A select XI cricket blog posts of 2020
How did 2020 affect cricket blogging? Despite there being a lot less cricket played and very much less spectated than most would have planned, we blogged on. For a couple of months in the early summer, our method appeared to have infiltrated the professional media, which switched from match previews and reports to traditional blogging fare: nostalgia, lists and ‘things I would change about cricket’ pieces.
It filled their column inches, but their efforts didn’t really come up to scratch, particularly when compared to the quality output highlighted here. What follows is my personal selection of eleven blog posts from the year. None, to the best of my knowledge, was written for money and none of the writers has been featured in my nine previous annual selections.
It turned out that cricket in the UK found a sweet-spot in 2020, between the first wave of the pandemic and the autumn resurgence. In the early summer, however, it had seemed that the recreational game would be prohibited. The writer and club cricketer, Roger Morgan-Grenville (@RogerMGwriter) articulated what so many involved in the game were feeling in Time for some (very) civil disobedience.
when the Prime Minister announced on Monday that recreational cricket was not free to go ahead, when we were all free to go into pubs to get pissed, shops to get coughed on and churches to pray in, I must admit that something in me broke. It had threatened to do so for some months, but now it just did.
Writing a week or so later, with club cricket officially sanctioned, Pete Langman (@elegantfowl) found his anticipation of the return to play – The silence of the stands – haunted by the fear of failure: a golden duck
It means we spent more time walking out to bat and back to the pavilion again than we spent in the middle. Dammit, we spent longer donning our protective equipment than we spent on the field.
In unsettled times, the past provides a refuge. The blog ‘Oldebor’ (@sarastro77) is dedicated to cricket before the war. My favourite of its long-form posts this year was the retelling of the story of Douglas Carr, the 37 year-old school master called up for the final Ashes Test of the 1909 campaign.
Where Oldebor does not dwell on the lessons of the past, Stephen Hope (@fh_stephen) draws conclusions from his early memories of the game which he would like today’s administrators to acknowledge – in particular the Sunday League, which “did a more than decent job regenerating the game.. thanks to the Beeb’s coverage and to games played in places that kids could get to. All told it was played on 127 grounds.”
County cricket has come to mean a great deal for @The_Grumbler The silent sanctuary of county cricket soothes this lost soul – but it wasn’t always this way.
Until recently I too considered county cricket as the most wonderful waste of time. Glorious but pointless. Now, in the most difficult period of my life, it has revealed a hitherto hidden purpose as salvation and sanctuary for my troubled mind.
The Full Toss first featured in these annual reviews in 2014. Founder James Morgan has kept the blog fresh, in part by recruiting guest writers. I particularly enjoyed Cameron Ponsonby’s (@cameronponsonby) writing, including an accomplished interview piece about the challenge of facing the fastest bowlers in the game: Watch the ball, play it late, don’t be scared.
Three young cricketers inspired two strong analytical blog-posts. Khartikeya (@static_a357) found a template for the future in the Pooran Way: “Pooran sees the value of his wicket in T20 for what it is. If he gets out attacking, so be it, but the value of hitting sixes in the middle overs outweighs almost everything.” Khartikeya’s argument is strengthened by the conclusion: “..it will all regress to the mean and we will wait for the next Trinidadian superhero to show us the way forward.”
Oscar Ratcliffe (@oscar_cricket) invoked Philip Pullman, Stuart Broad and Steven Smith in assessing the future direction of the careers of Dom Bess and Sam Curran: Showing some mongrel..
There was no lack of quality statistics-based blogging this year. From that genre, I have picked a single piece by Amol Desai (@amol_desai) which took a familiar question – does captaincy affect performance? – and wrung from the numbers (a lot) more insight than Sky Sport’s ex-England captain presenters have managed from their years in post.
Cricket coaching has its own small blogging niche which enables coaches to share ideas and debate best practice. From time-to-time, something of more general interest emerges, as is the case with David Hinchliffe’s (@davidhinchliffe) account of what happened during an indoor session with school age cricketers when one participant said, “I just want to hit balls I don’t care about the game” – All training is compromise..
The final post in the XI is written by someone who would not consider himself to be a cricket blogger, who associates his interest in the game with shame and concludes that he doesn’t really like the sport. But, hey, we welcome all-comers, particularly if they compose entertaining, opinionated cricket-based lists. Clive Barnett (@cliveyb) includes a seasonal message while choosing his top cricket books.
I keep acquiring them thinking that they are likely to be better than they turn out to be, and then disposing of them. It turns out that, unlike dogs, cricket books really are often just for Christmas.
To complement my annual Select XI, I also nominate the ‘World’s Leading Cricket Blogger’ for sustained excellence and entertainment throughout the year. On this occasion, it was a sustained burst of daily blogging from 22 March to the 2 July. Bob Irvine, aka Fantasy Bob (@realfantasybob) was a welcome lockdown companion, with his Witterings covering art, music, the Aberdeen typhoid outbreak of 1964 and every step of pandemic policy – all through the prism of 4th team club cricket in Scotland. Public service blogging.
A Select XI Blog Posts of 2019
This year’s selection of blog posts is as diverse as each of the previous eight years’ selections, featuring authors from four continents, content spanning the international and recreational game, cricket of the early twentieth century, the modern and near future. There are themes, though: the summer’s World Cup provides material for four pieces; statistical insights inform three and concerns about how the game is run are found in three. The qualification for the Select XI remains that they should be independent and unremunerated writing from the web. Bloggers featured in any of my previous annual round-ups are excluded.
Red Ball Data (@EdmundBayliss) has been one of the pleasures of 2019, providing frequent, ingenious investigations of cricket tactics and performance, with a focus on the red ball game, but in the example I’ve selected, looking at the interaction of one format (T20) with the others: On the decline of Test Batting
To counter-balance the rationalist approach, here is the romantic viewpoint: Mahesh dissects and celebrates a single shot from this year’s Test cricket:
Kusal Perera takes the smallest of strides forward, without the slightest of pretensions to get near the line of the ball, backs his hands to work at his eye’s command, and deposits the ball onto the roof of the stands over extra cover with a most pristine swing of the bat. Dean Elgar pulls down his sunglasses to see how far the ball has gone. Aleem Dar completes the formality of signaling a six but keeps staring towards extra cover as if he is trying to visualise that moment of perfection again.
From this one shot, the author builds an argument for the Six – a shot he describes as unnecessary to Test cricket – as testimony to the adventurous spirit of sports players.
Six appeared on the 81 all out site, alongside my favourite player appreciation of 2019, Yuvraj Singh and the journey from hope to possibility. Aftab Khanna describes the catalysing impact Yuvraj had on the India ODI team of the early 2000s. The core of his success with the bat was having the cleanest of swings:
There was a smooth, unbroken backswing, a stable head at contact, and a clean follow-through with a pristine extension of the arms. In the middle of the cacophony of a packed stadium, Yuvraj brought the tranquillity of the golf course to the art of swinging.
Yuvraj is joined in the Select XI by Wayne Madsen, whose milestone of reaching 10,000 runs for Derbyshire was marked in this affectionately written piece by Steve Dolman (@Peakfanblog).
2019/20 marks the start of the next four year cycle of building towards the 2023 ODI World Cup. Dan Weston (@SAAdvantage) used this as an opportunity to look backwards to the 2019 tournament cycle and forwards to address the personnel changes Pakistan and South Africa would need to make. In Managing the Overhaul, Weston mines his domestic limited overs database to pinpoint which players who could help those nations have more impact in the next World Cup. An article to read, bookmark and review in four years time.
The 2019 World Cup also features in You Couldn’t Write the Script, by Nicholas Freestone. The source of celebration is not simply England’s trip to the final, but the game’s reappearance on free-to-air TV in the UK. Freestone writes about the rise and fall of Channel 4’s cricket coverage, which ran alongside and informed his school days’ fascination with the sport. Days before the final, he concludes:
The sun will be shining on Lord’s and, no matter the result, it will be one of my greatest days as a cricket fan. It was over half my lifetime ago that Channel 4 was showing live England cricket, something that was seminal in my childhood.
Now it is back, and it will be something special – one day in which I can relive the greatest sporting coverage that I will ever see in my lifetime.
Blogging is for amateurs, aspiring professionals and for those who have already made it to the media profession. Peter Della Pena is a CricInfo correspondent, who used his own website to publish an account of watching a World Cup tie with Evan, a friend from his childhood in New Jersey. The Americans watching Afghanistan in England on the 4th of July might not earn Della Pena a paycheck but it makes for a fine, long-form blog, that weaves together a number of themes topical and timeless. Of the latter, there is the insight a cricket watching veteran can gain from accompanying a debutant:
Of all the things Evan could have come across at a cricket match to pique his interest, the Duckworth-Lewis-Stern Method would have been near the bottom of the list of things I would have ever imagined drawing him in. But it happened.
Neil Manthorpe, South African cricket broadcaster, is a dedicated blogger. In recent months he has detailed the crisis in South African cricket governance. My selection comes from the middle of this year: Manners’ reflection on that final in July, notable for its cool detachment as it considers What will the Greatest Final be remembered for?
They [the New Zealand players] held their nerve as well as they held their catches. Time and time again when the intensity of the moment demanded that somebody, or something, should crack, it was not them. They had learned the lesson from the last final, four years ago, when the occasion was too much.
But somebody did crack.
Going back 100 years, the Wisden of 1919 had little cricket to cover and featured obituaries of many players who didn’t make it to the resumption of regular play that spring. For its cricketers of the year, Wisden selected five public school boys. In Whatever happened to? John Winn traced the careers of these five promising youngsters, headed by future England captain, Percy Chapman.
Returning to cricket statistics, an increasingly fertile area for cricket blogging, Playing for Lunch and Tea charts whether batsmen really do alter their play as intervals approach. Karthik’s (@karthiks) exemplary analyses – on this topic and many others – provide eye-catching proof that this truism is statistically supported.
The Club Cricket Development Network (@ClubDevel) is about the only thing I have ever found of value on LinkedIn. It shares experience and good practice on issues that affect club cricket and has taken a representative and lobbying role with the ECB. This piece – The strange death of English cricket – skewers the innumeracy that underlies the grand strategy for the future of the UK’s national summer game and exposes the agenda that makes a particular number attractive to those in authority.
I will end this round-up, in imitation of Wisden, with my nomination of the World’s Leading Cricket Blogger of the Year – aka the blogger whose output has given me most reading pleasure in these last twelve months. Limited Overs is the work of Matt Becker who, from his home in Minnesota, bridges the personal and the global meaning of cricket, with a tender mix of emotion, humour and sincerity. Catching up on Becker’s recent posts, I came across this – characteristic of much of his writing – and apt to use in conclusion of this piece, this year, this decade;
Cricket is an old game. And with that age comes ghosts. And with those ghosts comes weight, and a sense of belonging to something great. I am not sure what that something is. Whether it is time or history or God or the universe. But when we allow ourselves to feel cricket’s ghosts, that is when the game becomes more than a game, and then we have no choice but to keep coming back, to keep that wonderful sense of doleful joy alive in everything we see.
Rewilding England’s bowling
We live in a shadowland, a dim, flattened relic of what there once was, of what there could be again.
Four-fifths of the way through the Ashes series and England’s bowlers have taken 51 wickets. At Brisbane, not only could they not defend a target of 170, but they couldn’t dislodge the Australian opening pair in a game where hitherto, bat and ball had been in balance, with a wicket falling on average every 28 runs.
At Perth, Australia amassed a record 662-9 on a pacy pitch that could reward bowlers – fast and slow – who are able to harness its extra bounce.
At Melbourne, Australia batted out 124 overs on days four and five for the loss of four wickets to secure a draw and nullify England’s strongest position of the series.
England’s bowling attack didn’t lack quality, nous or endeavour. Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, supported by Craig Overton, Chris Woakes and Tom Curran often made the Australian batsmen work hard for their runs. The attributes that England had lacked can be summarised as diversity, variety, dissimilarity, points of difference. This was never more apparent than when the team did encounter, under the lights at Adelaide, conditions for which it is supremely well adapted. Ten wickets fell in 58 overs of penetrating seam and swing bowling; contrasting with the 750 overs bowled for the other 41 wickets to fall – barely five wickets per full day’s bowling.
And so the fuel was provided for every England follower to bemoan the flaws of the game in England; to open up the arguments that had only perhaps been closed shut in the ECB’s business plan about formats, competitions, traditional structures and new enterprises.
The lack of meaningful diversity in England’s otherwise admirable bowling attack brought to my mind another source, far from cricket, distant from discussions of historic counties and franchise teams. What I had seen operating in England shirts, whether toiling at Perth or prancing at Adelaide, was the product of a monoculture.
The drive towards monoculture causes a dewilding, of both places and people. It strips the Earth of the diversity of life and natural structures to which human beings are drawn. It creates a dull world, a flat world, a world lacking in colour and variety, which enhances ecological boredom, narrows the scope of our lives, limits the range of our engagement with nature, pushes us towards a monoculture of the spirit.
George Monbiot’s Feral is the most thought provoking book that I read in 2017. What Monbiot saw when looking across the barren Welsh uplands – ‘dismal.. devoid of life’ – provided an analogy for the over after over of steady fast-medium bowling delivered by England’s bowlers. There’s also a tempting parallel between how he contrasts the countryside with his experience of London, and cricket’s own post-modern, metropolitan dynamo of T20:
The fragmented eco-systems in the city from which I had come were richer in life, richer in structure, richer in interest
So, it is through the frame of rewilding that I have attempted to understand what might restore colour and variety to England’s cricketers.
The working definition of this process, adopted by the organisation Rewilding Europe, is:
Rewilding ensures natural processes and wild species play a much more prominent role in the land – and seascapes, meaning that after initial support, nature is allowed to take more care of itself. Rewilding helps landscapes become wilder, whilst also providing opportunities for modern society to reconnect with such wilder places for the benefit of all life.
Monbiot describes some of the key steps that need to be taken – by motivated humans – to create the conditions for rewilding. Under my appropriation of his ideas, the England cricket authorities take the place of motivated humans.
Keystone species provide a starting point. A keystone species is:
..one that has a larger impact on its environment than its numbers alone would suggest. This impact creates the conditions which allow other species to live there.
The identification of the native keystone species and, if absent from that environment, their reintroduction is a critical intervention. For Britain, the archetypal and almost completely absent keystone species is the beaver.
Beavers radically change the behaviour of a river. They slow it down. They reduce scouring and erosion. They trap much of the load it carries, ensuring that the water runs more clearly. They make it more structurally diverse, providing homes for many other species.
As a by-product, beavers’ actions reduce damaging flooding downstream and prevent the spread of illness caused by the flow of bacteria through populated areas. All this is starting to be empirically demonstrated. I don’t have any scientific studies to identify English cricket’s keystone species, but have a strong hunch, nonetheless.
English cricket is not as far from salvation as England’s rivers, because its keystone species hasn’t been wiped out and doesn’t need reintroduction, although protection and encouragement is required.
The spinner – right and left arm, finger and wrist – fulfils the role of keystone species for cricket. The spinner, by using little energy to bowl long spells, enables other bowler types to rest and recuperate. When their time comes to bowl, they can commit more effort, confident that the spinner will return when they tire. This is particularly important to the out-and-out fast bowler, who should be used in short spells of high, shocking pace.
The spinner demands a greater diversity of skills of his fielding teammates. Close fielders need to be able to swoop on balls dying from bat-pad deflections and dodge full-blooded blows. Boundary riders come into play as wicket-takers, if able to judge, move nimbly underneath and handle lofted drives, pulls and sweeps. Adaptability is needed to fulfil roles required for specific batsmen in specific conditions: short gulley, leg slip, short mid-off ‘on the drive’. Wicket-keepers are tested standing up, where the skills of a transplanted goalkeeper are not sufficient. Even the slip and fielders on the single have different challenges from the shot played to the spun ball.
The spinner’s prey benefits, too. Batsmen must develop footwork to prosper or even survive against the spinner – down the wicket to nullify spin, back onto the stumps to play the ball late, along the crease to use turn to create angles for scoring strokes. The diversity of shot-making should increase, with almost any shot played to a seam bowler available, as well as sweeps – conventional, slog, paddle and reverse – and chassees. Observation skills improve to detect changes to the orientation of the bowling hand, of the ball’s flight or direction of rotation.
The playing surface is another beneficiary of the spinner, whose walking or trotting approach to delivery, causes much less damage to the wicket ends than the pounding ball-after-ball of a seam-heavy attack.
Another step in rewilding is the promotion of trophic cascades. This isn’t the momentum gained by a trophy-winning team, but the natural process that occurs when an environment has top predators present. Human activity, long before industrialisation, depleted many ecosystems of their major predators, with perhaps a counterintuitive effect of reducing the diversity of nature.
A trophic cascade occurs when the animals at the top of the food chain – the top predators – change the numbers not just of their prey, but also of species with which they have no direct connection. Their impacts cascade down the food chain, in some cases radically changing the ecosystem, the landscape and even the chemical composition of the soil and the atmosphere.
The most celebrated example is the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park. Under pressure from a predator, deer kept away from valleys; their absence allowed trees to grow beside rivers, providing cover for animals who proliferated in range and numbers, and reduced soil erosion, so supporting the growth of other plants. There is even evidence that other predators – bear – profited as well.
English domestic cricket, almost as much as its hills and valleys, has been shorn of its big beasts. The national team’s regulars now make only rare appearances in the county championship. Over the last three seasons, Joe Root has played four matches for Yorkshire, Ben Stokes six for Durham. When they do appear, it can often be tentatively, on the road to recovery from an injury, when tooth isn’t bared and claws quickly withdrawn. The absence of the country’s best players from its national competition has a damping effect on the standard of play. To be successful, players don’t need to prove themselves against the very strongest of their peers. Players who are just ‘good enough’ can thrive and, with bowlers, extremes of pace and spin – required to dismiss the best batsmen – are not so valued because of the risk they pose to the fielding team keeping control of the scoring rate.
Applying the analogy of rewilding, England must let its top players – the regular internationals – frequent the domestic game to sharpen the other players, create turnover where mediocrity might be enough for a player to cling onto their place and encourage the development of the diverse range of skills needed to dismiss the best batsmen and repel the best bowlers.
In Monbiot’s analysis, humans have a deadly ally in their dewilding of Britain’s uplands, which have been ‘sheepwrecked‘ by the “woolly ruminant from Mesopotamia.. Because they were never part of our native ecosystem, the vegetation of this country has evolved no defences against sheep.” Restoring diversity requires that the hegemony of this non-native species in the uplands (shown by Monbiot to be uneconomic anyway) is ended.
English cricket has featured many non-native participants. While, at times, their success has seemed as pervasive as the sheep flocks in the English countryside – Australian batsmen of the 1990/2000s; West Indian, South African and Pakistani players in the 1970s – they have played the role of the big predator, raising the standard of the game and stretching the native players. An exception might have been the few county teams recently packed with Kolpak qualified players, who may for a time have displaced local cricketers, without adding greatly to the standard or variety of the game.
The pointing to the ‘non-native’ as the culprit can see rewilding veer towards regressive and backward politics. Monbiot acknowledges this, showing how some of the most dramatic rewilding has happened following the forced removal of populations by oppressive and racist regimes. There is no positive lesson for English cricket here. Players from other countries and of different ethnicities add diversity, interest and culture to the game played in this country. Unlike English flora, whose evolution takes thousands of years, English cricketers have no excuse for not adapting to new challenges introduced to their domestic game.
Keystone species and trophic cascades provide, by analogy, some clues as to how to rewild English cricket. But the deeper we go into Monbiot’s thesis the harder to apply it becomes.
Rewilding, unlike conservation, has no fixed objective: it is driven not by human management but by natural processes. There is no point at which it can be said to have arrived. Rewilding.. does not seek to control the natural world, to re-create a particular ecosystem or landscape, but – having brought back some of the missing species – to allow it to find its own way.
There is a relevant warning that English cricket should not be backward-looking, trying to ‘re-create’ a particular Golden Era. Perhaps we should be open to the notion that there is not ‘a point at which it can be said to have arrived’, but most England followers have a strong sense that an Ashes victory or World Cup triumph would provide that fulfilment. The ECB website does appear to have shelved its objective of ‘winning a global ICC tournament’. It now expresses its priorities a little less inflexibly as being to ‘Develop clear strategic plans for sustained success in Tests, ODIs and international T20s’.
Cricket in England – and possibly anywhere – is too encased in formal structures to allow the game ‘to find its own way’. Diversity – rewilded players – may be good for the game for its own sake, but our longing for them is purposive: to compete and win against the best teams whatever the playing conditions. For many – certainly those in authority – there is probably a quiet dread of what might happen to cricket if it isn’t constantly stewarded. Others might argue for an end to the interventions and grooming of the game for the twenty-first century. But they can’t know where the game would go if it was allowed to find its own way and may end up carrying out their own conservation activity if what they value about cricket is threatened.
I sincerely hope that Monbiot’s vision of rewilding can be given the opportunity to work in the UK. While it provides some handy tools for understanding how diversity might be reintroduced to an activity where it is withering, the forces that want to tame and control cricket will continue to hold sway.
A select XI – cricket blog posts 2017
Purpose: to draw attention to the most interesting, insightful and amusing independent cricket writing.
Format: a prose review, structured around a list of eleven selected posts, without clever (or laboured) analogies to the selection of a cricket team.
Criteria: posts published on-line, with authors (to the best of my knowledge) unpaid and having not appeared in any of the five previous Declaration Game annual select XIs. Ultimately, each selection is nothing more than my subjective judgement of what is interesting, insightful or amusing.
The select XI for 2017 begins where almost all cricketers start (and most remain): the grassroots. Being Outside Cricket is a multi-blogger site created by the blogger known as Dmitri Old (select XI 2012). The post ‘Community Service‘ by thelegglance, extols the virtues of club cricket’s dedicated servants before, wholly in keeping with the tenor of the host blog, turning its ire on the cricket establishment:
The rarefied atmosphere of the highest level of any sport is a world away from the day to day that makes up virtually all of the game. Yet professional sport relies on the amateur to a far greater extent than the other way around, even though they both need the other for it to flourish. But take away professional cricket, and the game would survive. Take away amateur cricket and there is simply no game at all, which is why the dismissive behaviour towards it remains one of the more despicable attitudes pervading the corridors of power.
John Swannick moderates a LinkedIn group for club cricket administrators, on which he posted a link to an article by the former Chair of Westinghouse CC. This piece was the most compelling long read of the selected XI. It tells the story of the decline of the club from a thriving institution enjoying on-field success to, within a matter of years, folding.
The warning signs had been creeping into the club for the last four or five years. As players left it became harder & harder to find replacements. As volunteers reclaimed their free time, it became impossible to find others willing to step up. Committee roles became something people recoiled at the thought of.
But as much as we can pinpoint the cause of the apathy, & believe me I do share the feelings of our members, it cannot hide the cold facts. Not enough of our members cared enough about the club to see it through to the end. Too many egos skulked behind rocks & into hiding when a once proud club was relegated not once but twice in the space of a few years. When the time was right to fight for the club & return it to glory, too many seized the opportunity to desert the ship before it sank further.
I doubt any cricket club official in the UK could have read this piece without recognising some aspect of their own club in the meticulously related account of Westinghouse CC’s fall. An uncomfortable, but important read.
A quick change of pace: satire. In the spring, That Cricket Blog wrote a county championship preview, extrapolating the excesses of 2017 to the competition in 20 years’ time – 2037; for example:
Defending champions after another season where bonus points based on corporate hospitality Yelp reviews left on-field performance largely irrelevant.
Dan Liebke has an excellent sense of the ridiculous, which comes across well on Twitter and in the podcasts to which he contributes. I have, though, tended to struggle to get past the sub-title on his liebCricket header (“funny cricket > good cricket”) but was glad I did when he wrote about the end to the 3rd England v South Africa Test.
The tension was immense. A hat trick attempt is always thrilling. A delayed hat trick attempt even more so. A delayed hat trick to win the Test would seem to be just about the pinnacle of Test cricket excitement.
And yet Joel Wilson – a lateral thinking marketing genius disguised as an umpire – found a way to top it.
One of the strongest features of cricket blogs in 2017 was the quality of statistical pieces. Fielding analysis came to the fore. Kesavan trawled through ball-by-ball commentary of 233 Test matches to gather the material for the most comprehensive analysis of slip-fielding that I suspect has ever been published – with breakdowns by bowler type, position, country and individual fielder (Steve Smith and Kane Williamson come out on top).
Paul Dennett had a similar interest and no less an obsession. Dennett introduces Fielding Scores for every player in IPL 2017 thus:
The lack of any worthwhile fielding statistics has always bothered me.
So for this edition of the IPL I tried to do something about it. I’ve spent the last few weeks reviewing every ball of the group stage of the tournament, creating 1,666 entries in a spreadsheet for all the fielding ‘events’.
It has been an absurd amount of fun.
Data visualisation is an adjunct field to statistics and of ever increasing importance. The strongest example I came across in 2017 was the blog post ‘Bat first or field. The choices teams make in Test cricket‘. It uses a background the colour of a Wisden dust jacket, over which charts, maps and monochrome photos slide in and out of view, as the data and its interpretation gradually unfolds.
Charles Davis is a doyen of cricket statisticians, with a prodigious output of analyses, lists and reports on Z-score’s cricket stats blog. One thrust of Davis’s work is to fill the gaps in 19th and early 20th century match records, by using newspaper archives to recreate the detail with which we have only recently come to expect of the recording of international fixtures. In ‘The Odd Fields of the Early Days‘, Davis has surmised, by studying reports in The Times, where the fielders were positioned at the start of the innings in fourteen late 19th century Tests, illustrating how in 1893, Johnny Briggs bowled to a field with five players positioned between mid-off and mid-on.
Raf Nicholson is also a cricket historian, specialising in women’s cricket, and a moving force behind the CricketHER website. In February, Nicholson published her ‘Thoughts on the batter/batsman debate‘. Her contribution is of note not just because of the side she takes, but because of her command of historical source material. The post also very neatly encapsulates one of the challenges facing girls and women’s cricket: whether the game’s growth will come with closer alignment to the men’s game or striking out and creating a distinctively new sport.
Recent history is the subject matter of That 1980s Sport Blog. Steven Pye’s post on the 1984 County Championship was as entertaining as this introduction promises:
The script would involve an underdog who nearly became a hero; a substitute fielder earning himself legendary status for a county that he never played for; panic on the streets of Chelmsford; a case of so near, yet so far for one team, and unadulterated delight for another. There might not be the angle of a love interest, but come the end of September 11, 1984, Keith Fletcher would quite probably have kissed Richard Ollis in relief.
My eleventh choice comes from Matt Becker’s Limited Overs blog. Becker has woven the personal story with the public cricket narrative as effectively and affectingly as anyone. This was hard, it was fun was Becker’s resurfacing after a one year absence from the blog.
And so I came back here. To write about this game I remembered that I loved, and to get away from the book I don’t want to think about anymore, and to keep writing in a space where I feel comfortable.
Becker fulfils that aim throughout the English/US summer of 2017 until, marking the final day of the England v South Africa series, he discloses his motivation for returning to the blog. It is moving and meaningful blogging.
Limited Overs is one of five blogs in the selection – the others are Being Outside Cricket, liebCricket, Z-score’s cricket stats blog and cricketHER – which published regularly during the year and from which selection of a single post was more difficult. I would encourage readers to spend some time visiting each and find their own favourite.
Last year, I introduced – ironically in terms of my appropriating the title, but genuinely in terms of my appreciation of the blog – the World’s Leading Blogger citation, which (as in Wisden) doesn’t restrict me to mentioning those who have not featured in previous years’ Select XIs. I nominated Backwatersman’s New Crimson Rambler and have come very close to announcing his retention of the WLB status for 2017.
Top of the tree, however, as my favourite blog and nomination for World’s Leading Blogger of 2017 is Peter Hoare’s My Life in Cricket Scorecards. Throughout the UK summer, Hoare blogged weekly about the parallel events – cricket and otherwise – of the summer of 1967, when as a young boy he had seen his home county challenge for honours and win the Gillette Cup. The material was fascinating, the writing crisp and the treatment of that earlier time both respectful and questioning. On top of all of that, the delivery through a cricket blog of a sustained project has taken the medium somewhere new and – for anyone with Hoare’s dedication – fertile.
Please read, share, disagree and generally engage with these and the many other independent cricket writers out there on the web.
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.
Yes, but can he play an off-drive?
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
The 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
Eleven 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
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.