Archive by Author | chrisps

Warm-up matches. It’s just the way it is.

It’s just the way it is. Australians would say the same when they come over to England. Some of the county teams are full of second XI players. Both sides would love to come across a stronger outfit to really be tested out. But you go round the world and it’s the same everywhere.

(Trevor Bayliss after England’s day-night warm-up match at Adelaide)

When something is wrong and the conclusion reached is, “It’s just the way it is,” there is somewhere, perhaps everywhere, a failure of vision, courage and judgement.

Bayliss’s comment has troubled me. It’s a resignation to the fact that national cricket boards care more about stacking the odds even further to the benefit of the already advantaged home team than they do about hosting a competitive series. It’s institutionalised cheating. It’s not quite overt, but it is a deliberate effort to deny opponents an opportunity to familiarise themselves with the challenges they will face in the international contests.

I don’t expect Bayliss to step out of line of this nasty consensus that visiting teams should be tripped and tricked on their way to the opening Test. His position as England’s first Australian manager of an Ashes touring team is liable to attract enough unfavourable reaction without him risking being characterised as tainted by keeping company with whinging Poms.

Compared to BCCI (who, it was widely suspected, were behind the initiative to keep spinners away from England’s three warm-up matches in 2012) and the ECB (who usually muster county sides containing mostly second XI players) Cricket Australia is not especially culpable. England’s warm-up matches coincide with full programmes of Sheffield Shield games, which limit the standard of the players available for the CA XI. But Ed Cowan and Cameron White are amongst the experienced players who haven’t won places in their state sides who could have given England more stretching opposition. When Tim Payne was recognised as a potential solution to the Australians’ wicket-keeping quandary, he was whisked away from his role as CA XI skipper to Melbourne to play for his State.

What should host nations organise for their guests as pre-Test practice matches? They should not be expected to field their first choice attack or expose a relatively new player who is being lined up for the Test series. That would be giving too much away to the visitors. From the follower’s perspective, it would also rob the build-up to the Test series of a little of its suspense. We want there to be an escalation in the intensity of the cricket and to avoid premature encounters between key protagonists. But an escalation does not mean a step-change.

A clue to the answer has been given by Cricket Australia. The national board did organise a day-night match at the venue where the pink ball Test will be played a few weeks later. The sheer novelty of this event meant that the visitors had to be allowed to acclimatise. The sheer commercial value of the match meant that the tourists could not be abandoned to flounder to a Test defeat inside three days at Adelaide.

But a slow seamer at Adelaide – even under lights with a pink ball – probably presents fewer unfamiliar challenges to the England team than the hard, fast track at the Gabba. For any touring team to be properly prepared for a Test series in Australia, they should be given practice time on a pacy pitch against bowlers of a similar kind, if not the same effectiveness, as the Australian attack. Yet the pitches at Adelaide and Townsville, in contrast to what is looming for England when the series starts at the Gabba, have been easy-paced, even sluggish.

As Bayliss acknowledged, it happens all around the world and he’s counting on the ECB being similarly uncooperative towards touring teams when England next play at home. To break this selfish cycle that cricket has slipped into, it might take an altruistic national cricket administrator to step up and offer a touring programme that puts the visitors’ needs at the heart of the itinerary. It does not happen now and the upcoming World Test Championship, weighted with extra context, may make things worse as each series result will have implications beyond its own duration.

On the other hand, I do see the corralling of (at least some) Tests into an over-arching competition as having the potential to improve the pre-series preparation given to visiting teams. The ICC could make the organisation of meaningful practice matches a playing condition for the tournament. Unlikely, I accept, but penalties could be attached to home sides failing to comply. Defining ‘meaningful practice’ is not straightforward, but in the International Cricket Committee, the ICC has access to an expert group who could set a standard, which match referees could enforce. I propose that the standard would include features such as:

  • Visiting team management involvement in the preparation of pitches that warm-up games will be played on
  • Warm-up opposition to include players with current (or if clashes with domestic fixtures, recent) first-class experience or junior international recognition.
  • Team selection to reflect the bowling style of the home nation’s team (e.g. if two spinners likely to play for the home team in Tests, then two spinners should play in warm-up matches).
  • Climate to be equivalent to that of the Test venues (e.g. don’t schedule a warm-up for a Brisbane Test in Hobart).

Test cricket’s attempt at a global tournament is both overdue and laden with risk. For it to be viewed as a credible competition and so mitigate some of the risk of it not engaging with a wide, international audience, the ICC must ensure that the neglect of the need of away sides to get meaningful practice ahead of Test series must end. All participating countries must acknowledge the importance of promoting closely competitive cricket and take responsibility for achieving it in their own countries. It’s just the way it should be.

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Bedroom cricket

Cricket is in abeyance. A fallow period. Cricket grounds in the UK swirl emptily with fallen leaves or give grudging access to junior footballers. Even the latest of late finishes to the County Championship was over a month ago. An Ashes series lies ahead, but the shallowness of England’s batting line-up and Ben Stokes’ alleged assault only serve to distract from each other.

Football is everywhere, not even having to pretend cricket might steal a fraction of its audience. I comply with the hegemonic order, if only to the extent of touchline support for my sons’ junior teams.

In cricket’s absence, I have a new enthusiasm. I ride a bike. That simple. Early morning, careering along the tow-path, a heron rising above the mist on the canal, I ask myself: is this more enjoyable than cricket?  Finding a new route, further from the roads, for my commute, gives great satisfaction. On the days I ride, I sleep longer and deeper. It’s a new pleasure and one I hanker for if too many days pass without the chance of a ride.

I am not, of course, living a life denuded of cricket. I watched a few overs of India v New Zealand. I’ve helped out at my club’s first autumn junior cricket training – targeting the youngsters we have senior cricket designs on for next summer.

And, in a fashion, I have played.

Cricket is adaptive and has found a new form that means its grip on my life has barely loosened. I suspect this innovative format arose out of my sons’ refusal to do anything truly active during the long, summer school holidays. Just so they could answer, ‘Yes, we’ve exercised today,” they invented an indoor game. Invention gives them too much credit. It’s closely related to the corridor cricket I played during evenings in our digs on tour. Big Nick propelling twisty-twosties along the hall, while we took turns defending our wicket from the tennis ball, everyone else crouching ready to catch, unless swigging from a glass or bottle. It has crossed the path of my boys in a game played in the changing room at the club when rain stops play. One-hand, one bounce.

Our version takes place exclusively in no.2 son’s bedroom, although he is the less interested of the two. As the youngest child of three, he’s bagged the biggest bedroom, giving just enough space from window to wall for intense sporting contest. We use a bat – size 2 – and a wind-ball. Our stumps are stylish: a pair of jeans draped over a mattress on its side against the wall. But the feature that draws us back to this game, night after night, is the carpet. It’s deep and soft, giving a purposefully rotating sphere just enough purchase to skip and jag off the straight.

Our bedroom cricket is played in conditions that simulate Galle, Mumbai, or Taunton (2016-17). Batting requires avid concentration, attention paid to the line of the ball, but above all to the bowler’s hand. Bowling is where the game departs furthest from convention. The ‘bowler’ sits with back to the radiator below the window – comfortably warming as November’s nights close in – and chucks the ball. 15 degrees of flex has been inverted – it’s the bare minimum any elbow would bend.

Batting is required to be defensive: one warning per innings allowed for an attacking shot (although there is tolerance afforded to sweep shots). Most of the nine modes of dismissal are available – hit-wicket is an exception – and ‘caught’ has been extended to include ‘one hand, one bounce’. It is a battle for survival; a test of defensive technique and of the ability to read the ball from the bowlers’ hand, and failing that, off the pitch.

No.1 son has seven variations: front-of-the hand off-break and doosra; back-hand leg-break and googly; round-arm googly; left-arm something-or-other and a straight one. If I survive the first dozen balls, playing inside a few off-breaks, inside edging those turning the other way, I start to pick his front of hand deliveries, even pulling off a reverse sweep when I spot the off-break outside my (left-hander’s) off stump. Those he flicks with the back of his hand facing me remain inscrutable and I have to smother or play off the pitch.

When it’s my turn to bowl, I have just added a fifth variation to my off-break, arm ball, back of the hand top-spinner and doosra. This last delivery is my most productive, beating no.1 son’s outside edge and taking his pad or bowling him. But I ration its use, in case he starts to pick it from my hand. My most satisfying dismissal has been drawing an outside edge to an arm-ball after three off-breaks that he played with ease. Never really a bowler (despite efforts ‘late in the day’), in moments like those, I’ve enjoyed a flash of insight into the mind of a spinner: laying a trap, defeating through deception.

Heady stuff from a simple indoor game with my sons. But it has helped bridge the gap between the English season and the long winter tour. I am hoping it will continue, filling those anxious evening hours in the build-up to the Tests in Australia.

County grounds

I’ve played on a few county grounds, by which I mean grounds where county cricket is played. Broad squares and unvarying outfields to chase a ball across. Empty seating, tiered in and around the grander than usual pavilion, and in long, white single lines, like the teeth of a vast mouth, curving around the boundary. The dimensions don’t quite seem to take account of the greater power and speed of the players who appear on days that the seating isn’t left vacant. But, I suppose tennis courts are the same size at Wimbledon as at my local club, despite the gulf that separates their users’ physical abilities.

My county ground experiences came during a couple of seasons as a marginal second XI pick playing in the Kent League in the early 1990s. Not once did the environs inspire me to raise my game. At Maidstone’s Mote Park, my only memory is of standing at slip being taught Gujarati expressions by the wicketkeeper to shout at our opening bowler. (What was I doing at slip in my twenties? Was I considered a specialist close catcher, or a liability in the ring?) At Dartford, I think it must have rained, although we were lucky to get there as the skipper’s mini metro vanden plas had sudden engine failure climbing a hill on the A2 with a juggernaut on our tail.

Both years, I was in line to play at THE county ground, Canterbury, but had to make myself unavailable because of friends’ weddings. Then there was Cheriton Road, Folkestone, which finished me off as a regular club cricketer in my twenties.

My home ground in those days, Blackheath, had until twenty years before my membership hosted the county team once or twice each season. In 1956 Tony Lock took all ten wickets in an innings there for Surrey and 16 in the match, three weeks before he more famously managed just the one in an Ashes Test at Old Trafford. But by the 1990s, our ground-share cousins, Blackheath RFC, were in the ascendancy. The toll their play took on our outfield meant we referred to the Rectory Field by an anatomical name that shared the same first syllable of its official title.

I had one other near miss. On tour, my college old boys side were due to play at Basingstoke. Having talked up the opportunity to play on one of Hampshire’s out-grounds, we faced a little disappointment to find the club had two pitches and we were on the second of those. Pudsey St Lawrence, also on tour, deservedly played on the main square. That afternoon did provide a little brush with greatness as each our batsmen found themselves being sledged by the 12 year old grandson of a West Indian Test player, who kept wicket for the club’s Sunday seconds.

These experiences of sharing space – if not cotemporally – with professional cricketers came to mind again this week, when no.1 son let on that he would be playing for his school team in a competition at Old Trafford. ‘I’ll see you a county ground and raise you an international venue’, he might have taunted me. But my disappointments looked likely to settle on him as the forecast for Friday was late September, Manchester, grim.

The forecast proved accurate, but Lancashire were very accommodating and turned over the indoor school to the competition. At lunchtime, he sent me a text: “..we’re into the final. Do you want to come and watch?” Wrapping up work for the week in mid-afternoon, I arrived and picked out no.1 son through the netting at the far end of the hall, fielding at third man. I watched the innings unfold, amongst students and school masters, parents and LCCC staff. After 20 minutes, I realised I had no idea of the state of the game. “Nearing the end now,” I was told. The team batting were losing wickets regularly and presumably shedding runs in the way of indoor match scoring. Finally no.1 son came on to bowl. The batsmen were in reckless mode. Two catches taken off successive balls. The next ball, straight and on a length, met by an outrageous attempt at a ramp shot and so, a first hat-trick. He finished his over and the match was done – a comfortable victory.

Hat-trick ball

Players and spectators were invited to the pavilion for food and presentations. Multiple apologies were made for not being able to allow play to take place on the ground. No.1 son received the man of the match award for the final (he’d also “batted ok”, he said) from Lancs Head Coach, Glen Chapple, and his school team collected the trophy. 

By way of entertainment, Warren Hegg interviewed Glen Chapple about coaching, what makes a cricketer, toughest opponent (Darren Lehmann) and why he’d been so difficult to captain – the former seeming far more comfortable in his role. “Wonder if any of the lads know who these two are”, whispered Umpire Rob. Probably not, I concurred. And perhaps that ignorance of who and what were in his surrounds served no.1 son well on his first time playing at (if not on) a county ground. 

Yes, but can he play an off-drive?

No.1 son preparing for GCSE PE practical

There are just a few things that can quell the competitive drive of adults attending junior cricket matches. An injury quickly draws the antagonists together. A sharply taken catch will elicit applause before the mum, dad or coach has had time to process that one of their own batsmen has been dismissed.

And then there is the young batsman stretching forward, front-leg bent, and stroking a ball through the off-side, with bat not deviating from the vertical plane. That sight obliterates all partiality. We all love to see an off-drive. It represents the grace and elegance we want from cricket and when we see a young player manage to play the stroke, it elevates the contest for all (the adults) involved.

Last season, the under 16s team that I organised, chased down a total, thanks largely to our opener. A strong, sporty lad, he stood tall at the crease and swung powerfully through the line of the ball, sending it with a mighty crack hurtling away between long-off and mid-wicket. He reached his retirement score and was cheered off by his teammates and generously applauded by the opposition. Our middle-order then chipped away at the remainder of the target.

At the game’s conclusion, as I thanked the neutral umpire, this wise old observer of the game began to wax lyrical about ‘some of those shots’. I was about to comment about the lad’s strength, when I realised he was talking about our number four – a shorter, compact and very conventionally correct batsman. He had batted circumspectly, playing out a few maidens, pushing singles off his pads and also stroking three delightful cover drives. Those were the shots the old umpire meant, the images of the game that he was so keen to share at its conclusion.

The majority of volunteer club coaches, junior organisers, cricket savvy mums and dads are of a generation whose cricket education and experience was untouched by the fabulous crisis in coaching batting described by Rick Walton in his recent blog post. They may promote the more contemporary priorities of enjoyment and participation for all, but technically their bias is traditional. Can they be shifted? Should they be shifted?

Rick’s fabulous crisis refers to the success of unconventional players (for example, Pietersen and McCullum) and more than that, to the fast-evolving demands of short-form cricket for surprising and improvised shot-making. My contribution to the debate that Rick has prompted is to consider what the response should be at the entry level to the game – for both players and coaches.

Boys and girls starting their club cricket lives present with a wonderful variety of batting techniques. Some crouch over their bats; others would topple over if you removed the bat from their hands; a few hold the bat away from themselves with an apparent aversion to willow; many stand rigidly, elbows locked. Grips can be anywhere along the length of the often too long handle, even with fingers resting on the back of the bat’s blade. They stand at all points along a 90 degree arc of orientation towards the bowler. There is less diversity of foot movement – either none or clearing the front-leg to the on-side. Bat paths are also less varied: a swing across the line, or a poke forward without backswing.

Coaches, through the gentle tools of our trade, nudge towards a monoculture. But we live (for now) in liberal times and diversity persists. The girl who can reliably clear mid-wicket will be challenged to hit the ball straight between the cones either side of the coach, but we’re pretty pleased to see a ball hit cleanly in any direction.

A year-or-two on and natural selection will have eliminated some of the more extreme natural techniques and the unsubtle reinforcement of straight-hitting will have grooved many youngsters – certainly during those oft-repeated straight-hitting drills, but maintained by fewer in the wild moments of a ‘real game’ with its 360 degree hitting zone.

The coaches at this stage start to see opportunities to ‘improve’ a player’s technique. Take the example of a boy who is progressing keenly, but continues to show a vulnerability to the full, straight ball, which he carves at, bat arriving from the direction of fourth slip, often passing without intercepting the ball. “Play straight,” we could advise, demonstrate and drill in conventional fashion. If, on the other hand, we tried to base our coaching intervention on the ECB’s core batting principles, we might emphasise the need to present the full face of the bat.

In most cases, use of either of those examples of technical terminology is unlikely to engage the young lad (and I doubt the ECB’s coaching gurus would expect its principles to be applied so drily). In my (pre-core principles) ECB coaching education, an early lesson was to identify and then prioritise the objectives of the coach. With ‘safety’ a clear front-runner, well ahead of the rest of the pack was ‘motivate’.

The coach achieves most when able to understand what would motivate this particular lad, with this particular batting vulnerability, to improve. Does he know he’s been getting out that way? Does he care? If he does, why? To bat longer, to score faster? He might already have his sights set on opening the batting for the 1st XI at some point in the future. Some discussion of the value of ‘playing straight’ might then be relevant. If he wants an attacking response to that full, straight ball, then a chat about where he might hit it, and then how, would follow.

I need to pull myself back as I’m starting to present an ideal response. Situations are rarely so clear-cut in terms of a youngster expressing their requirement, the diagnosis and options for prognosis, particularly when you’re running a session for a dozen eleven year-olds, while a parent is trying to catch your eye with a question about getting a new club shirt, and you’re distracted by a nagging feeling that you can’t raise a team for next week’s game because the local school is running an outward bounds course.

The point I want to make from my idealised situation is simply that softer coaching skills precede the harder technical ones. If our young batsman tells you his preferred resolution to his weakness with full, straight balls would be to ramp them over the keeper’s head, then the coach should wrestle with Rick’s fabulous crisis, not because the ramp is a shot a la mode, but because the motivation of a young player is at stake.

Coaches should avoid imposing solutions – that’s not really coaching, after all – even if, to be frank, it’s what most of us try (unsuccessfully) to do most of the time. The erosion of the certainties of technique – their McCullumisation – demonstrates that insisting there is one way to bat is not merely poor coaching process, but is empirically, as shown on (subscription) TV by today’s professionals, wrong.

In practice, for the coach, saturated in years of a conventional appreciation of batting, who is rushing from a work meeting, through heavy traffic, to run a batting training session with a diverse group of pre-teens, none of whom made it to double-figures in last week’s match, we can only expect so much flexible thinking. Coaches of junior club players will continue to need a simple framework with which to assess their players, and to suggest and shape meaningful practice activities.

This reflection on Rick’s fabulous crisis – or, to repeat my coining, the McCullumisation – has prompted me to recognise I should be offering and talking options when coaching batting: options for playing particular deliveries, options to achieve identified objectives, options to manage situations during innings.

I also have a suggestion for the framers of the syllabus for coaching batting. It is relatively superficial and draws on something I have observed with my sons’ football. It addresses a separate concern that I have about cricket, which is that youngsters play the game without gaining any connection to its history and culture. In small sided football games across the land, primary school aged children know and attempt ‘Maradonas’ and ‘Cruyff turns’. Naming specific skills after the game’s greats can inspire curiosity, YouTube searches and an awareness of the sport outside of this weekend’s Super Sunday. Shouldn’t we be introducing the Sanga off-drive, the King Viv on-drive, the Ponting pull and, of course, the Boycott block?

Returning to my earlier description of the two junior batsmen. The tall, powerful striker of the ball has not played this season and may be lost to the sport. The shorter, conventionally correct batsman plays senior cricket every weekend his studies allow and will complete the ECB Level 1 coaching course this winter as preparation for helping run training for younger players next season. He will fit right in with the rest of the coaching team at our club with our preference, above all else, for the off-drive.


This post was written in response to Rick Walton’s ‘Coaching – A Fabulous Crisis’ found on his blog cricketmanwales, where Rick writes about community cricket coaching, the changing game of cricket and the amazing potential of sport to improve lives. He’s on twitter: @cricketmanwales

Keep on keepin’ on

23 July 2017. 38 not out. Dropped three times. A single boundary. Some edges. Several leg-side full-tosses swiped at and missed. A contretemps with their wicket-keeper over a supposed leg-side edge. The winning runs paddled behind square from a long-hop off my splice. The most assertive action I had taken while at the crease had been to step to short-leg, requesting quiet before the game restarted, while the ‘keeper continued to mutter about me.

The club steward had walked the boundary with his dog while I batted. In the bar after the game, he commented how poor the opposition bowling had been. “Brought you down to their level,” he observed. I wish I could have concurred.

My highest score since 2014 according to the ECB’s cataract-ridden panoptican of the recreational game, play-cricket.com. I wouldn’t dare disagree and surely I would remember if it was wrong.

Afterwards, I was subdued. I felt embarrassed, unsettled. Top-scorer, but undeserved. Not the cricketer I believe myself to be, to have been, to want to become.

So, if this was it, the thought crossed my mind, I should call it a day, give up on these half-dozen games each season. 38 not out would be my retirement innings – undistinguished, but undefeated. There were certainly retirement gifts. Three drops, none of them particularly demanding of the fielder. Loose bowling from the young and the old. Muted, yet correctly pitched, congratulations from team-mates and opposition for taking the team to its victory target.

I once had a team-mate, Andrew P, who retired mid-match – mid-bowling spell. I can’t recall anything he did that day, before his abrupt decision to release himself, that departed further from the norms of acceptable performance than I had.

I slept badly that night. Re-playing images and incidents from the innings. Wrestling with its meaning, trying but failing to ‘put it to bed’.

Keep-on keepin’ on. 

Mike Brearley hummed Beethoven while he batted. Since the mid-1980s, I have silently but tunelessly repeated the lyrics of music far more proletarian (and much briefer) than the former England captain’s choice: the Redskins’ agitprop pop song. Not with their revolutionary intent, but as a reminder to myself that once out in the middle, any dilution of my focus, any dulling of my desire to continue to be right there, facing the bowling, would bring dismissal and disappointment. Batsmen get themselves out most of the time. Don’t gift the bowler though a lack of the asset you are not inherently less endowed with than other batsmen: concentration.

In the days following my 38*, I have reshaped my understanding of that innings. I’ve not denied the generally dreary quality of the opposition, or exaggerated the standard of my batting. But I’ve found many connections between my innings and cherished cricket. There were a few decent shots: a straight drive for three and two leg-glances where the bat gave the ball the merest kiss on its way to long-leg. 

More than that, though, it was the endeavour of an innings that lasted 20 overs. A succession of challenges, an evolving state of the game. Responding to the loss of an early wicket… seeing off the opening bowlers… shifting pressure to the fielders by running singles… becoming the ‘senior’ batsmen when joined by a new partner… continuing to accumulate, not getting over-ambitious, as we approached our target.

Yes, there was dross. I contributed a fair amount of it. But it was a cricket contest with its phases, varying tempos and psychological engagement in which I played a central part. Being out in the middle, making choices, sometimes trusting and other times falling prey to my own instincts. This is the sporting thrill that I hanker for most of all and is unmatched in any of the other activities I take part in.

Yesterday I completed the ECB’s cricket playing survey. Under the heading, ‘Playing Habits’, the ECB ask how much the respondent agrees or disagrees with the following statements (1): ‘I intend to play cricket for as long as I am physically able to’. I selected, ‘Agree strongly’.

Keep on keepin’ on.

————

Footnote 1: A later question was, ‘I worry about looking like a fool when I play sport/exercise’. I selected ‘Disagree slightly’.

The running of the (white) balls

7 July 2017 – festival in northern Spain

The annual running of the bulls in the city of Pamplona pits several dozen men and women against a dozen bulls. The latter are released into the narrow streets, where they find the bull runners between them and their destination, the municipal bullring. Nobody died on the opening day of the festival this year. Five people were hospitalised, with injuries including the goring of one man in the chest and another in the scrotum. A third man suffered serious head injuries after being lifted and tossed by a bull.

Medics line the streets in a 21st century nod to human welfare as a tradition, of hundreds of years standing, continues to attract thrill-seekers and those with a need (and audience) to prove their mettle. So refined is the medical attention that, it is boasted, a victim of a goring will be stabilised within ten minutes of the incident.

7 July 2017 – festival in south-western England

2,000 people gather at the sports ground of a 176 year old college, where they double as spectators and targets for the twenty-two cricketers. The five and a half ounce missiles, cork encased in dyed white leather, have a long heritage, although not in their current hue. Much more recent is the dual role of those who stand and sit at the perimeter of the field. For decades, cricket fans have simply appreciated the action in front of them. Now they play an active part in the drama.

The day’s first casualty finds a ball narrowing in on him as he sits on a plastic picnic chair one row back from the fence. Two people ahead of him jump out of the ball’s way. He rises from his seat parrying the ball from his chest and is knocked backwards over the back of his chair. He lands heavily on his back and is carried away, strapped to a scoop stretcher.

Minutes later a ball sails over the boundary fence, skips off an awning below which diners are recovering their appetite and smashes into the tray of empties being carried by a waitress. Shards of glass tear at her hand and wrist. The ball is dried from the dregs it landed in and tossed back onto the field.

The spectators are now alert. When the next missile heads their way, it is caught competently by a local club cricketer. His view of the ball was cleared by a large man, from the local rugby club, sidestepping its path and landing heavily on the foot of a lady in sundress and sandals. She is lifted away from the incident, visible swelling suggesting a metatarsal fracture.

New Zealand’s former captain plays a short innings. He applies his famed strength and timing to just one delivery. It travels low, hard and fast through a gap in the field, bounces once inside the boundary, clips the top of the boundary board, which diverts it upwards in a direction unanticipated by those braced for its arrival. It catches its victim below the chin, breaking his jaw an instant before his teeth clamp and sever the tip of his tongue.

A high, long hit claims the afternoon’s last casualty. It soars to the back of the temporary stand, where a beery group rise to greet it, but succeed only in deflecting it onto the forehead of their neighbour who is treated on site, before exiting for concussion tests.

This Cheltenham College bloodbath is, with the exception of the concussion case, a fiction, departing from reality at some point after the ball is described crossing the boundary. It is not a fiction that has required a lot of imagination. One of these five incidents happened. The other four very nearly did.

The injured bull-runners at Pamplona do not attract much sympathy. They have willingly entered into a dangerous activity and suffered painful, but predictable consequences.

We do feel sympathetic for anyone injured watching a cricket match. “Should’ve kept their eye on the ball,” some might quibble, flinching as they remember turning to talk to a friend, or looking down at their newspaper, as the crack of a middled slog-sweep is heard.

But with sixes hit at a rate of one per 25 deliveries in professional T20 games, haven’t we reached the point where the need to evade or gain protection from balls smote over the boundary has itself become predictable? And if a risk is predictable, where does responsibility for its mitigation, or liability for its occurrence lie?

A little internet research reveals opposing views to this question in the UK and USA. In the judicature that covers the city of Cheltenham, case law points to sports clubs having responsibility for taking steps to counter reasonably foreseeable risks to the safety of the public.

Across the Atlantic, courts have sided with sports organisations, concluding that spectators understand and accept the risks of attending baseball or ice hockey matches. To place the liability with the franchise would, it is argued, increase their insurance costs, and push the price of tickets beyond the reach of those sports’ core fans.

Gloucestershire County Cricket Club may envy the legal protection enjoyed by the Philadelphia Phillies and the Pittsburgh Penguins, but they operate under the less forgiving legal code. What then, should the county club be doing to fulfil its duty of care?

I have three proposals which relate primarily to cricket played at occasional or festival venues, such as Cheltenham College. Spectators at purpose built professional grounds are less at risk. The playing areas are larger and the rows of fixed seats facing the middle help to keep spectators’ attention on the action. The ECB, with its plan to move to an eight team T20 league in 2020 may have the ultimate solution. These proposals are for interim precautions.

Pitch location

The pitch at Cheltenham was located off-centre. The distance to the nearer square boundary probably only just exceeded the minimum distance required by ECB playing regulations: 50 metres. That short boundary, opposite the college buildings, is where the majority of spectators were sat or stood. Sixes hit over the longer square boundary were highly unlikely to cause harm as so few people were in the line of fire. I would recommend that pitches at grounds like Cheltenham are central and certainly not closer to the square boundary where most spectators are gathered.

Protect areas where spectators mill

One of the pleasures of festival cricket is the promenading, dining, or standing and chatting in sight of the action. People thus occupied are distracted from the game and so less likely to be able to evade a ball hit towards them. Preserving the traditional pleasures of festival cricket needs to be balanced with the modern artillery of limited overs cricket. Protective netting can allow the two to coexist. Occasional grounds lack stands with roofs or double tiers, which could be used as a frame for protective netting. But a temporary net could be raised between the playing area and the concentrated zones where spectators expect to have sight of the match, if not their eye permanently on the ball.

Pad hard surfaces

The really unnerving moment at Cheltenham was when McCullum’s pull shot ricocheted from the lip of the boundary boards. Its pace and sudden change of direction would have defeated anyone but the sharpest slip-fielder. Grounds should ensure that the fittings erected between the players and the spectators do not exacerbate the threat to spectators. Padding around the top of boundary boards and other hard surfaces would absorb the ball’s momentum.

Unlike Pamplona’s running of the bulls, the running of the (white) balls is unlikely to last into the next decade at grounds such as Cheltenham College. The event’s passing will happen whether or not the safety of spectators from flying balls is given a higher priority. In the meantime, do not turn those spectators into unwitting bull-runners; or the players into bulls. John Simpson of Middlesex launched the six that hit the head of the man at the top of the temporary stand. Simpson held up play and walked towards the boundary, concerned for the injured spectator. He only allowed the game to restart when he saw one of the teams’ medics run across the outfield and climb the steps of the stand. The very next ball, mind perhaps not fully returned to the game, Simpson judged a quick single poorly, and was run out.

 

King of the jungle

There are ten minutes left of the session. Parents are milling in increasing numbers in front of the pavilion. Grey clouds gather above the far end of the field. They look ready to join forces with the parents, chasing the players off the ground, into their cars and away home.

It’s been a typical session: my efforts at coaching have engaged some, been tolerated by others and steadfastly rejected by a few more. And I’ve miscalculated: the net competition and small team games have wound up early. My charges – twelve, thirteen years old – have detected my loss of impetus. Some stand or kneel beside their cricket bags, inadequate cover for some rapid, digital social networking. Another group improvise a game, with bat and ball, too close to the parents and younger siblings for safety. A couple of boys, outside of the main cliques, paw the turf with their trainers, avoiding eye-contact, suffused by teenage awkwardness.

I take the bat and ball from the game-players; issue some shouts to gain attention; then sparse words of instruction and I have an 180o arc of cricketers, in single rank, equally spaced, around me. I toss balls, which are caught and returned. Each player stands poised, with knees slightly bent, torso inclined towards me, hands ready to grasp and cup the ball. Matching the physical attitude is a unity of purpose, a keen attention.

I start to hit the ball with the bat. Jumping, one-handed, toppling forward, the catches are taken to the accompaniment of murmurs and calls of approval. The ball bounces off the heel of a hand. The unlucky fielder spins away and moves to the far end of the arc. Everyone else shuffles around. Brief celebrations and the focus returns.

The competition is to be the king, at the top of the arc, with the safest hands and the deepest drop should a chance be mishandled. This group has claimed the game as its own, importing from their biology class a crude hierarchy of existence, with the king at the top, then stepping down, through the animal kingdom, to the lowly, butter-fingered worm.

It is the pace, and the immediate risk and reward of this simple game that galvanise what had minutes before been a haphazard, distracted group of junior cricketers. And I’m transformed too, suddenly communicative and playful. I swap my role with a long-term king and join the arc at its low-point, ready to test my reflexes and accept the youngsters’ verdict.

The ten minutes are devoured. Spots of rain fall but are not remarked upon. Parents try to attract their children’s attention, to get them to withdraw from the game. Any let-up in the serving of catches is hooted and derided. Two more minutes, we agree.

The team’s match this week will pass without a single slip catch accepted or offered. The virtue of this game is immediate and is found in the smiles, boasts and camaraderie of a shared experience that will bring these youngsters back again next week to cricket practice.

Victim of Jadeja

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He clasps the ball in both hands beneath his chin. It’s a devotional gesture from an often profane, exultant cricketer. A step forward, left arm swings down then back up again, briefly into his meditative pose. Then a transformation: his left hand close to his mouth, head turned with eyes following his right hand as it stretches out in front of him. The archer’s stance, the bow at maximum tension, an arrow about to be loosed with the deft flick of his fingers. But this archer is not still. The left arm drops, before being drawn back and up and over in an effortless swing, propelling the ball at the target fixed by his stare.

Watching England fall to defeat after defeat against India in late 2016, I became mesmerised by Ravindra Jadeja’s bowling. Gentle bobbing to the crease, the bowman’s coil, and best of all the fluid sweep of the left-arm. Time and time again, that easeful swing of the arm sending deliveries that zeroed in on pads, the stumps, the edges of bats. When Jadeja is to be memorialised it should be as a fountain. A tight, twisting jet of water flowing from the statue’s high left arm, landing hour after hour, day after day on a length, eroding the hardest of stone surfaces, with its insistent, repetitive delivery.

The gentle, economical back and forward of Jadeja’s bowling, tracing the same path through the air, again and again, lulled me and stole my consciousness. Hypnotised by its simplicity, an action shorn of any extraneous motion, I began to tell myself that I could bowl like that. A little forward motion, feet providing balance, a turn of the arm – each could be imitated, albeit in mirror image. Jadeja had crept inside my head, where he had occluded my great cricketing anxiety: bowling in the nets. Forty-five minutes of purgatory is the deal I must strike in every net session for eight minutes of release spent batting. Jadeja had shown me the way to fulfilment. I would be like him.

The days between Christmas and New Year were dry and bright. I committed to visit the nets each day the weather allowed, having leafed through Amol Rajan’s Twirlymen to remind myself of the required grip and practised around the house, whenever there was nobody watching, my Jadeja-inspired pure delivery.

I was alone on my first net trip. I channeled Jadeja, but found the connection to be poor. Rather than delivering jets that honed in on the crease, I sprayed it around, most humiliatingly sending the ball looping into the netting roof. Briefly I abjured Jadeja and tried seam-up, but found control, when holding the ball conventionally with fingers either side of the seam, impossible. Returning to the true and right way, I tossed out a couple of half-decent overs of finger-spin, enough to encourage me to return.

My second trip was with no.2 son. My dreadful, looping lobs had done nothing in the past to develop his batting as the slow and high bounce confounded him and discouraged him from playing forward. Here was the incentive to send darts down. Success, if measured by my son’s pleasing strokes into the off-side, was mine. A dewy track and sopping balls may also have played a part.

On venture three, I was accompanied by both sons. No.1 hadn’t touched a ball since September, yet when encouraged to try his arm at spin, put my efforts in their place. I asked him for some feedback. “Well,” he said, “your action is fine, it’s just so slow that imperfections have time to creep in.”

I had my inspiration, but realised that autodidacticism (even when leavened with no.1 son’s observations) had very severe limits. I needed a coach. The Old Trafford Indoor School provided one. I was hoping he’d find all the fundamentals in place and with a couple of expert biomechanical tweaks show me how to fire in a good offie.

Coach Andy watched me bowl a few deliveries. He talked me through the mechanics of the off-break then for 15 minutes we chucked balls at each other, all snapping wrists and illegal elbow straightening. Every one of Andy’s flew with red and white hemispheres distinct and jagged nastily on bouncing. Mine were a blur of pink and offered the subtle movement of my hero bowling on a day 1 track.

I tried to put the lesson into practice and Andy made some encouraging noises about my progress. Satisfied that he had identified a fault and a method, through extensive repetition, to address it, he suggested I have a bat. Twenty-five minutes of floaty bowling machine deliveries were enough to undermine my confidence in what should be my stronger suit.

Coach Andy repeated his advice as we left the net, but he asked, was there anything else he could help with? Jadeja’s sumptuous darts that I so coveted flickered in my mind’s eye and prompted a smile and a burst of confidence. “Yes, what can I do to get a bit more pace, more oomph into my bowling?” It was, surely, within touching distance.

Andy chuckled. “One thing at a time. Just work on that release. Keep practising the basics. It won’t happen in a hurry.”

Deceived. Made to look foolish. Just another victim in these last few months of Ravindra Jadeja.

Context, quality and competitive structure in Test cricket

not-venn-page-001Cricket, out in the middle, is a visceral sport. Its language captures the physicality that is its essence. Seam, crease, splice, toe, tail, cut, sweep, edge, drop, stump. Concise, direct, as close to concrete as English nouns will get.

To supplement these words, perhaps because of the multiple levels at which the game can be appreciated, abstract nouns become adopted, semantic shift occurs and great significance becomes attached to them.

Spirit.

Momentum.

Two recent examples. Both show the perils of imprecision innate in abstract notions. Appropriation and assumption lead to dispute and confusion.

A similar process may be happening to the term ‘context’. The word has attained a heightened status in debates about how international cricket can preserve and even develop a broad public appeal. These are important matters to those ardent for the game. Enhancing the ‘context’ of fixtures, in the sense in which the word gets used, may just play an instrumental part in international cricket enduring as a sport with mass appeal.

The vast majority of international cricket is played in bilateral series unattached to a wider competitive structure. Results are jammed into a simple algorithm to create official rankings, but they are treated partly as a thing of curiosity and partly as an irritant.

The ‘context’ argument runs that each match, and cumulatively the sport as a whole, would attract more interest if it had extrinsic value outside of the series currently in progress. Every result should feed into a transparent and finite tally of performance. The absence of this tally is what is meant when international cricket is said to ‘lack context’.

I agree, in that most narrow definition of context. But I disagree with the statement that international cricket lacks context, when the word is given a broader and more natural meaning. And I am unconvinced that feeding every result into a tabulation of teams will do much to alter for the good how cricket is perceived more widely.

International cricket is replete with context. Traditional rivalries need no further explanation. More recently established and rarer contests can quickly gain compelling context. The Oval in 1998 , Chittagong 2016 – famous first victories over England. Each fixture that follows is enhanced for knowing that the traditional order has been upset and will be again. Even drawn matches can be enriched by the history of great rearguards that have dug sides out of intimidating deficits.

Cricket may be unusual for having so little of its interest hanging on the final match result. Individual performances and great passages of play can lodge deeper in cricket’s collective memory than where the match spoils went.

I watched three days of play at Lord’s in 2016. One was heavily animated by the narrow version of context recommended for international cricket. The other two – days three and four of the 1st England v Pakistan Test – were not. There was intrinsic pleasure from the quality of play. On day 3 England’s seamers pushed and probed at the Pakistan batsmen. Day 4, led by Yasir Shah, Pakistan prevailed once Rahat Ali had knocked over England’s top three. And context elevated the spectacle:

  • Cook matched Moeen Ali against Misbah, who had batted so freely against him in the series in the UAE the previous autumn. To his second ball, Misbah slog-swept to the Tavern, where Hales completed that most crowd-pleasing activity, the running catch. Remember Brearley running under a skier towards that same boundary 37 years earlier in the second World Cup Final? More context.
  • Yasir Shah wasn’t just a leg-spinner baffling England batsmen. He demanded recollection of Abdul Qadir, Warne and  Mushtaq who had also floated leggies and googlies past our best batsmen. And there was the context of England’s then looming tour to India and trial by spin.
  • The whole match was suffused with the context of Pakistan’s prior visit to Lord’s, Mohammad Amir’s return to Test cricket and Misbah’s career nearing its end.
  • From a personal point of view, I had the context of watching day three sitting with my father and older son – a landmark in my cricket-spectating history.

My remaining visit to Lord’s was for the final day of the County Championship. The destination of the title hinged on that day. In support of the narrow definition of context – as the relationship of the match to a wider competitive structure – it drew Lord’s largest crowd for a county championship fixture in decades. It also motivated both teams to pursue a result and so provided a climax fitting for the large crowd.

But the wider competitive framework into which this match fitted, created a day that progressed from combative play where neither side conceded anything in the morning; to a post-lunch drift; which abruptly switched to buffet bowling and unimpeded boundary hitting as the target was set; and ending with both teams throwing everything into achieving a result.

I felt the contrivance sapped the spectacle of meaning. It elevated one context above any others. It could have been the day that Somerset won their first County Championship title, 125 years after joining the competition. They probably would have become champions had the Middlesex v Yorkshire game run its natural course; had the wider competitive context not overrun all other considerations on its final day.

International cricket would gladly welcome record attendances and final day finishes as vindication for upsetting a fashion of organising Test cricket that has developed over more than 100 years. I do not oppose the upsetting of tradition by, in this case, bringing more structure to the game. I also recognise that the context that excited me at the Test at Lord’s is drawn from 40 years of following the sport. Competition, points, positions and qualification can give an additional layer of meaning and make the game more accessible. But bringing those features to Test cricket also presents a risk. I describe three situations, none of which will be the norm, but when they do occur, cricket followers, established and new, are likely to find them unappealing.

England and Australia are tied going into the final Test of the Ashes series. England, owing to results elsewhere are guaranteed a place in the Test Championship play-off; Australia have been eliminated. Both sides approach the match as a dead rubber, which in terms of the overarching tournament, is what it is.

India find themselves in a ‘must win’ match for their hopes of a play-off appearance to stay alive. Pakistan have a grip on the game and set India 440 to win on day five. The match is over by mid-afternoon as the Indian players throw away their wickets in a futile chase rather than opt to battle for a draw against their traditional foe. 

South Africa rest key players from the deciding game of a series in Sri Lanka because the points they need to progress in the Championship will be more readily gained by fielding a full-strength team when they return home to face New Zealand.

The competitive context of a Test championship could, at times, damage the competitive value of individual matches. Battles will be sacrificed so wars can be won. There is also the concern that the championship itself may leak credibility owing to its structure. This is most evident in terms of the advantage of playing in home conditions, a benefit that teams have consolidated in recent years. Under the format currently favoured by the ICC, each team will host four series and travel away for another four. While the even balance of home and away play helps the competition’s case, the way those fixtures fall could still drastically skew teams’ prospects. Consider how India’s chances could be affected by these alternative itineraries:

Option 1 Option 2
H v England A v England
H v New Zealand A v New Zealand
A v Pakistan H v Pakistan
A v Sri Lanka H v Sri Lanka
H v South Africa A v South Africa
H v Australia A v Australia
A v Bangladesh H v Bangladesh
A v West Indies H v West Indies

In option 1, India would play just a single series outside of Asia. In the alternative, all their away fixtures are in nations where their players have traditionally struggled to perform to their potential. How credible would a world championship be when a major nation can be given such a leg-up, or be so shackled?

I made the point earlier that the appeal of cricket centres much less on the final result of matches than is the case with other sports. Quality cricket requires no context. Context, in the form of competition, acts as a prop for interest in lower quality fare. As an example, football’s World Cup qualifying campaigns feature many dreary matches, despite the incentive of a finals appearance. “Never mind the performance,” we’re reassured, “it’s the result that matters.”

If those words become associated with the Test Championship, we may look back fondly at the days of bilateral series leading nowhere in particular, but exciting us there and then.

Called up to the front-line in the battle for the playground

allstarsThe suggestion that something big might be coming the way of grassroots junior cricket could be detected last year. There was a connection made with ECB’s new Director of Participation, whose appointment in 2015 was welcomed, but still seemed unlikely to impact directly on the cricket played by children in my environs.

From late 2016, as the upper echelons of the recreational game were ushered to hear the word and get with the programme, snippets emerged: a name, an age group, a new way of doing things we’ve all been toiling away at for years. Seats for the launch event could be reserved months in advance.

The show, now about half-way through its 20 stadium itinerary, reached my town this morning. Admission only came after a spot of queuing to identify yourself and confirm the precise spelling of your contact email. An enterprise that is prepared to make people wait so that it can collect key data accurately has an air of purposefulness.

Into the hall, we moved, to take tea amongst displays of All Stars equipment. “Look, they’ve rebranded the old Kwik-Cricket stuff,” observed someone close to me. It did look a little as though they had. And symbolically, that played to the scepticism that greets the new venture with the knowing nod that we have all been here before.

Then, jarringly, the presentation got under way with something unexpected. Not the Australian accents, but the challenge to cricket to win the battle of the playground. Maybe it’s the years of feeding off football’s scraps, a learned if unhappy submissiveness to that bulldozer of a sport. Or it might just be the choice of words. There’s nothing martial in my work with junior cricketers. Diplomacy, persuasion, bad-mouthing the enemy (football), but not warfare. That would be suicidal.

Yet, within minutes, these twin doubts – we’ve heard it all before and we’re being lead to a bloody rout – were dismissed. The first telling blow came from Matt Dwyer, who spent equal amounts of time identifying himself as a moving force in Australia’s Milo In2Cricket programme and as a twenty year cricket club volunteer. He is one of us (who’s one of them), who just happens also to be a marketing guru.

Then the video of primary school kids chattering happily about football and technology, but clueless about cricket. Holding a photo of Alastair Cook (CBE) wearing his England kit, one child guessed the subject worked at Waitrose, before folding up with giggles.

Followed up with the blunt tool of survey figures showing the irrelevance of cricket to our children. Alongside which, given the same prominence as the 60% of kids who don’t name cricket when giving a list of ten sports, was the statement ‘volunteer burn-out’. All Stars aims, Dwyer emphasised, to introduce new volunteers just as much as it is about more kids playing the game. They are not asking us to do more, and not as I feared, denigrating what we do, but summoning reinforcements.

The presentation, to several hundred veterans of junior cricket coaching and organising, continued to outline its research basis, its methodology, the resources and support structure that will make it happen. The battle-cry caught our attention; the campaign logistics showed that our national leaders are ready to commit troops and have a credible plan of attack.

In many parts of the country, All Stars may find a junior sport in terminal decline. In my area, it flourishes in the shadow of behemoth football. The challenge at my club, and the many like it, will be how to integrate this sudden arrival, signalled with a modern fanfare of radio ads and mumsnet coverage, without doing damage to the quiet and steady, or steadily expanding, club junior section.

I own up to one more reservation about All Stars. Its ambition is substantial. It aims to make cricket the popular choice of young children and their families. It wants to take cricket well beyond the point to which 10,000 clubs like mine could lead it on their own. And if it succeeds, cricket will be popular and my slightly eccentric obsession will be ordinary. I will be part of the mainstream.

I will just have to deal with that and make an advance on the playground, skirmish with football and computer games or, if exclusiveness is really what I cherish about cricket, take up crown green bowls.