Oh us of little faith.

Remember when it got dangerous? Oooh all of a week ago? Loads of us did it. Overtly, covertly, angrily, quietly, seething or braying or tutting. We all knew we were More Right Than Morgan, on this one.

How could England’s myopic Brand of Cricket not lead to some level of come-uppance? How could Eoin’s icy, almost-surly sermonising not breed a nose-thumbing response from the universe? We all knew there would be some payback for his sub-cricketty, soundbitey positivity; for the audacity of the man; for his Irishness, for god’s sakes!

England could never have just the one way. It’s not intelligent enough, not seemly enough – plus nothing can be that simple! Mainly, then, amongst the pomp and bluster, this idea that you can’t be so brittle about stuff.

But then Jonny got mad, courtesy of yet more mouth-shooting from our friend Vaughanie, firing, once again, on all twelve brain cells. And Roy got fit – enough. And the arguments got yaknow, dispatched.

Or did they?

Fact: England are in the semis. Fact: they did it Eoin’s Way. Or did they?

Certainly everything about Roy & Bairstow’s magnificent charges-straight-through-the-effing-mountain spoke of the brand – the utter lack of fear and/or negativity.

We don’t need to have crunched the numbers to feel the step-change back… and forward, on the Brand Express. Both the flametastic Yorkshireman and his returning partner drilled that tunnel again, the former with his diamond-edged fury-disc, the latter with his trusty wonder-sabre.

But it wasn’t all boom. It wasn’t possible. There was scratchiness and (more from India than the Kiwis) there was quality opposition making things tougher… or complicated. So Stokes, for example, had to do some Proper Batting and certain periods needed to be seen through.

Maybe it’s good that England arguably under-achieved a smidge, with their totals. Two truckloads of 400 and maybe the mantra might have to be caveated – if you can do that stepping-back, that re-considering, that qualifying thing to a mantra?

(Maybe the essence of any brand flirts with dumbness, or lack of intelligence, because of this imperative towards the magical brevity/positivity combo? Maybe everybody from Saatchi & Saatchi to Eoin Morgan have known that all along? Maybe we’re just not getting that Captain Boom is a step ahead – that he knows absolutely that 84.6% of his media appearances are 96.5% charade? Interesting thought, perhaps?)

Interesting but nowhere near as much fun as getting mad-outraged and bawling on twitter. Or writing something in the comments section. Or blaming Nintendo, or the Kardashians.

England are in the semis. What’s more, they are in there with momentum. What’s more more, is that significant contributions have been spread across the team; Woakes and Archer, Buttler and Stokes doing something either deeply or supremely validating or actually wonderful and uplifting in the moment. So confidence should have steepled – should be back to the absurdly high level we’ve experienced for the last year or four.

I have always argued against ‘dumb machismo’ and still do. Because sport is predicated on intelligences as much as skills. Because half the fun and half the winning is about responding to fortune or change – and this surely implies, suggests, demands the application of everything in the psychological sector, including, often crucially, the implementation of Plan B or Z. Jeesuss, right now. Under pressure.

Too often, I reckon, players or coaches get caught up in the excitement or ‘flow’ of things: they say stuff about ‘expressing themselves’ which of course has some truth in it but may not be smart enough, either in the teeming, challenging, complicated moment or for the exposition of playing philosophy – brand.

The particulars of international cricket at the mega and micro-level include so many variables, so many forces inputting their fields of influence on the action that it is a) tempting and b) probably right to seek out simplicity and clarity. However, whilst accepting this, is it not prudent to explore, prepare, ‘facilitate’ for life beyond the soundbite?

Whether or not Morgan and England are suss to this is part of the fascination. Whether or not Bairstow blasts and Roy carves, I wish England well.

 

Warming up, with the Bharat Army.

Have seen India live – i.e. their cricket team(!) – a few times, now. Always fun. Yesterday no different, in that respect.

So happened that five minutes after I chose my seat in the Cathedral Road Stand (under the Media Centre, behind the bowlers arm), The Most Charismatic & Photogenic Indian Superfan came and sat down next to me.

Meaning if you saw some weirdly incongruous, tanned but unmistakably white bloke on the telly or on ‘insta’, next to the man with The Face & The Conch… well that was me. Sorry. If I photobombed any or all of the zillion selfies that the magnificently generous Bharat Army icon endured, I apologise. I sought nothing – was merely there in the first place.

My day then, was all about that happy coincidence. Rolling with the flags and the Bharat Army vibe. Reflecting now – and at the risk of patronising folks I simply don’t know – it was great. I expect it will be one of the highlights of my summer. Funny people, utterly charming people, Proper Cricket People. A refreshing, uplifting experience in the context of a currently depressing racial-political context. Thank you, guys.

Here’s how the *actual match* seemed…

 

Indian Superfan. Drawn to me, in an uncanny, unspoken non-ritual. Or maybe just wants, like me, to sit straight behind the bowler’s arm. Either way, he makes me look painfully pallid in every respect, what with his strikingly extravagant face-art. But inside… we are one. 😉

Cardiff. Coolish and both bright and cloudy. There’s a rain delay, after about four balls. More folks joining us, under the Media Centre, opposite the river. Including two ver-ry cool-looking guys who are (it turns out) Bharat Army hierarchy. I wonder about interviewing them but frankly bottle it.

The ball, meanwhile seems barely to be deviating despite that early cloud, rain. Some green in the pitch – and one goes through low – but no bowlers’ paradise, here. That how this World Cup’s gonna be? That how the white ball is? Just mainly hit through it: things may be difficult to time just now but reckon once you’re in…

Kohli, in soon enough, is fortunate very early on – edges through slips. Rohit, opposite, is similar in terms of relative discomfort.

A slow start, then and it’s one of those conflicting occasions where it’s hard to put your finger in what it is that’s so difficult but evidently, this is not easy for the batsmen. There is barely a timed aggressive shot in first ten overs.

Kohli gets through, having offered more than one ‘chance’ via the vacant first slip corridor: he looks almost human, today. He is bowled on 47.

13.30 and a Dhoni six over midwicket. Crowd full-throated, now. (Incidentally, had first thought the Indian mums/grans/daughters quota noticeably bigger than for the England equivalent…but maybe not).

But – sitting amongst them – there is that lovely, enthusiastic, engaged, 3-generations thing going on with the Indian support. Plus the most delightfully polite exchange of “excuse mes” as people trundle apologetically across your line of view or nudge past your beleaguered knees. Great fans.

176 for 4 after 32 (at the second drinks break). Rahul – like Kohli hardly fluent, earlier – has found a way to 68 not out.

200-up in the 36th. 37th & Dhoni explodes. Impudent swipe behind square for four, violent clonk over mid-on for six. Crowd loving it; he is plainly the Other God.

94 metre club-sweep from Dhoni immediately follows the milestone. He & Rahul looking comfortable, now, finally. Score could go VERY BIG, you sense, if they want it.

Mid-afternoon and somehow reassurring and appropriate to see Dhoni batting in a cap. Still moving pretty well, but *does look* like the clubbiest kind of god – also reassuringly.

Rahul goes to 88 with another edge – flailing somewhat, outside off. No slip, no catch.

Spin bowling for Bangladesh feels mixed – neither penetrative nor restrictive, particularly. On another day, they’re going at 20 an over. However their left-arm quick is admirably ardent, in the 41st. Sharp, committed.

Rahul bowled somewhat behind his legs, for 108. Good rather than majestic, today; appreciation and excitement, as this brings in Hardik Pandya.

Okaaay, it’s kindof a friendly but Bangladesh fielding has been ordinary. Dhoni profits from some dilatory stuff at mid-off; moves to 79 in the 45th. Hundred very much there if he wants it.

A brilliant fielder (unlike Liton, by the looks) might have him at long on, moments later. Tough chance lips out.

Some prolonged erm, drama as Hardik is cleared on review, after it became clear the ball pitched outside leg.

After 48 overs, Ind have 327 for 6, with Dhoni facing on 99. Boom. Straight drive, for six, into the river!

Dhoni, sumptuous in those later overs, is eventually bowled for 113. Jadeja fills his boots (as it were) by contributing a swift 11 as India finish on 359 for 7. Think Bangladesh have used 9 bowlers.

All things considered? India good, plainly, but 400 good? 400 to-win-against-somebody-really-tasty good? Not sure about that. Two centurions here but still 350 felt a touch lite. Could be the whole warm-up scenario but #CWC19 will likely demand early and sustained dynamism, if not outright violence.

India start their defence of the total with two slips, to Shami. Bumrah – whom I’ve come to watch – bowls the second over, wheeling and lashing.

Liton and Soumya cope. It would figure that batting conditions might be a tad more favourable, what with bright skies and a drying breeze now, and this is generally confirmed, during the first phase of the reply.

However, in his second over, Bumrah bowls an absolute peach – fiery, bouncy but not that short – which zips through where that second slip had been. 31 for 0 after 4.

There’s something richly appealing about an action as distinctive as Bumrah’s. That stalking; that skipping; the exaggerated uncurling. It’s not beautiful – quite – but it’s really him… and it’s quick. I really like that he doesn’t look like he’s ever been significantly tampered with by some coach.

At the other end, Shami is also putting it in, with little reward. 36 for 0 after 7. In the field the intensity and quality does feel a notch higher than an hour or two ago.

Whistles, in the sunshine. Real shiny whistles, Indian whistles, cajoling rather than cat-calling. Non-stop virtually; telling the lads that we’re with them. Children, mainly. Somewhere between charming… and harmless.

Eventually, Bumrah’s sheer energy and persistence pays off. Soumaya caught behind of something that *just lifts* again. 49 for 1.

Wow. He follows that up with a magnificent, druggy, slower-ball(?) yorker that irresistibly rushes the base of the stumps. Fabulous. Shakib must defend the hat-trick ball. Wide of off.

After 13, Bangladesh are at 62 for 2, with the game poised, progressing but by no means aflame. Goodish crowd, with the heavily-outnumbered Bangladeshis now vocal – and sunshine.

At the Powerade Hydration Break 🤷🏻‍♂️ (15 overs) , we have moved on to 74 for 2.

In bright, late-afternoon sunshine, Dhoni is keeping in sub-Steve McQueen shades and no cap. 100-up, for 2, in the 20th. Lukewarm: we wait. And wait.

150 for 2 off 27, with Jadeja on from the River End. Looking easy for the batsmen, who are beginning to lift the tempo and the Bangladeshi contingent. Still low-key but a friendly-competitive finish seems entirely feasible.

Jadeja reaching high with that left hand of his, then bowling flightless, sharpish and full. Chahal offering something rounder and loopier at the other end. Keeping the lid on this, currently.

Good, long chat with Rakesh from the Bharat Army. They’re now quite a mob – a business, in fact, with more than 11,000 fans booked through them for the upcoming Cricket World Cup. Bright, capable bloke; tells me they have staff in several countries dealing with travel, tickets, merchandise etc. Wish them well – feel under-qualified to *actually join* but…

At 191 for 5, off 36, it feels like India’s greater variety and quality of spin bowling may be telling. Though maybe not by much. Until Kuldeep Yadav’s left-arm leggies suddenly take over.

(At this point – another two-in-two – the Bharat Army hoiked up a giant banner, occluding the *actual playing surface* for some minutes. So an announcement: normal service will be resumed when the flag is lowered)…

When I emerge, it’s 216 for 8. (Did hear another roar). And a steward is insisting on the Army rolling up the banner. He is polite rather than officious, roundly, comically booed… but obeyed. We move on, in more sunshine, with the game surely now won.

I note that as so often, it is leg-spin that has gripped and turned the drama, here – batsmen having rarely been genuinely troubled by the seamers, save for a moment or three of real quality from Bumrah. Bangladesh need 130 from the last five overs… and here come the quicks to see them off.

They don’t, in fact. Chahal has Shaif slicing tamely to gully  – 262 for 9 – then Jadeja will bowl the last.

There have been three two-in-two’s in the innings, which maybe characterises the rather bitty nature of the Bangladeshi batting, today. Could be that this is how #CWC19 may be, for them – occasional glory, general disappointment?

No further score is added before a scrambled & reviewed runout brings the match to a close. Words for today? Good-natured, ‘sunny’, affable, enjoyable. Very cricketty -in a warm-up kindofaway.

Day in the life of.

So up at 6.50 to do the domestics. Wash up, in a haze, reply absently to the dog’s effusive welcome. Get daughter up. Scramble through shower/shave routine whilst porridge bubbling. Get wife up. Take dog out then eat porridge, blueberries, banana on return. Know motor’s loaded with multifarious Cricket Things so safe to exit rapidly. Forget phone. Go back.

Cosheston. Rain. Have missed (due to general fluster) the facebook message telling me session can’t go ahead. Don’t care – or rather don’t worry. Know a) this is a fabulous, supportive wee school where the staff will be pleased to acommodate an @cricketmanwales special (The Cricket Assembly) b) that this will be fun enough and genuinely helpful re the signposting of kids to local clubs.

Former Wales international and all-round deelightful human (and Head) generously in favour of said assembly. So 9.20-odd, as the rain pours, me and years 3/4/5/6 talk sport. Had feared that as I have ‘only’ a relatively past-its-sell-by-date Chance to Shine vid (Jessie J, Domino!) it might feel bit lame. But na.

Clip myself into the audiokit-thing for the hearing-challenged (that the right phrase?) girl in the posse and off we go.

We start with an observation that maybe WHY questions are kinda tough. But… why am I here? What’s that all about?

Wonderful range of responses, from kid X telling me exactly what he thinks I want to hear to eye-moisteningly sincere stuff about inspiring children to be ‘really healthy and happy’. The usual mixture of blankness and soaring-because-childish profundity.

I am absolutely comfortable telling folks I believe in sport. Believe it’s wonderful, believe it transforms and enriches. I find the right words to make children listen to all that – that ‘message’ about activity being essential on a zillion levels. They hear lots of dull stuff about health and happiness but I want them to believe that movement/activity and for me maybe particularly TEAM SPORTS hold a special kind of magic.

Naturally, I get them to tell me why they love their horse-riding or swimming or rugby or  whatever. Then we watch a hugely upful video about the brilliance of cricket. And Jessie J does an Indian/Mexican wave. And does dive-catches and rolls about and smiles – no, beams.

Righteously, sisters, women feature in the on-white-board cricket action. So I ask the kids if  ‘it was all blokes’.

No-o!

We talk about how soo-perb Anya Shrubsole is – and stuff – how it’s not just for blokes. How there’s an argument that our best team over recent years *may not be* Chelski or Man Yoo or Swansea or Ospreys but may actually be the England & Wales Women Cricket Team. (Because yes, Ffion, when you’re unbelieeeeevably ace at cricket you will or can play for England… and Wales.)

So I talk unashamedly, proudly, psychotically honestly about sport for good, for health, for your mates, for the craic, for good. And – because it’s siling down – I do this three times, at three Primary Schools, today.

Different contact hours then. No outdoor boomathons or multiskill darts and dashes or small-sided games. So less time: instead shortish but realish corporate messaging. Meaning time to knock out a blogette and also to rest up a little and re-charge before leading the coaching at our Training Hub South tonight; this for teen girls and women, experienced players and slightly nervy beginners.

Somehow, some goodly feelings in the Pembrokeshire ether have genied-up two new womens’ teams for the county’s Ladies League. Whether we Cricket Wales peeps can take any credit for this is very much open to question. More likely the commitment and generosity of people like Mickey Marsh at Kilgetty CC and just a couple of key individuals at Lawrenny CC, plus some awareness of abstract but hopefully positive forces in the sporty consciousness – Womens World Cup/big upturn in visibilty looming – have enabled important progress.

The Tenby Training Hub has been an outstanding success, given no history of training sessions, given reasonable wariness around a) a bloke like me leading b) self-consciousness/alleged lack of cricket skills. More than 20 attended the first Thursday (7.30, Tenby Leisure Centre, Free!!) and these numbers seem likely to continue.

Thus far, ably supported by the aforementioned Mr Marsh and powerfully buoyed by the attendance of some Proper Quality Women Cricketers, our sessions have been real good fun, with a significant dollop of generous role-modelling from experienced players facilitating great learning and universally brill application. We’re running six sessions in total before the Pembrokeshire Ladies League – the only one in Wales – gets going.

In terms of what we’ve actually done – what the sessions look like – I’ll offer the following:

  • we’ve gotten folks (women, girls) moving. By daft-friendly, slightly buzztastic warm-up games. Which are about smiling because you’re moving/chasing/beginning to really get at it.
  • We’ve kept technical stuff to a relative minimum but gotten into throwing, posture, dynamism – how we need to find a way to enjoy fielding – to be in the game.
  • We’ve bowled. And tried to feel what control of that ball – that seam! – feels like. (All this with a wind-ball-like ball… but one with a decent seam, right?)
  • Session two we went batting, after an enjoyably energetic netballistic warm-up.
  • We apologetically but fairly briefly went through questions around length – short length, in fact. We marked on a pitch (for all to see and discuss) where a short, good length and full delivery might land.
  • We centred on the short ball, reasoning that pull shots would feel good, would be do-able, would introduce notions around footwork and maybe recognition of healthy instincts… like going back to make time?)
  • We got a bit concerned that things might be concept-heavy, so we smashed plenty of balls, in small groups, before re-gathering and offering a backfoot defence option.

Generally, coach looked, hard, because the range of comfort and understanding and execution of shots was excitingly ‘challenging’.

Last week’s was a top session. Tonight I’m thinking let’s get forward… and let’s hit some more.

4.13 p.m. Weirdly copious lump of time to lose… in Tenby… before tonight. Maybe I should write something?

Which cricket?

The brilliant tumult that was the recent Cricket World Cup underlined the distance traveled by this most extraordinary and arguably most traditional of games. The cricket Down Under and in New Zealand epitomised the almost alarming dynamism of a particular strand in the sport, clattering expectations, redefining (as they say) The Possible.

Fifty overs used to mean an ‘opening’ period where watchfulness and caution, even, were bywords for batters. It used to centre more on cunning than clout or blast. But as the brutal swordsmanship of the Warners/Maxwells/McCullums demonstrated, a new era of glorious carving has superceded that which has gone before.

And I do mean gone. My sense is that given the revolutionary essence of this new genre – the fact that in particular the bowling was characteristically met with a new breed of irresistible violence – we can barely identify pre- (let’s say) 2014 short-format cricket as the same animal. Cricket World Cup 2015 stamped upon our consciousness the separation – the lurch away, the blast-off – from the familiar/the proper/the old. (Delete according to prejudice.)

Though we knew it was coming, this was the moment the dirt was wistfully then swiftly dribbled in over the coffin of yaknow… Richard Hadlee; Ian Botham; the Chappells – cricketing icons that played a patently different game. The gaudy, incremental hikes through T20 Blasts and IPL Extravagorgies seem done; now the World Cup is carnage of a uniquely modern or post-modern sort. It’s official; things have changed.

Relax. This isn’t I think the preamble to some reactionary exposition on the authentic or the true. Truth is I can barely unscramble the various repercussions or likelihoods following Aus/NZ but I am sure enough I don’t simply and categorically oppose this dramatic new beast. It was too… riveting. It was, despite the shocking newness, recognisably sporting drama – elite sporting drama. For all the doubts, that makes it undeniable.

Plus… the argument that cricket cannot afford to suppress in any way that which might be its saviour (economically if not spiritually) does hold some weight. Even those of us love or work in the game have to concede that the demographic/driver wotsits that the office folks concern themselves with point to a shrill and urgent need to engage with those maybe forty years younger than yer average Lords Member. (Apologies if I slander here but you get my drift?) In the no-brainer age it’s a no-brainer that the ‘see ball hit ball’ core of all this gets a heavy shot of chilli.

Rightly or wrongly the bulk of the Youff of Today are turned off by stillness and quiet seduction (Alistair Cook v Any Spinner) but MFI when it comes to orgasmic adrenalin-showers. They love – they are bred, they are pressured, they are educated to love – the whiff of death, the full-length dive, the cliff-edge climax. So who wouldn’t be drawn to the expectation of a denouement featuring twenty runs an over or an explosion of stumps?

Whilst nobody is suggesting that 13-30 year-olds are sole heirs to anything, they are, of course key to TV and stadium audiences and (more crucially?) to the player base itself. And they want… this. Something that is fascinatingly post-Pietersen. Something really pumped.

My own club has set up an Under 19 team who will wear bright blue clobber and play other young dudes of an evening whilst ‘sounds’ form a backdrop to the ‘scenes’. It will probably be epic… and… or but… we need it. I think it’s great.

But despite the multifarious wonders of the game, zillions of teenagers – boys and girls – do drop out of playing and lose interest or fail to develop their interest in cricket. The very existence of short-format is a response, in no small part, to this issue. (Fair comment that the over-riding and marginally less wholesome urge to make pots of moolah also contributes to the emergence of the IPL and various T20 tournaments around the globe but that need to grow or prop up the game somehow means the greater authorities as well as men of independent means support, in their various ways, the boomathons.)

I’m both stirred and disturbed by the prospect of sorting out or gathering in this game – cricket – that seems to be expanding apart like a floppy-hatted cosmos.

The idea that this vital, ungovernable sprawl could somehow be controlled makes me smile. Not sure I’m optimistic, mind. Even if it were clearly desirable to collect in the various competing elements to some co-operative or sustainable whole I’m not sure the models of authority for the game are there. Blissfully, currently, that’s someone else’s problem.

On a local/national level the environment I work in has shifted to one where targets for growth within the amateur game (in Wales) have had to be scaled back… because growth is not realistic. This may not matter; for one thing it may simply be impossible for a team sport to expand its share of the ‘market’ against the increasingly diverse and often individually-centred competition – be that computer-based or kosher game-based. (Incidentally, I heard recently, in a gathering of sports professionals, that the only sports to be succeeding in terms of numbers gained are cycling and running; both essentially individual pursuits.)

Even an amateur shuftie at the philosophy of all this gets interesting. Start by considering the following; that growth may be inessential to the health of a sport. Why can’t a game that is loved and which retains its support and balances numbers of retiring players with new players be sustainable – be wonderful, even? And if growth is abandoned as a luxury beyond contemplation does that perhaps increase the possibility for retaining cherished essences (sorry, that word again) which may otherwise be subsumed beneath the charge for popularity/exposure/gold?!?

Again I’m being more agent provocateur here than campaigning against the new. However the confluence of challenges around how cricket is demands our attention; the presence of apparent antitheses – tradition/revolution Test/Blast etc etc – are either a recipe for remarkable diversity, diabolical conflict, or something hopefully intelligently poised between. Could we accept that some of the energy which goes into the abstract – this concept, growth – might be better expended into the corporeal – physical support, actual support – for the cricket experience?

The very fact that short-format cricket is either packaged or lumbered with circus imagery or post-POP-ART kerpoww-dom speaks volumes. About what it is and of the increasing gulf between 50 or 20 over action and the Test Match. In our dizzying new world the issue of whether it can be possible to accommodate, never mind grow cricket feels a less appropriate question, suddenly than… which cricket?