Defiant defeat?

Wow. Extraordinary. Incredible stadium, remarkable occasion, fraught and bristling with tension and the day/night excitement that still feels thrillingly new. Cricket of a blindingly compelling kind – certainly early-doors. Something about the change of format has made the drama necessarily keen, colorific, sharp. This is not to say of course that the future is orange but much of the tanginess here seems conducive to great sport: floodlights often being central – or at least atmospherically ‘supportive’.

England win the toss and inevitably choose to bat. Wags on twitter are soon suggesting this was in the expectation of killer spells from Jimmy and Broady come the evening. (Yes, this evening).

Only Crawley seemed to have a plan to thwart that admittedly perverse subterfuge. He batted like a god. It was the sort of performance that you suspect will ink him in the starting line-up for a decade. The strikingly tall youngster – well, 23? – struck the ball around the ground with ludicrous ease on a pitch that was soon to get far, far into the heads of his comrades. His innings may yet prove to have been a dream brought on by 4am starts and Covid Protocols and weird, distracting (and surely similarly untrue?) allegations around PPE contracts and Brexit traumas: certainly it was different level, if not unbelievable.

The quality of stroke-making was soft-pink purrfect; beyond purple. Having faced the first ball after returning from self-inflicted injury, Crawley steered the ball around, middling a series of drives and pushes. Neither Ishant nor Bumrah troubled him at all: he was effective and watchful against Patel and Ashwin, only being beaten by the rarish unplayable delivery – mainly from the left-armer – who found spite and alarming deviation in the dusty surface. Zak Crawley made 53 before being lbw to Patel. Everything about it – context, particularly – smacked of real quality.

Shortly before the Root dismissal (which preceded Crawley’s), I had texted my son to say that England may need a 200 from Crawley and ‘even on this surface, I’m not ruling it out’. Optimistic, for sure but did give the sense of something rather special happening. Elsewhere, earlier, both Sibley and Bairstow had made errors to goodish but not remarkable deliveries and then Root misjudged Ashwin. That pattern continued.

England the team, became frazzled, as a unit. True it was a challenging strip again and true the opposition are both probably a better line-up and certainly better equipped for this wicket but hey – this is Test Cricket. Everywhere you go the conditions are set up to exploit home advantage and/or visitor vulnerability. That’s Test Cricket. In this case India again bowled ver-ry skilfully on a dry pitch. And England fell into frazzlement.

Pope seemed lost amongst a surfeit of theories (or something), though this is not to single him out. England, the team could not seem to find either a ‘way of playing’ – I get that sometimes you can’t – or that precious gift of separating the moments so that each ball can be played on its merits.

From 73 for 2, with Root and Crawley beginning to emerge, England capitulated to 112 all out. Arguably nobody got out to an absolute jaffa; it was more of a series of misjudgments from guys who were either outright bewildered by the variety and intensity of the spin-bowling, or who could not break the hold the pitch itself had, as chief protagonist, over proceedings.

Let’s repeat: India are a strong side and this is their patch. So this was tough. But was it an underachievement, from England? Surely. I went from thinking that this was a 200 pitch (when Root got out) to wondering if India, had they batted first up, might have got 350. Pointless but true. And the thought that the home side may have a stronger advantage in the batting than in their bowling also landed – possibly weirdly, given the early rout.

So what could England have done? Gambled less, selection-wise? (Bairstow at 3, in Test Cricket, is a gamble, as was not opting for Woakes or Bess, to shore up the batting). In fact, there is an argument that opening with Crawley was a gamble, given his recent absence. Lots of eggs appeared to be being lobbed into the Jimmy/Broady/Archer basket. In terms of strategy and/or technically, that failure to separate events – and therefore let the onrushing collapse in – felt important. What we might call negative momentum or infectious failure set in, somewhat. Sometimes it takes bullish individuals or very clear-sighted individuals to burst through that. England found none, today.

Positivity gets so heavily conflated with dumb machismo that I rarely see it as a way forward. But if positivity meant advancing down the pitch to squish the turn and break up the bowler’s dominance then maybe. Throw in some movement deep, deep into the crease to play late and square and who knows? Maybe you find a way.

Every route has its risks and it’s up to the player to manage them with intelligence and skill. Crawley’s sublime ball-striking suggested it was not unthinkable to choose your moment to break out with confidence. England needed to find a way not just to score but to accept the challenge before them – even if that meant only defiant defeat. What happened felt disappointingly more like a kind of compliance.

Due Diligence.

A reminder: there’s an important difference between ‘being stranded/going nowhere’ and battling it out. And the latter is often a key, to Test Match cricket. Also it may be that Sibley was picked for exactly those qualities of durability and enduro-stoicism. (Lawrence wasn’t… but read on).

Also note: lodged this baby at 11.15 am, our time. But things move fast, eh?

England are getting battered, in the second Test, at Chennai. All out for less than 140. After Burns’ error – plainly Ishant set him up skillfully but for him not to see off the decent but hardly world-beating delivery that then arrowed predictably inwards, was an ordinary bit of batting – Sibley and Lawrence applied themselves with some rigour. As per what it says on their tin: “bat long”. The Burns wicket looked a combination of nerves, early-doors wooden-ness and technical issues around his extraordinary set-up and bat-swing but I’ll let better minds than mine un-pick all that and move forward.

Some commentators have said that Lawrence was stuck from the outset: I disagree. He played diligently and with care for an hour or so – as did Sibley – looking relatively untroubled. I’m not even convinced that for much of the morning period he found it difficult to score. He just felt that was secondary. Only towards the end of his occupation did it feel that the alleged imperative to tick over got to him – and he looked more susceptible to angst. The moment of his dismissal was then a classic case of bowler-induced mind-boggling, as Ashwin stepped away to up the drama for a final ball before lunch that would claim the young England man’s wicket.

Even that cruel and untimely blow does not mean Lawrence’s first innings knock was without consequence or value, despite his dismissal being for just 9 runs. Any allegation that he ‘ate up 20 balls’ before scoring is a nonsense: part of the job was manifestly to consume deliveries, ease the pain and soften the ball. Any notion that what his captain chose to do was essentially wiser or better is spurious… or at least open to intelligent debate. (Root came out sweeping – sweeping Ashwin, hard and early. Fair enough. Legitimate; bold; a gamble. It didn’t work but you can see why he thought the game demanded a response. And I get there’s an argument that Root went ‘positively’ precisely because the scoring rate was low).

There was bound to be, on this pitch, against this attack, something a sense of vigil about England’s response to the intimidating effort from Rohit Sharma, Rahane and Pant – all of whom got past fifty on the surface. Lawrence and Sibley together looked to begin that vigil, knowing they were on the back foot, with conditions and now crowd conspiring against them. Sibley appears to be born for this potentially crushing scenario: he has the physical and psychological attributes of a low-octane bear. His talent is for appearing unperturbed; munching through time and task.

You can’t help but feel that Lawrence’s job had inevitably been made harder by the third ball exit of Burns. It is likely that this pointed him towards a slightly more conservative approach, even allowing for any possible psychological conditioning around mindset, and/or the independence of all things. I thought Sibley and Lawrence did okay, in the (let’s be honest) inevitably challengingly fraught period after the departure of Burns. Sure it might have been better if they rotated the strike/scored more. Sure this meant that pressure wasn’t released. But they prepare for precisely these moments; they are experts, or developing expertise, in hardcore sport. What we saw from them at the height of this grilling was as encouraging as it was disappointing, in my view.

Foakes finished up highest scorer. After his predictable excellence behind the sticks, does this reinforce any case for selecting him regularly or permanently, in the Test side? Quite possibly. Does this means that Buttler gets dropped? Not necessarily. There are options.

The fitness of Stokes might be influential. If Stokes can play a full part in the bowling unit then things may be less complex – or controversial. He continues at five, with Pope staying in there at six and Foakes batting seven. If Moeen stays pickable (and I hope he does) then there is ample batting (and spin, for most situations, with Ali and Root) plus three specialist bowler slots. It’s not like-for-like – Buttler is arguably unique – but you are effectively just changing keepers. So minimal disruption. England get a better wicketkeeper and possibly a more durable, though less mercurial bat.

Despite Buttler’s obvious brilliance, I might ‘drop him’ into a purely white-ball role. He plays everything, short-format-wise and maybe succeeds Morgan as skipper. He wouldn’t want to drop out of Test contention and he wouldn’t. You review: you look at form, experience and suitability for particular series. Currently I’d say keep it simple, get Foakes in the team. If Pope doesn’t come through then maybe Buttler bats six.

Great teams have fantastic subs, or twelfth men or women. We are already seeing that this England Squad is exactly that, rotating to maintain balance, quality and wellbeing in the age of Shedloads of Action and (incidentally) a plague. Oh – and remember currently the fella Crawley is out: he’s looked a million dollars, on times. Something always has to give.

Something else.

October the something-or-other. ‘Strictly’. Some cricket club gets going, in Wales – welcome, you guys at Wild Boar Centurions! – with a first ever match, against Ammanford. Today. In mid-October. In a generally mad and frankly worrying universe, this is mad and wonderful.

There’s absolutely a post in that, it’s ‘my territory’ – the brillness and the lush defiance cricket/sport can offer – but this isn’t that post.

Instead I’ve been thinking about The Blend; the idea that sports teams are about somehow selecting the Right Mix, possibly more than anything else. Or maybe I’ve just fallen into luxuriating in cod psychology yet again, because I love all that speculative cobblers around those fabulous unknowables. (The frisson, fascination and sheer fun of picking teams, at any level, is pretty intoxicating, yes?)

Could it be that Player X, despite not being as good or effective as Player Y as an individual, will either contribute more, in the round, or facilitate success better, or more, in others, than Player Y might? And why and how might this happen? And – c’mon – how knowable is this? All that.

If we single out cricket here, the richness arguably multiplies, because it’s such an extraordinary mix of the single effort (in the radically diverse moment) and the team contribution. The game is massively ‘in your own head’ but the bantz, the sledging, the backing-up, the long wait to bat filled with platitudes or contemplation or out-of-tune humming all point to character and sensibility being bloody important. Of course wankers can be great cricketers but mostly you want, you need good people.

I think Mark Wood is almost certainly a good person. In fact, he’s the reason I’ve wandered into this. Him; the daft, horsey, singer-from-the-stands. Mark Wood the better-adjusted Gazza.

So selection (for England) and Mark Wood. Let’s draw in on that. What is his value, how does he measure up – what are the stats? And how do we quantify or appreciate his contribution to the life of the squad? (And what does that last sentence even mean?)

Stats bore me but I did look – you have to. Not just because this is the age of the stat: even if you remain the touchy-feely sort of professional coach, still following hunches and intuitions about personal qualities and/or character under fire, you pore over statistics because they can provide a key, to advantage, to revelation, to improved likelihoods.

The bowling stats on Mark Wood, for England, are maybe better than you might expect – that is if you were expecting (as I think you might) relatively high-cost wickets and relatively mixed run-rates. (ESPNcricinfo data here – https://www.espncricinfo.com/england/content/player/351588.html).

Wood is good… his performances tend to support a strong case for inclusion in all formats but naturally, in his case, concerns over sustained fitness are a significant part of his own particular selection mix. As, of course, are the alternative candidates and the necessary thinking around (‘scuse the pun) horses for courses – venues. These things always matter: stats matter. But so does personality, or lack thereof.

I’m really fascinated by this idea that fabulous, maybe funny, maybe larger-than-life but generous, as opposed to egotistical souls, can add an extra dimension – one that by its very nature can’t be measured.

Wood’s brilliance seems to me partly about singing and dancing. About being daft enough to belt out “Jerooo-sal-emm”, solo… (https://twitter.com/englandcricket/status/1279011276199469057?lang=en) whilst extravagantly waving a humble broom with a flag on it, in an empty Ageas Bowl. How many runs/wickets/lols is that worth? How do moments like that affect the quality of an experience – a tour, or a few weeks under lockdown? How does the coach decide upon the value of stuff like that?

The answer, like every answer, depends. Upon the presence or absence of that kind of inspiration, or wit, or mad, bloody generosity elsewhere in the squad. In that sense it can be quantified, arguably. Maybe the great coach, sensing a surfeit of blandness elsewhere – Root? Pope? Buttler? Name your own – intuits that the moment will come when the gamble on Wood (or whoever) comes off: when a tour is ‘made’, either in the playing sense or in terms of joy and memory, by a heroic effort – Wood can certainly do that – or by a song and dance.

There are no conclusions here, because mercifully I’m not picking the team. I love picking teams but at their glorious apex they tend to be regional juniors. So waddoo I know, eh?

I know nothing but I do suspect that stats really aren’t everything – even now. At every level, part of the art of coaching (and part of the magic of the game) revolves around reading human nature. You need batters and bowlers but you also need folks who are really something else.

In answer to the question “Where were you?”

Ok so things can be too much. Sun. Alcohol. Events.

And then maybe you can get mixed up.

Who knows, really?

I can already feel the creep of history, or at least that slightly creepy feeling – “where were you?” And I know somewhere down the line I’ll just forget. So maybe this is my document, this is where I mark something.

Ben Stokes. Crazy, wonderful, tattooed euphoria and a free glass of chilled white from young Tom, behind the bar, at KandaBongoMan. In the batty, dusky dark, by the batty oaks and the solemn stones and the cows, actually, and the stage.

Stage? Yes. Empty but still ‘Once in a LIFE-timing’ at us before the band appear.

Band? Yes. Because from Ben Stokes we go here, blasting through the silent uplands (no cars, even though Bank Holiday) to the ridicuvenue, in the ancient valley under Carn Ingli. Then, over a glass, we catch our breath whilst contemplating said cows, said stones.

We can’t believe we’ve seen that. Tom the barman, recognising the All Stars hoodie, asks me did I see it. (I’m guessing he’s mid-twenties: I’m not. He’s saying he may never have seen a better day’s sport in his life, I’m putting it instinctively top three. Then we talk about coaching – he’s played for Llanrhian CC so we’re into family business. I strongly recommend the ECB Coaching Pathway, (honest), tell him to get on it, rapidly and then I confess I did neck the wine, pretty much).

Top three in my lifetime, off the the top of my head. But any need to delve too deep or go through some anal countback-thing? (And erm, can I say that?) What’s to be gained by unpicking the blurry wonder of it?

Bugger I’m torn on this. Do have that deliciously satiated feeling – Stokes is already forever and the minutiae will come back unbidden in joyful time. Sometimes we force when we reflect, yes? Plus the band are on.

So on the one hand I plain refuse to prepare the ground for those “it was right up there with blah di blah” conversations: I forget, anyway! The drama around Stokes – the non-catches, the Lyon’s Fumble, the bent or malfunctioning umpire – stands gloriously, kaleidoscopically alone and in the huddle with the greats, already. It’s seeping in (but) we will remember, individually.

Conversely, I need to see some of this again. How in god’s name did it actually happen? From Buttler/Woakes, how the hell did that happen?

I am dancing with my wife. I am thinking, I am wondering  how it is that spangly guitar and mysteriously ungraspable vocals can sustain such insuperable upfulness. When KandaBongoMan may, for all I know, be singing about vice and trauma.

How can things get so deliciously, defiantly, wonderfully twisted? Could it be, could it actually be that there is something invincible about (yaknow) the human spirit?

Phew. I know nothing and it’s great.

Bigger than the Winning.

Winning is great. It’s gratifying and exciting and sometimes it replenishes us. Sometimes, too, it does that Stamp the Dirt Down thing where we relish the defeat of an old foe or maybe just the bunch of bastards who actually tried to start a fight, in our local league game, or wherever.

We may or may not allow ourselves to recognise the moral/ethical dimension(s) around that win: we may be too drunk, too thinly happy, or too desperate for the points to care. But mostly I think we do care about the quality of winning – the cut of the contest.

I don’t buy this stuff from footie pundits, for example, about fans ‘only caring’ about the table, or the silverware. Call me deluded but I reckon most of us are better than that. (I know there are dangers, here – chiefly the very real possibility that I’m going to sound pompous or judgemental or superior… but bugger it I can live with that. To strip out the aesthetic & emotive characteristics or attributes from sport is just pitifully stupid, surely?)

It’s true that I’m a certain age. It’s true that (despite that) I know naff all about philosophy and yet it feels absurd not to offer the observation that winning/losing/playing has inherently some qualitative richness that arises and transfers because of deepish appreciations – some of which are instinctive (arguably) – and yet also complex, profound and abstract.

Wow. What a game that was. Can hardly believe it. Danny was sensational, Sarah unbeleeeeeevable and what a joy to see the youngster do that! What was the score, again?

To strike the ball like that, to there, with that level of control; ridiculous. To fling yourself, like that – bloody ex-traor-dinary. To come back from there… fantastic.

Drama and heroics (true heroics!) and crazy-commitment and these zillion gifts to sport trump or kaleidoscopically locate mere victory. For me. Always have.

Call me old-fashioned – call me anything you like. Winning is great but to say it is everything makes Jeremy Kyles of all of us. It’s crass, it’s stupid and though it may be *popular*, it’s a simple travesty.

Why all this psycho-cobblers? Not sure. Other than I’ve been loving the cricket – the England v Pakistan One-Dayers. Went to Cardiff, listened to the others on the radio, chiefly. Happy to out myself as both a lover of 50 over cricket and of the Sound Of Things.

We might hear, we might accept that these matches have been ‘yet more proof’ that the game has turned boomtastically in the batters favour: debatable, perhaps and plainly dependent on ground and atmospheric conditions… but let’s move on. Other than that, they’ve felt roundly magnificent.

What’s not to like about the combination of fearlessness and sheer, finely-honed class of, well, most of the England line-up in this format? Buttler is an obvious, mercurial worldie-of-a-gem but Morgan and Root and Bairstow and Buttler are extraordinarily good, too, yes?

A really good Pakistan side, offering some real quality themselves with both bat and ball are being pret-ty serenely seen off. But the games have been contests. The level of entertainment has been fantastic. The level of skill – skill, not just blasting to the boundary – from Roy and the rest has been quite wonderful to watch. Pakistan have made a genuine contribution – one which I genuinely think has been appreciated by both sets of fans.

But England have won – and England have a real chance of winning the upcoming tourney. All this is fandabbydozy. But mainly, or especially, or significantly… because of the manner of all this. There’s something beautiful – yes, beautiful – about how this has been.

Okaaay there’s a smidge of partisanship in any statement of that sort but these games have been overwhelmingly fine; positive and richly enjoyable to the extent that any watcher or listener of any persuasion would surely have been captivated, captured by the quality of the action. And this could be bigger than the winning.

Pakistan are more than decent. It may be that their fielding has been too ropey and their batting a touch lacking in extravagance but these are relative: relative to a magnificently good team… who happen to be England. And that inevitable tribal-fixation-thing – supporting, being ‘of’ something – is only a part of a wonderful, winning whole.

 

 

#SophiaGardens #Cardiff. #Eng v #Pakistan.

Some reflections, morning after. Good competitive game, with both sides producing some nicely-tuned cricket, on a true but blandish pitch.

Feels like England won out because a) Pakistan were a tad too respectful (when batting) a tad too long. They needed a few more: were they hoping or expecting that England minus One Or Two Boomtastic Stars would be a significant notch down?

b) Morgan. And Root and Vince and actually Denly… were tremendously composed, even with 8/9/10 per over to shoot for.

c) Without actually having anyone Utterly On Fire with the ball in hand, England’s mix and experience shaded it. Jofra was a threat, Jordan was testing and Willey and Rashid provided very different challenges. (Having said that, Pakistan bowled well enough – the quicks nailing as many fine yorkers as Archer and Jordan did. This was a game… with not much in it).

I under-estimated Denly’s stoutness and clean-hitting pre- those final overs. And though I said nothing here below, I maybe needed a reminder of just how good Morgan is. There’s something quietly magnificent about his relentless belief; his refusal to compromise; his slapping it all over.

So the day was fine: Cardiff looked fine and the contest was sharply but agreeably joined. As so often the case, the guys and gals at Glamorgan Cricket did an excellent job – but with another relatively lukewarm response from the paying public. 

Here’s how the game *seemed*, live –

Cardiff is beautiful and bright… and then less so. Clouds. Coolish.

Noon to one-ish. The crowd ambles in, or begins to. Lowish numbers feel likely.

Two p.m. and the players at least are building, via their footie (England) and their bowling and fielding drills (Pakistan). Around the stadium, meanwhile, you can’t help but hope that the intensity of all this will rise, sharply, as the *scene* is top-quality but the *vibe* less so. Still the sun returns and Jofra is bouncy and smily in the outfield, so let’s hope.

Morgan is busy and committed under the high ball as the teams are announced. No Plunkett, for England. Duckett and Denly in, along with Jordan. Pakistan will bat – chose to bat. Salt unsprinkled.

As the moment nears the crowd approaches the ‘decent’ mark but the cloud increases as “Jerusalem” booms around; make of that what you will. Could be that Wales doesn’t do Imperialist Pomp – who knew?

Willey will open the bowling, running in towards the river. Morgan’s keks are flapping fairly violently as he discusses The Plan at the wicket.

Single steered straight off the first ball, which looked a loosener. Second called a wide; started out there and never shifted.

Some decent straightish stuff, from Willey, met with straightish bats, from Azam and Zaman. 6 from the over. Minor runout scare, fifth ball up. Over to Curry.

Each batsman collects a boundary off the Surrey man before the left-hander Zaman miscues to mid-off, where Morgan reaches high to catch. 16 for 1.

Then OOPS, pitch calamity. Willey runs in over what appears to be a drainage or watering point, and scuffs up about half of Glamorgan. In the finest tradition of Working Blokes The World Over, a crowd surround the mending operation: soon enough, the hole is filled/sorted/dealt with.

Apropos absolutely bugger all, Willey’s hair has to be a fine – if not outright exclusion from the squad. Tied and pulled back, like some Real Madrid wannabee. As if to reinforce that prejudice, Azam dismisses him to the boundary, past mid-off, for the game’s best moment so far.

Archer. In – scuttling in, rather, suggesting he’s not absolutely at full-tilt? – and/but bowling at 91.4 mph third ball.   He *inconveniences* Imam-Ul-Haq with that pace, mind, Foakes easily taking the looping catch. Good over from the new man; Pakistan are 31 for 2 off 5.

(My initial thought was that if Jofra really ran in… then WOW. And also – after a fairly duff dive out in the deep moments later – could it be that he isn’t that great an athlete? Surely not? Will be watching very closely).

Jordan, from the River End, hitting the pitch pret-ty hard. Then dropping 10 mph. Wily.

Rashid will bowl the 7th. Smooth, controlled, no dramas. 42 for 2.

Jordan again looks to be generating decent pace – all off a shortish wind-up. He is momentarily bowling a tad short; Sohail smashes him out to deep midwicket…. and it’s safe, before cutting skilfully over backward point. Pakistan still playing relatively within themselves. They reach 57 for 2 after 8 with another boundary – this time from Azam, who has 22.

First 6 hoisted off Rashid, to roars from the fans in green. Great strike, well into the crowd at long-on. Change of pace and change of venue for Archer, who will bowl the 10th from the River End.

He’s unlucky twice, maybe, conceding a streaky four through the vacant slip area, then Foakes arguably moves early to leg and denies himself a possible diving catch t’other way.

Archer’s movement is fine (doh! I’m belatedly concluding); he just has less knee-lift than some other tall guys. Better not crucify the lad for not being Michael Holding. Meanwhile Sohail and Azam are moving along nicely enough. After Rashid bowls the 11th, Pakistan are 90 for 2.

Denly comes on. Before he bowls even one, I wonder if they’ll target him. The first is an absolute pie, the second not much better: 10 to the score. Azam gets to 50. The England man does regain his composure somewhat but a statement has been made against him. 111 for 2 after 13.

Willey returns and again looks to be slapping it into the pitch. Highish risk? With only two down, the visitors can surely risk a few flailing heaves or uppish glides? A goodish score is on.

Two wides in the over – both outside off. Predictably, Curran replaces Denly, with Sohail on 49. The batsman does well to keep out a great yorker and move to his 50. Jordan saves two with a brilliant diving stop as that yorker becomes a tasty full-toss. Pakistan seem in some level of control, here – ominously, perhaps. 133 for 2 after 15, with Sohail on 50 and Azam on 64.

Archer back – and claiming an important wicket – that of Sohail. Again it could be that extra zap and bounce plays a part; slight top edge out to deep midwicket, caught comfortably enough by Willey.

Then another moment of quality from Archer – possibly an important one, with World Cup Questions in play. With the batsmen scrambling, he composes himself, utterly, sets his feet and throws down the wicket. Azam is gone for 65. Meaning two new batsmen at the crease.

Jordan will bowl the 17th from beneath us, in the Media Centre. Almost comically, he parries a return catch before realising Ali is hopelessly stranded, mid-strip. Jordan could draw on a ciggie, pick his nose and still run the fella out. Instead he nonchalantly flattens the stumps. See ya!

Archer again. What I’m really liking now, is that beautiful high hand – making an extended, powerful arc – and developing real pace. First ball is a peach of a yorker, barely dug out. 4 overs, 2 for 29, for Jofra, which may be a tad less than he’s deserved: been good.

Rashid will bowl the penultimate. He is swatted downtown for four second ball but it’s a tidy over. Pakistan will begin the last with 157 for 5 on the board. Jordan will bowl it.

Wasim smashes one back at him – and the bowler bravely sticks a mitt out for it. Uncatchable and bloody painful, you would think; saved a four. Then a yorker is dispatched, straightish. Feels fairish when Denly pouches a straightforward one in the covers – Jordan’s earned that.

He has no further luck, however, as a couple of streaky fours take the visitors to 173 for 6. Seems competitive (there’s been little in this for the bowlers) but much will depend on how Englands’ ‘returnees’, principally Duckett and Vince fare, you suspect.

Wasim (the local!) will bowl left-arm spin to Vince, to start. One. Then to Duckett. One. We proceed non-violently but a misfield allows a three to England and we reach 7 for 0, before pace in the form of Ashraf, for the second. Understandably, it’s ‘quietish’.

Not for long. Vince unleashes a short-arm on-drive thing, for six. More good running brings a further three for Duckett. 17 for 0 after 2. Shaheen Afridi – left-arm quick – will bowl the 3rd.

Duckett greets him with a lovely off-drive for four, before swishing rather, then slashing to extra-cover. Gone, lamely, for 9. Enter Root. Plenty of quality, then, for England. Guessing they might look to persist… and exploit that.

Hasnain’s half-tracker is eventually called wide, in the 4th. He over-compensates, and Root eases the ball out past extra-cover for his first boundary. Vince follows that with an elegant back-foot push for four more, taking England to 38 for 1 off 5. Vince has 23 in decent time. Root’s running is notably determined and swift.

There really doesn’t seem to be much help here for the bowlers – in the air or off the pitch. May suggest England can really launch through the ball later. If Root and Vince can take this deepish, I’m thinking a major boomathon is possible; if necessary.

Back to spin (and Wasim) for the 7th. Root deflecting, Vince calm.

Hasnain, Wasim and co are working at this, but there is very little to really trouble England, thus far. No-risk cricket is enough – for now.

*From nowhere*, Vince is given out, caught behind, off Wasim. Some of us in the Media Centre thinking that noise may have been bat on ground. Tough one, for Vince – gone for 36. Enter Morgan, with the sky brightening.

The skipper wastes no time, hoisting fearlessly to backward square leg for four. Game feels on at 75 for 2 off 9.

Ridicucute, from Root, who reverse-scoops Wasim for four over the keeper. Morgan, ever the counter-attacker, straight-hoists Faheem Ashraf for six, then hoiks him for four, then slashes-but-connects for another four over extra. Root may sit, then, whilst the left-hander blazes?

Hasnain is in for the 13th, his team-mates tapping and clapping their approval at a couple of precious dot-balls. Then a third. But Root comes back with another over-the-shoulder job; four, to fine-leg. England need 69 off 42.

Root changes his bat, then unleashes a beauty, straight, marginally to off, racing away. Not much in this but I make England favourites; only two down, conditions benign.

Class again from Root – and again deflecting rather than hitting. Glides Faheem effortlessly behind square for 4, first ball of the 15th. Good contest, mind, as the bowler absolutely nails a couple of yorkers, to limit the damage. 122 for 2, with 52 needed off the last 32.

Morgan goes big enough over square-leg. Six. Then Root, in seeking a tickle behind, gets too little and is caught, for 47. Pressure moment, for the incoming Denly. My hunch is maybe wrong bloke, but hope not.

Poor misfield gifts Morgan four. Sun rejoins us, 37 from 24 the ask. Shaheen is stretching for it but too hard – bowls a short wide. England seemingly still happy to wait… and pick the right ones.

Denly does just that, blasting a fabulous off-drive through for four. Middled. Huge, for confidence.

Morgan clubs one less elegantly over mid-off – just. The sun is at its strongest and it smiles on Denly, who French-cuts for a cruel four, leaving only 17 required from the remaining two overs.

Denly (waddooo I know?!?) delivers six of them, first up -Shaheen the unlucky bowler. Suddenly it’s 8 from 8.

Impressive, this, from England, impressive rather than gorgeous, or electrifying, or imperious – a well-executed strangle… assuming they get 7 from the last. So, Faheem Ashraf, wot you got?

Two, off the first, giving Morgan his 50: 51, in fact. Remarkably, the captain finishes it with a slightly mishit clonk, over long-off. Job done.

Good game, proper game, superbly judged by England. Entertaining and cool, with strong contributions from Archer and (I thought) Jordan in the field, before all of Vince, Root, Morgan and Denly turned up with the bat. An allegedly second-string side looking more than competent.  Now then, what’s next?

Universe Podcast 5. On writing.

Dangerously solo podcast, on writing stuff and the privileges I’ve enjoyed. Hope to god no-one feels *exposed* – not my intention. Hoping folk might be interested in the process and actuality of writing on cricket – on anything.

 

 

Big fan of Ronay and Hayward but also of Ian Herbert. Thank you to them and to George Dobell, Melinda Farrell, Dan Norcross and Adam Collins, in particular. Listen and you will see that this a) takes indulgence to a new, exotic high b) is about accreditation, style, honesty and lots of other cobblers.

Okay. Have listened back. First thing I should say is that I know it breaks all the rules: I’m not big on rules. Absurdly long – not bovvered – a zillion omissions and dubious generalities, naturally, but like it and pleased that encourager-in-chief Richard Huntington has ‘bloody loved it’. When you’re on the edges of embarrassing/‘colourful’/crazy-pretentious it helps to have an occasional, legitimising thumbs up.

Should maybe mention that I do understand that there is a significant difference between a column and a report. Even my live posts aren’t reports, eh? *Also*, I work full-time for Cricket Wales as a coach and media geezer, so when I talk about being unemployable in the mediasphere, I have the luxury of referring to possible occasional freelancing. Love my job – genuinely.

May add to this…

 

KP; a brief wallow.

KP. Gone. Gone to save the rhinos, with (perhaps for the first time?) a coalition of goodwill behind him. But previously…

Flamingoing god. Revolutionary genius. Caresser, counter-attacker, take-the-contest-by-the-scruff-of-the-necker… or utter, utter tosser? Mincer and moaner, delusional with with his own greatness, bigger than everything. The Maestro Who Would Not Listen. KP.

This wee column ain’t gonna change how you feel about Pietersen. You sorted that yonks ago. When you saw him unpick Ingerland’s chief oppo’s or re-calibrate the do-able as a mid-order bat. You either surfed that bore with him, or did the uncomfortably surly thing – turned away, to enjoy stuff later, when the blokes you felt you could really back jumped in. Or maybe found a mid-position, where you were pleased by victories but neutral about KP’s role – however central?

With the South African’s brilliance there was that tidal surge of baggage. For the bristling xenophobes, that stuff about origins and authentic britness, or otherwise; perenially relevant of course to half the flipping squad but particularly so to Pietersen because of his extravagant profile and that feeling that he might turn Afrikaaner at any point. The non-relationship with the ECB and their coach(es?) seemed unhappily in thrall to this feeble idealogical wrestle.

More legitimately, for many, the *relationships issues*. Our Kev as a prima donna of the highest order, who (though we fully accept might have/should have been managed better) refused the throw-downs, denied or actively undermined the Team Culture. (It may be a complete irrelevance but I think I just dreamt about Pietersen on an All Blacks training camp. He was being drowned, so it appeared, in a cattle-trough, for flagrant contravention of the No Dickheads rule).

KP was either a) years ahead (again) because he knew what he needed to practice b) a mardy, irrespectful git or c) poorly managed. Or something else. Certainly it was messy and both sides of the KP / ECB/Moores/Flowers/Strauss/whoever divide may need to (in the contemporary committee-speak) ‘reflect on their behaviours’. Nobody comes out of this well, I think.

I’m bit lost and a bit anxious almost. Many of the voices I know and/or respect are pretty much besotted with KP. I’m really not. I can’t quite get past the refusing to join with the team thing – not entirely.

If I felt that brash young bloke with the partly-blue barnet really was a deeply rebellious, big-hearted genius I’d be more in his camp. But too much ‘happened’: whatever KP Legacy there is feels surely so much about poisons arising around his selfishness, his arrogance, that a durable argument can not be made based on the player’s ‘fierce, individual commitment?’

For me, that barnet seemed more a signal of something rather dumb, rather naff: something estranged from real, legitimate, subversive-in-a-good-wayness. KP the private school prat. KP who maybe thought Nik Kershaw was punk and that Celine Dion is the Queen of Soul.

What I mean by this is that for me, Pietersen was a tremendous cricket player but a vain, cardboard cut-out of a bloke. And in my view of him, this counts.

I’m not so naive I fail to recognise the rivalries and personality clashes within every team ever: of course I see that. Sport is often about egos and how they are revealed, managed, sacrificed, expressed. The KP story is something of a classic and an epic, in this wonderfully cod-psychological regard. Hence my wallowing. Briefly

It’s surely telling and probably boring that much of the actual cricket is squeezed out, here. Thank god, elsewhere there will be zillions of folks writing or reminiscing about KP’s batting, over this, his retirement weekend. I only saw him live three or four times. I missed the truly great moments: I truly hope you loved yours.

 

What do we call this?

Okay. Maybe you’re centre-midfield on a parks pitch in North Lincolnshire and it’s down to you. This. The ball plummeting towards, their grizzly number six feeling for your presence, aware you’re the one who can head. You’re gonna not so much head as clear out the universe, power through, make the most intimidating statement ever made in sport.

This only works if you bawl something as you leap; something kinda specific. Something like ‘RICKY’S UP!’ – which may on the page sound cheesy but in the moment, no. The two syllables of the name project, control, make real the intervention in a way that RICK just couldn’t. It would be ricdiculous. The words, the sound, the something… decide.

Everybody who knows footie – knows sport – understands this. The words in the event are massive. What you call yourself, what you get called, how you’re spoken of , is critical. Not possible to be bona fide without (weirdly, mainly) two syllables.

Of course this is why we get Gazzas and Glendas and (don’t worry I’m coming to cricket now) Rootys, Cookies, Jimmys. Cobblers to any other cultural-sociological considerations, it’s about what naturally fits, then. So I can be as Rick as I want but if I plant the ball majestically wide of cover’s left hand somebody on the boundary’s going to mutter ‘shot, Ricky!’ If the England number three does that beautiful unfurling thing through extra-cover, Farbrace is going to rumble ‘played, Vincey!’ as he’s stirred to his feet.

How else, though, is the gorgeous-but-infuriating Hants bat spoken to, or of?

When he strides back to pavilion, eyes down, caught at slip, what else could it be from Bayliss but ‘what the **** was that, Vincey?’

Actually it could be lots of things. It could be silence, for one. Bayliss may choose a later opportunity, maybe to ask a wiser, more searching question. Like ‘where do you think we are with the dismissals, Vincey*? In terms of pattern?’ And then they together choose what to work on.

*Could be of course that in the real world moment there’s another nickname. Not in there – don’t know. I’m betting it’s two syllables, mind. Vince is worth talking about; with yaknow, words.

Clearly there’s a lot of chat around all those starts, all those frustrating, demoralising finishes. (Sometimes I wonder if they’re worse for us poor buggers watching than for him!) Plus a rich vein of psycho-gubbins around personality, freedom, responsibility and yes, that coaching framework. There’s a documentary series, never mind a blog around What, Exactly, Vincey Should Do: for now, I’ll stick with the former.

Some are fascinatingly clear that what they deem a ‘failure to learn’ simply disqualifies him already; however he might purr, this cat ain’t suitable for Test Cricket. Others argue that the problem isn’t so much centred on poor choices as kindof disproportionately fiercely-punished non or near-execution. Failing to execute shots he very often plays. Outside off-stump. Imperiously.

From memory I think I’ve only seen one media name blame technical issues for Vince’s predicament. Chiefly he’s getting slaughtered for going there at all, given we’re under, or about to be pitifully legs and arms akimbo under the cosh. There may actually be something comical about the level and intensity of verbals aimed at the rather serene-looking strokemaker but head-in-talons at the unbe-leeee-vably serial transgression across the Don’t Play Eet Less Ya’ve To Principle, us nighthawks – Yorkie nighthawks? – have typically stooped full-tilt into raging fury. Perspective? Proportion? Intelligent Investment? Na.

Here’s a thing, though. Plenty of us have woken the dog – quite possibly immediately before the offending nick of the wide-ish one behind – with a snortaciously approving ‘Yesss, Vincey’ as the ball raced to the off-side fence. We’ve muttered something about ‘class’ – and I don’t mean his private schooling in medium-luxurious Wiltshire. Thus many a dark, dark December night has felt defined (or possibly caricatured?) by the cruel see-sawing between expressive pomp and dumb, tribal humiliation.

Incidentally, I wonder how many of us have marked a beautifully squeezed J.V. drive with a follow-up aimed (in increasing order of spitefulness) at Starc(k)y, Smithy or War-ner? And is there something else about doubling up – going bi? Bitterness? Bile? Emphasis? Certainty?

See, I am more sure of my two syllable hypothesis than any of the Vince cricket-things. He’s a fabulously gifted player – milky, honeyed, rich, pure. And yet we wonder either if no-one’s home, if nothing’s been said or if our fears about the empowerment of players through (ahem) *personal discovery* have in his case reached an epic high, or low?

Freedom for learning is a gift and a blessing. It’s also very much at the forefront of contemporary coaching philosophies. They change. The need to decide stuff arguably doesn’t.

Vincey, come out and tell us: what’s been said?

 

 

Conference rise.

It was a real coup for Cricket Wales/Glamorgan Cricket to get the new ECB Head of Coach Development, John Neal, to open the first National Coaching Conference, held at The SSE Swalec Stadium on Sunday. (Good work on the nobbling-him-early-doors front, from our very own Paul Morgan.)

John is both plainly a top man and the top man in terms of his responsibilities vis a vis cricket coaching in England and Wales. He came across as exactly the sort of authoritative, centred, witty and determined individual you might really want to lead you through… whatever.

Opening up, the former WRU and RFU man did not so much speak – certainly he didn’t lecture – as conduct an exchange with us, which was (despite the fact that it had by its nature to be themed), refreshing, challenging, funny and direct. Those of you who attend vaguely corporate gatherings of this sort may shiver coldly when I tell you he played a series of short games with us but a) he did b) they were fine – they were funny, meaningful and illustrative of his points.

Understandably reluctant to lumber himself with a glib, conference-friendly soundbite, John threw away the notion that ‘this is about Making Coaching Fun’ – before making it fun. He was big on the ideas around the right reflex and how we must challenge our own ease or easing towards judgements which may be wrong; when we (ourselves) are often wrong anyway… and this is fine.

On the process of coaching, Mr Neal offered the following, in essence: that it is largely about the coach being skilled in offering good questions to stimulate self-learning in the player. I am para-phrasing, but speaking privately for some time after his initial remarks, the sense was that John is right behind the idea that

“players must problem-solve: coaching is not about answering”.

After a start that was as provocative as it was informative, the fifty coaches attending were then ushered down into the indoor school at the Swalec, where three top-level deliverers were waiting.

Cookie Patel is one of the ECB’s go-to men for leading Coach Ed. sessions. His brief on this occasion was to share some ideas and principles around fielding; from catching to sliding to stats. Inevitably, he threw in a few nuggety specifics around posture or practice – offerings, I would say, rather than instructions.

So there were observations and some demonstrations for the various disciplines, calibrated for – and then re-calibrated for – different abilities or scenarios, or just to make them more fun. Couple of half-decent fielders were tested: all done with a bit of healthy mischief and a good dollop of streetwise (but also clearly authoritative) cricket humour.

In short Cookie was engaging, sharp, likeable and packed a whole lot of learning into his sessions. There was some gawping at a screen full of prompts or stats but there was a good flow – good energy.

Sharing the space was the ECB’s Dan Garbutt, who beasted his posse of innocents with a chaotic-but-not-chaotic runaround under the theme of Game Sense. This was an inventive multi-game, loosely and briskly set up by Dan, demanding lots of input and application from the participants, in order to a) score runs through targets b) challenge the players’ wits.

Dan intervened only occasionally: he told me rather proudly midway through ‘I’ve offered no coaching points’, meaning this was about inventiveness – movement, adjustment, game sense – from the players. It was crazy-dynamic in a really good way: the coaches were smiling and knackered.

Screened off in a single net area (hard ball work) was Mark O’Leary, lead coach at Cardiff Met and the driving force behind the MCCU side which won out at Lords a month or two ago. Mark was and plainly is into spin.

Tall, slim and alarmingly youthful, ‘Sparky’ bustled his groups brilliantly through all things spintastic. Entry-level under-arm games; progressions towards Rashid-dom; use of visual cues and handy, wristy tips. He demystified stuff and demonstrated, simply but strikingly well, how you might extract major turn. (Certainly he did: the leggies and the extraordinarliy nonchalantly launched googlies turned about a yard – or that’s how they would surely have felt to the batsman). Impressive.

Impressive but delivered with just the right amount of direction, humour and humility. Loved that Mark unashamedly spoke of leg-spin (in particular, though obviously not exclusively) as an art and yet entirely demonstrated how accessible that magic around the art can be. The session, like the balls, fizzed.

In practical terms, Sparky used ver-ry few bits of kit. A builders line between bowler’s mark and off-stick; a washing line, effectively to draw loop and dip; some balls. The rest was ingenuity and enthusiasm – and yes, knowledge.

Those amongst my co-gluttons at Cricket Wales who failed to attend the day may be interested to hear that lunch was generous, tasty and included hot chunks of meat as well as the dainty sandwiches of yore. Well -fed, we sat again to listen to Hugh Morris.

Hugh is CEO at Glamorgan Cricket. I know now – having been in his company on several occasions – that he is also a hugely capable and honourable man, impressively focused on building a successful club, with a strong, Welsh core under-pinned by a truly effective pathway. Hugh knows there are sceptics; he himself joked about the South African rather than South Walian origins of a good deal of the current squad, but I am clear he means it when he talks about developing a county side that consistently reflects its support, its national identity, its base.

The former Glammy and England opening bat majored on the Long Term Athletic Development pathway that he believes – and again, I really think he does believe – must be central to a joined-up, fit-for-all-purposes, enabling structure. He took us through the detail, so as to make the argument unanswerable and impress upon us how necessary he believes the changes are. It was arguably dryish stuff but the gaffer was utterly, convincingly clear that the model of LTAD planning he outlined would be key to achieving the twin objectives of great, appropriate sporting provision and the development of great Welsh players.

Hugh was gracious enough to enlarge privately on the arguments – and the research around them – for some time after his presentation. Plainly, explicitly and rightly he wants Glamorgan to be geared up and ready to bid for and use the (potentially increased) ECB funds to make real his vision. It’s ambitious. It involves considerable culture-change and investment. However, Mr Morris, I can tell you, is committed.

After a few brief questions from the coaches, it was back to the action on the floor, as groups rotated through the sessions.

Dave Leighton is a shortish fella – fair cop, Dave, you made the jokes – who may well have played rugby league (as well as cricket) before his twenty-odd years service with the ECB. He now heads up National Participation in his role as Coaching Manager. Dave twinkled his way through ‘the graveyard shift’ asking questions about his chief areas of concern – ‘beyond Coach Education’ and ‘the club environment’.

Having spoken to him before he addressed the coaches, I was interested to see him in relatively discreet mode: he gave little away in respect of the transformation about to be unleashed: I respect that. However (again privately) he did share his confident expectation that resources will be ploughed into the recreational game… over and above the huge investment in All Stars Cricket. Coaching, it seems, will be recognised, valued and supported (by the ECB) in a way that marks a step-change towards the bubble-burstingly brilliant future envisaged by Matt Dwyer. I wish Mr Leighton had been as clear about that to the assembled throng as he was to me, individually.

Whatever, there’s a theme developing here, is there not?Centred on belief and expectation. Around investment which folks are pret-ty certain is a-comin’. Let’s go back to where this began – to the other Top Man, John Neal.

John was absolutely clear that he has the freedom to make changes happen; that he will do so. Given that his brief is for Coach Development he will broaden the Coach Education pathway, making it possible to improve and achieve in (probably) three newly defined areas rather than (probably) get blocked in the current, suffocatingly vertical structure. He likes the word enablement and he will enable. The money is coming and the ground has shifted and things will happen – are happening.

Final thoughts? Sunday was a good day. For those who participated, it was a blast, a pleasure, it was challenging-but-great. It was well-supported but chiefly by exactly the sort of coaches who support stuff – who always do this stuff. Meaning a) if you are coaching in Wales and you didn’t attend, why not? b) you’d be daft to miss the next one.

There are about forty-seven cricket revolutions going on simultaneously, right now; some on the pitch, some off. The first Cricket Wales/Glamorgan Cricket National Coaching Conference evidenced, echoed and nudged forward that sense that we are entitled to come over all excited, in these extraordinary times, because pound-for-pound, it seems likely that we coaches – we cricket people – may be able to contribute more, expect more, influence more… because the investment is coming. That’s the clear implication.

So, call me an optimist… but I am optimistic. Don’t just take my word for it, mind – all of us the Swalec were buzzing.

Aimee Rees, lead for Cricket Wales Women and a hugely respected coach in her own right, put it this way;

‘today’s conference was excellent – really well organised and all of the presenters were engaging and knowledgable… The standout session for me was on spin, with Mark O’Leary from Cardiff MCCU. I am already looking forward to the next conference.’

Friends, there will be a next conference.