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.

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