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Elite coaching and KP’s Donnie Darko moment

Donnie Darko-page-001

Donnie: Well, life isn’t that simple. I mean, who cares if Ling Ling returns the wallet and keeps the money? It has nothing to do with either fear or love.

Kitty Farmer: Fear and love are the deepest of human emotions.

Donnie: Okay. But you’re not listening to me. There are other things that need to be taken into account here, like the whole spectrum of human emotion. You can’t just lump everything into these two categories and then just deny everything else.

(Donnie Darko, 2001)

Lancashire Head Coach, Peter Moores, was the keynote speaker at a business event I attended recently. He spoke for 45 minutes, fluently and engagingly, before taking questions from the audience.

I found Moores particularly interesting on the subject of strengths and weaknesses. He recalled how when he first asked a group of players to identify three strengths and three weaknesses, on average, the players came back with two strengths and four weaknesses. Moores’ approach is to develop strengths, rather than correct weaknesses. He gave the example of Alastair Cook’s preference to score on the leg-side. Moores argued that too many coaches have tried to get Cook to develop his off-side strokes, which don’t come as naturally. Cook, he believes, should invest that time in refining even further his leg-side shots.

Moores’ topic was elite coaching and perhaps at that level, a batsman’s weakness, if not causing regular early dismissals, can be parked to concentrate on what the player is really, really good at. I have read since that Graeme Smith came to the same conclusion about his own reliance on leg-side scoring shots – capitalise on it, don’t qualify it.

Moores’ precepts were generally positive and humanistic. I didn’t detect the micro-management of his players that some observers report as the stifling influence of the Flower years on English international cricket. He expressed his conception of the coaching process as being ‘inside out’, not ‘outside in’. Players learn and develop because they have the will to do so – to which the coach contributes through enthusiasm. But learning doesn’t happen because the coach decides to apply it (from outside) to the players.

“I love words,” the former England Coach explained. I am pretty fond of them, too, but it was from that point that I started to wonder, to question what it would be like in that changing room. Maybe I just want a cricket coach to declare his adoration for on-drives, or flighted off-breaks. Or, maybe, it all just started sounding a little bit psycho-religio-motivational.

Moores had made an off-hand comment about England’s Ashes defeat, while acknowledging his lack of privileged insight, being because they “knew the rewards of victory, but had forgotten the consequences of defeat”.  Complacency, which I take this formula to mean, could well have played a part, but it’s the sort of unproveable theory that can be applied to any side that loses unexpectedly. Perhaps, I am being harsh and he was just being tactful in avoiding more specific criticisms given the possibility that he may be asked to re-join Team England?

The Lancashire Head Coach hadn’t mentioned the cricketer whose resistance had ended his period as England Coach. But questions from the audience meant that that day wouldn’t be one when Moores could avoid talking about Kevin Pietersen. KP, Moores suggested, had crossed a line that breached the team’s culture  in Australia, just as he had five years earlier.

I inferred, from the strength of Moores’ attachment to a particular usage of the words he loved, where that line may have been. Moores provided a series of ‘opposites’ that he argued elite coaching had to navigate. The ‘opposition’ that seemed most critical to his way of working was between ‘belief’ and ‘doubt’. “Belief is the enemy of Doubt.”

I am not an elite performer. I readily accept that those that operate at the very top of their professions tend to have great confidence. Simplification and clarification may be crucial to keeping their minds sharply focused on the task at hand. But with the luxury of my mediocrity comes a distaste and distrust of interpreting experience through adages. Moreover, doubt can be a good thing: it leads us to challenge accepted truths, driving us into new and interesting ventures. Belief, on the other hand, so easily closes the mind to learning.

Moores’ formula might work for the majority of elite performers in his teams, but it’s too rigid to take account of everyone’s needs. There’s even psychological research into sports performers that finds some self-doubt is associated with success – more than confidence is.

You can’t just lump everything into these two categories and deny everything else.

In the eponymous movie, Donnie Darko, sensitive, troubled teenager, was reacting against the spread within his school of a simplistic, self-help liturgy, peddled by a televangelist-like salesman.

Imagine now, a singularly talented cricketer, edgy and awkward, prone to expressing himself insensitively, questions a tactic used by the team. He’s told that “doubt is the enemy of belief” – or whatever team maxim Andy Flower insisted upon. Does the cricketer keep with the programme, being told what to believe and what not to doubt, when he knows that if he scores a three hour hundred he can turn around his team’s fortunes?  Donnie Darko, when told to place everything on the line between fear and love, told his teacher to shove it up their ass. Perhaps that’s where the Ashes tour menu book ended up as well. Donnie had his contract terminated, too.

Broad appeal

broad 2I would rather Stuart Broad had walked.

That marks me out as naive, living in the past and detached from the realities of top-level international sport.

Here’s an irony: had Broad walked, I doubt he would have got any credit for it. Walking is the act of a batsman bringing clarity to a situation where there is ambiguity about whether the ball was hit. There wasn’t ambiguity in this case. If Broad had tucked his bat under his arm and headed to the dressing room, our thoughts would have turned to Broad’s weak back-foot dab, to the continuing magic of Agar’s debut, to England’s slender lead and not to the batsman’s magnanimity for acknowledging he was out. Ambiguity wasn’t the problem; Aleem Dar was and Broad exploited that.

This England team seems dense with characters who are divisive or unloved. I can think of only three players about whom there is a consensus of approval, who have a broad appeal: Alastair Cook, Matthew Prior, James Anderson, with Joe Root headed in the right direction. The antipathy towards Broad is based on his sulky, quarrelsome behaviour as a bowler; vanity about his appearance; his attainment of an undroppable status in the Test team, even when his performances don’t merit that certainty; and rumours that he has been active in a clique within the team, having had some involvement in the twitter account that goaded team-mate Kevin Pietersen.

In my estimation, Broad has risen high above that sour and self-obsessed reputation four times. Around each of these events, I have warmed to him and respected him.

The first occasion was after the 2007 World T20 when Yuvraj Singh struck him for 36 in an over at Durban. Broad was barely one year into his international career and had not yet made his Test debut. I thought that might sink him, or at least require some intensive therapy before he could again have the confidence to bowl at international batsmen. Not being a bowler (and as I have mentioned elsewhere three consecutive sixes did for my bowling pretensions), I admired his courage when his career continued without pause a few weeks later.

Incident number two was his eighth wicket partnership of 332 with Jonathan Trott at Lord’s in 2010. It was thrilling counter-attacking cricket that followed the dismissal of four of the previous five batsmen for ducks. And I was there.

The third highlight, and the only one with which I have no personal connection, was Broad’s performance on the tour of the UAE in the series against Pakistan. On lifeless tracks, Broad’s bowling was instrumental in England gaining positions of advantage early in the matches and then dragging themselves back into the game after the batsmen let the team down. His bowling was smart, stifling and straight. He took advantage of any movement that could be coaxed from the conditions, and ended the top wicket taker amongst the quick bowlers competing and bowled more overs than Graeme Swann.

The final event that lifted him up in my estimation was the Test Match Special interview he gave earlier this summer. Aside from cricket, my other deep interest is junior sport and the role of parents and coaches, which I explore on Touchline Dad. Broad spoke openly and very appealingly about his experiences as a young sports player. Asked about what influenced him to play cricket as a boy, his answer surprised: it wasn’t his Dad, the Test cricketer, but his Mum. He spoke warmly of their relationship and how her support – playing with him in the garden, then as he grow older, getting him to and from games, and always watching him play – helped him develop. He contrasted this quiet, constant presence with the dads who brought their boys to the nets hours before matches, drilling shots or deliveries. I appreciated his appreciation that driving home after games his mother wouldn’t grill him about how he had played, but let him talk or stay quiet depending on his mood.

So I have warmed to Broad when I’ve felt able to identify with him. And so it’s through the frame of my role as a junior coach that I have come to a conclusion about Broad’s most recent and heavily discussed misdemeanour. I have put my mind to what his exploitation of Umpire Dar’s error means for young cricketers of 10-13, playing their first seasons of hard-ball cricket.

Most of the boys and girls I coach will not have seen the incident. I see very little influence of professional cricketers on the youngsters. They play the game because their family does, or because some exposure at school has drawn them to the club. I detect widespread ignorance of the current game amongst those boys and girls. At this week’s junior nets, I was running a session on batting against slow bowling. “Who are the best spin bowlers in England and the world at the moment?” I asked. Swann and Ashwin were mentioned, but so were Bopara and Warne. Most of these kids lack the opportunity or desire to spend days soaking up cricket and its culture on television.

Some do, of course, so the question about Broad’s example is worth looking at. I have never spoken to the junior players I coach about ‘walking’. There are few fine edges and fewer close to the wicket catches in our matches. The most pressing issue of conduct and etiquette is the acceptance of umpires’ decisions. Umpires in these matches (myself included) are not trained in match adjudication. We struggle, some more successfully than others, with an instinctive bias towards the players we coach. While we stand umpiring in the middle, we worry if the field is set well, if the next batsman is padded-up or kicking a football around the field and whether those boys playing in the nets are wearing all the right protective equipment. Confounding decisions are, therefore, frequently made.

The players themselves have limited understanding of the rules and in the pressure of playing often don’t really know what’s just happened. Encouraging them to take matters into their own hands – for example, walking, if they believe they are out – is a lower priority than getting them to accept an umpire’s decision and get on with the game.

I would rather Broad had walked, but not for the influence it will have on the cricketers I coach. Michael Clarke’s angry aside to Aleem Dar at the end of the over is the behavioural example I would like to expunge.

I am of course marked out by this view as naive, old-fashioned and out-of-touch. But I do wonder what Stuart Broad’s Mum would have said to him in the car if she had driven him home from Trent Bridge on Friday.

Grown-up cheating and being grown-up about cheating

danish kaneria

Last week began with Chance to Shine and MCC publishing the findings of research into cheating in children’s sport. By the end of the week, cricket’s sordid underbelly of player corruption and spot-fixing was back in the news as Danish Kaneria’s appeal against the ECB’s disciplinary decision and resulting sanctions was lost. Cheating cheats everywhere.

The Chance to Shine report plausibly points to the practices of professional sportsmen and women as setting a poor example that influences the behaviour of children. Plausible, but flawed. When I first played board games with my children, they weren’t mimicing something seen elsewhere when they rolled the dice so they landed behind the sofa, disappearing to retrieve the dice and double sixreappearing with double-six pointing upwards. Kids cheat because they want so much to win, and because the social inhibitions are under-developed that either make cheating feel ‘wrong’, or the fear of the consequences of being caught sufficiently great. The most striking finding in the Chance to Shine research – which went unreported as inconvenient to the campaign – is that the largest source of pressure on children to win comes from themselves and their peers.

Adults do contribute, of course. Lots of umpires of junior cricket matches cannot resist rewarding the efforts of their team when called on to adjudicate a tight decision. The example children may draw from watching professional sportsmen and women is the sheer variety of cheating options available to seek advantage.

Children and adults cheat to win. To my knowledge, only adults cheat to lose. That’s a grown-up preserve. It requires the mental suppleness to abstract oneself away from the game being played to attend to some other objective. That non-match centred aim tends to be money, but may be avoiding getting beaten up.

So the cheating cheats aren’t the same. But the stories of school cheating and professional match-fixing in cricket have something else in common. In a previous post, I made a case that the Chance to Shine report over-egged the gravity of its findings and even misrepresented its own research. I detect something similar going on with a lot of what is said and written about ‘fixing’.

A frequently used analogy for grown up cheating – match-fixing – is that it is a ‘cancer’ within the game. The ICC set up its anti-corruption unit in 2000 because, ‘Cricket’s reputation and integrity were tarnished and in danger of being destroyed.” Sir Paul Condon’s review found corruption was widespread, although participants in fixed matches may have been ignorant and others felt impotent or too intimidated to counter it.

A lot of cricket enthusiasts will have keenly followed matches that are now thought to have been contaminated. Since Condon’s report, spot fixing was found to have occurred in the highest profile match, a test at Lord’s, and in an expendable county competition – Pro40. It has happened, may be happening now and will do so in the future. The tarnishing has carried on.

This prompted the thought:

Has anyone actually stopped following cricket because of the proven and rumoured cases of corruption?

Most issues usually have attached to them at least one high profile dissident, but I can’t remember hearing of anyone burning their county membership, returning Test match tickets or making a big noise about stopping their satellite subscription.

Match-fixing is a parasite. It gives influence over the game to people without sympathy for our sport. And there are casualties of it within the game. The authorities should make it as hard as they can for the fixers to operate and deal harshly with those found to have acted corruptly, but I don’t see the evidence that it will humble our whole sport. Cricket has in-built resilience.

Part of cricket’s protection is the hold it has over its followers. Cricket itself is the drug. A fixed match is like a street narcotic, cut with some baking powder. We don’t get the same high, we may feel queasy about this pastime to which we invest so much time, but we want another… fix?

Another layer in its protection is that cricket followers, child-like in many ways, have a maturity in one important sense. Winning isn’t everything. Individual performances, battles within the match, the unfolding narrative and the sheer aesthetic delight of cricket’s many disciplines are the lofty pleasures. And then there’s the fuel of banter and twitter: daft shots, out-of-control bowlers, haywire running between the wickets and shelled catches. Some of it might not be legitimate, but the vast majority is.

In thinking through all this, I came to realise I have direct experience. I have form. Many years ago, I played in a fixed match. The opposition wanted to lose, not for money, but to spite a third team. I suppose I contributed to the cover-up by batting so horrendously against their pie-chuckers that we stumbled to the target we were being ushered towards. It was an unsatisfactory experience at the time, but those feelings were overshadowed by embarrassment at how poorly I batted. I have wondered occasionally what I might have done differently, but I haven’t dwelt on it. Amongst the many reasons for not spending my precious time playing cricket, this one experience does not feature.

Cheating is an aspect of wanting to win. Grown-up cheating is an ugly consequence of sport taking place in a wider social and economic context. We seem to feel better if we scare ourselves about our game collapsing if we allow grown-up cheating to take hold. Given this cheating has, is and will happen, I see nothing in our actual behaviour that suggests we will allow the game to collapse.

Foul play by Chance to Shine?

Chance to Shine-page-001

Chance to Shine, the UK cricket charity, has published research (jointly with the MCC) in support of their scheme to encourage ‘fair play’ in schools. Their headline finding was:

‘Pressure cooker’ of school sports turning children into a win-at-all costs generation

That’s a situation that is saddening, if not surprising, for sports lovers. As the Chance to Shine piece makes clear, the antics of professional sports stars do make the gaining of an advantage by unfair means seem routine.

To its credit, the organisation made the results of its surveys of c1,000 school-age children and c1,000 parents available on its website. So, I took a look and this is what I found – matching data to the claims.

Claim 1. School sports are highly pressurised.

Evidence 1.1 The children were not asked about school sport, but any sport they play (Children’s questionnaire: Q1).

Evidence 1.2 The biggest source of pressure is not institutional as I feel the headline implies. Of those who acknowledge pressure to win, 21% say it comes mostly from teachers or coaches. Bigger sources are other children (46.9%) and themselves (21.9%). (CQ: Q2)

Claim 2. The headline implies, rather than states, that the problem is greater with this generation of children

Evidence 2.1 No comparative data from surveys carried out in the past is supplied.

Evidence 2.2 The perceptions of parents over whether there is more cheating now than when they were at school were fairly evenly split: Yes – 34.0%; No – 36.3% (Parents’ questionnaire: Q9). 24.2% of parents didn’t recall ever feeling under pressure to win when playing sports at school (PQ: Q7). This is higher than from the equivalent question put to the sample of children (18.4%), but the questions are worded differently making exact comparisons difficult (CQ: Q1).

Claim 3. Two-thirds (64 per cent) of children in Britain’s schools are cheating during school sport due to the pressure they feel under to win

Evidence 3.1 The question is not about school sport, but all sport played by the children (CQ: Q3)

Evidence 3.2 63.6% of the children who say their teammates feel under pressure to win say it always (6.1%), frequently (13.8%) or sometimes (44.4%) causes them to cheat (CQ: Q5). The statement doesn’t concede that cheating may be happening at different frequencies – possibly rarely.

Evidence 3.3 The 10% of children who say their teammates are never under pressure to win (CQ: Q3) didn’t answer this question. Therefore, the proportion who said pressure is causing their teammates to cheat is better estimated as 57.2% (90% x 63.6%).

Claim 4: 90 per cent of children admit their teammates feel under pressure to win whilst playing sport.

Evidence 4.1 Teammates feel under pressure to win all the time (17.0%), frequently (30.6%) and sometimes (42.4%). While the figure for the proportion of teammates affected is correct, it isn’t the ever present sensation the statement conveys (CQ: Q3).

Claim 5: Three-quarters (75 per cent) of the 1,002 children aged eight-16 surveyed believe that their teammates would cheat if they could get away with it

Evidence 5.1 Again the proportion is correct, but the statement doesn’t acknowledge that 49.3% would cheat sometimes (not every time or frequently). (CQ: Q7)

Evidence 5.2 The sample answering this question was 960, not 1,002, as it excluded the 42 who never play sport. This error has no impact on the message of the piece (CQ: Q7).

Claim 6: Children also expressed a lack of remorse from their peers with 37 per cent believing that their teammates do not care if they won by cheating…

Evidence 6.1 A syntactic point: can you express a lack of remorse for someone else based on your belief of what that person feels? I suspect the survey focused on what ‘teammates’ do as it is less threatening than asking the children directly whether they themselves cheat, etc and so generates more reliable information.

Evidence 6.2 The proportions of teammates were reported accurately.

These comparisons of the claims with the evidence point to a hardening of the case – an elimination of equivocation, some inaccuracy, some clear exaggeration and some implied meanings unsupported by evidence. The effect is to make the Chance to Shine fair play scheme seem more urgently needed and more pertinent to the environment where it will be delivered – schools. I wonder whether the scheme was planned and funded ahead of the research, rather than the other way around, which would have enabled the scheme to be informed by evidence rather than have data amassed to support a policy already in process.

In picking through this data, I don’t mean to deny that cheating in school (and other junior) sport occurs or that the effort to instill fair play is unworthy. It just struck me that the Chance to Shine report has sought to gain advantage, to stretch the numbers, to deal other than directly with the evidence – in a report on CHEATING! And, as you hear so often of those caught bending the rules in sport, they didn’t need to do it.

To understand why, I’d suggest those responsible for the report complete a survey (which will be familiar to them):

Q1: Do you feel under pressure to present a strong case for your work?

Q2: Where does that pressure mostly come from? Boss, funders, media, me, other sports authorities?

Q3: Do you think the pressure colleagues feel causes them to exaggerate or stretch the facts available to them?

Q4: If your colleagues had the chance to exaggerate or stretch the facts and get away with it, do you think they would do so?

Q5: Why do you think your colleagues would exaggerate or stretch the facts? To get better media coverage; To please the boss; It’s part of the game.

Q6: If your colleagues got good media coverage by exaggerating or stretching facts, how does it make them feel? They don’t care; getting good coverage is the most important thing to them; guilty; happy or proud.

Finally, Chance to Shine is an excellent scheme. My club, my children’s school and lots of local children have benefited from its funding. My kids have even had a ‘spirit of cricket’ school assembly. My support for the scheme is so strong, I’ve sponsored Omar Khan to run the London Marathon to raise funds for it. (Declaration of interest: Omar was club skipper when I played in SE London in the 1990s).

DRS and the price of justice

I first played senior cricket for a village team in South Buckinghamshire. One of our neighbouring clubs, Jordans, had Bill Giles, BBC weatherman, a regular in their team. In 1994, a decade after I played there, Jordans Cricket Club was taken to court. The court case didn’t concern a misleading weather forecast, but an attempt by a resident of the village to put a stop to cricket because of the danger caused by cricket balls being hit into his garden.

The judge rejected the application for an injunction to stop the game being played there. His reasoning never matched the lyrical charm of Lord Denning’s in a similar case two decades earlier

In summertime village cricket is the delight of everyone. Nearly every village has its own cricket field where the young men play and the old men watch. [Now, due to a High Court judge’s decision] The cricket ground will be turned to some other use. The young men will turn to other things instead of cricket. The whole village will be much poorer. And all this just because of a newcomer who has bought a house there next to the cricket ground.

[Court of Appeal, 1977]

The judge in the Jordans CC case was more pragmatic, advising the complainant to use their more sheltered back garden or to go out on afternoons when the club had a home fixture. And in denying the request for an injunction, the judge awarded costs to the cricket club. There, for the unsuccessful complainant, was the price of justice: a hefty bill for his own and the club’s legal costs.

The principle that a party to a court case who is unsuccessful, particularly where their case is judged to have little merit, should pay the costs of the case is central to the UK’s civil justice system. It ensures that someone forced to go to court without good reason is not penalised financially. It also acts as a deterrent to people launching frivolous, capricious or vexatious legal actions.

In November 2009, the ICC introduced an in-play dispute resolution system for international cricket: the Decision Review System (DRS). Players can request that a decision made by an on-field umpire is reviewed by an off-field umpire equipped with video and audio technology. DRS remains controversial. The first major cause of controversy is the accuracy and reliability of the technology used by the third umpire. This post doesn’t address that question, other than to observe that technology refines at great speed, particularly where it is heavily used and investment is made available.

The second cause of controversy is that in its practical application, the system is being used for much more than its stated purpose of ridding the game at its highest level of the occasional rank bad decision made by on-field umpires. drs3Players are using it as part of the tactical armoury of the game, challenging marginal decisions, in the hope that the odd one may fall in their favour. This post looks at the question of how to promote responsible use of this form of justice. In all honesty, I wouldn’t pretend to have come up with a solution, but have pursued an idea which may develop our understanding of the place of the DRS in the game.

Currently, in matches where DRS is available, each side can continue requesting reviews each innings until it makes two unsuccessful reviews. The two unsuccessful reviews have become part of the resources available to each team and so there is a tendency to use them up. The tactical use of these reviews tends to be by or against star batsmen or, if spare, towards the end of the innings. Only one-quarter of reviews are upheld.

The ‘business model’ for DRS encourages the tactical use of reviews and not solely the righting of clear wrongs. Some cricket viewers see no problem with this, but there are well-constructed arguments against it: there is a progressive dilution of the on-field umpires’ authority as multiple challenges to their decision-making is sanctioned; it delays play while the off-field umpire considers the video and audio evidence.

I believe that these concerns could be allayed were the unsuccessful use of DRS to carry with it a suitable penalty. We will go back to Jordans Cricket Club to find an analogy for the current situation.

Imagine if the residents of each village were given free access to court, subject to them not losing two court cases in a year, to lay claims against their village cricket club for damages arising from balls hit into their property. The county courts would be pelted with claims like an IPL crowd is by white cricket balls. The penalty for misuse of the privilege to obtain court adjudication would simply be the reduction in the opportunity to misuse that privilege and then to use it at all.

Instead of creating a new currency in which to levy penalties for misuse – future use of the courts – the civil justice system exacts penalties in society’s mainstream currency, money. Cricket’s currencies are runs and wickets. If teams are to understand the value of, and respect, the DRS review, they should be made to pay for their misuse in one of those currencies. I would suggest, runs.

The idea is simply that a player (batsman or bowler) requesting a review of an drs jt umpire’s decision should stand a surety in runs, which would be deducted from their team’s score should the review prove unsuccessful. There would be no other restriction placed on the requesting of reviews. This could discourage review of all but the most glaring umpire errors.

It would have this desired effect if the penalty were set at the right level. And this – setting of the tariff – is I’ll concede, very tricky.

In microeconomic theory, a consumer will pay a sum for a good or service that represents the value that item has for them. The value of a wicket, which is what the DRS considers, varies according to the situation of the game and the individual player. A side facing defeat may be prepared to gamble a lot on a review if it could help turn an otherwise lost cause. A team whose innings is nearing a declaration would not be prepared to put much of their position at risk as their batsmen are to be called off the ground shortly.

But the producer sets the price, not the consumer, who merely decides if the price is right. The tariff could be set in many different ways: current score of batsmen reviewing/subject to review; the batsman’s own average; the average score across all test cricket; the average score for players in that series or for matches at that venue. The higher the figure the fewer reviews would be requested, but the more distorting to the game’s situation an unsuccessful review would be. Perhaps the most interesting observation is that there is no obvious equation for calculating the value of a wicket.

So, while penalising misuse of DRS reviews with run deductions may successfully limit their use to glaring errors, much depends upon the level at which the tariff is set. As a practical solution it piles complexity on an already complicated regulation. It shares with the current arrangements (i.e. the arbitrary two unsuccessful review limitation) the weakness that it does not guarantee that umpiring errors will be corrected as some deserving of justice may be discouraged from risking their team’s score. It may be that the only way to remove the tactical element from the DRS is to incorporate the technology fully into the initial decision made by the umpire, banishing all player-initiated reviews.

Cricket, a great summer of sport and an unlikely saviour?

It has been a great summer of British sport. The lists of achievements and highlights being drawn up and circulated do not feature cricket. That’s not just because of the 140 character limit of twitter. It is a frank assessment of the contribution of Britain’s national summer sport to this ‘once in a lifetime’ season.

Cricket was always going to find 2012 a difficult summer to command attention. A home Olympics has pulling power like nothing else. Euro 2012, although lacking the breathless and reason-less fervour for the England team of most recent tournaments, was guaranteed dedicated and comprehensive coverage on terrestrial television. Less predictable, but always a possibility, was that tennis would have a British Wimbledon finalist and at the end of the summer a Grand Slam Champion. Many fewer people would have anticipated, than the number who enjoyed, a British winner of the Tour de France.

And then there was the weather. The Met Office provides a pithy review of the summer’s weather the wettest since 1912 and second dullest on record. Players shuttled on and off the field regularly and had whole days confined to the dressing room: three days of the 3rd Test v West Indies at Edgbaston; three of 13 ODIs washed out – with two more decided on Duckworth-Lewis calculations.

External factors meant English cricket would struggle in its market this year. But what about its own contribution to its plight. Cricket, perhaps any sport, thrives as a spectacle in any of the following circumstances: when the host team is successful, the quality of play is high, there are charismatic participants, competition is tight, the contest has relevance.

The English international cricketing summer fell short of providing that mix, in avoidable ways:

  • The timing of England’s early summer series meant their opponents could not field their strongest Test team because players had contracts to play elsewhere. Those stars arrived for the short-form series and England’s marquee player stepped aside.
  • In the mid-summer, the traditional foe were flown in, out-of-season for a non-traditional contest clinging to the context of the 140 year rivalry.
  • At the end of the summer, England’s most anticipated rivals came for a three test series before moving hastily into an ODI match-up, at a time when minds were already turning to the World T20. So they rested three of their stars, a move followed by England who had already contrived to play the third test without their biggest name.

Across 23 international fixtures, including 17 limited overs matches, there wasn’t a single tight finish.

The weakness of the on-field narratives from this summer is shown in the stories that cricket obsessed with: the dropping a top player from a test match to preserve his fitness for ODI cricket; the retention, or not, of the status as number 1 ranked team, based upon a statistical construct; whether a player who has created (or been the victim of) dressing room divisions would or should be allowed to play for England again.

Despite all this, I wouldn’t be surprised if the bean-counters announce that this was the most remunerative non-Ashes season. English international cricket seems to have a very solid customer-base. More days of Test, ODI and T20 cricket could have been scheduled and have had tickets in high demand. That customer-base may be solid, but it is narrow. I estimate that the 48 days of international cricket were attended by around the same number of people that turn up for two weeks-worth of premier league football.

I went to 2.5 days of Test cricket, none of which was particularly memorable. I will be back next year and so will most of those who bought tickets this year. But what about five years time? Not many kids will be nagging their parents to take them to watch cricket because of what they saw last summer, but I bet tickets for Wimbledon and top athletics meetings have become a good deal more difficult to obtain.

Cricket lost market share in 2012. There appears to be no will to address the international schedule – the avoidable part of this summer’s problems. But here’s a thought. The UK TV rights for the Indian Premier League are only under contract until 2014. What might happen if Sky Sports were to obtain those rights from 2015? Would it want to broadcast two events that overlapped and depleted each other? Would Sky persuade the ECB to delay the start of the international season until June to prevent a clash? Would that free the best players to participate in international cricket during the English summer and resolve current and looming disputes between the ECB and England’s most sought after players?

Bomb alert!

The 2005 Ashes Test at Lord’s took place in a city jittery from a recent terrorist attack. Entering the ground, after the usual bag check, each spectator stood as a scarecrow to be frisked. On the first afternoon, whispers swirled around the crowd of terrorist and anti-terrorist activity taking place elsewhere in London while we watched the game. I pondered how exposed we were. I weighed up my family commitments, this opportunity to see England compete toe-to-toe with Australia and the apparent level of risk, and stayed put.

Thirty-two years earlier and Lord’s itself had been the target of a bomb alert. At around 2.45pm on the Saturday of the Test against the West Indies the MCC Secretary announced over the public address system that a warning of a bomb planted at Lord’s had been received and the ground was to be evacuated. The players headed for the Pavilion and then onto their hotel (West Indies) and the Nursery Ground (England). The larger portion of the 28,000 crowd spilled out into the streets of St John’s Wood. The smaller, but more prominent portion headed for the playing area, where they milled about while the police completed a search of the ground before giving the all-clear. In the centre of it all, showing early his talent for self-promotion, Dickie Bird sat on the covers that protected the pitch.

The bomb threat at Lord’s had been a hoax, but taken seriously because of the very real terrorism campaign of the IRA. Elsewhere, cricketers and cricket grounds have been less fortunate. Attacks have taken place in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Cricket has endured bomb threats and bombing of its stadia. The presence of a real bomb on a cricket field is, probably, even rarer. On work business this week, I was visiting some properties with a colleague. Len has worked in the business for nearly forty years acquiring a matchless store of experience of inner city housing. As we walked around the scheme, checking the condition of the property, Len told me about the renovations that had been made over the years to prevent water damage or discourage groups of teens gathering.

As we reached a row of garages below maisonettes, Len began the tale. It started with a community consultation event where a resident asked for someone to check out some problems with his garage. Len went to assess the problems. In the rear of the garage, straining to see evidence of structural weakness, he saw an intact shell. He called the police, who came quickly and provided a surprisingly precise diagnosis: an unexploded Iranian bomb. The bomb squad was summoned.

The officers suggested that the whole scheme should be evacuated. Len, unlike the MCC, demurred: the residents were upset enough by the upheaval to their homes caused by the renovation works that any more inconvenience would be very unpopular. Why this argument convinced the policeman wasn’t explained. But then things got even crazier. While one officer went to the entrance to the scheme to await the bomb squad, Len and the second officer decided that they should take the safety of the residents into their own hands. The bomb needed to be away from homes and people, somewhere in the open where it wouldn’t harm anyone if it blew. Next to the scheme was a wide, flat field that exactly met their needs.

The two men lifted the shell, carried it out of the garage, across a road, over a fence, over a boundary rope, across the outfield and onto the square of the local cricket ground, where they lay it down. For a few seconds, all they could hear was their beating hearts, and then shouting, “You, get off there. What’s that?” The groundsman bore down on them. They answered his question. “A bomb.” “A bomb,” he replied. “There’s a match here tonight. There will be hell to pay if it goes off.”

The bomb squad came, removed the ordnance, and the groundsman’s worst fears, a postponed match and a crater on his ground, were avoided.

The timing of Andrew Strauss

Andrew Strauss alternates on the Declaration Game banner photo with an older, less able and mentally weaker left-hander. While his presence there was opportunistic – I was looking for an image of a captain declaring – it has always felt fitting. He’s an admirable cricketer, the leader of the England Test team whose fortunes so influence my moods.

I don’t, though, regret his decision to resign today. I am relieved. I am pleased for Strauss that he remained in control of the end of his cricket career. I am also excited by the opportunities it presents the England Test team – but that’s not for now.

So, that relief I feel: Strauss acknowledged that his lack of runs was a major factor in his decision to retire. I had feared we were on the cusp of a period of up to eighteen months where every match preview would warn of his need for a significant score; every dismissal open him up to questions about his form, not his team’s performance. In the UAE last winter, he had batted against Pakistan’s slow bowlers as if tightly tethered to his leg-stump. I didn’t want to see him plodding and poking in India.

I saw his penultimate Test innings. He fell to the final ball of the morning session of day two at Lord’s, bowled by a swift Morne Morkel off-cutter. I was relieved then, too: Strauss could tuck into some lunch and England’s innings in the afternoon would be free of their captain’s struggles. Strauss had succumbed to a very fine spell of fast bowling by Morkel. The bat was beaten on both edges and sharp lift troubled him. Australia may not have a bowler yet to match Morkel, but he had demonstrated a method to unsettle the England captain that Pattison, Siddle, Hilfenhaus, Harris, Starc and the rest would aim to emulate.

If Strauss had made it past India, there was then the prospect of England having to replace their captain and introduce a new top-order batsman in the middle of the back-to-back Ashes series. I am relieved that the timing of Strauss’ decision to retire eliminates that otherwise predictable problem for the England team.

To many England cricket supporters, but not to Strauss himself, the quality of his leadership justified his place in the team. Right now, there seems to be a relationship between how strongly one holds this view and how ardently one objects to Kevin Pietersen. Strauss, the quiet, decent, committed England cricketer, victim of KP’s abuse, was a bulwark against Pietersen’s return.

Praise for Strauss’ leadership has been fulsome, both before and after his decision to retire. It coheres around four aspects of his time as Test captain:

the turnaround: rallying a team that had lost captain and coach, was dismissed for 51 in his first game in charge, to compete for and win the Ashes within six months.

the holy grail: winning the Ashes in Australia for the first time in 24 years

the ascent: building an unbeaten record that culminated in the four-nil despatch of India and claiming the ICC’s Number 1 Test ranking

the ethos: Strauss followed Pietersen in front of the press at the end of the Headingley Test.

One thing I will say, and it is important to stress this, is that the Team unity that we have had over the last three years has been outstanding. It is something we all pride ourselves on, always have done and will continue to do so going forward.

Before taking each of these claims in turn, I need to stress that I am not, because I cannot, distinguish the achievement of Strauss from that of Andy Flower and the wider England team management.

Was there a great turnaround?

The case usually focuses on the upheaval in early 2009 that saw Strauss abruptly offered the England captaincy. But I think a longer time-frame is more useful. England had lost four of the six series before Strauss took over, only coming out on top against New Zealand – twice. After losing to West Indies in Strauss’ first series, England remained unbeaten in a Test series for three years. The victory over Australia in 2009, admittedly tight, was the best result for three years. Strauss had turned the corner.

How sacred was the Ashes victory down-under?

In two months, England won as many test matches in Australia – three – as they had done in the previous six visits combined. Its huge emotional significance for English cricket has, I would argue, obscured the challenge faced. There was an Australian confluence of: their weakest playing resources for a generation; an ineffectively directed team; and key players unfit and out of form. Strauss’ England capitalised on this rare opportunity, winning three games by large margins, playing uncompromising cricket against fragile, never divine, opponents.

Did England become the very best?

Eight series victories and one draw, culminating in the defeat of India in 2011 placed Strauss’ England top of the ICC’s Test rankings. Even this statistical construct suggested ambivalence. England were never more than a couple of ranking points clear of second and third place. Australia had clear blue water and outback between them and number two when in their pomp. And too many of England’s opponents had been on a downward curve, distracted by other cricket formats or prey to dressing room intrigue. The exception was South Africa in 2009/10 who held England to a tied series, but came within a delivery of winning the two drawn matches. Strauss did not captain a great team, but a fiercely competitive outfit in a time without a dominant force in Test cricket.

A sum greater than its parts?

Few proponents of Strauss’ leadership contend that he could shape games with instinctive or tactical decision-making. The key cricket decisions were taken off the field: who to bat at number three at the Oval in 2009; which bowlers to select for which Tests in Australia. Strauss, it is argued, created with the team a distinctive ethos. To what extent was Strauss’s team unusually and powerfully cohesive? There were plenty of visible signs – bum tapping for a fielder saving a run. And Strauss had friendly conditions. Central contracts meant players’ principal loyalty was to their country. Victories meant a settled squad, but so did the players’ youth as replacements for established stars weren’t required.

Then, this summer, we became aware of the Pietersen situation. The team wasn’t so unified after all. But enough of it was showing togetherness that the renegade was to be sacrificed in the name of unity. The favourable interpretation is that Strauss, when tested to the limit, stuck to the principles that had made his team successful. Two unflattering conclusions about Strauss’ leadership can be reached: 1) he hadn’t developed any enduring team ethos that could include the full range of talents and personalities; 2) the ethos had become an end in itself so that dissent could not be tolerated.

One day Strauss will probably fill in many of the gaps in our knowledge of his captaincy of Kevin Pietersen that on-lookers are filling with speculation. I have a theory, that may well be disproved. My theory is that one of Strauss’ greatest achievements as England captain, alongside the turnaround in the team’s fortunes he oversaw in 2008, was his ability to manage Mr Kevin Pietersen, initially sore from his own loss of the captaincy, so that he contributed to the England test team for three successful years.

I trust that if Strauss does decide to tell his side of this story, his timing will be as good as that of his resignation announcement today, and does nothing to damage the England team.

Cricket and the mobile phone

One of the wonders of the digital age has a bad name in our world of cricket. The mobile phone is the device a prominent England player used to communicate some scurrilous, maybe seditious views about the team’s hierarchy to friends in the opposing camp. He could have scribbled them on scraps of paper and had an innocent member of the ground staff slip them under the opposition team’s dressing room door. But cricketers’ ink and pen writing has for some time been limited to signing bats for good causes (possibly including, depending on your point of view, benefit fundraisers). The ease of writing afforded by mobile devices had made us a most literate age; and rather forgetful of the adage, if you wouldn’t want your Mother/boss to read it, don’t write it down.

Twenty years ago, mobile phones had no associations with the written word. They were talking devices. But even in this mono-functional form, they developed a bad reputation in cricket. Brian Lara was revelling in one of the plumpest runs of form any batsmen anywhere has ever enjoyed. Starting in April 1994 with his test record score of 375 against England in Antigua, he moved onto Warwickshire (as a replacement for Manoj Prabhakar, who was filling in for Allan Donald, never let it be forgotten). There he put together a string of scores, including the world record first class score of 501 against Durham.

Lara, young, imperious, indefatigable, bright of eye and mind became a target for sponsors. He was seen wearing a three-piece suit, awkwardly I was told, helping a finance company sell something or other. Gladstone Small recalls his next marketing mission.

It was here [Taunton] that he took delivery of his mobile phone. On the last morning, just as we were about to take the field, his manager phoned him up. When the call ended, Brian was halfway on to the pitch, so he just pocketed the phone. After a few overs of being egged on by Keith Piper and myself, he pulled it out and made a quick call. He got a lot of stick for what was intended as a jape.

The mobile phone had sullied our new hero.

Then there’s the story of Allan Lamb, Ian Botham and Dickie Bird. Different sources have Lamb or Botham giving Bird the phone at a Test match, county game or B&H tie. A call is made about horse-racing, Lamb’s batting or as Botham is in his run-up. I’m sure it did happen, just as sure as I am that it was funny at the time.

So phones appeared as stunt items on the field of play, but their next role in cricket was much less visible, but wholly malign.

In 2000-01 accusations of cricket match and in-match incident fixing burst into the media, many dating back into the previous decade. A handful of players were banned, most spectacularly, Hanse Cronje. Paul Condon, appointed head of ICC’s brand new anti-corruption unit, drew together the threads of the allegations and investigations in his report of 2001. Amongst the causes of corruption, Condon concluded, was the lack of security around international cricketers, and the ease with which they could be contacted by the corrupters. This meant mobile phones. He addressed this risk with two recommendations of his report.

The ICC responded with its Minimum standards for players and players’ support staff areas in international matches, which requires mobile devices of players to be surrendered and safely stored before they come to the playing venue; visitors to the players’ areas must hand over their mobile devices for safekeeping.

The portable phones’ next stumble into cricket controversy came with third generation mobile networks cross-fertilising with web 2.0. July 2009 and Australia’s young prodigy, Phil Hughes, was lasting at the crease no longer than it takes an app to download to a smart phone. On the morning of the third Ashes Test, Hughes tweeted, “Disappointed not to be on the field with the lads today…” breaking news of his dropping to the world, hours before the team was to be announced. The Australian management were charmingly non-plussed. If cricinfo is to be believed, Coach Tim Nielsen commented, “I now know of what Twitter is.”

Hughes apologised and explained that he had sent a text to his manager who had tweeted it from India, ignorant of time differences. Hughes had hinted at the potential of Twitter and soon cricketers were optimising its potential to damage their reputations. In 2010, young England cricketer, Azeem Rafiq , blurted a tweet full of abuse of the England management after he was dropped. And so it has continued, to the extent that many commentators on Pietersen’s predicament have wrongly assumed he tweeted, not texted his comments about Strauss.

This is entertaining for cricket followers. With a digital wireless network and the mass-production of the devices, we have become always connected. Cricket, its action unfolding over hours across the day is so well suited to this always connected device. I wrote a first draft of this post heading north to Scotland by train, following England’s first innings at Lord’s by logging into Cricinfo every 20 minutes – but then, I’m old-fashioned. With a stronger more reliable signal, I could have tried my Sky app and watched the match. The mobile phone has become an essential platform for the cricket enthusiast who can’t be at the match: providing live pictures, live commentary or at worst, ball-by-ball written description or twitter stream.

Having that potential, of course, creates an expectation. As holidays in Cornwall, Devon, Norfolk and Northumberland have shown me, life on the edge of a 3G connection provides little pleasure and much anti-social wandering, peering at a small screen, willing the appearance of the little lines that indicate the presence of the invisible connection.

Cricketers have used mobile phones to clown and corrupt and unwittingly expose their selfish thoughts. Technology’s impact is not inherent but takes the shape of its users’ intent. This wet summer of 2012 provides an example of the mobile phone assisting cricket.

The British Universities & Colleges quarter-final tie between Bournemouth University and Oxford University had twice been thwarted by rain. A third attempt at play was called off the night before, leaving a bowl-out to decide the fixture. The teams repaired to sports halls – different ones, in their own home towns. There, supervised by umpires in contact with each other by mobile phone, the teams bowled their ten deliveries. The scores were even and a tie-breaker arranged with a coin-toss by phone then alternating sudden-death deliveries. Bournemouth won. The press report doesn’t record whether the opponents then gathered around the phones, set to speaker, and chanted:’Three cheers for Bournemouth/Oxfored, hip hip hooray..”

The Long View

An England team is being selected for the final match in a series that has already been won. The selectors have to decide what to do about their premier fast bowler: play him in a dead rubber, and risk injury, or hold him back for a future challenge.

That’s the issue that confronted England’s selectors prior to the third test at Edgbaston against the West Indies, with Jimmy Anderson the subject of their, and most cricket followers’, discussions. Eighty years ago a similar decision was called for. How did that situation compare with the one in 2012 and what were its consequences?

The series that took place three-quarters of a century ago was one of cricket’s most famous, and has become known as the Bodyline tour. But by the time preparations were under way for the fifth test, the intensity of the controversy about England’s leg-theory tactics was waning. However, the figure that hung over the decision to rest, or not, the leader of the attack – Harold Larwood – was the same figure that had motivated the adoption of those tactics: Donald Bradman.

Bradman’s batting dominance was hinted at in 1928/29, and fully realised when the Australians toured England in 1930. He battered England for four centuries and a new Test record innings of 334. Douglas Jardine, appointed captain of the 1932/33 trip, set Bradman in his sights and developed a plan – fast leg-theory – that he believed would counter the master batsman and so cowe the Australian team. Larwood, Bill Voce and Bill Bowes were the quick bowlers to implement it.

A Bradman-less Australia were defeated in the first test. Returning to the side at Melbourne, he made a match winning century, while his chief adversary, Larwood, limped through the match after his boots fell apart and the replacement pair rubbed the skin from his toes. England’s victory at Adelaide was the occasion of the diplomatic furore, after Australia’s captain and wicketkeeper were each felled by Larwood’s short-pitched balls (neither bowled to bodyline fields). The series was won in a Brisbane heatwave. With a dead rubber to go, Larwood had bowled 167 overs, taken 28 wickets, bowling through extreme heat, without regular on-field rehydration, pain from his toes as well as the pounding his legs took while shod in unsympathetic leather, nailed boots. He said of himself that he had been, “bowling my insides out.”

Fast-forward to June 2012. England have taken an unassailable two-nil lead in their early summer series against the West Indies. Jimmy Anderson has been, marginally, the most heavily used England bowler, delivering 111 overs and taking nine wickets in the two victories. He is understood to have one or two minor injuries – tweaks – but not serious enough to prevent him playing. In the main, the weather conditions have assisted his medium-fast swing bowling. Word has got out of the selectors’ intention to rest Anderson, seen as the fulcrum of England’s powerful pace attack. In an interview after the second test, Anderson makes clear that he would be disappointed not to play the final match of the series.

Back in Australia, in February 1933, Harold Larwood is making very different noises. He had already shown his anger at being over- or mis-used when picked to be twelfth man for an ‘up country’ game when recovering from the Melbourne Test, seeking out journalists to make his feelings known. When it came to the final test at Sydney, Larwood put across a strong case to his captain that he was physically and mentally drained and should be rested. Jardine refused the request. The captain, it can be argued, was taking a long-term view. The menace of Bradman had been contained. For that to continue in future Ashes series, every effort should be made now to reduce the great batsman. Larwood, the spearhead of the attack, had taken Bradman’s wicket in both innings at Brisbane, and would be needed until the very end of this often bitter series.

The England squad announced for the third test at Edgbaston excluded Anderson. The explanation given – the heavy programme of cricket (ODI, T20 as well as Tests) – created as much debate as the fact of his omission. Were the selectors’ priorities right? were they devaluing Test cricket? why had the England and Wales Cricket Board allowed such a crowded programme of international cricket to be assembled? On the eve of the Edgbaston Test, Coach Andy Flower made the case in simple, compelling terms:

We came into the series with one goal, to win it, and we have achieved that. So our priorities do shift slightly on a Test match front. I’m not intending to demean the importance of this Test but we have won the series and our priority does shift to the South Africa series. There is also a slight shift towards the West Indies one-day series which stands at 0-0: we haven’t won that series. If the Test series had been 1-1 going into this Test, Jimmy Anderson would play. He is not badly injured and he could play this Test if we had wanted him to.

Flower also martialled the argument of player welfare: “the days of playing our players until they wear down, or snap mentally are over.” (Flower’s nearest equivalent in 1932/33, was Plum Warner. When the England team met during the Adelaide Test to discuss the impact of and reaction to their tactics, Warner was told by a player to sit down and shut up).

Larwood played in the fifth test at Sydney. He scored a furious 98 as night-watchman. Then, in the field, the accumulated stress of his bowling took its toll with a serious foot injury. Still Jardine wouldn’t let him leave the field in the second innings until Bradman was out. Larwood’s injury required surgery. He took a single first-class wicket in the next twelve months. Although he played another five seasons for Nottinghamshire, he never achieved a full recovery, never bowled with sustained pace again and never played Test cricket.

This week, barring domestic incident, Anderson has avoided injury. Where his story is perhaps most closely connected to Larwood’s is that neither bowler got their own way. The selectors, although aware of their principal actors’ preferences, chose the teams they thought right for the occasion and for the future success of the England team. Only in the contemporary case does player welfare seem to have entered the thinking about what was best for the team.

Acknowledgement: I have used Duncan Hamilton’s biography of Harold Larwood as the source for the account of the 1932/33 Ashes tour.