It was a toot, like a brass instrument being tuned. Incongruously high-pitched. Strongly, warmly associated with cricket and companionship.
The first time I heard the toot it came from behind me. I had shuffled down the pitch to the off-spinner, mis-judged or deceived by flight. But I had laid a healthy edge on the ball which would be hurtling in the direction of many of my scoring shots as an undergraduate, to thirdman.
The toot was the prelude to a more throaty, but still high-toned chuckle. Turning in the direction of the laugh, I saw Nick, occupying a space between first slip and gulley, with his left arm out-stretched, hand wrapped around the ball, shaking with merriment and enjoyment at his own display of agility.
Three or four years later, I became a teammate of Nick’s. I was now an old boy and the broadest, deepest allegiance that traced back to my student days was being forged. Our group was always happier, ruder, funnier and more generous when Nick was with us. We worried more, mostly about Nick, when he wasn’t.
Nick soon opted to be a non-playing tourist on our annual August Bank Holiday weekend jaunts. His last game left him melancholy. He had taken four wickets, at least two of which were slip catches to his leg-breaks that turned and bounded some way back up to the heights from which they’d been delivered.
While the rest of the team tolerated a slow, uneven decline playing on for a further 15 years, Nick called a halt. The distinctive nasal laugh would have been absent that evening.
Nick had been an unusual and highly effective bowler. At over six foot four, he could spear wrist spun deliveries to a quick bowler’s good length. I only faced him in practice nets and found it almost impossible to play forward. Stepping back, my bat met the ball in front of my chest.
The tooting continued, particularly around cricket. Nick was the most rewarding of companions for a spell of cricket spectating. In 1995, we watched the West Indies together at Lord’s. Meeting in the Grace Gates queue, he was bubbling with anticipation at 9am. Understanding that the ticket was a freebie, Nick undertook to cater the day, which he did with an entire loaf of smoked salmon wholemeal sandwiches. We sat in the lower Warner from where I was despatched regularly to the bar for another round. Just as adjacency to Nick seemed to shrink cricket gear, so pints of beer in his hand looked like, and were treated as, tumblers.
The real pleasure of his company wasn’t the food and drink (although his knowledge of both were doctoral), but his enthusiasm and appreciation for the game. Lara came out to bat and Nick seethed with delight. “That back-swing, so high. Look at it,” he commanded no one in particular, but I and the dozen or so people in easy earshot complied. Nick wasn’t the kind of voluble spectator that cleared seats. His joy transferred. People in front of us turned and nodded. Those directly behind us didn’t curse this man obscuring their view but responded to him adding character to their day at the Test.
Lara and Hooper batted throughout the afternoon. The run scoring was slow. Peter Martin and Dominic Cork exerted a check so inimical to the pair batting. It was a tense session with few boundaries and fewer wickets. To be honest, it only lives so strongly in my memory because I shared it with Nick and glimpsed the game through his eyes.
A decade later, our old boys’ annual tour coincided with the fourth Ashes Test at Trent Bridge. Since the series began in early July at Lord’s, my mind had been dominated by thoughts of how England might finally defeat Australia. At times, particularly the final morning at Edgbaston, it had been suffocating and it was regularly waking me at night as I computed scenarios and permutations. I was passionate for English cricket, not cricket.
Around our tour fixtures that weekend we gathered in our residence’s living room to watch coverage, live or recorded, of the Test. We came to will England to victory, roaring and cursing, if needed. However, we found an impediment to our partisanship. Nick, occupying the sofa, was cooing, purring over Warne’s bowling. “It’s the top-spinner,” he would divine as an England batsman was about to be hurried in a defensive shot. “Look, look at the wrist angle,” Nick would urge as super slow-mo dissected what Nick had already informed us. At the time of great national release, Nick was our conscience and our analyst, expecting more of us. His high nasal laugh signifying the great satisfaction of watching great cricket played by some great cricketers.
Soon the old boys will gather. There will be no toots and we won’t worry about Nick. There will be the formalities and then we’ll toast him and the pleasure that his company brought to our group and to each of us as his teammate and friend.
Devendra Bishoo flights the ball down the line of Steve Smith’s off-stump. Smith advances to drive back past the bowler. The ball pitches feet in front of where Smith was expecting it to, grips and turns past his wafted bat. The ball careers into Ramdin’s gloves and the keeper completes the stumping before Smith can even turn to try to regain ground.
Bishoo floats a ball under Brad Haddin’s nose, as it descends it swerves to his legside. Haddin is waiting to lean on the ball, killing it dead. But the ball zips past his outside edge and clips the top of off stump.
Two of Bishoo’s wickets in the first Test at Roseau – archetypal leg-spin dismissals.
Bishoo is a very typical leg-spinner. He’s short, slight, loose of limb and can look vulnerable alongside his towering teammates and heavily padded, big bat waving opponents. He turns the ball just the one way and even when bowling well, as he has against Australia, on a helpful pitch, he offers long-hops, full tosses and batsmen are not intimated into staying in their crease. He is a risk-reward bowler: 4 for 177 in the first innings of his previous Test against England.
Just over twenty years ago, Shane Warne’s career took off. With it, we hoped would come a revival of leg-spin bowling – certainly in those parts of the cricket globe where it was dormant. In many respects, Warne managed that feat. Leg-spin bowling was attempted by thousands of children who may only have wanted to bowl fast, if play cricket at all. It was a positive, aggressive choice.
Yet all the imitators have failed to mature into emulators of Warne’s achievements. For years after his retirement, Australia struggled to find a spin bowler, let alone a leg-spin bowler. Was Warne a case of the best being the enemy of the good? Warne wasn’t an archetypal leg-spin bowler. He combined the control of an off-spin bowler (Test career economy rate of 2.6 rpo) with the big and unpredictable turn, flight and pace of a leggie. Maybe he set the bar too high.
Bishoo is a bowler that leg-spinners at all levels of the game will identify with: mixing unplayable balls with deliveries that batsmen can stroke at will to the boundary. He seems to have an equanimity about being bashed for four or six that is an essential part of the leggies’ make-up. Not for them the standing with hands on hips, before ordering a close fielder out to sweep the boundary that’s just been breached. Successful leggies simply challenge the batsman again, this time with a little more flight, or a slight change to the angle of rotation.
Legs-spin bowler, Adil Rashid, sits on the verges of the England Test team. Another typical leggie risk-reward bowler – although mitigated a little by his batting. Can the England selectors find space for this attacking option in the team? Coming off a Test series with New Zealand, when runs were conceded at over four per over, I think it unlikely. All the more reason to appreciate Bishoo – certainly on days like today when he foxed the best of Australia’s batting, but also on days when the pitch doesn’t help, the outside edge isn’t threatened and his major mode of dismissal is the other typical of leg-spinners: caught at deep midwicket.
Cricket is the pre-industrial sport that saw out the industrial age and ventures into the uncertain post-industrial, information age. Trendwatching.com is a worldwide commercial trend monitoring service that has recently published its annual list of new consumer trends to watch out for. As followers of international cricket or players of club cricket, which, if any, of these cutting edge trends will we experience this year?
Anything shown in italics in the rest of this post, comes from the Trendwatching briefing. Surprisingly, perhaps, I find evidence of seven of the 10 Crucial Consumer Trends for 2013 in our timeless sport. Hold onto your wide-brimmed hats, because: 2013 will be the perfect storm of necessity and opportunity (motto to be adopted by the ICC Champions Trophy?).
Trend 1: Full frontal – not just transparent, but naked and proud
T20 provides cricket’s first trendsetting example. It brought players out of the dressing room, sitting them like a brightly dressed rabble of club cricketers on the boundary edge. Next, it put players on a live microphone. Shane Warne showed the BBL TV audience the best – explaining what he would bowl and with what effect – and worst – abusing Marlon Samuels – of transparent cricket coverage. The camera’s next move can be to one place only: the showers.
Trend 2: Presumers and Custowners – consumers will embrace even more ways to participate in the funding and launch of new products and brands
This phenomenon, its potential unlocked by the Internet, is found in a project that, ironically, deals with cricket’s ability to adjust to the changing world. The movie now in post-production, Death of a Gentleman, considers how Test match cricket can survive. It was funded by fans of the sport, responding to a social media campaign operated by the film’s producers, Kimber and Collins, using the crowd-funding website FundMe.com.
Cricket would seem a viable market for this sort of approach. Its followers include many more affluent and connected people, protective of their niche interest. But searching the major crowd-funding websites no other cricket-themed products or services appear to be looking for our seedcorn cash. Maybe the release of Death of a Gentleman in 2013 will change that.
Trend 3: Emerging squared – emerging brands from all over are catering for emerging middle classes all over
Cricket seems well ahead of the curve on this one. Emerging markets initially experienced economic growth by manufacturing products or low cost services for the developed world. Increasingly, those emerging economies produce and create to meet their own and other emerging economies’ needs.
Indian cricket, at its most distilled in the IPL, is an archetype of the business of emerging nations no longer being developed to target the consumers of the developed world. Sold out stadiums and a prime-time audience reach of 160 million at home. Back in the ‘home’ of cricket, it gets an afternoon (live) broadcast on ITV how many? ITV4.
Trend 4: Mobile moments – lifestyle multi-if-not-hyper-tasking: why micro-convenience, mini experiences and digital snacks will rule
Cricket followers are fairly well catered for on their smart-phones, able to tune into a game for moments between meetings, calls, lessons, trips or whatever else punctuates their productive day. Apps provide news, scores, statistics and my personal favourite enables me to create a wagon wheel. This is a fast developing area. I wonder if this year when we take our seats at the ground for a day of Ashes cricket we will be downloading match-specific apps that connect us with anyone else with that app in the ground, for debate, images and even dates?
Next come the trends that affect the consumer as amateur player, rather than consumer as viewer.
Trend 5: Data Myning – why consumers want good data not big data
Businesses hold data about us, which in this trend they provide to us rather than merely use to market to us. The relevance to cricket is, I think, unrealised but becomes possible with the spread of computer-based scoring across club cricket. Hitherto, the typical cricketer has glanced over the scorebook in the bar after the match to assess their contribution. But with ball-by-ball data recorded digitally, each player by the time they have showered, could receive a detailed breakdown of their innings/bowling spell, player v player chart and wagon wheel. Crowd-source your pennies to me for this idea.
Trend 6: Again made here – local manufacturing is the new service economy
Bat manufacture probably never left the UK but it is on the up again. Bespoke bats and factory visits are the hook. Millichamp & Hall hand-make bats at their workshop at the Somerset County Ground in Taunton. Customers are “entitled to come and visit” the workshop, making it an experience not just a transaction.
A new challenger launched in 2012: B3 cricket in Nottingham. Offering off the shelf, custom and bespoke bats, B3 is as keen on the service element as M&H. Intriguingly, it advises that each bat has a unique reference number for reproduceability of your perfect bat. Moreover, recognising what creatures of habit batsmen can be, the customer is encouraged to bring along their favourite, but retired, bat for the new one to be made in its image.
I could not find actual or potential cricket equivalents for three of the trends
- New life inside – it’s time for products that give back to the environment
- Appscriptions – digital technologies are the new medicine
- Celebration nation – flaunting the new ‘it’ cultures
leaving one trend:
Trend 10: Demanding Brands – brands’ wishes will be consumers’ command
The New Zealand cricket team are making some extreme demands of their followers early in 2013, but there’s an even better fit to this trend. It’s not considered fashionable, but it’s the basic modus operandi of local cricket clubs. In return for wearing the club’s crest, the playing member paints the sight-screens, hangs the nets, sweeps the dressing room, pulls the pints, runs the socials, etc. There’s an awful lot about brand loyalty that local cricket clubs could teach commerce.
Cricket followers burn a lot of time and energy mocking, criticising and castigating the players our passion draws us to watch. We are particularly harsh on those who we believe are not fulfilling their potential in the sport. Steve Harmison, Mitchell Johnson are examples of players who have shown what they can achieve and then failed to live up to it. Another target of denigration are those who have reached a level in the game that their talent does not merit and struggle at that level. We’re also harsh on the superstars. Class is permanent but poor form is happening now and it’s not acceptable. Age dulls their talent, but not their self-regard. And their play may be impeccable but their conduct, dress sense, or off-field companions demonstrate they have less of a grip of other aspects of life.
The first group waste their talent, which we wouldn’t do if only we were so blessed (genetically predisposed). The second group waste our time. We don’t want to watch cricketers whose inability to score runs or take wickets is a result of a technical incompetence not seen since school net practice. The third group waste the emotions of hope, respect and even adoration that have risen through us watching them at their peak, only to be sullied by the inevitable demonstration of their humanity.
Then there are the small number of players with whom our relationship is less complicated. Australians may feel this way towards Mike Hussey. As an England supporter, I felt this about England’s new limited overs coach, now leading the England team in its one day series in India. He performed and behaved as well as I could have expected. I felt that Ashley Giles owed me nothing.
Giles was an orthodox left-arm spinner operating in a period when finger spin was thought impotent in international cricket unless the ball could be made to turn both ways. Giles’ inclusion in the England team felt grudging – if we really have to have slow bowler, he’s the least worst option. On debut against South Africa in 1998, Giles went for a ton taking a single wicket.
It was over two years until Giles played another Test – in Pakistan – and he moved quickly into credit with an analysis of 59-20-113-4, bowling 36% of the overs in Pakistan’s only innings. A five-for was earned in the next match and seven wickets in the series decider at Lahore. Giles had taken 17 wickets in the three match series, a record for an English bowler in Pakistan, and only one fewer than Saqlain Mushtaq.
For the next two years Giles played more, particularly in the Sub-Continent, than he missed. In India, he took his test best at Ahmedabad in another endurance display (5-63 in 43 overs) despite achilles and foot injuries that hindered his motion and earnt him the ‘wheelie-bin’ moniker. Giles was part of Michael Vaughan’s team that defeated South Africa at the Oval in 2003 having conceded 484 in the first innings. That summer, Giles took only 22 wickets in first class cricket. A single wicket in two tests in Bangladesh followed. But success in Asia came again before the year was out, with 18 wickets in the series in Sri Lanka.
Vaughan’s team found form and momentum, winning six consecutive test series before the Australians arrived for the 2005 Ashes. Giles was a near ever-present as the principal spinner, lower-order banker for a useful 30 and smart gulley fielder.
In the pre-series match-ups conducted on paper, Giles and keeper Geraint Jones, were the two England players deemed clearly inferior to their Australian opposite numbers – Warne and Gilchrist. What sort of player was Warne’s opponent? Giles is a big man. That and his splayed feet and high knees gave him an untidy, rolling run-up. But in delivery he pivoted hard on his right foot, arched his back, pulling his arm through classically high and strong, with head, often sporting blue reflective shades, tilted right. And he spun the ball. Too tall to give the ball very much air, but on helpful wickets, Giles was comfortable bowling in the low 50mphs, getting bite and bounce.
Giles, of course, didn’t come close to matching Warne in the 2005 series. But he managed to be both victorious and vindicated – taking wickets at Edgbaston after attracting a lot of criticism with a newspaper article, having his own ‘ball of the century’ moment piercing Damien Martyn’s confident defence at Old Trafford and scoring a half-century on the fifth afternoon at the Oval that took England to safety, a draw and history.
Worthy, committed and respected, but not a spotless career. Giles, under Hussain’s prickly leadership in India in 2001 was heavily criticised for bowling outside Tendulkar’s leg-stump from over the wicket. Wisden called it ‘unedifying’ and hoped the ICC cricket committee would stamp it out. Hussain recalled: “People went on and on about it being a negative tactic and against the spirit of the game.. and I think that affected Ashley’s career for a while..”
After the 2005 Ashes series, Giles was one of many of that team to experience injury or illness. He returned home from Pakistan with a hip injury in November 2005. It was 12 months before Giles played again – in the warm-up matches ahead of the Ashes series.
The player who owed us nothing was on the hardest tour of all, without any cricket for a year, with a ‘remodelled’ action designed, but little tested, to protect his frail limb. In his absence, Giles’ place had been taken by Monty Panesar, a loose-limbed natural left-arm spinner, who had had immediate success.
This is where my affection for and sympathy with Giles is at its strongest. Duncan Fletcher was loyal to his men and to his methods. Giles at number 8 gave the team balance, even though the team was no longer the same. And so came about a sequence of events that tipped the balance from Giles being a cricketer who owed me nothing, to one who deserved better of England. Imagine being called upon after a year away, unable to work, to do the most difficult thing your job involves. That’s what happened to Giles, who played at Brisbane and again in that defeat at Adelaide that still makes me shudder. He didn’t bowl poorly, but misjudged a chance to catch Ponting on his way to his second century of the series when England had declared at 551-6.
Giles was replaced for the third test by Panesar, who took five wickets on the first day. Family illness required Giles to return home soon after. And that was that.
Giles did not play again as injury forced him into retirement. The last year of Giles’ playing career may well anger me more than it does the player himself.
This last year has seen various stages in the decline of three Test playing nations:
- Australia have continued the descent from their two decades as the game’s most powerful team. The Ashes were lost on home soil with three defeats by an innings and they failed to defend their World Cup in India.
- India went in under twelve months from winning the World Cup and reaching top ranking in Test cricket to seven successive test defeats.
- Sri Lanka have lost their first home Test series in over five years and slipped down the ranking lists from the heights of second place in both Test and ODI ratings.
In each case, the downturn in fortunes has been associated with the aging or retirement of eminent players. I have read the same charge levelled at all three countries: their decline is because of a failure of succession planning.
My journalese bullshit antennae first twitched when I read this censure in an article about Sri Lanka. It came about the time of Kumar Sangakkara’s Spirit of Cricket lecture that was direct in its criticism of his home cricket association. Not managing to plan for the replacement of older players fitted well with the picture of corrupt and venal administration: they rested on the laurels of the team’s success, failing to anticipate the cliff the team were progressing towards as Muralitharan neared retirement.
Murali.. succession planning.. antennae twitched. Who else had left the Sri Lankan Test team? Malinga. Murali and Malinga, two unique bowling talents. What sort of replacement policy should Sri Lankan cricket have put in place? One based on nurturing cricketers with double-jointed bowling arms and extraordinary delivery actions that defy all coaching orthodoxy? Anybody capable of slipping into their shoes would already be playing in the Sri Lankan team.
It is one of the strengths of the human intellect to seek an explanation for change. It is one of the weaknesses of that intellect, that unfavourable change must always be accompanied by blame. And a contemporary weakness is that business jargon is appropriated and applied to give a sense of authority to explanations.
It is ridiculous to believe that a successor can be planned to the bowler who took 40% of all the wickets taken by Sri Lankans during his career. Sri Lankan cricket declined after his (and Malinga’s and Vaas’s) retirement, because their cricket entered a new era – one where they are a lot less lucky about who they have available to bowl for them. That is the ebb and flow that is visible in all areas of human activity, and particularly sports.
Having said that, I am by no means a fatalist. The performance of a Test team can be enhanced by, amongst other things: developing a competitive playing culture that produces cricketers able to score runs or take wickets under pressure; astute selection of those most able to thrive at the top level; implementing tactics that make the most of the players you have and that target weaknesses in the opposition. Whether Sri Lankan cricket has failed to do these, I am not sure. What about the case of the second power in decline, Australia?
Australian cricket success in the 1990s came at the time of the professionalisation of its coaching infrastructure. The Australian Cricket Academy became the model for English cricket. With the long-established grade and shield cricket, the academy seemed to be producing the competitive culture required for success. There was a glut of quality players, many more than could be fitted into the Test team. But, Shane Warne, who had a transformational influence on their cricket, was not an academy graduate. Succession planning didn’t get him into the Test team, just recognition by the selectors of an exceptional talent. At his height, young Australians wanted to be leg-spinners, not quick bowlers. We imagined a future of English batsmen facing unreadable leg-spinners in Ashes series into the future. That it didn’t happen had nothing to do with the effectiveness or otherwise of succession planning. It just proved very difficult to reproduce a player of Warne’s talents – even in a country able to invest much more in its cricket future than Sri Lanka.
Warne retired within 12 months of five other champion Australian Test cricketers. The coaching infrastructure had remained. Selection wasn’t really at fault and tactics didn’t let the team down. The wheel had turned: Australia had fewer top-class cricketers. Handy as it may seem to blame decline on a management failing, succession planning was irrelevant. And it has stayed irrelevant to the emergence of Patrick Cummins, thought by many to be the future champion cricketer. He forced his way into the team with compelling, yet limited experience – not as the planned successor to Brett Lee or Glenn McGrath.
This I know isn’t the view of the Argus Report, commissioned after the Ashes defeat. It concluded that Australian cricket culture was rotten. It prescribed a series of structural reforms, including a Head Selector with responsibility, amongst other things, for succession planning. I’m sure a thorough review of a system little changed over two decades of success will identify some important areas for improvement. It would be too much to expect it to take a step back and say, “Wow, they were great players. Things will be tough for a while, until we unearth some more.” That would have had a ring of truth and an absence of business blarney.
The third leg of the trimvirate on the slide, India, have a slightly different story. Whereas the eminent cricketers of Sri Lanka and Australia continued to perform well until their retirement, there is a feeling that India’s stars are neither performing, nor moving on. Is this then a failure of succession planning? One explanation seems a little simpler – selection; and one is a good deal more complicated – have the Indian cricket authorities’ priorities undermined the culture that produces top class Test players?
I do see one role for identifying and cultivating an individual who one day may take a particular role in a cricket team. Captains do not burst onto the scene. Leadership skills are exposed through experience and those thought to be potential leaders will benefit from being given opportunities to demonstrate and develop those skills. Generally, this is the luxury of successful teams.
England find themselves in that situation right now. This week, with Pakistan beaten in the one-day series, so soon after the shock Test series defeat, England’s careful nurturing of Alastair Cook feels like the most effective example of succession planning.