The day after the first game of my season, a season that is to be my first fully committed to weekend cricket in over 25 years, I hobbled around the field at junior training, seeking sympathy. “I felt every one of my 51 years, yesterday,” I lamented. Indeed, I had looked and performed like a decrepit cricketer: a duck, two dropped catches and two chases of the ball that ended with me kicking it over the rope.
The Minstrel, friend, team-mate and fellow junior coach, did not indulge me. “My 74 year old uncle plays every week and I never hear him complain,” he replied, with some acute advice about doing the things you enjoy.
That hit home. I also reasoned that in time, sooner rather than later, I hope, I will achieve match fitness as my body adjusts to the rigours of an afternoon of cricket.
Now, three games in and I have generalised aches and stiffness, the length and breadth of my body, late in the game, after the game and for a day or two afterwards. Added to that, I’ve collected a succession of very minor injuries: scratches to the wrist from retrieving the ball from brambles; a bruised heel of my right hand from fielding a ball that leapt erratically; bruising of two toes from a gentle yorker that I missed; a shallow cut above my right knee from a sprawling effort to catch a ball. Most evocatively of all, my left elbow is skinned and raw providing a sensation that connects me to my early twenty-something self when, from May to September, my elbows would bleed.. scab.. bleed on a weekly cycle arising from dives to stop balls on the hard wicket-ends of Oxford and Kent.
That was then, how am I skinning my elbows now? Walking through narrow changing-room doorways? Slipping when pushing the covers on and off the pitch? It seems not. While I’m not actually diving in the field, I’m going to ground, elbow first, when the ball is hit either side of me. To set an example to the youngsters, I could argue. To avoid bending down, might be more honest. Whatever the technical failings, it gives me the sensation of being a cricketer, active in support of the bowlers, while also adding to the aches as my joints shudder from the impact.
I’m looking forward to seeing the Minstrel this evening at junior training. I am reconciled to my sore body, dosed over-night with analgesic. I’ll enquire how he feels after a challenging afternoon in the field. Sent to the longest boundary, then back into the ring as the batsmen rotated strike; at the other end, gulley for the new batsmen, mid-wicket for the established player. Barely two deliveries in the same position. Two-and-a-half hours of continuous motion, always in the line of fire. In the changing-room, post-match, capable of nothing more eloquent than groans as the team reflected on the afternoon’s action. Has the Minstrel any other advice for his captain, I’ll ask, or is it time for a quiet word with his 74 year-old uncle?
This 2018 selection of cricket blog posts features topical issues, stories from the past, the minutiae of the game, insightful numbers, artful descriptions and the deeply personal. All the pieces selected have in common that they are independent and unremunerated writing from the web (note 1).
Leading off, we have a measured and expert riposte to the ECB Chairman’s comments about the demise of the junior game. Neil Rollings addresses the question ‘Is Youth Cricket really dying?’ unswayed by nostalgia or any agenda other than giving kids the opportunity to play.
It is not batting and bowling that have become unfashionable, but sitting on the side or fielding in redundant positions. Seeking ever shorter formats does not address this fundamental issue.
Junior cricket and its wider lessons, even if unheeded by the adults who attend games, is the subject matter of a letter written by the 17th Man to his 15 year old nephew (‘Diary of the 17th Man’). Whilst the letter refers to incidents in the young player’s matches, it was written in early April, days after this advice could have averted the year’s biggest cricket drama:
When you are an adult you see how people behave and shift their ideas about what is right or wrong, fair or unfair, depending on the situation or the advantage they can extract from it…
When you know you have done the right thing your conscience is always clear. That is something to cherish.
Blogger ‘Cricket Stuff’ responded to the ECB’s ‘the Hundred’ proposals with a look back at the Lambert and Butler Floodlit Cup, held at football grounds in 1981, concluding: “It had been new, it had been inventive, but it had not been right.” Having introduced Cricket Stuff, I can’t recommend highly enough his work in another medium: the podcast series ‘Cricket and England Through Five Matches’ – a highlight of my cricket consumption this year.
The CricViz initiative made available regular innovative use of game data and quality analytical writing in 2018. While acknowledging the excellence of their work, I have selected a trio of independent statistical posts for this eleven:
- Introducing a T20 captaincy metric: Joe Harris (White Ball Analytics) is a data scientist who makes the most of the compressed and systematic T20 format to explore deep patterns and possible areas of advantage in the short-form game. In this case, Harris proposes a method for measuring the impact skippers make through their bowling changes.
- 1 schoolboy error that even elite batsmen make, also probed an aspect of T20 cricket – specifically, should a batsman try to hit a wide ball? The answer reached by ‘No Pictures in the Scorebook’ is, ‘no’ and in this respect, if no other in 2018, Virat Kohli’s batting was found wanting.
- No place like home, relied on fewer statistical techniques but on Kit Harris’s (@cricketkit) time-consuming research to trace the backgrounds of all 392 professional cricketers in the English county game. The outcome is a picture of the global and local in balance.
Another trio of pieces concerned the game most of us play: recreational, club, mixed age, mixed ability, weekend cricket.
With Quantum of Cricket (‘The Raging Turner’), Liam Cromar relishes the context (playing alongside his old junior coach, six youngsters and a dad), the anticipation and the tiny moments during and around the game (a balanced scorebook!), above all the catch:
The ball starts to die. Staying stationary will result in a half volley. At the last moment, I fall forward to the ground and pouch it at arm’s length a few inches proud. I rise and hold the orb aloft with one hand.
The entire movement forms a perfectly natural, fluid, indivisible quantum of cricket.
The description and the meaning of the moment communicate so clearly why we continue to play, despite age, dubious competence and our busy lives.
It is a theme rendered in verse by Marco Jackson (‘From inside right’): Ode to a Saturday village game. Four stanzas of four lines capture the game and its significance lightly and economically.
‘The Wait’ described by Hector Cappelletti (‘Yahoo over cow corner’), dives deeply into a rarely considered aspect of the game, as true of international players as it is of the club player who is being observed. The no.3 batsman, impatient and anxious, is followed from the the start of the innings until the seventh over when, after expending a lot of nervous energy he finally goes out to bat.
Rounding off the XI are a pair of moving, personal pieces. In 1982 Nick Campion (‘Smell the Leather’) recalls the emotional pinnacle of a dads v lads game of cricket. Nine year old Nick faces his first ball, bowled by his Dad:
I remember as I swung my bat with vigorous abandon being aware that the expected moment of impact had come and gone. There was that awful moment between missing the ball and hearing it hit the stumps when you manage to generate a nanosecond of optimism before the devastating sound of leather on ash crashes through your hopes.
Writer and broadcaster, Cate McGregor provides the most tender and revealing account of cricket’s role in her life. Mystic chords of memory exhibits enormous integrity, while writing so attractively about the difficulties of an extraordinary life.
As a bereaved kid it [cricket] gave me a quiet solace and a respite from bullying. As a trans woman it has given me acceptance and a renewed faith in the goodness of humanity. By choosing to live that night in Adelaide I earned a second innings. I am following on.
With my XI selected, I must make my annual injunction that you should read not just these pieces but other of each bloggers’ material and continue to follow their blogs in 2019.
Finally, my nomination to the accolade (borrowed, of course, from Wisden) of World Leading Cricket Blogger of the Year (note 2). The honour goes to King Cricket. If the King (and his court) is not known to you, may I humbly suggest that you are not doing this cricket blog following thing correctly. Long may he reign.
Note 1: the qualification for the select XI is that the blogger must (to the best of my knowledge) be unremunerated for the post, which must feature on an independent website and the blogger must not have featured in any of Declaration Game’s six previous end-of-year blog post selections.
Note 2: the ‘World Leading Cricket Blogger of the Year’ as a self-consciously over-blown title to award to the blogger whose work I have most enjoyed reading over the previous 12 months. The two past winners are Backwatersman and My Life in Cricket Scorecards.
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.
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.
Ryan Rickelton describes both his great successes and his disappointments with the same calm precision. He appears to embrace each extreme of experience, in Kipling-esque fashion, as necessary parts of the road to realising his potential as one of South Africa’s most promising young top-order batsmen.
The modesty and groundedness of Rickelton, who turned 19 in July 2015 while in England playing for Sale CC, comes across when he talks about first recognising he may have a future in cricket. These positive thoughts didn’t occur after a particular innings, or when praised by a coach, but waited for something much grander.
There’s a week at the end of December when all the provinces’ age-group sides get together for seven days and play each other. 13 was my first year. Then under 15, I did quite well. I got two hundreds and two fifties. I ended up being the highest run scorer and player of the tournament. From there I got invited to Cricket South Africa’s national awards, where you get the Test player of the year announced. I was named out as the under 15 player of the country. From there, I had a bit of a go and said. ‘I want to do this’. I realised I could play a bit, but I wasn’t banking on it.
Two years later, a low point came. Rickelton was part of the squad of 23 players preparing for the under 19 World Cup, but did not make the final party of 15:
I was under Ray Jennings, and he was a different coach completely. And so as I walked in, I was a little bit sure of myself at that stage, I guess. But he brought me down. He actually took me apart to show me it was a different level. And it is.
With the World Cup (and Jennings) out of the way, Rickelton was back in contention for South Africa’s junior team and on the 2014 tour of England, had the opportunity to learn from his earlier disappointment. On debut, on the first morning of the 1st test, he opened the batting at Fenners.
The night before they lay out the order and luckily enough I was squeezed in… We won the toss, we batted first and got 400-odd. I got 85, batted through the day, to eventually get out 15 or 20 overs before the end of the day. Very disappointing on my part. Should have got a big hundred. Had a few good partnerships with the other guys and we kicked on and made 420 on a good wicket. From there we were able to control the game.
But Rickelton is very aware that success at the next level will require the same philosophical approach and ability to learn from success, failure, inclusion and rejection. Coming off a first season in English club cricket that sparked, but not consistently ignited, he goes straight into the Gautang pre-season two days after he lands back in South Africa. Aiming for a position in the Lions Second Team and then from there to work his way up, Rickelton acknowledges, “there are very good players in the system.. there are tons of good players out there. It’s not easy. But it always comes down to you.”The key influences
Rickelton acknowledges the role played by two figures in his progress as a cricketer. Firstly his father, Ian (Sports Director at St Stithians Boys College, Johannesburg).
I’d say ‘Dad, can we go to the nets? We were quite fortunate, we lived on the school so could use the nets. We would spend hours in the nets, playing and playing and playing. We’d have fights sometimes. I’d sulk and he’d say, ‘I’m not going to coach if you’re going to sulk’. And sometimes he’d sulk because I’d be doing something else.
My father’s always pushed me on. I think after every game I’ve played, even at Sale, he’s the first guy I’d talk to. After every game played in England and the sub-continent. A bit more than a coach. He knows me inside out: what works for me, what doesn’t work for me.
He played schools cricket and probably could have gone on from there, but wasn’t able to attend a trial for Transvaal schools and then decided to join the army when he left school. So, his cricket fell away. He’s the first one to admit, it was a bit daft, but too late now.
The second influence is Bongani Ndaba.
I used to train with one of the coaches at the school, Bongani Ndaba. He loves coaching more than he loves playing. Knows technically everything about you as a player. So I used to work with Bongs when I was 10, 11 and still work with him today.
The sort of relationship where he knows what I’m doing wrong and lets me find out before he tells me. He’s been a big influence. Even if I kick on further, I’ll always go back to Bongs and Dad.
The stability of his father’s and Ndaba’s mentoring plays an even more important role for a young cricketer whose achievements have seen him move from one team at one level on to another at a higher level and then move again.
Each coach has their own perspective on the game and their own opinion on the player. A lot of them try to correct you or change the way you play for what they think is beneficial for you. There’s been times when I’ve tried to listen to the coach as I’ve gone up and I’ve said. ‘OK he’s my coach. I’m going to listen to him.’
And I’ve tried to do that and I’ll go and I’ll not score runs for a bit and my Dad will take me to the nets. ‘What are you doing? Go back to normal.’ So I’ve swapped back to normal. There’s always differences. Player-wise, it’s what works best for you.
Rickelton accepts that the coaches are trying to get the best out of the player, but the player must take responsibility for their own game.
South Africa and England compared
After a season as an overseas player in the Cheshire League, Rickelton has some interesting perspectives on club and junior cricket in this country.
Club here is way bigger than it is at home. There’s more connection. At home, I play club cricket and I just rock up on a Sunday, play from nine to six and go home. That’s it. There’s no club day where everyone comes to watch the firsts play. It’s not like that.
[In England] there’s a lot more support of club cricket. It’s all over the internet. Even the newspaper that rocks up at my door every week. It gathers a lot more support than at home.
Junior cricket, on the other hand, is markedly less intense in England than was Rickelton’s experience at St Stithians.
Cricket at that age is at school, so it’s forced upon them. After school, they know they’re going to cricket. They’re all friends from school, all in class together, all net together. It’s not club cricket where you can say I’m going to play this weekend, but next weekend I might go away. At school you have to be there.
At nine, ten, eleven, I used to practice four times a week, play two games. You’re there every day, over and over again. Whereas over here, some of the kids will turn up on a Monday, maybe play a game on Wednesday. That could be the difference.
Finally, with England touring South Africa in 2016, I asked Rickelton if he had seen anything this summer that should worry his country’s top cricketers.
Joe Root, as usual. Mark Wood – he’s a bonus to the side. Good pace, good movement. James Anderson might struggle a little bit.
A lot more responsibility on the batsmen to not get knocked over for 200-plus. South Africa’s a place where you’ve got to put on 350, 300 minimum.
We’re going to take it.
Post updated 20 September 2015 to correct factual inaccuracy.
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.
I have played very little cricket where getting a result, any result is all important; and when I have, rarely has the balance of the game been tilted decisively at the half-way point.
“Just bat. Just don’t get out.”
That was the gist of the skipper’s instruction as I padded up, getting ready to open our innings after tea on Sunday. 270 was the target, but not one that I was being aimed at. 40 overs was my objective.
Whenever a Test team starts its second innings with nothing but crease occupation at stake, I pause for a moment to imagine being asked to bat and bat and carry on batting. Would it be liberating, to be freed from the pressure of scoring runs? Would you attain a focus and rhythm, with pulse suppressed and consciousness narrowed? Or would the fear of making a mistake cramp and sully what could be a pure exercise in staying at the crease, over after over?
I recall being involved in a rearguard for my club in the Kent League in the early 1990s. My partner and I were doing our honest best to suffocate the game. I have never been subjected to such foul abuse on the sporting field, or anywhere else, as I was by the fielding team that afternoon. I scoffed when I next came across that club, 20 years later, on an ECB sponsored video looking all prim and proper setting an example for involving volunteers in running junior cricket.
I may have conflated two matches, but I think I was eventually run out. I hit the ball to the pavilion boundary, where our players signalled a four. I was talking mid-pitch to my partner when the fielder returned the ball, the bails were removed and I was given out. I didn’t skrike like Ian Bell at Edgbaston. I was in the wrong: the umpire hadn’t signalled the boundary.
The invitation – the instruction – to bat as long as possible is then very rare. It’s a luxury to be revelled in; not an opportunity to spurn. But, not far below the surface, it feels self-indulgent. It’s the all you can eat buffet of the batting world, but with the risk, not of indigestion, but dismissal, unfulfilled, wondering how many runs you passed up.
All this talk is cheaper than a first-baller. How did I do?
I edged the first ball wide of second slip for four. I recorded eleven more scoring shots: ten singles and a two. Wickets fell regularly at the other end and the bowling was testing, particularly the young opening bowler. I managed to calm my instinct to have a dash at anything pitched up on or outside off-stump. There was one exception: the ball after I fended a bouncer away from my throat, that instinct rose and I swung and missed by some margin a ball wide of off. Thereafter, for the final third of my innings, my shot-shyness was assisted by only being able to hold the bat with one and a half hands (see reason here). The rest of the time, I was content to stretch out into a forward defensive, watch the ball pass wide of the stumps, or deflect the ball off my legs. It was a challenge of concentration and technique.
There was plenty of chirping from the fielding team – all of which felt justified given my aim was simply to spoil their afternoon with my virtual inactivity. And they did seem happy, when with momentary carelessness I played across a straight, short-pitched leg break, was struck in front and sent packing. It was the end of the 17th over, I had scored 16 and hadn’t completed half of my assignment.
Our lower order held on for the draw – in doing so, playing some attractive cricket. I would be daft to deny there is great pleasure in that, but there’s also something to cherish in taking up the invitation to “just bat.”
In the debates about over-rates in the professional game, there is one cause of delays to play that everyone seems to decry: movement behind the bowler’s arm. Television cameras pick out the culprits who have strayed into the (periphery) of the batsman’s eyesight while commentators give supercilious tuts. At matches held at Lord’s or the Oval, there’s an additional edge to criticism of those the umpires wave at to shoo off to the side. It’s the members, the supposed elite, pampered, yet too ignorant to know where they can sit to watch the match.
In club cricket there’s a similar annoyance expressed towards folk straying behind the bowler’s arm. This, though, is true only of club cricket of a certain level. Sightscreens have value and significance beyond their ostensible purpose of assisting the batsman (and wicketkeeper) sight ball from the bowlers’ hand. In club cricket they are status symbols. Clubs wishing to compete in county leagues are required to provide sightscreens. A large chunk of club cricket is played without screens.
But within those higher echelon clubs, the targets of the players’ and umpires annoyance are usually: tennis players making their way to and from the courts on the far side of the ground; kids having a kickabout; young lads taking a short-cut across the park or the vice-captain’s new girlfriend and her pals. Several decades of observing these rituals of chastisement and chasing away have led me to a conclusion. Only very rarely are the people being shouted at actually in front of the sightscreens. Most usually, they are making their way around the ground behind the sightscreens.
What harm is done to the game by people beside or behind the sightscreens?
I strongly suspect that the players are fulfilling a convention of what they believe cricketers should do, rather than responding to a real threat to the ball being clearly sighted or to the players’ concentration. Tennis players, kids kicking balls and girl friends (non-cricket playing) are all inferior beings to the men in whites. Telling those people where they can and cannot stand, walk or play is an authority that is assumed once per week and is damn well going to be exercised. The tone of their shouted admonishment – a sort of bored ire – is of a kind with that used by dog walkers instructing their hounds away from brambles, streams and other natural attractions.
My suggestion for players is to keep their eyes on the ball. The sightscreen will help; a few people wandering behind them will have negligible impact.
I have one other query about sightscreens – what happened to those coloured duck-egg blue?
When I first coached young cricketers, I used to get frustrated that some of my team would forget where they were supposed to be fielding.
Then on one of the occasional weekends that I had time to play, an availability crisis and the need for a scorer (no.1 son), saw me elevated to the second XI. It was my first county league standard cricket in twenty years. We fielded first and it felt as though afternoon had already passed into evening by the time the fifty overs were done. During that innings, while a left hand/right hand combination was at the wicket, I had had to be reminded of my fielding position five times. I was culpable of the very thing that irritated me when coaching kids who were brand new to the game.
Since then, I make the point to those of my coaching colleagues who don’t play regularly at the club, that playing a match, even just every now and then, is an important part of understanding what to expect of the kids for whom we run matches and training.
I also believe that playing cricket, even at the recreational end of the spectrum, helps the viewer, the follower, the blogger better appreciate the sport. I don’t mean it gives a better understanding of the technical side of the game. I do think it ought to develop an awareness of the tactical dimension. But the facet I’m thinking of is more nebulous and I can best sum it up with the statement that ‘a cricket match rarely follows a straight path’.
I have played matches where our opening bowlers are zipping the new ball past the edge of bats, but where the edges that are made fall to ground or the pads that are rapped are not quite in line. After a tasty ten overs of upbeat fielding, the same batsmen are still at the crease and starting to middle the ball they hadn’t looked capable of finding.
I have seen slow bowlers hit to the boundary three times in an opening over and made to look impotent. Gradually though they gain a foothold and then a stranglehold, so by the time they are toying with your tailenders that first over seems to belong to a different game.
These are entirely routine occurrences and don’t describe the more extreme swings of fortune that will happen in a match. What playing the game shows you is that the change doesn’t come about because of an heroic intervention. It takes hold with a combination of good luck, nouse, application or perhaps a change in the wind or a bruising of the ball.
Watching professional cricket there is a preference for explanations of agency: cricketer A did this with match-winning effect. There is also a narrative habit that chooses a particular point as the outset: from that position, mid-afternoon, team B should have scored 600. Of course, what has gone before must influence what happens next on a cricket field. But if you play the game, you are so aware that every ball is a new contest and that the state of the game at one minute is at best a partial predictor of what may happen later. Playing the game can make you more patient, more philosophical, more prepared to wait to see how things pan out in the game you are viewing.
There’s one other type of appreciation that playing the game gives the cricket follower. Sitting now, typing this post, after an afternoon of cricket, much of it simply spent crouching at gulley, I am nonetheless very aware of how physically demanding and exhausting cricket can be.