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Short pitch: Giveaway

shirtAt my club, the junior membership package comprises for a single fee: all matches, training sessions, sports club membership, an end of season event and a giveaway.

The free item has, in recent years, been a club playing shirt, a club cap and a training shirt. We have thought of giving a ball, stamped with the club crest. But this year, with a new sponsor in place, we have reverted to providing a club playing shirt. 

The shirts arrived one week late, but just in time for this evening’s training session. With gratifying pride in the club’s colours, some of the players changed straight into their new shirt. 

The manufacturer described the shirt as offering:

Improved cricket specific fit to aid athletes’ movement during sport for greater comfort and performance.

Some of our younger boys put the shirt to the test and found its versatility was being undersold as it afforded the athlete a comfortable fit, not just for cricket, but wrestling, tumbling and grass-sliding.

As the clouds rolled in, the temperature dropped into the low single figures and spots of rain fell, we waited for another day to try out the remaining features of the shirt’s specification:

Moisture controlling materials draw heat away from the body.
Collar for UV protection

Maybe next year, I’ll suggest something really useful and sensitive to the local climate for our junior membership giveaway: pocket hand-warmers.

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Quick single: Ballance’s bat

FullSizeRenderGary Ballance’s virtues are found in terms of outputs, not process. Four hundreds and four fifties in his first ten Test matches make him one of the faster starters of England batsmen at this stage of their career.

He isn’t elegant. Amongst the many left-handers who defy the stereotype of graceful shot-making he doesn’t repel the eye as much as, say, Graeme Smith or Kepler Wessels. But it’s solid, focused, unexceptional batting at which he excels.

Now, in this series in the West Indies, he’s starting to look scruffy – because of his bat. Last summer, his New Balance blade was clear, pale willow. Then, it was his cheeks that attracted comment for their rosiness. His newer New Balance bat looks like it has been used to protect him from assault by flying tomatoes. Bright red splodges from one edge to the other, thickly spread from splice to an inch above the toe of the bat.

To his credit, there’s something honest and straightforward about leaving the marks where they appear on the bat. I have been known to sand-off those close to the edges of my bat. Perhaps the appearance of Ballance’s bat is a sign that he is free of any such insecurities about his own batting.

Snap

broken fingerIt wasn’t long ago, just a week or two, that I was thinking that you hardly every hear about it these days. It’s something that seems to have left the game, a peril of the past, not a concern of the modern cricketer. Then… SNAP

One day before the third Ashes Test at Perth, Australian all-rounder, James Faulkner was facing ex-patriot English bowler, Aaron Onyon, in the nets. A delivery lifted and struck Faulkner on the right glove, fracturing his thumb. With Faulkner’s trip to the hospital probably went his hopes, after being 12th man at Brisbane and Adelaide, of featuring in the Ashes series.

There was a time in the recent past that England batsmen seemed to be contending with an eleventh mode of dismissal: broken digit. Leading the way, in the vanguard where he belonged, was Alec Stewart. On the 1994/95 Ashes tour, he broke his finger three times: in a warm-up fixture; in the 2nd Test at Melbourne; and then in his return against Victoria ahead of the 4th Test. The following English summer, Stewart made it through the first two Tests of the series against the West Indies before damaging the finger keeping wicket. In other news, Jason Gallian, on debut, was hit on the glove and fractured a finger.

Nasser Hussain, Stewart’s successor as England captain has referred to his own, “poppadum fingers.” One snapped while scoring a century against India at Trent Bridge in 1996. Another cracked while fielding in his second Test as captain in 1999. Ditto in a county match a year later, ahead of the Lord’s Test against the West Indies. The next time, against Pakistan at Lord’s in 2001, Hussain’s thumb was broken by Shoaib Akhtar. He returned for the 1st Test of the Ashes series later that summer. In the second innings, a blow to the hand from Jason Gillespie fractured another finger.

Steward and Hussain were extremes, but others were afflicted, too. Graham Thorpe broke a finger facing a net bowler on the morning of the final Ashes Test at the Oval in 1993. The following year he scored a century with a fractured finger at Old Trafford against West Indies. Robin Smith batted on with a broken finger at Antigua in 1990. Nick Knight’s ODI career was interrupted by a finger injury in 2000. His successor, Marcus Trescothick, missed Tests in 2002 with a broken digit.

I had been wondering what accounted for the quietening of this staccato of snapping bones. Had batsmen (and fielders) adjusted technique? Perhaps bowlers, or the pitches they pound, are less spiteful. Most prosaically of all, has the protection provided by batting gloves developed?

A little research shows that each of these may be true, particularly the glove design explanation, but my ear may just not be as well tuned to the snapping of bones as it used to be. In recent months, Graeme Smith, Eoin Morgan, Graham Onions (while fielding), Moises Henriques have all suffered breaks that make James Faulkner not look so much of a throwback.

So instead of theorising about the decline of a once common injury I’m starting to realise that finger injuries were more noticeable when England weren’t a winning team; when the player absent injured, we imagined, might have been the one to turn the tide. In more buoyant times, these setbacks are easily forgotten as the team motors on.

With England moving towards a probable Ashes defeat, I wonder whether we are about to enter another period of fragile fingered England batsmen.

Trendsetting cricket

Cricket is the pre-industrial sport that saw out the industrial age and ventures into the uncertain post-industrial, information age. Trendwatching.com is a worldwide commercial trend monitoring service that has recently published its annual list of new consumer trends to watch out for. As followers of international cricket or players of club cricket, which, if any, of these cutting edge trends will we experience this year?

Anything shown in italics in the rest of this post, comes from the Trendwatching briefing. Surprisingly, perhaps, I find evidence of seven of the 10 Crucial Consumer Trends for 2013 in our timeless sport. Hold onto your wide-brimmed hats, because: 2013 will be the perfect storm of necessity and opportunity (motto to be adopted by the ICC Champions Trophy?).

Trend 1: Full frontal – not just transparent, but naked and proud

T20 provides cricket’s first trendsetting example. It brought players out of the dressing room, sitting them like a brightly dressed rabble of club cricketers on the boundary edge. Next, it put players on a live microphone. Shane Warne showed the BBL TV audience the best – explaining what he would bowl and with what effect – and worst – abusing Marlon Samuels – of transparent cricket coverage. The camera’s next move can be to one place only: the showers.

Trend 2: Presumers and Custowners – consumers will embrace even more ways to participate in the funding and launch of new products and brands

doagThis phenomenon, its potential unlocked by the Internet, is found in a project that, ironically, deals with cricket’s ability to adjust to the changing world. The movie now in post-production, Death of a Gentleman, considers how Test match cricket can survive. It was funded by fans of the sport, responding to a social media campaign operated by the film’s producers, Kimber and Collins, using the crowd-funding website FundMe.com.

Cricket would seem a viable market for this sort of approach. Its followers include many more affluent and connected people, protective of their niche interest. But searching the major crowd-funding websites no other cricket-themed products or services appear to be looking for our seedcorn cash. Maybe the release of Death of a Gentleman in 2013 will change that.

Trend 3: Emerging squared – emerging brands from all over are catering for emerging middle classes all over

Cricket seems well ahead of the curve on this one. Emerging markets initially experienced economic growth by manufacturing products or low cost services for the developed world. Increasingly, those emerging economies produce and create to meet their own and other emerging economies’ needs.

Indian cricket, at its most distilled in the IPL, is an archetype of the business of emerging nations no longer being developed to target the consumers of the developed world. Sold out stadiums and a prime-time audience reach of 160 million at home. Back in the ‘home’ of cricket, it gets an afternoon (live) broadcast on ITV how many? ITV4.

Trend 4: Mobile moments – lifestyle multi-if-not-hyper-tasking: why micro-convenience, mini experiences and digital snacks will rule

Cricket followers are fairly well catered for on their smart-phones, able to tune into a game for moments between meetings, calls, lessons, trips or whatever else punctuates their productive day. Apps provide news, scores, statistics and my personal favourite enables me to create a wagon wheel. This is a fast developing area. I wonder if this year when we take our seats at the ground for a day of Ashes cricket we will be downloading match-specific apps that connect us with anyone else with that app in the ground, for debate, images and even dates?

Next come the trends that affect the consumer as amateur player, rather than consumer as viewer.

Trend 5: Data Myning – why consumers want good data not big data

Businesses hold data about us, which in this trend they provide to us rather photo(2)than merely use to market to us. The relevance to cricket is, I think, unrealised but becomes possible with the spread of computer-based scoring across club cricket. Hitherto, the typical cricketer has glanced over the scorebook in the bar after the match to assess their contribution. But with ball-by-ball data recorded digitally, each player by the time they have showered, could receive a detailed breakdown of their innings/bowling spell, player v player chart and wagon wheel. Crowd-source your pennies to me for this idea.

Trend 6: Again made here – local manufacturing is the new service economy

Bat manufacture probably never left the UK but it is on the up again. Bespoke bats and factory visits are the hook. Millichamp & Hall hand-make bats at their workshop at the Somerset County Ground in Taunton. Customers are “entitled to come and visit” the workshop, making it an experience not just a transaction.

b3 batsA new challenger launched in 2012: B3 cricket in Nottingham. Offering off the shelf, custom and bespoke bats, B3 is as keen on the service element as M&H. Intriguingly, it advises that each bat has a unique reference number for reproduceability of your perfect bat. Moreover, recognising what creatures of habit batsmen can be, the customer is encouraged to bring along their favourite, but retired, bat for the new one to be made in its image.

I could not find actual or potential cricket equivalents for three of the trends

  • New life inside – it’s time for products that give back to the environment
  • Appscriptions – digital technologies are the new medicine
  • Celebration nation – flaunting the new ‘it’ cultures

leaving one trend:

Trend 10: Demanding Brands – brands’ wishes will be consumers’ command

The New Zealand cricket team are making some extreme demands of their followers early in 2013, but there’s an even better fit to this trend. It’s not considered fashionable, but it’s the basic modus operandi of local cricket clubs. In return for wearing the club’s crest, the playing member paints the sight-screens, hangs the nets, sweeps the dressing room, pulls the pints, runs the socials, etc. There’s an awful lot about brand loyalty that local cricket clubs could teach commerce.

Cricket bag hide-and-seek

At this time of the year, as leaves blow across unprotected squares, covers lie dismantled and sight screens pushed aside and oriented parallel to the wind, the nearest I get to playing cricket is the game of cricket bag hide-and-seek. My objective is to keep the cricket bag out somewhere around the house, as long as possible, before it gets put into storage for the winter. The opposition, teammate in all other respects, is my spouse.

My starting point, summer and autumn, is for the bag to be in the hallway. There it sits among handbags, school bags and lunch-boxes – like an elephant trying to be inconspicuous in a flock of sheep. Rarely does it manage an overnight stay there. The study, where it is placed between the exercise bike and the gerbil cage, is just behind the front-line, but vulnerable to sudden assaults.

In retreat, the bag spends time in the car boot. For very practical reasons, I don’t like this. In the autumn, I can’t justify the carbon emissions it adds to every journey. During the season, I find it too easy to leave for a match incompletely equipped. I carry this fear with me to every match ever since my debut (also my swan-song) for Buckinghamshire Under 12s. Very nervous and having endured a car journey with our boasting, racist of a keeper and his appeasing parents, I found a space in the changing room. Waiting until the other, more at ease boys began changing, I reached into my bag for my cricket kit. All present and correct, except the socks. I thought I was going to have to play the biggest game of my life in grey school socks, already sweaty from the discomfort of the journey. I was saved that, but not the embarrassment, by our team manager, who must have seen this time and again, so queried his charges whether they were properly attired. I haltingly declared my deficiency and he found me a spare pair.

After that game, my Dad taught me the skill of packing a cricket bag by imagining you are getting dressed and padded up for an innings. Over 30 years later and I still do this, each time my stomach turning as I am taken back to a Northamptonshire pavilion, finding my bag devoid of white socks.

Back to the game of hide-and-seek. What are the motives of the players? For my wife, there’s the general virtue of tidiness. I am also convinced that the bag, large and with protruding bat handle, symbolises for her the obsession that draws me out of the house, or in front of screen or by radio, attention on family severely compromised.

My motive: unequivocally, I deny that it is equipment fetishism. I am not turned on by new, fancy kit. I am not even turned on by my own kit. I keep my trappings of batting until they break. I have a thigh pad that dates back to college days. The only item that I can remember the occasion of its purchase is my bat – three years old and ordered on the Internet. Twenty years ago, the skipper of my South London club dubbed me Kent’s scruffiest cricketer: odd pair of batting gloves, white work shirt flapping at wrists and waist, a heavily taped SS Jumbo and hair that had to be pushed from my face during the run-up of every delivery faced.

I have come to realise that I like to have my bag visible around the house because it reinforces my belief that I am a cricketer. It validates my self-image. It would be so easy not to be a cricketer. I don’t offer a great deal to my team. Personal success, despite a very flexible threshold, is a rarity. In my mid-40s, a season-ending injury is never more than a quick single away – attempted or defended. There’s the demands of family and the guilt of not fulfilling them. There’s work. And there’s a newer creeping occupation, offering another title, fulfilment and obligation: junior coaching. While the bag’s there, I have withstood those counter forces and maintained an identity that I care about.

So, an update on the game. I’ve made it to the end of October and the bag is still on the loose. You’ll see it in the image, lurking with the recycling bags, tucked beneath the coats, atop the old hamster cage and in a very prominent place in my mind.

Knocking-in

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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