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.
There are ten minutes left of the session. Parents are milling in increasing numbers in front of the pavilion. Grey clouds gather above the far end of the field. They look ready to join forces with the parents, chasing the players off the ground, into their cars and away home.
It’s been a typical session: my efforts at coaching have engaged some, been tolerated by others and steadfastly rejected by a few more. And I’ve miscalculated: the net competition and small team games have wound up early. My charges – twelve, thirteen years old – have detected my loss of impetus. Some stand or kneel beside their cricket bags, inadequate cover for some rapid, digital social networking. Another group improvise a game, with bat and ball, too close to the parents and younger siblings for safety. A couple of boys, outside of the main cliques, paw the turf with their trainers, avoiding eye-contact, suffused by teenage awkwardness.
I take the bat and ball from the game-players; issue some shouts to gain attention; then sparse words of instruction and I have an 180o arc of cricketers, in single rank, equally spaced, around me. I toss balls, which are caught and returned. Each player stands poised, with knees slightly bent, torso inclined towards me, hands ready to grasp and cup the ball. Matching the physical attitude is a unity of purpose, a keen attention.
I start to hit the ball with the bat. Jumping, one-handed, toppling forward, the catches are taken to the accompaniment of murmurs and calls of approval. The ball bounces off the heel of a hand. The unlucky fielder spins away and moves to the far end of the arc. Everyone else shuffles around. Brief celebrations and the focus returns.
The competition is to be the king, at the top of the arc, with the safest hands and the deepest drop should a chance be mishandled. This group has claimed the game as its own, importing from their biology class a crude hierarchy of existence, with the king at the top, then stepping down, through the animal kingdom, to the lowly, butter-fingered worm.
It is the pace, and the immediate risk and reward of this simple game that galvanise what had minutes before been a haphazard, distracted group of junior cricketers. And I’m transformed too, suddenly communicative and playful. I swap my role with a long-term king and join the arc at its low-point, ready to test my reflexes and accept the youngsters’ verdict.
The ten minutes are devoured. Spots of rain fall but are not remarked upon. Parents try to attract their children’s attention, to get them to withdraw from the game. Any let-up in the serving of catches is hooted and derided. Two more minutes, we agree.
The team’s match this week will pass without a single slip catch accepted or offered. The virtue of this game is immediate and is found in the smiles, boasts and camaraderie of a shared experience that will bring these youngsters back again next week to cricket practice.
The suggestion that something big might be coming the way of grassroots junior cricket could be detected last year. There was a connection made with ECB’s new Director of Participation, whose appointment in 2015 was welcomed, but still seemed unlikely to impact directly on the cricket played by children in my environs.
From late 2016, as the upper echelons of the recreational game were ushered to hear the word and get with the programme, snippets emerged: a name, an age group, a new way of doing things we’ve all been toiling away at for years. Seats for the launch event could be reserved months in advance.
The show, now about half-way through its 20 stadium itinerary, reached my town this morning. Admission only came after a spot of queuing to identify yourself and confirm the precise spelling of your contact email. An enterprise that is prepared to make people wait so that it can collect key data accurately has an air of purposefulness.
Into the hall, we moved, to take tea amongst displays of All Stars equipment. “Look, they’ve rebranded the old Kwik-Cricket stuff,” observed someone close to me. It did look a little as though they had. And symbolically, that played to the scepticism that greets the new venture with the knowing nod that we have all been here before.
Then, jarringly, the presentation got under way with something unexpected. Not the Australian accents, but the challenge to cricket to win the battle of the playground. Maybe it’s the years of feeding off football’s scraps, a learned if unhappy submissiveness to that bulldozer of a sport. Or it might just be the choice of words. There’s nothing martial in my work with junior cricketers. Diplomacy, persuasion, bad-mouthing the enemy (football), but not warfare. That would be suicidal.
Yet, within minutes, these twin doubts – we’ve heard it all before and we’re being lead to a bloody rout – were dismissed. The first telling blow came from Matt Dwyer, who spent equal amounts of time identifying himself as a moving force in Australia’s Milo In2Cricket programme and as a twenty year cricket club volunteer. He is one of us (who’s one of them), who just happens also to be a marketing guru.
Then the video of primary school kids chattering happily about football and technology, but clueless about cricket. Holding a photo of Alastair Cook (CBE) wearing his England kit, one child guessed the subject worked at Waitrose, before folding up with giggles.
Followed up with the blunt tool of survey figures showing the irrelevance of cricket to our children. Alongside which, given the same prominence as the 60% of kids who don’t name cricket when giving a list of ten sports, was the statement ‘volunteer burn-out’. All Stars aims, Dwyer emphasised, to introduce new volunteers just as much as it is about more kids playing the game. They are not asking us to do more, and not as I feared, denigrating what we do, but summoning reinforcements.
The presentation, to several hundred veterans of junior cricket coaching and organising, continued to outline its research basis, its methodology, the resources and support structure that will make it happen. The battle-cry caught our attention; the campaign logistics showed that our national leaders are ready to commit troops and have a credible plan of attack.
In many parts of the country, All Stars may find a junior sport in terminal decline. In my area, it flourishes in the shadow of behemoth football. The challenge at my club, and the many like it, will be how to integrate this sudden arrival, signalled with a modern fanfare of radio ads and mumsnet coverage, without doing damage to the quiet and steady, or steadily expanding, club junior section.
I own up to one more reservation about All Stars. Its ambition is substantial. It aims to make cricket the popular choice of young children and their families. It wants to take cricket well beyond the point to which 10,000 clubs like mine could lead it on their own. And if it succeeds, cricket will be popular and my slightly eccentric obsession will be ordinary. I will be part of the mainstream.
I will just have to deal with that and make an advance on the playground, skirmish with football and computer games or, if exclusiveness is really what I cherish about cricket, take up crown green bowls.
Sarfaraz Khan, Gidron Pope, Alzarri Joseph, Avesh Khan, Jack Burnham. Names that have earned recognition for performances at the Under 19 World Cup this month. But will they, and their peers at this tournament, be the successors to Brendon McCullum, Mitch Johnson, MS Dhoni and Kumar Sangakkara in the wider consciousness of world cricket?
An analysis of previous Under 19 World Cup participants will not tell us specifically whether, say, Keemo Paul will become better known for his exploits as a senior than junior international cricketer. It will, though, cast some light on the development of international cricketers.
For every member of a full nation squad at the Under 19 World Cups of 2000, 2002, 2004 and 2006, I have recorded the highest level of senior cricket attained in their career. The ten year elapse since the most recent tournament reviewed makes it unlikely that any of the 555 players will reach a new peak. Unlikely, but not impossible: Stephen Cook, graduate of the 2002 tournament, made his Test debut this year.
Four levels of senior cricket have been identified, in ascending order: i) professional limited overs (List A or national T20 tournament), ii) first class, iii) international limited overs (ODI or T20) and iv) Test. With very few exceptions, this grading represents progress in a player’s career – ie he will have played the form of cricket considered lower than the level I have taken to be the highest level he attained.
Within each level, there is a broad range of attainment, measured by appearances. For example, from the 2000 tournament, grouped together at the first class level are Mark Wallace (England) with 249 appearances and Gareth Irwin (New Zealand) who played a single first class match in 2002/03. (Irwin is one of the exceptions to my hierarchy, as he did not appear in professional limited overs fixtures.) It might be fairer, therefore, to think of each group as containing players who have passed a common threshold, rather than attaining the same level.
The summary analysis of the 555 players shows that 45% have gone on to play international cricket (not all with the nation they represented at the Under 19 age group). 5% have not played any professional senior cricket.
I would have hypothesised that the conversion rate of under 19 internationals to senior internationals would have increased over this period; this being a reflection of the more structured approach taken towards the development of youth cricketers. The results don’t support that hypothesis: the proportion of under 19 players going on to play international cricket has varied: 2000 – 48%; 2002 – 40%; 2004 – 46%; 2006 – 42%.
There are some stark country-by-country differences. The youngsters of Bangladesh and Zimbabwe have had a higher likelihood of becoming full internationals, two-thirds in the latter case – perhaps reflecting that selection in those countries is from a smaller pool of players. On the other hand, barely one-quarter of those who have appeared at under 19 World Cups for England have played for the senior team. Unsurprisingly, England, with its 18 first class counties has had no players fail to reach the senior professional game – nor did Pakistan, South Africa and India.
I also looked at whether performance at the under 19 World Cup was a good predictor of future prospects by narrowing the analysis to the top run scorer and wicket taker for each of the ten nations at the four tournaments. 50 of the 81 players in this sample (64%) have played senior international cricket, compared to 55% of the total population, which is less of an increase than I would have expected. The outlier is New Zealand’s Jonathan McNamee, who was their top scorer at the 2000 tournament, but has no senior professional record.
At the team level, success in the under 19 tournament has not been associated with having teams choc full of future international cricketers. Looking at the eight finalists in these four tournaments, 43% (Test: 31%; Limited over: 12%) of their squad members went on to play senior international cricket, compared with 45% (35%; 10%) of the total.
I was also interested in understanding the proportion of players who reach Test level who have been participants at the junior World Cup. My method provides an estimate, not a precise figure. I extracted the number of Test debutants for each nation in the period 2002-2012. The chart below shows the number of players in the four under 19 World Cups who went on to play Test cricket and the proportion they are of the total debutants in the eleven year period. It provides a rough, rather than definitive, picture as some participants in those four tournaments had debuts before and after the eleven year period; and some players from the 2008 and 2010 tournaments probably had debuts during the period.
Approximate though this analysis is, it does show that England and Zimbabwe are outliers. Around half the Test debutants from the other eight nations had played in the four under 19 World Cups. For England, that figure was below one-quarter. At the other extreme, those players accounted for over 90% of Zimbabwe’s Test debutants.
There are positive and negative connotations to these two extremes. England’s position could be evidence that it performs poorly at identifying future talent, or that its junior cricketers mature at a later age. It could be a strength that international selection remains open to players emerging from outside of the elite juniors. England may have the resources to invest in a broader base of juniors, making precise selection at 19 difficult. Experience of international cricket as a teenager may be a poor one, having a negative impact on English juniors, or their development is interrupted by injury. The opposite to each of these arguments can be made for Zimbabwe. The data cannot help us with this key point. I would be interested in the views of readers.
In conclusion, the data analysis shows:
- Unless from England or India, an Under 19 World Cup participant has close to, or better than, an evens chance of senior international cricket.
- The first class game should definitely be within reach – if not already attained.
- Having a strong tournament (relative to your teammates), desirable in its own right, boosts by a modest amount a player’s likelihood of moving onto senior international cricket.
- At Test level, there is a heavy dependence on Under 19 World Cup graduates, with around one-half of the debutants in the years following tournaments having participated in the junior World Cup.
- England and Zimbabwe are, respectively, less and more likely to choose Test debutants from Under 19 World Cup players.
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.
No more volleys of texts to check player availability have to be sent. The cones marking out the playing area for a ‘skill-based game’ have been collected for the last time. A small group of youngsters wanting to know the score or when they’re batting has been hushed for the final time. The last waddling batsmen have had their pads and helmet checked and been questioned to verify they are wearing a box.
The junior season has finished.
Usually, the weather is dry and warm at this point of the summer, so we complain about the season ending just when the best time to play has arrived. This year, late July has been damp and chilly – doing a good impersonation of September, when it is easier to reconcile oneself to cricket rounding off as autumn makes its presence felt.
In 2015, I have concentrated on cricket with boys and girls in the under 9 age group. It’s the entry level to the sport, with a wide span of ability shown within most teams. In practice sessions, we try to find different ways of rehearsing the basics of the game. Repetition balanced with interest; grooving with competition. Matches are an extension of practice and are designated as friendlies without results being digested into a league table. Most matches progress without use of a scoreboard; the scoring itself can be inscrutable: start at 200, add runs, subtract x for wickets, etc. My team lost some matches so heavily that the precision of my scoring wavered late in the game. But at the end, the team still crowded around me find out if they had won.
Adult cricket, despite the wide span of the ground, is mostly played within particular corridors of activity, with familiar, recurring shapes to play. Under 9 cricket is free form. Two fielders, the bowler and batsman converging on a ball that settles in the middle of the pitch. A batsman, fielder and wicket-keeper rushing to reach the mis-directed delivery dribbling out towards what we know of as cover-point. The bowler, turning and speeding past a slower teammate to retrieve the ball from long-on and sending a throw bounding past the unattended wicket and down to the third-man boundary.
My favourite play of the year, for sheer devilment, started with the batsman swinging forcefully and missing the ball. The keeper collected the ball and stood with it in her hands. Everyone froze, except the live-wire at mid-wicket who sped to the stumps, whispered something in his teammate’s ear. Responding to this prompt, the keeper crumpled the stumps while her teammate withdrew back to the on-side. All the while, the batsman had been standing out of his ground. I gave him out. The fielding team’s coach, who was keeping score, rejected my decision. We all laughed.
Some other favourite moments of the season, in my role as father. My younger son, on his hard-ball debut, batting capably against bigger older bowlers bouncing the ball up to his chest. Then back in under 9 cricket, that same son, playing that rarest thing in junior cricket, forward defensive strokes to straight balls bowled. The highlight of the season was watching no. 1 son, when he was tossed the ball for the 17th over of an under 16 cup final with the opposition accelerating and needing nine an over to win. I shivered and squirmed with nerves, while he bowled full and straight, picked up two wickets, conceding 11 runs from two overs helping his team to a five run victory.
We are already planning for next season: teams, coaches, training approaches. There will be indoor matches in the autumn and after Christmas. A gradual build-up to another three months of texting players’ parents, setting out cones, dodging showers, hushing talkative kids, worrying about protective gear and playing cricket, wonderful cricket.
I’m being shouted at; by the grown-ups watching the game, by the people playing the game and now by my team – one of them is waving a bat. They want me to bat now. It’s my turn.
Someone’s Daddy helps me put my hands into gloves. My fingers don’t reach the ends and they feel sticky inside. I walk out to the middle of the field with the boy I’m batting with. He’s bigger than me. He has a loud voice. I don’t want him to shout at me. He points at one of the wickets and says ‘that’s your end’.
I stand in front of the wicket. The umpire moves me to the side. I think it will be hard to hit the ball and stop it bowling me from there. He says it’s not my turn to bat. So I watch.
The bowler runs from behind me and bowls. The ball reaches the boy I’m batting with, who swings his bat, but misses it. That happens again and again. I turn to ask the umpire when it will be my go and then hear the bat hit the ball. I wasn’t expecting that. Then the boy I’m batting with shouts and runs towards me. He stops and I remember I should do some running. He shouts ‘stop, go back’. I do, but I don’t like him shouting at me. I don’t know where the ball is, but suddenly the bowler has it again and he’s running in again.
Then everyone is moving around and there’s an umpire standing at the other wickets facing me. “Are you ready?” he asks me. I nod. He tells me to move – it’s back to where I stood when I first came out, until the other umpire moved me. That umpire is now behind me. He’s also telling me where to stand – closer to the bowler. He wants the white line to go between my feet. I do it, but would feel happier standing close to the wicket.
A different bowler bowls, everything has moved around. He bowls it past me. I can’t reach it, so I let it go. When I look around, there are the other players all around me. They don’t look friendly, apart from the boy laughing at the seagull, which is funny. The umpire shouts, ‘Are you ready?’ and another ball goes past me. I can’t hit it unless he bowls it at me.
One ball comes closer. I push at it, but don’t like the way it bounces up at me. It misses and everyone goes ‘ooh, nearly’. Do they mean I nearly hit it? Now it’s time to switch around again.
This time the boy I’m batting with does hit the ball. It goes past the seagull, which flies away. I’m watching to see how far it goes, when the boy who hit it runs up to me. ‘Run,’ he shouts, right in front of me. My teammates are shouting, too. I drop my bat to run faster and run all the way to the other wicket, making sure I stop just in front of it in case I knock it down and am out.
The umpire picks up my bat and brings it to me. ‘Remember what we practiced last week?’ I don’t know what he means by ‘last week’.
‘Remember how to grip the bat.’
‘It’s an axe,’ I say which makes me laugh and he laughs too. Then he says something about ‘V’s’ which I don’t understand, but I like pretending it’s an axe. I’m going to chop the ball.
The next ball isn’t at me, but I try to chop it, but I can’t reach. It’s still my turn to bat and another ball comes. It’s right in front of me and I chop it and it rolls quickly to one of their players who looks unfriendly. The boy I’m batting with shouts and starts running, but I like this wicket so I stay and he has to run back to his wicket. The umpire makes a thumbs up sign and is smiling.
There’s two more balls I can’t reach. Then there’s one that bounces up and could hit me on the tummy, but I chop it hard. The ball rolls between two of the unfriendly boys. Actually one might be a girl. I like watching it roll away, getting smaller, although it’s quite small to begin with. Then I notice shouting again, at me again. “Run! Run!” The boy I’m batting with is next to me, so I run to the other wicket, holding onto my axe this time.
When I get down there, the umpire holds his hand out in front of me. Have I done something wrong? He seems happy. ‘Great shot. High five,’ he’s saying. My teammates are still making noise, but they’re not shouting at me. Some are clapping. And my Mummy is standing up, so I wave at her.
With thanks and respect to all the youngsters I have coached and seen score their first runs.
There were puddles on the square when we arrived. With rain through the night and into the morning, the game could have been called off at breakfast, if not at last orders the evening before. But we needed a result. It was a cup game and this round had to be completed today.
The visiting coach, showing a loss of confidence in his team, or more likely, fancying a Sunday morning in bed, had suggested a coin toss. His affection for his bed was clear when he arrived last, minutes before the tie-breaker was to take place. By that time the rules and the ‘what ifs’ had been agreed and percolated amongst the players and the parents, hunching in overcoats and stamping their feet, from cold, not impatience.
A set of stumps stood at the far end of one net lane. The bowlers run up was enclosed, too, not by netting, but the teammates and parents seeking a view. “Keep the ball dry. Keep it off the floor,” wise heads advised, although none of us watching had experience of this particular method of deciding a cricket match.
Bowlers from each team alternated – one delivery each. Two early strikes from our team, then one back from the visitors. The bowlers were trusting to their normal run ups, not thinking accuracy would come slow and steady. Around half-way through their order, an equalising strike. There were ‘oohs’ for close calls and only one delivery found netting before passing the stumps. Had there been a batsman, his front-foot play outside off-stump would have been tested.
2-2 after all twenty two youngsters had bowled. The rain returned as the tie-breaker moved into sudden death. Our second bowler had struck in the first round. Tall and lean, with a whippy action, his short of length ball skidded on the wet astro. Shaping for a good LBW shout in a match, it went on umimpeded to strike the leg stump half-way up. A 3-2 lead that would need an immediate response if the contest was to continue. The visitor’s ball went leg-side and the home team, our team, had a cup victory.
Hand-shakes, commiserations, photos of our double-strike star – on his club debut! Then back home by 10.20am. Back to bed, maybe, for the visiting coach.
Power plays, fielding restrictions, a new ball from each end. Innovations and devices to liven up the middle overs of 50 over cricket. Yet the sumptuous cover drive still yields an ‘agreed single’ and finger spinners angle unflighted deliveries, over after over, at the batsman’s pads.
There’s no absence of incident in the middle overs of under 9 cricket and no artifice. Played 8-a-side in pairs format, overs 5-12 (pairs 2 and 3) are where, by convention or explicit agreement, the less experienced players bat and bowl. The seven year old, the debutant, the little sister or kid brother all find themselves in the guts of the game.
There are runs, if the lad in the covers gets his hand on the ball and flings his return past the keeper. Near things: a ball that evades the keeper and rolls benignly into open space at fine third man. The non-striker doesn’t notice as he’s busy practicing the off-drive that will never occur to him when it’s his turn to face and an easy two remains a dot ball.
Most runs that are completed involve a stutter as both batsman hesitate, set off, halt and then dash. Sometimes there’s a slip at the start of the run, which is nicely bookended by a dive to make ground at the other end. Batsmen are rewarded for good footwork. A chassé to short cover to belt a gently bouncing wide. Legside full tosses are spurned, body flexing inward to let the ball float by.
Wickets fall: the batsman standing frozen outside the crease having missed the ball is stumped after mid-wicket has run to the keeper to tell him what to do. And sometimes they don’t fall as the ball nestles against the stumps without disturbing the bails after a bagatelle journey involving bat, midriff and leg.
The danger of a runout is never greater than when a lad middles a ball straight. It feels good and instinct requires a run. The bowler has found the ball at her feet and turns to knock down the stumps.
But the scoreboard keeps ticking. Umpires signalling after almost every ball: wide, wide, no ball, bye, wide. The game’s moving on. No boring middle overs.
Around the cricket world on 15 May 2015, Sunrisers couldn’t rise to the challenge of the Royal Challengers; Jets motored past Steelbacks; Outlaws outflanked Bears; Spitfires sank Sharks; Foxes were foxed by Lightning; Panthers preyed upon Rams; and Stallions flew past Falcons.
In my neck of the woods, Badgers confronted Squirrels, but both retreated in the face of rain. Despite badgers better cricket pedigree, the Squirrels probably had the edge when the weather drove them from the field.
I am responsible for the names of my club’s two under nine teams, who played each other in the most local of local derbies this evening. Two years ago, taking the task altogether too seriously, I had tried to find names that conveyed the energy, bordering on chaos, that characterises under nine cricket. I also wanted something original – a pair of names that aren’t used by US professional sports franchises, which seems to be the strongest influence on naming practices in UK junior sport.
I had originally submitted two teams to the league, named Chimps and Gibbons. My intention was understood and caused amusement, but I was asked to think again, in case my naming rights might inadvertantly cause offence.
I asked my wife for inspiration. She made two suggestions. The first was Bats and Pippistrelles. Her second idea, had I the courage to use it, would have made our teams the most stylish in the league: Bowlers and Trilbies. She is available, for a fee, to any organisers of new T20 tournaments looking to create and name their franchises.