Cricket images – convention no.1
Try this yourself.
Type the name of your favourite current bowler, followed by the word ‘bowler’ into the google image search panel. Or, select a recent Test match on cricinfo, click the ‘photos’ tab and check the images of bowlers.
The result, more often than not, is that the majority of the ‘action’ images are of the bowler celebrating a wicket or making an appeal. Arms high, delight written across the face; or dishing out high-fives to converging team mates; or screaming at the umpire for a favourable decision. They are emotional shots. But they are not cricket action.
One of the most individually distinctive sights and a feature of the sport is the bowler’s action. The bound, the wind-up and release are phases of the delivery, which even if shown in silhouette would disclose the subject to a keen follower. Even the run-up allows the bowler no anonymity.
Why are these essentials of bowling not the bulk of the images published? I don’t believe it is because still photography cannot convey movement. On the contrary, it can do so. I suspect the answer is context. A photo of, say Jimmy Anderson in isolation bowling in an England shirt, is much the same match after match. His face, even in close-up, won’t have registered a reaction, but be the same whether he is releasing a ball to clip the off-bail, take an edge through the slips or get crashed to the boundary. The appeal and celebration can however be attached to a significant incident of the day, however distinct from the dismissal, drop or denied appeal the image is.
Pictures that capture both the bowler and the act of dismissal occur, but are rare. This may simply be the technical difficulty of maintaining a sharply focused image of two objects almost 20 metres apart.
These are sensible reasons for the public record of the game comprising image after image of bowlers celebrating. But those pictures’ distance from the real action of cricket feels to me analogous to written cricket coverage that majors on what was said about the game in the interview room, not what actually went on.
Now a quibble with the moving, not static, image of the game.
Cricket images – convention no.2
Television coverage marks milestones in the game by showing highlights of the progress towards the mark being celebrated – an individual half-century; a hundred partnership, etc. There’s an aspect of the condensing of the action that is unsatisfactory for me. I have found I cannot really enjoy the strokes a batsman plays unless I see the ball all the way from bat to boundary.
A montage of cuts, drives, glances and pulls sells me short unless I see the ball bounding, speeding, soaring or spinning past the fielder and to the rope. The batsman’s footwork, balance and swing of the bat are the physical and aesthetic demonstration of batsmanship. That is what makes me coo and sigh. But I also need to see the impact and the outcome of the shot. The stroke without its conclusion, even when a boundary is strongly implied, leaves me an unfulfilled viewer.
Australia’s cricketing decline at the end of the last decade opened up Test cricket to one its most evenly competitive eras. A pack of well-matched teams have traded blows and consistently defeated a second group made up of weaker teams. This period may be about to close as South Africa are now pushing ahead of the pack.
The group of well-matched teams numbers six: Australia, England, India and South Africa – all of whom have maintained ICC rankings of above 100 since 2008 – Sri Lanka and Pakistan – the former in decline, the latter ascendant.
This post considers the contests between these well-matched teams and assesses the sort of match outcomes produced. The aim is to test whether this era of relatively evenly matched teams has led to competitive test cricket.
The six teams provide a possible 15 bilateral contests. 12 of these match-ups had two or more series (including two test contests, aka two-offs). Two had just one series (South Africa v Pakistan and SA v Sri Lanka) and no test matches were played between Pakistan and India.
The chart below shows the outcomes of the 12 contests with two or more series. Five of the 12 contests saw each side winning a series. Only two of the contests were one-sided – one team winning all series. At this level of analysis it seems to have been an era of competitive, close match-ups. South Africa provide something of an exception, losing a series in only one of the contests. All the other teams lost series against three opponents.
The six Test teams contested 33 series in this period. The chart below shows the distribution of series results. Two-thirds were closely contested, using the indicator of a drawn series or a one test margin. Almost half saw both sides winning matches. But there were some one-sided affairs.
This post ends with a match-level analysis of how close the contests were. To do this I have introduced the concept of the ‘major’ victory, where the margin of victory is significant. I settled on two measures:
- a victory by 6 wickets or more (using median partnerships, 75% of a team’s runs in two completed innings would be scored with the loss of 14 wickets)
- a victory margin in runs equivalent to 25% or more of the runs scored by the winning team in the match.
In total, 100 tests were played in these 33 series. 25% were draws; 49% were home wins; 26% away wins. The incidence of major victories, home and away is shown below. Playing at home or away, 73% of victories were by margins that I have considered to be ‘major’.
Included in the major victories are three where the winning team scored 40% more runs than its opponent; 23 innings victories and 9 victories by nine or ten wickets.
(I have not attempted to assess teams’ relative positions in drawn matches, relying instead on the notion that those games are indeterminate. I acknowledge that a detailed review of drawn games would show some that one team was odds-on to win but for weather interruption.)
The impression of how closely contested these fixtures were shifts as the analysis moves from the high level analysis of series results down to individual matches. At the higher level, there were few one-sided contests as most involved both teams winning a series or one team victorious in a series but drawing the return series. Looking at individual series results two-thirds had teams drawing or separated by a single result. But at the individual match level, almost three-quarters of victories were by significant margins.
This is the paradox I call close match-ups and one-sided matches. In a future post, I will look in more detail at the matches to see how two even teams end up with uneven results.
I used the 2012 Boxing Day Test as an opportunity to promote again a piece I wrote in January: Does English cricket need its own Boxing Day Test? In response to my half-apology for recycling old material, Matt Becker of Limited Overs reassured me:
Lots of great posts get missed because the Internet moves so fast. I wish more bloggers would re-post.
And that’s the purpose of this piece: to draw attention to material I have read this year and particularly enjoyed, as well as posts nominated by other enthusiasts. The other qualification is that they should be the work of bloggers, not written for cash.
Bloggers have the freedom to be arch, subversive, inter-textual and even funny. So we lead off with a Pavilion Opinion post that was all of those and put the whole late summer KP farrago into place: England are Mean Girls.
The man on the pavilion balcony explains, “If England are to educate themselves, however, then their real lesson of choice must be to watch seminal teen flick Mean Girls because, in many respects, they have become the living embodiment of it.” Our cultural critic takes us blow-by-embarrassing-blow through the parallel worlds of gossip, gettings-on and gettings-off. Read this and then watch out for the sequel.
Current events, as we’ve seen (and will do again), cannot be ignored by the blogger, but some use the medium to take us to other times. Backwatersman (the clue is in the name) had a Christmas treat with a piece on Arthur ‘Ticker’ Mitchell: Cricket’s Hardest Man. The collection of stories about the Yorkshire batsman, coach and all round misanthrope included:
“His [Don Wilson’s] first session with the bat, facing the full pace of Fred Trueman, did not impress the coach Arthur Mitchell: “What do you do for a living, lad? [He was a joiner] Well, forget the cricket. Fetch some bloody timber and board that end up.”
Being picked to play for one’s country is the cricketer’s proudest moment, isn’t it? Read Backwatersman if only to find out Mitchell’s response to an unexpected call-up.
The entities most commonly made subject-matter for cricket writing are matches, series or players. Bloggers can take slices across those familiar units, which create fresh and lively insights. The Old Batsman, in the most memorable post of the year for me, wrote about the art of fielding while not fielding. I could lift a quote from any paragraph, but will tease you with this brief beauty: “Not liking fielding is one of the game’s dirty little secrets.”
Another brief quote should sell an essay by Epistemological Irrelevance: “The fast bowler’s run up is the greatest foreplay in sports.” Yes, just the run-up, isolated and celebrated.
To write about cricket, it is advantage, although not essential, to have played a bit. Bloggers ‘find their voice’ recounting their own brushes with willow, leather and grass – as The Old Batsman did in his essay on fielding and again here in All ten, which starts with a day stolen from work or other more serious activity and develops into a story for the grand kids (and, fortunately, us):
Every over from the other end had a strange tension – neither side actually wanted a wicket to go down. At drinks, we half-joked about deliberately dropping one if a chance came, but that somehow didn’t feel right either. If it was going to happen, it couldn’t be manufactured.
David Mutton (The Silly Mid Off) wrote about an experience that comes eventually to all but Bradman, Tendulkar and Stuart Broad: finding out how far down the pecking order you belong in The End of Childhood Dreams.
“It would hyperbolic to describe batting in those nets as hellish but I certainly gained an insight into the concept of purgatory. Eventually my trial came to a conclusion and the judgment was beyond obvious. So ended my dream of becoming a cricketer.”
If you feel that should have come with a spoiler alert, fear not, as that isn’t the post’s conclusion, which is appealingly uplifting.
From the individual to the global. Some like to contend that politics and sport should not mix. Not Peter Miller, who supplied one of the grandest sweeps of the year, in Cricket as Class Warfare. As someone who has strong views on batting order, I particularly relished this passage:
As each batsman falls he is replaced with someone of lesser ability. Just as once great kings and emperors are replaced by their idiot off spring, so the steady opener is replaced by the flashy middle order players. Once the middle order is disposed of, the tail enders arrive. Just as we had Nero, a descendent of the great Caesers, fiddling while Rome burned, so we have lower order clinging on to power that was obtained by others.
This selection doesn’t feature any match reports, series previews or dissections. That reflects my personal view that professional writers, attending matches, travelling with the team, cater for those genres very well. Bloggers do, of course, attend matches. Danee on King Cricket supplied the match report of the year for West Indies v New Zealand T20 in cricket-friendly Florida.
We chose to stay in a budget hotel in Fort Lauderdale. It certainly attracted an interesting clientele; a heady mix of prostitutes (the lady in front of us when we were checking in was trying to rent a room by the hour) and drug dealers. It had almost no cockroaches in it.
At other times, bloggers have the liberty to be more direct than the paid writers. Chucking (alleged and actual) raises blood pressure. The Third Man responded to Saeed Ajmal’s success against England with a series of passionate, but hard-nosed, rationally argued articles. In the first, Ajmal throws England out for 192, he challenges the mainstream media for avoiding awkward truths
Over on Test Match Special, a man in bright yellow trousers was looking for buses, seagulls, and naked nuns rather than have to describe the action that was taking place in front of his nose down there on Planet Darts.
This selection of blog posts from 2012 ends with endings. The first deals with the beginning of the end: So long Sachin. I hardly knew you… opines Pavilion Opinion on Tendulkar’s ODI retirement: “I still don’t quite understand who you are, though you were candid, beaming and impish in interviews, with hair that got better with age and never the credit it deserved.”
Rahul Dravid really did retire in 2012. If you are missing his elegant stroke-play, Brian Carpenter’s ‘A Serious Player‘ will conjure him up in your mind’s eye. An example is this moment from an innings in 2011:
Dravid does what he has done to many bowlers over many years; he sees out all the good balls, but, as soon as Swann drops errantly short, he rocks on to his back foot and eases the ball through the covers for four with a completely straight bat and an alchemic combination of timing and power.
I hope this selection introduces readers to a new writer or at least a new piece of writing. I would be happy to be challenged on the selection and certainly to have it extended. It occurs to me that: 1) I have offered a predominantly male, white, anglo-centric sample of writers who I imagine aren’t of an age to be pressing for a call-up to their club first XI; and 2) it doesn’t include any analytical or statistical pieces, many of the most insightful of which are produced by dedicated amateurs.
Finally, thanks to Matt Becker for permitting me this indulgence.
A measure of the task facing Alastair Cook in his first major tour as captain is that it is nearly 28 years since England last won a test series in India. That come-from-behind, two-one victory happened five tours ago.
The chart below shows England’s longest sequences of Test tours to particular destinations without victory. A defeat for Cook, or a tied series, would push the current Indian sequence up to equal second place.
Thirty-six years and six tours elapsed between series victories in the West Indies. Spanning the cycle of West Indian ascendancy, dominance and decline, five England captains left without mission accomplished: Denness, Botham, Gower, Gooch and Atherton (twice).
There has been one even longer period between English series victories: 38 years and five tours of Pakistan. That record is put into perspective by a review of the match results – depicted below.
The series in Pakistan and India were relatively short and the hosts did not defeat England with the frequency achieved by West Indies and Australia. Nonetheless, India have dominated England during this recent barren tour period, which is shown by the aggregate batting and bowling data.
The surprise of the bowling figures – shown below, split by fast and spin bowling – is that India’s seam and swing bowlers have a better average than England’s and are on a par with their own team’s slow bowlers. England’s spin bowlers’ aggregate bowling average and economy rate are respectively 50% and 25% higher than India’s slow bowlers. Anil Kumble is by some margin the most successful bowler in this period, with 56 wickets at 23.6. For England, Andrew Flintoff has the most appearances (8) and wickets (24 ar 30.4).
The series that preceded the barren tours, in 1984/85, was tightly fought. For Mike Gatting, it was the highwater mark of his career as an England batsman, scoring over 500 runs. The teams traded victories in the opening two tests, with the third drawn in damp weather in Calcutta. The fourth test in Chennai was the decisive match. Another England player to experience a personal best was Neil Foster who took twelve wickets in that match. Looking back at the scorecard, with the hindsight of nearly three decades of disappointing results for England in Asia, what surprises is the size of that victory and control England had over the game.
The template for England victories, if two victorious series (Pakistan and Sri Lanka 2000/01) in the intervening years can provide a template, has been dogged batting allied to a bowling attack that seizes rare opportunities created by conditions favourable to swing bowling or incautious batting.
England of 2012 seem capable of that sort of approach in the field, with Anderson and co able to extract any advantage from the new ball. The batting, despite Cook and Trott’s plodding presence, is less reassuring, so poor was the response to very similar challenges in the Pakistan series earlier in the year.
So, after 600 words and four graphics (reputedly worth another 4,000 words) of pessimism for England, I should explain why I am very excited about the series. The lowered expectations, the vacancies in high-profile positions, create opportunities for players to do just as Gatting and Foster did 28 years ago and make a break through. That’s not a purely partisan view either, as those same openings exist in the Indian team as well. Whether or not England manage to end their streak of series without victories over India, I am hopeful this series could be a defining contest for players of the post-Strauss/Tendulkar/Dravid era.
At all levels of cricket, there are matches that harmlessly subvert the conventions of the way the game is usually played. First class cricketers have festival games and benefit matches.
Festival matches should be worth winning, providing the victories be cheerfully sought. Festivals are a freeing of the spirit, a casting of work-a-day shackles.
Club cricketers have tour fixtures, cricket week games and the works cricket match.
I completed my 2012 season on a beautiful late summer evening last month at my club. Eighteen colleagues, one with his son, one ringer and I had played out our third annual company fixture. It had many of the features required of this kind of contest, most crucially that it ended with a victory for the Chief Executive’s team. The attire was as varied as the experience and ability. I introduced pairs cricket this year to avert mismatches and worse, injuries. In the spirit of inclusivity an incrediball was used for the overs batted by our female staff – none of whom had any cricket experience. We also had the novelty of the groundsman’s tractor being mended at wide mid-on/backward point for the early overs of the match.
As a cohesive organisation, we lack the spite and bitterness that can characterise games between colleagues. I can imagine matches built around hierarchy could be the worst – blue collar v white collar as an unseemly extension of first-class cricket’s Gentlemen v Players. We end up eating chilli and chips together passing much needed money across the club bar.
Generally,”proper” cricketers won’t look forward to these games. There’s little to gain and a lot of self-respect to be lost. We still haven’t managed to persuade our company’s sole county cricketer – a handful of JPL Sunday matches twenty years ago – to join us.
One of my club-mates tried to make the most of his company match last year. Davvy, whose running exploits will be known to regular readers, was batting with his Director. Davvy pushed the ball into gaps calling for two’s and three’s. After a couple of overs of this, Davvy’s boss was doubled over, gasping for air. “This is going to kill me”, he puffed. Calmly, Davvy responded, “I know. I want your job.”
Works matches can also provide a opportunity for ambitions to be realised. My Father had been a top-class club cricketer who, once retired, stood firm against pestering from colleagues several times each summer. On one of the few occasions he relented, my Dad agreed to be selected if I could play alongside him. On the day of the game, he upped his demands: Father and Son should be allowed to open the batting.
And so, on the 21 August 1983, D Smith and CP Smith, an all left-hand combination, opened the batting in pursuit of 143. I don’t remember very much of the occasion but, out of character with this type of game, we kept batting and batting. I had plenty of short balls on my pads to pull behind square and my Dad leant into straight drives. Our partnership never reached the proportions of father and son Chanderpaul, but topped the 100 mark, before my Dad was bowled. I followed soon afterwards. The rest of the innings was a procession and we lost the game.
A victory in a works match provides immediate enjoyment and a needle with which to irritate colleagues for a full twelve months. Much more enduring is the pleasure of a partnership that my father created and we then built run-by-run together.
This week’s World T20 Final, and its semi-finals, could be decided by a 12 ball sudden death play-off, known colloquially as the super over or bureaucratically as the OOPSE (One Over Per Side Eliminator). How does the one over per side decider rate as a method of separating two tied teams at the pinnacle of a global competition?
There are a number of qualities required of a sudden-death decider. The name is a clue to some of those qualities, although a fatal outcome hasn’t been fashionable in sport for several centuries. I have measured the super over up against those qualities and the tie-breakers in use in other sports.
Decisive: sport needs winners. Even cricket, the most nuanced of sports, requires a victor in a final. If the standard duration of the final can’t separate the competitors, the tie-breaker better had. Football is not a particularly strong example. Its method of resolving draws is extra-time, which has regularly failed in its basic requirement of decisiveness. It often acts merely as a prelude to an additional layer of tie-breaking, the penalty shoot-out.
The super-over has a potential score range of 0-36 (excluding no balls and wides) and a likely spread of 6-20. That provides enough outcomes for a tied tie-breaker to be unlikely. It is, then, a decisive method.
Microcosmic: the game that is being decided should have its essence captured by the tie-breaker. Looking at football again, its second order decider, the penalty shoot-out is not at all representative of the game. Hockey’s shoot-out is closer to the authentic game – players have eight seconds to make their way from the 16 yard line to score in a goal defended only by a keeper – but still some distance from it.
The super over is a fraction of the broader game of cricket, containing all of its essential features.
Active: when competitors have achieved parity, they should be given one last go to prove who can come out on top. This is a principle that track and field’s jumping sports don’t get. They operate retrospective tie-breakers – which competitor has the fewest failures before achieving the winning height in the high jump. Cricket has and still does resort to these ‘count back’ methods as higher level tie-breakers. In the 1980s, 50 over cricket matches which were tied could very occasionally be decided by which team had the higher score after 30 overs. I never saw a justification why it was better to have scored 140 on the way to 250 than to have scored 139 at the same juncture.
Non-arbitrary: no sporting contest will retain a following if the final result is a factor of something external to the players’ performance. Tennis’s tie breaker has been carefully constructed so that no player can prevail simply by winning points on their own serve, which would give an arbitrary advantage to the player serving first.
The super over has no such pitfalls and has even included the reversing of the order of innings from the main match.
Sudden: a final needs a conclusive result not only on the day, but within the normal attention span of the audience. This quality is most clearly lacking in the US Golf Open which has required players drawn at the top of the leader-board after four days and 72 holes to return for a fifth day and 18 more holes. Wimbledon also holds a position of ‘let it take the time it’s going to take’ for matches taken to five sets. In 2010, a first round match between John Eisner and Nicolas Mahut was finally won 70-68 after 8 hours 18 minutes of play in the fifth set. As a curiosity it was compelling, but interest would wane if it became routine.
The ICC has set strict regulations for the super over – how quickly it should begin after the end of the game and how long it could take – making it satisfactorily ‘sudden’.
Dramatic: the culmination of a struggle to be champion should be full of excitement, with every move capable of winning or losing the match, not a slow-burner, or even worse an event that fizzles out. Penalty shoot-outs in football exemplify this quality.
The super over may not always go to the final ball, but the outcome could hinge on any one of those deliveries, with tension building through the twelve balls.
Consistent with the drawn match to which it is the resolution. In team sports, like hockey or football, the players taking part in the shoot-out are those who were on the pitch at the end of the match. Players substituted or dismissed cannot be brought back in and specialist penalty-takers cannot be introduced after the final whistle.
This I think is the weakness of the super over, where each team nominates any three batsmen from their line-up. Imagine defending a total against the West Indies in the World T20 final; you dismiss Chris Gayle cheaply and the game ends tied. The super over starts and there is Gayle, grinning at being given another chance to bat his team to T20 glory. The super over, like extra-time, should be an extension of the T20 match. The teams should have the benefit of both the opposition wickets they have taken and their own they preserved. Batsmen in the super over should be, if not the pair not out at the end of the innings, then drawn from those not out and yet to bat. And a team that lost all ten wickets would have a single batsmen, the one left not out at the end of the innings.
The counter-argument would be that the audience wants to see the very best in action at this point of high drama. I would take consistency and continuity over artifice, even if it meant tail-enders batting. But perhaps my concoction would not be a champagne super over but a cava carve up.
Which would you prefer? What is your view on the super over?
McKechnie was part of the New Zealand Prudential World Cup squad in 1975 that reached the semi-final. He played all four matches, took four wickets and conceded 3.7 runs per over – more economical than Lillee, Sarfraz and Lance Gibbs.
What makes him a trailblazer? McKechnie played 14 ODIs and not a single Test match. He was one of only three players from the Test playing nations at the inaugural World Cup who never played Test cricket – and the only one of the three with an international career that extended much beyond that tournament.
McKechnie was international cricket’s first limited over specialist. Intriguingly, when looked at more broadly, he was anything but a specialist: a dual international with nine caps for the All Blacks.
At least a dozen cricketers selected for the World Twenty20 are limited overs – or even T20 – specialists. Some have played Test cricket, and a few may go on to do so. But their shared characteristic is that they are not currently considered for Test selection, but come to the fore for their nations when the game involves white balls, coloured clothing and roaring crowds. Limited overs specialists (LOSers) take a number of forms.
McKechnie exemplified one of the original LOSer forms: the bits and pieces cricketer. For England, this became an obsession: the ‘find another Botham’ syndrome that affected selection for all forms of the game for two decades.
Eventually, it became apparent that someone who was half the bowler and half the batsman of the great all-rounder was only one-quarter the cricketer (yet, twice the commentator). However, finer specimens that prolonged its existence have been Yousuf Pathan, James Hopes, Chris Harris, Paul Collingwood and Tom Moody (long after his Test career was toast). Look out at the World T20 for bits and pieces of Albie Morkel, Keiron Pollard, Shahid Afridi and Luke Wright.
LOSer number two, dating back almost as far as the bits and pieces man, is the high-tempo batsman. Again Australia, perhaps because of its depth of talent, provides the models: Stuart Law (1 Test, 54 ODIs) and the man in most people’s all-time ODI XI: Michael Bevan (18 Tests, 232 ODIs). The high-tempo batsman has the virtues of hard-hitting, swift running and a relish of the sharp-end of a run-chase or rapid start to the innings. A vulnerability to the short ball or to the tight off-stump line in Test cricket can keep these players in the LOSer category. Imran Nazir, Richard Levi and Faf Du Plessis carry the torch for high tempo LOSers in World T20 2012.
Outside of the Asian Sub-Continent, fast and medium pace bowling had been crowding spin out of international limited overs cricket. The Warne revolution (many revs per minute) brought the top-class, cross-format spinner back to the fray. Teams lacking such an exponent, squeezed useful overs out of
batsmen acting as part-time spinners. But a wiley twirler (sometimes nearly flightless) LOSer also found a niche. Richard Illingworth frustrated fans and batsmen in equal measure propelling darts at pads. T20 negates any such predictable tactics. The wiley twirlers in action at World T20 are matadors, flighting deliveries at 55mph towards charging, willow-wielding bulls. The wiley twirler LOSers benefit from experience and a philosophical reaction to be being belted around the park. Brad Hogg, Johan Botha and Robin Peterson fit the bill.
The most recent type of LOSer to emerge stretches my definition a little. Rather than them not being considered for Test cricket, they have removed themselves from consideration. The brittle quicks are no longer up to five days of cricket but will put their body on the line for four, even ten overs, every few days. Without the need to hold something back for the second
new ball, Shaun Tait, Brett Lee and Lasith Malinga bring extreme pace at a full length to the sport. Sadly, only Malinga of these exclusive LOSers has made it to World T20 2012.
Finally, limited overs cricket doesn’t just place unusual physical demands on players, but mental demands, too. Only rarely has that been recognised with a LOSer skipper. Adam Hollioake led England from 1997-98. George Bailey directs the Australian T20 team in 2012.
Keep an eye on the LOSers in Sri Lanka, some may turn out to be winners.
Note: this article appeared first on The Alternative Cricket Almanac, under the title ‘I’m a Loser, Baby: the Advent of the Short-Form Specialist.’
The 2005 Ashes Test at Lord’s took place in a city jittery from a recent terrorist attack. Entering the ground, after the usual bag check, each spectator stood as a scarecrow to be frisked. On the first afternoon, whispers swirled around the crowd of terrorist and anti-terrorist activity taking place elsewhere in London while we watched the game. I pondered how exposed we were. I weighed up my family commitments, this opportunity to see England compete toe-to-toe with Australia and the apparent level of risk, and stayed put.
Thirty-two years earlier and Lord’s itself had been the target of a bomb alert. At around 2.45pm on the Saturday of the Test against the West Indies the MCC Secretary announced over the public address system that a warning of a bomb planted at Lord’s had been received and the ground was to be evacuated. The players headed for the Pavilion and then onto their hotel (West Indies) and the Nursery Ground (England). The larger portion of the 28,000 crowd spilled out into the streets of St John’s Wood. The smaller, but more prominent portion headed for the playing area, where they milled about while the police completed a search of the ground before giving the all-clear. In the centre of it all, showing early his talent for self-promotion, Dickie Bird sat on the covers that protected the pitch.
The bomb threat at Lord’s had been a hoax, but taken seriously because of the very real terrorism campaign of the IRA. Elsewhere, cricketers and cricket grounds have been less fortunate. Attacks have taken place in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Cricket has endured bomb threats and bombing of its stadia. The presence of a real bomb on a cricket field is, probably, even rarer. On work business this week, I was visiting some properties with a colleague. Len has worked in the business for nearly forty years acquiring a matchless store of experience of inner city housing. As we walked around the scheme, checking the condition of the property, Len told me about the renovations that had been made over the years to prevent water damage or discourage groups of teens gathering.
As we reached a row of garages below maisonettes, Len began the tale. It started with a community consultation event where a resident asked for someone to check out some problems with his garage. Len went to assess the problems. In the rear of the garage, straining to see evidence of structural weakness, he saw an intact shell. He called the police, who came quickly and provided a surprisingly precise diagnosis: an unexploded Iranian bomb. The bomb squad was summoned.
The officers suggested that the whole scheme should be evacuated. Len, unlike the MCC, demurred: the residents were upset enough by the upheaval to their homes caused by the renovation works that any more inconvenience would be very unpopular. Why this argument convinced the policeman wasn’t explained. But then things got even crazier. While one officer went to the entrance to the scheme to await the bomb squad, Len and the second officer decided that they should take the safety of the residents into their own hands. The bomb needed to be away from homes and people, somewhere in the open where it wouldn’t harm anyone if it blew. Next to the scheme was a wide, flat field that exactly met their needs.
The two men lifted the shell, carried it out of the garage, across a road, over a fence, over a boundary rope, across the outfield and onto the square of the local cricket ground, where they lay it down. For a few seconds, all they could hear was their beating hearts, and then shouting, “You, get off there. What’s that?” The groundsman bore down on them. They answered his question. “A bomb.” “A bomb,” he replied. “There’s a match here tonight. There will be hell to pay if it goes off.”
The bomb squad came, removed the ordnance, and the groundsman’s worst fears, a postponed match and a crater on his ground, were avoided.
Andrew Strauss alternates on the Declaration Game banner photo with an older, less able and mentally weaker left-hander. While his presence there was opportunistic – I was looking for an image of a captain declaring – it has always felt fitting. He’s an admirable cricketer, the leader of the England Test team whose fortunes so influence my moods.
I don’t, though, regret his decision to resign today. I am relieved. I am pleased for Strauss that he remained in control of the end of his cricket career. I am also excited by the opportunities it presents the England Test team – but that’s not for now.
So, that relief I feel: Strauss acknowledged that his lack of runs was a major factor in his decision to retire. I had feared we were on the cusp of a period of up to eighteen months where every match preview would warn of his need for a significant score; every dismissal open him up to questions about his form, not his team’s performance. In the UAE last winter, he had batted against Pakistan’s slow bowlers as if tightly tethered to his leg-stump. I didn’t want to see him plodding and poking in India.
I saw his penultimate Test innings. He fell to the final ball of the morning session of day two at Lord’s, bowled by a swift Morne Morkel off-cutter. I was relieved then, too: Strauss could tuck into some lunch and England’s innings in the afternoon would be free of their captain’s struggles. Strauss had succumbed to a very fine spell of fast bowling by Morkel. The bat was beaten on both edges and sharp lift troubled him. Australia may not have a bowler yet to match Morkel, but he had demonstrated a method to unsettle the England captain that Pattison, Siddle, Hilfenhaus, Harris, Starc and the rest would aim to emulate.
If Strauss had made it past India, there was then the prospect of England having to replace their captain and introduce a new top-order batsman in the middle of the back-to-back Ashes series. I am relieved that the timing of Strauss’ decision to retire eliminates that otherwise predictable problem for the England team.
To many England cricket supporters, but not to Strauss himself, the quality of his leadership justified his place in the team. Right now, there seems to be a relationship between how strongly one holds this view and how ardently one objects to Kevin Pietersen. Strauss, the quiet, decent, committed England cricketer, victim of KP’s abuse, was a bulwark against Pietersen’s return.
Praise for Strauss’ leadership has been fulsome, both before and after his decision to retire. It coheres around four aspects of his time as Test captain:
the turnaround: rallying a team that had lost captain and coach, was dismissed for 51 in his first game in charge, to compete for and win the Ashes within six months.
the holy grail: winning the Ashes in Australia for the first time in 24 years
the ascent: building an unbeaten record that culminated in the four-nil despatch of India and claiming the ICC’s Number 1 Test ranking
the ethos: Strauss followed Pietersen in front of the press at the end of the Headingley Test.
One thing I will say, and it is important to stress this, is that the Team unity that we have had over the last three years has been outstanding. It is something we all pride ourselves on, always have done and will continue to do so going forward.
Before taking each of these claims in turn, I need to stress that I am not, because I cannot, distinguish the achievement of Strauss from that of Andy Flower and the wider England team management.
Was there a great turnaround?
The case usually focuses on the upheaval in early 2009 that saw Strauss abruptly offered the England captaincy. But I think a longer time-frame is more useful. England had lost four of the six series before Strauss took over, only coming out on top against New Zealand – twice. After losing to West Indies in Strauss’ first series, England remained unbeaten in a Test series for three years. The victory over Australia in 2009, admittedly tight, was the best result for three years. Strauss had turned the corner.
How sacred was the Ashes victory down-under?
In two months, England won as many test matches in Australia – three – as they had done in the previous six visits combined. Its huge emotional significance for English cricket has, I would argue, obscured the challenge faced. There was an Australian confluence of: their weakest playing resources for a generation; an ineffectively directed team; and key players unfit and out of form. Strauss’ England capitalised on this rare opportunity, winning three games by large margins, playing uncompromising cricket against fragile, never divine, opponents.
Did England become the very best?
Eight series victories and one draw, culminating in the defeat of India in 2011 placed Strauss’ England top of the ICC’s Test rankings. Even this statistical construct suggested ambivalence. England were never more than a couple of ranking points clear of second and third place. Australia had clear blue water and outback between them and number two when in their pomp. And too many of England’s opponents had been on a downward curve, distracted by other cricket formats or prey to dressing room intrigue. The exception was South Africa in 2009/10 who held England to a tied series, but came within a delivery of winning the two drawn matches. Strauss did not captain a great team, but a fiercely competitive outfit in a time without a dominant force in Test cricket.
A sum greater than its parts?
Few proponents of Strauss’ leadership contend that he could shape games with instinctive or tactical decision-making. The key cricket decisions were taken off the field: who to bat at number three at the Oval in 2009; which bowlers to select for which Tests in Australia. Strauss, it is argued, created with the team a distinctive ethos. To what extent was Strauss’s team unusually and powerfully cohesive? There were plenty of visible signs – bum tapping for a fielder saving a run. And Strauss had friendly conditions. Central contracts meant players’ principal loyalty was to their country. Victories meant a settled squad, but so did the players’ youth as replacements for established stars weren’t required.
Then, this summer, we became aware of the Pietersen situation. The team wasn’t so unified after all. But enough of it was showing togetherness that the renegade was to be sacrificed in the name of unity. The favourable interpretation is that Strauss, when tested to the limit, stuck to the principles that had made his team successful. Two unflattering conclusions about Strauss’ leadership can be reached: 1) he hadn’t developed any enduring team ethos that could include the full range of talents and personalities; 2) the ethos had become an end in itself so that dissent could not be tolerated.
One day Strauss will probably fill in many of the gaps in our knowledge of his captaincy of Kevin Pietersen that on-lookers are filling with speculation. I have a theory, that may well be disproved. My theory is that one of Strauss’ greatest achievements as England captain, alongside the turnaround in the team’s fortunes he oversaw in 2008, was his ability to manage Mr Kevin Pietersen, initially sore from his own loss of the captaincy, so that he contributed to the England test team for three successful years.
I trust that if Strauss does decide to tell his side of this story, his timing will be as good as that of his resignation announcement today, and does nothing to damage the England team.
One of the wonders of the digital age has a bad name in our world of cricket. The mobile phone is the device a prominent England player used to communicate some scurrilous, maybe seditious views about the team’s hierarchy to friends in the opposing camp. He could have scribbled them on scraps of paper and had an innocent member of the ground staff slip them under the opposition team’s dressing room door. But cricketers’ ink and pen writing has for some time been limited to signing bats for good causes (possibly including, depending on your point of view, benefit fundraisers). The ease of writing afforded by mobile devices had made us a most literate age; and rather forgetful of the adage, if you wouldn’t want your Mother/boss to read it, don’t write it down.
Twenty years ago, mobile phones had no associations with the written word. They were talking devices. But even in this mono-functional form, they developed a bad reputation in cricket. Brian Lara was revelling in one of the plumpest runs of form any batsmen anywhere has ever enjoyed. Starting in April 1994 with his test record score of 375 against England in Antigua, he moved onto Warwickshire (as a replacement for Manoj Prabhakar, who was filling in for Allan Donald, never let it be forgotten). There he put together a string of scores, including the world record first class score of 501 against Durham.
Lara, young, imperious, indefatigable, bright of eye and mind became a target for sponsors. He was seen wearing a three-piece suit, awkwardly I was told, helping a finance company sell something or other. Gladstone Small recalls his next marketing mission.
It was here [Taunton] that he took delivery of his mobile phone. On the last morning, just as we were about to take the field, his manager phoned him up. When the call ended, Brian was halfway on to the pitch, so he just pocketed the phone. After a few overs of being egged on by Keith Piper and myself, he pulled it out and made a quick call. He got a lot of stick for what was intended as a jape.
The mobile phone had sullied our new hero.
Then there’s the story of Allan Lamb, Ian Botham and Dickie Bird. Different sources have Lamb or Botham giving Bird the phone at a Test match, county game or B&H tie. A call is made about horse-racing, Lamb’s batting or as Botham is in his run-up. I’m sure it did happen, just as sure as I am that it was funny at the time.
So phones appeared as stunt items on the field of play, but their next role in cricket was much less visible, but wholly malign.
In 2000-01 accusations of cricket match and in-match incident fixing burst into the media, many dating back into the previous decade. A handful of players were banned, most spectacularly, Hanse Cronje. Paul Condon, appointed head of ICC’s brand new anti-corruption unit, drew together the threads of the allegations and investigations in his report of 2001. Amongst the causes of corruption, Condon concluded, was the lack of security around international cricketers, and the ease with which they could be contacted by the corrupters. This meant mobile phones. He addressed this risk with two recommendations of his report.
The ICC responded with its Minimum standards for players and players’ support staff areas in international matches, which requires mobile devices of players to be surrendered and safely stored before they come to the playing venue; visitors to the players’ areas must hand over their mobile devices for safekeeping.
The portable phones’ next stumble into cricket controversy came with third generation mobile networks cross-fertilising with web 2.0. July 2009 and Australia’s young prodigy, Phil Hughes, was lasting at the crease no longer than it takes an app to download to a smart phone. On the morning of the third Ashes Test, Hughes tweeted, “Disappointed not to be on the field with the lads today…” breaking news of his dropping to the world, hours before the team was to be announced. The Australian management were charmingly non-plussed. If cricinfo is to be believed, Coach Tim Nielsen commented, “I now know of what Twitter is.”
Hughes apologised and explained that he had sent a text to his manager who had tweeted it from India, ignorant of time differences. Hughes had hinted at the potential of Twitter and soon cricketers were optimising its potential to damage their reputations. In 2010, young England cricketer, Azeem Rafiq , blurted a tweet full of abuse of the England management after he was dropped. And so it has continued, to the extent that many commentators on Pietersen’s predicament have wrongly assumed he tweeted, not texted his comments about Strauss.
This is entertaining for cricket followers. With a digital wireless network and the mass-production of the devices, we have become always connected. Cricket, its action unfolding over hours across the day is so well suited to this always connected device. I wrote a first draft of this post heading north to Scotland by train, following England’s first innings at Lord’s by logging into Cricinfo every 20 minutes – but then, I’m old-fashioned. With a stronger more reliable signal, I could have tried my Sky app and watched the match. The mobile phone has become an essential platform for the cricket enthusiast who can’t be at the match: providing live pictures, live commentary or at worst, ball-by-ball written description or twitter stream.
Having that potential, of course, creates an expectation. As holidays in Cornwall, Devon, Norfolk and Northumberland have shown me, life on the edge of a 3G connection provides little pleasure and much anti-social wandering, peering at a small screen, willing the appearance of the little lines that indicate the presence of the invisible connection.
Cricketers have used mobile phones to clown and corrupt and unwittingly expose their selfish thoughts. Technology’s impact is not inherent but takes the shape of its users’ intent. This wet summer of 2012 provides an example of the mobile phone assisting cricket.
The British Universities & Colleges quarter-final tie between Bournemouth University and Oxford University had twice been thwarted by rain. A third attempt at play was called off the night before, leaving a bowl-out to decide the fixture. The teams repaired to sports halls – different ones, in their own home towns. There, supervised by umpires in contact with each other by mobile phone, the teams bowled their ten deliveries. The scores were even and a tie-breaker arranged with a coin-toss by phone then alternating sudden-death deliveries. Bournemouth won. The press report doesn’t record whether the opponents then gathered around the phones, set to speaker, and chanted:’Three cheers for Bournemouth/Oxfored, hip hip hooray..”