Tag Archive | Kevin Pietersen

Quick single: Head Coach – without preconditions

Those of us wearied and annoyed by the ECB’s management of its limited pool of international standard male cricketers, enjoyed a little spiteful satisfaction last week. It seemed that Andrew Strauss’s decision to exclude Kevin Pietersen from England selection for the foreseeable future – in all likelihood ending his Test career – may deter the better qualified candidates for the Head Coach role. Pre-conditions, constraining who could and couldn’t be selected, made the role unattractive.

Today, however, it seems that Yorkshire Coach, Jason Gillespie, may want the role after all. Does that make the Australian weak-willed or status-hungry?

I am pretty sure neither is the case. It may be that Gillespie prefers the job with the KP question resolved without his involvement and so no comeback on him. More likely, I would argue, coaches with international aspirations are pragmatic beasts.

The teams they coach are only intermittently at full strength. Injuries, squad rotation, the lure of the T20 tournaments that clash with international commitments, or even retirement to earn more playing in another country’s domestic competition all have to be worked around.

Gillespie will also be very aware of the circumstances his peers, should he be appointed, work under. Duncan Fletcher began his stint with India with four batting greats, three of whose careers were in clear decline, installed in the team, holding up the development of the next generation of batsmen. Fletcher managed that succession to their timescale, rather than his.

Fletcher made it into the post-Tendulkar era, surely expecting to hold greater authority, but soon found the voluble Ravi Shastri appointed Team Director for most of his last year in the job. Fletcher would not have lasted long insisting on coaching without preconditions.

In the West Indies, Phil Simmons inherits a ‘West Indies first’ policy. On the one hand, it’s the strong backing that an international coach would want; on the other it may restrict flexibility the coach could take advantage of when the players pursuing T20 contracts make themselves available.

Being told to manage without KP is a far simpler task than that facing the coaches of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka, each of whom will confront preconditions set by politicians, not just cricket administrators. And it’s unlikely those preconditions will be as overt and as easy to abide by as ‘just don’t pick Kevin.’

Even Gillespie’s former teammate, Darren Lehmann, took on the Australia coaching role with limited room for manoeuvre. The Ashes squad had already been selected; the first-choice opener had been sent to the ‘A’ team as a disciplinary measure. Lehmann waited, worked with the players he was given and began to shape the team culture.

Strauss’s decision to exclude Pietersen will not have narrowed the field of potential head coaches. Whoever gets the role will understand that it’s not the sort of job that comes without preconditions.

Quick single: 355 not out

Kevin Pietersen’s achievements and experiences of the last two days have, understandably, been the subject of a lot of passionate writing. I want to record, dispassionately, some facts about his unbeaten innings against Leicestershire at the Oval.

The research to identify comparable (possibly, superior) innings to Pietersen’s was carried out by Allan Draycott, who tweets about history, politics and cricket as @allanholloway.

Pietersen scored at almost twice the rate of the other Surrey batsmen: 355 runs from 396 deliveries faced. The ten other Brown Caps contributed 185 runs from 395 balls. He was responsible for 70% of the runs scored while he was at the crease.

Pietersen outscored the second highest score of the innings – 36 by Sangakkara – by 319 runs. The highest differential between top and second top score in an innings was when Hanif Mohammed set the record for first class individual score for Karachi v Bahawalpur in January 1959. Hanif’s 499 was 396 runs higher than the next highest score in that innings.

Other notable differentials between top and second top scores in an innings are:

  • Brian Lara’s innings that broke Hanif Mohammed’s record. Lara’s 501* for Warwickshire v Durham in June 1994 was 385 clear of the next highest score – the record for the County Championship.
  • Bert Sutcliffe scored 385 for Otago v Canterbury in December 1952, which was 356 runs more than the second top score in that innings
  • Graeme Hick’s 405 for Worcestershire v Somerset in May 1988 was 349 runs greater than second place.

Sutcliffe, like Pietersen, scored a triple-century in an innings when no other score above 50 was recorded. Allan Draycott identified the following other precedents:

And, of course, Pietersen batted with the prospect of attending a meeting at the end of the second day’s play that would determine his fate as an international cricketer. It’s not the sort of fact that gets recorded on a scorecard, but it will always be associated with 355 not out.

Quick single: the KP recall board-game 

There’s a board-game revival (1). A thriving sub-culture exists of folk sitting at a table, rolling dice, moving counters and turning over cards that might support or seal their fate.

I would like to pitch an idea to the manufacturers riding the crest of this unlikely trend: the KP recall board-game. The objective of the game is simple: to get KP to play at Lord’s, or failing that, Headingley. Between the start and the desired destination lie a series of favourable and adverse factors. Think of them as snakes and ladders, or ‘CHANCE’ cards that might send you to jail, or to collect £200 at the ‘Go’ square.

The snakes, or cards you want to avoid, would include: ‘accept multimillion contract to play in IPL’, ‘succumb to knee injury’, ‘old adversary appointed to senior ECB post’, or ‘journalist tricks you into talking candidly about your potential England teammates’.

But there are also ladders, or good cards. ‘Coach with whom you have clashed is sacked’, ‘new chief of English cricket appointed’, ‘play in county championship cricket’ all move you in the direction of Lord’s. ‘Bell shuts hand in car door’ and ‘Aussie appointed to coach England’ are like rabbits pulled out of hats.

You would have to negotiate match situations. There you would dread ‘face three slow left arm bowlers’, but feel pretty satisfied with ‘opposition attack spearheaded by one-cap wonder’. And you would want to tuck away the ‘dropped in slips’ and ‘dropped off skier’ for use at a crucial moment. The ‘score a triple-hundred (290 more than the second top score)’ card might be a bit far-fetched to make it into the version that goes into production.

With a mix of good fortune and sound judgement, you could navigate KP all the way to the home of cricket and a Test match recall. On the other hand, bad luck or carelessness could see KP become a T20 mercenary.

As with our great game, there’s another possible outcome, other than the win or loss. Because it’s a board-game, this outcome is the big boot that crushes our little playing pieces, scatters the dice, grinds the cards and ends the game for good.

KP is meeting Strauss, whose boots could end the game, this very evening.

——–

Note 1: Evidence of the existence of a board-game revival can be heard here: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/audio/2014/nov/26/board-game-tech-weekly-podcast

Where have all the captains gone?

 

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Alastair Cook’s hold on the England captaincy ought to be precarious. He acknowledged after the defeat to India at Lord’s that he could be unseated by the end of the summer. His current security, assisted by the victory in the third Test, has a lot to do with the high politics of English cricket in the first half of 2014: when you’ve hailed a new era, you don’t want to be announcing a new, new era within months.

There’s another factor, too, I suspect. Not as compelling as the forthright decision at the end of the winter to reconfirm Cook as the centre-piece of England’s Test team, but it’s there, hanging around, a problem that can be overlooked if only Cook scratches out a hundred and stumbles to a Test series victory. It strengthens Cook’s tenure, while allowing him to dig an even deeper pit while in office. It’s the question, ‘if not Cook, then who?’

England captains are found fulfilling one of two roles prior to their appointment. They are either established members of the team (most usually batsmen) or they are able cricketers who have shown leadership prowess in county cricket. The establishment preference, if not explicitly stated, then empirically shown, is for the former: someone already in the team.

The current England team has three established players: Bell, Broad and Anderson. Of the newer team members, Joe Root is mentioned as a potential future captain. Without assessing each individual, I don’t think it’s controversial to state that none makes an outstanding case. With each of them having spent the majority of their professional careers as part of the England squad, none has experience of leading a county for more than a few matches.

There is another source to which the selectors could turn: the proven leaders in county cricket. Of the 18 appointed county captains for the 2014 season, five are not qualified to play for England, six are former Test cricketers (although not much more could be asked of both James Foster and Chris Read to earn a recall) and two of the others are 35 or older. Of the remaining five – Wayne Madsen, Jimmy Adams, Alex Wakely, Daryl Mitchell and Andrew Gale – I can only remember Adams and Gale ever being mentioned as possible international cricketers. The former is aged 33 and Gale has been overtaken by teammates Bairstow and Root, and probably has Lyth and Lees ahead in the Yorkshire queue for an England batting spot.

Go back 30 years to 1984, and there were ten England Test cricketers captaining counties, seven of whom were still playing (or in contention) for their country, including Botham, Gower, Gatting, Willis and Tavare. Botham led Somerset in around one-half of their Championship matches that season.

I have written before about the impact on Test selection of the separation of the England team from the county game. I concluded that there still remains a route into the England team for those performing very well in the domestic game, despite the ‘hunch’ selections (not justified by weight of runs) and fast-tracking of youngsters before they establish county reputations. The conundrum created by the, ‘if not Cook, then who?’ question suggests another ramification of centrally contracted England players: scant opportunities to develop captaincy experience and aptitude.

But which is the anomaly – 1984 or 2014? I have looked at three dates, one from each of the last three decades (1) when the England captaincy was taken or passed from one player and given to another, to see if the field from which the new captain was selected was as thin as it appears in 2014, or lush with talent as it now seems to have been thirty years ago.

1980 – Brearley’s successor

Mike Brearley, Test batting average in the 20s, stepped aside with ten Tests against the West Indies in 12 months looming. Established players in the Test team from that winter that had lost in Australia, but defeated India in a one-off match, were: Willis, Boycott and Botham. From the counties, Keith Fletcher, Brian Rose, David Lloyd, Roger Knight and Jack Hampshire offered a mix of leadership and Test match experience.

Botham, of course, received the nod. Willis was to become captain, as was Fletcher (and indeed Brearley, again), as England sought to replace Brearley’s leadership skills over the next few series. Brian Rose was also a viable, if outside, contender, having made it into the Test team and become the first Somerset captain to hold silverware – and with that the experience of captaining the likes of Botham, Richards and Garner.

1999 – Stewart is stood down

England failed to qualify for the super six stage of the World Cup they hosted and Stewart was stood down as captain. Nasser Hussain, vice captain, was appointed as successor. Beyond Stewart and his predecessor, Atherton, the team, habitually unsuccessful, lacked established players. But the counties provided captaincy experience to a number of those in and around the squad: Hussain, Cork, John Crawley, Mark Ramprakash, Jason Gallian, Adam Hollioake and Chris Adams.

When Hussain’s “poppadum fingers” took him out of his second Test in charge, he passed control to Thorpe, a novice captain. Unavailable for the next Test, Hussain’s role was taken by Mark Butcher, who had skippered Surrey for only a few weeks earlier in the season.

2008 – Vaughan’s gone

Michael Vaughan’s exit was unplanned: three Tests into a four match rubber with South Africa. Despite his own injury problems and unavailability to captain for much of the preceding three years, Vaughan left an exceptionally settled team that included three England captains: Flintoff, Strauss and Collingwood (ODI only). But appearances deceive: Flintoff (like his predecessor as iconic all-rounder, Botham) wasn’t to be trusted with leadership again; Collingwood was one batting failure from being dropped; and Strauss waited, although not for very long. Pietersen, of course, was invited to succeed not just Vaughan, but also Collingwood as ODI captain.

Central contracts had been instrumental to England’s success that began under Hussain and peaked under Vaughan in 2005. Team England were highly unlikely to look beyond their own group for a captain and the county game that year offered two proven ex-Test cricketers (Mark Butcher and Darren Gough), six Test discards, four one-day internationals, three overseas players and a handful of ‘county pros’.

These three examples, along with the situations in 1984 and 2014, suggest a thinning of the field of England captaincy contenders – related clearly to the introduction of central contracts and the withdrawal of Test players from championship cricket. It can be argued that the absence of many candidates does not really matter: England only needs one Test captain at a time. The injuries to captains Hussain and Vaughan illustrate that a viable alternative is necessary; something that Hussain, in particular, lacked in his first season in charge.

But just as substantial runs or wickets in county cricket are not guarantees, or even a prerequisite, of a successful Test career, how important is having experience of leading a county side? Michael Vaughan thrived without it. Nasser Hussain was made Essex captain only weeks before the England appointment. Michael Atherton leap-frogged the Lancashire job when made England captain age 25.

Perhaps the question is moot: England will continue to select captains from within the centrally contracted, county-deprived squad.

I have heard little of Andy Flower’s new role since his appointment in March 2014 as Technical Director of Elite Coaching, with a remit including the creation of “a leadership programme for young England cricketers,” which he clarified “is not simply about captaincy.” But he would explode the scepticism of many England followers if the graduates of his programme enabled England to appoint future captains with the confidence they could cope with the role like Vaughan and not look as ill-suited to it as Cook often has.

Footnote 1: These three dates (1980, 1999, 2008) provided useful examples to examine as well as being seasons for which I had Wisden easily to hand. Other dates and captaincy changes could be equally, or more illuminating.

Elite coaching and KP’s Donnie Darko moment

Donnie Darko-page-001

Donnie: Well, life isn’t that simple. I mean, who cares if Ling Ling returns the wallet and keeps the money? It has nothing to do with either fear or love.

Kitty Farmer: Fear and love are the deepest of human emotions.

Donnie: Okay. But you’re not listening to me. There are other things that need to be taken into account here, like the whole spectrum of human emotion. You can’t just lump everything into these two categories and then just deny everything else.

(Donnie Darko, 2001)

Lancashire Head Coach, Peter Moores, was the keynote speaker at a business event I attended recently. He spoke for 45 minutes, fluently and engagingly, before taking questions from the audience.

I found Moores particularly interesting on the subject of strengths and weaknesses. He recalled how when he first asked a group of players to identify three strengths and three weaknesses, on average, the players came back with two strengths and four weaknesses. Moores’ approach is to develop strengths, rather than correct weaknesses. He gave the example of Alastair Cook’s preference to score on the leg-side. Moores argued that too many coaches have tried to get Cook to develop his off-side strokes, which don’t come as naturally. Cook, he believes, should invest that time in refining even further his leg-side shots.

Moores’ topic was elite coaching and perhaps at that level, a batsman’s weakness, if not causing regular early dismissals, can be parked to concentrate on what the player is really, really good at. I have read since that Graeme Smith came to the same conclusion about his own reliance on leg-side scoring shots – capitalise on it, don’t qualify it.

Moores’ precepts were generally positive and humanistic. I didn’t detect the micro-management of his players that some observers report as the stifling influence of the Flower years on English international cricket. He expressed his conception of the coaching process as being ‘inside out’, not ‘outside in’. Players learn and develop because they have the will to do so – to which the coach contributes through enthusiasm. But learning doesn’t happen because the coach decides to apply it (from outside) to the players.

“I love words,” the former England Coach explained. I am pretty fond of them, too, but it was from that point that I started to wonder, to question what it would be like in that changing room. Maybe I just want a cricket coach to declare his adoration for on-drives, or flighted off-breaks. Or, maybe, it all just started sounding a little bit psycho-religio-motivational.

Moores had made an off-hand comment about England’s Ashes defeat, while acknowledging his lack of privileged insight, being because they “knew the rewards of victory, but had forgotten the consequences of defeat”.  Complacency, which I take this formula to mean, could well have played a part, but it’s the sort of unproveable theory that can be applied to any side that loses unexpectedly. Perhaps, I am being harsh and he was just being tactful in avoiding more specific criticisms given the possibility that he may be asked to re-join Team England?

The Lancashire Head Coach hadn’t mentioned the cricketer whose resistance had ended his period as England Coach. But questions from the audience meant that that day wouldn’t be one when Moores could avoid talking about Kevin Pietersen. KP, Moores suggested, had crossed a line that breached the team’s culture  in Australia, just as he had five years earlier.

I inferred, from the strength of Moores’ attachment to a particular usage of the words he loved, where that line may have been. Moores provided a series of ‘opposites’ that he argued elite coaching had to navigate. The ‘opposition’ that seemed most critical to his way of working was between ‘belief’ and ‘doubt’. “Belief is the enemy of Doubt.”

I am not an elite performer. I readily accept that those that operate at the very top of their professions tend to have great confidence. Simplification and clarification may be crucial to keeping their minds sharply focused on the task at hand. But with the luxury of my mediocrity comes a distaste and distrust of interpreting experience through adages. Moreover, doubt can be a good thing: it leads us to challenge accepted truths, driving us into new and interesting ventures. Belief, on the other hand, so easily closes the mind to learning.

Moores’ formula might work for the majority of elite performers in his teams, but it’s too rigid to take account of everyone’s needs. There’s even psychological research into sports performers that finds some self-doubt is associated with success – more than confidence is.

You can’t just lump everything into these two categories and deny everything else.

In the eponymous movie, Donnie Darko, sensitive, troubled teenager, was reacting against the spread within his school of a simplistic, self-help liturgy, peddled by a televangelist-like salesman.

Imagine now, a singularly talented cricketer, edgy and awkward, prone to expressing himself insensitively, questions a tactic used by the team. He’s told that “doubt is the enemy of belief” – or whatever team maxim Andy Flower insisted upon. Does the cricketer keep with the programme, being told what to believe and what not to doubt, when he knows that if he scores a three hour hundred he can turn around his team’s fortunes?  Donnie Darko, when told to place everything on the line between fear and love, told his teacher to shove it up their ass. Perhaps that’s where the Ashes tour menu book ended up as well. Donnie had his contract terminated, too.

Whitewash – the long view

whitewashAn England team has been humbled in Australia, losing five consecutive Test matches. The clean-sweep is a fair reflection of the home side’s dominance. The visiting team can look back at unfortunate incidents, missed opportunities and questionable selections, but a gulf in quality has been exposed.

That’s the predicament English cricket finds itself in at the start of January 2014. 93 years ago, its touring predecessors suffered the same series result. How do the two series and their consequences compare?

England travelled to Australia in late 1920 as holders of the Ashes, seeking a third consecutive series victory. But that provided little evidence of form as the previous encounter had been eight years and one World War ago. The tourists’ batting was thought to be their strong suit. Cardus, reflecting on the ‘wonderful’ summer of 1920 just past, observed (with an analogy that intrigues):

Look at the men who will bat for England in a few weeks in Australia – Hobbs, Hearne, Hendren, Woolley, Fender, Russell. Individualists all – some of them very Lenins of cricket!

The team was led by JWHT Douglas, who had a proven record as a captain overseas with victories in Australia and South Africa, albeit achieved before the Great War. He had not been first choice for the role, though. Reggie Spooner of Lancashire was offered the captaincy, but declined it because of business commitments (1).

Hopes were, of course, even higher for Cook’s team of 2013. Setting out to secure a fourth consecutive Ashes victory, with the first Test at Brisbane starting fewer than three months after the close to final Test of the 3-0 series win on home soil. Cook, himself had never lost a series as captain and had lead England to its first victory in India in 26 years.

Douglas’ squad numbered 16, half of who suffered illness or injury in Australia. The most severe loss was Jack Hearne, who became ill at the start of the second Test and played no further part in the series. Harry Makepeace incurred an injury ‘of its time’ – damaging a thumb when starting a car.

This winter’s tourists also lost a pivotal member of their batting order early in the series, with Jonathon Trott’s departure owing to a stress condition. Graeme Swann’s exit – retiring mid-series – might also be seen as ‘of its time’.

But all touring teams, particularly in the first part of the twentieth century, can expect casualties and to need to select teams from a reduced squad. These matters provide background to stories of thumping defeats, but don’t afford explanations. A fast bowler – the quickest of his day – was where Australia’s superiority on the field was most pronounced. Mitchell Johnson, like Jack Gregory nearly a hundred years earlier, was too hostile for England’s Lenins. Gregory’s pace – “for which nothing in English cricket was adequate preparation” – found its  greatest support not from another fast bowler, but Arthur Mailey, whose wrist-spin took 36 wickets in the series.

England’s much touted batting order faltered, yet found some consolation in the performance of the greatest star of all. Kevin Pietersen was England’s leading run-scorer but could derive but a fraction of the satisfaction that Jack Hobbs could from his performance. 505 runs, with two centuries, despite some injury problems. Pietersen has faced heavy criticism for the manner of some of his dismissals – from press, followers and possibly, coach. I suspect he would need to score more than 500 runs, or travel back 90 years, or find a correspondent as romantic as Cardus to receive this indulgence of a dismissal:

Hobbs, in the moment of crisis, so fascinated by his own art that he heeds not the dangers lurking about him! On this occasion, indeed, he was out ‘leg before wicket’, no doubt attempting to ‘damn the consequences’, with his own hazardous but ravishing glance to leg from a ball on the middle stump, the riskiest stroke, but as sweet as stolen fruit.

The heat of the Ashes contest infected the crowd, who jeered an antagonist in the opposition, then cheered loud and long when he was dismissed. Stuart Broad’s predecessor was ER Wilson, who earnt this reception by cabling complaints about the Australian crowd’s behaviour back to England, from where they bounced back to an Aussie audience.

The local crowd also jeered when they saw an England cricketer labouring in the field, failing to keep the batsmen to a single. The fielder was Hobbs, who was carrying a leg muscle injury. But according to Hobbs, the crowd made amends in “one of the most peculiar incidents in my life.”

The moment I appeared at the door of the pavilion, the spectators rose from their seats and cheered like mad, shouting, “Good old Hobbs!” They even sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” This was undoubtedly intended to make it clear to me that any chaff directed at my fielding had been due to ignorance of my injured leg

Could the team’s leaders remain in positions of authority after such a humiliating defeat? That’s the question preoccupying England cricket followers in 2014. Flower appears to have the backing of the ECB and he, in turn, supports Cook continuing as captain. In 1921, Douglas continued as captain. “Much has been taken from English cricket this winter, but much abides,” concluded Cardus. Yet, two Tests and two defeats later, Douglas was replaced.

Everything about Andy Flower’s role is twenty-first century. The tourists’ manager in 1920/21 was Frederick Toone. His sphere of influence was off the field. So highly respected were his organisational and diplomatic skills and so untarnished was he by the performance and scoreline, that he managed the next two MCC/England tours of Australia.

For precedents to apply to Flower, there’s a need to look to the more recent past. In 2007, Duncan Fletcher remained in charge for the World Cup campaign that followed the Ashes whitewash. Failure there led to his resignation, with a sense that he had contributed greatly to the development of English international cricket but that the team needed new leadership.

Mickey Arthur remained coach to the Australian team deep into 2013, several months after the 4-0 clean sweep to India. Failing to win a game in the Champions Trophy and with off-field controversy buffeting the team he was denied the chance to coach in the Ashes. Both Fletcher and Arthur exited having failed to conjure a recovery in their next assignment after being whitewashed. Maybe Flower is also being given an opportunity to turn around the fortunes of the team quickly.

His situation, however, differs from that of Fletcher and Arthur, both of whom had successors ready to take over, men who also represented changes of direction from the previous regime. Peter Moores was thought to be more consensual than the man blamed for the stubborn selections in the 2006/07 Ashes, as well as having strong connections back into the county game from which Fletcher had distanced his England set up. Darren Lehmann, in England in 2013 with the Australia A team, enabled Australia to end their association with their first foreign coach and replace him with a leader whose style was player-friendly, not technocratic; warm, not aloof. Flower, perhaps as a result of his authority, has no obvious successor who would bring a fresh approach to the running of team.

Finally, returning to the longer view theme of this piece:

The England team fails to rally late in the series. As the fifth consecutive defeat is recorded, the players look drained and trapped in a pattern of repeated mistakes. Time away from cricket, or at least away from Australian opponents, would seem the best best remedy.

It seems cruel on the England of 2014 that many of the key figures in the Test series defeat – Cook, Broad, Bell, Bresnan, Root, Carberry – must stay on for a further four weeks, meeting their vanquishers in eight limited overs fixtures.

Douglas’ England team did get to sail home at the end of the Test series. But any hopes they may have had of putting distance between themselves and their opponents were not to be realised. Amongst the passengers sharing the voyage were the Australian squad on its way to England for the return series in the northern summer of 1921.

Note:

(1) I have also read that CB Fry was offered the captaincy, but turned it down because of injury.

Sources: A Cardus for All Seasons (Neville Cardus); My Life Story (Sir Jack Hobbs); A History of Cricket (HS Altham & EW Swanton); Wisden

The best is the enemy of the very good Bell

One of my favourite sights in cricket is Ian Bell rising to his toes, even airborne, as he glides a lifting delivery outside his off-stump through point for four. The shot appears to be no more than a push; its outcome is a ball racing past a cover point who has barely begun to adjust his position. It’s not one of the classic canon of off-side strokes – front, back foot drive, square or late cut – but a fusion that in foot movement, head and hand position remains splendidly orthodox. It’s a sharp riposte to the bowler who had delivered a potentially wicket-taking, lifting delivery outside off-stump with slips and gulley primed. Above all it’s a kinetic burst from simple, easeful movement.

At Manchester in 2006, I was in the crowd that saw Pietersen edge to slip in the first over of the second day. Collingwood and Cook ground away until afternoon when Bell brought the entertainment with a thrilling display of the shot that is even more commonly associated with him: the off drive. The bell drivePakistani pace bowlers, seeking movement, bowled full. Bell stepped forward and with a crisp, truncated swing drilled half-volleys wide of mid-off. As he became more comfortable, he moved into good length balls with an intent that gave the bowlers hope of misjudgement, but as their hands raised he met the ball with a bat pitched perfectly to redirect the ball down and fast out and through the covers or straight.

At Lord’s in 2008 I had plenty of time to appreciate Bell’s batsmanship, watching him build a lengthy innings against South Africa. His partner in a stand of nearly 300, Pietersen, was taken aback by the range of his stroke-play from the start of his innings, from a point when England had lost three quick wickets. Into the evening session of day two, after eight hours, Bell lost his fluency. I left for an appointment while he was struggling to make headway through the 190s and heard the groan of the crowd from the St John’s Wood Road when he made a dash for his double-ton and fell caught and bowled. That evening, I walked into the pub where Bell, red-faced and proud, relaxed with a group of friends and team-mates.

Failing to convert a double-ton isn’t the strongest basis for criticism of a batsman. But Bell’s sudden impotence near the end of that day seems all of a piece with other petrifications and panics in his career. He suffered a pair at the Oval in 2005, when the proud efforts of the England team that summer were on the line. While Bell prodded from his crease and edged to slip in the second innings, Pietersen counter-attacked and led England to the draw they sought. Most recently, Bell’s charge at his first ball of the series in India to be caught at mid-off cemented doubts about his ability on turning pitches and more importantly provided evidence that he was conscious of this critique.

Nine of Bell’s 13 test hundreds have come in innings where a teammate has made a ton. Of his four stand-alone centuries, two were against Bangladesh and one in an innings with four half-centuries. The slight against Bell, implied in these numbers and stated outright by many, is that he is not the player for a tight situation – he doesn’t perform ‘in the clutch’.

Cape Town in January 2010 was supposed to be the occasion when Bell showed he could tough it out. For the second time in the series, England had to bat out more than a day to draw. Bell came in fifth down around half-way to England’s destination. He hung on for 68 overs and England clung on nine wickets down. But unlike other celebrated rear-guards – Collingwood at Centurion a month earlier and Atherton at Johannesburg in 1994 – Bell wasn’t there at the end. He fell three overs from the close, giving the tenth wicket pair, Swann and Onions, the task of seeing England to safety.

Bell’s international future was foretold in his teens. Indeed, he was still a teenager when called up as a replacement for England’s 2001/02 tour of New Zealand, although his debut waited another two years. His well anticipated excellence and pristine technique provide a template that has never quite coincided with his batting achievement. And then there’s the chap at number four (or in the 2005 Ashes, five, a place behind Bell). Pietersen the warrior batsman, taking on the world, including his own dressing room, scoring runs when they most matter, in the most eye-catching fashion. The enemy of our appreciation of Ian Bell, is the batsman we think he might have been and a batsman who is so different to him.

Questioning of Bell’s place in the Test team waxed again during England’s recent tour of India. Before the first test there were, quite reasonably, queries whether a player scheduled to miss the second test for paternity leave should be picked for the opening match. Either side of that return home, Bell had three cheap dismissals, including the self-inflected first baller at Ahmedabad. He coaxed England home to a small target in Kolkata before the lamest of dismissals pushing at Chawla the leg-spinner at Nagpur. But in the second innings, his partnership with Trott took England from a vulnerable 90-3 with one day and several hours left in the game to 302-4 with less than half a day to go. Bell remained not out with six hours 42 minutes of careful batting.

Bell’s century at Nagpur was crucial for the match and England’s series victory, but I do not believe it was a turning point for the player. I have reconciled myself to Bell as a very good international (Test and ODI) batsman. I believe he has peaked, or reached the plateau of his level of accomplishment. He’s a pleasure to watch and regularly capitalises on favourable situations from the late middle-order. I don’t expect him to dominate a major series or change the flow of too many contests and I know from time-to-time he’ll be flakey when what the team needs is grit. He would get a place at number five in almost all of the England teams I have watched in the last three decades. Bell is really very good, and that’s good enough.

There is an intriguing possibility that could, however, demand a thorough re-evaluation of Bell’s contribution. My recall of the situation is poor, but a few years ago Bell was captain of either Warwickshire or the England Lions, or possibly both. A cricket correspondent (not sure who) reported that Bell had led his team in the field and throughout the match in the most imaginative way – and successfully – quite at odds with England’s drilled approach. I am not sure where Bell currently is in the England captaincy succession. Alastair Cook, Bell’s junior, has begun his captaincy with notable success. Joe Root has been given princely duties as Lions Captain. But Andrew Strauss was never England’s first choice captain. It was events that had him elevated. Allying Bell’s batting record with a leadership role, however unlikely the latter, would make him bullet proof.

So I am comfortable with the Ian Bell of now having a continuing role in the England side. I think that’s the trick to enjoying his contribution and not being seduced by notions of what he might, but never really could, be. But in settling dean jonesfor this, we open up the possibility that the arrival of a steely middle-order finisher could force the selectors to decide whether the very good Bell is better for the team than a quite different alternative. The Australian selectors made just that kind of decision in 1992 when they stood down a player aged 31 with eleven test centuries and an average of 46. Dean Jones didn’t play Test cricket again.

Cricket, a great summer of sport and an unlikely saviour?

It has been a great summer of British sport. The lists of achievements and highlights being drawn up and circulated do not feature cricket. That’s not just because of the 140 character limit of twitter. It is a frank assessment of the contribution of Britain’s national summer sport to this ‘once in a lifetime’ season.

Cricket was always going to find 2012 a difficult summer to command attention. A home Olympics has pulling power like nothing else. Euro 2012, although lacking the breathless and reason-less fervour for the England team of most recent tournaments, was guaranteed dedicated and comprehensive coverage on terrestrial television. Less predictable, but always a possibility, was that tennis would have a British Wimbledon finalist and at the end of the summer a Grand Slam Champion. Many fewer people would have anticipated, than the number who enjoyed, a British winner of the Tour de France.

And then there was the weather. The Met Office provides a pithy review of the summer’s weather the wettest since 1912 and second dullest on record. Players shuttled on and off the field regularly and had whole days confined to the dressing room: three days of the 3rd Test v West Indies at Edgbaston; three of 13 ODIs washed out – with two more decided on Duckworth-Lewis calculations.

External factors meant English cricket would struggle in its market this year. But what about its own contribution to its plight. Cricket, perhaps any sport, thrives as a spectacle in any of the following circumstances: when the host team is successful, the quality of play is high, there are charismatic participants, competition is tight, the contest has relevance.

The English international cricketing summer fell short of providing that mix, in avoidable ways:

  • The timing of England’s early summer series meant their opponents could not field their strongest Test team because players had contracts to play elsewhere. Those stars arrived for the short-form series and England’s marquee player stepped aside.
  • In the mid-summer, the traditional foe were flown in, out-of-season for a non-traditional contest clinging to the context of the 140 year rivalry.
  • At the end of the summer, England’s most anticipated rivals came for a three test series before moving hastily into an ODI match-up, at a time when minds were already turning to the World T20. So they rested three of their stars, a move followed by England who had already contrived to play the third test without their biggest name.

Across 23 international fixtures, including 17 limited overs matches, there wasn’t a single tight finish.

The weakness of the on-field narratives from this summer is shown in the stories that cricket obsessed with: the dropping a top player from a test match to preserve his fitness for ODI cricket; the retention, or not, of the status as number 1 ranked team, based upon a statistical construct; whether a player who has created (or been the victim of) dressing room divisions would or should be allowed to play for England again.

Despite all this, I wouldn’t be surprised if the bean-counters announce that this was the most remunerative non-Ashes season. English international cricket seems to have a very solid customer-base. More days of Test, ODI and T20 cricket could have been scheduled and have had tickets in high demand. That customer-base may be solid, but it is narrow. I estimate that the 48 days of international cricket were attended by around the same number of people that turn up for two weeks-worth of premier league football.

I went to 2.5 days of Test cricket, none of which was particularly memorable. I will be back next year and so will most of those who bought tickets this year. But what about five years time? Not many kids will be nagging their parents to take them to watch cricket because of what they saw last summer, but I bet tickets for Wimbledon and top athletics meetings have become a good deal more difficult to obtain.

Cricket lost market share in 2012. There appears to be no will to address the international schedule – the avoidable part of this summer’s problems. But here’s a thought. The UK TV rights for the Indian Premier League are only under contract until 2014. What might happen if Sky Sports were to obtain those rights from 2015? Would it want to broadcast two events that overlapped and depleted each other? Would Sky persuade the ECB to delay the start of the international season until June to prevent a clash? Would that free the best players to participate in international cricket during the English summer and resolve current and looming disputes between the ECB and England’s most sought after players?

The timing of Andrew Strauss

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.

Cricket and the mobile phone

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..”