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Lockdown cricket (retired hurt)

Even before good sense and Government edict confined us to our homes, sons no.s 1 & 2 and I had transferred our cricket games from the bedroom to the spring-lit back garden. The lockdown finds us in mid-season intensity.

Shooter!

Around 16 metres long, the garden provides just enough space for a pitch. The lawn, assailed from above by years of the boys’ football games and from below by the roots of a thirsty silver birch tree, provides an unpredictable surface. The tennis balls (or the inner cores of incrediballs) jag, leap and creep keeping innings brief and challenging. Modes of dismissal include hitting the ball over a fence, into a fence in an uncontrolled fashion, any edged shot in the direction of an imaginary full umbrella of slips and gulleys and one-hand one bounce. With no counting of runs, deliveries faced is our currency. The leave is highly productive.

The wicket on pitch 1 is the trunk of the maple at the back and centre of the garden. Wear and tear has forced us to pitch 2, where a concrete post provides middle stump, off and middle, leg and middle and we negotiate over whether the off and leg stumps have been hit. Pitch 2 opens up the off-side for the right-hander (sons 1 & 2) and plenty of space for me to nurdle leg-side.

The bowler has a step or two to build momentum. Hitting a good length produces rewards, but the temptation to drop short and see the ball fly past the batter’s chin (or scoot into his ankles) is strong. The pitch takes turn, although it hardly seems worth the effort to rotate a wrist when the natural variation is so.. varied.

Competition, the more so since we have had to spend so much time in each other’s company, is keen. The boys wind each other up, finding fault at every opportunity. They are young men and fling the ball at each other with venom. I flinch, waiting for a catch at short-cover, ready to step in and restore order, should either lad cross the line. No.2 son is particularly incensed that his brother’s criticisms of his technique end up stymying his play. He’s torn: last summer his sibling coached him back into a love of the game; this year, big brother may be trying to undermine him for advantage.

Balls disappear over the three fences and return at a slightly slower rate. Such is the discipline of our batting, it’s rarely the result of a loose shot. A firmly hit back-foot drive can hop next door. Bouncers, flicking arm, shoulder or just climbing over the batter, end up in the allotments behind us. But if it is from a loose drive or a top-edged pull, disdain rains down on the batter as they surrender the crease.

I found another way to leave the crease on Saturday. No.1 son had bowled a spell of off-spin. I had picked him off through the leg-side, forcing him to drop short, which I clattered to the fence (two metres away). He reverted to his stock: seam bowling. A delivery reared off a length, past my face which I turned, only to meet the ball coming back the other way from the concrete post. The tennis ball hit me squarely in the eye.

I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening lying in a darkened room. I had an early night, slept soundly and woke on Sunday with two functioning eyes. I now bat in my non-shatter cycling glasses.

It is a delight to share these games, sometimes good humoured, often intense, with my sons. It lightens the mood of this dark time. But there’s an unease that keeps picking away at me.

No.2 son returned to cricket after England’s World Cup Final win last summer. The junior season had passed and he played three senior matches and netted with his brother in the summer holidays. He has trained through the winter, working hard at senior nets. Cricket, he says, has replaced football as his favourite sport. The summer, this season, has been his goal. Not only may those hopes go unfulfilled, but I worry what shape the recreational game will take when we finally find it safe enough to congregate and spend whole afternoons together.

Catch-up Test Cricket

I have an idea for a change to the Laws of cricket to improve an aspect of Test match play. It would be an attempt to make (even) more Test cricket attractive to watch – more specifically, to restrict those passages of play that don’t feel vital, tense and keenly contested. It centres on competitiveness. For that reason, it goes wholly against the grain of the international game and, I accept, would not be adopted. It’s a political thing, it seems. But the idea came to me not as a challenge to the game’s status quo, but at home.

So, it starts personal: I am no longer always alone watching cricket. My sons join me and with their company comes responsibility and anxiety. Will the cricket.. will England’s performance.. sustain their interest? I’m not really worried about no.1 son. He is in too deep and has found the multiple layers of the sport, which can provide distraction from bad cricket or poor England. No. 2 son is more of my worry. Unlike his brother, he’s not an autodidact. What he knows is what we’re watching and how we interpret it for him. It could go wrong. And for that reason, I want Test cricket to show its better side.

The one aspect that I would change is a function of Test cricket’s tendency for one side’s advantage in a match to be exponential, not linear. This is routinely seen in the margins of victory between two closely matched teams. They are not the handful of runs that, on paper, separate them, but hundreds of runs, with the result and margin often reversed the following week. It’s not the margins of victory themselves that are the problem I want to highlight, but a particular passage of play that occurs as the team in the ascendancy turns their advantage into an unchallengeable lead.

The problem

The recent (2019/20) Trans-Tasman Trophy series was an archetype. In each of the three Tests, Australia held a first innings lead, amounting to 250, 319 and 198 (reduced from 203 after a penalty incurred by Australia in the third innings). From that commanding position, Payne’s team set out to bat again and build their advantage.

The outcome of this tactical ploy is a dissipation of competitive tension throughout the third innings of the match. The fielding team may attack briefly with the new ball, but if incisions aren’t made quickly, the innings proceeds with the teams at arms-length, not locked truly in battle. Runs are accumulated against either bowlers not exerting themselves or second and third string bowlers. The fielding team is trying to slow the scoring – by defensive methods – not in the interests of forcing an error, but simply eating up time, or just plain time-wasting. Batsmen may play attractive innings, but there’s a strong sense of cashing in on the situation rather than shaping the game. The match proceeds, like a car coasting down a hill in neutral – something may happen at the bottom of the hill, but there’s not much propelling it, or standing in its way.

‘Tune in later’, I’d advise a youngster trying to get to grips with Test cricket, ‘when the meaningful stuff starts’, hoping they will bother to return when the fourth innings begins.

A solution in Game Theory?

The problem of one competitor gaining an advantage that is detrimental to the spectators’ experience of the contest is not peculiar to cricket (although the duration of this period might be). From the academic field of game theory has arisen the idea of re-instilling interest in a contest by giving the team that falls behind a catch-up opportunity.

The first example is not just about maintaining competitive tension, but also equity. In football (soccer) knock-out matches that go to penalties, a heavy advantage is enjoyed by the team that kicks first. To level this playing field and promote tighter penalty shoot-outs, it is proposed that the sequence of kicks changes from ABABABABAB to ABBAABBAAB, so each team has the opportunity to take the lead. Baseball is another sport that has received games theory advice. In this case, the recommendation is to vary one of the fundamental components of the sport. The team that leads, it is proposed, should have its innings reduced from three outs, to two outs. This is catch-up theory at its crudest: limiting the scoring opportunities for the team that finds itself ahead. The ideas have not been adopted.

Game theory’s catch-up ideas remain just that. They do, though, provide material that might be applied to Test cricket if we want to rid it of its third innings malaise.

The problem analysed

Before outlining the options available to Test cricket, I have some data on the extent of the problem, drawn from all Test matches in the last decade.

Of the 427 Tests in the sample, almost two-thirds (65.5%) had first innings leads exceeding 100, and more than one-third (34.7%) exceeding 200.

The size of first innings lead closely correlates with the match result. Unsurprisingly, the larger the lead, the greater the prospects of victory and less likelihood of defeat. Once the lead tops 125 runs, the chance of defeat falls below 10%. That threshold is reached even earlier – above 100 – for sides batting first who gain a lead in the initial innings of the match.

Cricket has, of course, a provision in its Laws to prevent the aimless drift in two-innings matches which feature a dominant side at the half-way point. Law 14 states: “the side which bats first and leads by at least 200 runs shall have the option of requiring the other side to follow their innings.”

21% of the matches in the past decade met the conditions that would enable the side batting first to require their opponents to follow-on. Captains of the side with the advantage opted to do so less than half the time (46%). From the scorecard data, their decision was influenced by the size of their lead, and the number of overs they had they had been in the field to achieve their advantage. Other factors undoubtedly played a part as well: series situation, bowlers’ fitness, weather conditions, etc.

More than one-in-nine Test matches in the 2010s featured a dominant side choose to build-up its lead in an often successful effort to take the sting, the jeopardy and the interest out of the remainder of the game. It’s a significant minority of all matches. Had I not had access to the statistics, I would have guessed the proportion was higher. It seems such a common occurrence – a blight on the sport that has me in its grip.

Catch-up cricket – advantages and disadvantages

I want to argue that if one side establishes a hefty lead, then it is better for the game that the other side bats next – either to bring the game to a swift conclusion, or to straight away challenge the side that has fallen behind to stage a comeback. Either way, all of the cricket is vital and well contested. This is what happens when the side batting second has the hefty first innings lead. These suggestions then, only apply to situations where it is the side batting first that holds the advantage.

I can conceive of a range of options for avoiding the third innings cruise:

  • the side with a first innings deficit always bats third
  • set an arbitrary first innings lead that would require the side behind to bat third – a return to the mandatory follow-on law
  • invert the follow-on rule, so that the captain of the team in deficit decides whether to bat next.

The downside of each of these is the potential for manipulation – gifting runs or wickets to gain a positional advantage: eg allowing the deficit to fall below 200 so that the follow-on isn’t enforced. Let’s park that objection and look at other arguments against forcing the team behind the game back out to the middle to bat again.

There is a strongly held notion that the side that has won the first innings advantage has won the right to determine the sequence of the match – eg avoid batting fourth on a pitch that is likely to be deteriorating. There are political echoes to this understanding of the sport, which I’ll return to later. For now, I’ll restrict my response to noting that this ‘deserved’ advantage may have been the result of a good deal of fortune: winning the toss, batting/bowling in more favourable conditions. More fundamentally, I would counter this objection with the assertion that the sport should be structured to foster competition, not reward a particular team for where they find themselves part-way through the game.

A second argument, which is I suspect more persuasive to the players, is that forcing a side into the field for back-to-back innings risks injuries and fatigue to its bowlers and fielders. The risk is real, but it applies also to the team against whom the opposition amass a score of 500 or more in a single innings over five or six sessions. We expect that fielding captain to manage his or her resources without offering them respite. Shouldn’t we expect the captain of the stronger team – with the sizeable first innings lead – to do the same?

In the knowledge that being the superior team could lead to longer stretches in the field, stronger teams may select more balanced sides, with more bowling options, to drive home the advantage won in the first innings. On winning the toss, they may choose to bowl first, avoiding the possibility of an enforced follow-on, giving the weaker team first use of the pitch. It may change the nature of pitches that home boards task their groundskeepers with preparing. The risk of injury and fatigue is genuine, but so is the ability of cricketers to adapt, possibly in ways that enhance the game.

It can further be argued that the enforced follow-on may shorten games, denying action to spectators with 4th day tickets, advertising revenue for broadcasters and providing sustenance to those wanting to lop a day from the scheduled duration of all Tests. The evidence of the 2010s is that matches where sides with deficits over 200 runs were required to follow-on did wrap up faster – by an average of 50 fewer second innings overs (in excess of half a day’s play). I am not persuaded that we need Tests to be any longer than it takes for one side to dismiss the other twice for fewer runs that it has scored. That is the essence of the sport.

I acknowledged earlier that forcing teams to do something they don’t want to do could bring about match manipulation – gifting of runs or wickets. To assess this risk, it is worth understanding what is at stake for the captain of the side on top, who prefers to bat again rather than enforce the follow-on. There is the concern, already mentioned, about the physical demands on bowlers.

Another factor in that captain’s thinking is wanting to avoid batting last when the pitch conditions will be most difficult for batting. Over the last decade, the fourth innings batting average across all Tests is 4.8 runs per wicket below that for the third innings. Applying that statistic to a first innings lead effectively adjusts a 200 run advantage to 152. It is this sort of calculation that could beget manipulation.

Imagine the team batting second is approaching the (now mandatory) follow-on score: 14 runs (the average 10th wicket partnership in the first innings of the side batting second in the 2010s) short as the ninth wicket falls. The fielding captain could subtly gift those runs to ensure his bowlers get a rest and he avoids the disadvantage of batting last. An average 10th wicket partnership would realise 14 runs, plus the 14 gifted – 28 runs more than the lowest total had the captain managed to take the 10th wicket without conceding any runs. Add four more runs to represent the average partnership score once 14 runs are made: 32. The advantage of batting third over fourth is quickly whittled away.

The reverse argument can be made for the batting team, who may want to manipulate proceedings to maximise their score without passing the mandatory follow-on score. Perhaps both sides would enter an ultra-attacking phase, one willing to risk conceding runs but accepting wickets falling; the other accepting the runs but willing to see their innings close.

It would be an audacious or desperate captain who deliberately reduced their first innings advantage, or increased their deficit. Their control of the degree to which they concede ground to the opposition would not be precise and could just turn out to be match-losing or win-forfeiting. Nonetheless, match-fixing gives us evidence that some players will under-perform for some future or other benefit. If the risk of changing the follow-on law were to introduce the prospect of tactical under-performance in the expectation of creating a superior match situation, it probably wouldn’t be worth it.

An alternative approach would be to leave alone the laws over following-on and innings sequences and take other steps to prevent the third innings drift. This could be done by giving the choice at the outset of the game of whether to bat or bowl, not to the winner of the coin toss, but to the weaker team and trusting them to seek the advantage of batting first (note 1). A number of ways could be employed to identify the weaker team: including the ICC rankings, score to date in the series. I would recommend, at the first test in the series, using away status as a proxy for ‘weaker’. Thereafter, the choice to bat or bowl first would devolve to the team behind in the series, or stay with the away team if the series score were even.

The political dimension

Making the game more competitive in most sports is an issue of equity and entertainment. In international cricket, it is squarely political. In trying to come up with solutions to the third innings malaise, with its passages of play that I would find hard to justify as worth my younger son spending his time watching, I came up against a far stronger barrier than health and safety concerns. International cricket is not run to be competitive. More than that, it is run to be uncompetitive. Catch-up proposals that could, ever so slightly, tilt the balance of a match, have no hope of success when the fabric of the game takes the advantage of some nations, institutionalises it and makes it a matter of active policy. If the health of the wider international sport is not prioritised then it is futile expecting changes that benefit weaker teams mid-match to find any traction.

The nations that participate in international cricket find themselves in the early twenty-first century unequal: population, resources, playing facilities, history, climate, etc. Advantage isn’t truly earned in Test and international cricket. It is an accident of geography, empire, national determination and economic development amongst many other factors. Onto that inequality we graft decision-making authority, match scheduling, access to competitions, distribution of funds and migration of players in ways that entrench relative advantage. But still we praise the strong for exerting their strength and pity the weak for not overcoming their disadvantages. International cricket needs something more fundamental than a catch-up device – a fully-articulated handicap system would be more suitable.

I referred earlier to the objection to the mandatory follow-on that the team with the first innings advantage had earned the right to decide whether or not they would bat next. Underlying it are two ideas that are joined by a golden thread to the politics of international cricket: 1) those with the advantage have decision-making authority; 2) the advantage they hold is deserved. The first idea is base realpolitik and as applied to match-play, relates to nothing intrinsic in the sport. In other words, cricket would lose nothing, if, at the stroke of a pen, the Laws were amended and the authority to decide who bats in the third innings of a match was invested not in the captain of the side with the advantage, but his or her opposite number. The second is the conservative sleight of hand that encourages the status quo to go unexamined: the wealthy and the powerful are deserving of their advantage, when even the shallowest digging below the surface would expose the combination of privilege and good fortune that really accounts for their status.

Back at home

If politics is to continue to prevent cricket becoming the best sport it could be, I don’t think I should shield this fact from my younger son. In future, as a team starts its second innings, aiming just to bloat its already hefty lead in the game, I’ll draw this to No.2 son’s attention. “Look. They have chosen to bat again, to take the game out of reach. It’s what the powerful do: they defend their advantage.”

If Test cricket cannot always be entertaining, let it be educational.

 

 


Note 1: for an assessment of the advantage of winning the toss (aka batting first), read criconometrics

Bedroom cricket

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

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

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

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

And, in a fashion, I have played.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short pitch: that was the 2015 junior cricket season

No more volleys of texts to check player availability have to be sent. The cones marking out the playing area for a ‘skill-based game’ have been collected for the last time. A small group of youngsters wanting to know the score or when they’re batting has been hushed for the final time. The last waddling batsmen have had their pads and helmet checked and been questioned to verify they are wearing a box.

The junior season has finished.

Usually, the weather is dry and warm at this point of the summer, so we complain about the season ending just when the best time to play has arrived. This year, late July has been damp and chilly – doing a good impersonation of September, when it is easier to reconcile oneself to cricket rounding off as autumn makes its presence felt.

In 2015, I have concentrated on cricket with boys and girls in the under 9 age group. It’s the entry level to the sport, with a wide span of ability shown within most teams. In practice sessions, we try to find different ways of rehearsing the basics of the game. Repetition balanced with interest; grooving with competition. Matches are an extension of practice and are designated as friendlies without results being digested into a league table. Most matches progress without use of a scoreboard; the scoring itself can be inscrutable: start at 200, add runs, subtract x for wickets, etc. My team lost some matches so heavily that the precision of my scoring wavered late in the game. But at the end, the team still crowded around me find out if they had won.

Adult cricket, despite the wide span of the ground, is mostly played within particular corridors of activity, with familiar, recurring shapes to play. Under 9 cricket is free form. Two fielders, the bowler and batsman converging on a ball that settles in the middle of the pitch. A batsman, fielder and wicket-keeper rushing to reach the mis-directed delivery dribbling out towards what we know of as cover-point. The bowler, turning and speeding past a slower teammate to retrieve the ball from long-on and sending a throw bounding past the unattended wicket and down to the third-man boundary.

My favourite play of the year, for sheer devilment, started with the batsman swinging forcefully and missing the ball. The keeper collected the ball and stood with it in her hands. Everyone froze, except the live-wire at mid-wicket who sped to the stumps, whispered something in his teammate’s ear. Responding to this prompt, the keeper crumpled the stumps while her teammate withdrew back to the on-side. All the while, the batsman had been standing out of his ground. I gave him out. The fielding team’s coach, who was keeping score, rejected my decision. We all laughed.

Some other favourite moments of the season, in my role as father. My younger son, on his hard-ball debut, batting capably against bigger older bowlers bouncing the ball up to his chest. Then back in under 9 cricket, that same son, playing that rarest thing in junior cricket, forward defensive strokes to straight balls bowled. The highlight of the season was watching no. 1 son, when he was tossed the ball for the 17th over of an under 16 cup final with the opposition accelerating and needing nine an over to win. I shivered and squirmed with nerves, while he bowled full and straight, picked up two wickets, conceding 11 runs from two overs helping his team to a five run victory.

We are already planning for next season: teams, coaches, training approaches. There will be indoor matches in the autumn and after Christmas. A gradual build-up to another three months of texting players’ parents, setting out cones, dodging showers, hushing talkative kids, worrying about protective gear and playing cricket, wonderful cricket.

Short pitch: back in the nets

My Dad once (or twice) netted with Surrey. That was back in 1946 when he was a 15 year old school boy.

IMG_0955This weekend, 69 years later, he was back in the nets, bowling at his second grandson, who is aged 14.

The two stories seem equally as unlikely, but are as true as each other.

Quick single: Family friendly cricket

IMG_1101

Just like the Birmingham Bears, I was delayed by the traffic.

“Ten minutes and we’re leaving,” I announced on returning to the family home.

“Why can’t I have a phone?” demanded the 1&only daughter.

“By tram. No. Why can’t we go in the car?” complained no. 1 son.

“Can I have a coke?” nagged no. 2 son.

Were Chopra and Brown’s team as moany and discontented as Mrs DG’s and my lot?

A sprinkling of rain fell as we got off the tram at Old Trafford.

“How much longer until they call if off?” queried no.1 son gloomily.

Finding dry seats in C stand, we heard the announcement that the game would start 30 minutes late owing to traffic delays on Daddy’s commute home (or similar).

“Now, we’ve got to sit here for 40 minutes,” muttered no.1 son, who in another Manchester sporting venue is anxious if we aren’t at our seats that length of time before kick-off.

Time well-invested back at the concourse behind the pavilion, buying treats. An ice cream to distract the 1&onlyD from the ignominy of being a year 6 pupil without a mobile phone; and another chosen in a split-second defection from coke by no. 2 son.

I try to explain to Mrs DG the prominence of Brendon McCullum in world cricket. I feel emotional as I summarise how his significance goes beyond New Zealand and can be credited with invigorating the English game this summer.

“So he’s the best T20 player in the world?” questions no.1 son, comfortable with definitive judgements, not the weighing of strengths and weaknesses, the application of context to performance and the sheer ambiguity of the game. “Is he good?” he asks as each new bowler is brought into the attack – frequently, as Lancashire bowl most of the innings in one over spells.

McCullum doesn’t live up to my encomium – although that’s been true of his whole trip to the UK as a batsman. The Bears’ captain, Chopra, and their other international captain, Porterfield, accumulate, but the innings doesn’t ignite.

As each bowler starts their mini-spell, I confirm to no.1 son that, “Yes”, they are good – as well as providing some context. The exception is Steven Croft, about whom for the sake of variety rather than a genuine assessment, I state, “No.” Despite me, Croft bowls well, as do the other spinners, Parry and Lilley, which suggests why the Birmingham innings falters. No.1 son and I comment on the variation in pace and flight of the slow bowlers, but most respect is accorded James Faulkner.

His run-up is pitched like a man trying to progress into the teeth of a gale. But what we appreciate is the accuracy of his back-of-the hand slower ball. He uses it as his default, rather than surprise, delivery and lands it on a length on off-stump repeatedly.

Before the game began, asked how many sixes we would see, I plumped for eleven. The first comes in the Bears’ twentieth over, when Gordon, who the big screen tells us has zero T20 career runs, hoists his first ball over the mid-wicket boundary. If my prediction is to come true, the Lancashire reply will be short and successful.

Mrs DG pronounces it ridiculous that a county is playing a city. I think about asking her views of a team known as ‘England’ playing another titled, ‘West Indies’.

She also detects flatulence innuendo: the Blast, which starts with a Blast-Off and the flaming jets and hot air expelled in front of C stand that signal boundary hits. I enter into the spirit with a plate of lamb rogan-josh, pint of ale and bag of Bombay mix.

We move upstairs for the Lancashire reply. The rows of seats are steeply inclined. No.2 son asks us to sit still as he is anxious about toppling off. The view of the ground, its hinterland and the setting sun is uplifting.

A couple of early sixes shorten odds on my pre-match prediction. But in back garden cricket fashion, each is followed by an out. Mostly Lancashire batsmen mistime the ball or middle it straight at boundary fielders, to no.1 son’s frustration and increasing disdain. Don’t worry, Faulkner’s coming, I reassure.

Mrs DG and the 1&onlyD are focused on the big screen. Tracking the required rate? Checking career records? Studying the umpire referrals of two run out decisions? No. Waiting to see if their selfie tweeted with #summerlive makes the cut. It doesn’t and they feel short-changed. Note to county grounds: make sure you display every photo submitted.

Faulkner does come and some of the time does strike the ball a bit more cleanly than his teammates, but keeps taking singles to bring Jordan Clark or Alex Davies to face – the latter plays a short innings comprising, almost exclusively, attempted ramps. When Faulkner does connect well the ball whistles to the upper tier of the stand at mid-wicket. The chase is on! Then off again when the expected rattle of boundaries doesn’t come and he falls to a good low catch at long-off.

Faulkner is replaced by Liam Livingstone, a cricketer in the odd situation of being more famous for an exploit at club level than in the professional game. Could he alter that tonight? 17 runs to win off the final over would do it.

A straight drive hit so hard that Brendon McCullum at long-on can’t even get close enough to essay a dive, raises hopes. Livingstone runs hard, losing and regaining the strike with byes run to the keeper. Nine needed from the final two balls and the Nantwich player swings Hannon-Dalby into the legside and just over the boundary.

It has come down to the final ball: family friendly cricket. Excitement more memorable than an ice cream and flake, a ride on a busy tram and fear of tumbling from a high stand; and at least on a par with seeing flames shot into the air in front of you. Whether it matches the thrill of seeing your photo on the big screen, we’ll have to wait for another visit to find out.

Short pitch: Hard ball debut

Hard ball cricket requires a flat track. And so, a first game right in the middle of the ground, whose crowned contours lift the square like a modest stage. Playing here, unlike the soft ball games tucked away in the outfield, means being the centre of attention.

Fielding first and there’s shape and purpose to the team’s positions. The dashing after every ball must stop. Know your position, understand the role.

A hand put in the way of a cleanly hit cut shot brings applause and praise, but leaves a stinging palm that could do without more contact with the ball for a few overs. A few tidy stops and then the ball appears suddenly, high and to the left. Stretch up and the ball bounces off the heel of the left hand. Are those supposed to be caught? What do teammates really think, beneath the shouts of ‘hard luck’? It’s still nagging away when another ball is lofted. Moving forward, stooping to reach, it clatters fingers on its way to the turf. The commiserations are more muted.

The coach makes the bowling change. A first over. The seam is abrasive on fingers. It’s up a slope to the crease and the ball has an unfamiliar density. The first ball just floats towards the batsman, who swats it to the square leg boundary. More momentum to the next and the one after to push it two extra yards. But the predictable swing of the incrediball has gone and the line is legside.

Later, a second over; wickets have fallen and the team is buzzing. Still no swing and balls drift harmlessly to the legside. The penultimate ball comes out well and the batsman carves it up into the covers where an older boy, more accustomed to the slap of ball on flesh, takes a catch for a first wicket in hardball cricket.

The innings ends, untidily, meaning 87 must be chased. Relief – real or pretend – to be number ten; unlikely to have to bat. But wickets fall rapidly and with six down, shooed to the pavilion to get padded up. In there, a man’s space, boisterous talk from teammates already dismissed and about the shortcomings of those out of earshot. It’s exciting, it’s validating. But how do pads fasten? Which on which leg? Told to hurry, the innings is folding – not much to live up to.

The top-scorer is run out trying to keep the strike and keep us in the game. Called in to the middle, shuffling like a mini cowboy. IMG_0946Taking strike for the first time, comfortable stance, eyes peering through the helmet grill. But the proportions are out: stumps reaching as high as the new batsman’s elbows. The first and second balls are repelled. The ball seems heavy and dead, like a stone, on the bat. Hands are jolted and the ball rolls out to the fielder, rather than springing to the boundary, when the opportunity comes to pull. But the over is survived.

Now non-striker, the chance for a run is spotted and a bold call made. A straightforward sprint in a game of football, is an arduous venture in batting gear, but ground is made. Facing again, another chance to pull. The dull toe end of the bat lifts the ball over square leg for a first run.

The fielding team’s bowling rota brings its opening bowlers back on. Deliveries that bounce bail high must be fended off. Another run, another over; the sense of an innings – and with that thought, a swish, a miss and it’s over.

Short pitch: top of the order

IMG_0306“I’ll be batting top of the order,” my Dad, 84 this year, said ahead of his school reunion. He meant that there would be no one senior to him at the event.

Afterwards, he was more cheerful. He had a great ‘find’ to report. A film shot in 1950 at his school had been discovered. It featured my Dad, in his final school year, playing cricket.

Stories of my Dad’s cricket exploits have featured on Declaration Game: his ’10 for’ denied by a failed all-run four; him netting with Surrey’s 1st XI while at school. But I’ve only had words with which to conjure an impression of my Dad as a cricketer at his peak. He had stopped playing club cricket 20 years before the only, memorable match we played together.

IMG_0300But now I have images. Two close-ups of my Dad playing a sweep shot. One sequence of him bowling, which was shot from the mid-wicket boundary. And with that a nugget he’d never mentioned: his run up and action modeled on Alec Bedser.

IMG_0302The film can be found here. The cricket sequences are brief, running from 6:50 to 7:30.

The very top of the order; no doubt.

Lord’s, day three (at the Test with a teen)

 

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Father and son, a day trip from Manchester to the Lord’s Test. So long anticipated. I’m excited, but all too aware what a risky business it is inducting these modern kids into the sweet, deep, almost shameful habit of watching a day’s cricket. There’s the hope he might want to accompany me for years ahead; the fear he’ll be bored or repelled by the kind of people who do this. And this day is an event: it’s not just me and mine, but my Dad, who first brought me to Lord’s 36 years ago, will be sitting with us in the Grandstand. I bet he wears a jacket and tie.

Potentially tricky situations with children are best managed (I know, because I’ve got it wrong with three of them) with food. Just let the usual rules lapse, don’t insist on token fruit or the presence of a pure protein. Say ‘yes’, much more often than ‘no’. Duck the battles, sway away from the arguments like we hope to see Kohli later having to deal with Broad.

But no.1 son has started the day feeling nauseous. Stuffed with pizza and two bottles of coke from his friend’s 13th birthday party on Friday evening. He turns down breakfast, which means we’re away to Piccadilly promptly, but accepts a croissant, although nothing to drink, at the station. It’s wet as our early train leaves town and it stays wet for most of the journey.

“A coke. Can I have a coke?” gasps the boy as we arrive in Euston. I buy myself an apple. “Fancy one?” I check. But it’s the sugar and the fizz he needs and gulps in the taxi to the ground.

‘What will he think of Lord’s?’ I wonder of this place I cherish visiting. Will its atmosphere, its confidence sweep him away? We queue at the North Gate. Tickets, bag search, body frisk and into the bright light of Lord’s flashing off white awnings, stands and media centre. “Is that where the commentators sit?” he asks of its blank, arced rear.

I steer him to the nursery sightscreen, to make his first sight of the 200 year old ground, the iconic view of the Pavilion presiding over the wide open outfield. “It’s not at all as I imagined,” he offers inscrutably. And, just as he has done when I take him to see his side at the Eastlands/Etihad Stadium, “Can we go straight to our seats?” I concur, although I want to stride around, spot players, ex-players, maybe even old pals.

Into the Grandstand and no.1 son spots Grandad, standing guarding our seats. He’s wearing a suit and tie. There’s warm welcomes, as befits an event: “Your first visit to Lord’s. Lovely, fantastic.”

Play is only 15 minutes away, so I dip back under the Grandstand to get coffee, tea and, for no.1 son, a packet of ready salted crisps, while he recaps his season so far. His first season where he has shone more as batsman than bowler.

Back upstairs for the start of play and I realise it’s not just bright, it’s hot. Some men a row behind us are taking off their shirts, looking sweaty as though they’ve joined in the Indian team’s fielding warm-ups. It turns out some hospitality box dwellers had tapped their yellow and red sun shade, sending last night’s rain smacking onto the £90 per ticket hoi polloi below. That remains a threat to the lower Grandstand for the rest of the morning. Them upstairs also shoot champagne corks, but these clear us and reach the outfield, where they sit looking like objects, sometimes seen on cricket grounds in public parks, that should be picked up and disposed of in plastic bags.

At noon, Grandad hauls in the first beer of the day and sandwiches – cheese for no.1 son. “It’s got pickle all over it” he hisses at me at a volume just below his Grandfather’s sensory range, as though I have conspired to place preserves in the least acceptable locations. I offer to find a replacement, but the nausea of 7am, 200-odd miles north has returned.

By the afternoon, when weathermen warned of storms, the sky is wide and blue. I’m happily roasting under a straw hat, Grandad may be snoozing and no.1 son is getting bothered that the sweat may be showing on his back. He accepts the need for protection and wears my club cricket cap. His hunger is back and I take him to the Jamie Oliver food court for thick-cut chips. He holds the cardboard basket up and oscillates it while directing me to pump more and more ketchup on top. “Can I have some salt?” he knows to ask. “I’m not looking,” I know to answer on this day of dietary laxity.

Back in our seats and no.1 son is soon offering chips. That’s unusual. Maybe he isn’t feeling well, I wonder, until I see the skin of salt like the mucky froth along a harbour wall. He’s overdone the sodium chloride.

Into the evening session and although it’s late in the playing day it’s hours until I need to drive the car, so I resolve to have a third pint. A soft drink for my Dad and an order for hot chocolate for no.1 son. “Will it be too hot? How long will I need to wait?”

“After Anderson’s next over, give it a try.”

“Now?”

“No, Stokes is still bowling. You could try dipping your finger in.”

“Oww. Why didn’t you make me wait an over?”

Grandad has left and we make a trip to the Lord’s Shop. “Is it good?” he wants to know. I sway my head as I do with a high percentage of the closed questions my kids fire at me.

No.1 son ponders buying a ball with the Lord’s logo stamped on it, then we hear a sudden, sharp cheer, with many many voices layered on top. Looking up at the ‘live coverage’ on the TV screens in the shop and Plunkett is at the top of his run-up. But the wicket falls as we hear the crowd clap the Indian captain off the field. Kohli, the player no.1 son and I have discussed most, is taking his guard on the screen when there’s more abrupt roars. Those of us caught in the shop chuckle as we wait to see the moment of peak excitement that we’ve sacrificed for a bit of retail distraction. It’s a good one, as Kohli waves on a ball into the top corner of his off-stump. The hat-trick ball, umistakeably a dud from the lowing noises we hear, 30 seconds before we see a harmless ball sail wide of Kumar’s stumps.

Ten minutes before close of play, we stand and leave our seats. I, childlike, I suppose, try to watch a few more balls between the heads of the spectators sitting in the Compton Lower, as we follow the concourse around to the St John’s Wood Road. Gently, not wanting to provoke a pressured response, I ask no.1 son what he thinks of Lord’s. “There are too many gaps between the stands. It’s not like a stadium.” I nod. He’s right, it isn’t like a stadium.

At Euston, we head to Marks and Spencer, where we might find croissant. They’re sold out and wearily he explains we should go to one of the station pastry vendors. At some French sounding franchise, he makes a Kohli-like last second recalculation and orders a slice of pizza. Aboard the train, having removed grilled tomato and taking two bites, he declares it disgusting and sits ruing not selecting pastry’s forward-defensive: the croissant.

Two and a half hours later and we’re through the front door. No.1 son, keeps going straight through to the kitchen, bypassing his Mother calling out welcomes from the living room. He’s at the toaster, grabbing butter from the fridge, finding food that fits.

Although we spent 15 hours together, I can only really piece together what my son thought of the experience: good.. the bowling was fast.. a bit boring at times.. not like a stadium.

And I got to see somewhere I know well and hold dear through someone else’s eyes. And what I’ve learnt is that cricket grounds would be even better places if they served toast.

County nets

indoor nets14 May 1981 was a big night in English sport. Tottenham Hotspur played and defeated Manchester City in the FA Cup Final replay. Ricky Villa scored twice, his winner that celebrated mazy, slow-motion dribble into the penalty area and shot past Joe Corrigan.

I wasn’t at Wembley that night, but another notable English sporting venue: Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre. I was taking part in Buckinghamshire schools under 13 cricket trials.

I related the story of that evening to no.1 son on our way to his first session of county advanced nets this week. It’s not much of a story as so little of it has stuck with me.

We netted indoors in one corner of a sports hall able to accommodate a full size football pitch or several tennis courts. I was asked to pad up early. I was bowled first ball (just as I had been at District trials the previous summer), but must have middled a few as at the end of the evening when the team  for the first match of the season was read out and my schoolmate Dave apologised that he couldn’t play, I was drafted in as his replacement. That match, against Northants, was the scene of the missing socks incident and cause of many cold sweats since. The other memory of that night that has, oddly, remained live is of the master reading out the fixture list, which included the adventurously sounding, ‘Stowe Away’.

My son is also taking part in some form of trial, but an extended one – eight weeks – and the onus is on coaching and improvement. He was very nervous beforehand but emerged from the hall, of which I had only been able to glimpse snippets of activity, and declared the evening “good fun”.

I told my Dad about no.1 son’s pending involvement in the county nets on a visit last month. The next day, driving into Oxford, he said that he had lain awake in bed piecing together his own schoolboy experience of county nets. “You know the story, don’t you?” is the familiar formula for getting permission to roll out a family anecdote. I did know it, but inspired by his grandson’s progress the story was much richer in detail than the versions I had heard before.

surrey centenaryMy Dad’s story, he now recalled, began with a man who lived in the same block of flats in Stockwell, South London. This man was a steward at the Oval and asked my Dad if he would like to help sell centenary brochures at a Surrey match. This places the story in 1946 and my Dad 15 years old. He turned up at the Oval, completed his assignment and by way of thanks was asked if he would like to come along to a net session one morning.

So Dad returned to the Oval the following week on a non-match day, carrying his cricket gear. He made his way to the nets at the Vauxhall End, where he was spotted by the Surrey Coach, Andy Sandham, and told to get himself a ball and get bowling. In the nets were Laurie Fishlock, Alf Gover, the Bedser twins and the rest of the county squad. Dad bowled – quite well, he thought, without really troubling the batsmen – until Sandham told him to get padded up. He took strike against the Bedsers, both of whom were decent enough to keep the ball pitched up.

Dad was the only schoolboy there until, with the practice in full swing, another youngster arrived. Coach Sandham gave the lad a voluble telling off for being late, in full view of the players, then ordered him to get booted up and bowl. Dad remembers being beaten time and again by the flight and turn of this left-arm spinner. It was Tony Lock, who made his first-class debut aged 17 that summer.

Dad went back the following week and perhaps, he thinks, one more after that before this schoolboy dream-come-true ended.

There may be a greater narrative to these three stories of the increasing professionalisation of talent spotting and junior development in English county cricket. My son, one of over 100 boys having eight weeks of coaching before a much reduced playing squad is selected; me, recommended by school for a trial net alongside a couple of dozen other boys; my Dad, given the nod for a try out by a neighbour who was a ground steward.

But, on the other hand, as I said to my Dad the other day,

“Are you sure you weren’t invited just to watch the nets?”

“No, I’m not sure,” he conceded. But my word, didn’t he do the right thing, taking his kit with him and doing just as Mr Sandham told him to.