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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.

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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

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.

Select XI Cricket Blog Posts 2016

select-xi-2016-page-001Eleven pieces of writing, independent and unremunerated. All from the last twelve months and, in Wisden-esque fashion, excluding any bloggers featured in my four previous annual selections. Please read, enjoy and remember to support your local (i.e. global) cricket blogger with comments and social media plugs.

SPIN: A New Zealand Story (on the Mind the Windows website), by Devon V. Mace, manages to be both the story of the Vettori Era, and of the history of New Zealand spin bowling. It is a tour de force, intertwining its two narratives, with one clearly the culmination of the other. Nothing I read this year was more meticulously prepared and it repays a long, detailed read.

Jeremy Henderson’s Guerillas in the Night (Pointless Beauty) celebrates something very different: the drunken, impromptu broadcast by a pair commentators on the Internet’s insurrectionist Guerilla Cricket.

What a perfectly shitty morning it was – I’d just been to the vet, and held my beautiful 16 year old dog as she breathed her last. Tears, grief, gratitude and love were bouncing around my head. It was 44⁰ in the shade, and my mind was melting.

And then the extraordinary happened. Playing in the background was the stream of the previous night’s match between South Africa and England on Guerilla Cricket, when, all of a sudden everything changed. Two very familiar, and extremely slurred, voices materialised, announcing that, as it was 4.00 am and they were at a loose end, they had decided to commentate on England vs Namibia Under 19s. Thus began six hours of what may well go down as the most remarkable world wide cricket broadcast in history.

The next two posts were inspired by the very same match: the World T20 contest between India and Australia. Traveling On An Indian Match Day (The Chheeman blog) by @Risabhism describes the seven hour journey from Plibhit, famous for its flute manufacture, to Delhi, delayed by traffic jams, “the Shahid Affridi of road journeys”. Will he arrive in time for the match?

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan, a respected and experienced writer on cricket, recorded on Sidvee Blogs the match-winning performance in The remarkable Mr Kohli. Kohli’s combination of ultra-attacking orthodox stroke-play and, as in this extract, restless gesturing, are captured vividly:

Virat Kohli grimaces. He is wearing a helmet but camera technology is advanced enough to show us his facial contortions. We are in the 16th over. The asking rate is two runs a ball. And Kohli has missed an offcutter from Josh Hazlewood. This, he seems to be telling us, is unacceptable. He practises the cover drive (which he had wanted to play), then imitates Hazlewood’s wrist-tweak.

Lev Parikian, in The Wisden of Solomon, wrote about fulfilling his lifetime’s ambition of featuring in Wisden – by entering its Writing Competition. He shares with us his two competition entries, the first of which, set a couple of hundred years in the future, looks back, with wry detachment, at cricket’s demise.

Despite its many faults, Cricket enjoyed the devotion of a significant, if localised, pocket of followers. But the rapid rise and global domination of Slog™ left its sister sport gasping for breath. So where did it all go wrong?

…Cricket died a quiet death. The last international game was between Slog™ minnows England and Australia.” (England won by an innings and 498 runs, whatever that means.)

Notes from a Cricket Novice, by NJ Brown, was the new blog I returned to most often in 2016. Brown had decided to take an interest in cricket for the first time in nearly 20 years; an interest that had him attending Lancashire county fixtures regularly. As Brown’s (and Lancs’) season unfolded, we found out more about the author. Reporting from Lancashire v Surrey, 23-24 May 2016, he writes about one of the passions that distracted him from cricket in the 1990s – the Manchester Music Scene. It’s his music cultural knowledge that he deploys so well describing Neil Wagner:

Wagner may share his surname with a classical composer, but his bowling is pure punk – hard, fast and often very short. It couldn’t be any more punk if he was doing it with spiked green hair and a safety pin in his ear. Certainly no bondage trousers, they would just spoil his run-up.

In 2016, Subash Jayaraman brought to a close his Couch Talk podcast interviews, but when inspired, or provoked, he continues to write on The Cricket Couch. A former England player and media figure was the main provoker. Jayaraman noticed similarities between an article on ESPNcricinfo and one published earlier in the Economist. After judicious enquiries, the blogger called out the plagiarism. Jayaraman followed and updated the story. I have selected the third piece in the series, Ed Smith pulls a Melania Trump, in which the author, respectfully and proportionately, rages against the double-standards of cricket’s premier on-line publisher.

The statistics post that caught my eye, came from Omar Chaudhuri (5 added minutes) who writes more regularly on football. In The batting age curve Chaudhuri carries out a deceptively simple piece of data wrangling to identify the peak age for Test batsmen – and it’s younger than unreliable received wisdom would have us believe.

Sam Blackledge is a proper journalist as well as a proper cricket blogger on Learning is Fun. In this post, 444-3. Extraterrestrial cricket. But where will it end? he reflected on England setting a new world record. Re-reading it in December after England’s Test series defeat in India, I think I have already attained the wistful bafflement Blackledge anticipates for some point in the future:

“Dad,” my kids will say one day, leafing through Wisden 2016. “Do you remember 444-3?”

I will smile and gaze off into the distance, before answering: “No…not really.”

The Full Toss featured in the 2014 Select XI, but reappears in 2016 courtesy of a post from a guest writer. Everyone wants to wax lyrical about cricket’s elegant stars, but Garry White chose a stodgier subject in About Gary Ballance, Batting and Toffee.

Ballance is one of cricket’s shovel wielding tradesman. An altogether cruel irony considering that he’s an old Harrovian. When, like Ballance, you lack the innate ability to deliver pleasing aesthetics then the only currency in which you can pay out is runs. When the “run” currency dries up your position plummets with all the restraint and control of the Zimbabwe Dollar.

Rounding off this year’s selection is a post from someone who had not sought to write about cricket. Carlie Lee (Diary of a country housewife) wrote about the cricket ground she circles with her dog. On Monday 8th February, Lee experiences the winter weather..

Today is a day of restlessness, I can feel it fizzing in my feet, my hands. Last night’s storm is still here, the wind spiteful and violent, sending rain to rattle on the pavilion windows like hard-flung pea-gravel.

.. continuing to describe just as beautifully how the ground will look mid-summer, as well as reproducing the sounds of its players to differentiate the 1st XI from the 2nds.

I am going to finish by flouting my self-denying ordinance of only mentioning bloggers who haven’t appeared in past years’ select XIs. Cricket blogging in 2016 was never more intelligent, nor more entertaining than that written by Backwatersman on The New Crimson Rambler – my nomination for Leading Cricket Blogger in the World.

Previous annual blog post selections: 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012.

A select XI: cricket blog posts of 2015

blogs

This is the fourth annual Declaration Game selection of cricket blog posts. For the second year, to the basic qualification of being unpaid on-line writing, I have added the criterion that the writer should not have featured in one of the previous annual selections.

Blogging is a disposable activity: posts disappear in the vastness of the web, days or even hours after surfacing. It’s easy to miss what’s new and interesting, so the purpose of this post, as in previous years, is to breathe a little life again into some of the articles I have most enjoyed reading.

I have also applied the criterion of including only a single piece for any one blogger. Given that most of the individuals have produced highly readable, independently minded material all year, my other hope is that I can tempt readers to peruse their wider body of work.

In rough calendar order, here are the Declaration Game Select XI blog posts for 2015.

Published in the first week of the year, Srinath wrote about visiting the Bombay Gymkhana. It is shortly after Philip Hughes’ death and this famous field, hosting multiple cricket matches, makes Srinath anxious:

Mid off from one game would stand next to third man from another, square leg umpires would stand with their unprotected necks, yes, the Hughes region, facing the lashing pull shot that could come their way any time in the day.

Bat on, regardless is a reminder that cricket in many places did carry on as before, even though we might prefer and caution that it should not.

Cricketmanwales was a new and very welcome figure in 2015. Practising a cascading, informal, Gonzo-journalism style of writing, he enthused equally about thrilling top-level cricket and bringing the enjoyment of the game to youngsters in his day job as a cricket development officer. In Which cricket? (April) he celebrated the vitality of the recently completed World Cup:

Though we knew it was coming, this was the moment the dirt was wistfully then swiftly dribbled in over the coffin of yaknow… Richard Hadlee; Ian Botham; the Chappells – cricketing icons that played a patently different game. The gaudy, incremental hikes through T20 Blasts and IPL Extravagorgies seem done; now the World Cup is carnage of a uniquely modern or post-modern sort. It’s official; things have changed.

He finds links between that tournament’s success and his task of energising “the Youff of Today [who] are turned off by stillness and quiet seduction,” before questioning whether the official goal to grow cricket shouldn’t wait until we know ‘which cricket?’

June was the most fertile month. Dr Ayelet Lushkov, classical scholar, was first to show with the most memorable and extended metaphor of the year: an appreciation of Stuart Broad and streaky bacon.

It’s greasy, and crisps up in the pan, and it’s more than a bit American, which is fine, and, more importantly, wholly addictive. Once streaky bacon gets going, there’s no having just one strip, or even one pound. No, streaky bacon takes 7-44 on an afternoon, or 6-24, or scores a 165 at Lord’s. And struts around while doing it.

The month also featured a taxi ride with a West Indian fast bowler – the driver – taken by the Wandering Cricketer. The passenger, an American of South African background, has a project: to record cricket fans from across the world in their colour and their own words. The outcome is a highly distinctive blog, with luscious visuals and floating half-volleys of questions that bring out the best in the people he meets.

In this conversation, the driver says that the US cricket team asked him to play, but he refused because of the money. How much were you offered, asks the Wandering Cricketer:

“You don’t even want to know man…these guys sent me a letter. I still have it at home. They want to give me $400 a match. I make more driving! I like cricket, but I couldn’t go just because of the name, and what name do you make playing cricket in America?”

I hope one day soon that question will feel antiquated.

A more conventional, but no less compelling blog, was the third to yield a gem in June (as it did throughout the year). My Life in Cricket Scorecards is written by Peter Hoare, once of Kent and now living in New Zealand. It’s a receptacle for fond, well-articulated recollections of the incidents and the people Hoare has watched play cricket during his life. The relish with which he wrote about New Zealand’s World Cup campaign shows there’s much more than nostalgia here.

In June, Derek Underwood turned 70. My Life in Cricket Scorecards gave context to his appreciation of Underwood:

For years Playfair persisted in describing him as LM rather than SLA, which was true but missed the point, just as foie gras might be accurately described as meat paste. Underwood took the spinner’s role, to bowl long, constricting spells on good pitches and to attack when the ball turned. No commonplace spinner though, being quicker, Swiss-clock accurate and, at least early in his career, bowling cutters as much as conventional spin.

then adorned the description with a series of stories of Underwood’s specific achievements and their meaning for the author.

It was around that time in the summer of 2015 that Fantasy Bob published his 1,000th blog post. Admirable as that is, you don’t receive Select XI recognition for quantity. Fantasy Bob, Edinburgh club cricketer, sees cricket or its shadow everywhere: at the theatre, on holiday in Italy, in his record collection, in discussion with his wife. In August, the post titled, Grumpy, concerned a spousal conversation. His wife knew many of the cricket-related matters that could upset Fantasy Bob, but not the one that almost drew tears. Brief, profound and really funny.

Another post about club cricket was the next on this chronological list. Dennis Freedman is a digital phenomenon: unremitting; one minute he’s teller of truth to power; the next, utterer of puerile provocations; a moment later, creating an internet meme.

Dennis is normally puncturing the pomposity of international players, coaches, umpires or administrators. October 2015, however, saw him return to club cricket for the first time in 21 years. He was understandably eager to fit in with his new teammates:

The skipper wins the toss and bats. I can’t remember his name, but he is a friendly gentle soul who gives us a pep talk prior to the openers heading out.

I can’t recall what he said.  I was too busy concentrating on whether I should tuck or untuck my shirt. After a quick count, I decide to remain tucked. Eight of us dress properly. I am still cool.

And cool he was after a fine comeback, culminating in debut use of the team hashtag #bloodscricket.

The second outstanding new cricket blog of the year was statistics based and with its title – We need to look at the data – challenged those who, in impugning Peter Moores, dismissed a numerical approach to the sport as shallow. Blogger Owen Benton cut and sliced numbers to inform questions that are usually addressed only anecdotally. But in his October post, investigating how long it takes for a batsman’s average to fairly reflect his ability, he used a computer simulation, rather than actual match data. The method and findings, as in all his posts, are presented with clarity and are accessible to anyone searching for insight beyond the familiar cliches of the sport.

In November, I was drawn to a site with a name unlikely to feature cricket blog posts: Growth Mindset. Its author, Richard Jones is an educationalist and active junior coach. He has applied his professional expertise to an issue that usually goes unacknowledged in the grassroots game:

Junior cricket, particularly at club level is a constant mismatch between players who have clocked up hundreds if not thousands of hours of practice against those who have maybe clocked up less than 20 hours in some cases.

Jones exposes how, instead of acknowledging this truth, we talk about the juniors with the hours behind them as ‘naturals’ and allow those at the outset of their experience to think of themselves as ‘no good at the game’. In Cricket, Falling Junior Participation and the Fixed Mindset, Jones diagnoses the problem, its longer term significance and then ventures a solution, which he plans to implement in 2016 at his club. I am fascinated to hear how his bold plan fares.

Many English cricket bloggers spent 2014 at daggers with the cricket establishment. Changes to the ECB regime reduced, by a notch or two, the intensity of that antagonism in 2015, although it was the focus of a lot of strong writing. Perhaps the best of the lot came in December, from Tregaskis: Caesar’s Wife and Sports Journalism: When is Close too Close?

In a wide-ranging piece, showing a mastery of sources beyond the reach of most professional journalists, Tregaskis takes to task the ethics of cricket writers and produces a measured, subtle polemic.

The burden of proof is shifting. Journalists now need to earn trust through their record of impartiality. Drinks, dinner and games of golf with sources may be trifles but they do not shift the burden of proof. ‘We’re just doing our job’ is a mantra that offers old solutions to newer, more complex challenges. We need assurances that working relationships are just that. We need assurances that the journalist is not always the last one to see when the tipping point is reached.

The final place in this Select XI goes to the piece of writing that I have thought about most often this year. And in the fine tradition of cricket selection, it’s a ringer: read in 2015, but written in 2009.

Deep, backward, and square no longer publishes, but did leave us, almost accidentally, with Going downhill quickly. It’s a Test cricket stats piece about wagging tails that discovered something unexpected:

The lesson is clear: what happens in the first half of an innings tells us nothing about what we can expect in the second half. For example, on average throughout test history, whenever the fifth wicket has fallen at a score between 50 and 99, the remaining batsmen have added a further 95.7; whenever the first five partnerships have realised between 400 and 449, the last five wickets have typically amassed… 95.3.

It’s not just the fifth wicket: “At any stage of a test innings, what has happened up until the fall of a given wicket is a useless predictor of what’s going to happen afterwards.”

This is not merely a statistical quirk. It strikes at the way we talk about and analyse the game, which so often employs projection forward from what we’ve observed so far: the wicket’s (not) playing well; the bowlers/batsmen are on top, etc. But it’s not just us, on the sidelines, who think like this. The players do as well. All of us expecting to see more of the same, when, beneath our eyes, the numbers show a different reality.

 

I am grateful to all these bloggers, as well as the Blognoscenti listed to the right (or below, if reading on a mobile device) for the pleasure provided by their work this year. I would really welcome readers’ contributions by proposing your own favourite blog posts of 2015.

The Declaration Game selections for previous years can be found here: 2012, 2013, 2014.

 

 

 

Short pitch: the Grade Cricketer

This is a post that needs writing now. In a matter of days, praise for anything Australian will come through gritted teeth. But this week I am relaxed and can write uninhibited by a live Ashes series.

Amidst the dense polyphony of Twitter, original voices are very rare. An original voice that, paradoxically, is that of an everyman is an inspired creation. The Grade Cricketer, like thousands of men around the world, plays weekend club cricket. His milieu is the changing room, the mid-week nets, the after-match trip into town. His world revolves around the match and his team-mates, jostling for status. So much, so familiar.

The Grade Cricketer’s achievement is that he is a macho chauvinist, who in the span of twitter’s 140 characters can both assert his base maleness and undermine it. He is dedicated to this sport and crippled by it. He is on show and yet pathetically self-conscious; boastful but under-achieving; a member of a team, without mates.

The nearest English equivalent is Dave Podmore, satirical seam bowler for various East Midlands county sides, who was always on the look out for some sponsored munificence. But Podmore’s world was gentle – English farce never did anyone any harm. The Grade Cricketer is in a harsh, realist drama and may just topple over the edge.

The Grade Cricketer is very funny. That’s service enough. He also reminds us that the game fosters selfish, brash, unpleasant men. At a time when we want a broader interest in the sport, the Grade Cricketer’s simultaneous exposing and ridiculing of those traits is an important achievement.

Short pitch: Girl Guides cricket

While England were taking another step towards limited overs rehabilitation in the Twenty20 international at Old Trafford on Tuesday night, two tram stops to the south, there was another potential breakthrough taking place.

Recreational cricket in the UK is suffering a decline in participation. A priority action to address and reverse that decline has to be the encouragement of greater involvement of girls and women. At my local club, we had well-founded hopes that this could be the year that girls cricket takes off. A university women’s player has been running weekly training sessions; our club development officer is working in the borough’s junior schools; co-operation has been agreed between clubs in the area who are trying to establish girls cricket sections to enter joint teams in the county league; and we have the dedication of one of the club’s most experienced volunteer coaches.

Despite those good intentions and better actions, the girls membership has not increased. Raising teams for the competitive fixtures – for ourselves and the opposition – has become no easier. Murmurs that it’s a doomed enterprise, have been heard.

The challenge, I felt, was how to get a large group of girls to experience cricket in a friendly, unpressurised environment. From that large group, there may be a proportion who want to return to play again. A possible solution came to me recently when dining with friends, one of whom is a girl guide leader. With the help of my guiding friend and her colleague, we arranged for the whole group to come to the club for an evening of cricket activities.

So, on Tuesday night, three volunteer coaches, our development officer and an under 15 girls cricketer, who has completed a cricket activator course at school, gathered to greet the guides. The weather, on mid-summer’s eve, was warm and bright; the ground looked in peak condition.

The guides started arriving and the noise level increased. The guide leader raised her arm and there was quiet. We took over. Thirty girls, divided into three groups, took turns at a bowling activity, a fielding game and a batting contest. When one activity ended, the guides ran to the next station, where they peppered us with questions, before throwing themselves with a great sense of fun into whichever task was set.

After an hour and a quarter, parents arrived and we realised we had run out of time for what would have been the evening’s climax: a continuous cricket match. That we agreed, could happen next time. The guides were given details about joining the club and we will see if any take up the offer. Even if none do, then we have forged a relationship with another group in our community, who can help us in the future make girls cricket a thriving activity.

At Old Trafford on Tuesday evening, England nearly set a record for their margin of victory in a T20 international. Several miles south, we may have had records set for quantity of laughter and number of handstands on a cricket field.

Some of the girls said to us, “my brother plays here,” which shows they came thinking of cricket as a ‘boy’s game’. We may have moved them onto considering it to be a ‘girl’s game’. One day, we want cricket to be just ‘a game’.

Short pitch: a first run

I’m being shouted at; by the grown-ups watching the game, by the people playing the game and now by my team – one of them is waving a bat. They want me to bat now. It’s my turn.

Someone’s Daddy helps me put my hands into gloves. My fingers don’t reach the ends and they feel sticky inside. I walk out to the middle of the field with the boy I’m batting with. He’s bigger than me. He has a loud voice. I don’t want him to shout at me. He points at one of the wickets and says ‘that’s your end’.

I stand in front of the wicket. The umpire moves me to the side. I think it will be hard to hit the ball and stop it bowling me from there. He says it’s not my turn to bat. So I watch.

The bowler runs from behind me and bowls. The ball reaches the boy I’m batting with, who swings his bat, but misses it. That happens again and again. I turn to ask the umpire when it will be my go and then hear the bat hit the ball. I wasn’t expecting that. Then the boy I’m batting with shouts and runs towards me. He stops and I remember I should do some running. He shouts ‘stop, go back’. I do, but I don’t like him shouting at me. I don’t know where the ball is, but suddenly the bowler has it again and he’s running in again.

Then everyone is moving around and there’s an umpire standing at the other wickets facing me. “Are you ready?” he asks me. I nod. He tells me to move – it’s back to where I stood when I first came out, until the other umpire moved me. That umpire is now behind me. He’s also telling me where to stand – closer to the bowler. He wants the white line to go between my feet. I do it, but would feel happier standing close to the wicket.

A different bowler bowls, everything has moved around. He bowls it past me. I can’t reach it, so I let it go. When I look around, there are the other players all around me. They don’t look friendly, apart from the boy laughing at the seagull, which is funny. The umpire shouts, ‘Are you ready?’ and another ball goes past me. I can’t hit it unless he bowls it at me.

One ball comes closer. I push at it, but don’t like the way it bounces up at me. It misses and everyone goes ‘ooh, nearly’. Do they mean I nearly hit it? Now it’s time to switch around again.

This time the boy I’m batting with does hit the ball. It goes past the seagull, which flies away. I’m watching to see how far it goes, when the boy who hit it runs up to me. ‘Run,’ he shouts, right in front of me. My teammates are shouting, too. I drop my bat to run faster and run all the way to the other wicket, making sure I stop just in front of it in case I knock it down and am out.

The umpire picks up my bat and brings it to me. ‘Remember what we practiced last week?’ I don’t know what he means by ‘last week’.

‘Remember how to grip the bat.’

‘It’s an axe,’ I say which makes me laugh and he laughs too. Then he says something about ‘V’s’ which I don’t understand, but I like pretending it’s an axe. I’m going to chop the ball.

The next ball isn’t at me, but I try to chop it, but I can’t reach. It’s still my turn to bat and another ball comes. It’s right in front of me and I chop it and it rolls quickly to one of their players who looks unfriendly. The boy I’m batting with shouts and starts running, but I like this wicket so I stay and he has to run back to his wicket. The umpire makes a thumbs up sign and is smiling.

There’s two more balls I can’t reach. Then there’s one that bounces up and could hit me on the tummy, but I chop it hard. The ball rolls between two of the unfriendly boys. Actually one might be a girl. I like watching it roll away, getting smaller, although it’s quite small to begin with. Then I notice shouting again, at me again. “Run! Run!” The boy I’m batting with is next to me, so I run to the other wicket, holding onto my axe this time.

When I get down there, the umpire holds his hand out in front of me. Have I done something wrong? He seems happy. ‘Great shot. High five,’ he’s saying. My teammates are still making noise, but they’re not shouting at me. Some are clapping. And my Mummy is standing up, so I wave at her.

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With thanks and respect to all the youngsters I have coached and seen score their first runs.

Short pitch: No boring middle overs

Power plays, fielding restrictions, a new ball from each end. Innovations and devices to liven up the middle overs of 50 over cricket. Yet the sumptuous cover drive still yields an ‘agreed single’ and finger spinners angle unflighted deliveries, over after over, at the batsman’s pads. 

There’s no absence of incident in the middle overs of under 9 cricket and no artifice. Played 8-a-side in pairs format, overs 5-12 (pairs 2 and 3) are where, by convention or explicit agreement, the less experienced players bat and bowl. The seven year old, the debutant, the little sister or kid brother all find themselves in the guts of the game. 

There are runs, if the lad in the covers gets his hand on the ball and flings his return past the keeper. Near things: a ball that evades the keeper and rolls benignly into open space at fine third man. The non-striker doesn’t notice as he’s busy practicing the off-drive that will never occur to him when it’s his turn to face and an easy two remains a dot ball. 

Most runs that are completed involve a stutter as both batsman hesitate, set off, halt and then dash. Sometimes there’s a slip at the start of the run, which is nicely bookended by a dive to make ground at the other end. Batsmen are rewarded for good footwork. A chassé to short cover to belt a gently bouncing wide. Legside full tosses are spurned, body flexing inward to let the ball float by. 

Wickets fall: the batsman standing frozen outside the crease having missed the ball is stumped after mid-wicket has run to the keeper to tell him what to do. And sometimes they don’t fall as the ball nestles against the stumps without disturbing the bails after a bagatelle journey involving bat, midriff and leg. 

The danger of a runout is never greater than when a lad middles a ball straight. It feels good and instinct requires a run. The bowler has found the ball at her feet and turns to knock down the stumps. 

But the scoreboard keeps ticking. Umpires signalling after almost every ball: wide, wide, no ball, bye, wide. The game’s moving on. No boring middle overs. 

Short pitch: Girl bowls out boy

15 year old Katie Jordan took four wickets for her village, Mersham, in the Kent Regional League last weekend. A week earlier, England international Kate Cross took eight wickets in the Central Lancashire League for Heywood. Cross, on her debut in April, had been the first woman to play in the history of the league.

Both stories are very pleasing, reflecting particularly well, not just on the two players, but also their clubs who made the bold step to select them. But are Jordan and Cross’s experiences to remain anomalous or are they trailblazers?

Amongst the ECB’s current woes is their calculation that participation in recreational cricket declined by 7% in 2014. An expansion in the number of women playing cricket must play a part in their response. The base – the numbers currently playing – is low. Looking locally, my club has about six years commitment to junior girls cricket. Yet, this season, boys outnumber girls on our membership roll by 8:1. Our ‘boys’ teams will play twenty times more matches in the season than our girls team.

I placed apostrophes around ‘boys’ teams because that’s not really what they are. Over the last two or three years, a handful of girls have regularly appeared in various age level teams. At the junior league meeting last winter, the clubs voted unanimously to repeal a regulation that limited the number of girls in a team to three. Nobody could or would justify the rule. It had just sat in the rulebook as a piece of casual day-before-yesterday sexism and we all felt a little more virtuous for voting it out.

There are practical challenges to achieving the potential for expansion in cricket for girls and women. Access to playing and changing facilities is something each club will need to look at. Female coaches for female players, as required by the ECB, may be more difficult. My club is very fortunate, for the time being, to have links with our local university women’s cricket club. But above all, it’s opportunity and example, that will determine the growth in the women’s game.

A fellow blogger, the Third Man, argued this week that England’s future prospects are a numbers game: the pertinent metric being the quantity of seven and eight year-olds introduced to the game. With cricket coaching in primary schools, where it exists, gender neutral, it should be drawing more girls to the game at an early age. I wonder whether secondary school offers even greater advantages. Female sports teachers, sports halls and equipment (soft, if not hard-ball) are already in place.

Cricket for girls, whether in girls-only competitions or mixed matches, can preserve or even enhance the sport’s, ‘national summer game’ status. The strategies needed to achieve it go well beyond the scope of a single Short Pitch post, but those with the authority and resources ought to be working away at it.

At the start of this piece, I described the stories of women excelling in ‘men’s’ league cricket as pleasing. It would be immensely satisfying if those incidents became so routine that ‘girl bowls out boy’ has none of the media appeal of ‘man bites dog’.