Stokes rediscovered

On Wednesday, I amongst thousands of others will stand and cheer and applaud. It may be at the start of play, or sometime during the day after England’s third wicket has fallen (1). We will be acclaiming Ben Stokes on his return to the cricket field. While I stand, the noise at Old Trafford persisting beyond the span of any normal welcome, I expect the pressure will build on my sinuses, my neck and scalp will become hyper-sensitive and my eyes will prickle. A few deep breaths will probably quell tears. Many in the ground, like me, will have personal reasons that merit such deep emotion, but it will be the sight of England’s bearded, ruddy-faced batting hero that might draw it from us.

2019 is Stokes’s summer. It started with that catch, leaping, back-handed, out of position, in the deep against South Africa. It has surely reached a peak with Sunday’s match-winning, logic-defying century. Its progression from one to the other is well known, its destination in the remaining two Tests is beyond my powers of speculation. The Headingley innings set new standards, but also was a rediscovery.

Returning to England’s line-up last summer, Stokes the batsman was stodgy. Tight matches against India, England’s fragile top-order and the burden of Bristol, we reasoned, were inhibiting him. Stokes’s template innings were Cape Town in January 2016 and Lord’s against New Zealand in 2015. Free-flowing, power batting. The full-face of the bat meeting ball at the apex of its swing. Boundary fielders unable to intercept cuts and back foot drives that travelled just yards to their side; or their heads tilted upwards as sixes soared above them.

“..I’ll probably never bat as well again..” acknowledged Stokes at Cape Town, suggesting a subtlety of character, admitting a tinge of melancholy at a moment of his profoundest triumph. ‘I’ll probably never bat as well again, again,’ Stokes may be reflecting this week. But for all his success in the World Cup campaign there was little to suggest he would rediscover those heights.

Stokes scrapped for runs through the World Cup. He played mature innings, responsive to the match situation. Once, on his previous visit to Old Trafford, the match situation imposed no responsibility. Stokes came to the wicket in the 48th over, after Morgan’s blitz had lifted England above 350. Ball one: fell over, trying to ramp; two: pulled straight to the boundary fielder for a single; three: beaten, nearly stumped; four: dropped cutting; five: swept for a single; six: bowled behind his legs. Meanwhile, Moeen Ali had added two sixes to England’s record number.

Then that innings in the Final. Stokes prevailed, not losing his wicket in regulation time and pressing England’s total forward in the super over. But Stokes had struggled to score. Buttler rotated the strike comfortably in their partnership; Stokes wasn’t able to reciprocate or keep up with the required scoring rate.

As wickets fell and drama piled upon drama, Stokes was being buffeted, swept up in the vortex of cricket’s strangest final. “Why me?”, he seemed to be pleading, anxiety an unfamiliar emotion to read on his face, in place of the stern focus and leonine grin to which we are accustomed. Too good and too lucky to get out; too inhibited by his own form and the circumstance to grasp the match and take England to a clear victory. Stokes give little sense of relishing this challenge. We admired his resilience and, at key moments, his calculation of risk but couldn’t ignore the good fortune that kept the victory within touching distance.

Stokes’s second great innings of the summer differed markedly from the first in the degree of control that he exerted. In the first, events and a live wire opposition had him reeling, but never falling. At Headingley, Stokes was the agent of misrule, upending tactics deployed by the Australians, bending their exertions to his ends. It may simply have been that, when the ninth wicket fell, England’s situation was so desperate that Stokes felt no weight of responsibility. By contrast, England had always remained within sight of victory in the World Cup Final that a single Stokes’ error would have erased.

The ease with which Stokes accelerated at Headingley, achieving a tempo change that eluded him throughout the World Cup, also felt like a rediscovery. The range of shots and his equable response to a misfire – repeating the ramp the very next delivery and hitting it for six – was evidence of a renewed confidence. Not all strokes were cleanly hit – the lofted drives against Lyon travelled over the long-off fielder like ducks winged by hunters. Square of the wicket, though, Stokes was able to reduce the fielders to collecting balls from the other side of the boundary. Most magnificent of all was the back-foot drive to the straight long-on boundary.

Stokes palpably savoured this innings – not that his relish extended to watching Jack Leach batting. If the World Cup Final was, “Why me?”, then Headingley was, “Look at me!”

Ian Botham’s great innings at Headingley was the first of three consecutive match-winning performances. Will this be emulated and the 2019 series be known as “Stokes’s Ashes?” In the aftermath of Headingley, Stokes’s response reminded me not of Botham, but the father-figure of English all-rounders. WG Grace had, reputedly, returned the bails to the wickets, over-ruling the umpires on the field. Stokes, asked about the Lyon’s LBW appeal showed similar certainty. He acknowledged the three reds on the technology before dismissing our modern source of authority, “DRS has got it completely wrong.”

Note:

(1) Weather permitting

Not easily mistaken for

I made my way to the wicket at the fall of the fifth wicket. I took guard, received the conventional information from the umpire and readied myself for the first delivery. As the bowler paused at the top of his run-up, a loud voice from cover point exclaimed:

What? Another leftie?

Hang on. I’m confused. Remind me, which one’s the Saffer international?

The fielder had a fine sense of the ridiculous. The non-striker joined the laughter. My batting partner was Ryan Rickelton, SA junior international: 19 years old, fresh-faced, with a physique developed to excel at his other sport, rugby. I was not and had not. Other than the 22 yards of well rolled and cut turf, Ryan and I only really shared our left-handedness at the crease.

I was reminded of being not easily mistaken for Ryan last week. We had been teammates four years ago, playing a Sunday friendly with a scratch team at Sale CC comprising a few first teamers, some dads and some juniors. The recollection popped up while recording an interview for the podcast ‘81 all-out‘. The host, Subash Jayaraman – aka The Cricket Couch – had paired me with Dan Norcross, creating as unequal a partnership as I had experienced in cricketing matters since Rickelton and I batted together.

Subash wanted to get an English perspective on the World Cup final, in much the same way that the Sale friendly XI skipper had wanted a few lower middle-order runs from his pair of left-handers. My leg-side nudges and edged drives, set against Ryan’s crisp cuts and slog-swept six, can be read across to the contributions Dan and I each made to the podcast. Keep the pro on strike and enjoy the close-up view, I reasoned.

Just as Ryan had time for a mid-wicket chat and ran my singles hard, so Dan allowed space for my more parochial observations and humdrum notions of the greatest ever Cup Final. What I really enjoyed, though, was the thing out of my reach: the straight drive drilled back past me, and away to the tennis courts without losing speed; the fluent linking of multiple ideas, laced with humour and images both jarring and apposite – ‘drowning kittens’; ‘evil Kiwis’ (to have brought such bad fortune upon themselves). The easy, unforced flow of runs and of the spoken word are equally thrilling to witness.

I checked out the scorecard from that Sunday match. I was surprised to see that Ryan scored only five more runs that I had. The bald figures suggest we were closer to parity than I had remembered. But the cover-point fielder was a bringer of truth: I was not easily mistaken for a pro.


Listen to a pro in action here: http://www.81allout.com/world-cup-2019-final-you-win-some-you-tie-some/ You can subscribe to Subash’s podcast at all good pod aggregators, or follow him @cricketcouch

 

Inhabiting the Eoincene Era

Our day’s first sight of Morgan is well-received. On the big screen in the car-park, he is shown winning the toss – about which we are neutral – and, crucially, opting to bat. He has given his vaunted batsmen an opportunity to pile up runs against the weakest opponents in the tournament. We approve. We have, not a promise, but a probability of a full day of entertainment.

On our second sight, Morgan is less well-received. It’s him tripping down the stairs from the changing room, not England’s greatest limited overs batsman. The innings is in the 30th over. Buttler-time. But Jos is batting in scorecard order, not in situation-specific sequence. ‘Spare your back, skip,’ we mutter. England’s innings, without a Roy-based supercharge, has for 29 overs felt like an preamble, foundations built by a fastidious builder on ground that is already solid and ready for England to erect great towers and arches. Still scoring at 5 runs per over, with wickets in hand – it feels quaint, not bold new England.

Morgan does nothing to alter the tenor – a single off seven deliveries – and we enjoy the replays of Gulbadin’s return catch, taken at shin height, that stopped Bairstow’s progress towards a century and his, as the set batsman, anticipated assault on the bowling. Morgan, like a coach demonstrating the shot to junior cricketers, plays back and forwards with exaggerated care. His bat canted downwards as though surrounded by crouching Afghan fielders. In reality, five are arrayed at the edge of the 30 yard circle and, blue and red kit merging with the World Cup signage, four more are stationed camouflaged on the boundary.

It’s heralded by a no-ball. Morgan pivots on the free-hit and the ball clears the boundary in front of square. Before we know it, the game spirals. Like a boxer, Morgan deals in one-two combinations. Pitch it up and a clean sweep of the bat, sometimes vertical, but always angled optimally for the width of the delivery, sends the ball in gorgeous high arcs beyond the fielders and the straight boundary. Drop it short and Morgan swoops with sudden energy to put the ball beyond the leg side fence.

One-two, one-two.

Morgan’s crouch and his bottom-hand dominant swing enable him to administer lofted drives to half-volleys, good length deliveries and near yorkers.

And there’s variation: the ball angled at his pads is slog swept to the distance; the quicker bowlers driven straight, with the trajectory of powerful artillery. A straighter pull-shot lands in our stand. It feels like a blessing, or coin tossed by the lord of the manor to his underlings.

Morgan may as well levitate, so intense and unreal in its assurance is his shot-making; he sees, he hits. I recall two mishits: the drop on the leg-side boundary and a single air-shot. He also defends, bat straight, with unerring certainty about which is the right ball to attack.

The spell he has fallen under captures us and who knows, maybe the Afghanis, too? For a little over an hour we have eyes, ears and thoughts for nothing else. Time and space are melded: we exist in the Eoincene era, Morganistan. Morgan provides a release, abstracting us from the cares and concerns of our lives, temporarily wiping clear troubled minds. The elation survives his dismissal but is soon gnawed at by guilt, at surrendering to this pleasure in a wider context of angst and discomfort.

One man present remains outside that spell. Root, arriving at the crease twenty overs earlier than his captain, reaches ten after around ten deliveries. He has reached the forties, scored off 40-ish balls when Morgan arrives. A run-a-ball, or thereabouts, through the careful building of foundations, the sudden acceleration of the innings and the sustained hitting. While Morgan has stretched the elasticity of time in a cricket innings, Root was metronomic, rhythmic, maybe detached.

I wasn’t detached. Morgan transported me and, no fault of his own, left me hungover as the real world and its agonies re-established their dominion. I feel sheepish at how readily seduced I was, but in the same measure grateful to have had – and shared – that experience. My memory of it will join other, largely more personal recollections, that I withdraw to, to find respite. Writing this, the day after, provides the same welcome relief.

Hard work (for old bones)

The day after the first game of my season, a season that is to be my first fully committed to weekend cricket in over 25 years, I hobbled around the field at junior training, seeking sympathy. “I felt every one of my 51 years, yesterday,” I lamented. Indeed, I had looked and performed like a decrepit cricketer: a duck, two dropped catches and two chases of the ball that ended with me kicking it over the rope.

The Minstrel, friend, team-mate and fellow junior coach, did not indulge me. “My 74 year old uncle plays every week and I never hear him complain,” he replied, with some acute advice about doing the things you enjoy.

That hit home. I also reasoned that in time, sooner rather than later, I hope, I will achieve match fitness as my body adjusts to the rigours of an afternoon of cricket.

Now, three games in and I have generalised aches and stiffness, the length and breadth of my body, late in the game, after the game and for a day or two afterwards. Added to that, I’ve collected a succession of very minor injuries: scratches to the wrist from retrieving the ball from brambles; a bruised heel of my right hand from fielding a ball that leapt erratically; bruising of two toes from a gentle yorker that I missed; a shallow cut above my right knee from a sprawling effort to catch a ball. Most evocatively of all, my left elbow is skinned and raw providing a sensation that connects me to my early twenty-something self when, from May to September, my elbows would bleed.. scab.. bleed on a weekly cycle arising from dives to stop balls on the hard wicket-ends of Oxford and Kent.

That was then, how am I skinning my elbows now? Walking through narrow changing-room doorways? Slipping when pushing the covers on and off the pitch? It seems not. While I’m not actually diving in the field, I’m going to ground, elbow first, when the ball is hit either side of me. To set an example to the youngsters, I could argue. To avoid bending down, might be more honest. Whatever the technical failings, it gives me the sensation of being a cricketer, active in support of the bowlers, while also adding to the aches as my joints shudder from the impact.

I’m looking forward to seeing the Minstrel this evening at junior training. I am reconciled to my sore body, dosed over-night with analgesic. I’ll enquire how he feels after a challenging afternoon in the field. Sent to the longest boundary, then back into the ring as the batsmen rotated strike; at the other end, gulley for the new batsmen, mid-wicket for the established player. Barely two deliveries in the same position. Two-and-a-half hours of continuous motion, always in the line of fire. In the changing-room, post-match, capable of nothing more eloquent than groans as the team reflected on the afternoon’s action. Has the Minstrel any other advice for his captain, I’ll ask, or is it time for a quiet word with his 74 year-old uncle?

Taking the helm

There is a feature of my first ever cricket match and my most recent that has barely occurred in the thirty-odd years in between. This element of the game has always been there, it’s just not something that I have experienced, been tested by, or suffered with any regularity. Yet now, as plans are being laid for the 2019 English season, it looms large. It defines and frames most thoughts I have about this summer – family, work, other past-times, my older son’s A levels, my parents being in their late 80s, holidays, meeting up with friends, not forgetting the Men’s World Cup, the Ashes, my own batting, junior coaching and even Declaration Game.

When my season starts in mid-May, I will be 51, with batting prowess and fielding mobility on the wane and, most significantly, a novice captain.

That first cricket match took place thirty-nine years ago. I was in my last year at primary school and our new head-teacher had made an early impression by insisting that the school would have a cricket team. The teacher who ran the football team and the running club, and so identified as the lead on school sports, was tasked with finding fixtures and organising a team. He didn’t know a lot about cricket, but must have picked up that I had pretensions to know a great deal, and so appointed me as captain.

My first duty in the role, carried out one afternoon in place of lessons, was to mark a pitch on the school playing-field for a practice match. My knowledge didn’t extend to an understanding of crease dimensions. After school, the boys (yes, just boys) wanting to try out for the team gathered. I had my own kit and so padded up to face the first ball. Cautiously, I moved onto the back-foot and in my back-swing, knocked a bail off the stumps, that I had pitched too close behind me.

Despite the first ball dismissal in the practice match, I was retained as captain for the season (and career) opener. The evening before we played, I sat with my Dad who had captained his club team in South London for a decade in the 1950s and ’60s. We talked about how to use five bowlers (one to switch ends) and place a field. Of course, I knew all the fielding positions, but had never had to exercise judgement over fielders’ locations. My Dad sketched a field on a scrap of paper, which I kept in the pocket of my whites for the whole of that first season.

Our first game was won comfortably. I think I stuck rigidly to my Dad’s plans – probably for the other handful of matches around the county primary schools of South Buckinghamshire as well. The only captaincy-related memory I have is of a team-mate’s Mum lobbying me to get her son more involved. I tried to explain that by placing him in the covers he had the plum fielding spot.

The following summer I was at secondary school and as Easter approached and cricket began to be considered, I faced the disadvantage of not being a footballer known to the PE staff. It can only have been precocious use of my growing cricket knowledge that got me noticed by the sports teacher running the first year cricket side. I was appointed captain. Then virtually run-less and probably not compensating with much in the way of leadership, I was dropped after a few matches in that administratively efficient fashion: name not on the list pinned to the PE noticeboard. Like a blow to the un-protected part of the thigh, it hurt, and while I might try not to show it, tears pricked my eyes. For the rest of that season and the one that followed, I was in and out of the school side, sometimes as captain, other times not.

Meanwhile, at my village club, I was part of a colts team captained by the England school-boy rugby skipper and soon was the youngest member of the Sunday friendly XI. Captaincy was in more capable hands. It stayed that way through seasons of occasional matches, interspersed in my twenties and forties with more committed attention to playing the game. I had half-an-eye on the office in my second-year at college, but my friend and opening partner, Ged, stitched the job up for himself by taking the man in post, who had the honour of appointing his successor, out for a night of drinking and in the argot of the time, ‘hackery’. Both the college team and I benefited from the decision, even if it was made under the influence.

On the occasions that captaincy did fall to me, the experience was not a happy one. One summer as an undergraduate, I had a holiday job in a factory in Liverpool. The stores officer invited me to play for his club’s Sunday friendly team, led by a sociology lecturer of unconventional cricketing tastes. He liked to have two and if possible three wrist-spinners in his side. He would take up fixtures at places that interested him and so, from our north Liverpool base, we travelled to matches in Mold and Leek. It was a curious, but enjoyable summer where I was treasured as the team’s southern posh boy (known as ‘Smythe’) and, living in an unfamiliar town, I was grateful for the team’s friendship. Before returning south, in my farewell appearance, I was given the honour of skippering the team. I lasted maybe ten overs in the field, until confused and with no sense of control of the game, I handed the reins back to the regular captain.

Half-a-dozen years later, at another farewell occasion, I was delegated on-the-field control by the appointed captain in a match organised to mark a friend’s departure for Italy. He had been teaching at a public school in East Anglia and was granted use of the ground and facilities for the day. This time, I negotiated the role in the field satisfactorily. But waiting to bat, wearing first a jumper and then a coat, I noticed that I was the only player feeling cold. I drove back to London in the grip of a fever. I thought of stopping to find a bed for the night, but pushed on and crawled up the stairs to my flat, which I didn’t leave until the flu subsided.

More recently, I have captained teams at the annual cricket matches organised by my company. Opposing me has been the (now retired) Chief Executive, whose ruthlessness at work carries across to the cricket field, but not his workplace sense of fairness. My team-talk one year concluded with the injunction that the ideal result for us all would be a one run defeat. Several hours later that was the exact result. But I gained no satisfaction from such precise game management. That single run (and a couple more as well) were wides called by the opposing skipper off my bowling, when balls had hit the batters’ pads.

And so to the last game of last season. The 4th XI skipper was injured and I agreed – willingly – to step up. Our side was heavy with juniors – nine – all of whom I have coached or run matches for. Perhaps I imagined it, but I felt a couple of my interventions – field placements, bowling changes – paid off, or drew in players otherwise on the margins. The weather was warm, the hospitality of the home team warmer, the ground a picture, the team cheerful, the beer in the pub afterwards so tasty. It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon.

I didn’t get dropped afterwards (last game of season), feel overwhelmed, catch influenza, or get into a public dispute with the head of my company. As long as I use these as the success criteria for my season as a novice at the helm of the 4th team, the summer of 2019 should go well.

How much is your cricket bat worth to you?

What value do you place on your bat?

How much money would you stake on your blade? In our game of bat and ball, the latter come and go. Bats endure. You are in contact with it throughout an innings, crudely as a hitting implement, but more deeply as an ally, an accomplice in your campaign of attack and defence. A fruitless swish and it attracts a disgruntled stare. A stroke to the boundary and the eyes first follow the ball, then return with warmth to assess the bat. In between deliveries, you repeatedly check on the bat, how it is held, weighing it, more attentive than a suitor on a second date. Then you take off for a run and it is your dependant, needing to be carried, slightly slowing your progress until the stretch for the crease and like a clever child it gives you a timely boost. At the non-striker’s end, it’s a stick to lean-on, a pointer to show your team-mate a change in the field, a partner in the dance of shadow-play.

You reach a milestone and it’s your bat you raise to acknowledge your score. How much does its value appreciate when you mark your first fifty or hundred for this team, in this competition, or ever?

Your bat affords you surprising power. Balls sent hurtling away, with little effort on your part, build up your self-regard. Just as easily it undermines you, sending the thinnest of edges to the keeper, or translating your epic swing limply into a looping catch to mid-on. How do you value something so capricious?

You lug your bat to matches, practices and nets. It’s the piece of equipment that doesn’t quite fit in your bag. It catches on doorways, trips up team-mates. Blemishes and cracks appear. The rubber grip shifts down the handle or frays. Your bat needs attention. It’s mortal and replaceable. But at what cost?

I am preoccupied with this question. I have been offered a bat by someone at the club who was themselves given it by a somebody (not a nobody). I’ve been invited to pay what it is worth to me.

Context affects value and now is a good time to be replenishing. I am about to embark on my first full season of weekend cricket in over two decades. Not only might I get a return on a new bat, but with my current bat damaged and neglected I may need to find a replacement by mid-season.

Perhaps unusually for someone with my interest in the game and identification as a batsman, I have scant interest in bat brands and models. Partially, it’s a recognition that I am really not good enough to merit owning a ‘good’ bat – pearls and swine. I also have an intense dislike for the commercialisation of sports equipment that encourages the cost of the logo to exceed the combined cost of the materials and workmanship. I’m a sceptic: aren’t bats priced deliberately to extract the maximum cash that any cricketer is prepared to pay? Their names – evoking nature’s forces and human myths – and their endorsements by professional players are part of the subterfuge?

My recollection of my own bats is imperfect. I can only remember three bats that I have owned: a Slazenger to start off with; an SS Jumbo for a birthday present aged around 12 and my current Woodworm. That must be wrong as that last bat was bought when I returned to club cricket ten years ago. I probably had another Jumbo through the late 1980s to the 2000s, but I can’t remember buying it or burying it.

I bought the bat that now pokes from my cricket bag on-line, seduced by the savings on offer. Untested, it arrived too heavy, but otherwise (!) fitted the bill. I took it to a local cricket equipment shop, who sent it to what I think of as ‘fat bat clinic’. It came back marginally sleeker.

A week ago, the bat without a price was handed over and I was given the chance of a test-drive. It showed few signs of being used. The taping of the edges was preventative, not remedial. ‘Have a go with it at indoor nets and then come back with your price’, I was encouraged.

Last Wednesday night, the bat and I had our trial run. It was a comfortable fit. I put away a couple of meaty cuts. It didn’t help me connect with two sweeps, which I’ve missed all pre-season, or prevent me misreading an out-swinger that looked ready to land on leg-stump, and went on to knock out off. But there was one drive on the up, with no follow-through, that connected high up the blade and skittered back past the bowler. Worth a single, maybe two and probably evidence of a superior bat.

So, what would I spend on a bat; one that isn’t new and probably needs some knocking-in to be match-ready? Ignorant of brands and marques, I went on-line. The particular bat is no longer on sale from the manufacturer. Retailers, though, have stocks. The SE on the label, it becomes apparent means ‘Special Edition’. The bats are being sold with chunky discounts.. but at three or four multiples of what I last paid, and have ever entertained, paying for a bat.

I hop across to eBay. Sellers have ‘nearly new’ versions going for more than twice what I’ve ever spent on a bat. I am faced with a dilemma. The invitation is there to pay what I would value this bat at. The market values this bat at a price that I would not have considered paying. Thoughts spark: what if this is the bat that helps me reach my first ever century? Maybe, wielding this piece of prime English willow, I’ll stop chipping catches to the in-field and will apply myself to play lengthy innings each weekend.

Should I pay what it’s worth to others, or respond to the invitation to pay what it’s worth to me? I already have a bat, albeit one that might not last the season. I don’t genuinely believe that I have unfulfilled potential that a better bat could help me tap into. It would be a luxury, an appealing one, in an area of my life that’s important to me.

I’ve turned this matter over and over. A simple solution has bubbled to the surface. Tomorrow, I will return the bat, commenting on its balance and satisfying middle. I will recommend my club mate sells it on eBay for as much as he possibly can.

Lost overs

coffinI am out; and down. I eye my cricket bag. Facing homelessness, the bag seems as promising a shelter as any. I have speculated away my life: family, job and very soon, home.

Months ago, I was sitting at Lord’s, watching the Test with my son. After tea, he asked, “What happens to the overs that won’t be bowled today?”

“Nothing, they’re just lost.”

I was wrong. I was the one that lost.

A few days later, an email arrived, with a most curious offer: to buy surplus international cricket overs. Intrigued, I followed the link. There, on the dark web, was a market. A novel gift for my Father’s birthday I reasoned, making my first purchase. Instead, a week later, I bought him a Cardus – first edition – with the proceeds of my initial trades.

The market was picking up. The supply-side, with players failing to complete 90 overs per day, was burgeoning, but never quite able to keep up with demand, as new Twenty 20 leagues proliferated. I found the options market particularly lucrative: anticipating which days would leave spectators sold short and me buying long. I even dabbled in the world of fixers, offering players incentives to go slow. Nothing matches the exhilaration of seeing a Test match opening bowler crouch at my bidding to tie his shoelaces. But that was a vanity investment: Test cricketers needed no bungs to create a daily diet of orphaned overs.

I had a strategy. Prices spiked whenever the ICC met to discuss a World Test Championship. I was stock-piling overs, ready to soak up the demand of a five-day extravaganza. More and more of my income was invested. My family, neglected, moved out. Work was a charade that I played out to fund my habit. The closer I felt to owning cricket, the further away from it I drifted. I stopped playing, reading match reports and paying my SkySports subscription. But I held a Test match-worth of lost over assets. ‘Be patient, wait for the opportunity,’ I said, although I had nobody left close to me to listen.

The first shock came when the ICC announced its meagre plan for a Test Championship of mostly two-Test series. The market, like an erroneous umpiring decision, suffered a correction. Then another stinger as South Africa’s Global League evaporated. I clung on, determined to ride out the rough patch. Finally, the announcement that shattered my defences: the Hundred. The ECB shaved three and a bit overs and with it any margin. Prices no longer fell. The market just seized up.

With no trading to distract me, I can take stock: I’m left rich in overs, but impoverished, contemplating sleeping in a cricket bag. I’ve paid the price for trying to own the game that belongs to no one. Cricket as a moral enterprise has found me wanting.

But there is hope. If my deficiency has been ethical, then I can be rehabilitated. I may be able to sit beside my son again, watching a match.

There is an alternative, more prosaic, harder to stomach, less meriting a son’s forgiveness: gullibility. Was I conned?

ODIs – One siDed International Series?

In the UK, you may be paying £100 or more to watch the England team play in a one day international (ODI). Based on the ODIs of recent years, you have around a one in ten chance of seeing a match with a tight, even thrilling climax. On the other hand, you are three times as likely to see one of the teams trot to a comfortable victory (margin of over 100 runs or with ten or more overs to spare).

The spectating experience depends on much more than whether the match delivers jeopardy to the very end. But the competitiveness of the format is topical and a feature that the game’s administrators appear to want to promote.

The evidence for my assertion that there is a one in ten chance of seeing a thrilling finish to an ODI can be reviewed in my post ‘Thrilling finishes and the 50 over game’. In this article, I extend that analysis by updating the sample to February 2019 and by reviewing the competitiveness of ODI series.

In the 12 months since my earlier post, there has been something of a revival of the tight ODI. Spectators in this period have had a one-in-five chance of seeing a game with a thrilling finale. The criteria I use for defining tight matches comprise: a tie; a victory batting first by fewer than 10 runs; if chasing, winning in the final over or with eight or nine wickets lost.

On the other hand, there has been no let-up in the incidence of crushing victories: 34% by margins of over 100 runs or with more than ten overs to spare.

The overall picture since the 2015 World Cup is depicted below.

One-sided or closely matched series?

This analysis is based on the 79 series of three or more ODIs played between two teams since the 2015 World Cup and completed by the end of January 2019 (note 1). It omits shorter bilateral encounters and tournaments involving three or more sides – all of which are included in the match analysis chart above.

The table below summarises the results by series duration. One-half of series remained undecided heading into the final match. Sample sizes are small, but shorter series (three matches) were more likely to deliver a final match with everything to play for.

The unwanted spawn of the uncompetitive series is the dead rubber. Matches that had no bearing on the series outcome occurred 44% of the time that they could potentially have happened. Of the 52 dead rubber matches that went ahead, eleven ended up as consolation victories for the series loser. Six of the games (11.5%) produced ‘tight’ finishes, but 22 (42.3%) were crushing victories. The value of these games, other than selling air-time and bringing international cricket to more towns and cities is questionable.

A useful benchmark of competitiveness can be found in Test cricket. In Test series in the same period, 55% of the 36 series with three or more matches were wrapped up before the final game was played, creating dead rubber games. ODI series, therefore, have recently been more competitive than the Test match equivalent. Moreover, the Test match draw raises the probability of teams playing that format reaching the last game of a series with the result undecided.

Looking more broadly – at pure probability – gives further evidence that ODI series are not particularly uncompetitive. A ‘best of three’ coin toss would produce a definitive result with the first two tosses one-half of the time; five percentage points higher than that seen in three match ODI series.

The five (or more) match series, presents a more mixed picture. A definitive series result was obtained from the first three games in over one-third (34%) of match-ups – compared to 25% in a ‘best of five’ coin toss. The seven clean sweeps (18%) is three times the likelihood of five coin tosses ending all heads or all tails. Yet, 45% progressed to a fifth match decider, exceeding the expected 37.5% in the coin toss scenario.

In conclusion, ODI series sustain interest to their conclusion relatively frequently. The problem the  format faces perhaps isn’t uncompetitiveness, but inflexibility of scheduling. On the occasions that a series is decided early, the remaining fixtures have been booked with broadcasters and grounds, who have sold ad space and tickets. The show must go on, even if intensity and interest decline.

Note 1: 3 match series in which either the first or second scheduled match was abandoned or cancelled are excluded (ie considered as 2 match encounters). If the third match was a victim of the weather, the series is included in the analysis.

A Select XI blog posts of 2018

This 2018 selection of cricket blog posts features topical issues, stories from the past, the minutiae of the game, insightful numbers, artful descriptions and the deeply personal. All the pieces selected have in common that they are independent and unremunerated writing from the web (note 1).

Leading off, we have a measured and expert riposte to the ECB Chairman’s comments about the demise of the junior game. Neil Rollings addresses the question ‘Is Youth Cricket really dying?’ unswayed by nostalgia or any agenda other than giving kids the opportunity to play.

It is not batting and bowling that have become unfashionable, but sitting on the side or fielding in redundant positions. Seeking ever shorter formats does not address this fundamental issue.

Junior cricket and its wider lessons, even if unheeded by the adults who attend games, is the subject matter of a letter written by the 17th Man to his 15 year old nephew (‘Diary of the 17th Man’). Whilst the letter refers to incidents in the young player’s matches, it was written in early April, days after this advice could have averted the year’s biggest cricket drama:

When you are an adult you see how people behave and shift their ideas about what is right or wrong, fair or unfair, depending on the situation or the advantage they can extract from it…

When you know you have done the right thing your conscience is always clear. That is something to cherish.

Blogger ‘Cricket Stuff’ responded to the ECB’s ‘the Hundred’ proposals with a look back at the Lambert and Butler Floodlit Cup, held at football grounds in 1981, concluding: “It had been new, it had been inventive, but it had not been right.” Having introduced Cricket Stuff, I can’t recommend highly enough his work in another medium: the podcast series ‘Cricket and England Through Five Matches’ – a highlight of my cricket consumption this year.

The CricViz initiative made available regular innovative use of game data and quality analytical writing in 2018. While acknowledging the excellence of their work, I have selected a trio of independent statistical posts for this eleven:

  • Introducing a T20 captaincy metric: Joe Harris (White Ball Analytics) is a data scientist who makes the most of the compressed and systematic T20 format to explore deep patterns and possible areas of advantage in the short-form game. In this case, Harris proposes a method for measuring the impact skippers make through their bowling changes.
  • 1 schoolboy error that even elite batsmen make, also probed an aspect of T20 cricket – specifically, should a batsman try to hit a wide ball? The answer reached by ‘No Pictures in the Scorebook’ is, ‘no’ and in this respect, if no other in 2018, Virat Kohli’s batting was found wanting.
  • No place like home, relied on fewer statistical techniques but on Kit Harris’s (@cricketkit) time-consuming research to trace the backgrounds of all 392 professional cricketers in the English county game. The outcome is a picture of the global and local in balance.

Another trio of pieces concerned the game most of us play: recreational, club, mixed age, mixed ability, weekend cricket.

With Quantum of Cricket (‘The Raging Turner’), Liam Cromar relishes the context (playing alongside his old junior coach, six youngsters and a dad), the anticipation and the tiny moments during and around the game (a balanced scorebook!), above all the catch:

The ball starts to die. Staying stationary will result in a half volley. At the last moment, I fall forward to the ground and pouch it at arm’s length a few inches proud. I rise and hold the orb aloft with one hand.

The entire movement forms a perfectly natural, fluid, indivisible quantum of cricket.

The description and the meaning of the moment communicate so clearly why we continue to play, despite age, dubious competence and our busy lives.

It is a theme rendered in verse by Marco Jackson (‘From inside right’): Ode to a Saturday village game. Four stanzas of four lines capture the game and its significance lightly and economically.

‘The Wait’ described by Hector Cappelletti (‘Yahoo over cow corner’), dives deeply into a rarely considered aspect of the game, as true of international players as it is of the club player who is being observed. The no.3 batsman, impatient and anxious, is followed from the the start of the innings until the seventh over when, after expending a lot of nervous energy he finally goes out to bat.

Rounding off the XI are a pair of moving, personal pieces. In 1982 Nick Campion (‘Smell the Leather’) recalls the emotional pinnacle of a dads v lads game of cricket. Nine year old Nick faces his first ball, bowled by his Dad:

I remember as I swung my bat with vigorous abandon being aware that the expected moment of impact had come and gone. There was that awful moment between missing the ball and hearing it hit the stumps when you manage to generate a nanosecond of optimism before the devastating sound of leather on ash crashes through your hopes.

Writer and broadcaster, Cate McGregor provides the most tender and revealing account of cricket’s role in her life. Mystic chords of memory exhibits enormous integrity, while writing so attractively about the difficulties of an extraordinary life.

As a bereaved kid it [cricket] gave me a quiet solace and a respite from bullying. As a trans woman it has given me acceptance and a renewed faith in the goodness of humanity. By choosing to live that night in Adelaide I earned a second innings. I am following on.

With my XI selected, I must make my annual injunction that you should read not just these pieces but other of each bloggers’ material and continue to follow their blogs in 2019.

Finally, my nomination to the accolade (borrowed, of course, from Wisden) of World Leading Cricket Blogger of the Year (note 2). The honour goes to King Cricket. If the King (and his court) is not known to you, may I humbly suggest that you are not doing this cricket blog following thing correctly. Long may he reign.

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Note 1: the qualification for the select XI is that the blogger must (to the best of my knowledge) be unremunerated for the post, which must feature on an independent website and the blogger must not have featured in any of Declaration Game’s six previous end-of-year blog post selections.

Note 2: the ‘World Leading Cricket Blogger of the Year’ as a self-consciously over-blown title to award to the blogger whose work I have most enjoyed reading over the previous 12 months. The two past winners are Backwatersman and My Life in Cricket Scorecards.

 

Short of a syllable

IMG_0818Basingstoke in the mid-1990s; the scorer’s hut. “I’ll give you our top five,” said our skipper to their scorer. “Dunn, Mann, Smith, Brown, Wood.”

“Sounds like a team of aliases.”

A top order of monosyllabic names. And now we find ourselves short of one syllable.

Greg was tall, often sunburnt, unhurried and calm. He smiled, bearing lightly our ritual teasing of the team’s sole Yorkshireman, replying with gentle ripostes in an immaculate accent unaffected by three years spent down south studying. University for most is a launch-pad away from home, giving energy to the search for new experiences and changed identities. For Greg, comfortable I imagine with who he was and where he came from, undergraduate study was a detour.

Some years, Greg would show on tour the benefit of his time playing club cricket in West  Yorkshire. Once, we were mismatched against a Devon club 1st eleven. Greg, after the loss of most of our monosyllabic top-order, faced their teenage quick who was relishing the chance to pick up his 100th wicket of the season against some fragile tourists. I was pleased to have made it to the non-striker’s end, from where I saw the young bowler dig in a delivery that was heading for Greg’s torso. With a speed of reaction that surprised and contrasted with everything we had offered hitherto in that innings, Greg pivoted and pulled the ball with a clean crack through square leg. A moment of class that communicated that we may be hung-over, but we weren’t to be push-overs.

Greg missed several tours owing to a prior commitment. He had become involved with coaching his club’s junior section – a genuinely selfless act as he wasn’t following (or steering) his own child’s activity. On August Bank Holiday, Greg organised a cricket festival for the primary school kids of his area. In his absence, naturally he was a topic of our discussions. There was a story of Greg earnestly telling a young player’s Dad that his son’s bowling action was suspect. “That’s not what Martyn Moxon thinks,” was the reply. I also remember one of our number saying that each morning, when John Simpson cued up the BBC’s business correspondent, he amused himself by imagining it would be our Greggy’s Yorkie tones that he would hear, not the bland voice of his BBC namesake. Greg’s former team-mates will be experiencing a lot of fond imaginings of their friend.

These memories are so arbitrary and slight, as is the way when there’s no particular purpose for storing a recollection. Thinking back, Greg is associated not with sharp images but feelings: the easy companionship of our team’s reunions; threads of familiar stories picked up, spun a little, then put down safe in the belief that we will continue the narrative together.

We do, though, have some more deliberately formed memories: of a ludicrously warm weekend spent in Leeds this past summer. We had thought it sensible to locate our Friday 13th get-together close to Greg’s home, hoping he could join us. But Greg, with a vigour that defied his condition, played the part of host and local expert. Our weekend culminated in an afternoon under blazing Yorkshire sun, watching Pudsey St Lawrence play a Bradford League fixture. Our vantage point: camp-chairs and benches, on the boundary beside the sightscreen, with tea in the pavilion and an all day bar. Greg gave us fresh stories that we can enjoy reliving, but that have come to a conclusion.

So, now we find our batting order short of a syllable; and I find myself short of the words that convey the warmth and affection in which our team holds this dear man.