Friday, July 11, 2008

Authorise This!

The ICC like nothing better it seems than forming a nice, high-powered committee. Like any self-respecting governing body the reasoning goes: if in doubt, form a think-tank. They may not actually do much, or certainly much good, but it looks proactive. The super-group that is the ICC elite committee has of course been in the news recently for their decisions on Zimbabwe’s cricketing future and the outcome of the infamous Oval test in 2006, but it is the newest kid on the block that has caught my eye. This most recent of committees has been brought together in order to deal with the vexed problem of ‘unauthorised’ cricket as the ICC so diplomatically puts it, or rather more accurately, cricket that is making money for the wrong people. With Lalit Modi getting stronger by the day and the IPL schedule starting to take precedence over the international one, perhaps it is authorised cricket that they should be looking at.

One hopes that it has been fairly firmly established that the unjustifiable and frankly obscene tactics of attempting to demonise and isolate any and every one associated with the Indian Cricket League cannot suceed. Though ICL stalwarts have been to varying degrees successfully excluded from establishment cricket in India, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, the fact that the ECB were unable to do the same without getting sued was a major blow to Modi’s megalomaniacal quest for world domination.

Whilst it is certainly promising that instead of just hoping the issue will magically go away the ICC are attempting to resolve it, it is still difficult to take anything they say on the matter at face value considering they are inevitably a strongly vested interest. A spokesperson claimed that "The purpose of the group is to ensure that whatever conclusion is reached is in the best interests of the game." Sitting on this committee are both Giles Clarke and Lalit Modi himself. In the best interests of whom again?

As always, those that have the money make the rules and the BCCI and Lalit Modi certainly have plenty of that. Given their thus-far uncompromising stance on anyone or anything that threatens their share of the pie, it is difficult to see any kind of reconciliation between ‘authorised’ and ‘unauthorised’ anytime soon. If however the committee is indeed committed to acting in the best interests of the game, then it must do its utmost to get people like Shane Bond playing real cricket again.It will be interesting to see what, if anything, the committee decides or does.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Farce Follows Fiasco (Again)

The scenes from Chester-le-Street yesterday were just the kind the English game didn’t need, especially in what has become its flagship event. Fans being turned away at the gate, told that they’d be seeing no cricket today (in fact, told nothing at all until around five of the clock); players milling about the ground with nothing much to do, bemused and somewhat confused; television coverage of a quarter-final all of a sudden sans live entertainment apart from the unique comedy stylings of Colville and Co. Surely the last thing the game needs to be doing is alienating its Twenty20 fan-base. It was, let’s face it, another of cricket’s great farces.

The complex ramifications the affair could have for the future of this year’s tournament have been analysed and discussed. The madness of thousands of fans being inexcusably robbed of their time and entertainment by an administrative error and overzealous application of regulations has been exposed. But spare a thought for the central figure in this little drama, seventeen year-old Azeem Rafiq.

To me at least it seems somewhat ridiculous that a young man who, along with his family, has decided to make England home is deemed ineligible to be considered an England qualified cricketer whilst at the same time professional cricketers from around the world can become non-overseas players in English domestic sides at ten minutes notice. Over forty South Africans are free to play wherever and whenever they like in England and yet Yorkshire would have had to de-register their overseas player Rana Naved in order to be able to play Rafiq? The situation is manifestly absurd. For that matter, as Rafiq has apparently been residing in the country for seven years, one would have thought that he has easily fulfilled the minimal residential qualifications criteria of five years. Were this simply a case of clerical error it would be understandable if not excusable. But the questions surrounding nationality and such make it much more disturbing. Perhaps I’m being na├»ve, but so what if Rafiq doesn’t have an English passport? One would have thought that now would be the perfect time to furnish him with one. The guy has captained England for god’s sake and now there is speculation that he might be deported?

The ECB’s attempts to pinpoint the blame for this farce solely upon Yorkshire must ring somewhat hollow when one recalls that Rafiq did in fact captain England at under-15 level. Surely it would have been incumbent upon them as the game’s governing body to ensure that the young man was eligible to play for, let alone captain, the national side? Furthermore the organisation’s handling of the current issue has also come under scrutiny. Yorkshire’s coach Martyn Moxon has claimed that the ECB knew of the problem surrounding Rafiq’s registration shortly after his debut against Nottinghamshire and neglected or forgot to do anything about it until the morning of the quarter-final. David Collier on the other hand asserted that this was the first the ECB knew of it. The whole thing reeks of mismanagement and must bring into question the competency of the board. As pointed out over at Reverse Swing Manifesto, the game should have been played regardless of the administrative black-hole and the issue resolved could be resolved afterwards, thus not dissapointing 6000 paying spectators. In any case the postponement of the game was shockingly ill-thought-out and makes one wonder about the ability of the ECB to effectively handle crises. For all Giles Clarke’s positive talk of restructuring the game and taking it to the next level, one gets the feeling that crisis management skills are going to be in seriously high demand in cricket administration circles in the coming months.

The most important question now must be what happens to Rafiq rather than what happens to the twenty20 championship. What must have looked like being the biggest day of his life turned all too suddenly into a nightmare. One can only hope that rumours of his status in the country coming under question are greatly exaggerated. Let’s hope that common sense ultimately prevails and that this doesn’t materially affect the future of this young man in the sport. If it does, it is a poor reflection on how the game of cricket treats its most important commodity, the players themselves. It is they, not high-flying administrators, not billionaire businessmen, not gimmicky franchises, that keep cricket alive and well.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Art of (Bad) Captaincy

Captaincy: The ultimate honour, the peak of ambition. Yesterday I captained my team for the first time in a twenty20 game. Surely there can be nothing better than leading one’s men into battle ? The pride in seeing your side perform above themselves because of your inspiring example. The newly forged bonds of camaraderie and respect between captain and side. Well, not quite. The truth is, it wasn’t much fun. Perhaps KP didn’t realise what he was getting himself into last week. I certainly didn’t. We, like Pietersen’s merry British band, got marmelised.

Once the dust had settled and the casualties had been swept away from the field of battle, I couldn’t help wondering just how culpable I was. For answers I turned to the guru of captaincy himself, Mike Brearley. For war there’s Sun Tzu; for cricket skippership there’s Brearley. On the opening page of The Art of Captaincy he summed up my quandry rather nicely: ‘(the captain) tends to feel responsible when things go badly. He may of course be right. But there may also have been nothing more that he could have done.’ I began my quest for answers in chapter four.

Chapter four: my god, look what they’ve sent me: the captain and selection. Not much blame could be attached to any selectorial foibles on my part. This is intra-club twenty20, not a Test series touring party. You take what you get and run with it. We couldn’t even field eleven, so there weren’t exactly too many selection headaches. There were no protesting fans brandishing no Cummins no goings placards. Whoever showed up was thrust into the action. No scope for gaffes in this regard, so chapter 4 sees me in the clear.

Chapter Five: The morning of the match: reading the entrails. Well firstly the match didn’t start till a quarter to seven in the evening, so I was hardly there in the morning. Regardless, Brearley notes that a captain’s main focus before the game must be on the pitch. As we play on a mat, I could hardly be faulted for failing to note the density of grass covering, frequency of cracking or relative moisture content. Next is the toss. The undeniably sound advice here is to win it. Did that. There follows a treatise on when to bat and when to bowl. My logic was simpler and rested on the assumption that batting in the pitch-dark is trickier than bowling in it. Good old fashioned common sense!

Chapter Six: Batting Orders. Unfortunately Brearley lacked the foresight to mention twenty20. Nonetheless he surely would have appreciated the fact that the batting order was painstakingly formulated. Left/right hand combinations were put into place to frustrate the fielders and put the bowlers off their stride. Pinch-hitters alternated with proper batsmen. A defensive batsman opened with a hitter. Unhappily the former lasted two balls before leaving a straight one. The hitter hit one straight up in the air. The captain, steering his team from the engine-room of number five, lasted fully four balls before losing his off peg. The lower order slogged and slapped despite my most fervent appeals for them to consolidate and rebuild. Fourteen overs and we were history. Sorry Mike, but in all honesty I would’ve been as well off to determine the order by means of a hat and ten bits of paper. In fact, we probably would have done better had I inverted it.

Chapter Seven: Taking the field. Brearley’s pulling no punches here. ‘The art of captaincy culminates in the team fielding’ he declares. That’s what I thought too. Here I felt I was sure to be able to show off my innate tactical nous, my ability to astutely read the game and plan accordingly. The author outlines for the captain four basic requirements: 1. Getting the team on the field. Not the most arduous of tasks perhaps, but I managed that all right. Despite our dismal batting the boys were in bellicose and bullish mood. 2. He moves them around on it. I must confess, there weren’t too many mid-over field alterations, but it was getting dark… 3. He runs a brisk ship. Hmm, perhaps I shouldn’t have had the same man field at deep midwicket for both the left and right handers. In fairness I’m sure the exercise did him, if not the overall pace of play, untold good. 4. He must think ahead. Probably easier done in a 4 day match than when you’re trying to defend 77 runs in 20 overs. I was stuck very much in the present.

Chapter Eight: Placing the field. Brearley’s theories on field placings are comprehensive and instructive, but he fails to discuss what turned out to be fundamental issues. How does one set a field to bad bowling? What do you do when a bowler feeds the opener’s savage cut? ‘Pitch it up!’ I said. Bowl it short they did. Six. Four Six. 'Keep it outside the off,' I pleaded. On the legs they put it. Four. Six. Four. What then Brears? Furthermore, no amount of fielders will do much good if the batsman keeps smashing it over them.

Chapter Nine: Strategy, tactics and unusual plots. It must be said, I rather failed in the imagination department. I employed no leg slip, nor did I advise my bowlers to attempt the in-vogue slow bouncer. My fields stuck slavishly to convention and my advice was steeped in tradition rather than brimming with ingenuity. Definitely an area that could do with improvement. Brearley recalls how once he had a helmet put at short square leg in an effort to get the batsman playing against the spin hoping to gain the five penalty runs on offer. Maybe I’ll give that a go next time.

Brearley’s seminal tome has unfortunately solved few of my problems and answered few of my questions. If only he had written a follow-up, The Art of Intra-club Twenty20 Captaincy, I would be on more solid ground. When it comes down to it, the captain can’t bat 1 to 11, bowl from both ends and field in every position. Ultimately getting bowled for a duck did more harm than any tactical blunders. Derek Underwood once pondered ‘why do so many players want to be captain?’ After my first taste of it, I am inclined to agree.

photo by IanL, taken from Flickr. Reproduced under Creative Commons license.