Blowers.

Pre- the final curtain there was the inevitable falling over backwards; too many forced ‘dear old things, too much cranking up of the emotional. Vaughan and Tufnell maybe slightly nervously fawning.

The Old Pro, though, ploughed on, admirably briskly – because that’s what his generation do, right? – because he had a game to commentate on; because ‘tremendous fun’ loometh.

TMS, of course. Blowers. Dressed to kill; impossibly vital and irretrievably amiable, as always. No doubt aware of the doe-eyes around him but impressively focused on that uniquely distracted world-view, drawn in to Lords and to his cricket.

Throughout he remained seemingly unaffected by the smiley furore around him. Doing his thing – scene-setting, describing. All of it via that, yaknow… voice.

There have been contenders, overs the decades, for the Voice of Cricket moniker. Few if any (Arlott, Benaud, perhaps?) have breached that bubble of national/international consciousness in quite the way that Blofeld has. He is instantly, widely, almost universally known – and known beyond his game.

Whilst the fact of his popularity is all the more extraordinary given his lack of physical visibility – duh, radio commentator and therefore relatively obscure, despite those sartorial outrages – Blowers figures. He is identifiable, he is a one-off, one-man, universal brand. Supremely Posh English. Because of that voice.

We can’t pretend to appreciate Our Henry without acknowledging this: he is – or he sounds – elite-level posh.

In another scenario – politics, perhaps? – he might surely be the recipient of cruel satire and abuse for being so. How then has he cut through to the extent that or’nary blokes like Tuffers and Vaughan are now falling over themselves to offer touching tributes? When they, like me, must surely be instinctively posh-averse? In this sense alone, Henry Blofeld is a phenomenon.

Let’s look at the context. The TMS tribe itself is arguably a relatively conservative clique; if defined by well-meaning, cake-wielding softies, then incontrovertibly, fascinatingly so. It’s the land of private schools, polished accents, awfully genuine people. It’s the land of the flourishing cricket club; we can’t pretend that breeding has no significance here.

Hold that heavy roller though: this a truth but it’s not the truth.

Despite that (dangerous concepts alert) deeply traditional, English core, to which it’s a no-brainer that Blowers might appeal – as a soulbrother, as a ‘natural voice’ – there are radical hipster eco-Corbynistas amongst the TMS Posse. Of course there are. And there are binmen and teachers and surgeons and vicars and thieves. But let’s get back to how he sounds.

Only a few could hear that voice without issues arising. I still hear it and battle the prejudices of a punky youth in the North of England. Growing up Grimbarian (now 35 years honorary Welsh, with Welsh-speaking family) I have shoulders to be de-chipped, confessions to make around this.

Grappling for a way through and out of Thatcherism and by direct consequence hating (then – less so now) the Privileged South, I am uneasy around what google is helpfully calling Upper Received Pronunciation. The purveyors of said gift have to earn my trust and respect in a way some bloke from Swansea may not. Because posh means privileged and this is wrong, yes? Because the country was and is divided and a certain political party need only be interested in securing the goodwill of the South… and the job is done, yes? (Like I said, Thatcherism).

Hah but I am worldly and self-aware enough to know this strikes some of you as either offensive, irrelevant or both and that it reflects on me as badly as anyone else. I hope you’ll be pleased to hear I now know at least two people from the URP category whom I really like… but (hah hah?) I’m sticking to my guns on the wincing at privilege thing.

Some part of me will always think Henry Blofeld could not sound or be more of an icon for the Privileged South if he crooned Gaudeamus Igitur whilst boiling the lobster.

We can (and I have) got over this but it matters. It matters because a) this voice projects us across the universe and b) this voice doesn’t represent us. And c) Free Nelson Mandela!

Just kidding – I’ve enjoyed Blowers too. I’m a huge fan of TMS.

Here’s how it is. For me Our Henry’s a hugely affable outlier. From another age, another place, for sure but when the flow is with him, humorous and painterly and yes, ‘tremendous fun’. Someone I can join with, despite the chasm between. The man is skilled and knowledgeable, eccentric and somehow hyper-exotically English in a way I can live with – now – a way that’s simply entertaining; diverting, as they used to say.

Critically, look at what his peers are saying. Even allowing for a degree of sycophancy here or there, the vibe is strikingly, convincingly positive.

We plebs don’t have the inside track on this but his co-commentators – the guys and gals who’ve been covering his back over the last eighteen months – plainly love the man. (Check out tonight’s twitter to confirm; notable). Henry may have been increasingly less able to see clearly who is who and where the ball went but this has not diminished his colleagues love for him – and he’s too sharp to allow too much saccharoidal patronage.

It would seem most colleagues, like most fans, appreciate his flair, his infectious wordsmithery, his sweet disposition. Agnew and Marks and co reeled off stories – often featuring ‘classic’ Blower errors or post-binge aberrations, all palpably enjoyed, all relayed entirely without malice.

As Blower’s day ended in triumph, with what he might call a glorious perambulation round his beloved Lords, crowd roaring, the tributes multiplied. Few from the media will receive a lap of honour at Lords and an England dressing-room visit to mark their final spell of verbals. Few will get so many unsolicited snogs. Up close then, once you’ve put your shades on, the fella must be an absolute diamond as well as a journalist of distinction.

He is a phenomenon. The Great British Public, beyond the cake-bakers and the geeks, want either to share a glass with him, or a paternal hug, or worse. He transcends judgement by simply screening out opinion, being honestly good and being honestly, clearly in love with his game.

I’m struck by the thought that Blower’s signature talents are 1) he can talk 2) he sticks to the cricket and the pigeons and the cranes. Job done.

 

Rain.

We’ve all been there – we may even be there now? Drumming fingers on unresponsive window, treatment table, desk or notepad. Head-on-hand on minibus backrest, or worse, in that torturous elbow/palm/ear-war against the coach window, wrist cruelly cocked; half-sleeping, beyond the jokes, beyond uncomfortable. Dying to hear. Waiting.

Waiting in the service station, or services. Buying time eating self-harming superfluous crap, waiting for that call, that definitive bloo-dee call, on or off. Thinking for the zillionth time ‘it ca-a-n’t bee thatt difficult’; angry because beyond reason; unthinkingly mad in the grey of not knowing.

Hang on, chaps. On balance, one of the more mundane breeding grounds for stultifying pain, debilitating grief and visceral malcontentment, though, yes? Agreed?

Nope. Nothing worse – never has been. Not in the wars or the famines or the queue for the khazi at Glasto. This is The Absolute Killer. Mizzle. Damping. The actuality of or malevolent possibility for puddles in the outfield or the murderously unknowable threat, degree, volume, percentage or timing of proper rain.

‘Yeh but we’ve all played in stuff like this. We’ve all splashed a bit on our run-ups. Umpire, waddya think? I’ve gone – don’t ask me, I absconded some time ago but waddya think, really? Your call entirely.’

Just let me look at you whilst you mooch round the bowling crease one more time; gauge the level of your Health and Safety obsessivity, quietly, as though in some way disinterested, when of course, this is not possible. (We both know, in some murder mystery weekend kindofaway that the moment is haunted, is probably ill and that my ‘handing over’ is merely the most cynical of reminders that by god, I am watching).

We’ve had things rained off this week. Plus I’ve just been listening to Alison Mitchell and friends (on TMS) skilfully deferring the fact of their own infinitely more significant rained-offness. And as I write, there may be a cat in the front window but it is not, I assure you, basking. The postman, handing over a damp jiffy-bag and saying ‘Girls did well yesterday’ cheerily – Girls being England Women, who smashed Pakistan all over – the postman is wet.

Our things were Primary School Festivals. I could have wept, spat, gone through any of the rituals of losing it due to rain. I’m still battling a way forward, both really – in terms of finding a practical solution – and yaknow, spiritually. This may mean the writing qualifies as therapy.

What’s fascinating (once we wipe away the skein of trauma) is how we don’t seem growed-up enough to get philosophical about this, given its obviousness, its relative prevalence, its humdrum unavoidability. It’s just rain. I’m in West Wales. (Al’s in Derby.) It’s gonna happen.

So there must be something deepish here to do with furious disappointnent and furious weediness – futility in the face of that great inscrutable-but-then-again pret-ty predictable protagonist-in-chief The Weather.

Mad that we can’t see the charm in that weather’s wondrous meanderings. (Sometimes we can but not when there’s a CRICKET FESTIVAL!!) Laughable that we can’t laff. (But ditto.) Ridicusomething that the energy burns away so fiercely when such an ocean of theoretical calm offers itself up… so soothingly, so pitter-patteringly. Come, my friend, you have time – relax!

Me, I ‘m a lover of spontaniety, colour, of stumbling through and turning over gems. I tend to foam, to respond, to stick my mitts in the soil-of-it. I hate planning, need free amorphous headspace.

You too? So why the gnashing and gnarling and seeking after black or white on this particular thing? When the essence of the universe is anarchically-beautifully stacked against – and generally I’m fine with that?

It is a cricket thing – obviously not uniquely but still, yes. The drama around rain.

Is it a learning, is it helpful or comforting that our waiting is cruelly rich? That something so crushing is yet so alive?

What’s the forecast? (Met Office/Accuweather?) How well does this drain? How far are they travelling? Are they amenable or stroppy, or what? Is the umpire a misery or… how is (s)he? Is this wind blowing that a) towards b) away c) away quick enough? Is that real sun over there or? What did Reg say? Reg knows this ground better than anyone.

Amateurs to professionals, kids to seniors stirring for relevance but rendered pathetic. Absurdly impatient or angry, in the main. Really, how many of us deal well with a rain delay, postponement or the pitch inspection that prolongs itself because we just can’t be sure?

If you’re thinking we may be moving towards some spurious guide to What We Might Do Better here, forget it. If anything, I’m moving towards the Just Experience (or maybe Luxuriate in) the Experience camp on this; on everything.

Note the quality of rain, sun, wind, moment – infuriation. The next one will be different. Do that then if you can, re-schedule.

 

 

Culture of spin.

Immediately post the Third Test versus Pakistan and all the talk is of the dearth of quality spin bowlers. Or at least in the UK mini-subcontinent it is. Hour upon hour or page upon page of rumination around spin stuff, which in a way… is great. Great that this (arguably) least glamorous facet of the game is in the spotlight.

Whilst inevitably unpicking the issues arising from this (ahem) turn of events, I do wonder if we can turn this moment when both armchair authorities and Cricketing Authorities are acutely engaged… into a positive?

Let’s hear what some influential peeps or tweeps have said. Michael Vaughan has been relentlessly withering on the inconsistencies or raw inadequacies of England’s 3 spinners. Boycott has just described them – slightly absurdly, but as is often the case, we know what he means- as ‘non-existent,’ in a Telegraph article. Robert Croft – from the other angle – has tweeted that

We can’t expect our batsmen 2 be consistent against the turning ball. They never have to face it in this country as no turning pitches!

There’s a comparatively rare consensus around the facts that

a) our spinners (by definition, picked to spin the ball and either take wickets or tie up an end) were ordinary, given the help they received from prevailing conditions and

b) our batsmen were too easily undone by the Pakistani equivalents. There’s a further consensus around the notion that these two phenomena are umbilically linked… to the relative void (as opposed to the fecund womb!) where our spin culture should be.

In attempting to apply my own laser-like intellect to the spin bowling issue only – for now – I’m going to do what any self-respecting bloggerist might do, and reach for a coupla subtitles.

The Individuals.
There’s always context, right? Selection is always about what’s happened before, what’s expected and what impact or contribution a player might make. Remember that.

Moeen Ali.
I was in Cardiff for the Ashes and can confirm that folks were falling for Moeen, rather. He was actually loved, for his smooth, assured batting and his energy round the place. I’m not saying he was Ben Stokes exactly – Mo’s mojo is a whole lot less spikily, edgily brilliant – but he seemed so comfortable in the environment we hoped good things might happen whenever he was involved. Often they did.

That whole Mo batting at eight ruse also worked a treat, felt like a master stroke as he moved stylishly (and critically) to 77 in the first innings. That crowd-lurv, that confidence fed into a decent return from his bowling; in the first innings he winkled out Smith and Clarke and in the second Australian knock he claimed three wickets, including that of Warner. He took a super-sharp caught and bowled (that Clarke wicket) and somehow lifted the crowd with his easy enthusiasm. It may have been the prevalence of Mo masks around the Swalec crowd but something about his quiet presence suggested he may be destined to be the face of the summer.

In fact, whilst Ar Mo certainly contributed to a flawed but uplifting Ashes victory, there was early concern around the quality of his bowling. More than that; it was generally appreciated that the Mo-at-8 thing made sense precisely because he’s not a genuine international spinner… and yet he is more than a mere makeweight. He deserves a slot, he improves the balance of the side and shores up the batting/offers a match-winning threat even, down there. He is – despite the work-in-progress-that-may-not-progress enough-ness of his bowling – a real international.

Mostly, Moeen Ali looks every inch of that but, if you look at his bowling in isolation, he doesn’t.

Samit Patel.
Is viewed as either a proper throwback kindofa cricketer, or a man out of time. Defiantly unsexy, patrolling like some amiable neighbourhood copper dangerously close to the ‘likeably portly’ category. Simply does not have that sprint and dive thing in his locker; in fact looks like he has a ham and chutney bap and a bottle of Sam Smith’s in his locker.

Samit can clearly play – as can the other two spin candidates – but he has been judged to be short of fitness and that true elite-level threat with the ball.

So if Patel is generally and rightly regarded highly and warmly by plenty but few consider him the answer to England’s spin ‘woes’, why was he picked? With all due respect he doesn’t fit the bill as England’s Future. The brutal truth is that he was selected because of injuries around the squad, then geography/’conditions’ and because okaaaaay he mi-ight do a job with bat and ball. This he did. An average job – predictably. It may have been an average selection, given short and longer term considerations.

Rashid…(however…)
is the one.

If Moeen is effectively a batsman who can bowl spin and Patel a goodish alround spin bowler and batsman, Rashid is the one we might look to with the ball.

The fact of his leggie-dom may flesh out the notion he’s a Man More Likely To, in broad terms, than the other two labouring away alongside in Sharjah. He’s different; he’s A Prospect, a threat, a candidate for bona fide spin-king status in a way that Patel and Moeen maybe aren’t – certainly aren’t. Something says he’s more likely to tear through an innings than his compadres… and that he’s young enough to invest in… and we’re entitled to be hopeful and maybe even excited about that.

And yet he proved flawed. As in-out and generally disappointing as Patel and Moeen. As Sir Geoffrey said (of all of them)
they are not accurate or disciplined enough and there are too many easy balls to score off.

Simple but true enough. Rashid, whom we hoped (and still hope?) may bring that X-factor, that extra dimension to the side, underachieved.

General (Brief) Boring Theory thing.
I reckon most of us who have flung the cherry accept that bowling leg-spin is about as difficult as bowling gets: that’s part of its allure. The cocked wrist and the snap or flip of fingers as the ball is delivered from more or less the back of the hand works against easy repetitions.

Leggies tend to really work with their wrists and/or wind up revolutions by (in particular) ripping on the seam with their third finger. It’s (in my view) a whole lot more difficult to do this consistently and with control than it is to (for example) bowl a stock off-spinner, where the clockwise ‘turning the key’ movement of the first finger is a) more easily achieved and b) more easily repeated with the necessary accuracy. At every level it’s rare to find a leggie who is both turning the ball ‘big’ and able to plop it on the right spot time after time after time.

Conclusion thing.
Time to hone your spin-king skills is available, in (UK) domestic cricket – but arguably not enough of it, or not in conducive or even ‘fair’ scenarios.  ‘Special breed’ though they may be, spinners – like everyone else – have to earn the right to play, possibly more so now than in the years when there fewer non-negotiables – when you could be unfit or relatively uni-skilled.

Ideally though things remain unchangingly straightforward; you (the spin-king) just bowl magnificently and/or with monotonous skill; meaning all arguments simply fall away.

#TMS made the point earlier that Tuffers bowled around 800-900 overs a season for Middlesex: this compares to about 300-400 for spinners in the current era. No wonder then, we seem cruelly short of international-grade spinners when the opportunities in domestic cricket are both limited and frequently unrelated to or unhelpful towards producing Test Match bowlers.

Of course the changing nature of the game itself mitigates against the kind of consistency Boycott understandably demands. Especially in Blighty where spinners are used mainly in limited overs games where variation rather than consistency is often the key. Pitches and the surge towards yet more dynamic cricket significantly undermine any spin culture we may have. This is tough; it may even brand us as philistines – myopic no-hopers – but don’t expect too much in the way of revelation or revolution too soon.

The tremendous debate underway during this, the inaugural Spin Awareness Moment is valuable but may not, I fear, amount to much. Changes a-comin’ in the structure of English domestic cricket will not, I suspect, be driven by the need to find a new Graeme Swann – or better still, nurture a spin-friendly environment. More likely we will simply sit and wait for someone extravagantly gifted and stunningly reliable to come along, wheeling in glorious isolation, against the grain.