Reminders.

Know what’s great? Sport.

I shouldn’t need any reminders but I just had one, so without breaching too many confidences, here’s another personal gambit.

In a week where I attended a rather depressing BBC cricket writing thing – on Zoom, all about cramming things down, writing one-sentence paragraphs and therefore, inevitably falling in line with the murderous, soulless brevity of Online Reality – an actual game of cricket was like a quiet marvel. It was slow; it was warm; it was generous. It smelt of humans, not algorithms.

The game was a competitive friendly, between Mainly Good 40-odd Year-olds and Us. (Us being Mainly Good 60 Year-olds). I was the newcomer and – as it turned out – The Impostor. Mad keen but less agile and less able than I’d hoped. Kindof expecting to be able to wing it, through energy and effort but unable to claw my way back up to the level of these skilled, experienced guys. Plus crocked: I didn’t realised how crocked ’til now.

It’s only after I started calculating the Waltonian cricket absence – twelve years since my last competitive game, I reckon – that I begin to cut myself some slack, on what felt like a poor performance. I used to be okaaay. I used to be able to really bowl, at some pace, leg-cutters a speciality. (*Coughs*). You wouldn’t have known, I fear.

I’ve done some nets with stars (and I do mean that, in every sense) of the local Seniors scene but of course there’s nothing like playing. All those unique movements. All that adjustment for bounce, turf, speed, quality of roll. All that running and bending down. And bowling. Wonderful, balletic, deathly movements. I’ve been yomping the Coast Path for years, coaching for years, even (recently) enjoying some practice with my son, in the hope and knowledge that the day must come. But there’s nothing like playing.

Now that I’m still hobbling badly, two full days later, with a proper hospital-sized concern about my right achilles, as well as a decent crop of entirely predictable and indeed appropriate aches and pains, things have landed. Of course I should have bowled off about four paces not sixteen. Of course I should have stopped bowling when *that wee twinge* announced itself, gently at first, in my second over. Of course I should have gone round against their left-hander but…

Calculations suggest it may be 12 years since I played a proper game. So I’m not going to change anything, once I’ve marked out that run. No sir. Just kee-ping it sim-ple. And ignoring that ankle (and yaknow, everything).

Everybody’s hurting, fer chrisssakes. Push on, boyo. Bowl, you gret wazzuck. What’s that one compelling truism in the pile of platitudinous crap? (WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH, THE TOUGH GET GOING!!)

Try. Look how hard all these magnificent, stupid old buggers are trying!

*Lump-in-throat moment* Blimey, yeh, look at ’em. We’ve barely met yet we’re a team. A bloody team! There’s no choice – crack on, mun.

We lost… and it didn’t matter. I only knew, when I pitched up, about four of our players… and it didn’t matter. Game-wise the sunny ambience/honourably competitive combo-thing was humming in the air; balanced; beautiful; idyllic and ideal. It was a real welcome. I got battered but was encouraged, throughout, by patently better men and players. We held our own, enough, as a side, because some of our lads took us within 30-odd of their 242. (40 overs).

In the bar it felt good. We had a few laughs and the unspoken awareness that we had ju-ust begun to morph into another ridicubrotherhood – though in defeat – bounced or spread agreeably round the room. Strangers brought together: that corny, wonderful, sporting cobblers.

But when and how, exactly, did that start? (There’s another post on that!) Could be we felt it on the outfield from the first lumber. It *really can* transmit subconsciously, eh – or somehow? From the first ball – before then? – there was something. Body-language. Verbals. Team Humour.

Maybe it passed or blossomed in the friendly exchanges over our modest consumption of alcohol. (This was no riot). Maybe with the quiz card, or during the Few Words from captain and visiting stalwart – who knows? It was quiet, undeniable magic, with the Pembrokeshire sunshine and the open doors and the guys all ‘suffering’ or recovering: blokes who can really play being good to those who possibly can’t.

I got an award – an allegedly cuddly duck, in take-no-prisoners yellow. I hadn’t batted, on merit, but had probably made the telling contributions in our defeat. So fair cop. We go again, god-willing, on Thursday.

The Revolution According to Anya Shrubsole.

There will be some words but not, let’s be honest, that many. (Wonder why that is?)

After 14 years, Anya Shrubsole, MBE, is hanging up those clodhoppers – at international level, anyway. She has left rather magnificently, with characteristic intelligence and healthy self-awareness. Her career in the game will continue, and I have no doubt she will continue to be a significant threat to batters, quite possibly for some years. But there is a rare-ish consensus that despite being just 30, this was the time. Why would that be?

I’ve been more outspoken (some would say brutal) about Shrubsole’s fitness, than most. I’ve tried to judge her as an international athlete as opposed to a woman and *in that context* been clear that her conditioning has been unacceptable for some time. (Get that some think I’m just another misogynist; politely disagree). Now plenty of folks seem to be gently agreeing, or perhaps more exactly accepting that with the fabulous development of the game now including/demanding significantly higher standards of movement, agility and (obviously) fielding, generally, Anya has become exposed.

In her farewell statement, she says

To have been involved in women’s cricket at a time of such growth has been an honour but it has become clear to me that it is moving forward faster than I can keep up with, so it is time for me to step away.

She’s right. Her bowling – even without being quick – is still often outstanding, and uniquely bananalicious. (Shrubsole has swung the ball better and further than almost any bowler on the planet, for a decade). In-swingers. Beauties. Australia may have made her look eminently or reasonably playable, over the last few months but the sheer voluptuousness of that arc through the air has been simply too much for many international opponents, for aeons.

Right now it maybe that things have crept against her even on this – although I am clear that it is fundamentally the conditioning thing that has nudged her aside. Because all standards are going dizzily skyward, the sense that she is *relatively* one-dimensional, bowling-wise, has been developing. She of course can and does vary pace and mixes up deliveries a little but that killer inswing has always been the weapon. Of late, the likes of Healy, Lanning and Mooney looked like they could read it.

It will be fascinating to see if Shrubsole can remain a force in the formats she continues to grace. Will more bats more confidently swing through? Dunno… but openly hope Anya doesn’t get entirely found out – she’s too good and her contribution’s been too magnificent for that.

I first saw Anya Shrubsole live at Glamorgan CC, for a double-header against Australia. This was 2015, I think: (go check, there’s a blog pretty much dedicated to her performance). The women’s *scene* had begun to reveal its potential to me and I knew a little… but WOW. Sitting directly behind her as she ran in, possibly on my first visit to the Glam Media Centre, was deliciously memorable. The amount of swing Shrubsole got that day was a bloody revelation (to me). She struggled to contain it but got a three-for, again from memory, including some of those Ozzy Superstars.

I know I wrote that she was the best or most exciting bowler on the day (when the blokes played too, right?) It really could be that the Ole Partnership of Brunty and Shrubbers grabbed a hold of me right there and then: I’ve been attending England Women internationals ever since.

So – despite being critical – I’m gonna miss this woman. For her very English doughtiness and rather moody, schoolmistress-like air, in the field. For her late-order batting grit. But mainly for the world-beating, sometimes thrillingly late-looping bowling. For that, Shrubsole will always be special; will always be a leader, in fact, of The Revolution.

Different Level.

Let’s start with a minute’s applause, for an Australian side we freely acknowledge to be a worldie – even those of still somewhat trapped by that feeble, generational tribalism-thing, that puts an anchor on pro-Aus warblature. They are different level; they’ve proved it; it’s a triumph for all of them. Their seemingly impregnable mentality is a powerful, impressive, undeniable bloc, that even us Poms have to defer to and respect.

So where’s it come from? From Mott’s shrewd leadership – and Lanning’s. Via deep, committed investment, both financial and in terms of planning, to make the execution possible. From a spectacular group of talented and resilient players. From things strategised, then ‘allowed to happen’, or nurtured, rather than directed or coached, entirely – because, maybe, they can’t be coached. Plenty of this is supra-sport, beyond measurement, ownership or even explanation. How fabulous is that?

Australia are all of those juggernaut-tastic things the media and the fans are calling them. It’s great that a truly ground-breaking squad has demonstrated their brilliance so emphatically… and gone and won the bloody thing. This is what Sporting Justice ought to look like: the best winning, fair and square (and ideally with some style). All. Boxes. Ticked.

But where does this leave England? In credit, firstly, in the sense that they have fought back from some degree of humiliation (never mind disappointment) in the early rounds of this tournament. They were distressingly poor, particularly in the field, for a nerve-jangling and near-‘fatal’ period. A way back (and forward, obvs) was found.

Interesting to note Ecclestone’s lurv-note to her skipper, in this regard. Sophie notably keen to big up ‘Trevor’ for guiding/chivvying/leading the group back into contention. For England to win a series of sudden-death matches and then stay ahead of the Australian run-rate for thirty-odd overs, chasing a ridicu-total in the World Cup Final is no mean feat. To smash South Africa in the semi is no mean feat. Ecclestone publicly lumped a lot of the credit for the honourable resurgence at her captain’s feet.

There are rumours around the obvious potential retirees – Brunt and Shrubsole. The latter was tearful both before and after the game: no wonder. Shrubsole had a goodish semi and final but her conditioning and the feeling that more teams will find her out more easily as time and skill-levels fly on and up, work against her keenly now. Yes she is still taking wickets but a wee slackening in pace is inevitable. That together with raised expectations and the urgent need to enact the succession planning we can only imagine has been at the forefront of the coaching groups’ minds for some time point to an international retirement soon. It’s time.

Brunt is older but a different animal. Fitter and more adversarial than Shrubsole – generally in a good way – the long-time Pack Leader may still have the energy and the skills to compete for a place. (Whether this is either the right thing, or helpful to either party is something those of us the outside would be foolish to judge upon). My daft guess is that both opening bowlers may retire – possibly from all cricket – with Shrubsole moving into a coaching role, maybe within a shortish time-frame. (She just strikes me as a thoughtful one, and someone who might impart valuable stuff with some dexterity. Brunt is allegedly a lovely, ‘soft’, warm human away from the battle but somehow I don’t see her settling back into stuff, away and without direct involvement in that mortal combat).

The World Cup Final, perhaps inevitably, laid bare some of the concerns, for England. What happens when early wickets don’t tumble, for the bowling unit? What happens if Sciver, striding out to bat, can’t find her Superwoman suit? How can Brunt be batting 7? What level *really*, are Dean and Cross working at, ball-in-hand?

We cannot address any of these issues without re-stating the specialness of Australia; without revisiting the clear yellow water between Oz and everybody else. But let’s assume – as England will – that they are the standard to which they aspire. Simply no point in aiming towards Indian or South African ‘ceilings’: how well Ecclestone – to take the extreme and uppermost example – goes against that second tier, is irrelevant to progress. England must address the towering spinner’s relative failure to impact the fixtures against Australia. (Go look at the stats. Interesting).

Watching Ecclestone go for 70-odd in her ten overs (again) was no real surprise – Australia, we know, are *that good* – but Keightley and co (as well as the bowler) must look at the specifics around that, as well as the general impregnability of the Australian line-up. All of us with an opinion to hurl were saying, before the game, that England must find a way to knock over seven or eight Aussie wickets to stand any chance. It didn’t happen. Three toughish chances were dropped and by the time wickets fell, a platform the size of a South Sea island had been built.

It may have been that Lanning, Mooney and Perry didn’t need that incredi-base to free them up – such is their confidence and skill. But having a mighty lump of runs behind you does *change things*. I might have gone in there and fearlessly biffed a few, in those last ten overs. Australia, without me, struck 120 runs off the last 60 balls(!) Strewth. No wonder the record books were exploding.

Final thought on the Australian batting. Perry. This may be sentimental but how wonderful to see her just do enough, in her limited time at the crease, to offer a wee sense of her choiceness, her flow. Unwise words both but she remains a goddess of the game, a natural – as demonstrated by her exhibition in the field, where she gathered and threw splendidly.

To England, and particulars of their game. Wyatt could not maintain her own, superlative form, of the semi and, despite being England’s best fielder, she dropped a sharpish chance, at point. (That, in hindsight seems a little symbolic… and despite the Independence of All Things, it felt a little like that precipitated further drops from Sciver and Beaumont). Opening-up, as always, Beaumont fell earlyish, too, again playing across – something she may need to re-address. Early-doors, England stayed ahead of the run-rate, but a killer partnership never seemed likely: compare and contrast(?)

Knight could not resist: England’s platform was therefore creditable but wobbly. Jones, joining Sciver, found a few shots but fell off again. Dunkley, in at 6, felt like the last significant protagonist… with a zillion runs still to make. When she was bowled, rather unsatisfactorily, behind here legs, Sciver, going mightily once more, looked stranded – or likely to be so.(As she approached her hundred, this tingled, uncomfortably).

Ultimately, Sciver nailed an extraordinary second century against This Australia, in the tournament: defiance, and then some.

Brunt went, Dean offered meaningful but sadly un-sustainable support and Cross and Shrubsole went cheaply. In short justice was done, and by about the right margin. Another Australian Team For the Ages had powered home, with Healy playing the kind of knock that even Poms like me might raise a glass to.

On a spectacular day, the team in blinding yellow had re-invented the possibles again. Thrillingly.

Universe podcast, : #CWC22, five dangerous themes.

Get that Twitter doesn’t do irony, so expect to be in trouble again, creditibility-wise, as I tear into Media Coverage by erm, ranting unrehearsed. (Do like a bitta mischief. 🤓)

However, there is the occasional worthwhile obsevation, in here, I venture. So have a listen?

Point 1 is about the very mixed coverage – so mainly pointing at Sky… but not just them. Clearly there are some brilliant broadcasters out there but it pisses me off we don’t see too much of them (for women’s coverage).

Do I need to add that clearly there are some brilliant women broadcasters… but that as per the blokes, some are either shockingly bland, air-headed or dull? And we deserve better. So hang the producers. This is not about the sex of the people; it’s about their quality… or the quality of some of them. Loads of viewers reach straight for the mute button: that ain’t right.

Points 2-5 are probably less contentious. I talk about cricket. But yeh, go see. Or listen.

Footnote: should have mentioned Kate Cross, in here. Good athlete, good, consistent bowler and great Team Member. Her nibbly wee fifth-stumpers may well contribute, should England prosper. (Have a slight fear Aus may target her, precisely because of that consistency but really hope she goes well).

Another field.

Just me, or did everything go foggy? Just not sure if I’m seeing straight, or walking straight. As though I’m foot-dragging, head-down – as though some impenetrable gloom is settling.

Could be the whole Ukraine shitshow, of course. Undoubtedly is. That’s monstrous and unsettling, even from this (my/our) safe distance. Cruel. But something else, something that’s going to sound on the one level insultingly melodramatic, set me off walking – quite literally – towards some light and some respite, yesterday. Deaths from another field.

My hands are up. I’m plainly one of the Poms that bridled when Marsh or Warne did their lary Australian thing: when they so mischievously and powerfully stoked our feeble, tribal Brit-dom. Couldn’t stand them, in the day. Too ‘in yer face’ – too Ozzy. Spent years if not decades fighting back the open vitriol against a painfully endless series of Australian Super-teams. Often it broke through and I’d be bawling at the telly like some inflamed, proto-Barmy Army clan-member, high on beer or anger or jealousy. Rod Marsh was a bull with gloves on; Warne a chopsy bamboozler. The bastards always beat us and generally smashed us. Because they were bloody sensational.

Warne is rightly being talked about in a different way. He was in a category of one. Dazzling, touched by something ver-ry special: a blonde ringmaster. Marsh was less extravagantly gifted but in terms of team humour and durability, equally a force. They were both macho men, with arses like rhinos and that toughened rhino-like skin: kings of fierce banter and apex-predator confidence. I went walking yesterday to mourn them… and to escape the crushing poignancy of our own family losses to cardiac arrest.

Then suddenly the cricket was back. Australia versus England – beautifully or cruelly(?)- in the Women’s World Cup, no less.

Earlier the fabulously dramatic (though mixed quality) New Zealand v West Indies match had cut through the seemingly universal melancholy. The White Ferns (hosts) had contrived to lose three wickets in the last over, needing only six runs to win; Deandra Dottin taking the whole “hold my beer” schemozzle to a different stratum, by returning to the match to twist the fates. Incredible, but (with all due respect) something of a warm-up act for the Ashes re-run.

In Hamilton, England chose to bowl and Brunt and Shrubsole executed, certainly with regard to control, without making the breakthroughs that were always likely to be necessary against the world’s best. Healy scored at a decent rate but was mis-timing, on a pitch that the distinctively discerning Nasser Hussain – how brilliant?!? – described, within a matter of overs as challengingly ‘tacky’. (He went on to relate just how Kate Cross’s modus operandum – length, in particular – might be central to proceedings. The fact that she didn’t quite prove him right does nothing to undermine the sparkling acuity of his observations). Haynes battled stodgily through, early on, Healy was out miscuing before Australia engaged Bat Long In Order To GO BIG mode- as they so often do.

Lanning made 86 and Haynes an increasingly dynamic 130 as the Southern Stars (are they still calling themselves that?) posted an intimidating 310 for 3. Tellingly, they had made 100 runs from the final 60 balls, with both Perry and Mooney contributing to the concluding burst. It was always likely to be too much.

England are good and were good, in that first knock. But not special. Ecclestone – a worldie of a bowler but an average, if improving fielder – might possibly have claimed two catches. Given that these were offered by Lanning and Haynes before they really opened up, this bloody hurt. Players of that quality really are going to cash in and build, if you gift them lives.

Not that England didn’t compete. Beaumont, Knight, Sciver and to a lesser extent Dunkley and Brunt can be pret-ty content with their contributions with the bat. But this is not the case – again – with Winfield-Hill, Jones and Wyatt, all of whom did that *slightly predictable* under-achievement thing.

Get that it’s hugely insulting to question anyone’s mettle… but this may be where we are with those individuals. Unquestionably players but too often(?) unable to demonstrate the toughness or resolve or whatever it is, to contribute under manifest pressure. (Unconvinced? I’ve watched them live, multiple times. You can feel it coming.).

Jones is fortunate in the sense that she is a relative fixture on account of her primacy as a ‘keeper. But she’s been infuriating, more often that not, with the bat. Can hit strikingly purely but so-o often swings without timing or sufficient confidence across the line – miscuing to the fielder. Winfield-Hill can be classical and doughty and sometimes stylishly expansive… but rarely gets past 30. Weirdly, it may be that she surrenders her place to the mercurial, popular and sometimes thrillingly positive Wyatt, who opened for an extended period before a drop in her form.

On paper England bat deep but in practice, against Real Contenders, there are questions arising. It’s true, I think that despite the development of historically less powerful (cricketing) nations, Keightley’s crew are still more professional and more accomplished than everyone else in this comp – hence the unwanted moniker as ‘The Best Side in the World That Isn’t Australia’. But there is a gap there that the Australian-born England coach will be, must be seeking to close. That gap feels more about temperament than quality, to me.

I don’t enjoy any implication that despite the presence and quality of Beaumont, Knight, Sciver and Brunt, England may lack character, but (despite posting a strong total against the world’s best side!) it sometimes registers like this. Meaning the mix needs a further shake; or particular individuals need to graft, force, grit their way back into some international form. Quite a task to do that, mid-competition.

We can’t finish on a negative, after England got within a handful of runs of a record target. Good game. Encouraging game. Next stop for the ‘Pommie Wimmin?’ Exhilarating, undeniable brilliance. Please.

On ‘Different Class: The Untold Story of English Cricket’, by Duncan Stone. A personal view.

Daft ‘formalities’: I’ve never met Duncan Stone but we are (how ridiculous does this sound… but how often am I saying it?) Twitter mates, or at least relate, on that venerable platform. So, knowing him as a co-‘leftie’, as a bloke with a strong social conscience, I come to this thing with a lump of sympathy. I am not, however, any kind of historian – not even of cricket. Indeed if this book was just a collection of events or historical *moments* detailing or sketching the chronological tribulations or otherwise of the game, I might personally be nodding out, here and there. It’s the actual game, that does it for me.

What this means is I had mixed expectations. And there were times when I drifted, a tad, amongst the fixing of the stories. Hang on, which league? What conference? How many teams, in which configuration? Who got excluded and which was the mob most dripping with imperialist supremacy? And who was it, again, who was right-on… and who self-righteous? Were they also implicitly or explicitly racist? And who was, yaknow, right about everything from the format to the Real Power Structures?

It’s my weakness, I suspect, not the book’s, that I felt ver-ry occasionally neck-deep in club/league detail I was never going to hold onto. I fully accept the author’s right and indeed motivation to put on the record, as he does, the Untold Story: there is a brilliance and thoroughness and drive about that meticulous intent which demands respect. Plus… Stone is right.

He is right to puncture the ludicrous pomp around ‘Gentlemen Amateurs’ and their greedy hold on the sport. From Grace the Giant (but hypocritical arse) to Graves the delusional inheritor; all these posh white gentlemen lauding it and inferring (or even proclaiming) their own specialness. As ‘amateurs’. As ‘gentlemen’. As guardians of the ‘spirit of cricket’. Stone firstly both champions and records the alternative history, of league cricket, ordinary cricket, cricket without pretensions, then he unpicks the collusions between toffs, media and governance that have always propped up the ‘traditional’ view of this game being superior. The author says “I see you” to all those through the ages who by accident or design have conflated (their own) comfortable, mono-cultural middle-classness with (their own), ‘authentic’, rather needy understanding of cricket as force for good-which-coincides-with English Greatness.

It’s political, then. Because of course the dominion – from Amateur Gentleman Player to Jerusalem-bawling (white, middle-class) Barmy Army activiste – remains. As it does in the political realm. The ECB remains. Poor visibility remains. Poor inclusion. The august BBC reporter (Agnew) is still saying that ‘cricket is a decent game, played decently’, without any sense of how loaded that statement is.

Cue the longish extract, from a blistering final chapter:

‘As much as the historical importance of the Ashes continues to prop up Test cricket in England and Australia, the global adoption of the “Spirit of Cricket” as recently as 2000 is, for anyone aware of the game’s long history of shamateurism, match-fixing, elitism and racism, little more than a corporate delusion. Domestically, the decision taken in 2003 to have the England team take to the field to Sir Edward Elgar’s version of “Jerusalem” is equally problematic. Now that the “resentful irony” of William Blake’s words are wilfully misinterpreted, this entirely contrived tradition (originally suggested by Ashes sponsor Npower) not only presents an anachronistic view of England, it reinforces the rigid monoculturalism at the heart of the Tebbit Test’.

If you don’t get that that Agnew’s (probably? Relatively?) innocent remark about decency, or the more extravagantly insensitive use of ‘Jerusalem’ by ECB/England Cricket project something unhelpful into the ether then this book will challenge you. (And that’s good). If you love cricket and history and finding stuff out, you will be riveted by ‘Different Class’ – hopefully irrespective of your political views. It does tell an untold story: that of a game “that has elevated those blessed with privilege while disenfranchising the majority who, as this book reveals, did the most to develop and sustain the game according to a very different culture.” (Page 287).

This brief review undersells the bulk of the material, which details, richly, the development of recreational cricket, previously utterly bypassed or even traduced by most historians. That disproportion of mine may be inevitable, given the noises around the game and around this book but I regret it and re-iterate my respect for the telling of that story. Mr Stone has thrown a ver-ry robust, very powerful and yes, controversial document into the mix. Read it and consider many things.

Hitting Against the Spin – & *re-thinking*.

None of us take all that much notice of cover-blurb, eh? No matter who writes it?

Oh. Okay, maybe we do – otherwise publishers wouldn’t be sticking it on there – but you know whattamean? Schmaltzy and patently untrue at worst, supportive half-truths more generally.

So when I saw ‘clever and original, but also wise’ (ED SMITH, in bold, red capitals) it barely registered. Now, I could save you all the bother of reading the following missive by just saying again that ‘Hitting Against the Spin’, by Nathan Leamon and Ben Jones, is clever and original but also wise… because it really is. Job done. Next?

Next is trying to say something more; something about reservations somewhat assuaged, ribs dug, minds re-opened, inclinations towards lurv, instinct, ‘humanity’ intelligently checked. This book is very skilled at lots of stuff but maybe particularly at making convincing arguments against assumptions. And not all of these arguments are slam-dunks of the Incontrovertible Fact variety. (As someone likely to remain on the David Byrne – “facts are useless in emergencies” – side of history, here, this feels important). One of the great strengths of this book is that it’s not adversarial. It’s too generous, as well as too clever, for that.

I am not an artsy clown but if the question is art or science then I go arts; every time. And as a coach I think of what I do (yup, even at my daft wee level) as driven more by reading the human than reading the trends/stats/’info’, or even, often, the manual for a specific skill. Appreciating what feels right (and saying something appropriate) can be every bit as key as factoring in a mountain of brilliant information. This of course doesn’t mean that I don’t completely accept that (especially at the elite end of the market) stats and analysis aren’t BIG. They are and I have no beef with them getting bigger, in the sense of providing coaches and players with important points of reference. But *in the moment*, confidence and relationships are and will remain AT LEAST AS BIG. And *the environment*, the Team Humour is BIG, too.

Leamon and Jones, whilst repeatedly skilfully shredding received wisdoms around many things, respect the space of the coach and the capacity of what I’m gonna call teaminess to influence, positively – or otherwise. They also deconstruct cuddly but deeply flawed assumptions around (for example) bowling full, whilst appreciating and indeed positing context – ie. venue/bowler/batter/conditions – into the statistical judgement. It is not, therefore, adversarial. It’s persuasive. It’s fair. Again, I congratulate these two gents on that. I, for one, being a softie and a sucker for the poetry in any game, might have been driven further towards romantic delusion should this book have chosen to shout certainties. Hitting Against the Spin is too wise for that.

So (even) I looked hard at the graphs and diagrams. Even I, with my ver-ry limited interest in the IPL and the BBL worked to pick up the inferences from games and leagues that honestly don’t matter much to me. Why? Because the book earns that kind of respect – because it’s good that my/our(?) well-meaning but maybe dumb tribalism be challenged and educated. Because obviously stuff that happens in India/Aus/Pakistan can be both bloody fascinating and revealing of wider themes: we don’t have to be personally invested to be interested, entertained, schooled. (Not unrelated note: the subtitle for this book is ‘How Cricket Really Works’. This is not hollow bluster; the authors’ worldly experience is compellingly instructive around a range of strategies, from short-format drafts, to bowling options).

Go read this book. Maybe particularly if you have concerns about ‘analysis’. Stats and the intuition or brilliance or understanding or generosity or soulfulness (goddammit) of real people are not mutually exclusive. Coaches can and will still change the universe by putting an arm round. Genius will still find a way to thrill and confound us, because though ‘the numbers are there’, events may gloriously subvert them. Data may indeed, as the book says, “democratise truth”, but life and sport will always be wonderfully, stirringly anarchic. Thank god.

Bairstow.

Some things, we know, go right past sport. Some of those things are hard to approach – reckless to approach, perhaps? Tough to get in there without offending. Tough and possibly quite wrong to speculate over things that course so deeply. So, no offence but…

Jonny Bairstow. Cricket *and everything* in the blood. Son of an England ‘keeper. Half-brother to Andrew, formerly of Derbyshire. First Winner of the Wisden Schools Young Cricketer of the Year, for walloping 600-plus runs for St Peter’s School, York, back in 2007. So does have Yorkshire Grit but of the relatively polished, or privileged variety. (Not that he can help that. And not that he ever strikes you as any sort of toff. His oeuvre, or let’s call it manner, despite a certain pomp, is closer to working-class hero than flouncy sophisticate ).

2016, scores 1470 Test runs, almost doubling Matt Prior’s existing record: compare with England’s current crop… and with his own tally of 391, for 2021 (if I’m reading cricinfo correctly). So numbers. But numbers don’t account for tragedy, or bloody-mindedness, or value to the team: not really. Bairstow’s value has always been about punchiness and spirit and undeniability. He’s the guy who does the bullocking, the sprinting, the (mostly) undemonstrative aggression. He’s fired-up, Proper Yorkshire, in fact – and Proper Red-head.

His role as a white-ball opener has been spectacularly successful. The Test batting less so – or it’s felt for three or four years like his place is under some threat. Prone to getting bowled, early-doors. Great counter-attacker but sometimes not equipped for a long, slowish knock. Is there also a sense that, being drawn to drama, Bairstow’s juices simply don’t always flow? That he responds to situations which demand heroics? Despite being plainly a mentally and physically tough guy, his contributions seem fickle – less reliable than his personality and grit and gifts would suggest. Plus that whole other thing about taking the gloves or not.

But hey. Before the furore-in-a-beer-glass over comments about his weight, I did tweet to query JB’s body-shape. Impolite and unnecessary, possibly, but all I meant was a) he looks like he’s put on a few pounds and b) therefore looked less like a battle-ready international sportsman. I think we’re entitled to ask that of our elite athletes but Jonny answered me in the way he and Stokesy answered the mouthy Australian fans – by scoring big runs and racing between the sticks faster than almost anybody on the planet; as per. So maybe my dumb observations were dumb observations. The thing is Bairstow defied: again.

This feels like the crux. Bairstow may be carrying impossible hurt – why wouldn’t he be? As well as the family catastrophe, or possibly entwined amongst unfathomable grief and anger and trauma, Bairstow somehow feels like the bloke who wants to wade in there carrying some flag. He’s proud, strong, hearty and the hurt flows near to the surface.

I reckon this might possibly make him hard to manage – but again, I may be speculating wrongly and quite inappropriately. How could he not be occasionally dour and moody, as well as inspiring and true, as a mate, colleague, comrade? How does the coach or selector appreciate or quantify that? When his often god-like or warrior-like brassiness and boldness is surely tailor-made for those moments when ‘the tough get going?’ Meaning you absolutely need some Bairstow in your squad.

Conversely, I get that judgements must be made about technical skills and the relative qualities of team members: the mix. But Jonny’s gift to the mix is emphatic in terms of energy and emotion.

Jonny Bairstow knows he is entitled to bugger all but he will still feel that he’s earned stuff. He has that fire and that Yorkie stubbornness. He is likely plenty perverse enough to be driven on by resentment, against slights from media, coaches, fans, fellow players. Because he’s a broad, bellowing, beautiful battler.

Love. Fear. Grief. And another incredi-chapter.

It’s hard to be strategic when there’s so-o much love about. And fear. And grief. How, exactly, do we manage a way through an Away Series, in Oz? With all that inconvenient turning of the earth stuff? And the disorientating, electrifying, fecund stillness – the night, outside? Loveliness, but then with the bastards down there bouncing down the corridors of our Proper Sleep-time, squeezing off fire-extinguishers like drunken bladdy students. And winning – always winning. How do we manage against that?

Can only be instinct – unless you’re one of the comparatively few who really can watch through the night and either sleep or work through the day. I can’t; can only do some. So like most of the Pom Universe I swerved Day 3 entirely and gathered to watch Day 4. That made sense.

England had a sniff. After Root and Malan had restored some pride, and Hameed had offered some hope, it made sense to invest in Day 4. Let’s do this.

Minor tactical kip during the late afternoon: fitful but hopefully restorative, or enabling of a long overnight haul. ‘Social’ quietly fizzing with suitably modest hypotheses, around ‘building’, or ‘extending’ and just maybe ‘constructing a total’. Then pundits on the telly-box being bundled into That Conversation: the one where it’s considered that England might yet steal a bladdy win.

They’d have to ‘start again’; then ‘see off the new ball’; then ‘build’. ‘Obviously Root and Malan can play… can take this on… but don’t forget how Stokes and Buttler in particular can push on – can take a game away from you’.

Have no idea if these conversations *actually happened*. Or if I was already dreaming. Pretty sure I watched as Malan got tangled-up, to the often innocuous-looking but persistently troubling Lyon. Certain I saw an absolute peach, from the miraculously recovered Hazlewood – who may have never been injured, despite the twelve hours of relentless and generally circular ‘discussion’ from our frankly embarrassingly wearisome local hosts. (Less is more, gentlemen). That peach deserved to register and it did – accounting for the England captain

The Root dismissal has come to feel central to everything: if our friends at Wisden are to believed he has scored 1100 more runs than the next England bat in this calendar year. ELEVEN FUCKING HUNDRED: he has 1,544. Burns, remarkably, is next, on 492. Plainly, on this occasion, the skipper erred again, fishing gently but fatally for one that simply shouldn’t have tempted him: certainly not at that stage.

The dismissal of Pope, soon after, for 4, trying to cut a ball that bounced a little, from Lyon, who has made a career out of top-spin/over-spin, meant not just that the game was almost done but barely credibly, it was almost done before the new ball had been taken. Understandably, even the pundits before us with worthwhile collections of brain-cells had been singling out that period (after ten overs or so of old-ball phoney-war) as critical. But no. Even they (even I) had underestimated England’s capacity to be England.

Extraordinarily, my Original Plan to hit the hay, come what may, after the morning’s session in Brisbane, worked out supremely: just not in the way any of us had foreseen. We foresaw a slaughter (probably), once Hazlewood and Cummins and Starc had the new cherry. Nope. Not to be. Those seamers had some joy, inevitably but it was the old pill – and the old-school non-spinning spinner – what done it, essentially. Four-fer, for Nathan Lyon, ultimately, taking him beyond 400 Test wickets. And another incredi-chapter in the book of England Ashes traumas.

Hello Chance to Shine.

I’m not a suit kindofaguy. Nor a shirt man, if the truth be told. So an awards gig at Lords was always going to be a challenge, not just in sartorial terms but in terms of politesse and reigning in the urge to eat like a rabid horse, as per.

Did buy a suit – the other wearable one being procured for the Two-tone era, *first time around*, from Camden Lock Market – was on the shabby side of chic. Did buy a tie and went the strong colours route on a dangerously perfunctory whim. Alleged mate on the Twitters referenced John Lydon and know what? I can live with that. Anger is an energy but so is being you.

I say this because I won an award, at the Chance to Shine wonderbash, and I reckon this resulted from some half-decent, energetically honest sessions of cricket-based games, delivered to kids over a decade or so. Honest in the sense that I poured myself in there – not to be arrogant, or even necessarily central – but to authentically be the daft-but-friendly bloke that I am. To be the fella that really does love this game and is bloody determined that you will get it too.

Back in the mists of time I had been volunteering at Haverfordwest Cricket Club in West Wales, supporting my son, initially. He had wanted to follow some mates and ‘try proper cricket’. I threw the ball back five times then got bundled towards the coaching pathway, which I loved. Years later (and in the loveliest of expectation-vacuums) a job came up, with Cricket Wales. Coaching. Cricket… like, as a job!

Ridiculously, after a mainly practical interview where I remember doing the Embarrassing Rick Thing, wildly bouncing balls off a Crazy-Catch trampette in a hall in Milford Haven and generally foaming with enthusiasm, I got the nod. Community Cricket Coach for Pembrokeshire. Wow.

Then came years of learning, actually. Much of it inevitably ‘on the job’ but a genuinely appreciable amount via Chance to Shine and/or Cricket Wales training. Because coaching really isn’t playing, right? It isn’t even the transfer of your knowledge of the game, to other parties. Or not just that. It’s both bigger (and more theoretical/abstract) than that and more personal – more about impacting upon people.

Over time, as a Community Coach, you assimilate not just the team ethos, the essence of the role but look to embody something of the responsibility. Being deeply aware of the brilliance of the coaching posse I had fallen into, I think I did take a few conscious breaths, roll up my sleeves and determine to work with (dare I say it?) honour as well as skill and humour. I think I did that regularly, over the years, to re-charge and re-commit.

Best explain a little – can see this begins to sound like some weird, corporate mission-speak.

We coaches are trained to deliver outstanding, open, generous, entertaining, themed – i.e. developmental – cricket-based sessions, to groups of children. We are trained around disability issues, around inclusion, around how to offer a fabulous game suitably brilliantly. There is a Chance to Shine curriculum which has been ver-ry skillfully put together to maximise accessibility in the widest, most wonderful sense.

Typically, a bundle of children receive a bundle of sessions, so that their familiarity, then comfort, then enjoyment of the games can develop. Even a comedian like me is spookily mindful of strategies towards advancement/refinement/recalibration. Are these kids happy and engaged to the right level? Who needs a different challenge – a different ball? Who needs encouragement? I’m nutshell-averse but in short how do we make this session work… for this/that child? It’s a tremendous, intoxicating challenge and one I will always view as a privilege: the cricket offer.

But coo, suddenly there I am, on a stage, in a room which is palpably full of love for a daft game. Two hundred people. One generous, supportive vibe.

Laura Cordingley has spoken well and boldly about responsibilities we all share. I’m behind her on that mission towards fairness and respect and opportunity – there’s no question the whole room is. Then I’m thinking of my mates and colleagues at Cricket Wales; how this absurdly Rick-centric moment can only really be understood as a team award, for Martin Jones, Sean Evans, Jamie Griffiths, Geraint Leach, Terry Dixon and all the rest of our guys and gals. The CW Community Coaching Team.

Aatif Nawaz is asking me a question about how we sustain a child’s interest in cricket… and it’s a duff question… and we both realise it… but I’m the one who has to fend. I get away with it, narrowly. I’m hoping he won’t ask about my wee mate Gethin*, featured in the film that’s just been playing to the room. Entirely possible I might blub, trying to relay something of the utter joy and rich satisfaction that’s accompanied our mutual gambol into cricketstuff.

(*It’s both incidental and not, that Gethin is significantly visually impaired and that he’s been a fantastic, inspiring comrade during our spells together at Neyland Community Primary. He’s been nonchalantly smashing through the metaphorical walls around his disability. I had heard he’d contributed to the video for my award: hadn’t seen it ‘til moments before I went on stage).

Aatif makes some reference to my ill-timed transfer across to my new employers, Sport Pembrokeshire. We share a joke but I make clear my continuing commitment to cricket and to its multifarious pathways. I dismount the stage mercifully without catastrophe.

Returning to my seat, alongside my son, a largish glass of white finds itself inhaled. The stupendous Mr Stuart Priscott – Operations Manager, Chance to Shine – comes over and notably warmly and sincerely shakes my hand. “You’re a good man, Rick”, he says. That’ll do me.

My thanks go to all at Chance to Shine and Cricket Wales. Here’s the wee film they made of me ‘in action’…