Sunday, 9 November 2014

PETER SIDDLE DIARY


At the beginning of the summer I was contacted by an editor from ESPNcricinfo who told me they were going to launch a high-quality digital magazine, The Cricket Monthly, complete with typeface of the old Cricketer magazine.

He said he'd like to commission me to write a piece, and asked whether I had any suggestions. To be honest, I wasn't sure how straight to play this: after all, my four pieces (including one pending) for The Nightwatchman have covered what Jacques Derrida teaches us about Graham Onions' career-best 9-67, the great Aussie cordon (Healy, Taylor, Waugh, Warne, Waugh), having my foreskin trapped in my box by Dean Headley, and the comparisons between cricket and bullfighting.

I had a few other equally niche ideas, but in the end thought I'd go for something more accessible and mentioned that Notts had signed Peter Siddle for what they at the time thought would be a full season, an increasingly rare thing to get someone of almost top-rank stature for the duration of the summer. I suggested a diary. They liked it.


Notts were pretty good about getting me access to Pete, whom I spoke to on three occasions (I really ought to have tipped up more often at Trent Bridge, but the habitual dogsitting duties kept me out of Nottingham for the first 5 weeks of the season), and it was interesting to track his fortunes over the three months he ended up staying. The editing process wasn't quite so enjoyable, however, with every word agonised over and at least ten versions of the piece sent back to me.

The main problem, it seemed to me, was the lack of clarity over the brief. I suggested some writerly flourishes, some colour, and that sort of tone was OK-ed. However, when it came to editing my submission, many of these flourishes were tweezered out, to my mind devoiding the piece of much of its personality. I had occasion to wonder whether a more established writer would have had to endure the same treatment. I doubted it (the unconscious inclination to intervene would have tempered by the reputation of the writer; idiosyncrasies would be indulged). Then again, without a frame of reference regarding what they were after (TCM hadn't been published when I started), it was difficult to get a proper feel of what they were after, other than through the aforementioned brief.  


Anyway, shits and giggles. It was my most lucrative fixed-fee commission to date. And, after more than a few emails with other sports writers sharing our gripes and grouches, I'm growing ever less concerned by the final piece that the public sees.

Vicious in the Shires



Tuesday, 4 November 2014

ON THE BIAS OF UMPIRES

During the course of my largely unsuccessful attempt to draw Peter Willey into discussing some of the subtler aspects of umpiring – the editor thought that since he was no longer on the ICC payroll he might give it both barrels about various issues – I researched an article, on changing trends in the prevalence of lbw decisions, by Douglas Miller (a committee member at Bucks and someone who'd helped me a lot with my research on a Minor Counties book I'm working on) for the Association of Cricket Statisticians and Historians.

Despite Willey giving most of my questions short shrift, eventually forcing me to abandon the specialist 'Talking Cricket' interview and incorporate the better quotes into his Gleanings, I was able to use the research in a blog for ESPNcricinfo's The Cordon about umpiring bias, a slightly provocative title and an opportunity to have a pop at some of the ice-cream men who have brought frustration to my cricketing days. Not all of them, I hasten to add –and most of the ones that did were decent sports in the bar.


I emailed the article to Douglas, an umpire himself, and his reply was exquisite: "I wish it were a fable that an umpire puts himself at risk when giving a captain out, but it isn’t! For myself, I just wish I was a better decision-maker. In the end that is key to success. I am off to our Thames Valley dinner tonight, where I shall see some who were out, some who should have been given out but weren’t and some who shouldn’t but were – but none of us will be sure in which category they lie!"

The Bias of Umpires



Monday, 3 November 2014

PETER WILLEY: GLEANINGS


Taciturn. I didn't expect much else. Peter Willey is not someone you imagine using five hundred words where five will do. All fine, of course, except it can make the interview process difficult.

Ask him to speak about a subject other than himself, mind, and the words flowed (I suspect he would be better company face to face, with a beer in hand, than talking to a disembodies voice down the telephone). 


Again, you imagine him being someone of forthright, if not trenchant opinions. He was that, and, once warmed up, he also offered plenty of pithy, economical observations on his own career, which encompassed 26 Test matches, 15 against the dominant West Indies teams of the mid-70s to mid-80s. He also played in the famous victory at Headingley in 1981, the third member of that team I've interviewed after Bob taylor and Chris Old (not sure Botham, Gower, Boycott, Brearley, Willis, Gooch or Gatting are going to be quite so easy to persuade...).   

However, despite his reputation, I had intended doing a two-in-one interview (as I had with Jason Gillespie, Bob Taylor, Jimmy Adams and Gus Fraser): not just a breeze through his career for ESPNcricnfo's Gleanings, but also a chat focussed on umpiring for Talking Cricket.

I prepared several questions – on whether it was advantageous to be an ex-player; on DRS and its trickle down effect on lbw decisions and dissent; on dealing with mistakes; on over-rates, chucking, bad light; on the ICC and India; on whether he practised his 'out' signal before starting* – and didn't really get enough to warrant a separate piece. So, I amalgamated the best lines with the Gleanings. 


* NB: the best of the quotes that didn't make the final cut was probably the one in response to this, the most frivolous question (and thus the one I thought he'd think me the biggest wally for asking). His reply: "I never practised my ‘out’ signal. My first first-class game was at Cambridge University and I had five lbws before lunch. Ray Julien was at square leg spitting blood because I was 5-0 up. I gave a couple of them out right-handed because I had a sore shoulder, and it didn’t feel right. I didn’t get the same satisfaction". 

 

Sunday, 2 November 2014

ASHWELL PRINCE: GLEANINGS


As I may previously have mentioned, whenever I'm out and about at county cricket matches – often without any good (monetary) reason to be there – I'm usually on the look-out for potential interview targets. 

Recently, while at Aigburth in Liverpool (pictured), Lancashire's main out ground, trying to complete a commission about Peter Siddle's (truncated) season with Nottinghamshire for ESPNcricinfo's new digital magazine The Cricket Monthly, I asked Lancs' press officer if I could chat with Ashwell Prince, the biggest name in their side (aside, possibly, from Jos Buttler, but centrally-contracted players are almost never worth chatting to unless you want bland corporate-speak). 

He was great fun – surprisingly so, given many Saffers' tendency to oversimplify cricketing things – and the eventual Gleanings piece was one of may favourites, especially since its publication coincided with what was supposed to be his last ever game of professional cricket. He has since back-tracked and agreed to play one more year for his adopted, relegated county. Not sure the missus will be happy! 

I was slightly surprised, however, that my editor at cricinfo decided not to go with the following quote, saying it sounded like "one long attempt at setting the record straight". Well, yes, exactly! Anyway, it was an interesting insight into how he felt hard done by at probably the height of his powers. 

2008 was a very successful year for myself. Then, on the Australia tour, I broke my thumb in the last practice session on the eve of the First Test – Makhaya Ntini bowled one on a length and it just took off. I missed the series, South Africa won, JP Duminy did well, and before I left Australia Mickey Arthur said to me: “Look, you’re one of my main men. When your thumb has healed, you’ll go straight back into the team”. It came to the return series in South Africa, my thumb had healed, but in between there was a change of convenor of selectors. Apparently, I’m led to believe, all selection was taken out of Mickey Arthur’s hands. I was left out of the first two Tests and, by the third, Neil McKenzie had lost some form and Graeme Smith had broken a bone in his hand, so Mike Procter rang me up and said: “I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is you’re playing, and we want you to captain. The bad news is you have to open the batting”. I rang him back and said: “Obviously, I’m happy to be back in the team, but if I’m captaining the team, I’m batting in my normal position”. They wouldn’t accept those terms and chose a new captain instead. Afterwards, it came out that, because I’d been made a makeshift opener, I wanted to concentrate on that. But that wasn’t the case.  

Here's the full interview: Ashwell Prince: Gleanings 


 


Saturday, 1 November 2014

CHELTENHAM LITERATURE FESTIVAL

Last month I was invited to the Cheltenham Literature Festival by The Nightwatchman, for whom I'd written three fairly eclectic pieces the first about what Graham Onions' career-best 9 for 57 could teach us about the 'deconstructionist' philosophy of Jacques Derrida (or vice versa); the next about the great Aussie cordon of Healy, Taylor, Waugh M, Warne and, in the gully, Waugh S; the latest about having my penis trapped in my box by Dean Headley — with a couple more in the offing: about cricket's 'connection' with bullfighting and the Minor Counties' matches in the old Benson and Hedges Cup.

I was just as thrilled to meet Jon Hotten, aka 'The Old Batsman' [click here for an example of the man's talents], as I was about the prospect of bumping into various literary heroes: Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Kevin Pietersen...

Jon was chairing proceedings in the Waitrose / Nightwatchman tent, diligently mentioning the sponsor's name at the start of each session, expertly deflecting the intrusive interjections of one or two northern folk in dutiful attendance who seemed particularly keen to steal the, ahem, limelight from whoever it was talking. Apparently, there is no subject sufficiently esoteric for it not to be brought back to a tale about the Yorkshire League. The only thing that really kept 'Steve' quiet were the plentiful jam tarts and gourmet nuts on offer from Waitrose.

Anyway, I was there for a little over 24 hours, only attended one session that wasn't in our stall, but had a grand old time drinking and chewing the fat. I wrote a short piece about it all over on my (much neglected) non-cricket blog, Motionless Voyage, which I reproduce here because I'm essentially a very lazy person.  



AMIS IS AS GOOD AS A MILE 

It was an interesting experience at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, where the highlight of my talk — I was chucked a bit of a hospital pass by the organisers: “Cricket, the perfect sport for a spot of philosophy” — was being interrupted by a bumptious Yorkshireman (is there any other sort?), who, shortly after I’d told the not especially philosophical tale of getting my foreskin trapped in my box by Dean Headley when I was 16 years old, barked: “What’s your best cricket story? You tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine…”
 
On the upside, I went to (my writing hero) Martin Amis’s Q&A in the main tent, The Times Forum. He was talking about his new Auschwitz novel, The Zone of Interest, telling several hundred guests that “the black hole in Hitler Studies was his sexuality” and speculating that he was “probably a pervert rather than asexual. Maybe a coprophile”. I was due to ask the next question from the floor when the session was ended — good job, probably, as my heart felt like I was just coming up on a steroid overdose.

An hour later, having told my colleagues from the Waitrose / Nightwatchman stand what my question would have been while guzzling the complementary wine a bit too unselfconsciously, Amis walked into the writers’ hospitality lounge (out of my line of sight) and was momentarily stood alone. “Go and ask Martin Amis your question, Scott” said the editor, Matt. After a moment’s thought (about the same length of time I used to take at school when persuaded, or goaded, into doing the sort of idiotic though entertaining stunts that regularly got me put on daily report), I said, “alright then”.

“Hi Martin. So, I was going to ask you the next question when your session was wound up earlier.”

“Fire away”.

“Yeah, I was fascinated by what you were saying about the War being lost from 1941 and Hitler essentially spending the rest of it punishing the German people for their shortcomings. I once heard a definition of fascism as ‘a manic attack by the body politic against itself, in the name of its own salvation’. Does that chime with your knowledge of Nazi Germany? And, if so, was the average German complicit in that self-destructive delirium?”

He took a couple of steps away from me and put down his glass of wine. My ‘crew’ thought he was abandoning the conversation — and you couldn’t really have blamed him — but he then pivoted back and, after a beat, said: “Well, that definition might take some time for me to absorb, but there was definitely a lustful frisson [immaculately pronounced] in their administration of petty cruelties. They knew what they were up to, alright”. Then someone much more important and much less earnest than me caught his attention, and he was off air-kissing some Camilla or Priscilla in a Chanel suit.

I returned to the table, and received a small and un-ironic round of applause. “Did you take a photo of that, Matt?” “I didn’t, mate. I was too much in awe”. “No worries”, I said, secretly crestfallen. “But I’ve got to say, your body language was strong: hands in pockets, relaxed shoulders…”

Then Dame Judy Dench walked in. Heads turned. I had nothing for her, so went and got some more wine.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

THE OLD WICKETKEEPER


One of my favourite cricket writers is Jon Hotten, perhaps better known as The Old Batsman. I was fortunate enough to meet Jon at The Cheltenham Literature Festival a few weeks back, where he chaired the talk I was asked to give on cricket as the perfect sport for a spot of philosophy. Needless to say, we sized up the audience (such as it was) and decided that a better avenue was telling a few yarns, all the while shoehorning in the odd vaguely philosophical reminder here and there.

Both John and I contributed to the October edition of The Cricket Monthly, ESPNcricinfo's new digital magazine. My piece was a (painstakingly edited) diary of Peter Siddle's season with Nottinghamshire, while Jon pondered the ever-changing role of the wicketkeeper. 


I have chosen two extracts from the latter that illustrate Jon's masterly writing, its economy, elegance and snap. The first spins a wry yarn about an old wicketkeeper with whom he shared a dressing room, the second shows off his characteristic acuity at spotting emerging trends in the game, charting its evolutionary direction.

* * *

The concept of the club kitbag has almost died out now, in an age where gear is marketed, coveted and fetishised, but back then most sides had a couple of guys who weren't bothered about owning equipment of their own and who were happy to delve around in the club bag for a pair of mismatched pads, some sweat-stained gloves, maybe a mildewed thigh pad they could use and chuck back at the end of the day.

Within this particular club bag it lay, cold and ancient. A stitched-in manufacturer's label described it as an "abdominal guard" but that hardly did it justice. It looked like something Henry V wore to Agincourt, a great tin codpiece attached to a wide, padded V-shaped belt that had to be stepped into like a jockstrap and then secured around the waist with a couple of long ties.

It was universally known as "Cyril's Box" after the only man who would (or could) wear it, the 1st team wicketkeeper, Cyril. He was a remarkable man, mid-fifties, squat, powerful, with giant, hooked hands permanently ingrained with grease. I never discovered what it was that Cyril did for a living, but it was some kind of hard physical labour that had produced both great strength and admirable stoicism. He rarely said anything. Instead he turned up in the dressing room every Saturday, stripped off his street clothes, retrieved the box from wherever he had thrown it the week before, strapped himself in, pulled the rest of his gear over it and walked out onto the pitch.

Like the young Rod Marsh, Cyril had iron gloves. The ball often used to fly off them at tremendous speed, accompanied on crucial occasions by a muttered oath. He'd sometimes stand up to the opening bowlers, usually without explanation, and it was then that the abdominal guard earned its corn. The ball would smack Cyril in the vital area and then ricochet away with a metallic clang. On one occasion a batsman was caught at second slip direct from Cyril's box and the game took a while to restart: several people were actually crying with laughter; Cyril wasn't one of them.

After a match Cyril would silently remove his box, sometimes pushing out a dent with a thick thumb. He'd get changed back into his street clothes and then wander up to the pub, his love for the game expressed perfectly and eloquently in the slow satisfaction of his walk.

* * *

It would be easy to see this [keepers picked on batting ability] as the future of wicketkeeping forever, and yet cricket is never still. I would suggest that it's in T20s, where the keeper's role looks the most disposable, that the change may come.

The thought began to form as Hampshire, my county, had a glorious little run with the white ball, one that brought them two domestic one-day cups and two T20 titles. These rewards seemed at odds with the ability of the team, who were financially outgunned by far richer counties and lacked a box-office overseas performer. What they had, though, was a very particular method, especially at their home, the Rose Bowl, where wickets were low and skiddy. They used lots of medium pace and flat spin and choked the life out of big-hitting teams. As the tactic developed, their remarkable young wicketkeeper, Michael Bates, became central, often standing up to the stumps for most of the innings.

What Hampshire had hit on was simply an equation of resources. T20 is a game for specialisation, because unlike Tests and ODIs, those resources are rarely exhausted in the time allocated.

At the start of each game, the wicketkeeper is the only specialist position guaranteed to be able to affect a minimum 50% of the match while using his primary skill (the 20 overs for which they keep). A bowler has 10% (four of 40 overs), the two opening batsmen an unlikely maximum of 50%, the other batsmen a sliding downward scale from there.

The wicketkeeping position can therefore be reimagined as an attacking option. It's an opportunity to reduce the effectiveness of the batsman by keeping him in his crease against seam bowling, thus reducing his scoring options. While it's hard to quantify exactly how many runs might be saved by a gloveman capable of standing up to the seamers, it is a move that would challenge many of the techniques of T20 batting. It might not be fanciful to guess that the score might be limited by 20 to 30 runs per innings, at least until batsmen adjust in turn.

It was easy to go into some kind of reverie when watching Bates; he brought back memories of Taylor standing up to Botham, of the impish skills of Knott, the silken hands of Russell.

These men were a different shape to the gym-produced, identikit bodies that burst forth from the tight-shirted present. The demands of the job mitigate against the physique needed for power-hitting, and a specialist wicketkeeper might have to be regarded a little like a bowler, with his main contribution coming in the field. But without running the stats, it would be interesting to know how often the seventh batsman has done the job when six others couldn't.

At the time of Hampshire's successes there was much talk of Sarah Taylor, England Women's sublimely talented wicketkeeper, playing a match for Sussex 2nds. While mixed sides may be counterproductive to both the men's and women's games in the long run, a talent like Taylor's would fit well into a T20 game, where her batting would be less relevant.

Hampshire dropped Bates when they signed Adam Wheater, who is a better batsman. Many, including me, were sad to see it happen, because watching Bates was a reminder of what an electrifying skill wicketkeeping can be.

Wonderful writing.

Friday, 26 September 2014

ANGUS FRASER: GLEANINGS


Angus Fraser is not an easy man to contact, not even when you have his email address and mobile phone number. This much the Middlesex press officer told me: "You're best off coming through me", he said, after I'd mentioned making several attempts to nudge Gus from 'provisional agreement' to an interview to 'definite time and place'. "He's terrible with stuff like that".

Luckily, he's not terrible at giving up his time and offering his opinions on the game. Thus, as his Middlesex team played the Indians in a warm-up for the recent ODI series, we sat in a corporate box in the grandstand at Lord's and watched the action unfold. Over the course of 1 hour and 40 minutes – much longer than he'd anticipated, although not once did he give off an air of impatience or irritation, not even when fielding a call from Mike Atherton an hour or so in – we went back over his career, and even found time to do an interview-within-an-interview, chatting about his transition from player to journalist [forthcoming on cricinfo].

Here's the chat: "I spent 95% of my career bowling the same ball"


Oh, and after it had been published, he emailed back. "Very good. Enjoyed it". He can switch his computer on, pretty essential for a former journalist, I'd guess. 

Post-script: The interview, rather touchingly, was selected by The Guardian for their 'Our Favourite Things this Week', the third piece of mine to have been so chosen, after a stupid post about the top 10 goalies in world football having names beginning with Z (only chosen because of a brilliant caricature I had commissioned) and the story of Imran Tahir's 2008 heroics for Moddershall, published by Wisden India under the title, 'The Where Pitch Project'.