the likes of Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick had been selected and, although we lost to South Africa the following winter, the West Indies were beaten at home in 2000, for the first time in over 30 years.  The famous victory in the Karachi twilight followed, and then Sri Lanka were beaten in their own back yard, a notoriously hard team for visiting teams to defeat.  Australia were still too strong in 2002/03; but the foundations had been laid.

How I Won The Ashes 22 October 2010

October 22, 2010

 

HOW I WON THE ASHES

22 October 2010

Hello and welcome back to How I Won the Ashes. 

 For those of you new to this (and I’m pleased to say that the list is growing all the time), the idea is to give all you hard working souls some light relief before you settle down to a nice quiet evening with the weekend ahead of you. Even if your evening is not quiet, it may provide some talking points in pubs and bars.
 
As the name suggests, the subject matter is cricket.  There aren’t many weeks of the year when something is not happening in the world of cricket and I will be offering some thoughts on current topics and events. You are very welcome to feed in some of your own views, forward this to anyone whom you think will enjoy it and encourage them to respond, so they can receive future editions and join in the fun.

I’m also starting to include extracts of a book I’ve written, whose central theme is to explain how I actually did win the Ashes.

You can view this, and previous editions, on

  https://howiwontheashes.wordpress.com/2010/10/22 

Spot Fixing

This time, I am going to discuss one of the banes of cricket, which reared its ugly head again this summer with allegations of fixing.  Ten years ago, the sport was rocked when it was revealed that Hansie Cronje’s apparently noble efforts to turn a certain draw into a thrilling final day were in fact influenced by nothing more than financial gain. 

The thinking was flawless: with South Africa’s 1st innings less than half complete and more than 3 days lost to rain, a draw was the only conceivable outcome as the match went into its final day.  The odds on either side winning were more than 30 to 1 and may just as well have been a whole lot more. 

By persuading the England captain to “make a game of it” and turn a tedious day into an interesting one for both players and spectators, Cronje was able to hide the fact that a very different motivation drove his offer.  Unscrupulous betting syndicates had realised that if the match could be manipulated to produce a result, money placed with unsuspecting bookmakers on a win to either side would yield massive returns.  All they needed was a compliant captain and Cronje accepted their bribe.

Once the truth emerged, the world of cricket went into a spin flatter than Jack Simmons at his finest.  Several big names in cricket were suspected of having been on the make.  Fines and accusations flew, Cronje himself subsequently died in suspicious but unprovable circumstances, but no-one was really any the wiser as to how much influence betting syndicates had actually secured over the game.

Ten years later, we discovered that a different form of betting is apparently rife on the Sub-Continent: spot fixing, where the outcome of a single delivery can yield vast amounts of money to somebody in the know.  Again, all that is needed is a compliant player.  To English punters, it seems faintly absurd that a bookie would accept a bet on the outcome of a certain delivery. Picture the scene: you’re a bookie and a punter walks in, asking for odds on the first ball after lunch being a no-ball.  You scratch your head.  “Ooh, I dunno, I’ll offer you 3 to 1.” “Great” says the punter, “I’ll put 25 grand on that.” Your first reaction would probably be to put a limit on it, say £100. Even then, though, you’d be mad to accept the bet at all, because the punter obviously knows something.  Yet this is happening all the time on the sub-continent.  There is evidently enough liquidity in the market for the bookie to lay off the possibility of paying out to someone who has inside knowledge against all the money wagered by the mugs who don’t.

To prove that the inside knowledge can spread, a friend told me that he was tipped off the night before the fateful fifth day of the Cronje test match.  A contact from South Africa called him the night before the last day, urging him to back both England and South Africa.  My friend is a serious punter, betting on absolutely everything, and he has made a pretty good living out of it.  But he professes to know nothing about cricket, other than that “it’s fantastic to bet on.” For this reason, the complexities of declarations and forfeited innings required to create the possibility of a result went right over his head.  He decided to consult his father, a proper cricket fan.  When his father dismissed the idea as “unthinkable in a test match”, but agreed it was technically possible under the laws of cricket, my friend decided there must be something afoot.  Realising he had to get on board before play started and that no English bookie  would be open in time (online betting did not yet exist and Pretoria is 2 hours ahead of the UK), his only option was to call an Indian bookmaker whom he knew in Bombay, which, of course, is 5 hours ahead of us. He asked for odds on an England win. “Oh no sir, very sorry sir, we know all about this.  We are taking no bets.”  Of course, they’d already got in on the act.

It’s a massive industry, far bigger than anyone ever suspected. There’s also little doubt that the protagonists are extremely rich and extremely powerful and are able to get to anyone, especially an unsuspecting 18 year old bowler for whose family £10,000 is an unimaginable sum of money. All he has to do is bowl a no ball at a pre-determined moment. What we don’t know is whether threats as well as incentives are used to bring about events which can be wagered on with certainty. It’s highly likely there is a very sinister side to the industry.  Certainly the account of an Indian journalist who went under cover to place a bet brought to light behaviour that could have come straight from an episode of Spooks: clandestine meetings with unknown middlemen, mobile phones that only receive calls from a certain number and which can only make one call to one number, and so forth.

So what to do?  I have no definite solution and I certainly don’t profess to understand the labyrinthine politics of the ICC which recently met to discuss the issue.  It seems to me, though, that one of the ways of reducing players’ susceptibility to bribery and corruption is to make both the risks and rewards higher.  That is to say, pay the top players much more, so they have more to lose; after all, there is enough legitimate money in the game and it strikes me that there is still an imbalance between what the players earn and the media companies’ profits, even after taking account of the salaries now being paid out in the IPL.

By the same token, cast players into the pit of oblivion, never to return, if they are found to have strayed from the straight path, thereby increasing the fear of being caught.  The burden of proof should be civil, i.e. on the balance of probabilities, as opposed to beyond reasonable doubt, providing a further incentive not to play ball with the betting syndicates, because it is easier to get convicted. Fines should be very harsh and accompanied by life bans, which should mean just that, life, no matter who the player.  Any proceeds a guilty player earns from selling their story should be immediately forfeit and ploughed back into the game; and they clearly should not be permitted to benefit from selling their expertise as pundits, ever. There are probably some socially correct lawyers out there who would tell me that such treatment would breach the players’ human rights.  I will quote Clint Eastwood in response: “I’m all cut up about that man’s rights.” If they spurn the privileges they have been granted as top cricketers, don’t they forfeit their rights?

I toyed with the idea of suggesting that rewards could be offered for whistle-blowing.  I still think it could work, but you are into very murky territory indeed.  It would be horribly divisive and would also only encourage the syndicates to use menaces as opposed to sweeteners to make their chosen targets compliant.  Ultimately, I fear that taking on the betting syndicates is not unlike taking on the mafia:  worthy, but futile.  Maybe, though, we can draw comfort from the example of Singapore. Government officials there are amongst the highest paid in the world, but the sanctions against stepping out of line are draconian. There is virtually no corruption there. But, I appreciate, this is simplistic and probably naïve. As Mr Bridger famously says to Camp Freddy in The Italian Job: “Everybody in the world is bent.” 

 Pakistan cricket

I do think that, despite the behaviour of some of its players and officials, the temptation to make Pakistan cricket a pariah on the back of the recent events should be resisted. This is not an original thought: I heard it voiced by Peter Oborne, the well known columnist, at a speech I heard him give recently at a cricket dinner. He spoke much good sense. The highlight for me was when he argued that summarily throwing Pakistan out of world cricket would be to deny spectators around the world the opportunity to enjoy some of the most talented cricketers that exist.  For all its problems, Pakistan contains around 170 million people who are obsessed with cricket; and although there is very little infrastructure, the poverty and raw surroundings can and do produce extraordinarily gifted cricketers. Becoming a top player is a worthy aspiration and it would be criminal to remove that opportunity.

Which is why I have nothing but admiration for ECB Chairman Giles Clarke in his support for Pakistan cricket.  I may violently disagree with his decision to do away with free-to-air coverage of cricket, I may deplore his obsession with Sky’s money, and I may have found his cosying up to Allen Stanford and his helicopter utterly sick. But I have to say, he went up in my estimation when he offered Pakistan the opportunity to play their series against Australia in England.  And he has done a lot more besides, behind the scenes. As a speaker of Urdu, he may yet play a crucial role in ensuring that Pakistan receive firm but fair treatment. I hope he is successful in preventing them from being hung out to dry in the politics and in-fighting that is the staple diet of the ICC, although his combative nature hardly qualifies him for a situation requiring delicate diplomacy.

 India v Australia

Well that’s almost it from me for this time around; except  I have to mention the recent Test matches between India and Australia. I won’t call it a series, because, shamefully, there were only two matches.  Even more puzzling, India are playing THREE test matches against New Zealand in the next few weeks. But at least the two tests between India and Australia were both proper matches, with drama, great batting and bowling, fortunes ebbing and flowing even within sessions and the result only settled deep into the final day.  The first match was a real cliffhanger. Wins by one wicket are rare in any form of cricket; and if it reminded more Indian fans that Test cricket is still the purest form of the game, it will have been worth the fact that it was not, but should have been, part of a longer series. As VVS Laxman hobbled around virtually on one leg, his match winning innings in that match also proved an old adage: beware the wounded batsman.

As for Australia, they really are at a cross-roads.  This represents both a threat and an opportunity for England in the forthcoming Ashes series, which I shall preview in more detail another time.  Suffice to say, Australia looked insipid at times in India, even though several players performed well, especially with the bat, which enabled them to stay competitive until late on in the game; but they seem to have lost that mental toughness for which they are so renowned.  Having said that, our bowlers may yet struggle to take twenty wickets, especially when their capable middle order comes up against tiring bowlers.  Winning or even drawing a series on their home turf will be a major achievement for England, especially as we can expect a pretty vigorous backlash after their loss in India.

One word of warning: remember that Brisbane is 10 hours ahead of us.  I only say this because a friend of mine smugly told me last week that he’s arranged a big dinner on Thursday 25th November at a very fine gentleman’s club, with the express aim of then settling in to the first session of the Ashes.  Schoolboy error: I pointed out that the Ashes actually begins at midnight GMT of Wednesday 24th November, so anyone planning a dinner ahead of watching Shane Watson edge the first ball of the series to slip and Australia stagger to 100 for 5 at lunch needs to plan it for THAT evening, not the 25th .  My friend, who was convinced he’d got the right date and who does not like being proved wrong, looked rather put out after consulting my Blackberry calendar and realising that he’s booked the club for the wrong night.  Never mind: he may get to watch England build on a first day score of 320 for 3 and take a firm grip of the series.  But it won’t be THE opening session of the Ashes, which is obviously how he’s sold it to his guests.

 Below are some more extracts from How I Won The Ashes.  Since we’ve been talking about fixing, I thought I’d share with you a story from the book about how I did my own match fixing.


 HOW I WON THE ASHES – THE BOOK

10.          MATCH FIXING

Stamford Bridge is the kind of place where, unless you are a dyed in the wool Chelsea fan, you feel like a complete outsider. If you give the slightest sign that you are supporting the opposition, woe betide you.  If you’re lucky, you’ll get evicted from the stand.  Take my old friend Norman.  He’s a barrister.  A criminal barrister.  His clients are often hard core villains: murderers, rapists, drug dealers, armed robbers.  He defends them in court. His attitude is that someone has to do it.  Every person, no matter what they have done, is innocent until proven guilty.  Everyone also has a right to be professionally represented in court. He happens to be very good at it and thus has a reputation “on the circuit”. And he never prosecutes. Like Rumpole, only more athletic. His doesn’t much care for judges, or referees, and he hates Scousers.

Because Norman is also a hard core Manchester United fan.  He has season tickets to every London ground, so that when United come to town, he gets to watch his team.  Except, of course, that he has to go in with the home supporters.  One afternoon, he was at Stamford Bridge with his wife Charlotte, watching his beloved team, trying not get too animated when United were on the attack and trying to look upbeat when they were defending.  After about 20 minutes, Charlotte nudged him and whispered to him: 

“I don’t want to alarm you, but there’s a guy up there behind us who hasn’t taken his eyes off you since we arrived.  I think he knows you.”

Norman looks around and sees a huge skinhead, about six feet tall, very ugly, very mean and very threatening, a typical Chelsea fan, staring straight back at him. He turns back to Charlotte.

“OK, good news and bad news. The bad news is that he knows that I’m a United fan.”

“Oh my God.  He’ll kill us.”

“No, I don’t think so.  The good news is that the last time I saw him was when he walked free from Snaresbrook. I got him a suspended sentence on a GBH charge.”

“What did he do?”

“He stabbed a Liverpool fan in the pub outside here.”

 Norman turns around again.  Sure enough, the skinhead grins at him, gives him the thumb’s up, winks and then touches his nose with his finger.  I’ve got your number, mate, he is saying, I know you’re a United fan  – but I’m not going to grass you up to the home fans because I owe you one. And we both hate the Scouse.

This is the story of how Norman met Charlotte. A brief digression is required, because I need to go back to the very first time I met my own wife. It was one of the more random things that happened in my life.  I had been playing cricket one evening – yes, it’s a recurring theme!  I then met up with some friends for dinner in a London restaurant.  Midway through the evening, I went to the loo.  On my way back through the restaurant, I spotted a very pretty girl, with a striking smile.  I caught her eye, but nothing more. 

Later on, we were out on the pavement, saying goodbye to each other.  I noticed that the pretty girl with the striking smile had also moved outside and was sitting with a group of girls at a table just behind where we were standing.  A few drinks at dinner had given me some Dutch courage. Ten of us became eight, eight became six, six became four as we all went our separate ways.  One of my friends offered me a lift home. I politely declined, it was a fine night and I could walk home.  They left. As soon as I was alone, I turned to the table, marched straight up to the young lady and asked her if I could buy her a drink while I waited for a taxi (which I obviously hadn’t ordered).  Fortunately, she agreed.    I later found out that her friends giggled to her as I was walking over, “You smiled at him.  Now you can sort him out.”  She did, but I don’t think she had marriage to a mad cricket fan in mind.

A few days later, we went out on our first date.  Without going into detail, it was successful. The morning after, I was playing cricket for Norman. I was feeling a bit smug and I did own up to having had a pretty good evening the night before.  You can imagine the kind of lads’ talk that ensued.  Who was she?  What was she like?  How old is she? She’s very lovely, very beautiful and very blonde, I replied. How old was she?  Well, she was in fact nineteen at the time and I was twenty-nine.  10 years younger. That got them going a bit: “Cradle snatcher.” “Dirty bugger.” Etc. etc.

I also had a good friend, Charlotte, with whom I had travelled to the Far East and Australia some years previously.  In Australia, we spent time with an old college mate of mine, Jimmy, and his girlfriend Fiona, who was from Sydney.  Four years later, they decided to get married, at Jimmy’s parents’ house in Gloucestershire, on a Friday.  It was two weeks after my first date with my wife.

So Charlotte and I went to Jimmy and Fi’s wedding together, but obviously not as a couple. It was a typical English wedding: lots of friends, plenty to drink and a good time had by all.  As Jimmy and Fi were leaving, the bouquet wasn’t so much thrown, it was rifled from the car, straight at Charlotte, who pouched it as if she’d been fielding in the slips all her life. I teased her that her boyfriend was going to pop the question the next day.  She gave me a look, rolling her eyes to the sky as if to say “Not a chance and even if he did, I’d run a mile.” Not a serious relationship, then.

The next morning, we drove back to London.    I was due to be playing in a cricket match for a team captained by Norman, and the venue was on the way to London. The night before had been a heavy one and we were late. I explained to Charlotte that I wouldn’t have time to drive her all the way to London: she could either get on a train or stay and watch the cricket.  She seemed happy enough to stay and watch the cricket.  She had her book and her radio and it was a beautiful sunny day. 

So, two weeks later, I appear at another cricket match, not with my new girlfriend, but with Charlotte, who is equally beautiful and equally blonde. I walk up to the pavilion, Charlotte walking a few yards behind me.  Norman is there and greets me.

“Hey, well done, mate.  Nice and punctual, for once.”

“Hi, Norman.  I’ve brought a friend along.  Is it OK if she stays for lunch?”

“Oh God, not another one of your blonde bim-” He stopped abruptly as he caught sight of Charlotte.  His tone changed. He held out his hand, all charm. “Hello, I’m Norman. Of course you can stay for lunch.”  Hmm, I thought.  Something is happening here.

Later as I drove Charlotte back to London, she remarked on what a nice person Norman was, how charming and polite and funny he had been.  Norman is all of those things, but few people form that impression of him on first meeting.  Then I remembered the bouquet the day before.  Something is definitely happening here.  I dropped Charlotte at her flat and returned home.  A message was waiting for me on my answering machine.  It was Norman. “Great to see you today, well played, mate.  And what a cracking girl.  Any chance I can have her phone number?”

A dinner party was arranged not long after.  Norman and Charlotte were sat next to each other and did not say a word to anyone else for the entire evening.  They left together and Charlotte dumped her boyfriend the next morning.  A year after they met on a cricket pitch, they were married. That’s a proper match. Proof, if it were ever needed, that cricket is more, much more than a mere contest between bat and ball.

 

How I Won The Ashes, 1 October 2010

October 1, 2010

1 October 2010

Hello and welcome back (finally) to How I Won the Ashes.  Apologies for the absence, but it’s been a busy year and there’s been no time to put fingers to keyboard. But, with another Ashes series around the corner, it’s time to get going again.

For those of you who have forgotten, the aim is to give cricket lovers a little something to enjoy as they head home for the weekend, with thoughts on what’s been happening on and off the pitch.

One of the problems I encountered, though, was finding the time to continue producing all that content.  Since I received several questions about my claim that I won the Ashes, I’m going to cheat by including instead a few paragraphs from the book that I’ve already written about it. 

The 2010 Test Matches

So, to open the batting, a brief review of the summer just gone.  I am assuming that everything on the pitch was legitimate; that every ball was bowled with maximum effort, every stroke played with full force and every piece of fielding conducted with the sole objective of saving runs, hitting the stumps or holding a catch.  We now know that this is not a safe assumption – more on that next time, because it’s a pretty extensive subject.

The summer saw two nations other than England playing test matches on these shores for the first time since 1912.  Pakistan were invited to use English venues for their series against Australia, because of safety concerns at home. I thought it was an absorbing series. Pakistan made a pretty decent fist of things against an Australian team which, on paper, appeared much the stronger and which had beaten them soundly six months earlier.  Their bowling was a revelation and if their batting line up had been even half as good as the one they had not so long ago, they could have quite easily won both matches.  In the first match at Lords, they were always likely to struggle in bowler friendly conditions; but they were not helped by their batsmen not just trying to score off every ball, but trying to hit virtually every one to or over the boundary.

No-one summed this up more than Shahid Afridi, who was rightly pilloried for his attitude.  If I had my way, he would never to be allowed to darken the Grace Gates again, in any form of the game, for the lack of respect he showed.  I cannot think of anyone who has done more to promote the suspicion held by some that everyone from the sub-continent is duplicitous and dishonourable: ball biting, wicket scouring and an inability to play for his team.  There is Shakhoor Rana, perhaps, and one or two wicket-keepers who claim catches when they know the ball has bounced. I would have included Ijaz Butt in the dishonourable category, until he redeemed himself this week by apologising for his appalling remarks about the English team.  Mind you, I suspect his hand was touching the back of his neck before he did so. 

And now Afridi has stated that he could see himself coming back to play in test matches, having apparently retired from the long form of the game after that single “appearance” at Lords.  Who the hell does he think he is? What arrogance, to think he can come and go into the test side as he pleases.  On the basis of how he played at Lords, they are far better off without him.  The coming and going of players generally has done nothing to promote stability for the Pakistan team.  Think of Younis Khan and Mohammed Yousuf.  So called “life” bans are suddenly lifted only a few months later.  Pakistan cricket is in such a mess, with so many forces pulling it in different directions, not least the betting industry, that it simply cannot function; nor can we take at face value any statement made by anyone associated with it.

Anyway, with Afridi out of the way, Pakistan then won at Headingley, although their batsmen made horribly heavy weather of what should have been a routine run chase.  They were massively helped by Ricky Ponting’s inexplicable decision to bat first.  He knew the Pakistan bowling was dangerous, because they had taken twenty Australian wickets at Lords and troubled all the batsmen; but he did exactly what he did at Edgbaston in 2005, which was to decide what he was going to do long before the toss, and not think about the current conditions, which played right into the hands of Pakistan’s bowlers.  Not even Australia in their pomp could have come back from 88 all out, although they did run Pakistan close.

As for England, they were equally troubled by Pakistan’s bowlers, but their own bowling attack had the measure of Bangladesh’s and Pakistan’s batsmen.  Tamim Iqbal scored a wonderful century at Lords and Mohammed Yousuf showed Pakistan what they’d missed when he returned at the Oval.  Generally, though, ball prevailed over bat on spicy pitches throughout the summer, which usually makes for more compelling cricket than the run fests that all too often occur on on dead ones on the sub-continent.  This was what made Jonathan Trott’s and Stuart Broad’s partnership in the final match of the series so impressive.  They really had to battle it out, but having done so, they reaped the rewards once the sun came out and the juice went out of the pitch, as so often happens at Lords.  I said earlier in the year that it would not be long before Stuart Broad notched a test century.  I had expected him to do it against Bangladesh, but the fact that he came in against a proper bowling attack when England were 102 for 7 and left after his team had passed 400 bodes very well for this winter and beyond. 

I’ll preview the forthcoming Ashes another time, including some thoughts on the four or five bowler conundrum, which Broad’s century has magnified.  I obviously have to spend some time on match fixing, or ball fixing.  I’ll talk about county cricket, whose final day of the season showed outside of test matches how wonderfully exciting the long form of the game can be.  And (yes, seriously), there’ll be a good word for my bête noir Giles Clarke, whom I think has been disgracefully let down by Pakistan and  its Cricket Board, notwithstanding Butt’s apology.

That’s it for now. Below are some extracts from the opening chapter of How I Won The Ashes.  If you keep following this, you’ll understand the whole story. I should point out that some of it was written a while ago, certainly before the England team’s recent resurgence.

HOW I WON THE ASHES

When England’s cricketers won the Ashes in the summer of 2005, the whole country went mad.  It was one of those once in a generation summers when the feats of eleven cricketers and the destiny of a small pot of charred wood assumed national importance.  Daily routines were ignored, usual priorities evaporated.  Faces were pressed up against shop windows, ears glued to radios, heads peered into pubs, just to check the score.  Once there, it was usually difficult to leave, so intense and gripping was the drama.  That summer, all that mattered was beating the Australians. 

Yes, Australians, who had taken a small period of inferiority in the 1980s so badly that they developed not one team, but a succession of them that took the art of winning to unprecedented levels.  They took particular delight in bullying England, resuming a trend that had begun in Victorian times and continued on the 2006/07 tour. Stung by the defeat of 2005, the bus to Trafalgar Square and the MBEs, they determined not just to regain the Ashes, but to grind the Poms into the dust.  Australians take their cricket generally, and beating the English specifically, extremely seriously.  They are to cricket what the Brazilians are to football.  Every now and then there is the occasional glitch, but they are and always have been the best at the sport.

The biggest glitch was that summer of 2005.  Previously, when Australia had lost to England, you could say that they were the weaker side, or that they were missing key players.  That was not the case when the 2005 series began.  Australia were as strong as they had ever been, hardly a weak link, strength in all areas.  Runs, wickets, catching, fielding – they excelled at everything and were virtually impossible to beat, so honed their skills, so strong their competitive spirit.

Since writing this, there has, of course, been another Ashes summer, in 2009, when England were again victorious. While we cannot ignore those events, and I will mention many of the things that happened that summer, most cricket followers would have to agree that it cannot compare with 2005.  For one thing, in 2005 England had failed in eight previous attempts going as far back as 1986/87 to even come close to winning an Ashes series.  Mike Atherton and Alec Stewart, two of the finest cricketers of our generation who each played over 100 tests, never tasted Ashes victory (and they will hate to be reminded of this). Compare that to Mark Taylor, Mark Waugh, Michael Slater and Ian Healey, who never experienced Ashes defeat.

Moreover, the Australian team of 2009, while still strong and competitive, failed to match its 2005 counterpart in terms of quality and experience.  Australia had lost Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Brett Lee and the incomparable Shane Warne.  All were world class and McGrath, Gilchrist and Warne would be automatic selections for an all time Australian XI, probably even an all time World XI. Nowhere was the Australian demise more obvious than in their defeat at Lords in 2009, a ground where they had only lost a Test match once in over 100 years, and that was back in 1934 through an extraordinary bowling performance by Hedley Verity. The Australians were nervous and subdued at Lords in 2009, characteristics which were as alien to their predecessors as snow to a desert. In short, the 2005 vintage was world class.  The 2009 team was not.

The other way in which the 2009 series differed from 2005 was, of course, that 2005 was the last year in which Test matches in England were broadcast on terrestrial television.  Since then, all Test matches have been the exclusive preserve of Sky TV as a result of the disgraceful deal signed by the ECB at the end of 2004 and repeated four years later.  Later on, I shall argue at length why removing cricket from free-to-air coverage is wrong for the game.  Suffice to say for now that it was for this reason that many fewer people watched the 2009 series than in 2005, when on several occasions the viewing figures exceeded 8 million.  This was, admittedly, partly because the 2009 series did not match the standard of cricket and sustained levels of excitement experienced in 2005; but this in itself shows why the summer of 2005 was a once in a generation experience, when the whole country became obsessed with cricket, and for this reason acquired much more significance in our history.

So how did Australia come to lose a series to us Poms in 2005?  Despite the heroics of Michael Vaughan, Freddie Flintoff, Andrew Strauss, Kevin Pietersen, Marcus Trescothick, the marvellous Simon Jones and the rest of the team, something more was at work that summer. It had to have been, given the power, class and indomitable nature of their opponents.

As I said, the whole country was behind them; but it needed the whole country to do more than just support them.  The team couldn’t have won on its own. The collective will of the whole nation was winning with them. Think of Roberto Baggio’s missed penalty in the 1994 World Cup Final.  200 million Brazilians willed that ball over the crossbar. Or when Michael Owen chipped the ball past Peter Scmeicel in the last minute at Old Trafford to hand Liverpool their first win at Old Trafford in 10 years – except that 30,000 people in the Stretford End willed the ball past the post.  I know, because I was directly behind the ball.  It had to be going in; but there was something else at work.

The final series score was 2-1 to England, with Australia winning the first match at Lords, comfortably, by over 200 runs.  England’s two victories were by 2 runs and 3 wickets.  This shows how extraordinarily close it was.  The Australians, competitors that they are, fought every inch of the way. The loss by 2 runs at Edgbaston was when they had been 100 behind on the first innings and then over 100 short of their target with only 2 wickets left in the second; and then, having been 99-5 at the end of the second day in response to England’s 477 at Trent Bridge, two days later, after following on, they almost pulled off an astonishing turnaround when they had England 57-4 and then 116-7 when only 129 was needed to win.  Both games should have been easily won by England.  Yet it was that sort of summer.  The England team needed all of us to will them to win, to do stupid and outrageous things to haul them over the line, to help them win the key moments and get to that glorious final Monday afternoon at the Oval in September 2005.  Every English cricket fan could claim credit for the emotion they put in to that summer, for every chewed nail, paced floor, cigarette, glass of whisky, missed deadline, late arrival home, cancelled meeting or doctor’s note.

This is my story of how I helped.  It’s my account of the stupid, mad things I did that summer to see us through, to back up the claim that I won the Ashes.  As it happens, the only matches I actually attended in 2009 were at Lords, The Oval and the Riverside at Durham, which were the only matches we actually won that summer against Australia, so I could claim that maybe I won the 2009 Ashes as well!  However, my crazy actions in 2005, in a summer that was far more emotional on a personal and national level, were of an altogether different nature.

 In telling the story, I have attempted to analyse the game itself. I have tried to explain why the seemingly trivial doings of professional cricketers all around the world are so widely followed and why the drama of cricket reduces normal, sensible people to a state of irrationality, only interested in the next run or the next wicket.  Passionate followers of the game, especially English supporters, will, at the very least, appreciate the memories of that summer.  My hope, though, is that this book will convey the joy of the game and the pleasure it gives to a broader audience.  Through my own experiences, they will perhaps get a feel for some of the game’s history and idiosyncrasies, as well as the sense of fun that is never far from its surface.