Fundamentals.

Barney Ronay divides opinion, I believe. Some imagine him a flashy ‘one trick pony’, kicking up his metrosexual hooves as he gallops from hipster-caff to Sarf Landun bookshop, brewing arresting one-liners before unleashing them on the Great (and hopefully Grateful) Unwashed: us. (The fact that the fella supports Surrey plainly weighs against him, here).

But no. For speaking entirely frankly (and never having met the geezer), I hold the contrary view. He is brill – genuinely brilliant, entertainingly, insightfully, lasertastically so – and you are either a Dead Soul or a miserable barsted not to see it.

The man is after really capturing things (as opposed to just recording), through that coruscating wit of his. This is bold, this is generous, this is life-enhancing: it is also borne of the truly creative mind – and bollocks to you if you think that means it’s in any way bad, sad or twisted.

He is also, despite the Surrey thing – lols – a genuine cricket man, with both a personal and family interest in the game. So… why the rant? Read his column, which, incidentally is ‘straight’ and therefore won’t offend those who struggle with the sparkly bits; poor loves.

https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2018/sep/20/surrey-cricket-production-line-county-cricket?

If you haven’t quite been arsed to read the column… you’re ver-ry naughty but here’s a precis, of sorts. Surrey are brill because they had integrity and because they train hard and well and some of this is to do with respecting traditional skills: like being able (in the traditional sense) to bat.

Which brings me to my point; which is about coaching.

I have not taken issue with the drift (is that pejorative? Okay, then shift) in ECB Coaching Principles, towards principles, as opposed to what we might call grooving or rehearsing of skills. And yes, I’m talking batting here, mainly.

The emergence, 3 or 4 years ago of Core Principles as helpful, generous, non-prescriptive, appropriate points of discussion or offering from coaches to players, in the ECB Coaching system seemed healthy, to many of us community or club coaches, at the time.

I personally, as a professional coach in the sense of working full-time in cricket – albeit typically with junior players – felt that given the revolutions ongoing in the game, it may no longer be appropriate to direct players. Coach them through their adventure, their learning, their search for that which works consistently for them (if they are reaching or wanting to reach that far)… but don’t insist on particular methods. So – principles around stillness or stability or swinging of the bat, maybe, but not ‘you have to hit the ball like this’.

As I’ve written previously it’s problematic, if not ludicrous, in the age of Pietersen then McCullum then Ingram or Whoever, to speak of universal, inviolable truths. People keep inventing stuff! It was in this context, I think, that the essence of ECB Coaching moved towards Core Principles – allowing for and respecting individual choice or brilliance or engineering of contemporary solutions.

The revolutions have continued, gathered force, even and the eyes of the world are huddled around us. To the extent that batters are received as being more somehow more guilty than ever of, or responsible for, triumphant inventions and/or crass and obvious crimes against batting. Things are different, things are crazy-present, things are polarised. In one format, things are stacked against the bowlers, in another – in September – it seems that no-one can bat for longer than five overs. Things are different.

And yet here’s an article from a very fine cricket writer, who has access to his County Cricket Club, who are Champions – deservedly – and traditional values and traditional disciplines and skills are being identified as key to the success. Ronay quotes Academy Director, Gareth Townsend –

“We’ve gone back to what you might call ‘teaching the fundamentals’, presenting the full face of the bat, playing straight.”

And again, more generally –

‘Going against trends, Surrey have made a conscious move to make defensive technique a priority in the development stages, believing that the other side, the ball-striking aspect of modern cricket, will happen in any case.’

This is music, of course to The Hundred Haters and indeed most County Championship Cricket supporters. The retreat into (or re-invigoration of) That Which We’ve Always Known. The sure knowledge that there is sure knowledge and that it must underpin the execution and the coaching of batting for any length of time.

And time is the thing, yes? With a world mitigating against, it figures that the patience and the grit and the eking out against the odds – against a swinging ball and a skilled practitioner at t’other end – might be qualities challenged by an oppressive, impatient universe. Might point inevitably towards 60-something all outs. But how great would it be if some of us could flick the vees at all this rushing-to-the-end? By coaching the batting-out… of time?

It could be that Surrey, of all people(!) have started something wonderfully unfashionable. They still have ‘haircuts’ but they also have professional pride, guts, and that profoundly unsexy attribute – stickability. They practice for it.

I have no doubt that the ECB Coaching hierarchy continually review their cultures and that they are ahead of any call to look at whether the generosity implied through Core Principles risks a slide towards sloppiness and poor technical skills. Or maybe more pointedly, towards laziness, amongst a younger generation high on The Now?

Batting long will always be an essential component of Championship or Test Cricket. It has a rare quality – impenetrable to some, quietly loved by others. I’m in that latter camp, from where I wonder perhaps, if some of that niche stuff about ‘playing straight’ might yet prove helpful to the flashing blades, in the boomathons? Congratulations to Surrey and to Mr Ronay, for digging in.

 

#100ball.

Okaay. Here comes my oar on the you-know-what: briefly in.

It’s been an extraordinary week or two. The ECB, unfortunately perceived by many as the claret-swilling but typically unthreateningly soporific artists (formerly known as the BOFs), are nevertheless suddenly, undeniably lustily, charging-down-the-wickets right at all of us, brandishing another alarmingly dynamic concept. Century Cricket/#100ball/Clockwork-in-maybe-Orange. Wow.

In the maelstrom, the explosion of coverage, the possibility for uncompromised, non-tribal reaction seems an early casualty: I don’t know anybody (for example), who is simply excited by the news – it being too bombshelltastic for that. Many of us I think waited for markers from Those Who Influence, such was the level of consternation and, in fact, visceral rage.

Some however are wowing, smiley-positively but I’m not clear how deep their love is. They may be truly horny with the charged nature of the proposals but this may be different than actually really liking the thing.

It feels like most folks are still trying to process the merciless-brilliance of the plan – the essence being hard to reach. What is it, that’s being lobbed into the circle here? Feels more like a symbol than a real project; it’s that incendiary.

The idea of #100ball may supposed to be ‘about simplicity’ but in truth it’s explosive; it has consequences, the most significant of which may be the brutal estrangement of Cricket People. For the ECB to so-o utterly separate out – out and away – the traditional cricket supporter, as a bi-product of The Next Big Thing, is huge. Monumental. For this excommunication to be more or less the point of the exercise is… smoke-cannisteracious.

#100ball, or whatever we call it, is a magnificently bold concept. It’s a sexy, marketable, distinctive format. It’s transformative, accessible, it has potential in ways that longer-form cricket may not. But most obviously – and herein lies some of the brilliance and all of the received malignity – it absolutely flicks the vees at the County Championship or Long-form Posse.

The screaming subtext is that Century Cricket is not for you lot… and we know it. This is another cricket, for another crowd. That is how the proposal was swallowed (or not) by many traditional supporters – supporters that will mostly never come round to it… as a ‘matter of principle’.

The ECB know this, they’ve factored it in and they move on, in the firm expectation that Clockwork-in-Orange will be a revelation, will actually win over some folks from the shires but (mainly) will be about a Total Refresh, a new game, a new experience, a New Concept, fit for contemporary sporty-family life.

I was quite shocked. I plain resented, intially, the ruthlessness at work, here. I still can’t get entirely past this idea that the game has been deliberately separated-out… but I can see this may work, i.e. the #100ball experience – live or on the telly – might expand and reposition the game in a good and maybe necessary way, provided we can be thick-skinned enough to set aside the collateral damage.

Maybe the people who designed all this absolutely can see beyond the trauma into a brave new space. Maybe they’ve actually studied change and this has allowed them to shut out emotion, sensitivity, culture. Some would argue that’s what leaders do.

I’m still coughing up the smoke, I think. Trying to get sensible. What concerns me is the impact on the hows and ifs of red-ball cricket: the hierarchy, the scheduling, the value of. I love all that old stuff.

This is your banner.

The dawn of another county season does bring that slight relief; that things roll on, without *too much* change. Sure, it’s crazy and unsustainable and the apocalypse may well be coming but somehow we made it through. Unwrap your sandwich – coo, beef, there’s posh! – unfurl your paper; get the gloves and the spare jumper(s) out a-and smile.

Re Yorkshire playing 2 home games in April, two in September and one back end of August… don’t go there. Re the stampede of ‘city-based action’ about to swallow up the shires… don’t go there. Enjoy the glorious understated present in that unique, cricketty way: block the rest.

Okaaay you won’t be able to unthink the universe and probably somebody will want to talk but you could – you could – find a refuge in Row Z. You could be that island.

You don’t have to acknowledge that as with everything, there are the two choices: fight like hell or render yourself immune. In this moment (damn right) you’re entitled to enjoy the uncluttered, beautiful, peaceful, restorative now for what it is.

It is precious. It’s maybe an indulgence but hey – no guilt. Going to County Cricket (and obviously by this I mean the longer format of the game) is a kind of political defiance anyway. Being there at any stage, for a four-dayer, marks you out as a soulful sort. You are silently strident, even when choosing not to (yaknow) campaign. You – unlike most – are there. This is your banner. You – unlike most – are defying the drift to dumbness.

Good shot, son. Four.

Hmmm. Tad smug-sounding? To be clear I mean the universal drift or slump, via gaming/crap tv/the instant hit of faux, colorific joy/the short format everything for the (allegedly) submissively unintelligent. The spawn of Education-by-Numbers crunched by Estyn & Ofsted… and Mackie Effing Dee’s. Erm… is that clearer?

Did I say that out loud?!?

‘Cultural’ dumbness, then. The sort you don’t have to be smug about opposing to oppose… but you may finish up sounding that way, eh? The sort that County Cricket fans defy with every fibre, with every no-ball they note, with every paper they rustle.

Hello mate. Yeh good, ta. 

To be clear I mean precious in the joyful, innocent way and political in the philosophical sense: seeing big pictures, feeling the value of things.

Yeh – heard that. Crazy. Can’t see it, myself – let the man write.

But the world conspires against – and you know it. The ECB is broadening access, demystifying stuff. Understand that, but in the process – or possibly by design – the market (which may never have really sustained County Cricket) has shifted, is diametrically opposed, is storming away.

Just don’t know what the thinking is. That’s why I’m hiding back here – not sure I wanna talk about it!

Nothing personal! Have a good day, mate.

So, if the universe can see no further than family-friendly boomathons which leave Proper Cricket exposed – because an indulgence, because ‘a relic with no real audience’ – what’s to be done? What’s the argument?

Will join you for a pint, later. Watching and reading, first!

Firstly, maybe this idea of the market as god might be unpicked, somewhat. The Market is a woefully unintelligent concept, especially if thought of as Actual Bums on Actual Seats. (That is, even if we accept that County Cricket attendances at grounds are somewhere between poor and pitiful, this does not entirely describe support for the game).

Secondly, crowds do not (either) entirely describe the value of the sport. Things aren’t always either simple or measurable.

Thirdly, how does The Market assess the link between four-day cricket and Tests? Critical? Fascinating? Irrelevant? Does it even recognise the eight zillion technical, tactical, psychological, philosophical step-changes up from one to t’other? Does The Market care?

Eighty-ninethly, surely there are multiple markets and things can be monetised in different ways? And/or parts of the game that are bouyant can support parts of the game that are not – make them better, even – so that they move towards a) being more watchable, maybe and b) being sustainable within the whole?

But… hang on. I swore blind I wasn’t gonna get into any of this! Dave… pass the sandwich. Pass the sandwich.

And County Cricket is already broadening, demystifying, shaping up! Okay, the T20 Blast is not perfect, but it’s good! It’s a strongish revenue stream and it’s county-based – and therefore important to existing supporters. I slightly fear all this spectacular dynamism – all these Spectaculars – are an over-reaction, given the progress that was being made.

Did I say that out loud again?

Here’s something: warning, it may be kinda subtle.

Many of you attending County Cricket on this opening day will not be wholly involved with the cricket… but you will be wholly involved with the experience. I wonder if Ofsted or the Ministry for Sport have an algorithm for that?

Wrong mustard, mate, for me…

Who knows?

Bancyfelin under monsoon, Bute Park in glorious sun. Not especially warming sun, but an accommodating bonus, nevertheless. Arrive to find Northants coasting to an inevitable win. Stride breezily to the pitchside, as though it’s a clifftop; sniff the air. The vibe? No dramas.

Zoning in then, acclimatising to the cool, stilled altitude of the Media Centre, it soon feels like the challenge, for all of us, revolves more about pride – professional for some, provincial, maybe, for others – than about something more specifically result-oriented. Glammy are surely done for, again? The competitive angle therefore profoundly skewed, if not screwed.

Crowd of a few dozen. Watching quietly intently but surely also in that loosely therapeutic mode; allowing themselves to wander through the issues of the day. That thing mother said to Suzanne; the bloody washing machine; oof… and Parsons Green.

We have the slack, do we not, to drift towards things of a philosophical bent; perhaps that’s why some of us are here? The lack of edge, of overt drama invites – we’re freed up.

Am I being frivolous, imagining many of us enjoyably twitchy around the body-language of things? Looking for the signs that player A or B is drifting – ‘on the beach’, as they often say of footballers, when commitment dips, late-season.

Kerrigan gets 50.

Sweeping the crowd; guessing there are precisely no psychologists/psychiatrists in the gathering but this will not be getting in the way of the flood of expert analysis. The bloke in row 12 (who’s never warmed to the ‘foreign imports’) is ab-so-lutely certain Rudolph’s back in South Africa. Dai from Canton is snorting with derision at Meschede.

Observing serenely from above, from our perch (did I mention?) in the Media Centre, I’m drawn in to all this. How could anyone not be? This is the essence of cricket. A quiet frisson, a seminal insight mid-shiver or mid-slurp, then lunch at 149 for 2.

Clouds hold something of an intimidating gathering over the ground. Finally, placated no doubt by the one who has most to lose – the one out on parole? – they slide off, muttering. 150 up.

Hogan, two back. Kerrigan, now on 60, rather easily defuses the short ball, which had not so much reared up as telegraphed the Back Defence Manual to him. Strangely, given the current bubble of phoney-war-ness, Hogan castles him next over. (Kerrigan may or may not be gnashing those teeth over an opportunity to beat his previous batting best, now gone: who knows?)

Ingram, like all of them – disappointingly, for our thesis -seems engaged. Bowling those leg-spinners into the thankless void. Gets clubbed for six, ball returned. End of the over the South African God of Boom yanks it angrily from floor to fielder with a strangely exotic flick. The man’s engaged – angry even.

14.03. Those clouds are really back. Could this be why De Lange is bowling a series of short ones – to get the umpires to look up?

208 for 3. Nine to win. Glammy faffing relentlessly, batsmen suddenly slogging in the dark… because DOWNPOUR!!

Edward Beaven (He Who Knows) darts to the back of the Press Box to check out that which is incoming. Diagnosis ‘could be an hour’s worth’. But a month of rain falls in 48 seconds, so his further view – that we could be here til six – carries an undeniable weight. Northants are nine runs short. The locals go home.

Back at 3.30pm. Eminently playable sunshine. We contemplate a sweep on the number of balls needed. Wakeley has 35, Levi 31. No significant targets in sight – no intrigues. Will Northants biff their way to a pointed victory or take the more dignified approach?

Wakeley drives the second ball from Meschede for four. Then two forward defensives. Then a medium-convincing wristily-defensive doink to midwicket. (Five balls only – one before the rain break).

De Lange. Second ball almost daisy-mows Levi but the fourth is dispatched to the boundary – as is the fifth. Job done in nine balls. 221 for 3, Northants win.

A muted ending to a muted day. Sure Northants have had ‘things to play for’ and there’s always that professional pride…

So the formality turned out a formality. And it’s easy to be frivolous. Glamorgan had not, in fact, seemed absent – they merely lacked the weapons to challenge.

There was minimal slackness in the field; I remember as many friendly-but-mischievous-but-competitive darts between two fielders to gather the same ball as I do poor pick-ups or lazy throws. On at least one occasion I thought Crofty must have had words, such was the obvious fizz into action. (Of course he must have had words; before the game; at lunch; all season long. Angry words).

Glammy have I think lost five out of the last six four-day games; the other was rained off. The closer you look at the figures the more worrying it gets; the more you wonder about what’s being said… because the job’s intimidatingly obviously a tough one.

The home side looked more like an ordinary team than a team capitulating today – that’s important. But (however much the words may be resented) there have been repeated capitulations with the bat throughout the season: too many embarrassingly low scores.

Painfully, there’s a sense that Glammy batting failures have often been followed by the opposition batsmen either mastering any alleged demons in the pitch or alternatively (or in addition?) exposing the relative mediocrity of the Glamorgan attack. In short it’s a brutal world and our team have been unable to compete in it… at least sometimes.

All of which made me wonder very much about a) what’s being said and b) how players will respond.

I like the expression ‘humour of the team’, meaning how they are, how they act together. Not because I’m naive enough to think that great mates always win but because I know that humour covers a million qualities – from camaraderie to level of focus, to will. Essex might be a half-decent example of a team who benefit from being in good humour – not that it’s their only quality.

I have no doubt that Robert Croft and his support staff will be watching the upcoming ‘dead rubbers’ in the championship for signs. Who really simply isn’t good enough? Who doesn’t care enough? Who doesn’t think enough? This brutal stuff has to accompany the absolutely vital development of player and person.

The coach and his players will be hurt by the defeats and by the humiliating cluster-suicides to bugger all for four or the loss of five wickets for twenty-odd. Sometimes us fans forget those are sickeners for them, too. Defeat can be damaging for confidence, for relationships – we know that – it’s tough to build a way through.

A final view, or a final feeling? Players may need support but they also have to be held to account. There are two County Championship games left: statements must be made.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Final Clonk.

Come the final clonk, was it just my thoughts that turned to Taunton? To Maynard and Trescothick and Rogers? In that shockingly brilliant, acutely personal moment of triumph for Toby Roland-Jones, forgive me but I went briefly, instinctively west.

This had nothing to do with declaration bowling. Although I recognise there will be the darkest of mutterings around the slippage from mid-afternoon phoney war towards that controversial buffet.

I could live with the idea that Yorkshire needed to leave a door swinging wide open to invite some opportunity, some *momentum* into the game. We’d all maybe prefer that spell of strategic engineering  just didn’t need to happen… but it did. And most of those bleating or tweeting about it would surely have done the same, were they in that position. Let’s move on from that.

The reason I personally thought less of Finn and co and more of Maynard’s spirited gang has something to do with abstracted, sentimental stuff. (Is that legit – legit enough to write about, by the way? And really, was it just me?)

I think, having met him, there’s something very real and likeable and tough about Maynard. He’s a bit blokey, bit beery but he’s kindof emphatically proper cricket – undeniably, somehow. My hunch is that he has something powerful and inspiring he can draw upon… and that most players receive that.

Throw in Trescothick’s delightful yeoman/stalwart/daylong-honest thing and Rodgers squat, godlike committed Aussie Senior Pro, sling in a dash of cider and how could you fail to be seduced? Maynard’s Zummerzet are scrumpaciously great plus they were the outsiders-on-a-charge. I rest my addled case.

But that’s all a bit daft. Roland-Jones won the Championship with a flamin’ hat-trick. The Beeb reckoned there were 7,000 people PLUS the members there so – no excuses – it’s goddabe all about Lords. And a truly extraordinary finish. Yorkshire, having delivered a whole load of Northern Grit did ultimately get skewered by a genuinely formidable and (let’s not forget) equally gutsy Middlesex side. Critically, the manner of all this was somewhere between fabulous and mythic.

All of us – even those absolutely behind the rush into City Cricket – can celebrate this. The Championship beating it’s heaving chest, roaring with life. Tall as Finn, hearty as Bresnan, floppy and human and frenetic as Sidebottom. Lovable and real and definitely, profoundly not dead.

Proper cricket breaking out of its own hashtag. Being a force, being defiantly, unhelpfully, pointedly and magnificently alive; not to be ignored. All of us can celebrate that, however it may colour or complicate *negotiations*. Lords was wonderful, today.

Today? When it seems years since Gubbins marched out; since Bresnan re-took that guard. Surely the ebbs and flows and dead waters of a moony calendar month have passed since start of play this morning? But no. It’s just been a gargantuan stream  of stories, unthreading, stalling, threading towards the impossible.

The end-stop, then was appropriately, outlandishly, shockingly live. Live as in noteworthy, live as in profoundly watchable, live as in some beautiful exemplar. And despite the jarring, blurring, hyperintensity of the hat-trick moment, it felt like proper cricket. Because proper cricket (though allegedly lacking the pull, the draw of other sports or formats) can be magic. Don’t forget that.