Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Cricket's better half

I've spent the larger part of the past two weeks with my two favourite ladies - my wife has just given birth to a beautiful little princess and I've had the chance to watch the two of them bond - priceless! It's given me the opportunity to reflect on the part women play in all our lives every day, and the influence they have at every turn.

Do we pay them the same reverence in cricketing circles? In the male dominated corridors of our great game (thanks, cricketsjk) has the old boys' network shown them the requisite respect?

No longer do we live in the male dominated societies of the 1920s and '30s. A woman's place is not in the kitchen or typing the dictated notes of her male superior - many would say they're on a surge. Why should cricket be any different?

Whilst I grew up enthralled by the deeds of Crowe, Hadlee, Cairns and Jones, and lapped up every snippet of the all-conquering Windies though the 1980s and '90s, there was another less fancied but perennial constant. Debbie Hockley was a cricketing pioneer; a world class batter who dominated the women's game. Through 21 years Hockley dismantled all comers at international level and was part of New Zealand's World Cup winning White Ferns in 2000 - she still holds the record for World Cup runs with 1501. She was a fantastic cricketer - gender is not important.

Lesley Murdoch, a dual New Zealand cricket and hockey international, was one of, if not, the first woman to commentate on men's cricket on our airwaves. She still commentates on a number of first class matches every season and it's a delight to listen to her views on New Zealand Cricket and the issues facing our game. Murdoch has no need to compete with her male peers; she is simply a commentator bringing our summer game to life.

Most of my private life is just that, but I met my wife because of her love of cricket, so women in cricket hold a special place in my heart. One of my work colleagues, a young South African, sums up what I love about women and cricket. Unlike many of my mates who become emotive, and irrational, when discussing players and issues, she tends to consider her response before jumping in with both feet - she is as knowledgeable and passionate as anyone I debate cricket with. She doesn't conform to the negative, and misguided, stereotype that women trivialise players on their physical attributes - the only attributes discussed are how Kallis struggled to complete his action when he bulked up or how Steyn positions his wrist behind the ball for different deliveries. Watching her discount the snide comments of her peers with cricketing knowledge and insight, not cutting personal remarks, is a thing of beauty.

I don't raise these examples to illustrate that the occasional woman has cricketing nous; I do so because they are real examples that gender need not come into our game - women are not islands in the sea.

Others? Really? They're Women's Internationals
I know men (or boys, in actuality) who won't even read cricket pieces by women because they're women - Philistines! My advice would be to take a minute to read their thoughts and judge them if you will but judge them against their peers, cricketing writers, not as a separate species. And a quick note to ESPNCricinfo – women’s fixtures are not Others, they are Women’s Internationals!

I'm new to the world of Twitter but have been amazed at the number of women writing, and tweeting, on our great game. These are some of the best - follow them on Twitter and have a read of their blogs:

@FirdoseM – Firdose Moonda is the real deal! She is ESPNCricinfo’s South African correspondent and a guaranteed great read. She doesn’t blog, she writes for a living.

@mspr1nt - Ant Sims is a fantastic South African blogger, and a self-described ‘female cricket disciple’. You can read her thoughts on WicketMaiden, a website that promotes the tagline – balls to the wall and no balls at all.  Like me, the Windies hold a special place in her heart – if you’re ever looking for comment, just mention Chris Gayle. For those who like statistics, Ant’s infographics are well worth a look.

@lemayol - an obsessive follower of Northern Districts and the Somerset CCC, she will discuss Kane Williamson at any opportunity, with aplomb. @lemayol has just launched a new cricketing agony aunt column, Miss Cricket, on Alternative Cricket - email her for all the answers to your cricketing dilemmas.

@legsidelizzy  – with over 5,000 Twitter followers Lizzy is everywhere cricket is. A freelance writer for both The Mirror (UK) and SPIN cricket magazine, and a guest commentator on Test Match Sofa, Lizzy describes herself as ‘part-time cricket writer. Full-time cricket tragic.’ She offers great insights with an English spin – you can read her thoughts at

@fayeb07 – a self-professed lover of English cricket, Faye is a more recent convert but her writing shows a cricketing maturity that belies that. Her blog – Caught at Slip, provides her thoughts on the English game including coverage of the England Women.

To the women who have read this, I sincerely hope it hasn't come across as condescending; it's meant as the complete opposite. I love the work of the female scribes - not due to their gender but because I appreciate their writing and views.

Don't get me wrong; I'm sure there are women who do go the cricket to see their white knight, just as some men use it as a chance to get lagered and hurl vitriol at the combatants - sport simply reflects life.

No-one should judge coverage and comment by the gender of the writer but by the quality and insight of the writing. If you don't like a piece, comment and tell the author - we all love feedback. For many of us it's the reason we write, for the interaction with those who love our great game as we all do - woman or man.

If you know of other female scribes, please let me know - make a comment or tweet me @aotearoaxi.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Fans - critic or assassin?

"When we judge or criticise another person, it says nothing about that person; it merely says something about our own need to be critical" - Unknown

Jesse Ryder in full flow
Why is it that so many fans feel the need to be critical, bordering on the vitriolic? That's not to confuse constructive comment or well-reasoned and supported argument - more the conveyance of ownership and the personal attacks, not of sporting ability but character and personality. Are we so baseless that we take delight in the derision of our sporting 'heroes'?

The deciding New Zealand versus South Africa T20 brought such comment to the fore - the Black Caps capitulated as their African opponents have done at ICC tournaments in the past. For once, the clichéd choke is not too strong a word. With five overs to go New Zealand needed less than a run a ball with seven wickets in hand, and on a ground that only just accommodates a full sized rugby pitch, yet in the ensuing 24 hours comment centred solely on Jesse Ryder.

Ryder's an easy target. He has just returned from another injury layoff, enjoys a pint or 20 and thinks a steak and cheese pie is a well-balanced meal - but the man can wield the willow. He hit 52 at close to 125 and top scored for the match after not donning the black kit for the first time since New Zealand upset Australia in Hobart last December. Without question he made errors, big ones, but if you believe much of what has been written and preached he was the only Kiwi on the pitch. The condemnation has been direct, swift and condescending.

Little has been made of the soft dismissals of the other top order batsmen or the inability of capable middle order players to even lay bat on ball - scribes and punters lay the blame squarely at Ryder's feet. Yes, he fumbled his way through his last few runs but he has no track record of putting personal milestones above team outcomes - Twitter and talkback radio would tell you otherwise. Much of the comment was baseless at best; personal abuse at gutter level. But, the sentiment that struck me was from a former player, himself the target on too many occasions during a career that never quite reached the pinnacle of its true potential.

Craig McMillan, former Black Cap turned television commentator and radio pundit, was unerring in his criticism of Ryder and his pursuit of personal glory, whilst largely neglecting the mishaps of others. He's a paid 'expert' asked to give his considered opinion - no issues there. But, and it's one of JLo proportions, the crucifixion of Ryder is coming from a man who himself was widely criticised for his girth, his fitness and his propensity to throw it away in a blaze of glory. The same man who, when people questioned his form in test cricket near the sunset of his career, answered in the best way - with a test century but then commented that his innings should gag a few commentators - how quickly we forget about the glasshouses in which we all live.....

Whilst Ryder is so frequently the target of condescension and personal attacks, there are many others scattered throughout our great game. Brash South African, sorry - Englishman, Kevin Pietersen, Australian captain Michael Clarke and Brendon McCullum all suffer the same fate. Outspoken New Zealand wicketkeeper Adam Parore and the aforementioned McMillan were never far from the airwaves and column inches in their day either. But why is it that certain players draw unparalleled criticism whilst others seemingly walk on water, even when they have muddied them so frequently?

Why do 'fans' continually partake in the character assassination and unsupported criticism of our sporting 'heroes'? Is it our right? In the end are players, coaches, managers and teams accountable to the paying public? As we invest more heavily in inflated ticket prices, merchandise, sponsors' products and pay television, maybe they are - though that's for another day. Constructive comment and considered opinion are fair but why must we cross the boundary into personal attacks and vitriol - is it seen in any other endeavour (politics excepted)? Is it envy, jealousy or the unparalleled riches that players earn while the 'common man' (and fan) puts his nose to the grindstone in a 'real' job? It's an open question - I have no definitive answer....

Scribes and casual bloggers do it too; it's not just the domain of the man on the street. Unfortunately, emotion sells - would anyone buy a newspaper that leads with 'We lose - no one's to blame'? In a few short months of writing this blog I've realised it's easier to criticise on personal feelings than compose a considered argument.

In today’s digital, social media-obsessed world there are now endless avenues open for comment  – the issue is that most are anonymous, so balanced debate is often lacking. Most fans love to comment on the stars of their sport, especially in Aotearoa where most are easily accessible to the public. Twitter, Facebook, talkback radio (with SMS comment – I still don’t get it), blogs, forums and article comments, among others, all provide an endless source of unmitigated banter. But, here is the kicker – on most occasions, in New Zealand at least, when our side wins talkback, and most others, is often slow; when we lose to France at a RWC or are farcical in our efforts at the wicket, every couch critic wants his two cents and his pound of flesh – no matter the lack of logic in the argument, heated as it often is.

Most of us will never play at the highest level, or commentate or write about our great game to audiences too innumerable to count – more the pity. Why then do we confuse personal sporting performance with criticisms of personality - seldom do the two meet? Very few of us have insights into the players; their work ethic, attitude and personality. Our view is largely from the outside, yet fan comment often bases thoughts on what we see and our perceptions; not fact or reasoned opinion - a little context goes a long way. 

Many of us have love-hate relationships with our cricketing personalities – others simply love to hate them. Whatever your opinion, most fans are just that – they love their teams and want nothing more but for them to do well – sorry, WIN! The paradox is that a minority have a confused way of showing it. 

For all his faults in the decider, Ryder did not lose New Zealand the game – maybe South Africa should even get a little credit. Will the same punters who offered little more than baseless abuse jump back on the bandwagon if Ryder flays the South African quicks in the test series? Ryder appeared to have lost a little weight in his injury absence yet people still made comment about his running – did punters say the same things of the beer swilling Tasmanian, David Boon? No, the portly Boon still holds legend status for his Ashes tour drinking antics – he’s seen as the quintessential Aussie bloke.
Don’t get me wrong, I have little time for cheerleading either - Channel 9 are cringe worthy to all but a select groups of Aussie sycophants. Likewise, no-one wants to hear the Super Rugby player political correctness or the ‘netball was the winner on the day’ speech – as fans it’s about having an opinion, not a baseless rant.

If you think my ramblings are off the mark, I'm open to both destructive criticism and vitriol. Post a comment or hunt me down on Twitter (@aotearoaxi) - I don't live in the public eye, I prefer the anonymity of a faceless moniker. Let’s hope that irony is not lost…

This post also appears in the April edition of SPIN-off Cricket.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Kane Williamson - T20I or not?

Kane Williamson - tests or T20?
There is little doubt Kane Williamson will grow into one of the true stars of New Zealand cricket, helping his unfashionable band of grafters to triumphs throughout the cricketing world. The question remains whether his continued inclusion in the T20I side is hindering his rise to the upper echelons of the world game.

'Experts' and arm chair selectors alike are torn on what is best for Williamson and New Zealand cricket - not just in the now but for many fruitful years to come. There seems to be little middle ground in people's thinking - either Williamson must be a part of all New Zealand teams or he should be rested from the international T20 arena. Who's right will likely only bear out in seasons to come but the wrong move now could delay the young man's cricketing ascension.

Those who believe that Williamson's, and New Zealand's, best interests include the young Northern Districts whippet playing T20 internationals will point to his astonishing finishing in the final match against a struggling Zimbabwe. With New Zealand requiring 26 off the final two overs, both McCullum brothers were caught in the deep leaving nine balls to finish the innings and save Kiwi blushes - Williamson needed only five. He showed timing, placement and cricketing nous to score 20 and save New Zealand the embarrassment of a loss to Zimbabwe with 2 balls to spare. The innings was one that many thought would silence any doubters, but has it had the opposite effect?

In five matches Williamson averages 60 at a little over 140 in T20I but the numbers are deceptive - he's only compiled 120 international runs. In 40 matches at all levels Williamson averages below 20 at marginally over run a ball, on par with his efforts in this season's HRV Cup, but his batting seemed almost an afterthought in a Northern Districts side full of hitting options. The shining light was his economy rate in the 2011/12 domestic game at a miserly 5.74 - the competition's most economical bowler. The intriguing part is he has only bowled 30 balls for New Zealand.

While he can compete and help New Zealand, should he be part of the setup in the immediate future at least? Will his continued use in international hit and giggle affect his test game? At 21, Williamson has time on his side.

New Zealand is developing their spin stocks in McCullum, Hira and Nicol, and there is no shortage of batsmen if others do their job. With Taylor waiting in the wings after the South African series and Ryder back in the squad after another injury, Williamson's inclusion is not a necessity.

For all but jockeys, Williamson is a small man. He has shown impeccable timing but lacks the brute power of his peers so when caught a little short he can't muscle the ball to, and over, the boundary like McCullum or Guptill can, while still holding technical shape. He needs bottom hand to achieve any power whilst his game relies on batting's more subtle arts. As a result he is forced to hit to areas he would usually avoid. Over time will it prove detrimental to his test cricket development?

In a short test career Williamson has achieved only modest numbers but the manner of his play and obvious cricketing mind have shown all what is possible. A burgeoning test average a shade over 30 defies his test potential but he has his maiden test century, 131 against India on the subcontinent, and another three 50s to his name in just nine matches. Since his test debut as a baby faced 20 year old, Williamson has looked bound for greatness. His technique, though with the gaps of a man just starting his international journey, provides him with a base most senior players would envy and his temperament seems inclined towards the lengthy not the flashy. Not since Stephen Fleming has a young Kiwi looked to have the cricketing world as his feet – I discount the deeds of Ross Taylor for though he has amassed impressive numbers neither his technique nor mental ability have shown marked recent growth.

Given time to build on the early promise, and with a lot of hard work, the international game appears to open out before Williamson. Like Turner, Wright and Crowe before him, a stint in the daily grind of the County Championship would help the young pretender hone his undoubted batting talent in preparation for the fierce examination at test level. Coupled with Plunket Shield cricket and New Zealand’s test schedule, application to his craft will carry Williamson a long way – Martin Guptill’s growth in international cricket illustrates that. The volume of ODIs New Zealand plays will allow him to develop the attacking side of his game without the immediacy of T20 pressure – a challenge he has relished with two centuries at 36.20 in his first 19 outings.

The knowledge that comes with learning his game in the longer formats, without the confusion and urgency of T20 tactics, will not only aid in the test and ODI arenas but will give Williamson the cricketing introspection to excel in international T20 in the future.

I am a proud New Zealander who adores test cricket. My thoughts may appear lopsided but test cricket will forever remain the pinnacle of our great game. Regardless of whether Kane Williamson continues to play T20 internationals in his formative cricketing years, he will undoubtedly have a long and successful New Zealand career.

We quickly forget that today's greats such as Ponting, Kallis, Tendulkar, Dravid, and Sangakkara, among others, didn't have the pressure of T20 early in their careers. They spent time building an innings, fine tuning their technique and learning their game before joining the T20 circus.

The question will remain, as it does with young tyro Doug Bracewell, whether T20 will delay his ascension to his position among Crowe, Turner, Reid et al. – time will invariably bear that out. My views hold little weight; such influential decisions sit with John Wright and Kim Littlejohn, who are making steady progress and creating undoubted depth. Like most New Zealand supporters nothing would make me happier than to see Williamson lead his country in years to come and end his career among the game’s elite – time will tell.

If my writing seems a little confused this week, please blame my little princess. My wife gave birth to a little girl a few days ago so what you're reading are the sleep deprived ramblings of an exhausted but elated Daddy.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Ka kite Zimbabwe. Kia ora South Africa

New Zealand and South African hostilities are set to resume
Zimbabwe’s tour to our shores has come to its inevitable conclusion with a New Zealand clean sweep, and anticipation is building among Kiwi cricket fans ready for the South African assault.

The conclusion to Zimbabwe’s tour was notable for two things. For the first time in a month long tour New Zealand were put under pressure, and Hamilton dominated in Hamilton. Zimbabwean opener Hamilton Masakadza deposited the New Zealand bowlers to all parts of Hamilton’s Seddon Park to score the quickest T20 half-century in Zimbabwean cricketing history; a feat then run close by Brendan Taylor who showed his unequalled batting prowess amongst his national peers. Unfortunately, the result though closer, petered out to the same conclusions as the other lopsided contests.

What we all hoped would at least be a series of fair contests ended up as little more than repetitive opposed open wicket sessions for the New Zealanders. Whilst the contests improved as their length shortened, New Zealand was rarely challenged at any stage other than in the final T20 hit and giggle.

The major concern from New Zealand’s perspective was that with a little pressure applied in the final encounter, they tended to revert to type. After looking untroubled in five previous matches, the fielding effort in their final outing saw bowlers regularly missing their lengths and some of the fielding intensity fell away with it. Against weaker opposition such cracks can be papered over without affecting the result – similar mistakes against South Africa will be punished with ruthless efficiency.

In the final wrap-up, New Zealand have done what Kiwi fans have asked of them and dominated weaker opposition, where in the past they have been prone to lowering their standards. There will be knockers, there always are, but for want of a cliché, they can only play what’s in front of them.

New Zealand has achieved what they needed from the Zimbabwe series, with most players achieving. The conjecture over BJ Watling’s place in the test side as the first choice wicketkeeper subsided after a maiden test century and a polished performance behind the stumps. The question is whether he can continue to grow into the role during a three test series as opposed to a three day landslide? Brendon McCullum confirmed he can build an innings and Chris Martin reminded everyone he’s not yet past it with a host of test wickets – he will need to repeat the performance against South Africa for New Zealand to expose the middle order early on sporting pitches.

The six Kiwi debutants have all got a feel for international cricket, albeit in the limited overs format. Tarun Nethula had the commentators sounding like Channel 9 cheerleaders but given it’s over a decade since we fielded an international leg spinner and as far back as Jack Alabaster since one could regularly pitch it, that’s understandable. Roneel Hira looked composed against the Zimbabwe top order but his control will be tested against Amla, de Villiers and their peers. The youngest of the debutants, Tom Latham, looks like the best long term option across all formats. Whether he gets to wield the willow in the South African ODIs may depend on whether Taylor and/or Ryder return.

For the past month, Martin Guptill has shown he has started to learn the harsh lessons of international cricket. Disappointed at a weak dismissal after building a solid platform in the test, Guptill has gone from strength to strength throughout the remainder of the series. His ability to do it all with a straight bat and strong running has been the most pleasing aspect of a largely lifeless series.

Zimbabwe was at best sporadic in their efforts and at times looked like they would struggle at domestic level. Brendan Taylor has shown glimpses of his potential to make a true mark on the international scene but he appears to bat with the weight of a nation on his shoulders - which is largely how it is. A stint in county cricket would help him move his game forward but the key is to develop those around him. Taibu continues to get starts but struggles to dominate an innings and Waller showed little of his potential. Hamilton Masakadza and Elton Chigumbura have shown ability in the shorter forms but to succeed long term they need to translate limited overs cameos into test match contributions. That will only be achieved through more time at the crease outside of their homeland. 

The elder statesman, Ray Price, showed the mettle and competitive spirit we all expect from Zimbabwe, but it is one of the team’s youngsters who offers the most promise. 22 year old Kyle Jarvis needs an extra yard of pace but was wholehearted in his efforts in every spell. If he continues to develop he has the potential to lead a young attack over the next decade. Like Taylor, he would benefit from time in England or in grade cricket in Australia where he could build his pace and hone the harsh edge needed to succeed as a quick at the highest level.

In the short term Zimbabwe would do well to get their fielding to a standard above that of club level. In the U19 coach, New Zealander Chris Harris, they have one of the best fielding exponents in the game and need to get him involved at senior level. Batting and bowling take time for skills to grow but fielding is largely about hard work and attitude, and Zimbabwe need to take every chance on offer – New Zealand has learned that the hard way in past seasons.

World cricket wants to see a competitive Zimbabwean side - the more competition across nations the better for the continued development of our great game. Zimbabwe have shown they can produce talent, as they did in their glory days with Streak, the Flower brothers, Brandes, Campbell et al., and cricket’s most recognisable flat track bully, Graeme Hick.

Given their prolonged absence from the international game, time is needed – India, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh all went through the same trials in their emerging years. The ICC and their international members need to be patient and all take an interest in making the whole strong as opposed to just their own backyard. Established nations should encourage Zimbabwe to tour, even if on short tours largely against domestic sides with a test and some limited overs matches thrown in. Likewise, why not use the African nation as a testing ground for emerging players and A team tours as often happened in the 1980s and 1990s when Zimbabwe were building as they are now?

Zimbabwe’s cricketing powerbrokers need to work to get their players experience in foreign conditions, most likely in domestic competitions when they’re not touring. The ability to play in varied conditions and the experience gained in other competitions will help grow the Zimbabwean game.

This summer’s main course is now in New Zealand and will provide a litmus test of New Zealand’s growth post-Hobart. South Africa is a world class unit and will punish New Zealand if they drop their standards even slightly. The coming weeks are crucial for the development of Bracewell and Williamson, who need to solidify the potential they have shown, but New Zealand’s fortunes hang on their established stars taking the lead and showing the others they can compete. If the New Zealanders can get across the line in the ODIs and salvage a drawn test series their summer would end on a well-deserved high, though given the South Africans will claim the number one test spot if they whitewash the Kiwis, they are unlikely to ease up at any stage.

Finally, the South Africans are to be congratulated for opening their tour in Christchurch. The city has been decimated by a spate of earthquakes and a T20 match against the locals will be their first taste of international sport in a long time. Kia kaha, Christchurch and thank you, South Africa. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Wherefore art thou Chris?

Gayle in whites - more, please
Shakespeare isn’t often associated with cricket, but it’s fair to say that Chris Gayle would have made a fitting subject in one of the playwright’s tragedies.

After a 14 month hiatus from the first-class game, Gayle returned to lead his native Jamaica to an emphatic victory over the Windward Islands – he led not as captain but by his deeds. His second innings 165 at quicker than a run a ball saw deliveries dispatched to all parts of Sabina Park, and reminded the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) and cricket fans around the world of what the game has been missing. Gayle hasn’t played test cricket since a first ball duck against Sri Lanka in late 2010, and has had extended periods out of both the ODI and T20I sides  - surprisingly, it’s closing in on two years since he donned the famous maroon cap in a T20 international. But, is he missed? Should the WICB move on and mend the bridges for the betterment of the game in the Caribbean, or is the Calypso King more trouble than he’s worth?

Since Lalit Modi and the BCCI changed the face of cricket, and the weight of players’ pockets, with the launch of the IPL in 2008, Chris Gayle, and others of his ilk, have been provided with an alternative to the simple joys of international cricket. There are now professional T20 competitions played in England, Australia, India, South Africa, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, the West Indies and New Zealand, and the list will continue to grow.

For a batsman with attacking ability to burn and a touch of Caribbean cool, Chris Gayle has become the most sought after cricketing mercenary in the game. He has played everywhere bar New Zealand, though after the dismal effort of the Sydney Thunder in this season’s Australian Big Bash League he contemplated boarding a plane to Hamilton to play in the Northern Knights final HRV Cup T20 match before preferring to spend the time in the sun with a few quiets in his short-term Aussie home.  The loss was entirely ours!

In his absence from the international game, there has been little but T20 to judge Gayle on. Pundits and spectators the world over marvel at his power and potential for complete batting domination, but has he really made the impression we think he has in the past 14 months?

In short, yes. As his most recent dispute with the WICB escalated in early 2011, he joined the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) in IPL4 after being left out of the Windies side. It is debateable whether one player has had such an influence on his team throughout any tournament. In 12 innings, Gayle topped the runs scorers with 608 at an average in excess of 67, including two centuries and three 50s - second placed Virat Kohli played five more innings that the dominating Jamaican. Similarly in this season’s Australian BBL he averaged in excess of 40 and almost singlehandedly took a woeful Sydney Thunder to the playoffs.

What of the disputes between Gayle and the WICB? Has there ever been a winner or are all parties, including cricket fans, losing out on every occasion? Gayle, and a number of his cricketing contemporaries, has had a running battle with the WICB since as far back as 2003. Money, personal sponsorships, selection criteria, criticisms of the board and coaches, and contractual disputes, among others – the grievances read like a sporting soap opera. Turn it into a reality show and the WICB would at least clear its money woes. Even when he was captaining the side, the issues continued – in 2008 Gayle resigned due to team selections, only to resume the role two weeks later, and in 2009 missed tests against Bangladesh and the ICC Champions Trophy as the WICB had a wholesale cleanout over contractual matters.

The current ‘he said, they said’ storyline belongs in primary school playgrounds not in the game’s upper echelons. The dispute could provide Gayle with a convenient excuse to end a sparkling international career, with its best years unfulfilled.  A proud West Indian, there is more chance of Curtly Ambrose’s band covering Justin Bieber than Gayle retracting past statements and apologising. Likewise, the impasse has shown the pettiness of a national board charged with growing Caribbean cricket. Their lack of foresight in the Gayle saga against a backdrop of continued managerial incompetence and island infighting is killing the proud legacy of the once mighty Windies. At present the ‘any publicity is good publicity’ mantra is being severely tested.

Does Gayle really want to play for his country when he is the most recognisable T20 mercenary in the game? Or does the current situation suit him better? He plays short tournaments in most every cricketing nation, is handsomely paid for it, and gets to enjoy his time away from the restrictions that go with being an international cricketer. Consider this: after a three day test defeat in England at the conclusion of the 2009 IPL, a clearly frustrated Gayle commented he wouldn’t be sad to see test cricket die out in favour of T20 – defeatist loathing or honest observation?

Gayle brings spectators through the gate and gets viewers watching television coverage. Surely the rights are worth more when he plays, not to mention the column inches and website hits directly attributed to him? That has to have a positive effect on West Indies cricket; at least it would if Gayle was playing international cricket. His influence and standing in the current Windies setup was illustrated with the haul of awards he took away from the 2011 WIPA (Players’ Association) awards while he was surplus to requirements thanks to the WICB powerbrokers.

Gayle’s numbers bare out his loss on the field as well. When he captained the Calypso kings he averaged close to eight runs an innings more in tests (at 47.75) and four higher in ODIs (at 43.68), than he did when he was simply the leader. During the last three calendar years he played test cricket, Gayle averaged a touch under 53 – world class.  It is worth considering the win-loss ratios of the Windies with and without Gayle:

(e.g. 0.39 equates to 39 wins for every 100 losses) 

Clearly, the Windies are a better side when Gayle plays – statistics aren’t everything, but Gayle’s numbers are persuasive. It’s worth remembering that he is one of only four test players who have scored two triple centuries – against Sri Lanka and South Africa.

For much of the past decade, Chris Gayle has been the most prominent attacking force in West Indies cricket. Gayle is not without fault in his disputes with the WICB but he’s good for West Indies cricket – he is their best opportunity for sponsorship dollars, gate revenues and publicity, and of late, that’s certainly needed in the Caribbean. It is questionable though, if he is really interested in the rigours of international cricket and the drop in salary? That said, the WICB needs to do all it can to get him back - he is good for cricket and at a time when entertainment seems to be key. Nothing would make the cricket public happier than seeing Gayle don the maroon cap and start thrashing international attacks.

One final point: for all those jumping on the David Warner bandwagon and waxing lyrical about his crossover to test cricket, cast your mind no further than Gayle – he and Sehwag were the two modern trailblazers bringing unyielding attack to test batting. The only difference is that Warner’s route wasn’t available when Gayle was starting out – let’s revisit his success when he has a few thousand test runs under his belt.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Africa's cricketing influence

African cricketers continue to influence the world game
With one African side currently in New Zealand trying to resurrect their flagging international fortunes and another, more powerful unit, soon to follow, it's timely to reflect on the influence Africa is having on world cricket. For the New Zealand summer, Zimbabwe is simply an entree to the South African main course, but their circle of influence is far wider than just the two playing sides.

We are regularly told the BCCI holds the balance of cricketing power courtesy of the game's largest fan base, swelling coffers and the prominence of the IPL. But do they? Africa's influence is deeper at a pure cricketing level - their players and coaches are making a heavy impression across a number of countries, not just at home.

African players plying their trade abroad are nothing new. Basil D’Oliveira was one of, if not the first. He was offered a contract in England league cricket when people believed his talent was wasted in South Africa where he was given no opportunities because of the colour of his skin. He went on to represent England and brought attention to the apartheid issues in his homeland. Similarly, Tony Greig emigrated and went on to captain his adopted country in the 1970s  - he was born in South Africa, played for England, now resides in Australia and has connections to the Sri Lankan tourism board – an eclectic gentleman.

A number of others left for greener pastures and an escape from the injustices of apartheid. Mike Procter, Garth le Roux, Barry Richards and Clive Rice all had a telling impact on the county scene where they had an opportunity to play against a number of the world’s best cricketers when their motherland was exiled from international cricket. Likewise, Peter Kirsten had a lengthy county career but was lucky enough to finish his playing days in South Africa after sporting sanctions were finally lifted. Kepler Wessels on the other hand has the distinction of playing test cricket for Australia early in his career before returning home to captain South Africa on their return to international cricket.

Robin Smith, Allan Lamb and Graeme Hick all left Africa for England before being promoted to the senior side. Hick’s change of allegiance (Zimbabwe did not yet have test status) is interesting in that he first ventured to England on a Zimbabwe Cricket Union sponsored scholarship.

In 2003, the Kolpak ruling opened the floodgates for more African (and Windies cricketers) to earn their keep in county cricket as it allowed players from countries with a European Union associate agreement to effectively play as EU residents; it’s far more involved than that, but this is quickly becoming a novel. A number of counties should be sending anonymous brown envelopes to Maros Kolpak as he won’t be in the riches playing second division handball whilst they are utilising the ruling to grow their stocks.

Kolpak has allowed a number of Africans to forego their national allegiances, prosper in county cricket and earn handy coin doing it. Players like Neil McKenzie, Andrew Hall, Murray Goodwin and Dale Benkenstein have brought their hard-nosed approach to the county game over long careers, though it is debateable if England would have been better served promoting home grown talent. Current England internationals Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott (it’s worth noting he already held a British passport) are two of the younger generation switching allegiances who have developed formidable influence for their adopted nation and have been integral to its recent success. Would the same results have been realised without them?

For those not convinced of Africa’s influence on world cricket, take a further look at the current England set-up. The side is captained by South African born Andrew Strauss, and coached by an ex-Zimbabwean captain in Andy Flower. Flower’s ascension in the England set-up has aligned with them moving to number one in the test rankings – coincidence? South African born youngsters Jade Dernbach, Craig Kieswetter and Stuart Meaker are all forging limited overs careers in the national side and more of their ilk will likely follow.

But it’s not just England who have been blessed with the African influence. Gary Kirsten continued the good work of John Wright in India but moved on before the current issues affected an ageing side, and returned home for the South African job. Mickey Arthur was recently appointed the first foreign-born coach of the Australian side and with the recent 4-0 test drubbing of India is looking to restore the once champion side to its past glory. The coaching ranks of my own New Zealand were temporarily bolstered with the acquisition of Allan Donald to mould our young quicks before he too returned home – our loss.

Given the growing migration of Africans, both Zimbabwean and South African, to New Zealand’s shores the prevalence of Afrikaans names in our national and domestic sides is set to grow. Grant Elliott arrived in New Zealand a decade ago and was rushed straight into the national side once he had met the residency requirements – his tenure was short but he has shown a path for others.

Kruger van Wyk was in a two horse race for the New Zealand wicket keeping duties against Zimbabwe, and will get his chance in the future. Likewise, Neil Wagner, a sharp left-armer, looks set to get a run when he is eligible for New Zealand in April if his domestic feats are any indication. After representing the Zimbabwean U19s Colin de Grandhomme will make the step up to New Zealand’s T20 side against his former countrymen in the next fortnight. There is a sprinkling of others throughout the domestic scene, while former Zimbabwean leggie Paul Strang has held the coaching reigns of the all-conquering Auckland side for the past three seasons.

Different patriotic pundits around the globe could put forward persuasive arguments for the merits of their country being the most influential in world cricket, but even as a West Indian cricket loving Kiwi, it is hard for me to go past the two African nations. Zimbabwe is currently struggling to find their feet after a long test hiatus, but ask England if they would give up their coach for all of Mugabe’s stolen riches – not a chance. Likewise, many an Englishman secretly applauds Mr Kolpak and in years to come I’ll not care a jot where New Zealand talent was born.

Consider this: with England in the throes of defeat in Dubai there is the possibility they could lose the number one test ranking to the South Africans if they can sweep New Zealand 3-0. Before you fret, those in the MCC long room can mop their furrowed brows; New Zealand won’t let that happen, driven by a love of queen and country…..

Friday, February 3, 2012

Cricket in a global village

What a fantastic time to be a cricket fan. As I pen this piece I am part way through a long cricketing day – in hours only, the time is positively racing by! In the space of one day, I’ll hear, read and see the exploits of six international teams playing in all three of the games’ formats via a seemingly endless list of media sources.

Over the course of a tiresome Friday in the office, I listened to my native New Zealand turn in a mediocre ODI performance against a Zimbabwean side still struggling to reacclimatise themselves to the rigours of international cricket. Though not the decisive victory they were hoping for, the feats of McCullum, Guptill, Nicol et al. were described via an audio commentary on my laptop, whilst I checked the details on Cricinfo’s live scoring.

Blowers and Boycs - around the globe
Upon arriving home, Aggers, Boycs and Blowers were setting the scene before the opening session of the third Pakistan versus England test from Dubai. Competing with the excited shouts of my young son, their dulcet tones filtered out of my iPad thanks to a digital feed via BBC Radio 5 Live’s Test Match Special (TMS). Very soon, I’ll flick on the television to see if the hapless Indians can finally get a victory on their Australian tour in the second T20 from the MCG. The mute button will be on though so I can keep listening to the game in the desert – that, and I can only take so much of the Channel 9 cheerleading (sorry, commentary) team.

With the vast sums of money now flowing through our game and players seen as commodities to raise a profit rather than craftsmen playing their trade, the ever increasing amount of international cricket played across the globe provides spectators with endless opportunities to indulge their passion.
But it hasn’t always been so. Growing up as a child, international cricket was special for a couple of reasons –there was far less of it, and even less was broadcast outside the two countries involved. Stuck at the bottom of the world in our little corner of South Pacific paradise, we got very little coverage if New Zealand wasn’t playing. New Zealand’s international matches were shown on a publicly owned television station (we only had two channels at the time) and every series were sponsored by either a tobacco company or a brewery. The same matches were broadcast on national radio, as were some of our domestic first class matches.  On a good day there was occasionally a comment on other international matches on the six o’clock news;  if not, you’d have to wait for the newspaper to be delivered the next morning.

How things have changed. Cricket now operates in a global village where an internet connection provides access to matches the world over, regardless of where you call home. Just last week, I could listen to three test matches in the course of day, though none illustrated the power of digital media, and the changes in cricket commentary, more than a short session in Abu Dhabi. With the broadcast connections dropping out in the stadium during the second test, the TMS coverage was off air for little more than a few minutes. It returned via an iPad Skype connection from Abu Dhabi to the studios in England and was then shared around the world. It may have been a little crackly, but it was worth it to see Messers Boycott and Blofeld talking into a tiny iPad microphone as I listened to it on the same device while laughing at Twitter pictures from the commentary box.

The choice of mediums to keep up to date is endless, and is broadcast from cricket grounds, large and small, the world over. There are many more than those I’ve already spoken of. Pay television, in all its guises, pushes pictures to countries where the only viewers are expats, and live internet video streaming means we can watch coverage at our convenience; but don’t tell the ECB – I hear they’re not happy about it. In T20, it’s even become commonplace to have the players miked up to give viewers another perspective, and no-one has done it better than Shane Warne in the BBL. He would describe how he was going to take a wicket, and then deliver -  as Brendon McCullum found out

Twitter provides comment from scribes, punters and players alike, all in 140 character slots – check out @aotearoaxi or #donningthewhites. Established cricketer journalists write pieces for any number of websites and online publications and aspiring cricket writers make their point with blogs on every cricketing topic – take your pick, the choices are unlimited. Sites such as cricinfo provide a one-stop cricket library, including a statistics engine to satisfy even cricket’s most knowledge thirsty anorak – ever wondered who has the most man of the match awards in a losing ODI side? Online cricket forums continue to pop up with the regularity of an Indian wicket, and we can access most of them via a multitude of apps on our mobile phones. There are plenty of other mediums and they just keep coming – thankfully, her indoors is a cricket fanatic too, so I get to indulge my cricketing passion. Many moons ago before we ever met in person she would email me score updates so I can keep up with the cricket during meetings.

Even with all the media choices, there is still nothing that tops watching a match live at the ground. It would be easy to never leave the couch, the television, the laptop and the phone, but there is nothing that beats the atmosphere of a live contest. I took my young lad, and his mum, to the final of the HRV Cup T20 a couple of weeks back – his first introduction to our great game. He left three hours later having tried to evade a security guard and invade the field of play, ridden an old roller and clapped Colin de Grandhomme launching the Canterbury attack out of the ground. But the thing that stuck with him? He got a sponsor’s hat that he now tells all and sundry is his ‘cricket  hat’ -  you can’t get that kind of involvement at home of social media.

Finally, if the media all gets a little too much but you still need your cricket fix, get yourself a copy of Wisden. Cricket’s bible has been around since 1864 so the editors must be doing something right – will Twitter have the same longevity?

An edited version of this post is featured on ESPNCricinfo's The Inbox.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

2012 and beyond: NZ’s Wright path

The naming of New Zealand’s T20 and ODI squads for the remainder of the Zimbabwe tour has raised a few eyebrows in the cricketing community, but for once it’s a good thing. With the one-off Napier test having confirmed the relative strength, or lack thereof, of the tourists, New Zealand have opted to promote some new blood to the two limited overs sides, and people are genuinely excited about their prospects. Coach John Wright and national selection manager Kim Littlejohn have begun to stamp their mark on New Zealand cricket, and it looks like they are building a strong path to future success. 

Clichéd underarm jokes aside, Kim Littlejohn, the former high performance manager of Bowls Australia, has, in conjunction with Wright, shown a leap of faith in the performances of players in domestic limited overs cricket and selected six debutants across the T20 and ODI sides to play Zimbabwe. That Littlejohn has utilised the on-the-ground knowledge of the country’s six domestic coaches in the wider selection process should not be overlooked – they are in the best position to assess developing talent and make candid assessments of the intangibles; traits such as attitude and the ability (and willingness) to learn.

Generally the same wider New Zealand squad covers all three international formats, but Wright and Littlejohn have chosen instead to look towards the T20 World Cup in Sri Lanka later this year and the ODI World Cup in New Zealand and Australia in 2015 by rewarding the domestic game’s top performers. Given Wright’s hard-nosed nature and his respect for international cricket, he will still expect any side selected to win every match against a Zimbabwean outfit lacking international game breakers.

Five of the six debutants play for the New Zealand’s two top limited overs sides, Auckland and Canterbury, and have been integral in their success. The sixth, Tarun Nethula, started his career in Auckland before making a move south to Central Districts for the 2010/11 season to get more game time.

Here’s a bit more about the six new boys:

Michael Bates (Auckland – both T20 and ODI)
The 28 year old left arm quick has led Auckland’s limited overs bowling attack for the past three seasons, and topped this season’s HRV Cup T20 wicket takers list with team mate Roneel Hira. Solid at the top of the innings, Bates relishes the job of closing an innings and has developed a deadly yorker when batsmen are looking for any error in length to clear the fence.

Andrew Ellis (Canterbury – ODI)
Having played for Canterbury for the best part of a decade, Ellis has been rewarded for a solid domestic record. Not since Andrew Jones has a player played so much domestic cricket before stepping up (there are many others but Jones was a childhood hero and I need to get his name in somehow). Equally at home with bat and ball, it will be intriguing to see if Ellis can compete at international level.

Colin de Grandhomme (Auckland – T20)
The biggest hitter of a cricket ball in New Zealand, de Grandhomme could create headaches for the Zimbabweans; he was born in Harare and represented the Zimbabwe U19s. In 39 domestic T20 games he averages a shade over 20 at a powerful strike rate of 170, and muscles a boundary every four balls!

Roneel Hira (Auckland – T20)
After losing his Auckland contract this season, Hira has shown his worth to the HRV Cup champions. A limited overs specialist, Ronnie topped the T20 wickets list and is a miser with his left arm orthodox. His selection is a just reward for two stellar limited overs seasons.

Tom Latham (Canterbury – ODI)
At 19 years old, and having played less than 25 matches in all domestic formats, Latham is a pick for the future but he has solid recent form behind him. When selected, he was the top runs scorer in the Ford Trophy (50 overs) averaging 55 at close to 100. If he gets a go, he’s one to watch.

Tarun Nethula (Central Districts – ODI)
The first leggie to play for New Zealand since Brooke Walker a decade earlier, Nethula’s fortunes have moved north since he headed south from Auckland. This season’s form spinner in domestic cricket with Hira, Nethula has good accuracy for a leg spinner still learning his trade.  

Two other selections have been discussed by commentators and punters alike; Jacob Oram and Kane Williamson. Will Oram last until 2015? No, but his recent bowling form at international level, when he has been fit, and in the HRV Cup, have earned him his spot though he could no longer be considered a batting force. The bigger talking point is Kane Williamson; a player earmarked as a future captain and with the potential to sit amongst New Zealand’s batting elite. Whilst he was the most miserly bowler in the HRV Cup, does it really matter? Williamson would be better to get his head around his batting game - will limited overs pressure simply delay his ascension in the international game or cause issues with a technique that still requires work to succeed at the highest level?

Whilst the results should be one-sided, New Zealand is prone to stumbling over pebbles even if they occasionally climb great mountains. On New Zealand’s tour to Zimbabwe late last year, captain Brendan Taylor was a constant thorn in their side. In three ODIs he scored over 300 runs at quicker than a run a ball, including two centuries, and was dominant in the T20s. If Zimbabwe are to cause New Zealand any troubles, Taylor holds the key. Waller and Taibu will need to be at the very best in supporting roles if they are to post competitive totals. Young fast-medium bowler Kyle Jarvis and the spin pairing of Price and Utseya are the most likely with the ball. Even at their very best Zimbabwe will need to lift their fielding from Napier where they looked little better than club cricketers (with apologies to the weekend warriors).

NZ should whitewash Zimbabwe in both the T20s and ODIs – the test will be whether the New Zealand debutants can help continue the clinical dominance of the test side. Shorter games tend to bring teams closer together but if New Zealand can continue their ruthless resolve the class gap should be too far for Zimbabwe to overcome. A six year exile from test cricket has hampered Zimbabwe’s ability to compete at international level, and it will be some time until they are a competitive unit again.

Those who complain they shouldn’t be given test status, and aren’t worthy of international cricket,  would do well to remember the length of time it took India, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, and more lately, Bangladesh, to find their feet at the elite level. A country that previously produced the talents of the Flower brothers, Streak, Olonga, Whittal and Brandes, among others, will no doubt rise again.

For New Zealand, it is great to see players blooded but Wright and Littlejohn need the courage to persevere with them - the exercise will be wasted if they are then thrown back to the domestic wilderness along similar line to youngsters Adam Milne and Daniel Flynn. Some of the players may not pull through to the South African series, but it’s a taste of international cricket and it’s important that long term depth is not sacrificed by reverting to the status quo. Others may be involved in selecting the side but largely the buck will stop with John Wright – given his success in cricket around the world and his desire to lead New Zealand forward on his terms, the future looks bright.

ODI squad: Brendon McCullum (c), Bates, Doug Bracewell, Dean Brownlie, Ellis, Martin Guptill, Latham, Nathan McCullum, Kyle Mills, Nethula, Rob Nicol, Oram, Tim Southee, Williamson.

Twenty20 squad: B. McCullum (c), Bates, Bracewell, Brownlie, de Grandhomme, James Franklin, Guptill, Hira, N. McCullum, Mills, Nicol, Oram, Southee, Williamson .