Saturday, December 24, 2016

Wellington v Auckland, T20, Basin Reserve, 22 December 2016

It is twenty-twenty time in the southern hemisphere. On Wednesday, there were 38,000 at the Adelaide Oval to see the Adelaide Aardvarks play the Brisbane Bollweevils. The next day, about 300 of us turned up for the New Zealand equivalent at the Basin between Wellington and Auckland. Believe it or not, this represents an improvement on last season when the T20 competition was done by the time the school holidays started, played mostly in windswept grounds in front of handfuls of spectators dressed as Captain Oates. It culminated appropriately in a final on a near-empty provincial rugby ground that was home to neither team. It was a marketing catastrophe worthy of Gerald Ratner.
So this year the T20 is later with quite a few games at holiday venues, where  there should be decent crowds. There are mitigating factors for the modest attendance at the Basin on Thursday. The game started at 4 pm, the wind was as keen as a boy scout in bob-a-job week, and Wellington’s T20 season thus far had been a disaster, with four losses out of four, while Auckland had a 100% win record from the same number of games.
With Wellington 14 for three in the fourth over it appeared that the form book was being followed like a sacred text. Hamish Marshall—captain in this form of the game—led the way by attempting a single that was as self-deceiving as a Donald Trump tweet. He was run out by a couple of metres by a casual underarm direct hit by his opposite number Rob Nicol at mid off. Few were as quick as Marshall in his younger days, but age wearies us all.
Tom Blundell was next to go, to a good diving catch at mid wicket by Donovan Grobbelaar off Colin de Grandhomme, who took six wickets in the first innings of his maiden test in Christchurch against Pakistan recently. Do not be misled into thinking that he is the new Richard Hadlee; it was a performance that said more about the pitch than the bowler. I have been trying to think of a cricketer comparable to de Grandhomme and have come up with Keith Pont of Essex. This is not intended to be in any way derogatory; Pont was a good county all-rounder in a successful side. Like de Grandhomme his height could make his trundling medium-pacers a little more dangerous than face value suggested and he hit the ball hard as a batsman, but he was never (as far as I recall) spoken of as an international player and with good reason.
Auckland have potentially as quick a fast-bowling bowling combination as I can recall seeing in New Zealand. Tymal Mills, now of Sussex, partners Lockie Ferguson, recently seen bowling at 150 kph in the ODI series in Australia (a speed exceeded only by that at which it then came off the bat, alas).
Wellington’s two overseas players, Jade Dernbach of Surrey and Evan Gulbis of Tasmania were both dropped following a late night out on the evening prior to Wellington’s previous game (and let us forgo remarks about a late night in Nelson being any time after 9 pm). This was to have been Gulbis’s last game before returning to the Big Bash, but Dernbach now has the unexpected joy of New Year in the old country.
Mills’ speed accounted for Grant Elliott. The ball was on to him sooner than he expected, so his cut went straight to third man, one of only two fielders outside the circle at that stage of the game.
But things were not as grim for the home team as it appeared. Opener Michael Papps was joined by Luke Ronchi in a match-winning stand of 115 in 11 overs. Ronchi was omitted from the national one-day team for the series in Australia because of loss of form, but it is hard to recall him striking the ball more sweetly than he did here. He hit Mark Chapman’s slow-left-arm for three (big) sixes off successive balls in the eleventh over in an arc from long off to deep mid-wicket.
Papps batted right through the innings for 62 not out. I don’t think that it Is correct to say that he carried his bat, as that only applies when ten wickets have fallen, but it was a fine achievement whatever it is called. Though there was not the late-innings explosion for which Wellington would have hoped given that wickets were in hand, a total of 173 will win more games than it loses.
T20 captains these days change their bowlers like Imelda Marcos changed her shoes. By the ninth over Nicol had used six bowlers, but Marshall beat that with a different bowler for each of the first six overs of the Auckland innings. Sometimes this is more unsettling for the bowlers than for the batsmen, and can lead to some curious deployments of resources. Here, for example, de Grandhomme bowled two overs for ten runs, but was not used again.
Predictably this was all too much for the Basin Reserve scoreboard, a veteran purveyor of fake news. Today it insisted that Auckland wicket-keeper Glenn Phillips had bowled three overs when it was plain for all to see that he had retained the pads and gauntlets throughout.
Auckland started brightly but never got into the higher gear needed for a chase of this size. That Colin Munro—as pugilistic a practitioner as any in New Zealand—took 44 balls over his 38 sums it up.
Over the past year or so I have noted a retreat to orthodoxy among batsmen in T20. Here, there were only three reverse shots, including two dilscoops off successive deliveries from Patel to Chapman, perfectly executed for two boundaries (Patel was not subjected to the indignity of a long stop that befell some of the England attack at the Chennai test match). Perhaps my spectating is unrepresentative, but it seems that the high-risk trick shots are being left to those who are really good at them, like Sam Billings who demonstrated a complete array at the A ODI I saw at Canterbury in July.
There was a fine standard of catching in the Auckland innings, particularly two from Matt Taylor. Chapman went to a running, diving effort at long off, followed by Munro, caught at deep mid-wicket. Taylor caught the ball, threw it in the air, stepped over the boundary and back again, then completed the catch. I went more than four decades without seeing a catch taken like this, but now it happens several times a year. Taylor came in as one of the replacements for the carousing couple and his fine performance—20 at the end of the innings and three overs for 22 in addition to the catches—may have been a factor in persuading Wellington to hand Dernbach his boarding pass.
The best catch of the day was taken by Luke Woodcock who leapt in defiance of gravity, age and probability to take a catch that appeared to be well out of reach and already past him. Thinking that it had finished the game, Woodcock turned to crowd and raised his arms, soaking up the adulation. It was sometime before he realised that the shouts of his teammates were not to join in the veneration, but rather to persuade him to return the ball to them: Arnel had overstepped and it was a no ball.
Wellington won by 33 runs, but remained bottom of the table while Auckland were still top. The top three go into the two play-off games, so Wellington can afford only one more loss at most from the second half of the round-robin phase of the competition.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Graham Johnson at 70

The seventies and eighties were decades of great injustice. The Guildford Four; the Birmingham Six; Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov; Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko; Geoff Miller of Derbyshire selected for 34 tests while Graham Johnson of Kent played none.

Johnson and Miller were both off-spinning allrounders. Their first-class career stats are quite similar. Johnson averaged 24.5 with the bat and 31 with the ball. Miller’s figures are 26.5 and 28 respectively. Bear in mind that Johnson played much more of his career on uncovered pitches, that as an opener he was exposed more often to the new ball, and that he was down the bill to Underwood when the ball was turning (though at Canterbury the slope meant that he would always take the Nackington Road End while Underwood stalked with the Pavilion behind him).

Graham Johnson made his debut in 1965, but did not find a regular place until 1970—Championship year—batting mostly at No 3, but opening when Brian Luckhurst was playing for England. An average of 23.76 may not sound much, but he made three hundreds, two in wins. He also took 25 wickets, 12 of which came in the game against Surrey at Blackheath that was the first of three late-August wins that propelled Kent towards the title (and yes, Underwood was playing).

The last of these is part of Kent folklore. With eight balls left, Surrey needed 13 to win with the tenth-wicket pair of Arnold Long and Pat Pocock together.  Surrey themselves were still on the fringe of the Championship race, so even in those cautious days felt an obligation to go for the win. Pocock’s slog (I wasn’t there, but saw enough of him to be confident that this is the right word) appeared to be clearing the long-off boundary, but Asif Iqbal moved like the wind to pluck the catch from the air.

Johnson was a first-team regular for the next 15 seasons, and contributed handsomely to Kent’s ten trophy wins of the golden decade. Opening the batting, he made a thousand runs in each of 1973, 1974 and 1975, and was the highest scorer in the last of those years.

When Mike Denness was sacked from the captaincy (despite winning two trophies) in 1976, Johnson was his choice—and that of many supporters—to replace him, but he became Asif Iqbal’s vice-captain instead. When Asif was sacked at the end of the season (despite winning the Championship jointly with Middlesex) because of his association with Kerry Packer, Alan Ealham, rather than Johnson, was chosen to replace him. It was Johnson’s bad luck to have had a poor, injury-blighted season at the wrong time, though it was widely thought that the EW Swanton and the other old school ties on the committee were relieved to have an excuse to turn elsewhere, as Johnson was reputed to be unafraid to speak his mind and even (on the basis of not much more than that he studied at the London School of Economics when it was at the centre of sixties radicalism) a bit of a leftie, though the fact that Johnson wintered in Vorster’s South Africa suggests that he was not exactly in the vanguard of international socialism.

He would have been the best choice to succeed Ealham after the terrible 1980 season, but after prevaricating by returning to Asif for a couple of years, the county turned to the next generation. Kent fans of that generation still pass rainy afternoons by debating whether Johnson or Bob Woolmer was the best captain that Kent never had. A couple of years of either would probably have made the following decade less painful.  

As a middle-order all-rounder in the Championship winning side of 1978 Johnson made 685 runs and took 56 wickets at 19 apiece. He continued to open in one-day cricket for a few more seasons, filling in at the top of the order as late as the 1983 NatWest final.

Johnson took 105 wickets in one-day cricket, or, put another way, just 7 a year over the 15 seasons when he was more or less a regular. I always felt that he was under-bowled in the shorter game, especially in the first half of his career. It was a time when medium pace was king, with all sorts of mediocre trundlers favoured over quality spinners.

He was one of the best of a fine fielding side, succeeding Colin Cowdrey at first slip, but being somewhat more mobile than his predecessor on the boundary on Sunday afternoons.

Quite often in the mid-seventies Johnson would be in a minority (sometimes a small one) in the playing XI as a non-international player. He, Ealham and the others were the chorus line without which the stars could not perform. But once in a while he stopped the show with a solo, most notably in the 55-over final against Worcestershire at Lord’s in 1976.

Opening the batting against Imran Khan, Johnson made 78 and put on 110 for the first wicket with Woolmer, the basis of a total of 236, which sounded much more formidable then than it does now.  Kent won by 43 runs, with four catches by Johnson, including three off Underwood, all (in my memory at least) on the boundary. One of them—Imran I think—was taken on the run in front of us in the Warner Stand.

The end of Graham Johnson’s Kent career was unfortunate and said much about the medieval attitudes of the committee room of the eighties. It came about on the first morning of the game against the Australians in 1985 when Johnson was told he was playing shortly after learning that his contract was not to be renewed. His refusal was termed with sufficient robustness as to ensure the immediate cessation of his employment, so he did not get the dignified farewell that his service deserved (Brian Luckhurst had to step in, playing his first game in nine years).

These days, relations between the committee and the players are conducted in a manner that acknowledges that feudalism ended a while ago, not least because players who were mistreated by the old regime have moved into the committee room. Graham Johnson has chaired the cricket committee for more than a decade, a tough job with the money short.

Johnson probably wasn’t quite international class, but a number of players who were no better have a collection of England caps nevertheless. His off spin would have been more testing than that of Moeen Ali and Gareth Batty in India at the moment (but then, how are spin bowlers to develop if half the County Championship is played before May is out?).

Graham Johnson turned 70 recently, though this photograph (taken at Tunbridge Wells in July) makes that hard to believe. He and Derek Underwood both look ready to tie up an end each for an hour or so after the interval.  There may not have been any tests, but few players have won more domestic trophies than Graham Johnson and we in Kent were fortunate to have enjoyed his career.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Billy divines the rain: Wellington v Northern Districts, Basin Reserve, day one, 29 October 2016

Last weekend in Wellington was the New Zealand spring at its best. The sun shone from blue skies and the wind took a rare weekend off. What’s more, Monday was a public holiday. Wellington were at home to Auckland in the opening game of the Plunket Shield. How perfect to spend three days in the sun at the Basin.

A pity then, that the game was played in Mt Maunganui, 500 kms away from the capital. Why is unclear. The RA Vance Stand is shrouded in scaffolding, though the dressing rooms are open, and with a modicum of planning could have been last week, one might think.

Surely there is a venue somewhere in Wellington’s many parks and reserves that would be an acceptable local venue. The English equivalent would be Surrey being unable to play at the Oval and finding no alternative closer than Scarborough.

Admission to Plunket Shield games is free, which absolves the authorities from any responsibility towards spectators. Any coalescence between the fixture list and times when the working fan might get to the game are entirely coincidental. Wellington’s three remaining Plunket Shield games feature just a single day of weekend play.

It is good that the first half of next year’s (shortened) County Championship will be played from Friday to Monday, but the feeling remains that those in charge, mesmerised by T20, can’t be trusted with its well-being. New Zealand’s tale is cautionary.

Inevitably, this weekend it is cold and wet in Wellington. Nevertheless My Life in Cricket Scorecards braved wind-chill temperatures of six degrees and made its way to the Basin to for the first cricket of the season.

Two well-known Hamishes will play for Wellington this year. Gloucestershire’s Hamish Marshall has returned to New Zealand and today is in opposition to his old team Northern Districts for the first time. Marshall was playing the last time I had a day at the cricket, at Canterbury at the end of July. His appearance in the Wellington line-up does nothing to diffuse the air of superannuation about it. Not until Pollard at No 5 do we reach somebody who is under 33 years of age. When I covered domestic cricket for CricInfo 15 years or so ago there were hardly any players over 30 outside the international squad, because it didn’t pay enough. Now players can make a decent living they have no reason to move on. I’m not calling for a cricketing Logan’s Run; the presence of a couple old heads in a team is obviously of benefit, but there has to be space to try out promising young players in first-class cricket, as has traditionally been the practice in New Zealand.

Northern Districts have a much younger profile with only the openers, sometime test players Dean Brownlie and Daniel Flynn, over 30. ND have seven players with the Black Caps in India, evidence of their ability to bring on young players.

Hamish Bennett has moved to Wellington too. For a brief time four or five years ago he was the great hope of New Zealand fast bowling, but the strain of windmilling it down at 140 kph was too much for his body, as it so often is for New Zealand fast bowlers. He began well today, once Wellington had won the toss and put ND in. In the first over he produced a beauty that came back in to take Brownlie’s off stump.

Brent Arnel opened from the RA Vance Stand End, and trapped Flynn lbw with his first ball, which swung into the left-hander. Early indications were that this was a typical Basin first-day greentop. For new readers, Basin pitches have the life cycle of a domestic cat, offering playful excitement, unpredictability and regular danger in their youth before settling down to sleep through most of the last 75% of their existence.

Billy Bowden is standing in this game. Once the biggest act of all, Billy is now reduced to walk-on parts, cricket’s Norma Desmond. But what a pro. Even though there were only five of us spectators, we were privileged to be treated to the unexpurgated version of his rain-divination act. A brief shower sent the players from the field in the seventh over. It was gone almost as soon as it began. With the light improving, a lesser man would have restarted play, but Billy patrolled the middle using every human sense to divine moisture, wherever it might be. In a less sensitive age, a pig would have been taken to the middle and sacrificed so that Billy could read the entrails. He is to rain what Joe McCarthy was to communism—he sees its threat everywhere.

It should be said that he was quite right on this occasion. Some minutes later the rain came down more heavily and that was it for the day. But nobody else would have done it with such pathos and flair.

It’s great that he is prepared to go back to domestic cricket after losing his place on the international panel. He is still a star. It was the pitches that got small. Billy is always ready for his close up.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The 1966 West Indians

Cohen, 1966.

Play word association with that, and most will say: George Cohen, doughty Fulham full back, and one of the most famous set of names of English sporting history. A hero of Wembley, 30 July 1966.

Very few will respond as My Life in Cricket Scorecards does: Rudolph Cohen, fast bowler, member of the 1966 West Indian touring team to England. Did not play a test.

The World Cup triumph has been widely and rightly remembered over the past few months, fifty years on. But by the time England kicked off against Uruguay in the tournament’s opening game, My Life in Cricket Scorecards was taking the 1966 Kent CCC Annual to school as his reading book. To him, “Hunt” was not Roger of Liverpool, but Conrad of Barbados, spelt with an “e”.

For cricket people, 1966 was a shaft of Caribbean sunlight in a dull decade. The previous season was described by Wisden as “mainly disappointing”. As for 1964, the recitation of Tom Cartwright’s figures in the Old Trafford Ashes test tell you all you need to know: 77-32-118-2. As a first step in cricket it would have been like giving a child War and Peace as their first reader.

There are some ultimate truths that can be understood as well by a seven-year-old as by anybody. Though, I was far too young to articulate it, at some level I appreciated that the West Indians were playing cricket as a form of self-expression, which is usually when the game is at its best. My attention was grabbed with the first ball of the series, square cut for four by Conrad Hunte. Here was a team that played without reticence or constraint. Hunte finished with 135, though he was dropped on seven by Ken Higgs at long leg. Norman Preston in Wisden provided the fielder with an excuse that would be without credibility almost anywhere but Manchester in summer, namely that he had sighted the ball “very late against the distant background of dark-coated spectators”.    

That day I was freed of an emotional dependence on England winning; I must have realised that it was probable that my cricket watching would be less traumatic if this was not so, a view that continued to enrich my spectating experience through the years.

Garfield Sobers made 161 in that innings at Old Trafford, the smallest of the three centuries he made in the series, which he finished with an average of 101. Then there were 20 wickets, second only to the great off-spinner Lance Gibbs, who took only one more. Against Kent at Canterbury Sobers took his career-best bowling of nine for 49. It is likely that I saw the first two of these wickets taken at the end of the second day; I was there after school for the last part of the day and have Sobers’ autograph in my 1966 Kent CCC junior membership card (cost: one guinea) to prove it, but have no specific recollection of his bowling that afternoon.

I wasn’t particularly lucky watching Sobers. The best I saw him play was at Lord’s in the first day of the final test of 1973 when he came in late in the day and made the 31 not out, carrying on the next day to 150 without any sleep in the intervening period, or so legend has it. But I did see him play, and he was the greatest player of my lifetime, so that’s something.

In 1966 Sobers also scored a Lord’s hundred, saving a match that appeared lost with an unbroken partnership of 274 with his cousin, David Holford.

The strength of the West Indian middle order was the basis of resounding victories in the following two tests to seal the series. England took a 90-run lead in the third at Trent Bridge, but in the second innings a double century from Basil Butcher, supported by fifties from Rohan Kanhai and Seymour Nurse and 94 from Sobers, took the game well beyond the home team.

There was then a month’s break in the tests so that the cricket would not distract people from the World Cup. A different time. Of course, the tour went on. Eight matches were played in the interim, including that game at Canterbury. There were 28 first-class fixtures on the tour itinerary. This would be untenable today, but it did mean that the whole party had the opportunity to become at ease in the conditions. New Zealand’s recent trouncing in India has again illustrated how a side can flounder without that opportunity. Making it compulsory for touring sides to play three first-class games before the tests would do more to make test matches more competitive, and therefore attractive to spectators, than any number of marketing gimmicks.

Here is a Movietone News report on the fourth test, at Headingley. West Indies racked up 500 in the first innings with big hundreds from Nurse and Sobers against an England attack that included the debutant Derek Underwood. The scorecard suggests a mental running of the white flag up the flagpole, with the two innings totalling 55 short of the West Indies’ one. Nurse is rarely mentioned as a significant figure of the great West Indian era, but he averaged 48 with six centuries in 29 tests, so he should be. Here in New Zealand people remember his 826 runs in the three-test series in 1969, when he had already announced his retirement.

It would be wrong though to give the impression that the attraction of that series rested only with the West Indies. For a start there was Colin Milburn, whose presence in the attritional England side of the mid-sixties was as incongruous as Falstaff would have been in Cymbeline. He batted in colour in a black-and-white world. Ninety-four at Old Trafford was followed by a blistering hundred at Lord’s.

Milburn is the subject of a new play written by Douglas Blaxland, the nom de plume of the former Kent all-rounder James Graham-Brown (there have been a few Kent players who might have been well-advised to live out their lives under a false name, but Graham-Brown isn’t one of them). The PCA has imaginatively arranged for the play to tour the county grounds. Expect the ECB to announce that a lavish musical will play the test grounds only on the same dates.

Milburn inspired a love of cricket in those who saw him, notably Matthew Engel. Backwatersman too. And me, though I don’t think that I ever saw him play live.

Tom Graveney was recalled for the second test. He was as old as my Dad, which for a seven-year-old meant that he was as old as Methuselah, but 96 at Lord’s was followed by a century at Trent Bridge, and he smiled as he played.

There was Basil D’Oliveira too. Children have a robust understanding of what is fair and unfair, so I understood with absolute clarity that it was outrageous that D’Oliveira was not allowed to play for South Africa because his skin was too dark. This, along with the brilliance of the West Indians gave me lifelong immunity from the prevailing nonsense of the Alf Garnett-Enoch Powell era.

Then there was Alan Gibson’s Old Bald Blighter, Brian Close, drafted in to lead the side in the final test at the Oval replacing Colin Cowdrey. He brought with him hard-headed professionalism in the form of Edrich, Illingworth and JT Murray. But halfway through the second day, with England 166 for seven in reply to 268, it appeared that Close had made no difference whatsoever.

One of the great rearguard actions then began, led by Graveney and Middlesex keeper JT Murray, who took my eye at first because he wore his cap at the same angle as Norman Wisdom. They put on 217 for the eighth wicket, even now the seventh-best in test history.

On the Saturday I had my first experience of the joyful anarchy of a decent last-wicket partnership, this one between John Snow and Ken Higgs worth 128. I have clear memory of accompanying my father on his grocery delivery round on a sweltering day while following the partnership on my transistor radio, re-tuned for once from Radio Caroline, which broadcast from a ship just over the horizon in the Thames Estuary. The commentators were Robert Hudson, Roy Lawrence and John Arlott. A first chance to listen to Arlott was not least among the influential experiences of 1966.

West Indies were happy enough to let England have the consolation victory, so the series wrapped up on the fourth day.

The thought that, were it not for the talented exuberance of Garfield Sobers and his team, this blog might be called My Life in Football Programmes brings a shudder to the soul.

Finally, a pop quiz, based on a Pathé newsreel coverage of the opening match of the tour, Duke of Norfolk’s XI v West Indians.
  1. Who is the Norfolk XI’s keeper?
  2. Who is non-striker when Sobers is bowling?
  3. What position links him and Sobers?
  4. Who is the bespectacled umpire?
  5. What was his link with the England team of 1966?
By the way, the West Indian opener Michael Carew was more often known as “Joey”.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Art of Centuries by Steve James

What do we know, we who sit and watch?

When I have occasionally joined end-of-play conversations between those who had played and umpired in a game that I have watched, I have usually been struck by how different their perceptions of it were from mine, by how much I had missed. I thought that I’d been watching Hamlet, but they had been performing a French farce (or sometimes, vice versa). When I was reporting New Zealand domestic cricket for CricInfo, the highest praise was to told by a coach or player that my account of play was on the button. It only happened a couple of times, but when it did it was as if I had broken the secret code, for a day at least.

Reading Steve James’ The Art of Centuries reinforced my feeling of helpless ignorance. Fifty years’ watching and I didn’t know that? The shame. The book is a treatise on batting that will educate the aspiring player and the casual spectator alike.

James played first-class cricket from 1985 to 2003, mostly for Glamorgan, but also for Cambridge University, Mashonaland, and, twice, for England. He was unfortunate to catch the end of the period where players often had only one game in the test side instead of being given a run, the only fair measure of whether they are up to it. James made almost 16,000 first-class runs at 40 in first-class cricket, with a highest score of 309 not out, which remains the Glamorgan record. He is now a member of a brotherhood that is regarded with as much suspicion here in New Zealand as the most subversive political group: he is a British rugby writer. The border is already being fortified pending their arrival with the British Lions next year.

You’ll notice that the book is called The Art of Centuries, not The Art of Batting. This is because James regards the making of centuries as the true measure of batsmen. He made 47 of them in first-class cricket with seven more in the one-day game, so writes with authority. His view is that you have to understand how centuries are made to understand batting.

Steve James takes us not only into the dressing room, but also into the minds of batsmen. More often than not, we find a location that is cluttered with all manner of rubbish. The successful batsman sends most of it to the tip.

Before he comes to technique, James has a chapter on luck and another on superstition. He has come to regard luck as being more significant than he thought it while he was playing. He is talking about things like dropped catches, which could be called bad cricket rather than luck, but which the batsman has no control over, which is what James means by luck.

He had an interesting response to the luck going his way: he became a walker, which when started his career in the 80s was going out of fashion quicker than flares and platform shoes. This arose not out of sportsmanship or (dread phrase) the spirit of the game, but because in his mind his innings had become tarnished if he was allowed to remain at the crease when he knew he was out. He couldn’t come to terms with its imperfection, or, to put it another way, cope with his good luck.

James is intolerant of the hypocrisy around walking and describes how failure to walk attracts the vocal ire of players who would never walk themselves, and of bowlers who have no compunction in appealing for the most unlikely causes. He does not like sledging in general, dismissing the idea that it is a stream of Wildean wit rather than the boorish, boring verbiage that it more often is.

Other myths are exposed, including one that confirms a long-held suspicion, I am pleased to say. Batsmen who have made centuries in a losing cause often trot out the line that the three figures don’t mean as much in these circumstances. Six of Steve James’ hundreds were made in lost games. He goes through each of them, concluding in each case with the words “Happy? Yep”.

The insecurity that bedevils cricketers is explored in the chapter on superstition, which runs through the game like nits in a nursery school, including some who one would have hoped more of. For example, Ed Smith—Mike Brearley’s heir as cricket’s foremost intellectual—bought Lucozade and The Times on his way to the ground on first-class debut. He scored a hundred, so made the same purchase every morning for the rest of his career. Steve James himself—also the beneficiary of a Cambridge education—did not allow his children to play with plastic ducks in their baths until he retired, presumably in fear of the fates playing word association.

It is good to hear that cricket’s most renowned reader of the auspices, Neil McKenzie of bats-taped-to-the-ceiling fame, went cold turkey on the whole business, recognising that if he didn’t it would get in the way of family life.

Jack Russell convincingly explains that most of his eccentricities were founded in science rather than superstition, but that doesn’t explain the hat. When Lord Maclaurin (the Giles Clarke of the late twentieth century for those who have never heard of, or mercifully forgotten, him) became head honcho of English cricket he insisted that Russell abandoned the battered white floppy for a smart blue cap, apparently mistaking the best wicketkeeper in England for a schoolkid doing an evening shift in a Tesco Express. The result was a rare bad day behind the stumps from Russell, which to James shows that however silly some of us might think it, superstition has to be respected.

A friend of mine knows the mother of the Wellington and New Zealand ODI all-rounder Luke Woodcock. He reports her view that of her four cricket-mad sons, Luke had the least natural talent, but was the only one with the determination (or you could call it character) to make it to first-class level. He probably got there by practising much of what Steve James writes about here. There is an emphasis on practice and preparation, in the long, medium and short-term. We know about Bradman’s stump, golf ball and water tank, but it was news to me that the young Brian Lara used to place flower pots in fielding positions, bounce a marble off a wall and aim to hit it with a ruler through the gaps between the pots. He became one of the greatest placers of shots that the game has seen.

Alastair Cook’s talent looks so natural. From James we learn that as a young teen he badgered his teachers to join them for an early-morning swim so as to improve his fitness. On other days he would get his cricket coach—none other than Derek Randall—out of bed for an early hour with the bowling machine. Similar stories are told here in New Zealand about the young Kane Williamson.

Anybody doubting the appropriateness of a fitness regime for cricketers should be persuaded by this book. James makes a strong link between physical and mental fitness, though admits that there was widespread ignorance when he was a young player about what constituted effective exercise, and how it had to be combined with a good diet. Graham Gooch now sees his commitment to endless running as “madness” though in the drive to improve his strength and fitness he was ahead of his time.

Gooch is one of a number of players interviewed for the book, the results being used to excellent effect. Gooch is recognised as one of England’s best batsmen, but perhaps has not been given correct recognition as one of modern cricket’s thinkers and innovators, which on this evidence he clearly is.

Among the wealth of clear thinking that characterises the book, this passage from page 198 about English domestic one-day cricket is worth quoting:

But often in early season...the formula fell down, with a clatter of early wickets on seaming pitches leading to low scores. It summed up the problems of playing one-day cricket in England. In early season it really has to be played to a different set of rules...It is one reason why England have been so poor at international one-day cricket, and have never won a global one-day trophy.

And yet, from 2017 the 50-over competition will be concentrated in April and May.

Anybody who wants to understand cricket a bit better will learn more from an afternoon spent reading The Art of Centuries than they will at any boundary’s edge. It has the depth of a textbook but is written with a light touch that makes it a most entertaining read. It will have a place in the My Life in Cricket Scorecards Library next to Brearley’s similarly entitled The Art of Captaincy.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Take Me Back to the Ballgame: Two Nights Under Lights

Two shirt-sleeved evenings under lights either side of the Atlantic. Two sporting contests played in attractive, homely venues before full houses of around 6,000. Both matches lasted a little under three hours and ended in defeat for the home team. The first was a baseball game in Vancouver, Canada, the second a T20 fixture at Canterbury the following week. How alike were these experiences? Which was better?

My Life in Cricket Scorecards watches a lot of baseball on television, but had never been to a game and was disappointed  to find that both the Giants and the As were to be on the road while I was in San Francisco on my way back to New Zealand. But there was rich consolation in Vancouver on the way out: a minor league game between the Tri City Dust Devils and the Vancouver Canadians (remember that baseball fixtures are listed with the home side second).

The two teams are feeder clubs for major league teams: Tri City for the San Diego Padres and Vancouver for the sole Canadian major league team, the Toronto Blue Jays. They are well down the food chain though, in the Northwest League, North Conference, five levels below the major leagues. Few if any of the players at the Nat Bailey Stadium will ever play at the Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park.

The chances are that readers won’t have heard of the Tri City, but will know that Vancouver is an attractive place on the west coast of Canada. Yet it is Vancouver that feels it necessary to provide further information by way of the name of its baseball team: the Vancouver Canadians. It’s as if they need to say “you Americans may not have heard of Canada; here’s a helpful reminder in our name”. They may have stopped just short of having a map stitched on the team’s uniforms. We New Zealanders know their pain. The Tri City is located about 250 miles south of Vancouver in Washington, not a notably dusty state. The Tri City is presumably a centre of vacuum cleaner manufacturing.

The Nat Bailey Stadium is tucked away in the prosperous southern suburbs four kilometres or so from the city centre. An L shaped stand spreads out from home plate to first and third bases. Behind the fence that had to be cleared to score a home run was a ring of trees. It was Canadian Tunbridge Wells.
Nat Bailey Stadium, Vancouver

Best of all, it was bring your dog to the game day. Three-hundred-and-eighty-three dogs joined the 6,143 capacity crowd. Mayhem appeared inevitable, but not so. It was the ultimate vindication of the principle that dogs imitate their owners. These were Canadian dogs: pleasant, easy-going, eager to please, and averse to conflict. It was splendid.
Three of the 383 dogs present

You are much closer to the action in baseball than cricket; my modestly priced seat was located above leg slip’s head, so to speak, close enough to the action to agree with those who say that the hardest thing in sport is hitting a pitched baseball.

The sun sets in Canterbury
St Lawrence under lights was enchanting, as it often is to see a familiar place in a new way. I sat next to the sightscreen at the Nackington Road End, and watched the sun set behind the stands, gaining aesthetic pleasure and a ready-made metaphor for Kent’s performance at the same time.

The duration of the two games is the same, but the tempo is not. The scoreboard at the Nat Bailey Stadium didn’t shift from 0-0 until the fourth inning, three-quarters of an hour into the game. In that time, only two batters reached base, and one of them was a walk (ie without hitting the ball). This is more like first-class cricket than T20, which promises constant action. But the lack of scoring did not mean that nothing was happening. As in cricket there was all manner of subtlety there for those equipped to spot it: curve balls, sliders, fast balls, knuckle balls, marked by a ripple of applause here, a murmur of approval there, just like the members’ stand at any county ground when nothing is happening but everything is happening.

Something else that baseball has in common with all forms of cricket is an obsession with statistics. It even records errors, of which there were more this night than you would see in the major leagues. Tri City’s first run was achieved with the help of two errors, first when a wild pitch allowed a runner to advance from first to second, then an errant throw from the catcher that allowed the same runner to get home.

The standard of fielding at Canterbury was higher. Kent only took two Essex wickets, but both were cracking catches. Kagiso Rabada sprinted around the deep mid-wicket boundary to dive full length to dismiss Nick Browne, the best catch I have seen by a member of the arthritic brotherhood of Kent fast bowlers. Sam Northeast’s effort to get rid of Dan Lawrence was even better, an over-the-shoulder running catch that he never looked as if he was going to get and hold on to, but did. And without the assistance of a large glove.

The experience of the batsman and batter is a big contrast. A good batting average for a baseball player is anything above .300 (at the time of writing only 23 batters in the major leagues better this figure this season). This means that a batter who gets to first base once every three at bats is a top performer. Batsmen get only the one go in cricket, but have the chance to build an innings in their own style, something that is at the heart of cricket’s appeal. One reason why T20 has less charm to some of us is that generally the batsman does not have the time to express his individuality in how he goes about this task, though the Canterbury game provided a happy exception. Tom Westley and Ravi Bopara batted through the last 12 overs of the innings undefeated. Bopara’s 35 in 51 balls was a masterclass in running the fielders ragged, Westley’s 74 in 49 no less so. Unusually for T20, craft was favoured over muscle; there were only two sixes all evening.

Richness of language is something that the two sports have in common. Poetic secret codes that capture the beauty of the game. There is no better term in sport than “stolen base”, which conveys perfectly the audacity of the commitment to run the 30 yards between bases made with the ball still in the pitcher’s hand.

T20 maintains a frenetic pace. A baseball game, like a test match, is slower but can explode into action without warning. Fielders and batters must have sharp decision-making abilities. The top of the seventh at the Nat Bailey Stadium provided a fine example. With two out and no runners on, it seemed that the Canadians would have two innings to make three runs to take the game, even after the next batter, Aldemar Burgos, got to second with a fly to left field. A base hit by Nate Easley allowed the swift Burgos to score.

With only two innings left, another run would surely settle the game. In baseball each inning has the potential to be a one-act play of its own, the denouement depending on who remembers their lines under pressure. Here, it was the Canadians who needed the prompter.   

A balk (a dummy pitch) allowed Easley to advance to second, which in baseball commentators’ lingo is scoring position. Balks are comparatively rare (only two MLB pitchers have as many as four at this late stage of the season), a sign of stress. Next to the plate was Buddy Reed, who hit straight to the third baseman. A routine throw to first base would end the inning. But the throw was wild and Easley on second was quick to see his chance and make for home. Had Reed stuck at first, the inning would have continued, but he was also sucked in by the exuberance of the moment and was out at second.

Though the Essex innings provided powerful testimony against one charge against T20, Kent’s batsmen made no case in defence against another: that too often the result is clear soon after the interval. A do-not-resuscitate sign was stuck on the game by halfway through the Kent innings. The final margin of defeat—33 runs—was a chasm in T20 terms, but would have been much worse but for some running-towards-the gunfire hitting by(who else?) Darren Stevens and a six-run penalty for Essex bowling their overs too slowly.

Baseball’s format gives it a chance to apply CPR when the game appears a corpse. The contest at Nat Bailey provided a glorious example. Though they got a runner to third in the eighth, the Canadians went into the bottom of the ninth (the final inning of the game) four-nothing down, an apparently hopeless position.

First-up Lance Jones advanced to first on a walk, but stayed there while the next two at the plate were out, so the last dismissal appeared no more than a formality. The official record says that Jones then advanced to second due to “defensive indifference” a term that cricket could have done with over the years. It makes me think of John Snow at fine leg at Canterbury in 1976, arms folded.

Pitching indifference followed. Christian Williams was walked to first. There was a murmur about the crowd. Some of the dogs emerged from under the benches, sensing that something was afoot. Sports fans pretend to be pessimists, but are really optimists. There was not Vancouverite in the ground who had not shifted an inch or so towards the edge of their seat, knowing that the bases were loaded and the tying run, in the form of the splendidly named Venezuelan Yeltsin Gudino, was at the plate with the bases loaded.

Panic was now spreading through the Dust Devils like a vicious rumour. Pitcher Will Stillman, who had been brought in at the start of the inning, now lost control and walked Gudino, allowing Jones to score: 4-1. A home run from new batter Javier Hernandez would win the game. The coach now came to the mound, for the second time this inning. He brought bad news. Stillman, supposed to be the finisher, was finished, replaced by Bednar.

Hernandez turned out to be of the McCullum all-out-attack school of dealing with tricky situations. First pitch: swing, miss. Second pitch: swing, miss. The count was two and O, which meant that another strike would end the game (a swing and miss is always a strike). Hernandez was more circumspect to the next pitch, and left it as being high. The umpire did not agree and called a strike to end the game.

It would have been extraordinary had one of those swings sent the ball over the fence. Regular baseball watchers would go many seasons before seeing a game decided on a last-inning, grand slam homer, and I was lucky to be there just for the possibility.

So which of these two nights under lights was better? The baseball game represented its code more effectively, a tale of the unexpected. There was much to enjoy in the T20, but in the end it was mundane. Of course, on other nights it might have been the other way round, but it seems to me that baseball is more comfortable in its own skin, fitting perfectly the three hours for which it was designed, happy to see quiet periods as integral to the game. T20 remains an artificial construct. In trying to compress a game of cricket into a small space it sacrifices too much of what is wonderful about it.

Put it this way. If there is a major league game on one channel and a test or 50-over match on another, I’ll choose the cricket. A ball game v a T20 and I’m likely to go for the baseball.

Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket

In the same package as this year’s Wisden , there arrived Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket , co-authored by Stephen Fay ...