Wednesday, 3 February 2016

DOES MIKING UP PLAYERS TURN CRICKET INTO A CIRCUS?


The latest blog for ESPNcricinfo (given a much snappier title than I've managed) was supposed to be a general look at the way broadcasters are encroaching on the game, particularly T20, asking whether, in the main, this was a good or bad thing, and in what ways.

Then something happened. I was watching the 1st Australia vs India T20I at Adelaide when a quite extraordinary 2 minutes 20 seconds of live international cricket broadcasting happened, involving the current Australian Test captain (though not skipper on this occasion) Steven Smith talking live while batting to the three Channel 9 commentators, Mark Nicholas, Mike Hussey and Ian Healy. It lasted one Ravindra Jadeja over. It ended in Smith's dismissal and a rather animated send-off from Virat Kohli.

So I wrote about that incident, and the wider implications of having players wired up and conversing with commentators. 


When Entertainment becomes Intrusion

It was a real struggle to whittle this down to 1200. I could easily have gone through the exchange sentence by sentence, riffing on the various issues it raised. 


Here's the exchange as it played out in real time: 


Australia are 82 for 1 off 8, chasing 189. They have taken 19 from the previous over. Steve Smith is 20 off 12 balls.

Nicholas: Steve Smith’s miked up. Steve, you’ve got ahead of the rate.
Smith: What’s that, sorry?
Nicholas: You’ve got ahead of the rate now.
Smith: Yeah, we’re going alright.

Ridiculously over-the-top laugh from Nicholas.

Smith: Hopefully we can keep getting a few boundaries away here and there. We’ve got plenty of power, so… It’s a pretty nice wicket out there. It’s coming on pretty well so all good at the minute.

He finishes just as Jadeja leaps to bowl. Aaron Finch cuts to point. No run.

Hussey: Steve Smith, what’s the plan against Jadeja? Where are you going to try and hit him?
Smith: Wherever he bowls it. Just watch the ball and see what happens.

Again, Jadeja is entering his delivery stride when Smith finishes. Finch lifts the ball over extra cover. It will skip away for four.

Smith: That’s a nice shot!
Nicholas: You commentate for us, mate. You’ve got it covered. You’ve got the bird’s-eye view.
Smith: What’s that, sorry?  
Nicholas: You’ve got the best view. You call it for us.
Smith: That was nice, that. I’ll see what I can do for ya…

Jadeja is running in again…

Smith: Might have to run hard here. Pretty long boundary straight. We’ll see how we go.

Finch drives to deep cover. Smith calls “yep” and scurries to get on strike.

Nicholas: Now, are you pre-meditating or not?
Smith: When do I premeditate?!
Nicholas (laughing): Yeah, yeah.

Jadeja in. Smith works the ball from outside off to deep mid-wicket.

Smith (to Finch): Yeah, push, c’mon!

They settle for one.

Hussey: That’s really interesting, Steve: no premeditation at this stage. You’re just seeing the ball and looking to react to it?
Smith: Oh yeah, you never know what’s going through our minds.

Jadeja is already running into bowl. Finch drives out into the covers.

Smith (to Finch): Just the one, mate.
Smith (to Hussey):
You never know mate. You’ve just got to watch the ball and see what happens.

Smith is on strike for the final ball of the over.

Healy: He’s darting them in, angled in to the right-handers. 103kph.

It’s unclear whether this is commentary or advice. Smith tries to work a ball from outside off stump through the completely open midwicket region. He gets a leading edge to extra-cover, where Virat Kohli takes the catch and proceeds to give Smith a send-off.   

Nicholas: Steve Smith is out, and he’s unable to talk us through that. Understandably. What a disappointment: 21 to Steve Smith.


 

A WINTER OF EXPANSION



The pavilion at Great Chell: symbol of the precariousness of all clubs  



It has been a winter of expansion – not only of my waistline, but also of the NSSCL. Indeed, the winter’s cricketing activity has been dominated by the NSSCL restructuring, with several new additions coming in (including our own Sri Lankan enclave, Moddershall Phoenix, straight in at the fifth tier) and a raft of major and minor changes. 

Primarily, the expansion serves to reward ambitious clubs, allowing them access to the area’s premier cricket competition. The restructuring into a ten-division ladder is for the same purpose: to reward well-run, ambitious clubs. In theory, allowing a club’s 2nd XI to progress up as high as the second tier of local cricket (providing they’re below the 1st XI, of course) means they can offer youngsters not quite ready for the 1st XI (and seniors no longer good enough) the best possible standard of cricket, rather than, at best, fifth tier. In turn, this hopefully enables them to keep those youngsters that they have developed at the club for longer (with the knock-on effect of preserving a club’s playing identity, of slowing down the revolving door) rather than having them cherry-picked by fly-by-night, house-of-cards clubs with plenty of money but no infrastructure who are able (they will say) to offer 1st XI cricket. 

Not only that, clubs that are currently struggling for numbers yet still retain a dedicated core of players will not be punished, or even forced to close, for not being able to put out two Saturday sides. If you can muster up eleven, you can still play (without having to meet unattainable ECB Clubmark goals). So, sensible all round. 

While the restructuring is all perhaps a little confusing at the minute – why are Moddershall A still called Moddershall A if it’s a straight ladder? Why not Moddershall 1sts through to 5ths? Does this affect the starring system? – the changes nevertheless serve to illustrate the broader reality that the league is a continually evolving entity (even if it was more comforting and less disorienting when it was 1A and 1B, mirrored by 2A and 2B!). 

Moddershall ourselves were beneficiaries of this evolution in late 1989, when the folding of one of the league’s founder members, Great Chell, allowed us into the NSSCL. We haven’t looked back. A season later, Chell (who had a phenomenal pavilion, the Lord’s of the Potteries) re-emerged, having merged with another founder member, Sneyd (whose pavvy wasn’t quite so salubrious), before both clubs bit the dust. In the 1960s they had West Indies Test players as pros, today they are a memory. A salutary lesson. 

"The Lord's of the Potteries" [Chell photos provided by Gary Stanyer] 

In our early NSSCL days, we played many times against clubs that are either no longer with us, or no longer members of the league: Nantwich, Crewe Rolls-Royce, Haslington, Buxton (it would have been quite an early alarm-call, trekking from there to Norton-in-Hales for a 12pm start in September: Derbyshire to Shropshire for a North Staffs & South Cheshire fixture!!). Nantwich left in the mid-nineties and have since gone on to win the Cheshire County League on a number of occasions. They were another of the NSSCL’s founder member clubs, one of the dozen that started out in 1963 (coincidentally, the year that one-day cricket began, in the form of the Gillette Cup). 

As well as Chell, Sneyd and Nantwich, the other NSSCL founder members were Stone, Crewe LMR (today, Crewe), Longton, Leek, Knypersley, Norton, Bignall End, Newcastle & Hartshill and Porthill Park. These clubs were predominantly based in the Potteries or in other sizeable towns, and their respective current fortunes – five in the Premier League, three defunct, three down the pyramid, one elsewhere – show just how difficult it can be to sustain a club’s strength (be that on the field or in its social aspect) over a long period. It’s hard work, and requires thousands and thousands of small acts of investment of time, love and energy (not to mention, for some of those founder members still in the top flight, a well-thumbed chequebook). 

The NSSCL’s first great expansion took place in 1981, when several clubs took the plunge and sought out a better grade of recreational cricket – the likes of Cheadle, Little Stoke, Caverswall and Elworth, all of whom have won the NSSCL, as well as Leycett, Kidsgrove, Stafford, Burslem, Barlaston, Betley, Buxton and Crewe RR, who haven’t won the NSSCL. And in some cases, for various reasons, won’t. 

Everybody played everybody once during that 1981 season. The top dozen went into 1A, the rest into 1B, with second teams shadowing them in 2A and 2B respectively. My dad’s club, Little Stoke, finished level on points with another team (I forget which) smack bang in the middle of the table, meaning they had to contest a playoff. It was at Great Chell, funnily enough (maybe the opposition was Great Chell themselves). It was tense. There were several abandonments. Little Stoke engaged the Derbyshire opener (and sometime Staffordshire Academy head coach) Alan Hill as sub-pro. He made quite a few good but ultimately fruitless scores. On one occasion, he stroked 80 and it snowed. It was eventually resolved in the early weeks of October. I forget the result. It’s not important. It’s the exploring-the-massive-pavilion that counts. 

After this first Great Leap Forward, there was an occasional dribble of newcomers, usually the best of the old North Staffs and District League, one of the oldest in the country and the chief casualty of NSSCL expansionism. First it was Audley and Ashcombe Park in the mid-eighties. Next Moddershall got in, then not long after that it was Checkley and Meir Heath, followed by Haslington. 

Audley CC
At some point after that (my history is sketchy and the NSSCL Library has not yet been built), they introduced a one-up one-down backdoor (or trapdoor) entryway to the NSSCL, designed to offer an incentive to the restless, ambitious clubs in NSDL while quelling its officials by preserving the latter’s identity. But NSDL were fighting the historical tide – fighting evolution – and in 2005 the NSSCL expanded to four divisions, split into A and B sections (with the NSDL folding and living on as a midweek competition), which is where we have been, with a few changes in the cast, until the League’s November AGM last year. 

So now we have Milford Hall (who, I’m told, don’t get along with our junior section), Sandbach, and Onneley & Maer to add to the long list of NSSCL clubs. But what do all the new changes amount to? I don’t really know, beyond turning up on a Saturday with enough white clothes not to embarrass yourself by having to wear someone else’s, and trying your best for your team, for your mates... But what this potted history does show us is that Moddershall, for a rural club (I mean, we are not even in a village!), punches far, far above its weight. You only need glance at the list of NSSCL winners over the first 53 years of competition to see that.

11        Longton 
6          Stone 
5          Leek

4          Crewe
3          Audley, Knypersley, Nantwich, Newcastle & Hartshill, Norton, Moddershall
2          Little Stoke   
1          Ashcombe Park, Caverswall, Cheadle, Elworth, Great Chell, Norton-in-Hales, Wood Lane

The four clubs that have won more NSSCL titles than us were all founder members of the League. Crewe’s last title was in 1986, and their next won’t be any time soon. Stone may have won twice as many NSSCL titles as us (boosted by winning the last two year’s Premier Leagues, of course) but they have also played over twice as many seasons (2016, our 27th year in NSSCL, will see us having been members of the league for half its lifespan). 

Of the five other clubs to have won, like us, a trio of titles, four were founder members of the league (and one of them owed two of its titles to the current Moddershall groundsman, on an early-career three-year pro’s assignment), albeit two of those four are no longer NSSCL clubs. The fifth, Audley, an excellent club, joined in 1986, four years before us. That means only Longton has a better “seasons per title” ratio than we do. 



It is a record of which we can be justifiably proud, particularly given that every other club to have won three or more NSSCL titles has a significant population base on its doorstep from which they can draw. Not only that, the absence from the list of clubs with far greater financial resources than Moddershall demonstrates just how difficult it is to win. 

But it is also a record on which we cannot afford to dwell. The league evolves, some clubs prosper, others decline. The only thing that’s permanent is change, as they say. There can be no complacency, no time for feeling sorry for ourselves because a few good players have jumped ship, for one reason or another. 

Given a fair wind, it is within the compass of the present group of 1st XI players and the quickly improving cricketers rising from the junior ranks to ink Moddershall’s name on to that NSSCL roll of honour for a fourth time. And when it happens, it will be the best thing they'll do in local cricket. 


SHIRE BRIGADE #9: STEVEN CROFT


The ninth in the All Out Cricket Shire Brigade series took me to Lancashire. This made it half the counties chalked off on this first lap (assuming it will be recommissioned, and I don't, or even that I'll get to 18), having previously done Notts, Somerset, Northants, Durham, Warwickshire, Kent, Essex and Hampshire. Or Luke Fletcher, Pete Trego, Steven Crook, Colonel Mustard, Ian Westwood, Stevo, Foster and James Tomlinson.  

The obvious choice for Lancs would have been Glenn Chapple, but unfortunately that couldn't be sorted. After that, it seemed as though current skipper Steve Croft would be the most "cult". While he's certainly a fan favourite, I had been warned by a journalist from one of the Lancashire locals that he was hard work as an interviewee, either because he was a bit dull or, more charitably, because he didn't feel he should open up for the press. 

Either way, there wasn't a huge amount of quotable material by the time we'd done. Not that he was a bad stick.... 

Shire Brigade 09: Steven Croft 


 

DARTS AND CRICKET


Darts. The national sport of Stoke-on-Trent. Obligatory to like it, therefore. And like it I do, although a fair bit of it through gritted teeth: the commentary, the walk-ons, those inane fucking chants that never stop

I decided to make it the topic of a Cricinfo article, largely because it was on the TV every day and I'd been down to Ally Pally for a mate's 30th birthday, but also because I could think of four or five darts-and-cricket connections, including the bonkers Fred Trueman-presented TV show The Indoor League, Cook playing (Jimmy, not Bob or Gary) Anderson on TV, Graeme Swann revealing in a questionnaire I sent him what his darts nickname would be, and Freddie Flintoff's commentary when MvG threw a nine-darter in Blackpool. 

In the process of 'researching' the piece, I also discovered that Fred had teamed up with Davina McCall to present a Sky TV gameshow called One Hundred and Eighty. I thought it would be execrable – I mean, it was Davina effin' McCall (and her attempt to do the One Hundred and Eighty call is feeble) – but I found myself getting into it. A lot. Check it out on The YouTube. 

Meanwhile, have a read of this:

T20's Spiritual Brother


 

PAUL HARRIS: GLEANINGS


'Arro. Or Arrow, maybe.

He got some stick from the Poms (especially Boycott). And from the Aussies. But he gave precisely no fucks. He got stuck in. He did a job. He wasn't neurotic. And, given that he played a lot of cricket with Kallis, Smith, Steyn, Boucher, Amla, Morkel et al, he was mighty good fun to chat to: self-effacing without being meek, cheeky without being infantile or too laddish.

That said, if you're going to phone a bad line in South Africa, try not to do it from a bad line in rural England. With the dictaphone too close to the regular phone, creating feedback. Especially if the guy has a really bassy Saffer accent. Because it isn't at all difficult to transcribe that.
Gleanings: Paul Harris



* Thanks to David Fairbrass Jr for sorting it out

SHIRE BRIGADE #8: JAMES TOMLINSON


The first I heard of James Tomlinson was when Moddershall's professional, Imran Tahir signed for Hampshire midway through our 2008 title-winning campaign. Hampshire were struggling at the time and Immy gave them instant cutting edge, taking 12 for 183 on debut, and 44 wickets in seven games, as they avoided relegation from Division One.

But he wasn't the only bowler who did well for them that year. James Tomlinson took 67 wickets with his lively left-arm swingers, the most in the County Championship (either division). He's also a thoroughly nice bloke, as I found out when I had a chat to him for the All Out Cricket Shire Brigade series, which shows off his all-round good-eggedness. 



Shire Brigade 08: James Tomlinson    


 

FLASHING AT FOOTITT


Everyone in cricket remembers the quickest bowlers they faced. The heightened awareness, the sense of limits, the physiological messages that "you shouldn't really be doing this, you're out of your depth".

For me, there are four, plus a couple of others that bowled the odd sharp ball. In chronological order, rather than speedgun, first there was Barrington Browne, the most beautiful bowling action I've ever seen. Then there was Mick Lewis, twitching and spitting and swearing, a man who looked like the guy from Green Day who would go on to bowl the most expensive spell in the history of ODIs. 


The fourth express paceman was Tino Best, a story I've told a few times. But before him, while having a two-year sabbatical from Moddershall with Wollaton in the Notts Premier League, was Mark Footitt, the left-arm quick who carried the drinks and bowled at cones all winter. At 30 years of age, and with next Test tour going to India, Footy is unlikely to get himself a Test cap, especially with Finn and Wood (not to mention Woakes, Jordan and Plunkett) vying for the third seamer's position.

You never know, and a good debut season in Div One with Surrey might convince the selectors to give him a run. It's odds against, mind. And my own experience of playing against him as a raw 21-year-old would suggest that he isn't quite up to scratch.
 

Still, it was fun hearing Footitt stories from one or two old comrades and foes, most of which went into this ESPNcricinfo blog which, again, has a slightly clunky title. I'd have gone for: Fast-Tracked Footitt a Lesson in Perseverance (or a synonym of the last word beginning with 'f').  

'The Cordon': Memories of Mark Footitt's club career