Sunday, 30 March 2014

England ejected from the World T20...

... but I think they have done themselves fair justice in their campaign, with some of their feats in the batting department becoming stand out performances of the tournament, and even in defeat they went down with surprising vigor against far superior teams. Alex Hales scored a wondrous century, the first for his country in the format; Bopara grows continually in stature as a senior bat in the line-up, with more confidence in his long hitting and innovation while shepherding newcomers; and even though Lumb and Buttler did not dazzle with their own individual performances they built solid partnerships and made more than useful 30s. In particular, Chris Jordan equipped himself well, being the only England bowler with acceptable returns in the tournament, and pummeling some pugnacious pull shots along the way to shore up the tail.

England did not go into the competition with the most balanced team. Too many bits-and-pieces Bresnan-types (like Bresnan) and without an incisive out-and-out wicket-taking bowler (as Broad is out of sorts: one wicket and going at over 9.50 an over, as well as carrying an injury). Ali did not find his feet quite as well as we had hoped, but he is young and certainly talented. His appetite for working the singles around suits him brilliantly for one day and ODI cricket, but he did not seem to hit the big boundaries from the off the way a resilient T20 number three ought to be doing, perhaps. Bresnan, as always, was a bitter disappointment in my opinion. A tournament economy rate over 10.00 runs per over, one solitary wicket, though in the final match he did something with the bat - but isn't he there to take wickets and restrict scoring? His batting was surely not main reason he was selected. Dernbach also went around the park for the team's most horrific eco. rate. They simply didn't have the bowlers other than Jordan and, I thought, Tredwell, who bowled better than his figures and returns suggest.

But in all, I think they equipped themselves well. A D/L affected game against New Zealand was a fluke loss after setting a solid total of 172 with promising knocks from Buttler, Ali and Lumb - who knows, without the rain ruining the bowling chances we could have seen England defend that total. Hales provided the stand-out knock of the tournament thus far to chase down Sri Lanka's imposing 189 - the batting making up for the aforementioned deficiencies in the bowling, other than Jordan's 2/28 off of four overs which was a fine effort. And in the final game, despite the loss we cannot ignore the fact that we got to 193 chasing 196 against a nation boasting one of the finest bowler-production lines of all time, and featuring the current-best batsman in the world.

Considering what England has been through in the last few months, I think they played well. But for the rain....

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

A titan falls.....

I spent my last night shift in a slight mourning over the passage of yet another titanic figure from my formative cricket watching years, wiling away the hours watching Youtube videos of Graeme Smith scoring double centuries through bloody-mindedness and shovel-shots against England, Pakistan, and the rest. Being felled by this newly invigorated Australia that, it seems, every non-Australian cricket fan will have to put up with and - begrudgingly - admire for the next couple of years, is an ignominy that I would not have wished for, not expected for, a player I had banked on to be the next to 10,000 Test runs. Smith was easily in the running for the milestone, only thirty-three years of age and about 800 runs short. I think he should have stayed.

Falling to Australia in a closely fought series is no crime to be ashamed of, and South Africa have equipped themselves well. He may be out of nick, but he has been out of nick before. But as Jimmy Cook observed: Smith used to make runs even when out of nick. This series he did not. We cricket fans have also observed from time to time that his whole technique seems to be forever out of nick for it was always such a triumph of determination over style. Words like shoveling, clunking, thumping superseding stylistic terms like flick, ease or graceful. But, to subscribe to the mantra of Geoff Boycott: it's how many you make, not how you make them, and I can't help but think that Smith had more runs to make before he called it a day.

But I did just finish Nasser Hussain's biography, Playing With Fire, a title designed to imply that he played with a passion, rather than that handling him was like juggling several combustible substances at once. And Nass said: once the fire and the passion of enthusiasm is overtaken by the mental and physical grind of international cricket, then it is difficult to carry on. And, like Nasser, Smith has decided to chose his time of leaving. Hussain's own decision has grown more rosey and seemed more wise in hindsight given some of the uncomfortable forced departures (or worse, ugly lingerings) that have happened in recent years, and perhaps Smith's decision will seem more and more the right thing to do as the months go by.

One thing is true. Australia have dealt with another opposition player, a thorn in their side. Despite a modest record against Australia - 1,200-odd runs at thirty-something - Smith was truly an opponent to fear, and South Africa were always the ones to rival Australia in the post-Waugh era. But he's gone now, and South Africa face a transition with of their big names now back in the shed. Australia, meanwhile, are continuing to enjoy their hard-won purple period, and are taking down their opponents with dispatch. Trott, Smith, Flower, Swann - Australia have sent them all packing one way or another. Well, if you can't beat 'em on the field....

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

KP, parallels with Boycott

What parallels can be drawn between the end of Pietersen's career and that of Geoff Boycott. Two of England's most talented post 1950s batsmen, careers that were as divisive as they were replete with ability, two unmovable and stubborn personalities who had overcompensating behaviour in the midst of massive insecurities that mixed with genuine arrogance. I can see a comparison being made between "It's not easy being me" and "what about my average?" Two statements thrown out before the mind had time to compute, both stinking of insecurity and neediness - a huge ego forced outwards in place of, internally, at least, extremely low self belief.

Cook and his fellow players - those that have survived the cull thus far, at least - have not quite gone as far as singing Bye Bye Pietersen from the England balcony, as did Botham and his comrades once. And it is not just because of a lack of neat alliteration. Perhaps the flood of media scrutiny, social media, and invasive public attention will prevent such actions in the public eye in a team of the 21st century - or so you would think. But remember this is a team with several xxxx-gate controversies in recent years, a team that pissed all over the cricket ground at the end of the summer's Ashes, and a team that has aired its dirty laundry - mostly KP related - in public many times in the past. Perhaps Bye Bye Pietersen is only just around the corner.

But what prompted Botham to sing his chorus was the catalyst hundred of Tim Robinson - 175 against the Australians which suggested that England no longer needed Boycott at the top of the order. No up and coming young player in the current England set up has survived the Australians raking over the embers of a once capable team, no one has hit a knock suggestive of talent capable of slipping neatly into KP's shoes like Robinson suggested he would - though Botham's faith was ultimately misplaced. Robinson did not carve a career anywhere near as celebratable as Boycott's own.

The world waits for Root, Cook, the twilight years of Bell, and several other players to be named later, to fill the void and rebuild the team - a phrase thrown around a lot in recent years for India post-Tendulkar, Australia and now England. Suffice to say both Boycott and Pietersen threw their personalities against their teams, and both fled the scene with tarnished reputations that only the calm passings of time have buffed clean.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Goodbye, KP, goodbye?

Is this the end of Kevin Pietersen? As news breaks that his omission from the England tour of the Caribbean has signalled the end of his career - something he himself seems to agree with - we ask: will this really be the end? No doubt the moment the ink dries on the announcement, the reviews of his cricketing career will begin (yes, I know this is one of them, whatever!). Like the major news organisations that keep the obituaries of living celebrities up to date, ready for that moment of death, no doubt the obituary writers of cricket have been circling their pens over Pietersen's name for some time.

But how will history remember Pietersen once the dust has settled? Once the thrust and parry of traditional and revisionist assessment has died down - the so-called post-revisionist time - will we have a stable and fairly-weighted decision on 'KP'. Is he one of the greatest players to ever play for England? Certainly statistically he is. But do statistics flatter? When everyone who ever saw him play is dead and buried only his statistics will remain to show what kind of player he was. Even now people are starting to forget who Andrew Flintoff was, and see in his figures a mediocre all-rounder and certainly not a world-conqueror. Will the lore-writers of the game cast Pietersen as a player of immense potential, but only exceptional ability? How many more runs, they would argue, could we have added to his tally had he not thrown his wicket away trying to force the pace, or following a rush of blood or ego. There is one definite, irrefutable truth: Pietersen will not join the ranks of the Truly Great. He is, it seems, only a great player.

Two memories of Pietersen stand out in my own mind. One is of his physical ability, and one is of his mental willpower and love for his craft. Both also illustrate his desire. The first is seeing him bat, in person, at Taunton in 2013. The moment summed up all three aspects of his playing career: ability, hunger, and fallibility. He faced - I think - about four or five balls. He hit three of them for boundaries. The sheer unfathomable ability oozed out of him. The type of delivery, style of bowler, pitch, speed, bounce, turn, overhead conditions - all seemed irrelevant. It did not matter to him what the ball was doing or where it was. He merely stepped a giant step down the pitch and hit it between the fielders; it did not matter where they were either. Some delivery or other, from some whatever bowler (this is in his mind) came down, two fielders at mid-on: hit it between them. All along the ground. It thunked off the advertising boards before they had moved. Neither stride, nor bat, nor stroke deviated one iota from the path that led to that boundary, from the moment of pick-up before the ball was even released, right the way through to the follow-through. No hesitation. He had already scored the boundary before the ball had even been bowled. Trescothick moved someone to plug the gap, and the tight ring of fielders cut off seemingly all egress routes for the ball. Fine. KP just hit the next one somewhere else. Along the ground, bisecting two fielders like a knife through an apple. The third, I think he defended that one. Then another boundary, didn't really matter where the fielder was. And then.... and then he suddenly smacked something into mid-wicket with a lazy swipe and it was as if there were two people out there: the player who had hit the previous balls to the rope, and this new guy who swatted it into the net. Some hot-headed waste of a batting slot who chucked it away. And just like that, he walked off. Such ability, such hunger for runs, and then such fallibility. All in five balls.

The other stand-out memory for me was a run out of a South African batsman in one of Pietersen's early Tests as captain. I've mentioned it before, and I think in one of my other posts there is even a link to the scorecard. Pietersen may have been bowling, because he was stood by the stumps when the ball came in. The batsman, I want to say, was Kallis. That may not be true, but it doesn't matter. What I saw was complete mental commitment to England, and to winning. Pietersen seemed to swing both his arms down - one holding the ball - and demolished the stumps. And then he screamed. His pumped both his fists into the air, shoulders and biceps bulging like a Tiger tank, and he screamed so hard the veins of his neck looked like small hillocks. It was a scream akin to that of some Zulu warrior - eyes popping out of his head - and it reverberated around the ground. It was a scream of pure, unadulterated aggression and psyche - KP was pumped. he was in utter, cathartic schizmoid-mode and he wanted to take his allegiance to his beloved England team and batter the South Africans - and anyone else who cared to listen - in the face with it. He wanted to grind the opposition into a pulp. And as soon as I saw it I thought: "You'll do, KP. You'll do."

Sadly, like every glimpse or glimmer of hope of Great things to come, it did not last. Something else came along, or some other wave rocked the boat and tipped Pietersen over again.

This may not be goodbye. The media, the ECB, even Kevin might have already blown this all out of proportion. That is what they all do when it comes to the brand  name "Kevin Pietersen". But if it is, the tagline of only great will probably follow him around for years to come. But we should be thankful. England have not had a 'Truely Great' player since, like, the fifties or something.

Masterly Editing: 100 Great Test Essays

Firstly - sorry for not having blogged for a while. Not that many would care, I'm sure. The recent events down in Australia seem to have afflicted me with a certain lethargy, as has the inevitable in-fighting that followed. However, coach changes that invigorate the team to new heights was the flavour of the month when Flower took over from Moores, and more recently when 'Boof' took charge of Australia, so who is to say that it will not succeed again? And if Ashley Giles gets the job, at least I can say that I've met, shaken hands with, and gotten the autograph of, the England head coach.

It may also be the weather, which has been torrid. There's flooding everywhere.

I picked up Masterly Batting: 100 Great Test Centuries about a month back, and finished reading it last night. I bought it expecting - and hoping - for a breakdown of Test feats with the willow that was full of refreshing whimsy, insightful insight, and flowering prose of Cardusesque qualities, full of sepia-toned reflections of the great towering figures of the past: Compton, Bradman, Grace, Bannerman, Trumper et al. For recentism, I figured they might go as far as to include Viv Richards or Gavaskar, Border or perhaps Gower or Cowdrey.

Turns out I was partly wrong, though not to the detriment of the book. I did not expect the book to exclude feats of the 1990s and 2000s simply because I thought there were no such feats to speak of - on the contrary, some of the most famous lie in these decades - but I did expect the book to adhere to a seemingly predominant conservative trend of rose-tinted 'to-the-rear' viewing that is found in most cricket history books.

What I found instead was a bar-fly's debate with a group of informed friends on what was the best one-hundred centuries ever scored, with a Cambridge-scholar's mathematical framework doing most of the leg work to calculate their value based on a feat of statistical wizardry that took into account the series, the year, the opposition, injury, weather, pitch, captaincy, form, age, impact on the game, on the team, on the career of all players involved; somehow all of this was broken down into numbers and totalled into a score, and thus the innings were ranked. Though the first chapter - which deals with this calculation - is a bit of a sleeping pill for all those who do not hold the relevant post-grad degree, the writers anticipate critical broadsides levelled at them by agreeing that a) it is an overly quantitative analysis of a largely qualitative concept, and b) that the greatest knocks ever made were not necessarily centuries.

What I also found, contrary to my expectations, was that there was little common thread running through the essays. They were written by numerous people, including former players, and one was written by the batsman himself! Though plenty of evocative, Dickensian prose intertwined many of the essays, others were decidedly Jack Hobbs-like: knowledgeable, written by someone who went there and did it, but by no means gifted with the pen and the ink. One, on a Pietersen innings, was so distastefully filled with bold-type phrases like BOOF and SLAM that I may as well have been reading a Batman comic strip. KP may as well have written it. Suffice to say the style of writing varied greatly through the essays, though none (okay, perhaps the Pietersen one) were actually bad.

There are some gems, and some lovely sentiments and lessons that can be learned from this publication - I shall cease calling it a book, because it is not a book, it's an edited collection of essays - and I'm glad I read it. The vast, vast majority of the centuries included were ones by players that I had heard of, almost all bar a couple of early South African Test crickets, however I did not know all the individual centuries by rote and it was a joy to learn of some of the hundreds made by the great players of the past. The idiosyncrasies of the mathematical calculation systems meant that those hundreds for which a player is most known were not necessarily the hundreds that were brought to light by the equations. Not all were made by players who went on to have successful careers, neither. The weight allotted to opposition, percentage of team innings, and scoring speed, throw up some interesting centuries in the top ten - mostly against the West Indies of the '70s and '80s - and the number one century I did not expect. I bet you can't guess what it would be.

The only thing it really lacks is pictures. There is not one image in the piece. For all the joy brought by connecting the reader with these hundreds, many of which may be before his time, out of his geography, or simply out of his knowledge for whatever reason, barred to him by the passage of time, language, or team loyalty - for all this, there are no visual aids to enrich our learning. Pictures have a way of truly connecting us for the first time with that which we have not seen before. When we remember centuries, we remember images of them happening. For whatever reason, be it copyright, cost, or simply the thought not occurring or the image not existing, only the words of these hundreds, be they remembered by many or only by few or none, are communicated to us. The image remains only imagined.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Childish

It is like watching children play. Until now, I've never lost faith in my team. In the drubbings of 2006/07 I did not lose faith, though I was often exasperated, for I knew that we were an okay team under an awful captain. Nor did I fold in 2007-08 for I could see that we were developing something, and I sided with us as the underdogs. I love 2008-2012 because we were a dominating, solid team with an honest captain, followed by an earnest and fresh-faced Cook once Strauss had retired. Though the sheen had started to slip a bit in our winning, it was nothing major.

But now, for the first time in ten years. I'd rather watch someone else other than England. I've been reading up on, and watching, New Zealand and the West Indies, and Sri Lanka and Pakistan, before I look at the Ashes matches. It's beyond damming, beyond thrashing, beyond a superior team defeating an inferior one. There's no nous, no backbone, no fight, nothing... British about the team. Nine Aussie centuries to one English one? Fourteen half-centuries to eight? Only two players averaging over thirty? Only one bowler with a bowling average in the twenties? Australia have two batsmen averaging either over, or just under, sixty runs per innings, and they have four bowlers under 30.00, with one only 14-odd at the moment. These statistical disparities are comparable with those during the Bangladesh tour of Australia in 2003, and yet then even Bangladesh managed to have three players with a batting average of thirty or more. Bangladesh drew with New Zealand recently, something England almost failed to do. The cracks emerged early in 2013 and were papered over in much a similar way as those that appeared in Australia prior to the 2005 series. Yet England have nothing of the dynasty to lose that the Australians had.

I am, quite frankly, horrified. It is beyond mirth, beyond humor. There is nothing more to smirk at. As much as I loathe the knee-jerk reactions that plagued the 1990s, I'd rather suffer a drastic 1990s reaction than see a team play like 1990s England.

No, that is an insult to 1990s England.

For once I worry about ficke fandom bouncing back to default support for their team like normal. There may be more finality to this divorce. Cheesed off, I am.

Monday, 30 December 2013

Kallis

Another of the landmark batting figures that featured in my formative years of cricket watching has retired: Jacques Kallis, the legend that is. A player so prolific that he touched hitherto unreached heights, yet so metronomically unshakeable that he drifted in the shadow of other batting pillars of the era: Dravid, Lara, Ponting and above all Tendulkar all took the prestige and the fads over someone who in the end has records that near eclipse them all. And to add to his batting records his bucket load of wickets and such a safe pair of hands, he is surely the only player to credibly challenge Sir Gary Sobers' grip on the accolade 'Greatest All Rounder'.

If the manner of his run-getting was of a more robotic, merciless fashion than some of his more sparkling companions, that should not take anything away from his achievements or his legacy. He is the only player thus far for whom I have had to learn a new word: solipsistic. Solipsism, unshakeable concentration, batting in his own unique bubble. In Kallis' head you can readily believe that all he saw, no matter what ground, what team or what match situation surrounded him, was a bowling machine and an empty ground. Had he not needed to know where the fielders were in order to safely navigate the ball away to the boundary 1,585 times in Test cricket, you can easily believe that he couldn't even see them. 'Kallis-like' was the tag you could add to the El Capitan mountain of Yosemite, a granite-rock shard 3,000 feet high. Unmoveable. It was, I feel, the most complimentary comment ever made about England's most solipsistic player: Trott. A man who was so unshakeable in his routine as a run-machine that he prompted such comparisons. Trott's failure to hold on to the mask, however, serves only to further illustrate the mental strength of Kallis himself.

It may have led to another tag being added to his description: unexciting. A recent edition of The Wisden Cricketer discussed Kallis, labelling him as a statistical leviathan without the flair that was demonstrated by his fellows in the '10,000 run club' - Chanderpaul has his place as a quiet accumulator in a sea of mediocre-to-poor West Indian batsmen who made 10,000 Test runs almost without anyone noticing; Dravid lay second to Tendulkar yet he kept sporting a resolute determination that earned him his nickname 'The Wall', belying his wristy stroke-play in the company of some of India's other greatest batsmen in some memorable partnerships; Kumar Sangakkara is also rapidly approaching super-statistical-stardom as Sri Lanka's greatest player of the 21st Century. All of them have style, flair, exuberant personality, or an otherwise memorable trait. Kallis' memorable trait in the greater public eye seems to be his lack of personality. But perhaps metronomic unyielding run-making is his unique trait. As Boycott would have argued: it doesn't matter how you make them, what matters is how many you make.

Another thing that will no doubt prompt further comments from both sides of the divide is the timing of his retirement. Tendulkar went out with a wondrous knock of seventy-odd that I watched every ball of, technically sound with a delicious back-foot cover drive that was utterly signature. Yet he did not nail a landmark century for the story-book farewell and it made him ever-so-slightly human. Yet this knock was on the back of nearly two years of calls for him to retire, besides comments that he was past it. On the other end of the scale, Swann seems to have go out in a splutter of goose feathers and spite and has polarised opinions everywhere. Many have argued that Kallis is retiring while still able to play and play well, and to go out in this way is selfish. Others praise him for retiring at the top of his game rather than waiting for the calls for retirement to plague him. He did not want to go out on a trot of low scores, and he did not want to extend his stay to the detriment of his team while waiting for that dream ending. I remember a few years ago Ian Botham remarking that he believed Kallis' eyes to have 'gone', yet he kept bouncing back. And now he has retired at a time of his own choosing, rather than staying on the scene long enough to become a shuffling has-been dimmed by the glow of their former selves in the manner of, some say, Ricky Ponting. We may dislike the fact that we won't see more of Kallis' golden play when we think he still has it in him, but in the long run will will thank him more for the golden memories than the memories of his last years in the doldrums of age-induced mediocrity, from which his decision has spared us. Kallis seems to be coping with the idea of waning power better than he coped with the idea of receding hairline.

Kallis has more runs than Dravid, Lara, Border, Waugh, Gavaskar. He has a better average than Tendulkar, Lara and Dravid. He is only three points below 'The Master' himself: Jack Hobbs. Of those who played over 100 Tests, Kallis is only out-shone by Sangakkara, average-wise. He has the most runs, second-highest average, most centuries for South Africa, and he the country's fifth highest wicket taker. Given that he is beaten to the mark here by Pollock, Ntini, Steyn and Donald, you can hardly say that is no great achievement for a batting all-rounder. 166 Tests, 13,289 runs, 45 centuries, 292 wickets; 325 (and counting) ODI games, 11,574 runs, 273 wickets. 200 Test catches and 129 ODI catches. This is Kallis' legacy boiled down to numbers. And numbers are all that remain when we are dead and buried. And in numbers is how Kallis ranks close to, and perhaps surpassing, the great Gary Sobers. More runs, slightly lower average, more wickets, more hundreds, though admittedly more games. Who is better? That's a never-ending argument. But I never saw Sobers play. Kallis is the greatest all-rounder of my era.