Saturday, January 28, 2012

Run fat boy run!

Taylor limps off retired hurt
Friday, 27 January 2011; morning session, day 2 - only test versus Zimbabwe: New Zealand captain Ross Taylor hobbles off McLean Park, Napier, after a subdued but considered 122 against a Zimbabwe side still looking to qualify for an ICC test ranking.

As a New Zealand cricket supporter, that should be music to your ears, but for Ross Taylor who was walking off lame. Forced to retire hurt with a torn calf, Taylor will miss the rest of the Zimbabwe tour, if not the early stages of South Africa’s visit to our shores. It was also the first time, in New Zealand at least, that the error of the ICC’s decision to implement the no-runner rule came into focus, though in this instance it is unlikely to have a large effect on the final result. 

In essence, no, in actuality, the changes to the runner rule mean that at international level at least, an injured batsman is forced to either hit out or limp off - no runner is allowed so his wicket is lost. In Taylor’s case, he would likely have left the field anyway, but what if he had simply strained his calf as opposed to tearing it? What if Taylor had been on 22 instead of 122, and New Zealand were four or five down for under 100? Would the same indifference to the new rule have been shown then?

Prior to the introduction of the no-runner rule late last year, an injured batsman could call for a runner and continue his innings albeit that the opposing captain had to agree; generally that was little more than a formality. The ICC thought it was being manipulated and abused so changed the rule, yet the same power brokers previously implemented the 15 degree rule so now you have to throw a baseball pitch to be called for chucking! Double standards? An off spinners most deadly delivery is now the one that is delivered with a bent arm and goes the other way – has that not been abused as well?

A case for pinch runners?
There’s plenty of evidence that the runner rule has been exploited for years, but should a change exclude genuine injuries? Our own Jesse Ryder regularly took advantage of the loop holes in the rule, but not once did another captain show any leadership and question the runner’s use. There are numerous other offenders, Arjuna Ranatunga chief amongst them, who faked an injury and got a runner to compensate for their lack of physical prowess and couch potato fitness. Ranatunga would often get a serve from opposition players - I recall Ian Healy giving him a little Aussie mongrel in a spiteful ODI. However, Healy was happy to use a runner a couple of times in his career. Nothing unusual in that, but did David Boon, his physical equivalent, come to the crease? No, Dean Jones appeared in the middle - a thoroughbred replacing a Clydesdale?

The ICC’s decision was forced on them by a captain finally denying a batsman a runner. If such leadership had been shown more regularly, would those stretching the rules have tried so often? Many of the issues were caused by ill-prepared players getting cramps and asserting they needing running help – Andrew Strauss put an end to that.  He refused South Africa’s Graeme Smith, already having scored 100, a runner for cramp in the 2009 Champions Trophy, and more power to him. But as an isolated incident, his decision no doubt forced the ICC’s hand. Would it have caused the same change in the corridors of the ICC if Shakib Al Hasan had refused Brendan Taylor the same opportunity?

Cricket pundits the world over have varied views on the new rule – bowlers generally approve, batsmen not so much. Given how much the game has swayed in the batsmen’s’ favour in the past two decades that’s understandable. Jesse Ryder is not a fan. Given the comments of both John Wright and Ross Taylor his path back to international cricket could be a long one – no side can afford to carry an injury prone batsman anymore. But, does the no-runner rule unfairly disadvantage the batting side? Yes. If Taylor was in the early stages of his innings when the injury occurred and was unable to run, New Zealand have effectively lost his wicket. It also robs the paying public of entertainment; if injured players don’t retire hurt they can often do little else but stand and swing –I can turn on ESPN and watch the MLB if that was what I wanted from sport.

And to address the protestations of the bowling fraternity, no you don’t get a replacement, but in the modern game how many in the stands come to watch you? Bowlers with the genius of Warne, Marshall, Akram and Ambrose have largely disappeared from the game – none but a small minority would bring me, or other spectators, through the gates.

Players will always find loopholes in crickets laws, it's human nature – the 15 degree bowling law illustrates that, but should we penalise those who are legitimately injured? Should we force an injured batsman to retire and his side effectively lose a wicket? If he stays it's hardly a great watch when all he can do is try to bludgeon boundaries without any thought of running (much like T20, which given its current success might be what authorities want!) – that’s not what I want to see at test level. And if none of that resonates with you, surely the mayhem and confusion that ensued when runners were in the middle made the game a more interesting spectacle – comedy on the sporting stage?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Is T20 a test cricket breeding ground?

With the meteoric rise of T20 sensation David Warner within Australia’s test ranks, there is a growing current of support for the international T20 game as a legitimate breeding ground for attacking test cricketers. However, is Warner simply a one-off talent or will more aspiring young cricketers look to use the shortest version of the game as a genuine path to long term success as test level? Is T20 a playground for developing emerging talent or simply an opportunity to get a glimpse of a young prodigy?

Even those who pay scant regard to the T20 game would have struggled not to be impressed by Warner’s exploits in his international T20 debut against a star-studded South African outfit at the MCG. The diminutive powerhouse, who as yet hadn’t played a first class match, deposited Ntini, Tsotsobe, Steyn et al. to all parts as he fell eleven runs short of a century in his first outing in the green and gold. In 43 balls, Warner cleared the rope six times in an innings that included another seven boundaries. Over the next three years he plied his trade as a hired gun in England, New Zealand and India, whilst still struggling to nail down a permanent opening spot in his native New South Wales first class side – he is yet to pass 1500 runs in the domestic format. However, the same attacking flair he had shown at T20 level propelled him to a test debut against New Zealand late last year with Australia’s opening resources thin at best. Not so anymore. In his second test, Warner put his attack-at-all-costs approach to one side and did something Australian legends Hayden and Langer never achieved in their illustrious careers - he carried his bat, albeit in a historic New Zealand victory. A little over a month later he moved ahead of Chris Gayle to hit the fourth fastest test century (off 69 balls) in 2029 test matches played around the world. In the short term, he has cemented his spot in a rejuvenated Australian side and shown that there is a pathway for players that pundits had previously dismissed. It is still questionable whether others will follow Warner’s example or if it’s the best path for cricketers to choose if all forms of our game are to continue to flourish.

Can T20 really become a breeding ground for test cricketers of the future? At first glance, with the exception of Warner, the jury is out, and with only a handful of test matches under his belt the extent of Warner’s success is still up in the air long term. Whilst he has fashioned a powerful test batting record in the early stages of his career, how he progresses may shed light on T20’s usefulness to the test arena. It is debateable whether the skills learned as a young cricketer in the T20 environment will aid in their long-term success, or adversely create bad habits that stymie their growth as test or first class players. On the positive side of the ledger, T20 has enhanced fielding levels, helped bowlers think under a constant level of pressure and enabled batsmen to understand to what extent they really can push their running between the wickets, but on the whole such benefits are tenuous at best.

Whilst the majority of established (and more mature) cricketers have the ability to move between the formats and draw on previous experiences to avoid the pitfalls of the T20 merry-go round, youngsters do not have the same mental resources. The requirements of the T20 game mean batsmen have no opportunity to build an innings but see success in hitting to unorthodox areas; playing low percentages shots in the search for quick runs. That in itself is not the key issue here; understanding when to put those strokes aside in the longer versions is. Likewise, bowlers lack the time to work out a batsman’s weaknesses and regularly bowl as many as six variations an over. Whilst the development of a varied arsenal is a definite plus, it restricts bowlers from developing any rhythm.  Over time, will the strain that imparts on young quicks cause more of them to pull up short when moving into the longer game, as it has done with two of Australia’s brightest young tyros, Pat Cummins and James Pattinson? Though spinners have dominated the current Australian BBL and its New Zealand counterpart, all but the old guard of Warne, MacGill and the effervescent Brad Hogg have achieved that success with little turn and even less flight – qualities that should remain in the shorter versions. Are the games’ brightest young stars more likely to become long term test (or first-class) combatants with a T20 diet or a smorgasbord of first class contests?

T20 provides a virtual shop window for young cricketers; a personal marketing tool to show their wares on a televised stage in the hope of getting an opportunity in the longer forms of the game. Alternatively, for those lacking the requisite desire or game to play at test, or first class level, T20 provides a path as a cricketing mercenary travelling the world on highly paid short term contracts. The second scenario is already a cricketing reality, but the first requires further debate. Whilst the glut of T20 cricket may not provide youngsters with a solid technical base, it continues to unearth young talent that may otherwise languish in club cricket with limited opportunities to break into the first class arena. From an Australasian perspective (that’s all we get in Aotearoa – if you live abroad, Google it), Pat Cummins has been the first youngster to truly use the T20 hype, getting an opportunity in first class cricket off the back of his performances before a dream test debut. Playing in last season’s T20 BBL as a 17 year old pimply-faced, raw quick bowler, Cummins blew through domestic cricket’s top batsmen and the plaudits flowed. Within two months of the end of his T20 baptism, Cummins was named in the New South Wales first class side, and before the year was out he, like a number of test debutants throughout 2011, had taken a five wicket bag on debut and led Australia’s bowling quartet to an unexpected victory against South Africa. The pity is, he hasn’t played since, and the question will be asked whether the rigours of test cricket was too much too soon – but that’s a discussion for another day. Others such as Nic Maddinson, James Pattinson and Mitchell Marsh have all used the Big Bash to reaffirm that they have the necessary skills to be successful – whether T20 will aid their progress is still unanswered. Whilst constantly described as a young man’s game, is T20 the best route to develop future stars, or are they better served honing their skills with a red ball? On the back of David Warner’s pummelling of India, Tony Greig (the cheerleader more than the commentator) proclaimed that he’d love to see more players use T20 as a pathway to test cricket. I may be little more than an amateur hack, but for the sake of our game, and tests going five days, I think the traditional route offers better value.

T20 has its place – it helps take our game to areas and crowds that cricket had never truly explored. I disagree with a number of the older brigade that T20 is destroying their game; it may not be taking cricket down a path I necessarily like or agree with, but sport must adapt to the audience it relies on for its continued success. It brings revenues into the coffers of both provincial and international associations that administrators never previously dreamed of. In the case of New Zealand cricket at least, those revenues are relied on to develop cricket at every level; without it I fear for the long term development of the game in our little corner of paradise. With all that said, my wish is that the true pinnacle of our game continues to be the epic battles at test level – I just hope we don’t see the instant gratification generation destroy their cricketing development in repetitive three hour slots.

Friday, January 20, 2012

T20 legends - that never were... (Part 2: bowlers)

With the top six selected and the base for huge totals built, it’s time to look at a quintet of bowlers who could defend any total or destroy the mojo of even the most confident of batting line-ups. Given the size of T20 squads, I’ve added a handful of other players  - the old boys might need a rest!

To recap, the top six batsmen: Roy Fredericks, Romesh Kaluwitharana, Dean Jones, Sir Viv Richards, Mark Waugh and Clive Lloyd (Captain).

7. Wasim Akram (Pakistan)
Matches: 356. Bowling - Wickets: 502, Average: 23.52, Economy Rate: 3.89, Strike Rate: 36.2
Batting - Runs: 3717, Average: 16.52, Strike Rate: 88.33 (all ODI statistics)

With Waqar, Wasim wrecked the confidence of batsmen the world over. One of the greatest left arm quicks of all time, Wasim could swing it both ways, change his pace before it was called a ‘change-up’ and bowl one of the most lethal yorkers in the game. With bat in hand, he wandered between disinterested and sublime, but on his day could change the outcome of any match.

8. Kapil Dev (India)
Matches: 255. Bowling - Wickets: 253, Average: 27.45, Economy Rate: 3.71, Strike Rate: 44.2
Batting - Runs: 3783, Average: 23.79, Strike Rate: 95.07

Kapil broke the mould as an Indian fast bowler - a career of nightmares. He had marvellous control, was as accurate as Scrooge counting his millions and could swing the ball in any conditions. He backed it up with unbridled batting power and a relentless confidence. Eddie Hemmings can vouch for that - Kapil smashed him for four consecutive sixes in a test at Lord’s to avoid the follow-on when India were nine down.

9. Curtly Ambrose (West Indies)
Matches: 176, Wickets: 225, Average: 24.12, Economy Rate: 3.48, Strike Rate: 41.5
A silent assassin, a rare trait in a true quick, Curtly was nothing short of lethal. At 6ft. 7in. and delivering the ball from almost 10ft., Ambrose could get the ball to rise freakishly off a length. He had express pace, was unerringly accurate and seemingly had the ball on a string. He let his bowling do the talking and it could really chatter – ask Dean Jones; he bore the full force after asking Ambrose to remove his trademark wristbands during a WSC match.

10. Dennis Lillee (Australia)
Matches: 63, Wickets: 103, Average: 20.82, Economy Rate: 3.58, Strike Rate: 34.8
The inspiration for another great bowler, Sir Richard Hadlee, Lillee could do it all. Even after remodelling his action, Lillee’s effectiveness was never questioned. When he returned from a back injury that would have ended most careers, he had added to his battery and was seen as the bowler aspiring cricketers should model themselves on. In today’s T20 where bowlers need the ability to bowl six different deliveries an over, he’d need to pick and choose which of his options he should bowl such was his arsenal.

11. Derek Underwood (England)
Matches: 26, Wickets: 32, Average: 22.93, Economy Rate: 3.44, Strike Rate: 39.9
All I know of ‘Deadly’ is what I’ve read and been told. I once questioned England’s ability to produce truly world-class spinners and was told in no uncertain terms I should do my research! Underwood was deadly accurate, as miserly as a pensioner living on an estate, and bowled at a sharp pace for a spinner. In today’s game his ability to change his pace with such well-honed control would make him a handful on any surface.

12th man: Wasim Raja (Pakistan)
Matches: 54. Batting - Runs: 782, Average: 22.34, Strike Rate: 66.95
Bowling - Wickets: 21, Average: 32.71, Economy Rate: 3.97, Strike Rate: 49.3

Wasim was one of the most natural cricketers I have seen, and from all I have read he would have been a mainstay in the Pakistan side had it not been for politics. As it was, he was a batsman who could destroy any attack with nonchalance and was equally proficient against Windies pace or Indian spin. Legend has it that in his late teens he would face his contemporary, Imran Khan, in the nets without batting pads. His underrated leg spin often broke partnerships and he patrolled the covers like a tiger stalking his prey. Only the good die young – in Wasim’s case, truer words were never spoken.

Wider squad:
Lance Klusener (South Africa)
‘Zulu’ possessed unrivalled, if unorthodox, batting power – good runs at a very quick clip. As a fast-medium bowler he was handy through the middle with the ability to surprise batsmen with unexpected bursts of genuine pace.

Sir Ian Botham (England)
Sir Ian would have got a lot of wickets with his slow bouncer and his ability to produce a breakthrough when it was most needed. With bat in hand, and when in the mood, no boundary rope would have been a journey too far.

Malcolm Marshall (West Indies)
The thinking man’s fast bowler, Marshall’s arsenal was extensive – all delivered at break neck speed and without an obvious change in his action. He would have run riot in the modern game. His premature passing robbed future generations of a fantastic fast bowling mentor.

Carl Hooper (West Indies)
As laid back as the King of T20, Chris Gayle, Hooper’s footwork to the spinners and ability to play every shot in the book was only rivalled by Mark Waugh. His gentle off spinners would provide captains with another option, rounded out by his immense ability in the field.

Imran Khan (Pakistan)
One of the few all-rounders in world cricket who could have played as either a batsman or a bowler, Khan sits near of the top of the game’s greats. He took Pakistan, a side languishing as an also-ran, all the way to 1992 World Cup victory before signing off as a national hero.

Andy Flower (Zimbabwe)
A world-class batsman who often bore the weight of a nation on his shoulders, the diminutive Zimbabwean ran Kaluwitharana close for the gloves in my starting eleven. He lacked brute strength as a batsman but more than compensated with precision and pure natural talent.

Lance Cairns (New Zealand)
Lance was a legendary figure in New Zealand for his enormous hits with a shoulderless bat, Excalibur. He struck at over 100 and in one memorable innings at the MCG smashed six huge sixes, some with one hand, against a barrage of Aussie quicks. His wrong-footed bowling action and large inswingers would have made him a handful in T20.

Joel Garner (West Indies)
The 6ft. 8in. Barbadian could seemingly bowl yorkers at will, and at a fierce pace. Coupled with an ability to make the ball rare up at a batsman’s throat off a good length, Big Bird would have been an asset to his captain in any era. 

Coach: Martin Crowe (New Zealand)
A close run thing to make the playing squad, Crowe was a hands down choice for the coaching role. Cast your mind back to the 1992 World Cup when he lead an aging NZ side, ironically tagged ‘The Young Guns’, to the brink of a semi-final win before a young Inzamam ul-Haq stole the game away. He innovated with an off spinner opening the bowling and an opening batsman walking at the bowlers and crashing it from ball one. If you need more evidence, Google – Cricket Max; the T20 format owes a lot to a Kiwi visionary.

Besides having the opportunity to research some fantastic players, the best part of developing this side? I’m in the enviable position that my team will never take to the field, and hence I’ll never be thrown under the roller as a convenient scapegoat!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

T20 legends - that never were... (Part 1: batsmen)

This year’s Australian T20 Big Bash League (BBL) has seen the re-emergence of a number of retirees into the forefront of the game - Warne, Hayden, Hogg and MacGill. Instead of simply making up numbers or acting as a marketing tool, though they have done that too, all four have shown touches of genius against peers much younger. So, I thought it might be interesting to take a look back at players whose careers had finished prior to the T20 circus, but who would have likely outshone all before them had they played in the current era (the only stipulations – players must have played at ODI level but retired prior to T20I).

It's likely all of us have selected a fantasy team at some stage; a side we'd love to see play, and which ignores nationality, age and era, but in our minds would dominate all comers. I have tried to do nothing more than that - I have selected a T20 team of international legends I would have loved to see in the current format. It'll never take to any field but it's the kind of team I would imagine playing against as a child as I repetitively hit a ball hanging from the rafters in the garage. It's not a definitive list and not driven solely by statistics; they seldom tell the full story. Where I have had to choose between two or more players for one position I’ve gone for the older one. Don’t ask me why – respect for my elders, perhaps? Please keep in mind I'm a Kiwi but I grew up watching the West Indies dominate the international arena - I would have liked just to choose a team full of Windies greats accompanied by Dean Jones and Wasim Raja, but where’s the fun in that?

Like most of the current BBL or IPL squads, I’ve selected 20 players which made it easier for me to include a few more legends too. I’ll cover the squad off in two parts; this blog, Part 1, will look at the top six batsmen, while Part 2 will select a bowling line-up to complement them as well as considering the wider squad. 

The playing XI:
1. Roy Fredericks
West Indies. Matches: 12, Runs: 311, Average: 25.91, Strike rate: 70.68 (all ODI statistics)
A batsman who genuinely relished facing the quicks, Fredericks’ international record was solid if not outstanding. So, why pick him? One reason and one reason alone – a 71 ball century at the WACA (in the days when it was ferociously quick) against a bowling attack that included Lillee and Thomson. That effort still stands amongst the fastest test centuries in a game latterly laced with dashers such as Richards, Warner, Gayle, Afridi et al. Imagine what he might do to today’s quicks on T20 roads!
2. Romesh Kaluwitharana (Wk)
Sri Lanka. Matches: 189, Runs: 3711, Average: 22.22, Strike rate: 77.70
Along with Sanath Jayasuriya, ‘Kalu’ took batting at the top of the order to a new level during World Series Cricket in Australia in 1995/6. He struck at close to 100 and continued that as he helped Sri Lanka to their first World Cup title on the sub-continent later in 1996. His overall record would scare no-one but for those few short months he set up huge totals with a break-neck start and would likely do the same in T20. I’ve selected him because he can take the wicket keeping gloves, though it was a close run thing with the current England coach.

3. Dean Jones
Australia. Matches: 164, Runs: 6068, Average: 44.61, Strike rate: 72.56
There are very few batsmen who have terrorised fieldsmen with their running quite as Deano did. Even in today’s tip and run format he would have run fielding sides ragged. He changed the way modern batsmen played one-day cricket as he walked down the wicket at the quicks and put them on the back foot. As an outfielder he was unrivalled – an Andrew Symonds of an earlier era.

4. Sir Viv Richards
West Indies. Matches: 187, Runs: 6721, Average: 47.00, Strike rate: 90.20
Imagine being two down in a T20 match and seeing King Viv swagger to the wicket. He was the most destructive batsman of his era and with today’s boundaries constantly being shortened for ‘entertainment’ he would have regularly cleared the ropes. But the key to his brilliant stroke making was an uncanny ability to deposit a length ball through mid-wicket and then smash the same ball through extra cover next up. His skidding off-spinners would have been taxing in a season that has been dominated by spinners, and his cat-like fielding would have tested batsmen looking for a sharp single into the covers.

5. Mark Waugh
Australia. Matches: 244, Runs: 8500, Average: 39.35, Strike rate: 76.90
One of the most elegant stroke makers of any era, Junior could play every shot in the book with consummate ease and often treating even the best international bowlers with absolute contempt. What’s more, he could go the aerial route whenever he chose. His easy off-spin would be an asset as another bowling option, as would his unrivalled athleticism anywhere in the circle.

6. Clive Lloyd (C)
West Indies. Matches: 87, Runs: 1977, Average: 39.54, Strike rate: 81.22
Having led his side to three World Cup finals, the first two as victors, Lloyd would lead my side of superstars. At 6ft 5in. and with huge shoulders, Lloyd wielded a bat most other international cricketers would have struggled to pick up. When in the mood he could dismantle any attack and for a big man was a fantastic fielder in the inner ring.

Given the roads today’s T20 cricket is played on, a total of 200 would be viewed as below par for some of the hardest hitters ever to take guard and face the music. These legends of the game would entertain even the harshest opposition crowds with an unrivalled batting ferocity.

Next up: Part 2 – Bowlers (and the wider squad)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A century of centuries – over-hyped?

On the eve of the third test against Australia, and 22 innings having passed since his last international 100, the pressure continues to grow on the broad cricketing shoulders of the Little Master, Sachin Tendulkar. Or does it? Is the pursuit, and eventual achievement, of 100 international centuries really that important?

If you read the mass of articles written by Indian scribes, or have bought into the media hype created by any number of marketing and PR departments in the West Island (sorry, for those of you outside New Zealand, I refer to the small island due west of us – Australia), then the answer is a loud and definitive yes. If you were to put yourself in the shoes of all but a minority within the Indian press box, would you risk the ire of over one billion Indian fans who view the Tendulkar as a cricketing deity, and not tow the company line about the magnitude of the milestone? Likewise, can you blame the marketing gurus at Cricket Australia, Channel 9, Vodafone et al. for promoting the potential record ad nauseum if it means more punters file through the turnstiles, download the app or watch the live televised coverage, all the time helping grow revenues, ratings and crowds?

That said, does a feat encompassing two very different cricketing disciplines hold much water? There was no unadulterated celebration when the diminutive 38 year old passed 30,000 runs across tests and ODIs or played his combined 600th match – both achieved for the first time by Tendulkar. Consider this; would people think less of Sachin or remember him with only muted fondness if he finished on 99 centuries? No. No one questioned the pedigree of the world's greatest batsmen because he was bowled for a duck in his final innings and finished his accomplished career with a test average of 99.94. Yes, it would have been an ending more befitting Disney if instead, Eric Hollies’ googly had been driven for four, and Sir Donald George Bradman had ended his career with an average in triple figures, but it doesn’t matter a jot. The Don will always be the batting benchmark; a man who sat at the top of the pile with daylight a distant second. In the same vein, regardless of if (or when), he reaches the 100 century mark, Sachin Tendulkar will be widely regarded as the icon of the modern game – not because of that one achievement, but for all he’s achieved during his 23 years in the top flight. Since playing his first test against Pakistan as a skinny 16 year old with a curly afro, Tendulkar has destroyed almost every batting record up for grabs, and created others of his own. His more than 33,000 international runs and 50 plus test hundreds are unlikely to be bettered, and if he can stroke his way to two more ODI tons he’ll go past 50 in that form too – now, that’s an achievement worth celebrating.

But, when the pre-test hoopla and hyperbole has died and the Little Master descends the steps to enter the WACA cauldron, like fans all around the world, I hope he knocks off his 100th century, and then moves on to numbers 101, 102 and beyond with the same poise and humility as he has one hundred times before.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Give those men a microphone

T20 will never be the most beloved of cricket's formats for me, but it is cricket; if it's being televised, broadcast or played, chances are I'll be taking more than simply a passing interest. Like motorists who slow down to rubber neck at a nose-to-tail, curiosity outweighs logic, and I feel compelled to take an interest hoping for some flash of brilliance or the unearthing of a future superstar.

On the surface, Australia's T20 Big Bash League (BBL) appeared that it would be just another domestic T20 league, much the same as the hit and giggle slog fest that seems to take precedence in India, the Caribbean and New Zealand, among others, and whilst there has undoubtedly been a fair proportion of baseball with wickets, the BBL has given us something extra - commentary with context. From a television perspective, two players, not the experts in the commentary box, have been hugely influential in lifting the entertainment value and providing must-see viewing. Surprisingly, that influence hasn't grown through the hard hitting of Travis Birt, Herschelle Gibbs' swagger and bravado or the flowing mullet of crowd favourite Rana Naved. From our lounge rooms, it's debatable whether even Chris Gayle's belligerent six hitting has made the same impression on the viewing public as two forty-something, semi-retired Australian cricketing legends.

Australian cricketing royalty Shane Warne and Matthew Hayden have both been miked up throughout their matches for the Melbourne Stars and the Brisbane Heat respectively. There’s nothing new in that, a number of players with the gift of the gab do it in T20 all around the world; some even at international level, but not quite like these two giants of the game. Anyone with even a basic sporting knowledge knows who Warney and Haydos are, but most of us hear little of their personality or thought processes outside of run of the mill interviews; both on television and in print. This year’s BBL has changed all that and has, at least in part, been responsible for the huge television viewing audience that has settled on the couch with a beer in hand (insert XXXX, VB or Steinlager as you will) most nights for the last three weeks.

So, how are two cricketers who haven’t played at international level for at least three years (five in Warne’s case) making such a hit with the microphone? Easy – by taking the lead, providing insights into the nuances of a game most of us love but will never excel at, then backing it up with their talent, all the time mixing their thoughts with a little of the much-loved Aussie larrikin. When the pair signed on for the revamped, and extended, Big Bash League, the cynics amongst us wondered whether their signatures were for little more than marketing purposes. No-one had expectations of seeing a repeat of feats like the infamous Gatting delivery to start Warne’s first Ashes test in 1993 or Hayden imperiously walking at the world's most feared fast bowlers and depositing them back over their heads without a second thought. That didn’t concern me; I saw that at the highest level of the game for more than a decade. But, and I can’t emphasise this strongly enough, they are still captivating. Their commentary has been nothing short of sublime, not that their returns have been poor - on current form they’d both still waltz into the Australian T20I side.

Every time we settle in to see the Heat or the Stars do battle, we get to understand a little more of the genius of Warne and Hayden, in their own words. Sure, they’ve answered the odd question from Junior, AB, the Bowlologist or Roy, but for the larger part they get little more than a prompt from the commentary box and are left to freestyle, so to speak. Whether they’re waiting for the next delivery, fielding in the circle or preparing to deliver a biting leggy, the pair talk as freely as if the game meant nothing and they were simply going through the motions at training - but it does matter and these two don’t know how not to compete.

Hayden, one of the game’s premier sledgers, provides a very different commentary to that he provided to opposition players who showed any weakness during his international playing days - much of that would have led the Channel 9 team to consider turning down the stump microphone. Instead, during this year’s BBL, as he gets his head together between deliveries, Hayden has talked enthralled viewers through hitting zones, batting tactics and his predictions of what the bowler is trying to do. And with more than 15,000 international runs under his belt, you tend to sit up and listen. Explanations of why he walks at a bowler and slaps him straight down the ground or how he believes pre-meditation has little place in a batsman’s mind set, provide a small window into the psyche of one of the most intimidating batsmen the game has ever witnessed.

It’s Warne though who has taken player commentary to a whole new level. Widely regarded as the best cricketing mind never to captain his country, poker-loving Warne could almost give odds on how he’ll dismiss the man wielding the willow. In the most part he has talked the viewer through almost every delivery he’s bowled, but only after he’s enlightened us as to how the batsman plays, where his weakness is and where he’s going to try and hit the next delivery. The kicker though, is that more often than not he can make his predictions a reality. If you’re in any doubt, Google Warne bowls McCullum. After being given a bit of tap by David Warner in the Stars’ first match, Warne showed his true genius when he dismantled Brendon McCullum, one of the most explosive batsmen in the T20 game, in his next outing. After a quiet first over, Warne predicted McCullum would have a fair crack at him, and sure enough, two balls in McCullum advanced at him only for the miscued lofted drive to fall just out of reach of the cover fieldsman – we (the seasoned internationals in the commentary box included) were all hooked. Warne nodded knowingly, thinking about his next play, just as he would at a private table at the Crown Casino. When McCullum came back on strike, Warne confidently asserted he “might shape to sweep one after that first one, or maybe even go inside out again a bit harder. So, I might try to slide one in there – fast”. As if guided by a Nostradamus prophecy, McCullum moved across his stumps and shaped to sweep a quicker Warne delivery which pitched and turned to bowl him around his legs. Everyone who had listened and watched the magic unfold shook their head in disbelief at the genius they had just seen. And Warney’s response when quizzed about what we’d all just witnessed – “not bad”. All hail, King Warne! A one-off, you might suggest? No - Bravo, Gibbs and Mitchell Marsh, among others, have fallen as foretold by the leg spinning supremo, and we’ve heard every word. 

After the conclusion of this year’s Big Bash League, it’s unlikely we’ll ever have the opportunity to listen to the commentary genius of either Warne or Hayden again – while they’re playing at least. So, take the chance to witness some of the magic in their remaining matches, and Fox – sign up a couple more legends next year!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Every colour but white

How do you prepare an underperforming international cricket team for an upcoming test series? If you're New Zealand Cricket, the answer seems to lie with T20 (with a handful of ODIs thrown in for good measure).

As opposed to donning the whites and throwing themselves headlong into first class cricket to prepare for a one-off test (one test does not a series make, but that's a topic for another day) against Zimbabwe and a three test series against the might of South Africa, Taylor, McCullum, Bracewell et al. will see nothing but a rainbow of cricketing uniforms, white balls, Dilshan scoops and change-ups. Those with intentions of breaking into the squad for the Zimbabwe test will have to do so via a weight of runs and wickets in the shorter forms and hope the selectors are willing to take the gamble they’ll make the step up. Whatever happened to preparing for test cricket, still the pinnacle of our game, on a diet of first class cricket where the only colours on offer are a sporting green wicket, a shiny red ball and the pink tinge of sunburn on the neck of a lone spectator?

The domestic cricket calendar suggests New Zealand Cricket don’t share my views – it seems numbers (read: money) have got out of balance with the common sense cricket management. So, let’s play the numbers game:
  • 77: the gap (in days) between rounds of New Zealand’s domestic four-day competition, the Plunket Shield, from early December to mid-February
  • 8: New Zealand’s current ICC test ranking (out of 9) – Zimbabwe hasn’t played enough matches to be ranked
  • 26: the number of years between New Zealand test wins on Australian soil (2nd test, December 9-12, 2011 – Hobart)
  • 5: the number of days of first class cricket the majority of New Zealand’s international players will play between the Hobart triumph and the first test against South Africa in March, 2012 (based on the one-off test against Zimbabwe going the distance)
  • 78: the actual number of days between the Australian and South African tests
  • 11: international matches New Zealand will play between the Zimbabwean and South African tests – for most of the New Zealand test team, these 11 T20Is and ODIs will be the only cricket they play
Numbers don’t always tell the full story, and they can be manipulated to support most arguments. Think otherwise; ask Stephen Fleming. Commentators and scribes made a big deal of him needing to get 54 runs in his final innings in test cricket to get his career average above 40 so he would be regarded as world-class – at 39.76 he would have still been one of the greats of the New Zealand, and world, game.

During the middle third of the New Zealand summer, half of the test side that subdued Australia in Hobart will play no first class cricket.  Those who play all three international formats will spend that period immersed in T20 and 50-over cricket, both on the domestic and international fronts; some will even pull up stumps and travel to Australia in between domestic rounds to play in Australia’s Big Bash League. Ross Taylor, Brendon McCullum, Martin Guptill, Dean Brownlie and possibly Kane Williamson will have little or no chance to spend long periods at the crease before battling a South African side that continues to unearth fast bowling talents like the All Blacks breed openside flankers. If Jesse Ryder gets over a calf strain in time for the Zimbabwean test in late January, he will have had no time in the middle but will then likely play all the short form international matches prior to the first test against South Africa. That would leave the top six with no first class cricket leading into a series where they’re asked to blunt the bowling of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, ranked numbers one and five in the world respectively; a formidable attack even before mentioning Philander or de Lange. Of the bowlers, Doug Bracewell likely be the only one in the same boat – a huge ask for a young tyro still learning the intricacies of his art.

It’s not much easier for those on the fringes who are looking to break into the test side. Given they won’t have played first class cricket for the 54 days leading up to the one-off Zimbabwe test, it’s a big ask to pick them in a test match – fingers crossed Jesse’s yoga and pilates schedule leads to results. Sorry, if their province doesn’t make the HRV Cup (domestic T20) final, they may get a chance in a three-day match against the Zimbabweans that finishes two days before the test. At least the hopefuls will get the opportunity to play in two Plunket Shield matches before the South African test series though they will likely need phenomenal figures to break into the squad. The test specialists; Daniel Vettori, Chris Martin and Reece Young (plus possibly Trent Boult) will have the same opportunities and will need every day they can to hone their skills in anticipation of a fierce battle.

There are a number of issues that have led to the current flood of domestic T20 matches and the continued expansion of the HRV Cup, but will it help New Zealand Cricket be more competitive on the international scene, especially at test level? In short; no, and that creates a conundrum for those involved with the New Zealand game. Currently, we tend to get the requisite fillip of T20I and ODI matches but we get little more than a two test series against the bigger nations away from home. Whilst test and first class cricket is the game’s pinnacle, it doesn’t pay the bills, unless you’re England where it’s rare if the ‘full house’ signs aren’t up for at least the first four days of any test match. New Zealand is a very small market and the big sponsorship dollars are with rugby, so money has to be found elsewhere – at the moment, that’s T20. And let’s be honest, it brings punters to the game who wouldn’t otherwise give cricket a second glance, and that’s a good thing – many of the PlayStation generation don’t have the attention span to watch a one-dayer, let alone even one day of test cricket!

Both the provinces and New Zealand Cricket rely on money from gates and television revenues from T20 to help develop the game at grass roots level, promote it to an audience with a lot more entertainment choices than at any time before, and pay the salaries of those who play the game at the upper echelons. So, they play it through the holiday season to maximise exposure and revenues; they should, that’s what they’re tasked with doing. But, and it’s a but of Sir Mix-A-Lot proportions, should first class cricket be put on the back burner for eleven weeks? Surely domestic 50 over cricket can be fitted in where a gap exists, or be played the day after a Plunket Shield match, which would help cut expenditure as well? That would allow the HRV Cup to keep its current format and dates, and be played entirely between mid-December and mid-January when we are all enjoying time away from work, relaxing in the sun. Then, instead of playing poorly attended domestic 50 over matches in the Ford Trophy, players could get back into first class cricket earlier than they will in the 2011/12 season – a win-win for everyone! Well, for me at least, though I don’t imagine Justin Vaughan (or David White) will be inviting me to join them any time soon.

Spare a thought for the players too. They get publicly slated when they fail, even more so when they play a loose shot or make a decision akin to a brain fart, yet they are put in a position where they get nothing but limited overs cricket in preparation for a test series. They have to change what they do in a physical sense solely by mental application – how many sprinters run a marathon simply by changing their mental outlook?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A seaming wicket in 2012?

It may not be a new cricket season but it's a new year; time for resolutions, changes and phoenix-like risings from the ashes (or the Ashes?). The face of our great game continued to evolve throughout 2011 but much of it was more akin to that performed by a plastic surgeon than the leisurely seasonal growth cricket has become accustomed to in years past.

As something of a traditionalist, I may not look upon such changes fondly, but there is little doubt the previous few years will be reflected upon as the current protagonists begin to age. Whether that reflection is tinged with joy or disdain will only be realised in the fullness of time; many of the decisions of today may not bear fruit, or poison the orchard, so to speak, until the next generation of cricketers don the whites - though in fact, the only thing white remaining may be the colour of the ball....

Writing a blog isn’t overly natural for me, but musings about the relative merits of the 1980’s/1990’s Windies sides and Steve Waugh’s all conquering Australians, whether T20 is ruining modern cricket, or if the BCCI is in fact holding the cricketing world to ransom, are far better shared and discussed in an open forum than trying to argue both sides in my head. So, in essence, that’s what this is all about; that, and not using my wife as a sounding board for discussions on The Don and Dr. Grace. I have no illusions of conquering the world of cricketing journalism or topping KP for followers on Twitter, but finding a medium to air my views, and reading the views of others, as opposed to the dissenting voices in my head, has merit.

A little of myself then, if only to provide context to my mutterings. Tendulkar, Dravid, even Ponting are slightly outscoring me in years, but in talent, we are poles apart. At one time, I knew which end of a bat to hold, but I haven’t picked one up in anger in 13 years -  the season I was coaxed into playing six or seven years ago brought about little more than a whimper. Most of my cricketing memories are more of those I played with and against than any personal achievement, though I will always treasure the two international scalps I took; they were cricket internationals, I was not! My son isn’t yet old enough to wield the willow with any ferocity, and whilst I would love to see him spending his summers toiling away in the middle, I have no wish to live vicariously through him – he’ll make his own choices when he’s ready.  

I live in possibly the greatest country on earth, New Zealand, and whilst I have followed the varying fortunes of New Zealand cricket (not the Black Caps – we’re not a franchise) relentlessly since the 1980s, my idols were not Sir Paddles (or King Dick as Chris Kuggeleijn so eloquently put it) or Hogan. My developing years were spent in an era dominated by the mighty West Indies, and I looked and listened for any snippet of Marshall, Richards, Haynes, Lara et al., and it is that fantastic troupe of players, and their contemporaries, who shaped my enthusiasm for the game, nay religion, of cricket. I imagine that many youths of that period throughout the cricketing world were similarly uplifted by the express pace of a quartet of quicks and the sheer brutality of the belligerent Windies batsmen. If not, they missed out on a treat most of us will likely never see again. In a slightly different way, Wasim Raja, a Pakistani cricketer ahead of his time who would have taken T20 by storm, added to that love and understanding of the game. The year I worked with him in Caterham, Surrey, nearly two decades ago was one of the very best of my short life – I learnt things that neither coaching nor personal experience could ever teach me. His sad passing was a loss not only for cricket, but all who had ever met him – may he rest in peace.  

As you may have guessed, I am, to coin a phrase, a cricketing tragic. I have a large collection of cricketing tomes, signed photographs, shirts and bats, though with a young son and another on the way, the vast majority currently sit boxed in a storage facility awaiting a summer when the bride allows me a man cave or the kids fly the coup; I think the latter is more likely! It would be amiss of me not to mention a growing collection of Wisdens – the bible of cricket, and one of the most addictive pieces of collective writing I have ever read. I can settle into a test played at any time (at least I will be able to when I have them all – see the earlier comment about kids) through my little yellow books and relive some of the matches that shaped our great game.  

There’s really not a lot else of me that has any significance to this blog, but there are a few underlying reasons why I chose this year to start writing:
  • One of my younger mates decided to write a travel blog, and it’s fantastic – cheers Becks 
  • There are only so many sycophantic commentators (or cheerleaders, depending on your viewpoint) I can listen to without wanting to throw something at the screen; I think I’m better to write my thoughts down – it’s cheaper and hopefully more therapeutic 
  • Cricket continues to be run by money and marketing men with little appreciation or understanding of our game – if you think otherwise, have a read about the man-of-the-match from the 2nd test between Australia and New Zealand in Hobart (Google: an Australian’s lament) 
  • I pass comment on a lot of other pieces of writing and blogs, all about cricket. I figured I should try sitting on the other side  
  • Cricket is in a state of flux, which while disturbing, makes for compelling reading and writing, hopefully….  
  • T20 continues to dominate most countries and the marketing dollars that go with that – is that the best thing for cricket’s future?
I’m not sure how regular my musings will be, but I will try and put pen to paper once a week. Next time, I might even get onto a serious cricket topic…… 

Thanks for reading; it’s good for the ego!