Archive | November 2011

A week in the lives of two tearaway teenagers

Two teenagers, Pat and Mo, began the week thousands of miles from home. By the end of the week, Pat had achieved everything that he could have hoped for and was back at home. For Mo, the thing he would most have wanted to achieve – to be back at home – remained beyond him.

I have mixed feelings about both teenagers’ fates this week. Patrick Cummins’ performance in the second test against South Africa mostly excites me. As an England cricket fan, there is also a sense of foreboding. My hopes of a period of English test dominance, particularly in Ashes contests, are easily depressed.

Mohammed Amir’s appeal against his sentencing in the spot-fixing trial was unsuccessful. The deterrent to future cheats (in England) remains strong. I am, though, uncomfortable with the jail sentence applied for committing a crime against people who seek to make money by setting odds for, and seek money and thrills from betting on, trivia that gets washed away by the beautiful ebb and flow of the game. Lord Judge justified his decision with the summary that Amir was one of “three cricketers [who] betrayed their team, the country they had the honour to represent, the sport that gave them their distinction, and all the followers of the game around the world.” Yes, indeed; but shouldn’t cricket determine the punishment for these betrayals?

Test cricket’s not dying, we read. There have been four cracking tests in a month, three involving tense finishes. While that would satisfy me, the game’s wider appeal and overall quality would benefit from some new stars, particularly quicks. In recent years, only Dale Steyn and England’s pack of athletes apparently borrowed from a rugby line-out, have been capable of sustained fast bowling excellence. Amir self-destructed. Does Cummins have staying power?

That’s an impossible question to answer about any player one test into a career. What has surprised me is how scanty the evidence is in Cummins’ case. He hasn’t been nurtured in an academy. He has played school cricket, schools’ representative cricket, club cricket, state second XI, state first XI and international cricket. It’s not the steps taken that amaze, but that the entire staircase has taken less than two seasons. As recently as March 2011, the Penrith Press promoted the NSW Schoolboys Cricket Championships, thus: Expect high standard cricket – NSW Blues Representative Patrick Cummins played in 2010 Championships. Has anyone got the screenplay rights?

It’s Cummins’ achievement only. But clearly there have been some bold decisions by a succession of selectors and managers, each of who must have had alternatives to choose from: an experienced seamer surely, or even a youngster who’d been knocking at the door for a season or two.

Would it have happened in England? I wondered whether the ECB Fast Bowling Directives, drawn up to protect young fast bowlers from overbowling and associated injuries would have slowed his progress. From 2010, under 18 and 19 bowlers are limited to 18 overs per day, made up of three six over spells, with six intervening overs bowled from the same end. Australia, though, takes its sports science just as seriously. Its Junior Cricket Policy has similar restrictions on fast and medium pace bowlers. It does, though, appear to refer only to junior competitions, not senior cricket. Indeed, Cummins delivered 48 overs in Tasmania’s first innings of the Sheffield Shield final, well over the ceiling of one-fifth of the overs set by the policy. Ever since that match at the end of March 2011, Cummins’ workload has been a Cricket Australia priority. Picking up a heel injury in his debut test, it could become a national obsession.

I have only seen Cummins in YouTube clips. He is a powerful man: getting pace from a short run-up, shoulders rolling, a big bound and a true, high bowling arm. In comparison with his contemporary, he lacks Amir’s elegance and flow. But he shows a range of skills, challenging batsmen with short-pitched deliveries, full away swingers and surprise balls 20 mph slower than his stock delivery.

Cummins has had a helluva week; Amir a hellish one. Although very young, they are both the principal agents of their situations. Maybe one day, in four years’ time, we will see them line up against each other.

Global village cricket

Late last August, on tour in Worcestershire with the Old Boys, we gathered around a screen to watch some Twenty20 finals day action. We have tended to find good cricket to view in and around our own Bank Holiday weekend matches. The screen this year was a lap-top, belonging to our number 4, an emigre resident of Delaware. The action was brought to us by Willow TV under a contract purchased in the US by our middle-order bat. Possibly, although this may just display my ignorance of the internet, the images of cricket played 35 miles north at Edgbaston, were travelling to and fro across the Atlantic before spluttering out of a pipe into the piano room of our tour weekend country pad.

Our number 4 enjoys comprehensive and timely coverage of international cricket. He even finds the time difference advantageous as he was able to watch chunks of last year’s Ashes series live after work in the evening. The game is every bit as accessible to him in the US as it is to teammates in the UK.

Twenty years ago I lived in Philadelphia. I kept in touch with England’s fortunes by newspaper. The sources, in increasing degrees of immediacy were: cuttings from the Telegraph, posted by my Father; broadsheets in the University of Pennsylvania library; English papers in the international news store on the edge of campus. Only this last source gave me any sense of the game being current – it was all history by the time I read the cuttings or the papers stacked in the library. During the 1990/91 Ashes, a paper I picked up in the shop on Monday was Saturday’s report of Friday’s action.

Reading the report of England’s struggles in the early sessions of a match, I knew the game was probably already over. I felt like an astronomer studying the light from a star that is already extinguished. So I recall reading about Mark Waugh’s debut hundred – match-winning I was sure (but wrong) as I grimaced through the account of its excellence.

The year before that I had been in Japan. My obsession with cricket was something I had decided to set aside to make the most of a year living a very different life in Yokohama. One evening, settling down for my weekly beginner’s Japanese lesson, I scanned an American student’s (English language) Japan Times. On the back page, squeezed by North American basketball, ice hockey and local sports was a report that England had defeated West Indies in Jamaica. Trembling, I reread it several times before bursting up and charging around the classroom, fists pumping. I tried to explain its significance, without success and spent the lesson in a reverie of England leading a test series in the West Indies.

For the past three generations, newspapers have provided readers with depth and analysis of news (as well as lots of trivia). Their readers have already found out the big stuff that’s happening in the world from radio, tv and the internet. My experience of English newspapers when living overseas in the late 80s and early 90s was closer to that of the reader in the 1930s and earlier. I reached for the paper, opened it, folded it to the right page, anxious for the news it would give me of England’s fortunes. I do feel nostalgic for that revelatory experience of reading the day’s paper.

Back in 2011 and Willow TV spluttered and spat in chunks onto the lap-top screen. The picture froze with the bowler in his delivery stride and restarted with the batsman passing through the gate to the pavilion. My teammates drifted back to the kitchen to read the morning’s newspapers.

Fixing: a nasty parasite

Over a week has passed since the spot-fixing court decisions and sentences. I hadn’t expected to be writing about it now (after all, there has been some on-field action very worthy of comment this week). But gaining some distance has brought me to an understanding: that this parasite on cricket may take down a few individuals but cannot do lasting harm to the species.

When the story reached its crescendo, I wanted to write about my experience of that day at Lord’s – one of the most memorable of many I have spent there – and reassess Trott’s knock. I wasn’t inspired to write about my contempt for the cheats and the system they operated in, or about the soundness of the justice that they had now confronted. That was being done so very well, anyway, by the Third Man and Eye on Cricket, amongst others.

Cheating to lose or to under-perform is recognised as a particularly insidious form of sports corruption. It denies the spectator and other participants the essence of the event: a contest. I concur. Where my thoughts are taking me is towards the question of whether it can be a sustainable crime. And I don’t believe it can; at least not in a sport where the majority are competing. A sport where the majority are not competing isn’t, of course, a sport.

Fixing can only be marginal to a game like cricket. Marginal in the sense of having an influence on trivial events such as no-balls, or unimportant contests, such as the bloated ODIs of the 1990s. There will be occasional larger victims – South Africa v England at Centurion in 1999/2000. It is the competition within the contest that keeps the parasite at bay.

For a compromised cricketer to earn his fixing bung, he must underperform – either directly as a player, or as the leader of a team. For the compromised cricketer to be of value to his master, he must keep his place in the team or continue to be seen as the best leader for the side. I do not see how players or captains can achieve both over any length of time. The larger the return, more daring the fix demanded, the greater the player must be putting his place in the team in jeopardy for performance reasons, let alone the risk of exposure. The fixer has to be always recruiting, always paying players to be cannon fodder.

I don’t pretend that there hasn’t been a lot more fixing going on than has so far been aired. I may have paid money to sit through some of it. I will probably have devoured misleading accounts of achievements finessed. It is an affront to the game I love. So I place my trust in the competitive environment to keep fixing at the margins, probably never destroy it, but make it mostly, usually an irrelevance. On the whole, a nasty parasite, not the greatest danger cricket faces.

Anyway, at some point last week, Australia were 21-9.

Trott not spot

Salman Butt, Mohammed Amir and Mohammed Asif were found guilty this week on the counts of conspiracy to accept payments for identifying in advance when three no balls would be bowled in the Test match at Lord’s on 26 and 27 August last year and conspiracy to do the same acts in order to enable others to cheat at gambling. Those dates and that match are seared with the notions of cheating, fixing, conspiracy and crime.

I left Lord’s in the late afternoon of 27 August 2010 exhilarated. My departure before the close of play was for one of the few things that could ever draw me from watching a live match at Lord’s: my college old boys’ annual cricket tour. Fortunes had swung dramatically on a thrilling day, with three cricketers to the fore. But the performance of one player had topped the lot. Jonathon Trott played an innings of tactical brilliance and technical excellence. It met the force of the Pakistani opening bowlers head on, slowed and then halted their momentum, before swinging it back and trampling over their push for ascendancy, victory and a series draw.

At the start of the day, Trott had barely faced a ball by the time three partners had been dismissed. Amir was swinging the ball at pace away from and into the batsmen. He took a fourth wicket of the session, without conceding a run, leaving England five down without 50 on the board.

Trott had a plan. He batted well out of his crease to meet the ball before Amir’s late swing could bring about too much deviation. He rode the moving ball, refusing to prod at or follow it. He stood well down the wicket, towards a bowler reaching 90mph, defying the instinct to move back and give himself time. I don’t remember Trott being hit, or even troubled, by the occasional short ball that Amir could deliver.

As the conditions eased, he collected runs around the wicket, driving repeatedly through his supposedly weaker off-side. Amir took his fifth and sixth wickets of the day and Broad joined Trott. There was still a lot of bailing out to be done, but their partnership grew and grew taking England to a respectable total, then a strong one and always further from the batting travails of the start of the day. I was gone by the time the pair were lording it over the Pakistani bowlers. They were unbeaten, both with hundreds, over night. I had seen (part of) a very special day’s cricket and was so glad of the reunion that evening with cricket friends to turn it over and savour its significance.

At some point the next morning, talk of spot-fixing superseded that of Trott and Broad. It hasn’t surrendered its primacy ever since. For a short while, I questioned whether the whole England fightback was an artifice. But I had seen Trott face up to Amir and survive against his very best and then thrive as the conditions became less friendly to the bowlers.

Trott’s courage, adaptability and skill displayed at Lord’s on 27 August 2010 have not received the acclaim deserved. It was overshadowed – even questioned – by the spot-fixing allegations. Now this week’s court activity has hardened those allegations into proven criminal endeavour, it’s time to recognise Trott’s awesome innings.