Fundamentals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And again, more generally –

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dead Rubber?

Interesting how few folks seem to think the last Ashes Test is a ‘dead rubber’. Maybe the odd Croatian thinks that but most of us, despite the slam-dunkingly emphatic void where the competitive reality should be, can still feel the juices rising. The dander will still be up and the banter spiky as an echidna’s arse – as they say in Vauxhall.

It’s possible the Oval may be less of a cauldron than (say) Edgbaston was but even if us Poms do drift implausibly and non-demonstrably towards a rain-affected draw there will be meaning in some of this. Meaning for individual players – some of it life-changing – and meaning for the fans and for the game.

Pre- this final test, one rumour suggests Moeen may open with Cook and Rashid enter the fray, heralding multiple All New Possibilities for import or revelation.

Should this prove to be the case, it would necessarily imply medium-complex stuff – either the outright dropping (terminally or otherwise) of Lyth and/or a deliciously double-edged conversation with him (or about him) that may (who knows?) offer the hope that he would return should the second spinner syndrome no longer prevail.

How Lyth might actually read that hypothetical situation – even if there was a Scouts Honour-ability to any discussions with the coaching staff – is anybody’s guess; my guess is that he would publicly be A Brick and privately be pooping his panties. Being told however skilfully that the door is not closed is surely ver-ry nearly as cruel as being ruthlessly cast off?

‘Fella this is NOT ABOUT YOU. ‘S purely tactical – we’re looking at the options. So you go do what you do best… and force us to pick you.’
‘K boss.’  (*Cue manful trudge*.)

In contrast Moeen’s extravagantly rising star makes me think of Caesar and yaknow, firmaments. Except that there appears to be no fatal arrogance and no apparent threat to the man’s Polaris-like pre-eminence, despite his widely-perceived limitations as a bowler. Batting-wise, he’s creaming it: rarely have the fortunes around a tactical masterstroke gathered so beautifully as around the insertion of the Bearded One into the All Runs Are A Bonus zone.

Moeen’s multifaceted brilliance – stonewalling/stylishly gutsy/expansive and fearless with that bat, busy in the field, decent plus with the ball – has made him something of a darling for the fans and placed him absolutely at the centre of every strategy imaginable. You want an opener at eight or an opener at two or a counterattacking momentum-shifter hilariously and subversively low in the order? Here I am; me – Ali. Floating, stinging and doing just everything from that insurance policy thing (freeing everybody else up, right?) to just making this Test Cricket look pret-ty simple.

The quality of the clamour around Rashid these last few months tells us he is gorgeously ripe with potential. The Oval therefore provides another relatively de-stressed opportunity. All the selectors have to do is pick him: all he has to do is still the nerves entirely and tweak the ball fearlessly before giving it right old clout with the bat. Easy.

Bayliss and Farbrace must know they are lucky, luck-ee geezers to be offered another early chance to blood Rashid when the high-risk essence of the leggie’s game is mitigated favourably by circumstance – by the fact that the Aussies have been pre-battered. (Allez-loo.) There’s a strong case for playing a First Spinner alongside Moeen even if the conditions scream seeeeeeaaammmmerr!! Get the lad familiar with all this; work to be done in the Emirates and in South Africa.

But look, micro-climatic issues of selection, whilst providing all of us with ammo for the bantfest, may be less central to our Ashes Summer than the general level of public warmth. Allow me to indulge on this?

Some of you will know I’m proud to work for Cricket Wales. I’m charged (and I mean that in every sense) with going into schools (mainly) to fire up kids for sport.

As what we call a Community Cricket Coach I dredge up unseemly amounts of enthusiasm and energy and belief in the good stuff that cricket can bring. (Read earlier blogs or take my word on it; sessions in schools can be… powerful.)

I’m spookily on message with the cricket mission simply because it’s right and essential to get kids educated re sport – physically literate, if you like. It may be my job to say stuff like that but don’t go taking me for a government man. The more I see kids lit up by games the more I know we must make the case. Cricket is such a magical conduit for such a diverse and real and developing carousel of activity and learning that I’m happy to plant myself astride the whole sales-pitch.

I/we make a difference. We encourage and we coax a zillion skills into our players – from thoughtfulness to dive-catches. And yet…

It really could be that even my inviolable positivity shifts the earth a whole lot less than (for example) a magnificent Ashes series. A year of the Cricket Man’s coaching is a thing of daft and infectious beauty and some significant influence… but I ain’t kidding myself. Cricket on the telly, in the news, on the BACK PAGES is a whole lot more impactful.

What @cricketmanwales does is kinda great but not an Ashes series. Not an extraordinary and victorious Ashes series. Not like a Broady eight-fer or a Jimmy Jimmy visibly in his pomp. My lack of visibility works agin me.

In fact ALL the magnificent work that all of us Community Coaches do – and by God we do! – is wee-wee in the ocean compared to highlights or column inches that capture something of the sensaaaaaayshunull nature of this game, this rivalry, this victorious series. We proudly march to stir the grassroots (barmy)armies but we need drama and exposure – as do all sports.

Cricket doesn’t always get it. The Sky Sports conundrum epitomises difficulties around progress, pop-ness or whoredom. In a universe reduced to garishness and gathering market-share, this unique and superlative sport needs glorious, pitch-worthy moments to bung its smelling salts beneath the nostrils of the masses. We need to be on the news, in the news. We (England and Wales?) need to be heroically winning. Ideally.

We need unimpeachably brilliant role-models and we need them on terrestrial telly. Then the Cricket Man will work around that.

So the Oval is big. Big for Rashid/Lyth/Ali. Big for all of us. As a fan and as a ‘professional’, I’m looking for more from our guys. More stories and yeah, more glory.