Archive for December, 2009

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

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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.