Tuesday, 31 May 2011


badger in sett

Owing to the non-availability of Mummy Babs Cabs™ to ferry me to Trent Bridge for Day 2, a two-part bus journey was required on the Friday, me all-too-mindful that using public transport beyond – well beyond – the age of 27 made me, according to a perhaps-apocryphal observation of our former PM, Maggie Thatcher, “a failure”. The Iron Lady wasn’t – she once told us – “for turning”, and neither, usually, is the Trent Bridge strip, which consistently offers the sort of copious swing and nibble you might only see at a Tony Bennett soirée.

For the second day running, I arrived late – a little too late to see the demise of Franks (not the Franks, which was around the 9th Century AD), middle pole flattened by Isle of Wight-ite, David Griffiths, who, offering no width at all, was bowling absolute bombs during an opening burst of 4-3-1-2 (coincidentally, a formation that also offers no width at all, favoured by recent-vintage AC Milan teams). Alex Hales played-and-missed at his first five balls as the squat Griffiths, from an energetic run-up, combined the virtue of a probing line and length with late swing and good heat, thudding the new cherry into the wicket-keeper’s gloves very hard indeed – most impressive. Incidentally, Hampshire’s ’keeper for the morning was (possibly ex-) Notts Academy player Adeel Shafique, deputising for Nic Pothas (who had a calf strain) while Hants were awaiting the arrival of reserve ’keeper Michael Bates from the south coast, no easy task with the M1 closed and Rod Bransgrove reluctant, it can only be surmised, to offer Bates use of the private chopper.

Adeel Shafique and the Hants 'hippos': © Getty Images

The rest of Hampshire’s bowling was distinctly underwhelming. Dominic Cork looked as though the years were starting to catch up with him, bowling arm approaching two o’clock, ‘nip’ a distant memory, the bluster and theatrics increasingly desperate. At the risk of writing off the archetypal Player You Should Not Write Off, I’m going to write off my fellow Stokie and predict that giving him the Championship captaincy might prove problematical for the selectors and team morale as the season wears on and Hants get all their bowlers fit. In addition to Cork and Griffiths, we had the sight of Kolpak player Freidel de Wet skipping in off a longish run that interspersed short, shuffling running steps with a couple of graceful, springbok-style, gravity-defying bounds. De Wet’s pace was a good yard slower than Griffiths’s, however, and, more pertinently, he only brought the ball back in to the right-handers (albeit demolishing Alex Hales’ leg stick in that manner). Other options – confined to the treatment table – were former England Test bowlers Kabir Ali and Simon Jones, as well as Dimi Mascarenhas. There was also the left-arm swing of James Tomlinson, leading wicket-taker in the country three seasons ago; the promising Matthew Wood; and the perennial reserve David Balcombe. Then you had all-rounder Sean Ervine’s seamers. On top of that, South African leggie Imran Tahir is sure to play when he arrives and, should conditions merit playing two spinners, they have talented young prospect Danny Briggs to call on, too. To my mind, Cork probably ought not figure in their best XI and, perhaps, the captaincy ought to have been given to Jimmy Adams, say. 

Anyway, with lunch approaching for the players, the scribes were, of course, deep into their nosh: fish, chips and mushy peas seemed a favourite option, although I enjoyed yesterday’s Samit Pie so much that I took the steak and ale option today – carrots, broccoli, sweet potato and roast potato expiating my pastry guilt. The standard of catering on offer again drew throaty, awed plaudits in the press box, some of which were committed to copy: David Hopps seemed especially keen to smuggle into his lunchtime communiqué with the blogosphere as many food-related puns as possible in order to sum up the oft-debated attitude of notorious salad dodger, Samit Patel, regarding an international career that appears less enticing to the man than, say, a family-size boxes of Maltesers. Thus, posting prior to start of play, on his way down from Leeds, the thought of watching Samit bat is a “mouthwatering prospect”; his form would offer the selectors “food for thought” (Paul Bolton using the same phrase in The Telegraph); while his chancy innings contained a “large slice of fortune.”

Samit Patel: © Getty Images

As I tucked into the mouthwatering prospect that was presented by my large slice of pie, David Fulton, fresh from his vox pop on the upper slopes of the Radcliffe Road Stand, engaged the esteemed men of the press box in the frankly überdachs* game of naming a Ginger XI and Rotund XI from the county game, with only one overseas permitted. Kevin O’Brien made both teams, so it’s hoped they weren’t scheduled to play one another...

Anyway, it was amidst this intellectual hot-housing that a most serendipitous occurrence took place. Earlier that morning, fortuitously remembering Gerry’s keenness to acquire a copy of the photo of Paul bowling at The Parks, Oxford, from 2003, I had checked April’s Wisden Cricketer for the copyright holder – one Graham Morris, as it happens. So, who should sit down for lunch directly in front of me, next to Richard Hobson, carrying a gigantic telephoto lens? “Mozzer”, that’s who, a sobriquet that may or may not have applied to Graham Morris, and given my experience with Simon Vincent the previous day, I didn’t want to be too presumptuous. Thus, I had someone confirm Mozzer’s identity, asked this man if he was absolutely sure, finished my cheesecake (with maraschino cherries), then introduced myself to Mozzer and told him of the coincidence (one to rival, to my mind at least, Mark Twain and Halley’s comet). I asked him for an email address or phone number and told him he should expect prompt contact from a man keen to buy a copy of the image, whereupon Graham told me he wouldn’t “hear of it” and said he would email them over to me “in a minute”.

Oxford University vs Middlesex, The Parks, 2003: © Graham Morris

So, this photo I acquired for Gerry (above) – since framed and given pride of place chez McMahon – was of a man known in some circles as “Boffin,” someone certainly usually abreast – often one step ahead – of events on the cricketing circuit. As you can see, in the foreground of the shot were a smattering of Badgers extraordinaires, ham sandwiches perfectly symmetrical, flasks poised – you know they are Badgers, as opposed to mere spectators, because they are watching Oxford versus one of the counties; the über-Badger tends to scorn regular County Championship matches, preferring instead to watch the 2nd XI Championship or other such fourth- or fifth-tier cricket: you know, Captain Fake-Erection’s XI versus the Navy, that sort of thing. And the person who acquired this shot of über-Badgers watching an arch-badger found himself in the playground of your rank-and-file badgers, badgering (old sense) a photographer as a result of having pulled off an extraordinary piece of badgering (new sense) by even spotting it was Paul in the photo. 

Not many forward-defensives into the afternoon session, David Hopps – who I’d since learned had won the Sports Council/Sports Writers’ Association Sports Reporter of the Year in 1993, no less – found a window to offer me a somewhat bonfire-dousing micturation of a post-prandial lowdown on why the odds were heavily stacked against me cracking it as a cricket writer/reporter (I didn’t want to tell him that I wasn’t hoping to ‘restrict’ myself to cricket writing for fear of sounding too ungrateful). In essence, he explained that the financial decline of the print version of his paper was sharper than the upturn of The Guardian online, which in any case no-one was particularly sure how to turn a profit with. The Times had put up a paywall, after all, with the jury still out on its success. He also told me that cricket reporting was difficult to get into with training, let alone without; indeed, he only knew of three people to have come in to the Grauniad and gone straight to cricket reporting [unfortunately, he didn’t tell me whom]. So, fewer outlets – that pay cash-money, that is – for the aspirant cricket writer plus a reduced circulation equalled a prognosis bleaker than the sky that would again take us off in mid-afternoon. Gloom. And doom-and-gloom. I found myself a window and briefly contemplated throwing myself from it.

Perhaps prompted to seek out a change of scenery after Hopps’s doomsday soothsaying, maybe looking just for a bit of atmosphere or fresh air, I popped outside for a wander through the swathes of empty white plastic seats.

© Graham Morris

Gate figures have not been released, but I’d guess there were around 1,500 in on Day 1 – a colony of badgers – and maybe half that number the day after. Even in these far from needle-and-haystack conditions, trying to find members of the crowd who (a) were fully compos mentis, (b) didn't have a combover, and (c) had no morcels of food on their garments, was a struggle. Up here on the top tier with the gods and the clouds, I looked down at the sprinkling of non-communicating – perhaps engrossed – characters, the Badgers’s Sett, and wondered: is it possible to be simultaneously in a crowd and lonely? Some of the thousand-yard stares of these men, their askance expressions, the suggestion of a dialogue with themselves, the dandruff-flecked baseball caps, the lopsided position of rest in which their indeterminate grin/grimace – it all spoke of loneliness, dereliction. Or perhaps they were perfectly content, perfectly sane, and these were projections and prejudices of mine...

Nottinghamshire fans mill around during a break in play...

Back in the ‘aquarium’, the mood had perked up on account of the arrival of the light, buttery afternoon scones, on to which we would all dollop whipped cream and strawberry jam. Mmmm. Soon the skies cleared and the players re-appeared (they had been off for a rain break); maybe the improvement in the weather was causally related to this quintessential summer snack... Anyway, Notts came out firing and, to paraphrase an utterly illogical cliché beloved of football commentators, I don’t know what the coach said in there during the break, but it evidently worked. This sprightly partnership between ex-Moddershallite, Samit Patel (a career of only 10 overs), and another ex-Wollaton man, Chris Read (albeit for one game, in which he was dismissed, famously, by a guy bowling in black trainers), added 90 from the first 13 overs after the resumption; Hampshire were ragged, with catches being spilled left, right and centre. In fact, the standard of fielding was surprisingly village, rustiness offering the sole mitigation (for a generous judge, none of whom were to be found in the press box).

Although Notts’ outfielding looked laboured, the batting and bowling nonetheless appeared decent, despite them being shorn of the bobbing copper ringlets and feisty penetration of Ryan Sidebottom. As for Hampshire, it wouldn’t have mattered who they had bowling: the slips were grassing absolutely everything. In fact, so many catches went down that those pressmen obliged to convey the facts of the day’s events to their readers had something of a stretch recalling them all. What with the Internet surfing, the chit-chat, the nipping out for private phone calls, the canteen visits and whatnot, it became obvious that a good deal of the game actually goes unwatched – and although there are three flatscreen TVs hinged to the wall here, the four-day county game isn’t something that is covered live all that often, so there were no replays to bail out the inattentive reporters.

What, then, are they to do when faced with this eventuality? Well, before delivering to you my Pulitzer-winning exposé of how they skirt around this problem – my first scoop – I should mention that this foray into the journalists’ world was not my first first of the week, but my second first; the first first of the week was giving an academic conference paper [slightly ashamed to admit that, given that my PhD took the best part of a decade]. The paper was presented at the Association of Hispanists of Great Britain and Ireland (the acronymically ugly AHGBI), and was catchily entitled ‘The Text as Desiring-Machine: Minoritarian History in Tomás Eloy Martínez’s La novela de Perón’ [The Perón Novel]. In layman’s terms, it explored the truism that “History is written by winners”; that historical truth is never – with due respect to Martin Luther King – self-evident, but actually part of what French thinker Michel Foucault called “a regime of truth”, constructed by power and desire…

In the novel, the 76-year-old Juan Domingo Perón – following 18 years of political exile, mainly spent in Spain – is a week away from returning to Argentina (in June 1973) and de facto power: his historical vindication. With a social and political crisis to be sorted and with age hurrying him toward his grave, he is spending every spare moment writing memoirs (a key component in his regime of truth). In this labour of remembering and self-mythologization he is being aided by his private secretary, José López Rega – a Rasputin-like weirdo widely known as el brujo (“the sorcerer”) who is keen for this text to be the “missing cross on the Peronist Church”.

López Rega (left) and Perón

However, the author of the novel, Tomas Eloy Martínez, is equally keen to create a counter-myth, to take some marble off the portrait, as it were, and decides to concentrate on the apparently banal, domestic setting ‘backstage’ to the Great Man or Great Events of History, taking one or two minor liberties in order to be more truthful (an ambivalent “non-fiction novel”). To this end, Eloy Martínez appears in the novel as a character – more precisely, as an investigative journalist digging around certain contentious historical facts (the Memoirs of Perón’s that are woven into the novel are in fact almost entirely based on real interviews conducted by the author with Perón in the early 1970s). Wary of Eloy Martínez’s probing, López Rega spells out the riskiness of the situation for Perón’s historical reputation in a beautiful passage that dramatizes this notion of history being written by “winners” – or, at least, by the powerful.

So, the narrative has López play Perón a tape recording from the interviews conducted with Eloy (fictional and real events converging at the point where Eloy’s minoritarian history crosses paths with Perón’s major history); specifically, the section in which Perón discusses his much-debated part in the country’s first ever (successful) military coup d’état in 1930:
“Do you realize, General?” López turns off the tape recorder. “It’s easy to lose one’s sense of direction trying to follow all that zigzagging. On the one hand, you say you were one of the first to join the coup. On the other hand, it’s not at all clear whether you were a revolutionary by deliberate choice or by chance, whether President Yrigoyen aroused your compassion or your respect. I have also found out that Eloy Martínez is threatening to publish a photograph of you taken on September 6, 1930, arriving at Government House on the running board of Uriburu’s car, with a triumphant smile. Martínez isn’t a problem. We’ll give him a good scare and that’ll be the end of that. The documents can disappear, can be destroyed. That doesn’t cause me any concern. What I want is for you to choose just one version of the facts. Just one: any one will do.”
The General now lets out a guffaw. “Set your mind at ease, man. Was that all that was bothering you? Let’s see what’s what. If I’ve become a leading figure in history at different times, it was because I contradicted myself. You’ve already heard what Schlieffen’s strategy was. One must change plans several times a day and put them forward one at a time, when we have need of them. The socialist fatherland? I invented it. The conservative fatherland? I’m keeping it alive. I have to turn with the wind, in every direction, like a weathercock. And never retract a statement, but instead put various pronouncements together. What seems inappropriate today may serve us tomorrow. Mud and gold, mud and gold… And the more legends people add to my life, the richer I am and the more weapons I can count on to defend myself. Leave everything exactly as it is. What I’m aiming at isn’t a statue but something greater. Getting the upper hand over history. Grabbing it by the ass.”
OK, OK, but what’s the point you’re labouring over?, you are no doubt thinking. Well, I was still basking in the satisfaction of having simply attended an academic conference (even if it was on my doorstep), let alone given a paper at one, when the experience of Day 2 in the press box alerted me to an actual instance of this shaky relationship between the great mute rumble of historical events in reality, and their putting-into-writing – into newspapers, as facts, let’s not forget. Like Eloy Martínez, I became “aware of historical Reason”...

As I said, large swathes of a County Championship game go unheeded by individual scribes and there’s no TV bail-out. So, in this instance, the press corps effectively form a multi-eyed organism, a politburo who reach internal agreement on the facts (“was that 6 or 7 catches down? What are we going with?”) that are to go in their copy. It doesn’t matter whether these facts are true, so much as that there’s a consensus. OK, it’s not exactly a ‘crime’ on a par with misreporting – or worse, not reporting – the political “disappearances” of 10,000 or more so-called “subversives” during Argentina’s brutal Dirty War (a process largely began by López Rega and his paramilitary death squad, the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance, or Triple A) but it’s an interesting manipulation of the documentation of reality nonetheless.

'los desaparecidos'

As the day’s play drew to a close and my interview with Mick Newell approached, I received a final, interesting lesson in how print media works. Hopps was in frequent discussions with his editor over which of the three games being covered would provide the meatiest story for the main report. Samit Patel’s 100 and imperceptible, non-quantifiable weight-loss, interesting as it was, carried less, erm, weight, or newsworthiness, so Hopps believed, than the comeback 5-fer taken by Lily Allen’s crush, Graham Onions. Thus, the copy he was required to produce was reduced by 250 words. And so the world turns. (It was important for Hopps to maintain good working relations with his editor, if only because he was busy trying to negotiate as many Saturdays off work as possible in order to play for his club!!)

Anyway, over I went to interview the refreshingly candid Newell for the mighty Leftlion. He was playing cricket on the outfield with his young son, a special moment not to be interrupted, it seemed. Unsure of the protocol, I shuffled around like a goober awhile, hoping the Press Officer would intercede and arrange things, before being told that he’d meet me back over in the press box. We got down to it; my part of the interview was conducted in a semi-whisper, for fear that my line of questioning would appear banal and slightly idiotic to the scribes as they put the ink on tomorrow’s chip paper. 

Mick Newell: © Nottingham Evening Post

With the tête-à-tête done, off I sloped home, thinking to myself that, for all the tales of money shortages and lack of opportunity, there were far worse ways to while away the hours than watching (the Badgers watching) the great County Championship. OK, it’s slow-paced compared to IPL. There are no cheerleaders and fireworks, no razzmatazz, no Citibank Moments of Success, Maxx Mobile Strategic Time-Outs, or Karbon Kemall Catches; then again, there are no Citibank Moments of Success, Maxx Mobile Strategic Time-Outs, or Karbon Kemall Catches, and we should be grateful for small mercies.


(a) The first part of this report can be read here.

(b) Given that the events described in this piece took place 6 weeks ago now, and that blogging ought to be fairly current, s
ome of the cynical and/or cruel among you might now be jumping to entirely false conclusions as to why it took me so long to hand in my PhD thesis. I've already told you about that... 

(c) * überdachs: a neologism combining the German prefix equivalent to the Latin ‘ultra’ with dachs, or ‘badger’: ultra-badger.


the badger's sett, cropston

Four-day county cricket may get a bad rap from time to time – on account of such trifles as it not being profitable or attracting paying punters – but it is still, for better or for worse, the bedrock of the English game. That being so, it would seem odd that a lifelong cricketer and cricket-lover – albeit a shortish life (thus far) and (perhaps) an ex-player – had spent but a solitary day of his existence in attendance of County Championship cricket (at Derbyshire vs. Nottinghamshire, 1990, if you must know). This statistic wouldn’t exactly be suggestive of an enduring passion. Positively negligent, you might say. After all, I have donned the (incrementally expanding) whites on maybe seven- or eight-hundred occasions – which you simply don’t do as an uncommitted, toe-dipping dabbler – and I’ve always kept half an eye on the county scores, especially since t’Internet made them so readily accessible. However, as I say, up to 14 April 2011, I had only watched three measly sessions – long, tedious sessions at that – of our great County Championship.

a badger surveys the scene (© Nottingham Evening Post)
Thus it was with the kind of spring-heeled excitement that only the true, scorebook-keeping, wireless-hugging Badgers of the county circuit must regularly feel that I descended upon Nottinghamshire’s magnificent Trent Bridge ground to witness the opening day of their defence of the County Championship, a title secured on the final, belatedly sun-dappled afternoon of the season in Manchester, when nails were being chewed, dressing rooms paced, clocks and clouds and scoreboards from elsewhere scrutinized intently, and Notts sneaked home courtesy of having one more victory than Somerset, the still Championship-less rivals with whom they finished level on points. It was another ambitious southern Club they were welcoming today: arriviste underachievers Hampshire, whose Rose Bowl ground will this year become the ninth Test venue in England (and Wales), putting them in competition with Notts in both the paddock and the boardroom.

Collecting my Press Pass – text and elegant leaping stag logo in Lincoln green, of course – from the Ticket Collection Point on Bridgford Road, and only slightly regretting that this wasn’t the 1930s and that I didn’t need to slip this docket into the silk band of a natty grey trilby, I wandered through the main gates and round the back of where the old Parr Stand (now simply called the New Stand) once stood, emerging to see both sets of players going through their final warm-ups. The distinctive thwack of leather on willow echoed off the largely empty stands, a great contrast to the ambient hugger-mugger of a Test match morning, anticipatory hum and buzz fuelled by the oh-go-on-then, special-occasion abandon of those pre-opening hour, pre-toss fizzy looseners.

Making an anti-clockwise visual sweep of the ground through fingerprint-smeared specs, I took in the huge new electronic screen, the famous old Members’ Pavilion, the Hound and Fox Road Stands, floodlights, Nottinghamshire County Council’s the tower block (Trent Bridge House) looming over the old scoreboard, round to the well-appointed, functional, impressive sand-coloured Radcliffe Road Stand, whose first-floor would provide my home for the day. It was 10.40am and an announcement came over the tannoy that Notts had won the toss and would be bowling – still standard for Trent Bridge in April, despite this being far and away the balmiest curtain-raiser that any of the scribes could remember.

Everything was going swimmingly – too well, in fact. In an overly vigorous effort to remove the grease smudges from my lenses, I managed to push them straight out of the frames. The pair of stalwart Hampshire Badgers who had made their way up from Andover were split as to what I should do to rectify this emergency, although neither seemed particularly inclined either to look at, or talk to, me when proffering their suggestions, in that overly shouty way of the deranged. Reluctant to try and find a Lilliputian screwdriver to fix the frame back around the lens, I stomped back round to the cheery stewards at main gate, acquired a pass-out, and schlepped the five minutes up the road to West Bridgford High Street where a kindly assistant at Vision Express fixed me. By the time I was back at The Bridge, two overs had been bowled – enough time to lose a match, but not win it. 

Sweeping along the sun-starved bowels of the Radcliffe Road Stand, through the automatic doors, and up to the first floor, I entered the pristine and spacious 92-berth press box (a straw poll would later reveal that it was regarded as the best on the circuit among the pressmen), slipped into a chair at the back (it reminded me of many a lecture theatre, accessed this way, from the highest level), pulled out my laptop, connected it to the electricity juice machine, and got online, keeping a self-consciously low profile as I familiarized myself with my strange new milieu. It felt like my first day at school, without the wedgie.

room with a view 

Breezing in perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes after me (though with nothing like so apologetic a skulk), and bringing the number in the press box to a healthy and appropriate eleven, was David Hopps of The Guardian: bright of eye, earthy of wit, and with the gentle, slightly stooping gait of a veteran left-arm spinner, one apt to rub his hands in the dirt around the popping crease. Who did we – for we were most definitely a we, us pressmen – have in our XI?

Smack bang behind the bowler’s arm (early bird?), third row back, sat Matt Halfpenny of the Nottingham Evening Post and Simon, erm, just Simon from the Press Association, whose copy would be fired off to the ECB and to Ceefax, I discovered (perhaps in fluorescent blue pixellated font). To their left was Jon Culley of The Independent and Cricinfo; in front of him, binoculars in hand, sat The Telegraph’s Paul Bolton. To his right, in the central bank of desks, was the sartorially impeccable Richard Hobson of The Times, and further along from him in a Hampshire Hawks shirt, eschewing use of the desks for his laptop – into which were plugged all manner of USB devices – was another Simon, who I assumed must be Simon Walter of The Southern Daily Echo, someone who had interviewed me by phone a couple of times regarding a pair of former Moddershall professionals that I’d skippered, Imran Tahir and Rangana Herath, both of whom had joined Hampshire.

Behind Simon, to my left, was another local reporter from the south and, to his left , within stretching distance of the complimentary thermos jugs of coffee was a man at whom I had to take three long looks to make sure he wasn’t Sir Menzies Campbell. It turned out that he was a Scot, however: Mike Denness, former England captain and now an ECB pitch inspector.

Finally, Michael Temple, the Notts CCC Media and Communications Manager, was buzzing about, delivering the all-important lunch vouchers to these esteemed wordsmiths. I was looking for the first opportunity that presented itself to establish some sort of relationship in my strange, new environment (the Notts Press Officer, Chris Botherway, with whom I’d liaised to get my pass, was nowhere to be seen), so I followed Simon #2 over to grab a coffee.

“Are you Simon?” I asked, offering a handshake.

“Yes,” he replied, slightly bemused, the tone of apprehension that used when a policeman calls out of the blue.

“I’m Scott,” I now said, expecting that to clear everything up.

“Oh… right…” he answered, eyes and bodyweight shifting uneasily, the ellipsis evidently inviting me to clarify.

“Yeah, we’ve spoken a few times on the phone. About Imran and Rangana Herath.”

“Oh, okay” he replied, unconvincingly, unconvinced, whereupon I launched myself into a nervous, slightly fabricated tale of how Imran was doing after the World Cup, all the while wondering why he had been so stand-offish given our previous conversations and email exchanges.

The answer to my miffed bewilderment arrived less than ten minutes later, when a third Simon entered the box, nestling down alongside Halfpenny. This was a Simon from the Southern Echo, one whose face actually resembled – I now recalled – the by-line photo I’d seen in 2008. The ha’penny now dropped. Muppet! This was my old acquaintance, my mucker; I soon discovered that the other Simon was Simon Vincent, Hampshire’s Press and Media Officer – perhaps expert in the new media, judging from his tweets, but fairly inexpert in the old medium of conversation. Why not simply say: “Sorry, but I’ve never spoken to anyone called Scott about Imran Tahir”? Then again, I guess I could have asked him whether he was Simon Walter… 

Anyway, in my eagerness to discover how things worked in this alien environment – the etiquette, the pecking order, the jargon – I felt as must an anthropologist upon arriving in, say, deepest Gabon to study the kinship system of some ancient tribe or other; only, these tip-tapping typists were neither spearing animal bones through their scrotum, nor ingesting wildly psychotropic plants for the sake of sacred communion with the forest spirits. At least, I didn’t think they were… Indeed, as play unfolded and these grizzled reporters of the county circuit reacquainted themselves with one another after their off-seasons, a few snippets of gossip emerged. Other chitchat revolved around tweets from Michael Vaughan about Kevin Pietersen’s appetite to play for England, Twitter simultaneously providing good copy and the basis of scurrilous tittle-tattle. 

As the morning session ambled to its final half-hour, Hampshire still without loss on a bowler’s morning and very much in the ascendency, the press box became noticeably busier. Chris Botherway arrived, as did Chief Executive Derek Brewer, both here for lunch. In, too, came four or five of the snappers, busy uploading their shots and zapping them off to various press agencies and newsdesks. The experienced old hands among the scribes were already wiping errant gravy from their chins before the players had finished their session of cricket, a smart move, I discovered, when queuing up in the canteen across the carpeted concourse behind the box with the massed ranks of Members. Still, it wasn’t too long a wait and I did manage a brief chinwag with David Fulton, the former Kent opening batsman, now Sky Sports’ very own Roving Reporter, the Tim Abrahams of the ‘Champo’, looking sharp in his electric blue suit.

Dr Dre 

Fulton was eulogising over Andre Adams, leading wicket-taker in the County Championship (Div 1) last year, who had picked up where he left off in Manchester last September, nipping out two good wickets prior to lunch as each of the session’s last three deliveries produced wickets. “He’s just a yard quicker than he looks and doesn’t allow the batters to get any rhythm,” he synopsized in his syrupy TV voice. “He nips it both ways, moves around the crease and is always causing the batter problems.” I nodded in agreement, suppressing the massive temptation to tell him that I – the rotund, bald, bespectacled limper beside him – had scored a measured 41 from 71 balls against the same bowler only last June, clipping him for a boundary through square leg and getting away a back-foot punch through backward-point for four, too (I was eventually dismissed run out, duped into taking a third run by a crafty fielder, exiting ignominiously, covered in dust and with broken spectacles, damage that doubtless contributed to my earlier trip into Bridgford).


Sitting down for the afternoon session after what David Hopps had described on the Guardian blog as the “Samit Patel Chicken and Mushroom Pie”, I was delighted, overjoyed even, to have a hot dessert brought over to me from the canteen, as requested, just as I settled in to do some actual work (well, of sorts…). Glancing through Notts’ official magazines – a glossy A4 quarterly entitled Covered (£2.50), and a smaller companion, Extra Cover; no extra cover price but free to the gentlemen of the Fourth Estate – I started to compile a list of questions in preparation for my interview with Mick Newell, Notts’ Director of Cricket, for Nottingham’s premier cultural organ, Leftlion, the reason I was here lest I get carried away with my warm jam sponge and custard and other luxuries.

While putting together this list of questions, a first trick of the journalist’s trade became clear to me, one that I thought I might as well utilise. I had noted that some of the paragraphs from Extra Cover and Covered were appearing, practically verbatim, in the blogs and round-ups of my new ‘colleagues’. For instance, readers of all four national broadsheets would be learning by the following morning that Andre Adams had actually retired from the game in 2008 and was halfway up a mountain, on a skiing trip, when former teammate Lou Vincent called him to say that someone was interested in signing him; due to the poor mobile reception, ‘Dre’s reply of “not interested” was misheard and the next day he received a follow-up call from an agent bearing a concrete offer from Nottinghamshire, a county in which he had previously played club cricket for Kimberley Institute CC. This soon to be dog-eared tale was the not-short cover feature of Covered, being covered (or plagiarised, as it is more commonly known in academic circles) by my co-press-boxers. So this is how news is passed up the food-chain, from the county’s two-man PR and media apparatus to the national hacks and out into the world.

With fellow Stokie (fellow veteran) Dominic Cork managing – like, say, Dengue fever, or some other subcutaneous parasitic protozoan – to get himself under the not particularly thick skin of Notts’ seamer Luke Fletcher within minutes of arriving at the crease, and now, adrenalized, leading something of a fightback, I popped over to the Boot’s Ground at Lady Bay to catch up with a couple of former Moddershall and Wollaton teammates of mine – academy prospect Sam Kelsall and newly-contracted Scott Elstone, respectively – who were playing for Notts 2nd XI in a friendly against Cambridge University, before returning to the press box and reacquainting myself with the story of the game via Hopps’ County blog (and Hopps himself).

Hants had been skittled for 218, and the Notts’ openers – Franks and Wagh – negotiated a pair of overs before the afternoon gloom took the players from the field. Up in the press box, we twiddled our thumbs, me especially nervously as I awaited my maiden interview (giving, that is), still not 100% sure that I even knew how to operate the mp3 dictaphone that I’d purchased only the previous day (with money earned skivvying for Wollaton’s own high-profile Director of Cricket, Ed Savill). As it turned out, such know-how was redundant; for I didn’t actually get the interview (which I was under the impression would be arranged by the Press Officer). Evidently, I ought to have taken my cue from the other quote-seeking local reporters and made a bee-line for the pavilion at close of play, specifically requesting an audience with the usually accommodating Mr Newell. “Never mind,” I told Botherway, “I can come back tomorrow. Would you leave me a pass at the ticket office?” I asked, already slavering at the thought of tomorrow’s lunch.

As the press box emptied out, I button-holed David Hopps and asked if, tomorrow, he’d mind if I picked his brains about cricket writing and journalism in general. I emailed him a short piece I had written in hope of publication in The Wisden Cricketer (well, I actually pitched a full-length interview with Snape, but that was rejected on the basis that he’d written for them a fair bit in the past; so, desperate that the deputy editor didn’t hang up without me having etched myself on his consciousness, I pitched the piece about choking: ‘The C-word’) and he said he’d have a chat the following day.

So, having reached the end of what might be loosely described as “my working day”, I wandered up one flight of stairs in the vast Radcliffe Road Stand and got stuck in to an indoor net practice session in the Sobers Hall with the good folk of Wollaton CC, that night including the soon-to-be-retired veteran spinner and beguiling raconteur (perhaps beguiling spinner and veteran racaonteur), Gerry McMahon – father of an off-spinner who, in a parallel universe, might well have been out in the middle doing a job for Notts today (probably carrying drinks, mind, given the conditions and the coach’s fondness for a seamer).

Repairing to the Larwood and Voce for a post-net libation, Gerry mentioned a half-page photo that I had spotted, almost accidentally, in the April edition of The Wisden Cricketer. Much as I had been when first joining Wollaton in 2006, I had been struck initially by the quaintness of the pavilion in the shot, but had not yet realized where it was, nor who it featured. On closer inspection, the caption – “blue fingers: The Parks on the first day of the season, 2003” – revealed the location; closer inspection still revealed that there was an off-spinner bowling (judging by both the field and the delivery stride) for Oxford University, and I reckoned there was a good chance it was Paul.

So, I emailed him at work, seeking confirmation of this: “It’s 73 for 1, coming up to ten minutes to one, and there’s an off-spinner bowling toward the pavilion end. Looks like the delivery is going to rag. Is that you?” Consummate Badger himself, Paul remarked that it was “probably” him, upgraded to “definitely” when a scan was sent over and, presumably, the position of the right hip could be verified. Gerry was very keen to acquire a copy of the photo and asked me how he might go about it. I suggested writing to the magazine’s editor for the source of the image would be a good idea. “It’s probably Getty or Associated Press,” I proffered, affecting knowledgeability of ‘my’ new world...

Part 2 can be read here.

Sunday, 29 May 2011


Google ‘cricket + South Africa + jigsaw’ and you will probably find the face of Imran Tahir, the Lahore-born leg-spinner whose long and tortuous road to international cricket finally ended with an impressive outing at the World Cup, during which he picked up 14 wickets in five games at an exceptional economy rate of 3.79. 

Arguably the most eagerly anticipated international debutant since Kevin Pietersen, briefly a teammate at KwaZulu-Natal’s Dolphins, Tahir’s 12-year wait for higher honours was extended by a further 12 months when he was hastily withdrawn from selection for the final Test against England in January 2010 on account of…well, not yet actually being South African. “That was a big disappointment. It was another year gone for me,” said the 32-year-old. “But maybe it was not the right time”.

A further year of red tape ensued until finally he was eligible, having long been ready… Only the selectors decided to hide him from India throughout their pre-World Cup ODI series. “They picked me to get used to the atmosphere of international cricket, which helped me a lot”.

Tahir denies that the sense of expectation, or the fact that he was Pakistani-born, created any extra pressure. “I had thousands of supportive phone calls, including from Pakistan. The coach and captain here made me feel very comfortable. So, I never felt outside pressure, really”.

Remarkably, three years ago Tahir was still an unknown, plying his trade for Moddershall in the North Staffordshire & South Cheshire League, but a successful trial and record debut figures of 12 for 187 for Hampshire in July 2008 were what convinced him he could play at the highest level: “that was the moment I thought ‘if I can do well here I can take any step’”.

Of course, cynics have suggested that Tahir’s naturalisation was all a bit too convenient – his path to the Pakistani side was blocked by Danish Kaneria; South Africa had their perennial need for an attacking spinner – but he is quick to remind us that this is no marriage of convenience. Anything but.

Having fallen in love with his now-wife, Sumayya, during the Under-19 World Cup in 1998, he kept the flames alive through a series of long-distance phone calls until it became clear that the future Mrs Tahir did not want to live in the country of her forefathers. So, Imran went to South Africa: “I had a dream to play for Pakistan but I had to sacrifice everything for her. I am sure I made the right decision. I had good intentions and God helped me”.

One country’s loss is another’s gain, however, and having seen on TV that the Pakistani selectors had expressed regret about letting him go, he had no time to lament not playing for his homeland. “It’s too late. This is my country now and I’m a proud South African. I’m grateful to CSA for giving me the opportunity to make my name in international cricket”.

Following another (albeit truncated) campaign with Hampshire, an October Test engagement with Australia looms, which would be another “chance to repay the country” for this humble and skilful leggie from Durban. 

Wednesday, 11 May 2011


By the end of the summer of 1998, a season in which he had failed to make a single first-class appearance, it is fair to say that Staffordshire-born cricketer Jeremy Snape was meandering through a modest, largely unfulfilling career at Northamptonshire. However, a timely move to equally unfashionable Gloucestershire gave his career take-off: he quickly became a vital, point-fielding, middle-order-scrapping, off-spinning cog in the well-oiled and highly successful limited-overs machine that was being assembled there by John Bracewell, as was later recognized by his selection for 10 England ODIs. In 2003, he took his considerable know-how to Leicestershire, where more unlikely team success followed in the shape of their victory in the the second Twenty20 Cup (2004). Snape’s innovative captaincy and development of a rhythm-disrupting ‘moon ball’ in their 2006 repeat triumph earned him another England call-up for the first Twenty20 World Cup in 2007.

For all that, Jeremy was, by his own admission, a fairly limited cricketer and it is really in retirement that his profile in the cricket world has taken off. Having attained a Master’s Degree in Sports Psychology from Loughborough University, in 2005 he founded a consultancy, Sporting Edge, while still playing for the Foxes. The catalyst for this second career came with his recruitment by Leicester-based Jaipuri businessman, Manoj Bedale, to act as psychologist to the franchise he had just bought in the fledgling IPL: Rajasthan Royals. It is now well-known that, under the inspirational, imaginative captaincy of Shane Warne (a man previously known for his outspoken contempt for – or, being slightly kinder, scepticism of – the perceived need for support staff such as Snape, once describing the coach as “what you travel to the ground on”), the rank-outsider Royals were shock winners, and that Snape’s work impressed their other high-profile import, Graeme Smith, to such an extent that a job with the South African team was offered.

Late last year, I caught up with Jeremy – an old Staffs Juniors teammate off whom I once spilled 3 catches in an over-and-a-half against Shropshire at Lilleshall (I was keeping; he was bowling nippy inswingers) – and asked him not only about his experience with South Africa but also about some more general aspects of being a ‘performance coach’ with an elite sports team…

Can you pinpoint a precise moment when the desire to move into sports psychology first took hold?
I guess I always knew that the challenge in my own game was more mental than technical – sometimes even changing technique under pressure – and the fear of failure that came with that made it a very difficult place to be. So I knew that the mental game and my ability to change and adapt, take on different techniques, bat in different positions, and bowl in different styles was always going to be driven by that attitude. That’s what I found so fascinating through the twenty years that I played.
        Obviously, the highest position I got to was playing for England. In front of 120,000 people in India I managed to build a sort of psychological routine that helped me to cope with that and shut out the noise of the screaming locals. That was a big step forward for me. I realized that I could actually create my own zone, as it were, to perform in, and I think that was a good thing.
       I did see a few sports psychologists around that time but I never really felt that anyone had had the experience of playing in high-level pressure, so I took my learning mainly from the practical side, which were the players and the coaches, and their philosophy on things.

That was my next question, actually: whether there were any people from the cricketing world – players, captains, or coaches that you’ve either played with or against – who have been especially influential on your thinking as a cricketer or sports psychologist, be that directly, through advice, or indirectly, through example.
Well, someone like John Bracewell approached the game in a very much more scientific way than I’d seen before and that really appealed to me. I guess coaching is a blend of the science and the art and John Bracewell seemed to do that quite well, whereas a lot of coaches I’d worked with had got quite a haphazard way of doing it. There definitely seemed to be some kind of system [with Bracewell].
       Other influences would be players themselves, people like Nasser Hussain, and [other sportsmen like] Martin Johnson, who lives locally. People like that who lead by example, who just get on with it and lead from the front. That’s a great thing to learn from. But then there are also people like Michael Vaughan who are a bit more relaxed about it but who also have the same sort of steeliness under pressure. That also taught me that there wasn’t only one particular way of doing things and that you could find your own way. So that made it all the more exciting to try and find out what that blueprint was.

I noticed that your official title with the South African cricket squad was described as both “Performance Coach” and “Mental Conditioning Coach”. You’ve said that the role combined cricket coaching and psychological training. Perhaps you could explain a little about how flexible or circumscribed your role is in and around a group, how your role dovetailed with other leaders in the group…
This very much depends on the context that you’re working in, on the philosophy of the leader in the group. When I was working with South Africa under Mickey Arthur there was a lot of freedom to address a wide range of issues, whether it be at a team level, small groups, or one-on-one. Part of the job was to pre-empt situations down the line and help to put coping strategies in place for that, organizationally. Also to support him and Graeme [Smith] in their own decision-making, with selections and press conferences – not necessarily to pick the team, just to help them to have an objective sounding-board to keep them on track with their longer-term aspirations and things – and just linking in to the management team to make sure that everyone was being effective, really. So, I’d often get involved in various areas with other members of the management team where they were struggling to get a player on to the physiotherapist’s bench or in to the fitness schedules or whatever. 
       More recently, with Corrie van Zyl, there’s been a slightly different approach. Mickey’s English-South African, while Corrie’s Afrikaans-South African. With him it was more of a focussed psychological role looking at mental skills, psychometric profiling and one-on-one sessions that were targeted for specific changes rather than a perhaps more informal, counselling-style approach [under Arthur].
       So, yeah, the way you work within an organization would be dependent upon the brief, really, and the way the management sees your role. And that crosses over into business in the same way.

Talking of the ‘transferability’ of your techniques or method, it seems to me that your general principles are fairly straightforward (which is not to say that putting them into practice is quite as easy!!). For instance, you have continually stressed the importance of remaining focussed on processes rather than outcomes, of giving team members clarity over their roles, and of replicating hostile environments in training scenarios in order to make players accustomed to producing under pressure. Sporting Edge also works with businesses, which implies that your methods or techniques are applicable to any domain in which there’s a premium on high performance within a competitive environment. Is that fair enough? Are your principles so easily transferable from cricket to business, or between different sports?
Well, obviously there are some very generic principles in both leadership and team development. For example, in team development, the stages of change, or stages of development, are well known. There are various models but one of them is ‘forming, storming, norming, performing’. Teams go through various dynamic stages where there’s in-fighting and alignment and people moving towards their goals. So those can be linked very clearly to sports teams and business teams, because it’s just human interaction.
        And then the other thing is this idea of leadership where you’ve got to get a balance of the three main skills of a leader: challenging people, supporting people, and inspiring people. And again, they are generic enough to be understood by both coaches and business leaders but the way they use those in the practical sense is very much domain-specific.
       So that’s the key, really, I think: to understand the practical context that people are working in and to be able to fit those [principles] to the organization you’re working with. I think that’s been one of my strengths. Because I’ve come from a practical background and then moved into research, I’m able to look at problems from that angle, rather than being led by research and thinking how I could make that fit the environment. I think the ability to make things fit is crucial. Lots and lots of psychologists know lots and lots of information and lots and lots of theories, but unless you can make that real for the people that you’re working with and get them to adopt it as their new style, then you’re going to get a blockage.

I wanted to ask you about how you carry yourself when around a group with which you’re working – when you are in a dressing room environment, or even socialising with team members, do you have to be ‘on guard’ at all times?
It is difficult to manage that sometimes, especially when I’d probably be at a similar age to a lot of the guys that I was working with. But it’s something that you develop over time and, as I get older, I’m sure that sort of distance from the team will be created naturally as they’re in their twenties and I get into my forties.

By extension, then, does a conflict ever arise between telling the truth and what might be called an ‘emotional tactics’ or ‘psychological massaging’ that you have to perform in order to keep players’ moods positive? White lies.
I think the key thing is being authentic. Positive rhetoric doesn’t get you anywhere, really, especially in high-profile sports teams. They want the genuine belief that the players and team can progress. Sometimes you just have to be very honest and say “Guys, we’re struggling here”. But you’ve also got to be slightly more aspirational and slightly more positive than the group in general because you’re ultimately trying to lift them all the time. So whether you’re using something quite negative to motivate them or something quite shiny and bright to motivate them, that’s your job to work out what that is and move them forward.
        I think that knowledge and skills are very important to psychologists, but the relationships within the team are critical, and if the players know that you’re on their side and care very deeply about their individual performance and team performance then, to be honest, you’re half way there to being able to make an impact. That was a barrier that I faced early in the South African job – especially because it was a tour of England. They were trying to work out whether I was a spy in the camp. But after two years now I’ve got some strong relationships and I’ve been able to make some strong impacts.

On the subject of impacts, it seems to me that – in sport and in life – people may fail to realize their potential for a number of reasons: there are uncontrollable external events that derail a life (the death of a loved one, a car crash, financial ruination, illness, etc), events which might – as far as realizing one’s potential is concerned – be definitive, utterly beyond the scope of a psychological intervention. Then there are ‘natural’ barriers formed by someone’s levels of talent, which similarly cannot be radically altered by psychological means (let’s call this the ‘silk purse, sow’s ear’ theory…). Beyond these barriers, however, a psychologist must see a large sphere of potential intervention and influence. So, do you think there is an intrinsic limit to the scope or effectiveness of an ‘intervention’ by a sports psychologist, a barrier perhaps provided by either an individual player’s ‘character’ or by a culture? Or can these be eroded away?
Often, certain teams will have a particular mindset and a receptiveness to change, as do individuals. Again, that depends on the leadership – have people been talking about growth and development and learning and personal change? Or have they been talking about talent, intelligence, and skill (which are very much entities that you’ve either got or you haven’t)? I think the healthiest environments and the healthiest individuals believe in growth and development, and that’s something, obviously, that can bring in specialists and challenge people to move toward their potential.
        So, there is a case that teams have barriers or resistance to new information and psychology but, again, you’ve just got to back yourself to get to understand the people and, generally, after a period of time, you do get to know what drives the people individually and that’s when you can start to make change. But it’s better to be with people for longer periods of time, and longer contact time, because then you see them in work, outside work, on highs, in lows, and you get to know the behavioural profile of people so that you can start to pick your time. And that’s one of the biggest skills of a psychologist: to know when just to be a psychologist, and when to do psychology. Sometimes it’s actually best just to sit back and watch, and not say anything. When you feel like you’ve got a lot of passion and information that you want to give, it’s sometimes difficult to do that, but I think people respect you when you stay quiet, let the guys be, and sort of think through it a little bit.

Inevitably, I have to ask you something about the phenomenon of choking, a charge thrown at the South African team ever since the Klusener/Donald run out at the 1999 World Cup and then with the Duckworth/Lewis fiasco at the next that caused their elimination. Firstly, do you think it’s too simplistic – perhaps even malicious – to ascribe this trait to the South Africans, as though the label “choker” encapsulated some sort of national characteristic, particularly when there could be perfectly good cricketing (i.e. non-psychological) reasons for some of their high-profile defeats?
I actually don’t think it is a fair tag. I’ve looked into it and there’s no particular pattern, especially with the South African team. There are just so many different variables that you could look at, with tactics, selection, preparation, individual thought-processes at the time… And it’s also very difficult to say when a game was lost, you know. It might be that people say that somebody choked in the last over of the game, but actually the more ‘criminal’ mistakes might often be made earlier in the day in cricket. So, it’s very difficult to pinpoint whether that was choking or normal underperformance.
        But there’s no doubt that a finite tag like that has quite an impact on a team and it’s something that they have to shake off at some stage and, ultimately, the performance mindset of an individual and a team has to be very specific and optimistic. You’ve got to know your game, know your plan, be very aware of where the game context is at that moment and do what’s…not necessarily do what you planned, but do what’s effective at the time, and I think that if you can keep that mindset quite open and also commit to that plan once you’ve re-jigged it or stuck with it, then that’s probably the most important thing in terms of execution of your skills.
        Often we see people holding back because of a lack of commitment to the plans and that can quite simply be because people have started to look at the distractions and what might happen if they fail.

So, could the “choker” label become a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’: the more it’s said (justifiably or otherwise) in the media, the more it penetrates the dressing room, the more it’s believed (privately or collectively), and thus the more it happens?
Again that just depends on the ability of an individual, first, but also of a team, to zone in on what’s important. And the ‘chokers’ tag isn’t important when the bowler’s running in to bowl, you know. The key processes of a player’s performance strategy and psychological routine are what’s important. And those processes make sure that you’re insulated against any distractions. It means that you probably deliver your best delivery, your best bowling. And if you do that then you’re more likely to win the situation. And if you’re more likely to win situation after situation, then you’re probably going to win the game.
        So, that’s the way you’d break down from the way the media talk about ‘choking’. You’d drill it down to an individual situation and you’d try and win the moments by people being focussed on what their job is and being aware of where the game is going.

You have said elsewhere that the last 15 years in cricket have been about working on players’ bodies and the next 15 will be about working on their minds. So, that should keep you busy…
Yeah, it’s an interesting field and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my first few years in it.

I have written in brief elsewhere on the chokers tag as being less to do with representing the truth of a situation as it is a pragmatic act designed to affect others behaviour: in short, a stick to beat them with...

[photo © Hannah Edwards]