Archive | April 2012

Lightly armed

Physical strength masters nothing in cricket. It is a delightfully unmacho sport. Big hitters may scatter the field, but controlled, dextrous batting wins many more games. A charging bull of a fast bowler may make some batsmen hop about, but the ability to coax a ball to move from the straight is needed to dismiss the best batsmen.

There is an exception where power trumps in cricket: throwing. Bowling slow and manoeuvring the ball between fielders are essential skills within a team. An inability to project the ball the short distance to the keeper from in front of the square leg umpire is a failure, not part of cricket’s diverse talent pool. When the ball has to be returned from the outfield only velocity and accuracy will do. The metaphors reinforce this macho side of the game. Good throws are ‘bullets’, ‘shells’ and the fielder ‘guns it’. The simile for the player without ammunition is that they throw like a.. well, you know, you’ve heard it said and it’s probably disrespectful to the women’s game.

I was reminded of the manly virtues of throwing, and their dreaded opposite, on a family walk along the Dee. We came to a stony beach by the river and no. 1 son and I picked stones and tossed them across the river. His throws carried further than mine. I turned and received from my wife a look of sympathy, even pity, completely out of character, such is her indifference to my cricket. She had seen me upstaged by my ten year old son.

Throwing, as with other aspects of fielding has only had the full attention of cricket coaches in recent decades. Drawing on baseball, some good practices have been established. One, that the elbow should be above the shoulder was flouted by one of the best fielders I saw as a child. Hallam Moseley, West Indies bowler, threw side-arm, with his release at about waist level. I remember seeing him on television, playing in one day matches for Somerset, swooping on a ball and fizzing it into the keeper from the Taunton boundary.

Wisden records that, “the definitive record [for throwing] is still awaited.” It lists a handful of long throws that it considers authentic, topped by Robert Percival on the Durham Sands Racecourse (c1882), with 140 yards, 2 feet. Of more modern players, Colin Bland and Ian Pont, the Essex all-rounder, are mentioned. The latter’s throwing prowess saw him all the way to the USA, where he had some limited success in Major League Baseball.

More recently, the throwing skills most celebrated are the abilities of in-fielders to throw down the stumps, even with ‘only one stump to aim at’, off-balance, on the run and even on the ground having sprawled to make a stop. Relay throws have had a fashion, where the ball is returned hard and low to an infielder to then distribute. The aim is to optimise the throwing strength of two fielders to save milliseconds, not to compensate for a deep square leg with a dodgy shoulder. The most refined throwing art is to flight a throw so that it bounces the ball on one of its sides in front of the keeper, once the new ball has lost its juice and swing. The bounce of the ball roughens up the allotted hemisphere to speed up the process that can bring about reverse swing.

I bear, courtesy of an accident ten years ago that left my shoulder dislocated for 16 hours, a feeble throw, and a deficit of manliness. It grates at me. When preparing to field with new teammates, I’ll introduce the subject of my injury so they know that I know I can’t throw before they get to see the sorry evidence. Daily dynamic stretches and press-ups have made no difference. Andrew Leipus’ cricinfo article, Shouldering the pain of throwing, where I understood it, gave me some succour, not that I could improve, but that I probably have something wrong in my shoulder. Just as David Gower had. In his last few playing years his nonchalantly athletic fielding was compromised by a shot shoulder. He would run in with the ball from the outfield, or underarm it to a teammate.

Last month at Lord’s, I caught an early season session of macho cricket. The Middlesex seamers were giving the Surrey batsmen a working over. A succession of quicks was getting seam movement and lift, striking the batsmen and beating the edge. It felt more like a combat sport than a ball-sport as the batsmen sustained blows, dodged other strikes and ventured occasional counter-punches. Truly a different sport to the one I play and I realised, for all my passion for the game, not one I would ever have wanted to play.

In this atmosphere of balls thudding into protective gear and the fielders’ menacing gasps, there was a incongruous moment: I spotted a fellow sufferer. Corey Colleymore, as sharp and thrusting as any of the Middlesex bowlers, was fielding in front of where I sat in the Grandstand. A ball was clipped out to him on the boundary from the pitch set on the Grandstand side of the square. Colleymore collected the ball, skipped and sent a looping return back. It died well before completing the flight from the short boundary, making the keeper scuttle forward to take it on the second bounce. As I began to think how brave it was of the West Indian seamer to endure this deficiency I replayed the throw in my mind and realised he had thrown it left-handed.

Who dares is occasionally defeated

Test cricket can be construed as a game of scarce resources: wickets, time (in playable conditions), overs, new balls, fresh bowlers and in recent years, unsuccessful DRS reviews. The captain’s job is to eke out the greatest return from those resources. He is competing in a sport where, as in warfare and chess, it’s not enough to gain a position superior to the opponent, one has to defeat the opponent by exhausting their resources (or their ability to call on those resources).

My interest in the third innings declaration stems from it being a juncture where one captain has to weigh up, from a position of superiority, how much to risk, sacrificing one scarce resource to make the most of another, in order to increase their chance of victory. I have presented evidence that captains sometimes err towards caution, costing their team victories. This is the first of two posts which looks at the captains whose experience helps persuade the majority to keep batting for a few more overs, to extend their lead. These are the captains who declared and lost.

Jackie (George Copeland) GrantWest Indies v England, Kensington Oval, Bridgetown – January 1935

Grant was the first captain to have surrendered the scarce resource of third innings wickets in a losing cause. Wisden records he was “a sound tactician and an admirable captain.” So what went wrong? Grant’s declaration is the most unusual of this odd bunch. He declared when his champion bat, George Headley was the sixth man out, setting England a total of 71. Seventy-one. At 7-2, 29-4, 48-6, it was, as surely no-one at the match said, game on. Wally Hammond though, ensured England prevailed, making 29*.

Such abnormal tactics were a response to an abnormal, rain-affected pitch. The two captains took turns hurrying the opponents to the crease in the hope of finding more benign conditions for their batsmen. Wyatt declared England’s first innings 21 runs behind. Batting again, Grant altered his batting order, but when Headley, down the order  at seven, failed, the declaration came.

Modern captains may think there is nothing to learn from Grant and Wyatt’s battle of wits, so anachronistic the conditions in which the game was played. I think everyone can learn from the series result: 2-1 victory for the West Indies. Everyone except the modern captains playing two-off tests, where resources are so scarce that ground lost cannot be made up.

Norman Yardley: England v Australia, Headingley – July 1948 (see header picture)

I cannot resist the cliche that Yorkshiremen aren’t known for their generosity, yet Yardley lost a match in front of his home crowd, England having scored 496 in the first innings. The match is rightly known for Bradman, in his penultimate game, making an unbeaten 173 and batting with Arthur Morris in a partnership of 301 on day five. So, was Yardley at fault, 2-0 down, with two to play, to set Australia 404 in five minutes under a day’s play? I don’t think so, although the top six: Morris, Hassett, Bradman, Miller, Harvey, Loxton are amongst the best ever.

The contemporary account, in Wisden, is clear: England made ‘a succession of blunders’. Pre-match: selection (omitting Young, a left-arm spin bowler); and fifth day: poor leadership from Yardley, poor bowling that didn’t make the most of the wicket taking turn, and sloppy fielding. But it’s not the declaration that’s criticised, although many were surprised to see England’s ninth wicket pair bat for two overs on the fifth morning. Hindsight has been kinder to Yardley and England, as Australia’s achievement is recognised. It remains the fourth highest fourth innings total made to win a Test match.

Dudley Nourse: South Africa v England, Port Elizabeth – March 1949

This match had the tempo of a track cycling race. Three and three-quarter days of steady accumulation, scoring at around two runs per over, and then a burst of activity in the final 95 minutes as England accepted the challenge of chasing 172. Crapp hit ten from three successive balls and the game was won with a minute to spare.

Nourse’s declaration came as a surprise and appears as an afterthought. Trailling in the final test of the series, his team had an 85 run lead before losing the first wicket of their second innings. But they batted on, slowly, into the final session of the match. If a lesson is to be drawn from Nourse’s experience at Port Elizabeth, maybe it is that a single, isolated bold move only serves to make a team vulnerable. However, England lost seven wickets in their chase, so Nourse was not far from conjuring a victory from very little, if any, match advantage.

Gary Sobers: West Indies v England, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad – March 1968

It was another 300 tests before the error was repeated and it has become the decision that is most associated with the captaincy of cricket’s finest ever all-rounder. Sobers lost the match, but only nine West Indies wickets fell in the game. Their first innings total topped 500 and they led England by over 100 as they began their second innings. The declaration set England 215 in two and three-quarter hours. Weighed against Sobers’ men was the injury to Charlie Griffith.

To have had a meaningful chance of victory, Sobers could not have delayed the declaration. But it showed a little too much leg to the England batsmen who won for the loss of just three wickets and with three minutes to spare. Wisden records that Sobers had been “fatally persuaded” that England would be vulnerable to Butcher’s occasional leg-spin, as they had been in the first innings. It was the only positive result of the series, with England’s tailenders twice hanging on at the end of a match for a draw.

Graham Dowling: New Zealand v West Indies, Auckland – February/March 1969

Sobers, fewer than 12 months later, became the first of only two captains to have been on both sides of an unsuccessful third innings declaration. Sobers and Dowling both lost matches they might easily have drawn – although Dowling sacrificed fewer third innings resources, declaring eight down. Neither lost when behind in the series. Indeed, this was the first of a three test series.

Dowling gave the West Indies five and a quarter hours to chase 345. A third innings partnership between Nurse, who scored 168, and Butcher accounted for half of the requirement. The victory was achieved deep into the final hour – a very fine batting performance on a final day that lacked the excitement of three (or four) possible results as New Zealand did not threaten. One week later, they won the second test, which was followed by a drawn match, leaving the series tied.

Declarations six to eleven will follow in a future post. The first five feature two captains chasing victory when behind in a series, two setting inviting targets that were expertly chased down and one captain who saw sacrifice as the only road to success in extreme conditions. All the matches happened long before I was aware of cricket and I have relied on Wisden accounts. I would be fascinated to hear of other perspectives on these matches.

My series of articles on test match declarations are now found together under the menu title ‘declarations’ at the top of this page.

Milestone, not millstone

Thirty is not a conventional milestone in cricket. The only occasion that comes to mind when the thirtieth something was celebrated was when Sunil Gavaskar exceeded Don Bradman’s record total of Test match centuries, making an unbeaten 236 against West Indies in Chennai in December 1983.

In most of the cricket that I now play – over 40s twenty over contests – thirty matters. It’s the score at which batsmen must retire. It’s an effective load-balancing rule. It mirrors the familiar limit on overs per bowler and enables the league to accommodate talents such as Neil Fairbrother, without his like running away with every match. It does throw up some anomalies. My team, the Silverbacks, won a match in our title run in 2011 without taking a wicket: the opposition’s openers were both retired 30; numbers three and four batted through but were tied down, setting a total that we achieved for the loss of six wickets.

This post marks a self-reflective and indulgent thirty: the number of posts on Declaration Game. What follows are some of the things I have learnt.

There are four distinct pleasures to blogging. 1) the emergence of an idea – a juxtaposition, contradiction, or connection within cricket or to something outside the game that throws light back on it – and fleshing it out. 2) writing – attempting to construct an argument, supporting it with images. 3) publishing – being out there and being read. 4) discussion and connection – finding out what readers think of my views and contributing to theirs.

The first pleasure was available to me before Declaration Game. The difference now is that I consciously seek themes, even plan them to coincide with upcoming events, as well as responding to news in the cricket world. Car journeys, my daily commute, are fruitful environments. I have become even more wrapped up in the game and aware that my own knowledge of this worldwide game is narrow and shallow.

Years of work have made my writing style functional, so it has been enjoyable regressing and trying different ways of expressing myself about something that excites my passion. I am aware that I don’t describe the activity of cricket well. There are only three or four descriptions of how a batsmen bats or a bowler bowls across the thirty pieces. I think it stems from a deficiency in how I watch and appreciate cricket that needs some work – not just for the blog, but if I am to be an effective coach of junior players.

Pleasure number three is the driver. My cricket obsession, for which this blog is an outlet, has spawned an even sharper obsession: how many visits the blog has had. I understand the shortcomings of the stats, but just as a fast, rising delivery ‘gets big’ on a batsman, so these numbers have become big for me. (If you want to cheer me up, click on the links to individual posts, rather than use the scroll bar.) And are my numbers big? In the context of 2.2 billion internet users, 1 billion cricket fans and a whole host of less demanding contexts, ‘no’.

A first lesson in gaining an audience is to build from the base of an existing on-line social network. Starting a blog and social network from scratch at the same time left many of my early works, shall I say, overlooked. My first tactic was to try to engage the audience of the blogs that I enjoyed: commenting and trying to get reciprocal blog-roll acknowledgement. But blog-rolls fall into neglect and as I have seen from my own site statistics, few readers use them as jumping off points to find new writers.

It should not have been a revelation that what draws readers is a trusted source’s recommendation to read a specific piece. Out there are a number of well connected enthusiasts who act as brokers between bloggers and potential readers. A single plug from Testing Times, mspr1nt and others is worth any number of my own carefully crafted teasers on twitter or Facebook.

The second source of numbers have been forums (let’s keep ‘fora’ for the non-digital variety). But I have been thrown out of more forums than I was pubs as an underage drinker. They don’t welcome ‘advertising’, even of something as non-commercial as Declaration Game. My ballsiest venture was to climb aboard middle England’s most influential network: Mumsnet. I had written a post about cricket passing down the generations of my family – Old Father Makes Time. I set up a thread on Mumsnet asking whether parents should encourage their children towards the hobbies or activities enjoyed by the parents, or let the kids make their own way there. Quickly, there were half-a-dozen excruciatingly earnest replies that nothing good could come of pushing my children towards something just because I enjoyed it. Then I was rumbled: ‘Are you really interested in our opinions or are you just looking for more visitors to your blog?’ More visitors to my blog would be super, I agreed, before withdrawing from this away fixture.

I have found that an established blog attracts a level of passing traffic. In recent weeks, google searches have often accounted for over half of a day’s visitors. I am often baffled how these surfers have been directed here and doubt that they will find what they set out for (but I hope you feel welcome), few more so than the seeker of ‘kp pussy’.

The readership of a piece (through the interest of brokers and forum lurkers) is related to its subject matter. Posts about current matches, players and controversies are bigger sellers than personal pieces or views of the game through a sociological lens. Sachin Tendulkar hadn’t appeared in Declaration Game until this sentence. To pander or not to pander?

Fortunately, with nothing but pride riding on my visitor figures, that’s not a dilemma. But, Declaration Game has provided me with some insight into the challenges of running an on-line business. It has occurred to me that, if my income depended upon the blog, the kids would be going to bed hungry most nights. To earn a minimum wage from the time spent on the blog over the last six months, each visitor, I estimate, would need to pay £0.50 for the privilege. Incentive enough for me to keep the day job.

Web 2.0 is all about pleasure number 4 – interaction, the consumer as producer. But, I contend, most bloggers (myself included) are more motivated by being read. It’s poor form not to respond to comments but it’s something I have done and had done to me.

I have selected my favourite bloggers under the heading Senior Pro’s in the margin on the right. I prefer writers of essays rather than match reports and all of those listed offer original perspectives on our much chewed-over game. I want to highlight the contribution of a few, who are better attuned to the potential of the internet for discussion, debate and even campaigning. Brian Carpenter (Different shades of green) is a generous and reliable provider of comments and comment responses. AER Gilligan and aotearoa are notable bloggers, often with attitude, and excel at twitter exchanges. Ducking Beamers has an enviable knack of writing brief posts that provoke readers to contribute their thoughts as comments. They are international class web 2.0 exponents.

Whether the individual blogger is interested in debate or just being read they are giving entertainment and enlightenment for free. Maybe you will join me in a resolution to record your appreciation of every blog you enjoy with a comment, a like, a facebook link or a tweet. In this world we inhabit, those are the hard currency of reward.

In the cricket I play, thirty is the point of enforced retirement. This activity has no such rigid rules and so I will blog-on. But with the season about to start, participation in playing and coaching means Declaration Game will slip a couple of places in the order. Visits to the crease won’t be as frequent but the time spent on the other side of the boundary won’t be wasted.

Glorified babysitting

Club cricketers in Britain are gathering for their first nets or practice matches of the 2012 season. These get-togethers will, for the vast majority, be reunions of cricketers who played alongside each other last season and maybe seasons before that. New faces – acquisitions from other clubs, students and others new to town and even overseas professionals – will be a small minority.

Club cricket, as part of a conservative sport, finds its place firmly on the right-wing. Its continuity is a strength. Bonds are strong, which is seen in the hours of free time given to every club’s running. Here are two examples of the dynastic core of club cricket that are local to me. My Over 40s league season ended with a match against opponents whose opening pair are father and son. Amongst my team, the Silverbacks, we have sired the following active members of our junior section: two under nines, one under ten, three under elevens, one under twelve, one under thirteen and one under fifteen. It is not inconceivable that some will play veterans cricket for the club. I expect most to play senior cricket within five years. And if we, the Dads, can’t hold a place in the team alongside them, we’ll be circling the boundary and boosting bar profits. It’s not to be knocked: repeat custom is a sound business model.

There are, of course, dangers. The blogger Silly mid off wrote recently in Pom Africans and posh lads about  the background of the current England Test team. Public school boys (including Stuart Broad, pictured above with father and sister) and South Africans accounted for nine of the eleven who played the final test of the 2011 English summer. Anderson and Swann were the state school products and both of these benefited from strong links to local clubs. If cricket isn’t to be a pursuit exclusively of those brought up in warmer climes, the privately educated and the club dynasties, it must penetrate our non-cricketing families.

However, there is an attitude in club cricket and amongst its junior coaches that blunts efforts to penetrate those families. I have heard it at my own club’s AGM (and I will trumpet our excellence in junior cricket development shortly) and from the county association’s coaches delivering a training course to budding volunteer coaches.

The attitude is encapsulated in this phrase “glorified babysitting”. The criticism levelled at parents who drop their kids off at cricket practice or matches and then disappear until the session or game is due to end is that they are taking advantage of the club. These parents, it is argued, see the club’s services as nothing more than “glorified babysitting”.

Cricket doesn’t need every player’s parents to love the game. It needs more players.

Cricket’s charms are oblique, exclusive and won’t be to everybody’s taste. Hours watching an activity poorly understood will be weighed against other things a parent could do: supermarket shopping, spending time with another child, having coffee with a friend. As long as they pay the subs and pick up their child on time, this preference shouldn’t be viewed with disdain. In fact, here is an opportunity.

Cricket clubs that can embrace the function of babysitting will thrive. They will draw more broadly from their local community, expanding their gene pool and ultimately create more ‘cricketing families’. My local club understands this and is a Chance to Shine award winner for its project to bring cricket to local primary schools. But as well as running games lessons in school hours, the club’s development officer holds after-school clubs and school holiday sports clubs, both of which give relief to working parents or Mums and Dads with other stuff to attend to. Club members make use of this glorified babysitting, and so do parents with no connection to the club, but who might be drawn in when their child raves about the great time they have had. And the development officer has his eye open for the child with a natural swing, a good eye or a strong shoulder.

Any large club can achieve the same. What else could be done to continue the renewal of our cricketing stock? Is a cricket Free School, the Government’s policy for new community-based schools, out of reach?


“Why doesn’t the shop do this?” my older son asked as we embarked on a week of spending one half-hour per day knocking-in his new bat. As with so many other questions put to me by my kids, it gave me a sense of helplessness and fear that I drift through life accepting too readily what I’m told. I had described what knocking-in achieves: compressing the wood fibres to make the bat stronger; but his question was not why it’s done, but why we, the consumers, are doing it.

Since failing to meet the challenge of his question, these are the thoughts I  have had.

Timing, always important in batting, may play a part. The bat should be knocked-in as preparation for its use. A bat bought in the end-of-season sales could go six months before being used. Oiling and knocking-in a new bat months ahead of its first use could leave it dry and not match-ready. Maybe. Even if this is true, it wouldn’t stop the shop offering a professional service when the time is right. Internet sales would present a trickier challenge for the retailer, but that’s a very modern problem, if a problem at all.

Knocking-in is, I believe, an essential stage in the batsman familiarising themself with a new tool. The repetitive striking of ball on bat gives an intimate understanding of where the middle is found, how high up the blade its vibrant heart stretches. Then hammering at the toe reminds the batter how his hands will be jarred if that’s the part of the bat that makes contact with the ball, but also how strong the toe needs to be if a fast, fully pitched delivery is to be repelled. For a young batsman, tapping the bat from middle towards the edge is a visceral reminder of what is sacrificed if the bat is not swung through the vertical plane.

These are general messages picked up from knocking-in. Each bat is different and the close attention of knocking-in will detail the particular nature of the bat owned. Conscientious knocking-in will expose the bat’s weaknesses, where the grain is prone to split. Preventative taping can bolster those spots. Small cracks in the surface can be noted and checked – after a net, after an innings, to see if there is a deeper problem or a spreading vein.

Then, good care of a bat continues long after it is knocked-in. A fine piece of wood can be damaged by leaving it propped against a wall next to a radiator, or lying face down in the dewy grass of a late summer evening. There is a greater chance that, as a result of the investment of hours banging the bat with a ball in a sock, or a bat mallet, the owner would be kept alert to these dangers.

Perhaps knocking-in is just ritual. It does feel incongruous to have to spend so much time and effort before using the new equipment. It belongs to a time when canvas pads and leather boots needed blancoing before the season and prior to big matches. Footballers had to dubbin boots and new footballs needed inflating before they could be used. Christmas used to be a long wait until the presents could be opened and then another wait until they were ready for playing with. Electrical toys needed batteries or to have plugs wired onto them. Nowadays, children’s toys are packaged to leave buttons accessible to little fingers doing shopping to press to hear the sound the toy makes. Bats that can’t be used until they’re oiled and knocked-in are throwbacks. They are symbols of cricket’s difference.

I doubt I have made a compelling case to anyone but the cricket-obsessed. Others probably see my reasoning simply as excuses. While I want my son to continue to ask awkward questions, I hope he hasn’t seen through me on this one. I would dearly like to have created in him an expectation that bats need this attention before they are used; an inheritance of the ritual. For this is what I believe is at stake.  I am sure that shops or manufacturers provide high quality willow bats pre-oiled and knocked-in. I just suspect that the batsman who scores runs with a ready-to-use from the shop bat will get less pleasure from the game of cricket than the player who sets aside the time to prepare the bat, to take responsibility for the final stage in its manufacture, before carrying it to the middle.