Friday, June 27, 2008

Kaptains Kourageous: KP opens up to S&S

With the stunning news that KP has finally achieved his lifelong dream of captaining his beloved England, I sit down with the great man for some candid chat…Recent interviews have covered everything from cooking in the nude to pre-game sex, but today we talk leadership, honour and winning. When I arrive at the hip little bistro where KP has chosen to meet me, he is already there. Dressed in tight leather jeans, a form fitting white tee and a black jacket, I catch him busily admiring his reflection on the back of a tea-spoon. Naturally he is preening.

Sledgers&Sandbaggers: Kev, I imagine this is a big day for you?

Kevin Pietersen: Of course, you know as a young kid growing up in Pietermaritzburg I dreamed of one day captaining an international side…

SS: Any one in particular, or…?

KP: Well you know when Biff was made South Africa’s captain he was so young you know, and I wasn’t even on the team so opportunity that way was retarded…Anyway, it’s just such an honour, you know so humbling.

SS: I can imagine. So do you think you are a natural leader of men?

KP: For sure. You know what with my disciplined upbringing and everything, loyalty has always been such a big part of my makeup and I think that’s absolutely vital in a position of authority. The Skip is someone everyone needs to have faith in and that’s obviously the case with me.

SS: You are of course the latest in a long line of South Africans representing England. Now that you are going to be captaining the side, what do you say to those who think you’re just a mercenary?

KP: You know, I think this image the press have cultivated of me as some sort of money-grubbing playboy pillock is totally unfair. I play cricket because I love this sport, not for any shallow material gain it may bring me. I could be making movies, or modelling Brett Lee’s new underwear line – instead I’m practically penurious battling for queen and country against a bunch of hairy backed sheep-shaggers. I mean, I’m not the first South African born Englishman to captain the side: Greigy was one of the finest we ever had and no-one ever accused him of being a mercenary did they?

SS: Er, of course not…

KP: My English heritage has always meant the world to me. I’m more patriotic than the rest of the guys put together…

SS: I’m sure. Now you told the BBC earlier that you feel you’re just keeping Paul’s place warm for him until he comes back from suspension?

KP: Well I mean Collywobbler’s a great guy you know and the position is his, but four games is a long time in cricket and between you and me I wouldn’t be surprised to see KP skippering against the Saffers!

SS: So you have long-term leadership ambitions then?

KP: Well I think it’s fairly clear I’m being groomed. Warnie’s been giving me tactical tips for ages now. You know, I’m the world’s most exciting cricketer and I as I said earlier I’m so patriotic I literally bleed red.

SS: As do most of us I would’ve thought…Anyway so Vaughan’s on the way out?

KP: Well mate, does he have the 3 lions tattooed on his arm? That’s the kind of attitude the ECB are looking for in this day and age. Vaughany and Colly are great guys but they’re getting on a bit aren’t they?

SS: On a somewhat different note, you recently complained that whilst you were stuck playing for Hampshire and not getting paid big bucks for it Chris Gayle et al would be copping a hundred grand for 3 hours work in India.

KP: Well as I said I’m practically destitute, and it’s really galling that pricks like Dale Steyn are raking it in taking it easy in India whilst we’re stuck on the field in some English backwater for literally days at a time! It’s the younger blokes I feel for y’know? I mean, Swanney and Ravi could really use the break.

SS: So you’re just looking out for the lads then?

KP: Well I think when you’re the skip it comes as part of the territory…As I always say there's no I in cricket.

SS: Right. One last thing: You spoke of your tattoo, and we all remember that hairdo; have you got anything sartorially sensational lined up for us celebrating your accession to the skippership?

KP: I'm working on it...

SS: We look forward to it! Thanks for that fascinating insight...

photo: from HNM 1977 on Flickr

At least, that's how it would've gone had KP returned our calls...

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

My Favourite Cricketer: The Prince, Brian Lara

I’ve decided to borrow an idea from 'The Wisden Cricketer' for today’s entry.

It is impossible to pinpoint exactly why we gravitate towards certain players and not to others. Everybody who watches sport needs someone to support and get behind, and beyond parochial loyalties our reasons may have little logic behind them. My adoption of Brian Lara as a personal sporting icon was not an intellectually reasoned decision. I am not West Indian, nor do I even come from a traditional cricketing culture. It was however a choice made with all the assured certainty of a child and has remained unshaken to this day.

Put simply, Brian Charles Lara is the reason I fell in love with cricket. The first time I saw him bat, he was in the process of compiling his magnificent first test century at Sydney. Prior to that I had evinced little interest in the sport and only tuned into the match by chance. After seeing just one stroke, a brutal cover drive off the back foot, I was spellbound. As introductions to batsmanship go that 277 could hardly have been bettered. It certainly won one impressionable six year-old forever to the game in a way that a turgid Kallis knock or a pugnacious Ponting one never could. Geoff Boycott recently asserted that Ponting, though statistically superior, could never aspire to the class of Lara and Tendulkar. When I consider whether a Ponting innings could ever have had the effect on me a Lara one did 15 years ago, I see his point.

From that moment onward every innings would be followed, be it on television or radio, in the paper or more recently on the internet. Whilst others were more concerned with Premiership results I sat rapt in front of the television living every ball of Lara’s record breaking 375. Regular updates on the radio from Edgbaston kept me clued into the 501*. Though nothing more than a whippersnapper, I knew here was a once-in-a-lifetime genius whose exploits I was privileged to grow up witnessing.

As a batsman, Lara defied definition. In short, he had it all. Possessing the sublime touch worthy of the most elegant stroke-makers, Lara found gaps like nobody else. The effortless ease and regularity with which he missed the fielders made a mockery of opposing bowlers and captains alike. When Lara was on the go it simply didn’t matter where the fielding skipper stationed his men: the prince would avoid them.

A single over was enough for Lara to showcase the entire breadth of his extraordinary abilities with the willow. On his final tour to South Africa back in 2003 he added another record to an already comprehensive resume when he deposited Robin Peterson for 28 runs in one over. The power was there, evidenced in two enormous maximums and a venomous straight drive; so too was the finesse, the final ball delicately cut one-handed past point after a mock charge forced the bowler into changing his length. At a time late in the day when most would have been looking to protect their wicket, Lara decided as only he could to go on the rampage.

Such moments were typical. Lara, more than any of his contemporaries, was simply thrilling. Perhaps it has become old-hat to marvel at that dynamic back-lift, but to me it remains pure theatre and an exemplar of all that makes cricket worth watching. Once one saw that bat rise high into the air ready to lash the ball to the boundary, one could only conceivably be watching one man. Then followed the exaggerated shuffle, the jump back and across that became more and more exaggerated as the years went on and once again Lara would be where he belonged, in the spotlight at the centre of attention.

In a better team who knows what Lara may have achieved? Had he regularly come to the crease with the pressure off and a platform built at 150-2 rather than in the mire at 2 down for 15, he could have been un-stoppable. But then, perhaps he would have actually fared worse. Like the first great Caribbean cricketer George Headley, one gets the feeling his most recent successor thrived under the spotlight, thrived in the knowledge that his performance could be the difference between stunning success and abject failure. True there were in fact too few instances of the former, but whilst Lara was at the wicket one always felt there was a sniff of a chance, no matter how hopeless the situation seemed.

Indeed, Lara’s career was defined by a string of one-man shows. He virtually single-handedly orchestrated the greatest Test match series I have ever seen, the pulsating 2-2 stalemate against Steve Waugh’s mighty Australians in 1999. Everything about that rubber remains indelibly etched on my mind. How the sickening low of 51 all out in Trinidad led to dire predictions of the death of Caribbean cricket. How a publicly chastised and probationed Lara instigated a Lazarus like recovery from the grave in Kingston, where he and Jimmy Adams batted for one entire, glorious, sun-soaked day. How he brought the cricketing world to a standstill with his finest innings, the sensational unbeaten 153 that led to an almost unbelievable Kensington Oval triumph by one wicket. How yet another whirlwind ton in the final test wasn’t quite enough to regain Sir Frank.

Of course for Lara every breathtaking pinnacle was offset by troughs as desperate as the former were fantastic. The unsuccessful captaincy stints, the mauling in South Africa, the late nineties form slump…but let someone else document the lows. I am unashamedly blinkered in my view of the great man. He was, is and always shall be my favourite cricketer. Enough pundits, begrudgers, opponents and even team-mates have been more than willing to belittle his achievements and besmirch his legacy. He may not have been perfect, but didn’t deserve a fraction of the abuse meted out to him over the years. Lara it seems was one of the games great polarising figures: one either loves him or hates him. I unapologetically belong in the former camp.

They say it is best to go out at the height of your powers. Leave the stage when you are still the best and have people begging for more. Lara certainly did that. His last four years in test cricket were amongst the most prolific of his seventeen-year career, during which he amassed 16 Test match hundreds. The last of these was one of his best: a stunningly free-flowing quick-fire double century in the heat and dust of Multan. His very final innings however was almost fittingly anticlimactic, undone as so many times before by an unthinking team-mate. Nonetheless, his parting shot to the Barbados crowd was worthy of Russell Crowe’s Maximus in Gladiator: Have I entertained you? he bellowed. The response, like that of the baying Roman crowd in the Coliseum, was a most definitive yes.

For me cricket and Lara were intrinsically and inextricably linked growing up. I never knew the latter without the presence of the former. Like some genial uncle, the next great innings was never far away, ready to comfort and console. It may have hurt to see the Windies lose heavily time and again, but the merest glimpse of that Lara magic would keep me coming back for more. When he prematurely hung up his boots last year it was more than an end of an era. From my perspective it was the end of the game as I knew it and loved it.

Attempting to sum up someone of Lara’s magnitude with a pithy closing line or an apt conclusion is no easy task. Many years ago, however, Sambit Bal managed it better than I ever could: ‘For light and song, for bliss and glory and for lifting the soul, who else but Brian Lara?’

photo courtesy Ukexpat - reproduced under creative commons license

Saturday, June 21, 2008

ICL? EPL? StanfordPL? Tread carefully, Giles...

An English Premier League, three day cricket, fewer first-class games and three conferences (not divisions); it didn’t take long. Giles Clarke’s proposals to dramatically alter the structure of the English domestic game were a somewhat inevitable response to IPL mania, Stanford’s money-bags and an overall obsession with the cash potential of Twenty20. It is however something of a change of heart from the man who claimed that "tradition and history rather than Bollywood stars and glitz are the binding which persuade supporters to return week in week out to our grounds...” Certainly it begs the question whether cricket administrators are in danger of killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

Of the suggestions mooted, that of an EPL is the least surprising. Everyone wants a twenty20 league of their own these days, from Pakistan to India to the West Indies to England. Quite how different such a league in England would be from the competition already in place is not altogether clear. Despite his proposals for sweeping changes, Clarke dismissed the idea of a city based franchise structure ala the IPL as ‘ludicrous’ only a couple of months ago. More teams, including some from overseas, and a draft system controlled by the ECB for recruiting foreign players seem to be the major differences proposed from the Twenty20 championship.

The proposal for a three conference county championship appears outwardly more bewildering. Such a move would abolish the current system of promotion and relegation and involve teams competing in one of three randomly drawn divisions each year. Of course that is basically the way one-day tournaments are presently organised (though the conferences are more rationally determined based upon region), ultimately coalescing into a knockout stage for those enjoying divisional success. The idea of determining the first-class County Champions via a play-off is a rather unsatisfactory situation however. Simon Briggs points out that such a change would allow the ECB to reduce the time spent playing four-day cricket and allow the middle of the summer to be exclusively devoted to that grail of marketing, the English Premier League.

Predictably, support amongst the counties is split between the bigger and smaller clubs. The former are wary of any changes to a system that has seen their status as the forces to be reckoned with in English cricket solidify, whilst the latter are unsurprisingly enough keen on any opportunity to extricate themselves from the dead-end of division two cricket. Both sides have a point. Two-tier cricket in England has done its job of creating a more professional and competitive structure since its inception in 2000 and it would be something of a retrograde step to abolish it. On the other hand, the position of counties who have struggled with divisional cricket such as Worcestershire is understandable. According to their chief executive, "the major positive [with conferences] would be that every team starts even and has a chance of winning the Championship. It would also give you the chance to play more counties regularly, rather than missing out on facing some of the big teams." However, the implementation of another of Clarke’s proposals, the salary cap, would go a long way to solve the widening gap between the have and have-nots without involving the need to abolish the incentivised nature of promotion and relegation.

The idea of a salary cap is one that surely needs to be implemented in all sports in the era of the billionaire owner. It was the saving grace of American football, meaning fans rarely have to endure watching their side propping up the bottom of the league year after year as teams are prevented from using superior financial muscle to become invincible. If the administrators of football in England and indeed Europe had any courage they too would implement such a system, ending the farce of a perennial ‘Big Four’ and laying the foundation for a new era of competitiveness. Nor would such a move be without precedent in British sport. Those in charge of running both codes of rugby on the island long ago had the foresight to put salary caps in place: the Guinness Premiership has operated under the system for fully nine years.

Though the problem may not be as acute in cricket, salary-caps would be a welcome compensation for perennial second division domestic sides keen on the idea of shaking up the current domestic structure. The arbitrary threefold conference division, something these same counties are keen on for this very reason, would then be rendered largely unnecessary. If counties were on a largely even footing then the elite group of consistently successful counties would eventually be dispersed. Some counties may complain about the breaking up of their settled units, but in the long run it would be a small price to pay for a healthier national structure. The big boys will no doubt moan bitterly about tradition and the like in an effort to retain their burgeoning monopolies on the domestic game, but it will certainly be easier to stand up to the likes of Surrey and Sussex as opposed to tycoons such as Glazer and Abramovich. Other sports have been able to adapt, and there is no good reason why cricket cannot do likewise.

That all the changes put forward by Clarke are devoted primarily to increasing the primacy of money-spinning twenty20 in the domestic calendar is yet one more crystal clear indicator of where the game is heading. Many naysayers and doom-merchants have predicted that Lalit Modi and his twenty-twenty vision will inevitably sound the death knell for longer forms of the game, but few could have imagined it being given such momentum so soon by the ECB itself.

Nonetheless, change is not a bad thing. Just as Twenty20 has changed the way we play cricket, it will inevitably change the way it is run. It is the task of administrators like Giles Clarke to integrate such changes into current models without completely destroying them. Cricket cannot nor should not now survive without Twenty20 as a fundamental component. Neither however can it survive with Twenty20 alone.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Cricket in the Emerald Isle

The Cricket World Cup in the West Indies last year was roundly and rightly criticised on many fronts, but it did produce one of sport’s greatest underdog stories. It has been exactly fourteen months since Ireland’s World Cup odyssey came to an end. Now that the residual effects of that extraordinary time are well and truly a thing of the past, what is the state of cricket in the Emerald Isle?

The honeymoon period didn’t last long. These days a player/board dispute seems to be sine qua non for any self respecting cricket side, and Ireland’s world cup campaign brought about just that. Regrettably, players encountered serious headaches extracting fees owed for services rendered from their administrators. The team registered their displeasure at the situation by refusing to perform media commitments after beating the Netherlands last July. In fairness to the board, they were forced to budget for keeping the side in the Caribbean for six more games than was expected, but considering they couldn’t even pay the side for their greatest ever success, subsequent talk of central contracts seemed absurd. Indeed, the Irish Cricketing Union’s efforts to put cricket on the country’s sporting map by going professional were derided by senior figures in the side such as Jeremy Bray, who called it ‘a joke.’ Bray, whose century in the tie against Zimbabwe in the World Cup was one of the tournament’s highlights, hasn’t played since.

At grassroots level at least, the future of Irish cricket must be brighter than ever before. Ireland’s booming economic success in the late 1990s and early 2000s has precipitated a massive influx of immigrants into the country, many of whom hail from the cricketing power-houses of Pakistan, India and Australia. Last week I pointed out the relative failure of authorities in England to adequately encourage and support the development of the game in the country’s migrant communities, and it must be one of the main priorities of those involved in administering cricket in Ireland to ensure a similar state of affairs doesn’t arise here. Two weeks ago I watched a young Pakistani boy whose family has settled in Ireland amass an extraordinary century against bowlers twice his age. Though a mere fifteen years old, he opened the innings and batted the entire forty-five overs (running himself out off the last ball for 118). It was a remarkable effort from someone so young playing against senior opposition and served as a timely reminder of the vast untapped potential of the sport in this country.

Unfortunately, a well-stocked talent pool by itself is not enough to keep the game healthy. To gain any foot-hold in a sports saturated country, Ireland’s national side must exhibit a certain level of success on the international stage. In the wake of Ireland’s success in the World Cup and the incredible exposure that inevitably brought, interest in cricket for a short time literally exploded on the island. At my club the number of children coming up to practice sessions went from less than half a dozen to around thirty overnight. These youths arrived for no other reason than that they had seen the boys in green on television, and winning at that. Suddenly cricket wasn’t a foreign game fit only for the west Brits but rather a source of national pride and a topic being discussed up and down the country with an intensity typical reserved for GAA, hurling and rugby.

That was a year ago now. In the interim, high profile international games against India and South Africa in Stormont turned out to be damp squibs. Television broadcaster Zee withdrew their commitment to showing the games a few weeks beforehand, throwing the situation into further disarray. Irish cricket simply couldn’t afford such marketing setbacks at this critical time. Last week I went out fund-raising for the same aforementioned local club and the number of people expressing surprise that cricket even existed in the region was extraordinary. One woman went so far as to tell her children disdainfully as they were passing that ‘everyone knows there’s no cricket in Kerry!’ As I was standing right in front of her, clearly even the evidence of her own eyes wasn’t sufficient to impress our existence on her mind. As for those enthusiastic youngsters? Two remain.

In a sense the sport in Ireland is always behind the eight-ball. Understandably any players good enough move to England to play county cricket as soon as the opportunity arises, and thus the national side is in reality nothing more than a stepping-stone for the talented to bigger and better things. Ed Joyce has a key player at Middlesex for a number of years now. Eoin Morgan joined him at the county a few years ago, though he did play at the World Cup. After the tournament the side’s most successful bowler, Boyd Rankin, signed on for Derbyshire (he has since moved to Warwickshire). Niall O Brien’s heroics paved the way for a spot in the Northamptonshire line-up, one which he has cemented with a string of stellar performances with bat and gloves this season. He even got a chance to participate in the lucrative Asian 20/20 market, playing for Delhi Jets in the ICL earlier in the year. William Porterfield has also recently been granted a two year deal with Gloucestershire.

In fact, of the side that famously defeated Pakistan on a sultry Kingston evening in March of last year, the only links to the eleven that faced up to Nottinghamshire in the final Friends Provident game of this season were Kevin O’ Brien and Kyle McCallan. Though it is great news that so many Irish cricketers are now able to make a living out the game, their elevation in status is almost certainly detrimental to the game in the country as a whole. The performances of Irish-men in the English game tend only to be of interest to those already involved and interested in cricket. To become a force on the Irish sporting stage, the public need to see Irish players in Irish shirts doing well. However with such a rapid turnover of playing staff, one wonders how the ICU can ever hope to build another settled, successful unit. At their latest AGM, the old ICU was dissolved and replaced with a supposedly streamlined version going under the more business-like title of “Irish Cricket Union Limited.” According to the chairman David Williams, "It will be a sign of the increasing professionalism that is needed in modern sport." One can’t help but question just what it is the new organisation can actually do. Even if down the line an Irish team does manage to replicate the stirring times of summer 2007, the side will just as surely be dismantled one way or another as that line-up was. Such is the fate of an amateur game in a professional world. The sad thing is, there is nothing anyone can really do about it.

photo courtesy

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Kolpaks of the Caribbean

not this kind of kolpak...

The news that Kolpak players might be stopped from inundating the English domestic game in the near future is not just a boon for those who think that this particular foreign legion is stifling local talent. The home countries hit hardest by the migration of cricketers to the old country may just find that the steady erosion of their talent base will slowly begin to cease.

We all know that South Africans are kings of the Kolpak. Journeymen Aussie pros without an international future are also most welcome by struggling county setups looking to get ahead. A couple of New Zealanders such as Hamish Marshall have been happy to abandon their country too. Unexpectedly, however, it has recently been the West Indies who have suffered most from losses to the English game.

It’s hardly surprising when one thinks about it. Cricket in the Caribbean has all the factors ideal for fermenting the seeds of Kolpakitis. Trading agreement with the European Union: check. An inept cricket board with little to no regard for its players: check. Utter lack of financial security for anyone not currently playing in the national side: check. The only surprising thing is that it’s taken this long for the exodus to begin. Considering counties such as Leicestershire and Northamptonshire have shown a willingness to hoover up just about any halfway competent, willing and available international cricketer under Kolpak (non)regulations, this perhaps says more about the lack of depth of cricket in the islands than anything else. In the past few months however three prominent former West Indian cricketers have begun to ply their trade in England as Kolpak signings.

The situation is an odd one. Pedro Collins and Corey Collymore are busy bagging plenty of victims in the English domestic season whilst at the same time across the Atlantic Darren Powell and his 47 average continue to plug away with little success in the Test side. The aforementioned Collins is a huge loss. The only active bowler from the West Indies with over 100 Test wickets, Collins has been excellent in first class cricket both in the Caribbean and in England since overcoming health problems a couple of years ago. Bizarrely taken to South Africa in the winter only to be used solely as the water boy, Collins decided to cut his losses and signed on with Surrey for a stint as a non—overseas player. Given the treatment he has received at the hands of the WICB and selection panel, one can hardly blame him.

The West Indian attack fared reasonably well in the recently concluded test series against Australia, but one can’t help but think that at times it lacked a little variety. The consistently threatening pace and aggression of Edwards and Taylor was a huge fillip for the side as was Dwayne Bravo’s ability to make things happen, but a left-arm seamer would have fitted in very nicely into the overall jigsaw. Watching Phil Jacques and Simon Katich pile on the runs in their monstrous and decisive second-innings opening partnership in Barbados, one couldn’t help but wish Chris Gayle had the wherewithal to throw the ball to the man who destroyed the Aussie top-order with devastating swing the last time he faced them in 2005. As it was he was otherwise engaged, opening the bowling for Surrey in a twenty20 game at the Oval.

Ironically, opening the bowling for the opposition that day was his Barbadian team-mate Corey Collymore. Since joining Sussex as a Kolpak player Collymore has taken 14 wickets at an average of 24 whilst conceding a distinctly miserly 2.52 runs per over in the County Championship. Amazingly Collymore was only overtaken last week by Jerome Taylor as the highest-ranking Test match bowler from the West Indies in the official ratings, despite having not played international cricket in over a year. A model professional possessing good control and an ability to extract movement from almost any pitch, Collymore could no doubt provide an effective foil for the quicker men in the West Indies setup. Furthermore, his test bowling average of 32 is lower than any bowler currently in the starting eleven.

Wavell Hinds is another discarded West Indian to have gone down the Kolpak route, signing for Derbyshire last month. Considering the number of inadequate opening and middle order batsman tried, recycled and discarded by the West Indian selectors in the recent past, one wonders why Hinds, a cricketer who can do both jobs adequately, hasn’t pulled on the maroon cap in almost three years. A test average of 33 may not be spectacular, but it’s a damn sight better than Darren Ganga’s 25, Devon Smith’s 24 or Runako Morton’s 22. Five centuries, including a double, indicate an ability to negotiate international attacks not shown by the above-mentioned trio. Consistency has perhaps never been a forte, but if that particular attribute was a pre-requisite for making the national side the batting line-up would consist only of Chanderpaul and perhaps Sarwan. The surprise selection of Xavier Marshall for the second and third tests against Australia may have been a success, but such punts surely shouldn’t be the norm. Evidently Greenidge, Roberts and Butts think otherwise.

It will be interesting to see whether Kolpak deserters are welcomed back by their home boards if the situation does arise. Unfortunately given their track record of player management one imagines the West Indies Cricket Board are more likely to burn their bridges rather than mend them. If that does turn out to be the case, it’s too bad: considering the relative inexperience but definite promise exhibited by the current side, the presence of a few competent seasoned campaigners amongst the youngsters would be invaluable.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Shock, Horror; Pietersen in the right!

The MCC have determined to look into the ramifications of the reverse slog-sweep shot unveiled by Kevin Pietersen at Chester le Street in the first ODI against New Zealand on Sunday. The reasoning behind the decision escapes me. Surely the idea that cricket’s governing body can dictate to batsmen what shots they can and cannot play is by any standard ludicrous. What next, the cover drive coming under scrutiny? There are more pressing matters that cricket administrators could spend their time discussing.

The arguments mooted in favour of taking action against the stroke are spurious at best. Claims that umpires won’t know whether to adjudge LBW decisions based on whether the batsman is right or left-handed don’t make any sense. Kevin Pietersen is a right handed batsman; if he attempts a switch shot he is still a right handed batsman and decisions must be made accordingly. Otherwise the situation would be farcical. A batsman could make a mockery of the game by turning every ball into a wide by adjusting his stance accordingly at the opportune moment. If the powers that be still have a problem with the technical legislation then Daniel Vettori’s suggestion that bowlers should be able to bowl within the wide lines on either side of the wicket in such situations is a fine compromise.

One can’t help but feel that this is a storm in a teacup. If the Pietersen shot is such a problem then how has cricket survived controversy-free for the past 15 years, during which time the reverse-sweep has entered the game as a legitimate one-day shot? No one tried to stop Andy Flower from playing that particular stroke, and I am at a loss as to how this is any different. Critics argue that the current situation is not the same because Pietersen changed his grip before the ball had been delivered, but this is simply nitpicking. Both the conventional reverse sweep and Pietersen’s extreme version are examples of pure pre-meditation. The precise timing of the perspective shift is irrelevant as the decision has been made in advance of the bowler releasing the ball in each case. Surely once a batsman takes his stance and the bowler is running in he must be considered to be a left or right-hander accordingly. Whatever he does subsequent to that is his own business.

Mike Selvey argued in the Guardian that as the bowler must notify the opposition before he changes his action, the same regulation should apply in the inverse situation. Cricket however is not and never has been an equal opportunities sport. Batsmen have always had more freedom than bowlers. If we extend Selvey’s argument, the batsman shouldn’t be able to advance down the pitch beyond a certain point without being censured. Hayden and his ilk have made a habit of bullying bowlers around the world by walking down the pitch at them wee before the release of the ball. Nobody has questioned the legality of that particular tactic. One of the challenges of being a bowler is being able to adapt to what the batsman is doing in his crease. Pietersen is doing nothing that hasn’t been experimented with one way or another in one-day cricket throughout its history.

Given his penchant for foot in mouth moments it may sound like an absurd thing to say, but Pietersen himself has actually made more sense on this issue than anyone else. The batsman has pointed out that he is doing nothing new, merely that “I am just fortunate that I am able to hit it a bit further.”

But we are getting caught up in side issues here. The number of players in world cricket able to hit this shot with any degree of success or consistency whatsoever is minuscule. The combination of strength and co-ordination required to execute it means it’s simply not an option for the average cricketer. The shot is not going to change the face of cricket for this very reason. Why should an athlete be punished for having a skill virtually unique to himself? Surely the sport should celebrate rather than discourage its exceptional talents. Whatever one thinks of Pietersen, he is most certainly that.

The Pain Game

It is difficult to put into words the magnitude of Tiger Woods’ performance this week at Torrey Pines. Regardless of whether or not he manages to overcome Rocco Mediate’s dogged resistance in the 18-hole playoff on Monday, Woods has contributed another remarkable chapter to the annals of golfing lore. Like something out of a Homeric Epic, the world number one defied the fates, his own body and a punishing course in single-minded pursuit of what at times must have seemed to be a very distant prize. If the mark of a great performance is the ability to triumph over adversity, then Tiger’s performance at the 108th US Open must rank as one of his finest.

Yes, Rocco Mediate’s fairytale performance was heart-warming from one of the game’s true characters. Yes, Lee Westwood’s valiant attempt was a welcome change from all-too-common Euro-meltdowns at the majors. But inevitably the 2008 U.S. Open was all about the Tiger. Woods had something of the self-destructive gunslinger about him, seemingly ready and willing to put his career in jeopardy for the chance of pulling off a famous victory. After every flinch inducing bash with the driver one couldn’t help but fear that Tiger was risking doing himself lasting damage.

Clearly the world’s greatest golfer’s return from his rehabilitation was extremely premature. Neither his game nor his body was really anywhere near up to the arduous task of a USGA event this soon after surgery and it’s fairly certain that Woods would’ve spent at least a few more weeks recuperating on the couch if a major hadn’t come along. The mind of a Tiger however is a force able to transcend the limitations of mere mortals. Butch Harmon commented that we had seen “no heroics from Tiger” midway through the back nine on the final day. Obviously Butch was speaking in comparison to the absurdities of the day before, but the fact that Woods was out there competing at all was heroic enough. His extraordinary final hole birdie to force a Monday playoff with Mediate was above and beyond.

For the uninitiated, golf may not seem like the type of sport that aggravates injuries and engenders pain. But attempting to swing a club at 130 miles per hour with a bum left-knee is the golfing equivalent of driving pedal to the metal with a punctured tyre. Strictly speaking it shouldn’t work. It took Ernie Els the best part of two years to recover from his own knee problems; Woods had given it 9 weeks. Disregarding the physical discomfiture, which professional sports-people play through each week, the technical issues created by being unable to transfer weight effectively to one’s front leg are ominous enough. One of the prerequisites for solid contact is a firm base resisting the torque of the swing, something Tiger simply didn’t have this week. As always though, the great man found a way to get the ball in the hole. It may have taken chip-ins, extraordinarily long eagle putts and a tendency to drive so wide as to miss the heaviest rough, but, as Arnold Palmer famously said, there are no pictures on the scorecard. At times it wasn’t pretty, even ragged. But it was never less than pure theatre, and entertainment of the very highest order. In fact the 108th U.S. Open provided more thrills and spills, more ‘how-did-he-do-that?!’ moments than any major in recent memory.

For all that, watching Tiger limp and wince his way around Torrey Pines on the weekend one couldn’t help feeling a few sympathy twinges oneself. Peter Oosterhuis commented on Friday that he wouldn’t have been surprised if Woods had walked in after his knee locked whilst playing his approach from the cart-path to his tenth hole of the day. Similar thoughts crossed many people’s minds after observing his tee-shot on the second on Sunday. Doubled over practically on all fours, Woods virtually crawled off the tee-box and limped down the fairway like a man twice his age. After a disastrous double-bogey on the first it hardly seemed as if he had a chance of lasting eighteen more holes. That was his fourth double of the week. The only other occasions on which Woods had made three or more double bogeys in a United States Open were at Winged Foot in 2006 and Congressional back in 1997. On both of those occasions he missed the cut. At this stage quite a few would have cut their losses and called it quits. In fact, I seriously doubt that any other professional golfer would have even turned up this week in Tiger’s condition. But Woods is not any other professional golfer.

Ben Hogan famously triumphed at the 1950 US Open whilst still enduring a slow and tortuous recovery from a horrific car crash. Doctors feared that Hogan might never walk again, but he defied such predictions. The Hawk managed to play through the pain barrier to record one of major golf’s most famous victories, an iconic moment of the sport captured for all time by Hy Peskin’s famous photo of Hogan’s 1-iron into Merion’s treacherous 18th. Woods’ bravery around Torrey Pines this week must have come close to matching the old master. Certainly Woods is one of very few players in the history of the game able to compare with Hogan for bloody-mindedness.

Once Woods made it the final nine holes, the pain from his knee, a constant companion all week, seemed to dissipate somewhat. In all likelihood the job in hand simply made him forget about it. The entire tournament had been one long display of mind over matter, and the mind took over completely for the closing stages. That the injury was still bothering him however was borne out by his decision to lay up on the 14th hole, which was playing a mere 265 yards from a forward tee. Most players were hitting 3-wood onto the green, but Woods chose conservatively to play an iron. Such a decision was so uncharacteristic of the man that one imagines it must have been one of his only concessions to the physical difficulty he was in.

The final putt (a downhill curling fifteen footer), remarkable though it was, was almost inevitable. Once the great man made it to the final green without collapsing, there was only one place that little white ball was going. Woods hadn’t endured four days of not insignificant pain to come away with second place.

After the rigours of this week, it would be very surprising if Woods was able to play again before the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale in July. Indeed it has been quite feasibly speculated that he may only play the two remaining majors this year. Undoubtedly Woods’ decision to play this week has set back the process of recovery. If he manages to add a third US Open trophy to his already bulging cabinet tomorrow, it will no doubt a price he is more than happy to pay.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Bounce, Glorious Bounce

If the 3rd Test between Australia and the West Indies in Barbados can be characterised by one thing, then that one thing must be bounce. It certainly makes a nice change after the slow pace and low bounce the sides encountered in Antigua. It is no secret that pitches in the Caribbean have undergone something of a negative metamorphosis in recent times. One of my abiding memories of watching cricket from the West Indies growing up was the mirror-like polish of Sabina Park and the exciting cricket that would almost inevitably bring. Then came the debacle in 1998 when the curators got a bit carried away and the match had to be abandoned after the opening overs. Since then low and slow has gradually become the depressing norm.

Indeed pitches in the Caribbean have been getting progressively lower and slower to such an extent that back in 2003 the Australian captain Steve Waugh described them as “the slowest I’ve ever played on.” Michael Holding considered the Barbados pitch in the same series to be “the worst I’ve seen this century.” Things have hardly improved much since. Most recently the pitch produced for the final test match against India in Kingston two years ago drew the ire of then captain Brian Lara. Lara was disappointed that a home pitch played right into the hands of the Indian spinners. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce that such pitches have an adverse effect on the quality of cricket being played, and indeed of cricketers being produced, in the region.

Far too many players are coming into international cricket woefully ill-equipped to handle good bowling on testing pitches simply because they have had little to no experience of either at domestic level. When conditions are difficult for batting in regional cricket it is usually for all the wrong reasons. Batsmen are forced to negotiate tracks with inconsistent bounce and no pace and the techniques used to overcome such problems tend to be found out at the highest level. Sulieman Benn yesterday looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights as he unconvincingly (and perhaps even fearfully) prodded at the bowling in his brief stay at the wicket. It was hard to believe that he had scored seven first-class half centuries and averages over 20 for Barbados.

The course of the current test thus far bears out that players simply aren’t used to playing on bouncy tracks anymore. Indeed, nearly everyone seems to be getting carried away. The West Indies coach John Dyson accurately summed up what seemed to be the thinking of both sides in approaching batting on this surface. “You want players to be aggressive, particularly on wickets that offer a bit of pace and bounce," he said after the close of the second day’s play. The evidence thus far would tend to indicate that such an approach is misguided. In the Australian first innings Phil Jacques, Michael Hussey and Simon Katich all fell to cross-bat shots off short-pitched balls they failed to control.

Jerome Taylor and Fidel Edwards, despite much good work, also occasionally got carried away with finally seeing some bounce. Three times they conceded five wides with bouncers rearing over the keeper’s head and flying to the boundary. One can hardly blame them as they have been starved of the opportunity to hit the keeper’s gloves up around head height throughout their careers. It is however of course incumbent upon them to quicly assess such a situation and bowl accordingly.

The West Indian batting line-up as a whole exhibited even less assurance in dealing with the extra bounce than their Australian counterparts. Most failed to adequately get behind and on top of the ball, and coupled with poor application led to an inadequate first innings total. Skipper Gayle’s brainless dismissal was a wasted wicket, while a delightful cameo from Sarwan was cut short by a combination of over enthusiasm and a failure to get on top of the bounce. Unsurprisingly Shivnarine Chanderpaul was a notable and significant exception in compiling a wholly untroubled 79 not out. His simplistic approach and uncomplicated technique proved more than up to the task of coping with the challenges posed by the Kensington track.

An incapacity to cope with good short pitched bowling has in fact been a running theme in the series despite the slower pace of the wickets in the opening two test matches. Indeed the number of players from both sides taking blows to the head and body has been remarkable. Chanderpaul’s sickening blow to the back of his head in Jamaica stands out, as does Brett Lee being felled by Fidel Edwards. Simon Katich was incapacitated after wearing one from Darren Powell in Antigua. The sequence was continued yesterday when Brett Lee cracked Xavier Marshall flush on the badge of his helmet with a snarling bouncer.

Unsurprisingly there are few real masters of playing the short-pitched ball anymore. Players from the past like Roy Fredericks spring to mind for their unflinching willingness to take on the bouncer and for possessing the hand-eye co-ordination to succeed. Freddo’s hooking of Dennis Lillie for six in the first world cup final only to tread on his stumps in the process endures in the memory as one of the game’s iconic moments. Ramnaresh Sarwan may not be renowned for his proficiency in this particular facet of batting, but his uppercut for six over point yesterday was a throwback. Such scenes have become all too rare in the era of the front-foot bully.

In an age where science and technology has rendered almost anything possible it seems odd that curators around the world, and in the Caribbean especially, are apparently unable to produce cricket wickets of the same quality they were thirty years ago. Has the ancient art of pitch preparation been irrevocably lost? Or are the featherbeds of international cricket the result of a concerted effort on the part of administrators to establish once and for all the dominance of bat over ball in the misguided belief that runs and runs alone are what the crowd comes to see? Agronomists will no doubt speak of soil densities, moisture levels and sand content but as a layman the question remains: if groundsmen could do it in the era of Holding and Garner then why not now? Even Perth has flattened out somewhat over the last few years. Stories of 19th century bowlers such as Charles Kortwright bowling bouncers going for six byes may be apocryphal, but there can be no doubt that fast bowlers tend to struggle far more in recent times to extract steepling bounce. There must be something wrong when bowlers clocking at 90 miles per hour barely get the ball carrying to the keeper.

Whatever might be said of the players’ ability or lack thereof in coping with the faster, bouncier Kensington track one thing is certain: it has made for exceptionally exciting and eminently watchable cricket. It has been an ideal pitch, offering assistance both to batsmen and bowlers. Flashing cuts, vicious bumpers, fast scoring and regular wickets have combined to propel the Test along at a furious rate of knots. One way or another we can confidently expect a result come Monday, or perhaps even earlier. This is cricket as it was meant to be played, a real contest between bat and ball. Please, save the slow, low turners for the subcontinent. Let the Caribbean be a haven for quick bowling and dynamic stroke-play.

Friday, June 13, 2008

A good walk spoiled...

When Andrew Symonds stood his ground after blatantly punching one down the leg side earlier today and was astonishingly reprieved by umpire Benson, the final Test Match between Australia and the West Indies saw what could well turn out to be its single most defining moment. At the time the big man was on a mere 14 and his side struggling at a shaky 133 for 5. After his let-off Symonds was at his belligerent best in guiding Australia to a much more competitive first day total of 226-7, contributing a vital fifty in the process.

This is of course not the first time Symonds has escaped his rightful fate this series. In the 2nd Test in Antigua he was also given not out after being strangled down the legside. There his vigorous head shaking was worthy of the stage and suggested a career in acting is a possibility once he quits cricket. ‘Roy’ is perhaps an extreme case: such is his brazenness one gets the feeling that even were his middle-stump uprooted he would still be sure to wait for the umpire’s finger. He is the walking definition of a ‘brass neck’. Even so, he is the extremity of a huge and long-standing iceberg.

Walking is naturally a controversial subject, and there seem to be two main schools of thought in approaching it. The first group claim that the umpires are there to do a job and if they prove not to be up to the task then it’s not the batsman’s fault. He is there to score runs and is beholden to his team to do everything in his power to do so. Walking is seen as a sign of mental weakness and even a dereliction of duty. Furthermore, one is bound to cop a few poor decisions over a career and so can’t be blamed for trying to even up the score. Unsurprisingly, most batsmen and Australians fall firmly within this camp.

The other view holds that the batsman still has an obligation to own up when he gets an edge, doff his hat to umpire and bowler and quietly trudge back to the pavilion. Bowlers of course tend to be the loudest voices in the choir preaching such moral rectitude. Perhaps it is all too easy to adopt a holier-than-thou attitude from the comfort of one’s own armchair when one’s livelihood isn’t at stake, but it does seem as if they have a point. Once a batsman knows he has edged a ball and makes out otherwise he is simply being dishonest. Attempting to trick the umpire quite simply is cheating and arguments to the contrary smack of obfuscation. If Tiger Woods nudged his ball out of a dodgy lie in the rough it wouldn’t be acceptable behaviour just so long as he got away with it. Were he caught one wouldn’t hear too many voices saying “unlucky but fair play for trying.” Such a situation is of course purely hypothetical because neither Tiger nor any professional golfer would dream of descending to such sharp practice in a bid to get ahead. Why then is it acceptable and indeed expected in a sport whose very name entered the language as a by-word for fair play?

Walkers in modern cricket have been few and far between. Adam Gilchrist has been showered with most of the plaudits for his consistent honesty (in front of the stumps at any rate), but Brian Lara, arguably the greatest batsman of his generation, was also quick to turn on his heel when his edge was found and the catch taken throughout his long career. For some reason the media was by and large less inclined to notice, but then again it’s easy to be overshadowed by something as odd as a Steve Waugh era Aussie walking. Such players are very much the exception to an overall rule in a hard-nosed professional sport populated by hard-nosed professional sports-men. Lamenting this face of the modern game, numerous former players look wistfully back to bygone era where gentlemanly behaviour and rigorous honesty were supposedly the hallmarks of cricket. But just how rose-tinted are their spectacles?

Lest we forget, walking controversies are by no means a new phenomenon. As far back as 1928 the great Don himself caused something of a furore when he refused to leave his crease after apparently snicking one into the slips. Wally Hammond, the English skipper, reportedly spat “A fine bloody way to start a series” when his vociferous appeals were brushed aside. Colin Croft recently commented to the effect that Ian Chappell was one of the few batsmen to regularly make the umpire’s task easier in the 1970s. Regular cricket followers will know to take anything big Colin says with a grain, even a sack-load of salt, but his anecdotes do serve to remind one that the game may not be all that different to what it was 30 years ago.

The issue today is however complicated in that every decision now is under far more scrutiny than ever before. Each time a batsman pulls a fast one innumerable replays, Snicko, Hotspot etc are all wheeled out to determine the extent of the player’s perfidy. The situation has become farcical because everyone can see what is going on barring the umpires on the field. The technology debate is one for another day, but suffice to say that the position at present serves only to make officials look foolish, fans apoplectic and ultimately cheapens the sport. Much like the aluminium bat and flares, walking isn’t about to make a comeback anytime soon. Twenty and thirty years ago non-walking and poor decisions had to be accepted as part of the game simply because nobody had any recourse to remedy such anomalies. But times have changed and now administrators have the means at their disposal to solve a burning issue. Why don’t they use it? From a West Indian perspective at the very least we might see less of this Symonds chap…

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

WI v. AUS 3rd Test Preview

By rights the current series between Australia and the West Indies should be already over. Most naturally expected that the latter would again be desperately scrabbling to stave off the ignominy of conceding the first ever whitewash in the Caribbean. Yet things have not entirely panned out according to the script. But for a nervous first hour on the final day at Sabina Park, the home side could well be coming to Barbados defending a 1-0 lead in the rubber and with the prospect of regaining the Frank Worrell trophy. That opportunity may have slipped by, but if the men from the Caribbean could salvage a series draw with a last test victory it would represent a remarkable achievement. Peter English of Cricinfo has suggested that they might struggle to motivate themselves now that Sir Frank is out of reach, but for a side that hasn’t won a major test series in a long time a tied rubber must seem a more than adequate prize.

The statistical gulf between the two sides remains damning. Three of the West Indian top order fail to average even thirty runs per dismissal, whilst not one of the bowlers can boast of an average below 35. The world champions by contrast field a batting line-up in which all average above forty barring Simon Katich, who scored a hundred in the second test. Furthermore their new ball partnership of Stuart Clark and Brett Lee have bowling averages of 21 and 29 respectively. What the numbers fail to show is that these are two sides in varying states of flux.

Australia are in the process of rebuilding their side after the departures of long-time stalwarts Warne, McGrath, Langer and most recently Gilchrist and have without doubt lost the aura of indomitability that has characterised the side for the past decade. Though players such as Haddin, Hodge and Johnson all have fine first-class pedigree, they remain unproven at the highest level and are still on trial as it were with all the added pressure that inevitably brings. If ever the time was ripe for a spot of giant killing it is now. Whether the home team is up to taking this chance or not is another matter.

With the probable return of West Indies duo Chris Gayle and Sewnarine Chattergoon, a frail looking opening partnership all of a sudden looks at least a little bolstered. Devon Smith has already been axed, and either Runako Morton or Xavier Marshall are likely to suffer the chop also. Poor starts have put the home side behind the eight ball in each of the opening two tests and if the new look top can at least take the shine off the new ball and the fire out of Brett Lee before exposing the middle order anchors Sarwan and Chanderpaul, then a competitive first innings total is on the cards.

News coming out of Barbados suggests that the Kensington pitch should be hard and fast, and if that turns out to be the case Fidel Edwards and Jerome Taylor should enjoy themselves more than they did in Antigua. Edwards’ performances in the home series’ against Sri Lanka and thus far against Australia have been most impressive. Always possessing the ability to bowl the odd unplayable ball but cursed with crippling inconsistency, the discipline he has added to his game this year has been encouraging. For his side to be in with a chance in squaring the series he will need to maintain this newfound command over line and length in Barbados. Edwards can expect to rely upon solid support from Taylor and Bravo, but the fourth bowling option remains more problematic: Powell has again flattered to deceive in this series and has shown that currently he is not up to the rigours of five day cricket. His all too frequent erratic spells are a liability in a side that has started to become competitive through discipline and control. However, considering the long-standing reluctance of the West Indian selection panel to choose a spinner, Sulieman Benn is unlikely to be given another opportunity. The third possibility is the young and untried pacer Kemar Roach who has been drafted into the squad for the final test. With only seven first-class wickets to his name it would be an enormous gamble to throw him to Ponting, Clarke, Symonds et al at this stage in his career, but one that might just be worth taking.

Australia too have made an interesting selection and are set to give a debut cap to left arm wrist spinner Beau Casson after the surprise retirement of Stuart MacGill midway through the second test. The move appears to be something of a punt on the part of the selectors when one recalls that Casson’s domestic bowling average hovers at a distinctly unimpressive 40.36. No doubt the selectors are hoping he can fulfil the role of mystery spinner, but if he fails to impress Australia are facing the prospect of an immediate future without a genuine spinning option to provide variety in their attack.

Are the lines of the cricketing map once again being redrawn? Of course only time will tell, but it is difficult to imagine Australia dominating the game to the extent they have done for the foreseeable future. This game is a hugely important acid test for Australia and one which they badly need to pass with flying colours. If they do, the world champions will have once again silenced their critics and re-established their pre-eminent authority. If they do not, the cricketing world may soon be querying whether or not the emperor is wearing any clothes.

Whose Game is it Anyway?

Twenty years ago a West Indies/England Test was more than a game of cricket, it was a significant cultural event. The Kennington Oval was practically a home venue for the men in maroon, and looking back at footage of that halcyon era the sheer vibrancy of the atmosphere is simply unimaginable for one such as I weaned on the fairly tame, sometimes staid environs that define cricket in the ‘noughties’. Barmy Army chants and cross-dressing, neither of which really have much to do with the action on the pitch, is about as exciting as it gets for a contemporary English cricket crowd. In the 1980s each wicket, even each boundary, seemed to be greeted by spontaneous displays of effusive delirium that inevitably spilled over the boundary and onto the field. One had to accept dozens of mini-pitch invasions a day as being part of the game. Nowadays such a scene inevitably seems incongruous, even ridiculous in relation to where the game has headed in the intervening decade or two. For one thing, one imagines that any such over-enthusiastic revellers capering about at a modern British test venue would have to count themselves quite lucky indeed if they escape a 42 day (if Gordon Brown gets his way) stay courtesy of Her Majesty under anti-terror legislation.

On a less flippant note, the relentless and ruthless exploitation of the commercial aspect of the sport to its absolute limits, most obviously evident in skyrocketing ticket prices, really is threatening to suck the dry the lifeblood of the game. At the recent Lords Test featuring New Zealand, hardly the opponent most likely to capture the public’s imagination in the first place, management decided upon gate charges staring at sixty pounds sterling for the privilege of watching a single day’s play. One wonders what percentage of the throngs of spectators that flocked to West Indian and Australian test s in the 80s and 90s and who imbued the grounds with such life and colour could ever dream of forking over such an exorbitant sum for a day’s entertainment. Cricket may arouse strong parochial passions, but if the game is simply too expensive to follow then people will soon latch onto another pastime more friendly to their wallets.

The ECB has strongly defended itself against accusations of greed by justifying their high prices with the evidence of high demand. One source has commented that "People ring us and accuse us of not charging enough because they have not been able to get the tickets." Even granted that this is the case, such an argument betrays a lack of both foresight and insight on the part of the powers that be. It ignores the simple fact that the board is supposed to be a watchdog for the game’s welfare first and commercial venture second. Once the team remains successful and the sport popular it is true that attendances probably won’t drop in the short term regardless of what tickets cost. However, the demographics of those going to see live cricket will inevitably focus more and more narrowly on a uniform middle-class and mostly white section of society, thus dramatically limiting the game’s accessibility and hence appeal to the broad stratum of Britain’s ethnically diverse population. The make-up of the current test team bears this out. Without the presence of Monty Panesar, the side, public schoolboys almost to a man, would wholly conform to the stereotype that Britain’s cricketing authorities are doing too little to counteract. It remains a somewhat bizarre fact that English cricket has produced only one player of Asian descent who enjoyed any longevity in an England shirt in the form of former captain Nasser Hussain. The Caribbean Diaspora has fared even worse, with Devon Malcolm’s 40 caps easily the most by a black cricketer representing England. Malcolm earned his last cap in 1997 whilst Hussain hung up his boots back in 2004. Cricket must be the only sport in Britain becoming more rather than less homogenous, and the ECB’s policy of maximising profits must have played a significant part in this phenomenon.

England of course is not alone in risking pricing themselves out of the market in the ultra-competitive world of sports entertainment. The West Indies Cricket Board in fact is even more in line to be criticised than their British counterparts. If the latter is guilty of short-sightedness and narrow-mindedness, the former must be accused of attempted suicide. The comfortable middle-class base on which the ECB is content to rely to fill their stadiums and support the sport simply isn’t large enough to sustain crowd numbers in the Caribbean. At a time when the product of West Indies cricket is perhaps less marketable than at any point in its long and often distinguished history, the authorities simply must do everything in their power to ensure a certain level of interest in and support of the national side, even if that means pricing tickets well below what they consider to be a reasonable price to put bums on seats. In any case, surely it is a matter of simple economics that if your product isn’t selling then it’s not worth what you are charging?

As if to crystallise this point, the crowd attending the recent second Test match against Australia at the brand new Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in Antigua was nothing short of embarrassing. After a performance that was at the very least credible in the opening game of the rubber one would have expected a reasonably well-attended match. Unfortunately that just wasn’t the case. The spine tingling events of the week before at Sabina Park simply couldn’t have been repeated as there were no fans to roar the pace bowlers on. The authorities might have even considered letting in fans for free: the gate returns from the handful of spectators that did show up could hardly have appreciably boosted the WICB’s coffers. Non-attendance of Test matches is a far more dangerous malaise than dodgy techniques or wayward bowling. Cricket has no divine right to remain a cultural mainstay of former British colonies and without adequate support will inevitably wither and die. With the advent of twenty20 in all its various tournaments and guises, cricket boards worldwide are raking in far more cash than ever before. If these same cricketing authorities around the world would just charge a little less for the privilege of attending test cricket, which they can certainly afford to do, the future of the game and the format would be far more secure.

Shivnarine, The Run Machine

One hears much of the ‘art’ of batting. Connoisseurs can while away many a happy hour discussing the nature of this intangible and those who have come nearest to perfecting the imperfectible. A recurring cast of characters inevitably crop up in such conversations. Bradman, Lara, Sobers, Hutton and Tendulkar amongst others are such figures, generally considered to have at one point or another touched what Wordsworth would have us know as the sublime, transcending the limitations of mere mortals. Others, such as Viv Richards, Ian Botham and Sanath Jayasuriya have struck fear into opponents around the world by dint of their sheer ferocity. Shivnarine Chanderpaul, often likened by colour commentators to a crab at the wicket, rarely holds a place at the table in such exalted circles, and indeed it would be a stretch to consider him a sporting maestro or powerhouse. But Chanderpaul has perhaps achieved something equally as valuable in modern cricket, developing the skill of simply not getting out.

One of the oldest clichés in cricket and one of the first gems of wisdom imparted to every cricketing neophyte is that it is impossible to score runs from the pavilion. Taking this maxim to its logical and extreme conclusion, the man from Unity Village Guyana hardly seems to have been dismissed in the last two years. When he does actually get out he has typically faced at least a couple of hundred deliveries beforehand. The raw numbers themselves are staggering. In 2007 Chanderpaul averaged a Bradmanesque 111.60. Thus far this year he is faring hardly worse, scoring over 96 runs per dismissal. Approaching batting as being more akin to a mechanical process rather than an art, Chanderpaul has managed to reduce the complications and eccentricities inherent in any manifestation of the latter and instead play according to the certainties and quantifiable nature of the former. In a team where mercurial flashes of virtuosity are still valued above mere productivity, such an approach is all the more remarkable. His team-mates would be well served to follow his lead. Attempting to match the stroke play of a Lara or Tendulkar is a recipe for disaster for those of more limited talents and is a sure-fire route to an average in the mid-twenties at the highest level, a fact amply attested to by the majority of cricketers tried and recycled by the West Indian selectors over the last decade.

Of course, adopting the mindset of the West Indies’ most senior player is no easy task for players used to approaching the game in a manner so anathema to it and such discipline must be instilled at grassroots levels of the game in the region for it to become the norm rather than the exception. A dearth of genuinely exciting cricketing talent renders mental prowess and application at the crease even more vital and such an approach must be learned and practiced. Very few are born with such focus and concentration. Indeed, it has taken Chanderpaul himself nearly ten years of on the international circuit before he reached his current pinnacle of mental fortitude. An inability to consistently convert starts into hundreds had seriously marred Chanderpaul’s record up to 2002. In his first eight years of test cricket, Chanderpaul, despite an otherwise reasonable career, had managed a paltry two centuries. Over the next six and a half years that number had increased almost ten-fold to nineteen.

To conclude that Chanderpaul himself is a limited cricketer making the most of his talent based upon his batting style is misguided and unfair. In choosing to reduce risks to an absolute minimum during his lengthy stays at the crease, he is not attesting to his inability to play shots but rather accepting the self-evident truth that a cover drive on the up is more dangerous than a defensive prod or a circumspect leave. No one capable of scoring a 69 ball Test match hundred against Australia could be accused of being deficient in the stroke-play stakes. Even the stingiest of bowlers toss up the occasional pie, and Chanderpaul rarely fails to cash in. An unerringly correct selectivity rather than a purely defensive mindset has characterised Chanderpaul’s extraordinary recent success. Defensiveness for defensiveness’ sake can be every bit as fatal to an innings as cavalier statements of aggressive intent, and in the current series has led to two inexplicable dismissals where Devon Smith and Xavier Marshall simply padded up to straight deliveries. Chanderpaul is certainly a less attacking batsmen than either Smith or Marshall, but would never have attempted to leave such deliveries as doing so departs that other most helpful of cricketing clichés, that is playing each ball on its merit.

Very few individual strokes stand out in a Chanderpaul innings as being particularly memorable. Rarely does he render the viewer speechless in admiration and wonder or strike us as doing anything remarkable. The feeling that you are witnessing a piece of cricketing history in the making that so often stole over one when watching Brian Lara batting is not a characteristic response to a Chanderpaul knock. He can never aspire to join the pantheon of the elite, the cricketing gods of the sublime art of batting. But unlike these chosen few, every club cricketer in the world feels they can emulate the great man: what he has achieved does not seem so unattainable as the glittering achievements of Lara and Sobers. Such an idea is of course an illusion; we are no closer to being able to bat like Chanderpaul than we are of carting Shane Warne for six, but this comforting illusion is a testament to the simplicity of the man and his work. Far from being divine, he really is the everyman’s hero. Now, where’s my bat?

US Open Preview

The last time a U.S. Open was held on the West Coast Tiger Woods eviscerated the field and streaked to an unprecedented 15 shot victory. Thus began the “Tiger-Slam”, one of the most dominant sequences of success in the history of modern sport. On the face of it we could very well witness another such annihilation this week at Torrey Pines. The world number one’s track record here is characteristically superb: in the 11 times he has teed it up here he has left with winner’s cheque and trophy in hand on no fewer than six occasions. The rest of the field shouldn’t pack their bags just yet however. Woods is coming off a long layoff whilst recuperating from knee surgery and had it not been for the US Open would surely have given himself more time to ease back into competitive golf. As it is, he is thrusting himself directly back into the deep end. After all, the man for whom triumphing at golf’s major events has become an obsession isn’t about to pass up an opportunity to inch closer to Nicklaus’ tally at a course he has virtually owned for a decade.

One imagines that many of the game’s big names are cursing the fact that golf is typically a non-contact sport (Even Woody Austin’s not infrequent moments of self abuse are a thing of the past). A dodgy knee could be nicely exposed by a Mickelson ankle-tap or a Vijay jab were this rugby or football, but Tiger need have little fear on that front so long as Phil can keep his frustrations in check. What might concern him more is the memory of the difficulty he had overcoming surgery on that same troublesome knee five years ago. Though the procedure was in December 2002, Woods’ results in the majors the following year were far below what one would expect from a fit and firing Tiger: The Masters saw him finishing 9 shots off the pace, whilst he was 11 behind Jim Furyk at the US Open. A fifth place finish at the open behind Ben Curtis was followed by a PGA in which he finished 16 behind Shaun Micheel to cap off his most disappointing year this decade. That his knee was bothering him was obvious. As if to reinforce the point that knee injuries take a long time to heal, Ernie Els went three years without winning a PGA Tour event after damaging his in a boating accident in 2005. Furthermore, as Woods only played his first round of golf since the Masters on Wednesday, and that with the aid of a cart, one imagines that he is bound to be at least a little rusty. So for once, Tiger is something of an unknown quantity. Were he anyone else his chances of winning would be slim. But then he is Tiger Woods.

Phil Mickelson, with whom Tiger is paired for the opening two rounds, is naturally the other name being bandied about as a likely champion. With 3 wins around Torrey Pines to boast of himself, Mickelson must like his chances playing in his own backyard especially considering his majestic performance at Colonial two weeks ago. Furthermore, Mickelson can expect boisterous support from hometown galleries who will be looking to cheer on the man who has established a persona as the people’s hero on a public golf course, as was the case at Bethpage Black back in 2002. Nonetheless, the media’s virtually exclusive focus upon the world’s number one and two is perhaps misguided. After all, this isn’t tennis: other competitors do have a chance. In fact, a world top-ten ranked player hasn’t triumphed at the US Open since Retief Goosen won his second in 2004. Of the world’s top ranked players, only Mickelson has any real current form to speak of, and thus this trend has every chance of continuing this year. Look for consistent rather than spectacular performers such as Boo Weekley and Stewart Cink to contend this week.

One of the problems with a major being hosted at a course where the PGA road-show stops every year anyway is that it deprives the viewer of the excitement one usually feels at the prospect of witnessing wall to wall coverage of a great layout to which they are typically underexposed. Courses such as Shinnecock Hills, Bethpage Black and Winged Foot remain largely unexplored mysteries as they are rarely paraded before the world more than once a decade. Pebble Beach can overcome this problem simply because it is such a fantastic venue. Torrey Pines may struggle more to capture the imagination of a familiar golfing public. True, spectacular Pacific views furnish the South Course with panoramic vistas of which one is unlikely ever to tire, but unlike at Pebble the craggy cliffs and booming surf play little role in actually defining the layout itself. Indeed, the design has in the past been accused of being somewhat uninspired and it will be interesting to see how the course holds up to the harsher spotlight of a major championship. The South Course is the first venue to host the US Open never to be ranked as one of the top 100 golf courses in America by either Golf Digest or Golf Magazine. By Golf Digest’s reckoning it is only the 90th best public course in the United States. Considering it joins the aforementioned world-renowned Pebble Beach and the superb Olympic Club as Californian US Open sites, one worries that Torrey Pines may well be destined to become the poor cousin of this particular club.

From a player standpoint, we must of course remember that Torrey Pines has been given the USGA treatment ahead of the tournament and will play very differently to what the players are used to facing in the Buick Invitational as a result. Tiger Woods may have shot 19 under par here earlier in the year in waltzing to yet another Buick triumph, but that was before the hair-raising gentlemen from the USGA got their hands on it. According to Mike Davis, the man who has taken over from the ever-controversial Tom Meeks as the organisation’s Senior Director of Rules and Competitions, the USGA wants a “very stern test of golf.” In other words, the line shall again be toed between difficult and unfair. We all remember the debacle at Shinnecock Hills in 2004 where a great course was turned into a farce as a result of over-zealous preparation. Since then the USGA has stepped back from the brink and has managed to by and large to produce tough but fair examination papers in which even the most pampered of PGA starts have found nothing to object about. That said, still expect lightning-fast greens, knee high rough and holes cut on the side of slopes. The course will be playing to an attention grabbing 7643 yards par 71 with greens running at a projected 13.5 on the stimp-meter. Two par fours have been stretched past the 500-yard mark, a number no longer taboo to administrators attempting to counteract 330 yard drives. Nonetheless, the 515 yard par four sixth does smack a little of the absurd. With two par threes playing in excess of 220 yards and the ninth stretching to 612, one imagines the field resignedly dusting off their rarely used long irons on the practice ground in preparation for this gruelling track. If the weather is unkind then we could see another astronomical winning total. So long as Torrey Pines provides the same kind of excitement as Winged Foot and Oakmont has done in the previous two years, most fans will scarcely care.