Tuesday, 31 July 2012


Last week I was pleased to have a second piece published in cricinfo – what finished up as a preview of the Twenty20 quarter-final between Somerset and Essex at Taunton having started out in my mind as a fairly abstract discussion of the value of experience, and older players, in the game’s shortest format. Ever the academic.

In order to explore this theme, I first interviewed Paul Nixon, thrice a T20 winner with Leicestershire (the Foxes being the only team, in fact, to have won more than one). I then spoke to an old adversary, Alfonso Thomas, who, during the course of an interesting 40-minute chat, actually gave me a wee exclusive: Cricket South Africa asking him to make himself available for the World T20 in Sri Lanka this September. Naturally, I didn’t have the first clue how to monetize the information (not that it was in the scoop-finding realms of, say, Sachin housing Nazis in his basement, or anything). Ever the academic, as I said.

The first time I happened across Alfonso was during a drawn North Staffs and South Cheshire Premier League game at Moddershall in May 2004. He was playing for Leek, the club of Ottis Gibson, Albie Morkel (who may well have recommended his fellow Titan), Vasbert Drakes, Shahid Afridi and, later, Tino Best. The wicket was quick – our best player, Iain Carr, scorer of a Premier League double hundred the previous season, had had his poles scattered by Alfonso’s new-ball colleague – and I went in at 4 for 2 to join Iain’s brother, Darren, a psychiatrist of saturnine temperament prone to on-field pessimism and self-doubt, and to off-field cantankerousness and self-assertion, and as such somebody whose company I enjoyed immensely, despite us forever prodding metaphorical fingers into each other’s chest.  

Doc in 2004

Together we took the score to around 120 – ‘Doc’ making 69, myself 51, both eventually nicking off to Thomas, whose final figures were 4 for 35 from 17 overs – before the innings collapsed feebly to 161 all out. During our partnership it was obvious that the slightly built shaven-headed ‘Cape Coloured’ was not wanting for fast bowler’s pugnacity: he had responded to me hooking him for six from an ill-directed legside bouncer that I was able to help high over fine leg by almost immediately going round the wicket and peppering me with short stuff. Darren had similar treatment and managed to get a couple of rambunctious duck-hooks away, one of which I recall bouncing back 20 metres on to the field from the pavilion wall .

When it came to Leek’s turn to bat, Alfonso arrived first-drop and looked handy and organized without being special – exactly the sort of steady number 8 or excellent number 9 that had allowed him to notch a couple of hundreds in South African domestic first-class cricket. We attacked him with three men round the bat for our pro, Imran Tahir, who would eventually skittle him with a googly as he shouldered arms. Before that, however, he dug in quite well, defending with soft hands, eschewing scoring on the legside unless the ball was short, looking strong through the extra-cover region when offered anything marginally overpitched, information that would stay with me for our next meeting…

* * *

By 2005, Thomas was at Longton CC: historically the league’s most successful club and now seeking a third title on the spin, one for which they were overwhelming favourites. Not only the strongest team, they were also our bitterest rivals, a team with which we’d had some fractious encounters, much of which was prompted by their star batsmen and captain, Richard Harvey (also the Staffordshire skipper), leaving us to go there after the 1995 season  ostensibly to play top-flight and increase his chances of being picked for Staffordshire  which caused some ill-feeling within our side (not I, who had played Staffs and Moddershall Juniors with him and came fairly quickly to understand his logic). Had he hung on and waited another year, however, such an opportunity would have arisen with us, his first club, as the 1996 campaign had seen us top Section B, as it was then called, before going up and winning Section A, becoming the first team to win both divisions in consecutive seasons. (The feat was repeated in 2002 by Norton-in-Hales, whose professional at the time was one Imran Tahir, and we would sign him despite claiming 95 points in the four league meetings: three batting-first wins, one chase.) 

big match preview
Anyway, after a torrid start to the 2004 league campaign (Imran’s debut season with us) that saw our captain, James Cornford, resign and leave the club a matter of hours before a mutiny deposed him, I was chosen by the players to step in as captain and we managed to stabilize our results without really clicking in the league (we lost only 1 of the 18 remaining games, having been beaten in three of the first four under Cornford). Despite these traumas, we made the final of the Talbot Cup (for all North Staffs & South Cheshire clubs) that summer, losing away to a decent Audley side, and joyously won our first – and as yet only – Staffordshire Cup, seeing off Hem Heath in the final after they’d helpfully disposed of our Birmingham League bogey side, Himley, who had beaten us in both the 2003 final and 2002 semi-final. By 2005, however, we had shaken off our problems, gained an enormous amount of confidence, established a pattern of play, and emerged as the major obstacle for Longton’s ‘three-peat’, the existing rivalry only serving to spice up still further the tête-à-têtes.* Toe to toe we would stand, but there was no doubt that we were the underdogs, since they had eight Minor Counties players (Harvey, Longmore, King, Wilshaw, Womble, Edwards, Morris, Davies), five of whom were current, as well as the snarling, snapping Alfonso Thomas to set the tone. We had several battle-hardened players with plenty of medals, an incredibly strong desire to beat Longton, and Mr Imran Tahir bringing the magic.

The game was the ninth round of league matches, two more until halfway, and, surreally, was watched by none other than Bob Woolmer, then coach of Pakistan, who presumably had kept a house in the Birmingham area after his stint at Warwickshire and decided to skip up the M6 to Barnfields in order to run the rule over his A team’s emerging leg-spinner and judge whether or not he was worthy of inclusion in upcoming national team training camps. While most were shocked by the presence of that jowly, genial face on the boundary, my reaction was more one of irritation; I was irked that Woolmer being there would prove a distraction and was likely to put extra pressure on Imran for the biggest game of our season thus far (I lied earlier: I wasn’t ever the academic – on the cricket field, I was ruthless and impatient, especially as captain, and always keen to explore any potential competitive advantage to be found in the hinterland of the game’s spirit).

The crowd was on the large side for a club game (Woolmer would later commend both this and the quality of the game), which, despite being early in the campaign, was incredibly tense – like a pre-Christmas clásico between Real and Barça. It was during this season that I started to produce small dossiers on the opposition – more the result of circumstances than anything else, with me living in Nottingham and not attending selection or nets and thus unable to discuss the upcoming games face to face – and this week’s started: “Well, here we go folks, the one we’ve all been waiting for: Moddershall vs Staffordshire. Don’t really need to say too much at this point other than stay cool – as Hawk said in last week’s Sentinel Sport, the pressure is all on them – and go into the game thinking ‘it’s gonna be me that makes the difference’. And no backwards steps!” 

Bob at Barnfields

We bowled first and, in dank, mizzly conditions, made early inroads with a new ball that initially zipped off the surface. Imran came into the attack after 10 overs and was soon bowling at Alfonso, in at number 5 with the score 46 for 3. I had the impression that Alfie was someone who ‘ticked’ and could maybe be susceptible to a chirp or ruffling of his feathers, so I took my time setting a deliberately precise field involving a straight silly mid-off and two drive men at short extra-cover, all designed to have him think I had sussed him out. I had no real idea – the evidence was meagre, just one game, and it may surprise you to learn that we couldn’t afford to employ a technical assistant to film our opponents’ games and edit together packages for video analysis – but he didn’t need to know that.

As it transpired, he played quite well for a gritty 37 before being run out in slightly controversial circumstances, there being some doubt over whether or not the bails had been removed cleanly. Again, you will not be surprised to learn that there was no TV umpire in place. With him out of the way, Immy – who did appear a touch nervous – got to work and helped reduce them to 145-8 at tea (which, due to the curios of local rules, was not always taken between innings, but at a cut-off point three-and-a-quarter hours after the start of the innings had not yet been completed).

So, we still had 6 overs to bowl after the interval and it was in this mini-session that the game suddenly got away from us. I made a tactical error and opted to take the new ball at 55 overs** – well, it was more an error of seeking to placate the dogmatic views of the group’s dominant personalities and, as a consequence, not listening to my gut instinct. In the end, their two least heralded players – keeper Steve Aston (57) and medium-pacer Andy Kenvyn (19) – put Imran to the sword and we ended up conceding 60 runs as the new ball flew off the bat in all directions. The sharp momentum-swing continued into our innings with a pumped-up Alfonso taking two early wickets as we subsided to 21 for 3, at which point Iain Carr and I, in our markedly different ways, tried to rebuild the innings under the onslaught from the South African and Dave Edwards, also bowling with good pace.

Moddershall: quick pitch

Perhaps surprised to find himself on a pitch in English club cricket with half-decent carry, Alfonso subjected the both of us to a barrage of short-pitched bowling, sometimes as many as four per over to me. Where I ducked, ducked, and ducked again, Iain – a sort of right-handed Matty Hayden – took the fight to him, all the while batting some two or three feet out of his crease. I knew this because their backward point fieldsman, Gaz Morris, shouted over to mid off, hands in the classic fibbing fisherman’s position: “Longers, he’s this far…!”

Iain muscled a bouncer 
off the splice of the bat that went about 40 yards away and through wide mid-on for two, prompting a verbal salvo from a man he could perhaps have swallowed whole and stored in his thigh. Billy, not one generally given to chat on the field, snapped back with “You’re not fucking quick enough, mate” and proceeded to move another pace down the pitch in readiness for the next ball (which I knew from the agog expression on Morris’s face and the slightly bigger fish: “Longers!”). This delivery, an effort ball, was promptly pulled for a mighty one-bounce four, the crack off the bat echoing like a rifle shot around a canyon. It was incredible, electric, hard-as-nails league cricket and the no-longer-doubting Thomas walked back past me with the hint of a smile on his face. 

Anyway, it was during this partnership that Alfonso gave me one of the better sledges I’ve received down the years. Following the umpteenth bumper I’d been obliged to evade – by this stage followed by my best ‘You’re wasting your energy, pal’ smirk – Alfie, recalling my pseudo-precise field perhaps, pronounced: “Hey, Scotty, you’re a better fucking captain than you are a fucking batsman, mate”. I laughed (internally); after all, it was probably true.

Iain and I took the score to 99 for 3 as the cloud that hadn’t really disappeared all day started to close in. A couple of Longton players started to kick up a fuss about conditions and the umpires promptly offered us the light. Often the response to such an offer is cut-and-dried – you either desperately want to come off (for tactical and/or safety reasons) or equally desperately want to stay on (for a win) – but this wasn’t clear-cut at all. Iain and I discussed it awhile and concluded that, although there weren’t really enough overs left for us to win, neither were there enough overs for them to do likewise. So, with both of us seeing it pretty well, albeit with my scoring options limited not only by Alfie’s length, but his high-class lively and hostile seam bowling on a juicy pitch (he finished with figures of 19-10-32-5), we opted to stay on – if only to pick up the batting point that was one run away – before then seeing if we could get another offer of the light with the points standing at six apiece.


No sooner had we indicated our willingness to stay on than they brought back Alfonso, who’d only been off for three or four overs. I was on strike. Second ball was banged in and, my concentration disturbed, I took it on, attempting an upper-cut over gully but succeeding only in lifting it straight to third man who barely moved a muscle in taking the catch in front of the pavilion [note: the fall of wickets has been incorrectly entered on the scorecard]. Immy then chipped one in the air before Thomas bounced out John Myatt and Rob Bagnall, both popping catches to short leg. Amidst all this, Iain Carr ran past one from Morris, which left us 116 for 8 with about six overs left and now desperately trying to get the game called off, grumbling and barracking the umpires, turning lights on in the clubhouse… I had a nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach, for it seemed certain at this stage that my second ill-judged decision of the day (thus seemingly contradicting Alfie’s sledge) would cost us the game. In the end, two 18-year-olds, Simon Hemmings and Richard Holloway, stood up to Thomas’s bombardment and saw us through to the draw in light that Scyld Berry would have felt compelled to describe as “Stygian”, to much relief all round – the draw, not the adjective choice!

* * *

We kept our noses in front of Longton for the next 11 weeks – they lost three out of four games following our match (to Burslem, Knypersley and Leek) – and at one stage led them by 40-odd points. However, the removal of the ‘malfunctions’ in their dressing room – one player was having an affair with the wife of another, the woman in question also related to a third member of the side – would see them click instantly into an awesome run of form, coming into the return fixture on the back of five consecutive comprehensive victories that gave them huge momentum going into what was effectively the title decider – a game for which, unsurprisingly, they’d prepared a hard, green ‘Immy-proof’ pitch.

We still led by 17 points at that stage and there was a clear tactical case for batting first on the seamer’s paradise, if only because such a move would have meant they could pick up only 20 points for a win chasing, as opposed to 25 for a bat-first win, leaving us requiring four points from the game to keep our destiny in our own hands. In the end, after mulling it over all week, and fairly sure of the type of surface we’d likely encounter, I succumbed to a sort of wishy-washy sports psychology-style line of thinking: that you must think positive and entertain no thoughts of defeat, since that will only hasten the latter. The inescapable fact of the matter, though, was that there was losing and losing. Moreover, we also had a decent seam attack to exploit the conditions – Iain Carr had taken 9 for 51 there the previous season – if not quite as potent as theirs. 


As it turned out, I won the toss and shoved them in. They scored 191 for 8 declared, Alfonso top-scoring with 53, before Thomas and Edwards blitzed us for a miserable 55 all out – that actually a bit of a recovery from 22 for 8! (I had a less witty chirp from Dave Edwards, who’d called me a bottler – despite, it later turned out, trying at tea to dodge new-ball duties and push the case of Dave Womble  which was odd given that Id promoted myself in the order.) It was my worst day on a cricket field – worse than any cup final defeat – since in the final reckoning it amounted to the disappearance of countless hours’ effort, both on the field and off, in around eighty minutes of coruscating quick bowling. I gloved a short ball that skidded at me from Thomas to second slip, and was one of a number undone by banged-in deliveries. 

Fast-forward seven years, near as damn it, and there I was chatting to Alfonso about whether or not he feels Twenty20 is a game for more experienced cricketers, about the mindset of death bowling, about whether his approach differs in his homeland or in India, where he was picked up for Pune Warriors in last year’s IPL. He told me that he varied his length according to conditions, to which I replied: “shame you didn’t do the same to me!” I then reminded him of his searingly caustic and accurate sledge – “better fucking captain…” – which elicited a hearty guffaw before he said, not very convincingly, “that can’t be me though, surely. That doesn’t sound like me…”

The following day, the article was posted on Cricinfo. Later that afternoon, I had a text message from Alfonso that read: “Good article mate. I take back all the chirps”. I replied in the only way possible, the reply he might have given were we 22 yards away from each other: “Nah, mate – just update them to ‘you’re a better fucking writer than you were a fucking cricketer!’” Also true. Well, I sincerely hope so…


* The previous summer, we had beaten them three times out of four, having drawn the first NSSCL encounter at our place, a game they had bossed and in which our last hope vanished when I ran past one from Gaz Morris the ball after drinks. We played out a bore-draw. 

Next up was a Stone Charity Cup semi-final at Oulton: 16 eight-ball overs, both sides to provide a used cricket ball. Now, whereas we handed the umpires a fairly hard, polished Reader, the sort regularly used in 2nd XI cricket, Longton – either to take the piss or because they’d forgotten a ball – used something with the firmness, shape and colour of an overripe peach. My Basil Fawlty-style protestations while batting tickled them no end, it seemed, and upon being dismissed I promptly organized a search of everyone’s kit bag for the worst ball we could find. I then asked Ben Myatt (watching) to go behind the dressing rooms and repeatedly throw it down into the concrete slabs. After that, I had ‘Floppy’ Heard take a bat mallet to it. By the time our innings finished I wandered over to the umpire, John Grimley, and informed him that the club had given me the originally submitted ball by mistake and actually needed it for the league on Saturday. I duly handed him the (carefully ‘prepared’) replacement… When Iain Carr’s first ball was punched off the back foot by Mike Longmore and barely made it to cover, it was as much as we could do to suppress our laughter. Anyway, long story short, we went on to win the game and, as tended to happen, enjoyed the fuck out of it, all the more so because it was Longton. 

We then knocked them out of the Talbot Cup, also at the semi-final stage. I made a scruffy 30-odd not out so bad it started to make me laugh that they couldn’t get me out, but which nevertheless gave me the best seat in the house as ‘Billy’ Carr had one of those days with the bat when the only thing you can bowl at him is 45 mph spin.

Finally, there was perhaps the most satisfying result of the lot: a league victory on their turf, always a delight given their healthy (in number, at least), vocal, and occasionally boorish support. On a sweltering day and with a typically green-tinged pitch, I was unsure of what to do at the toss and so took the unusual step, for me, of canvassing opinion: seven said bat; three, bowl. I poked my head through their door and said “we’ll have a bowl” (it was a case of who said it, not how many) and, leaving behind a low hum and murmur of happiness, came back to our room to inform the three emotional barometers of the team, small ‘c’ conservatives all, that they had “better fucking get it right with the ball”. 

Iain Carr duly bowled out of his skin, hooping it round corners – initially at lively pace – to a 7-2 field, four grabbers and no fine leg (a bouncer threat was redundant), and as usual getting steep bounce. After an hour-and-a-quarter or so, with 6 for nowt, he started to flag in the heat and suggested he needed a break. I was at mid off and told him, faux-sympathetically: “I’m sorry, mate, but you’re beating the bat three times an over. What do you want me to do?!” Iain finished with 9 for 51, as a last-wicket flourish raised them from 90 for 9 to 115 all out – surely too few…

Since we had bowled them out so quickly, NSSCL regulations stipulated that we had a ten-minute turnaround and had to bat a sharp little 40-minute session before tea, an utterly nonsensical rule that penalised us for our good play, allowing their new-ball bowlers to run in hard for 5 or 6 overs, put their feet up for half-an-hour, before bombing at us again. I had little time to think about the batting order, but demoted Iain to number 7 to give him a break, while asking the 16-year-old Simon Hemmings to sink or swim at number 3 and, to open up, Mike Astley, a technically limited player who scored heavily in the 2s but was easy to keep quiet at 1st team level, yet had enough guts for three players – both wickets I felt we could sort of afford to lose (I was wrong). 

We were immediately in trouble: Doc nicked South African pro Andrew Tweedie to the ’keeper, then Hemmings steered one to slip. Enter the captain, who was bowled a sharp yorker second ball up (always a good idea to me, especially when I was tense, which I invariably was against Longton) and trapped plumb in front. Then Immy, having pestered me to slip him into the upper order, was brilliantly stumped down the legside by the veteran, Sas, as he crossed his feet, and Longton were swarming all over us, giving ‘Rick’ Astley some fearful abuse for his perceived shortcomings. We were 20 for 4 at tea. Rick came into the rooms with a faraway look in his eye and announced that there was “no way these c**ts are winning this. No fucking way”. After the break, Longton nipped out Andy Hawkins, bringing Carry to the crease and he scored an authoritative 33 not out to see us over the line. Mick finished on 46 not out, one of the most courageous knocks I’ve seen in club cricket, and we were utterly jubilant – for the simple fact of having beaten Longton and not because we might have hampered their charge for the title, with Stone breathing down their necks. Anyway, the win gave us the opportunity for a bit of humour at their expense and so, pretending to be Stone professional Mo Hussain, I telephoned the Longton bar from our dressing room and asked them for the result. “You getting beat by the Moddershalls?!? Bloody hell, how that happen? They bloody crap team, they is…” I have rarely been in a happier dressing room than that day.

** Although the 110-over games could be split 60/50, the side bowling first was ‘compensated’ by being able to take the new ball at 55 overs, thus affording themselves a 5-over window to do as much damage as they could get away with to the ball they’d shortly be facing. Go figure. 

Thursday, 19 July 2012


Carpe Diem: one of the most well known and widely adopted mottos in a sport in which the beating butterfly wings of a minor event – a dropped catch, an injured colleague, a poor umpiring decision – can be amplified into something career-defining.

Although the forthcoming series is an important step in Imran Tahir’s embryonic Test career, it is premature to suggest that the tour is make-or-break. His new country has simply invested too much in him – emotionally in the case of fans long hoping for a mystery spinner to complement their batting and pace-bowling stocks; strategically and materially in the case of Cricket South Africa, for whom the Lahore-born leg-spinner was seen as the missing piece in the jigsaw – for that to be the case.

Nevertheless, after a slow start in Test cricket (18 wickets at 37 in seven matches), the longer he goes without success, the more difficult it will become to slot his feet under the table, the pressure that comes from a sports-mad South African public, from the media, from teammates’ gestures or from within himself all unlikely to transmit calm to someone who, perfectly understandably, might be trying too hard to succeed.

Deliberately or inadvertently, the spotlight on Tahir may have intensified as a result of Michael Vaughan’s tweet a few weeks back: “England’s bowling attack is the best in the world. Would not swap it for any other. Not SA. Swann is the difference. Cheers”. Some high-profile Englishmen are well aware of the danger he carries, however: Ian Bell’s hundred to win the CB40 last year only just eclipsed the leg-spinner’s 5 for 41, while Kevin Pietersen was sufficiently impressed during a brief stint playing for Dolphins in November 2010 to call his teammate “world class”.

For all the hopes and expectations that the 33-year-old rookie could help transform the Proteas into the world’s best Test side, so far has he come so quickly that it is easy to forget that just four years ago he was still unable to find a county willing to take him on, following unsuccessful trials with Yorkshire, Middlesex, Durham, and Sussex. When he was finally picked up, by Hampshire in July 2008, he was playing his tenth season of club cricket in England, wheeling away uncomplainingly, bagging five-fors for Moddershall CC in the North Staffordshire & South Cheshire League, a competition he had terrorized for nine of those seasons, even breaking Gary Sobers’s 40-year-old record for most wickets (104) in 2002. 

Moddershall CC

If the KIA Oval – venue for the first Test, and likely to provide the most spin-friendly surface of this truncated heavyweight series – is indeed to be a crossroads for this amiable purveyor of the game’s most beguiling and difficult art, then the most compelling reason for him to succeed could be simple karma: a reward from the cricketing gods, or whichever force bestows good fortune, for the phenomenal loyalty and dedication of his exploits during that summer of 2008, both for Hampshire and Moddershall.

When the Hawks swooped for their exotic new overseas player, Moddershall were in the thick of a surprise title challenge, jostling with Longton (pro: Nathan Astle), Knypersley (Lonwabo Tsotsobe), Audley (‘Rusty’ Theron) and favourites Leek, who were using sub pros having been moved to terminate the contract of Bajan tearaway Tino Best for accusing the umpires of racial bias in their adjudications. Given that the previous two years had been spent flirting with relegation, Tahir’s long-awaited county breakthrough was something of a bittersweet moment for the club explained former teammate Andy Hawkins, the man who signed him: “On the one hand, we were delighted he finally got his chance, but were also gutted for ourselves because league regulations and stringent UK Border Authority visa controls meant that good quality sub pro’s were very, very difficult to find. It looked as though the challenge was over”.

Enter the honourable Tahir’s extraordinary commitment and determination on two fronts. While his 44 wickets at 16.7 each in seven games – including a county record 12 for 189 on debut at Old Trafford – helped rescue Hampshire from the precipice of relegation, he was also desperate not to abandon a club for which he’d played in both 2004 and 2005. As it transpired, the fixture list and his devotion to the cause meant that he only ended up missing two of Moddershall’s final nine games.

Hawkins said: “His efforts and general keenness to get back were immense. One week, he phoned on Thursday afternoon, Day 2 of a Championship game at Southampton, and told us not to get a sub pro as they’d ‘definitely be finished by tomorrow’. Hampshire won, he drove up to Stoke that night, took 7-for and slogged 48, then shot off to Taunton for a game on Sunday – a 350-mile round trip!”

Immy on debut for Hampshire, July 2008
All in all, when not on the A34, Tahir contributed infectious, unflagging enthusiasm, some agricultural cameos, and 80 wickets at 11 – including five on the final, crucial afternoon – as Moddershall held off Leek’s late, Iain O’Brien-inspired surge to take the title by just two points, the decisive bonus point secured with a googly through the gate and one of those trademark unaffectedly delirious celebrations. “I’m really pleased,” he told the local press. “It has been hard playing county cricket and then travelling here, but I love the club and it is something I had to do”.  

* * * 

Of course, the challenge facing Imran Tahir this summer is much stiffer, perhaps the toughest of his peripatetic career to date, and in an effort to arm himself for the task he has been back to Lahore for a private clinic with an old mentor, Abdul Qadir, who is alleged to have taught him the ‘finger googly’, a variation that he had only previously passed on to Shahid Afridi, Tahir’s colleague in Southampton last summer.

If this all smacks of the type of pre-series bluff mastered by a third famous overseas wrist-spinner to have called the Rose Bowl home then that in itself is a positive sign that he is coming to terms with the less mercurial, more guileful facets of his art. For the criticism of him thus far has been that he lacks patience, that he overuses his variations – a common trait among those whose provenance come from tapeball cricket, with its ironic promotion of the explosive over the streetwise, the ruminative (and a ‘bomber’ mentality that can be detected in the speed with which he gets through an over, an over-eagerness perhaps also manifest in him running on the pitch) – and thus that he releases pressure too readily, pressure that he is sometimes even unaware he has created. 

master  thinker

If there is a page out of any leg-spinner’s book you want to take, it is, of course, Shane Warne’s (from the cricketing chapters, at least). With the Victorian stood at the top of his run, every ball was pregnant with possibility – and the more it wasn’t, the more he would ensure that it would appear so in the mind of his adversary. SK Warne – an anagram of which was what most English batsmen of the era thought of his ilk – was not only a brilliant bowler technically, combining intimidating amounts of spin with a level of accuracy that was practically obscene in such an aggressive bowler; he also had a preternatural understanding of a batsman’s thought processes, routinely interfered with by both an exceptional tactical brain and native flair for the verbal barbs and theatrics of psychological warfare. It was a trident that meant he scarcely encountered any conditions or circumstances in which he was unable to find a way of discomfiting the batsman.

If that sort of stagecraft and showmanship is impossible to teach (although, presumably the Proteas will have an idea who can and cannot pick his googly, allowing the team to create some theatre with red-herring fields and immediate pressure, providing he can get the first ball right), Tahir could certainly learn from the way Warne thought his way through situations, often setting precise and unusual fields, and always using the crease intelligently. And there was never a rush, either between balls or to unfurl his variations. 

a difficult start

Warne paused at the top of his approach not only to get in the batters’ heads, but also to make sure he knew what he wanted to happen: imagining not so much the ball he wanted to bowl as the shot he wanted the batsman to play. A subtle distinction. He would also often set 4/5 fields to right-handers, reckoning that on scruffy, low-bouncing pitches, with his devilish drift across the batter’s eyes, it was just as hard to force him away square on the offside as through mid-wicket – the latter fraught with across-the-line risk; the former only potentially run-scoring if some room were engineered or a minor error in line or length opened it up.

The high priest of angles, Duncan Fletcher, would tell you that delivering almost every ball from mid-crease, as Tahir does, is playing into the hands of batsmen yearning for familiarity and regularity, like those led compulsively and obsessively to alphabetize their CDs. Instead, he could inject much greater potency to his less effective leg-break – especially in a DRS-dominated universe – by continuing to seek to land this delivery on middle-and-off stump (it doesn’t really drift, à la Warne), yet delivering the ball from wider of the crease and thus ensuring that, after pitching, the line of the ball is threatening the stumps, and the front pad, rather than spinning away toward slip. This angle also means that the batsman, whether ‘picking’ him or not, would be drawn into playing at more deliveries.

In the attempt to understand why it might not yet quite have happened for Tahir at Test level, we can point up the seamer-friendly pitches that have aided his co-debutant in Cape Town last November, Vernon Philander, to take 51 wickets over the same seven-game period (they have played six times together), but it is also legitimate to ask whether Graeme Smith has set sympathetic fields. Is a standard left-arm spinner’s 6/3 fitting for a bowler whose chief weapon is a spitting, accurate googly (with a flipper for the tail and/or the imprecise of footwork)?

gaining confidence? 

Maybe not. But this is always two-way street. Tahir must earn the confidence of Smith: before he can attack, he must find a way of staying in the attack (much in the same way that Graeme Swann is lauded for his first innings holding role, providing twenty-five overs a day on unresponsive pitches, if necessary). This faith from his captain ought then allow him to relax and bowl, rather than pushing too much and rushing things – the butterfly wings of one good innings, maybe just one key wicket at the Oval, could furnish him with that intangible sense of belonging and a foothold for the final stages of his globetrotting career.

Hawkins has seen him bowl for over a decade, and supports the view that “he needs to be patient, bowl within the team pattern, and bring out his variations judiciously. If he does, and the pitches offer bounce and some spin, he’ll be a handful. Whatever happens, he’ll always be a legend up here – for his attitude as much as his wickets”.

Certainly, there will be plenty up at Moddershall CC hoping that their former professional’s humility and dedication can be rewarded with the opportunity to unfurl that infectious celebration, plenty hoping that ‘Immy’ can finally kickstart his Test career, even if it costs their countrymen a series win. Some bonds are deeper than mere nationality.

Oh, and the Moddershall club motto? Why, Carpe Diem, of course.

Sunday, 15 July 2012


It’s funny when, with longstanding indebtedness having made ignoring ‘Call Anonymous’ on the mobile more or less second nature, you actually go ahead, take the ‘risk’ and pick up, only to receive some unexpected good news. All the more of a delight when they have previously emailed your rarely used, more professional-seeming email address and you have not seen the message. Nor are likely to see it. A potential opportunity missed. Sliding Doors.

In this case, the anonymous call involved being asked to do a day’s work reporting on cricket for The Guardian – not exactly a lifetime’s ambition, but pretty much the only paper I read and thus something that, recently – especially since I’ve realized the imbalance in my education/employability accounts – had come to appear like being an astronaut or airline pilot does to your average nine-year-old boy. This was the paper of Mike Selvey and Vic Marks, Andy Bull and Barney Ronay, solid blokes like Andy Wilson and Rob Smyth. The only thing was, I wasn’t prepared to ‘do my time’ on the sports equivalent of ‘Cat Stuck Up Tree’ stories in order to get there; you know, non-league football and the like. Because I had no time.

So, off I went to Edgbaston (which has recently lost 7 of 12 days of cricket to the weather, including four days’ international play) in the knowledge that I’d be contributing to The Guardian’s fabled County Cricket Blog as well as having a short report in the Saturday paper, all being well.

But this was Friday 13. All was not well. Perhaps there was something of a clue in the man in the ice hockey mask fleetingly glimpsed as I made the short walk from the bus stop on Bristol Street over to the ground, then up to the fourth floor of Edgbaston’s new stand. The press box, so much busier for the Test against West Indies last month, housed just a single soul, and up there in the Gods we sat gazing at the outfield and the sky’s fifteen shades of grey.

I still had to file brief updates from the ground, and I also posted BTL (that’s ‘below the line’; that’s in the Comments section; that’s…oh, you’ll work it out), which provided perhaps the greatest pleasure of the day: being granted a two-tone blue C, for Contributor, alongside my username, ItsGoingIrish. Sad, I know.

Guardian County Blog: Friday 13 July

As it became increasingly obvious that there’d be no play (it was eventually called off at around 1 o’clock), I tried to think of an angle for some sort of piece for the website later, appearance in the newspaper having vanished along with the Brum skyline a couple of miles in the distance.

With Graeme Swann having sat out the final couple of ODIs against Australia with an elbow injury, a chat with Sussex’s Monty Panesar seemed a good option, asking him if he was ready to step in at The Oval, a turning pitch, and also whether he was looking forward to getting some game time this winter in India, land of both his forefathers and his debut in 2006. 

As it was, Monty had left the building, as had Matt Prior, while Ian Bell was otherwise occupied. So, as several players in county tracksuits whose faces I didn’t recognize filed past me in Edgbaston’s impressive reception area, I ended up having a chat with Warwickshire’s 38-year-old all-rounder Darren Maddy about the title race in the County Championship. The result was my first ever Guardian by-line. Decent.

It’s just a shame the subeditors excised my Jungle Book gag at the end, which tied in to the first sentence’s mention of being at the mercy of the weather. It read: “In this light, taking things ‘very much one day at a time, one session at a time, and sticking to our processes’ is not so much a cliché as the only sane way to go about things. It is, you might say, the Bears’ necessity. Now, they just need a favour from Mother Nature’s recipe.”

Darren Maddy piece for Graun

So, debut made. The question now is whether I’ll be a one-cap wonder.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012


was this the moment England stopped being bullied by the Aussies?

You can tell a lot about a person – about a culture, maybe – from how they react when their football team go 4-0 up with 20 minutes still to play. Does the dead eyed slavering bloodlust rise and show itself? Do they demand the abjection of their quarry, the humiliation of the bloodied and bereft opponent? Do they want a cricket score (surely they mean a rugby score, kicking-dominated)? Or does a desire for mercy appear, as happened recently when, at the end of the European Championship final in Kiev, ‘San’ Iker Casillas asked for the ref to blow early to protect the dignity of the vanquished Italian opponent?

Despite a tendency to lose dead rubbers, the Australian cricket juggernaut of the Waugh-Warne-McGrath era was once held up as the epitome of ruthlessness. Now, however, they have The Smith (Steven) and That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore – they cannot kick us when we fall down, kick us when we fall down…

The boot is now on the other tootsie: England are 3-0 up with one to be washed out by Biblical rain play in the Republic of Mancúnia. Moreover, the Edgbaston wash-out means that the possibility of England usurping Australia’s Number 1 spot is no longer there as an obvious motive. Deliciously, therefore, this game shows in a somewhat naked light the degree of the team’s ruthless streak. Or, of course, its opposite.

Somebody wrote the following about all this in some film or novel called The Merchant of Venice: “The quality of mercy is not strain’d / It droppeth as the rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: / It blesseth him that gives and him that takes that give”.

Either it comes freely, or it doesn’t. We are laid bare by the particular external triggers for our bloodthirstiness, and likewise for our compassion. So, do England go for the jugular, because, you know, they have these scores to settle?

Now, all of the above is true, except for the bit about being able to “tell a lot about a person from how they react when their football team goes 4-0 up with 20 minutes to go”. Because sometimes you cannot read the physical signs, the corporeal semiology, to discover the ‘true’ sentiments. We are pragmatic creatures. Sometimes we feign (for gain), sometimes we simulate; even animals do it, using camouflage to increase their powers in predatory war.

Sometimes we drape ourselves in a simulacrum of partisan sentiment for the sake of showing that it matters as much as it should do, and in the right way. And so it is for an England cricket fan that Australia becomes the enemy. And so it is that we rumble through the whole tedious charade, joylessly comforting ourselves that it is what is done. I began my piece for The Blizzard with the following paragraph, which appears germane here:

There are some rivalries – those ferocious cross-town antagonisms of Istanbul and Cairo, Athens and Rome, Belgrade and Buenos Aires, or the multifarious, volatile Latin American clásicos and superclásicos – that are hewn for the ages, it would seem: a self-perpetuating, endlessly renovated symbiotic loathing in which each new supporter is compelled, as a kind of initiatory sine qua non, to adopt a bone-deep, acid-sweat hatred of the Other Lot. Now, while a modicum of intellectual modesty and smidgeon of philosophical rigour ought to preclude us from asserting with absolute certainty that these tête-à-têtes are, despite appearances, fixed and eternal (yes, even the Auld Firm), the fact that they rumble forward at glacial speed – nourished by an animosity so viscous and seemingly implacable that fans on both sides of the divide never escape the gravitational pull of their compulsory mutual abhorrence – indeed creates the sense of a de facto permanence from which the supporters henceforth appear to derive their rigid identity.

It is emotional fascism: the demand that we feel the same thing because we understand the world in the same way, ‘we’ being the 200-odd collections of citizens from sovereign vessels that are thus deemed to trace the primary contours of who we are. It is all so juvenile. And the more abstract our means of identifying ourselves (flags, nations and other spiritual entities), the more voluble the demand for this enforced gregarity, the more intolerant we become. (You only need think of someone like Ian Botham claiming he would “hang” republicans if he could, to which the only reasonable reply is: Vote Botham.)

Frankly, nations – historical babies, mere artifices invented for the consolidation of bourgeois domination upon the slow decomposition of the feudal order – are so very passé. Boring, almost.

If they could do anything to arrest global warming and climate change, fine. If they had any hold over the fluid and perplexing financial mechanisms that asphyxiate us, this delirious irrational machine of our own devising that is little more than a magic spell, then I would endorse them. As it is, their sovereign power extends only to the enforcement of contracts that keep us enslaved. Is this the kind of idenity into which you wish to sink your heart and soul?

Of course, it is neither here or there whether sports teams compete as nations, cities, regions, or any other unit. What is important is the form, not the content, of our modes of self-identification. And sports teams, passionally invested, prime us for similarly segregative and restrictive senses of belonging elsewhere. Whatever the context (and I haven’t forgotten the starting point for all this), the more we police the borders between an Us and a Them, the more rigid the boundary becomes, the more paranoid we inevitably feel toward the other, the more we huddle together with “our own kind,” howsoever designated.

Abstract identification is a lose-lose game, a truly miserable way to live. Despite the exponential growth in the tattoo industry, we do not need to mark ourselves indefinitely as x or y. We can be a pebble over which the currents of desire and obligation course. We need becoming, not Being.

Religion, nation, sports team, musical subculture, political party – all are examples of “molar identity” that have to be unpicked (slowly, with caution, lest we plunge into the darkness of madness or fascism). And it is molar identity that is the breeding ground of the low-intensity ‘microfascism’ that, more than anything else, prevents us from, you know, managing our affairs as humanity very well. We are forever dividing ourselves up.

All of this self-ghettoization, wrote the great thinkers of micropolitics, Deleuze and Guattari, “does not coincide with divisions between classes, although it is an incomparable weapon in the service of a dominant class: it is this…that brings about the feeling of ‘indeed being one of us,’ of being part of a superior race threatened by enemies from the outside.”

D & G

When there’s a tragedy in cricket – the death of Tom Maynard – or a sad misfortune like the retirement of Mark Boucher today, everyone agrees that cricket “is just a game,” that it matters not a jot. All too often – and to focus solely in cricket just by way of example, not because it is particularly worse – people return, in the name of ‘getting on with things’, straight to thinking that the Ashes is the most important thing, the envelope of their world, refusing to look the iniquities of the world in the eye, smacked out on the opiate of sport as the grand old event being re-charged like a flat car battery until it crackles with significance.

But if the notion that cricket is ‘just a game’ is not to be a mere platitude, trotted out precisely to demonstrate that one understands how to play the emotional code, the need for gravitas, then perhaps we must carry the idea through to its logical outcome, which is this: if we are ever to advance as a ‘race’ or a species’ then the reflex veneration of traditional, hand-me-down identities needs to be rethought.

“History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to wake up,” wrote Joyce (James, not Ed) in Ulysses. To say much the same thing – and you might need a deep breath here – it is not an absolute positive to simply take on your father’s identity, or your community’s under the blackmail of ostracism, which is surely ready to become an archaism. As Nietzsche intuited, we need to forget just as much as we need to remember.

It could well be that the only chance we – humanity – have on this hunk of rock goes by way of politely divesting ourselves of our burdensome traditions, putting down the chunky old pooch of our imposed identity and setting off a new adventure that invents our identities, and does so on an equal footing, on new soil, not barricaded in our mental ghettoes. (And it is in this sense that soi-disant liberals who support multiculturalism, as presently understood, are in fact conservatives: seeking, deferentially, to preserve pockets of defensive incompatibility rather than start to become-x.)

Finally, an apology: I started writing in a sardonic mood, but my themes – and, yes, my circumstance – have dragged me into such territory. It’s my Lament for Humanity Lost. On the plus side, there is nothing under my carpet. 

Saturday, 7 July 2012


best in the business? 

Apropos of Eion Morgan dropping Michael Clarke at backward point at Chester-le-Street on 9 not out…

No, scratch that. Apropos of posh scarecrow, Nicholas Verity Knight, asserting of the hurling-influenced Irish hand-speed-through-the-hitting-area merchant, “he doesn’t drop many” – when in fact any fool know he’s dropped several catches of late (my ten penneth, for what it’s worth, say it’s probably connected to footwork, not having a solid base, an area of concern in the twist-cum-limbo of his batting, and is definitely exacerbated by his trying-to-exude-emotional-changelessness) – I thought I’d throw together a quick list of great fielders.

The list isn’t comprehensive – for that to be the case I’d have to be an active cricket watcher when, in fact, I’m quite passive, mainly because I don’t have Sky at home, other than on my computer, which is an old bitch prone to overheating and consequently isn’t keen on me watching SkyGo. Yeah? Also, I can’t get much else done when I’m watching that. So, that’s mainly why I’m not watching Mashonaland Matriarchs play the Bulawayo Bullies or scouring Aussie message boards to see whether Shane Doolan of Perth Whizz or Wayne McGraw of Toowoomba Dags is the better cover-point.

The things I’ve considered are: how often the ball goes smack bang in the centre of their hands; the ‘Bejesus factor’ (batsmen thinking ‘there’s no way I’m running to him’ when in fact there’s a leisurely two); wingspan and agility, if ring men; whether he’s got a decent ‘Broadwater’, if an outfielder; but mainly, the sheer coincidence of whether I happen to have stumbled across them in action.

The above are considered in a loose ratio of 2:4:3:2:9. Science.


Possible tokenism here – the likes of David Miller, Johnny Bairstow and Dwayne Bravo don’t get in, not to mention veterans like Collingwood, Herschelle and ‘Roy’ Symonds – but Nazir was one of the few Pakistani fielders who had an aura.


Recently dropped three (or maybe two) slip catches in a day at Edgbaston, but regularly hangs on to barely credible grabs at short leg, and often makes the difficult appear ridiculously easy.

VK1 -- attitude

Brings attitude. And skill. The third member of India’s T20 inner circle.


The highest compliment he can be given is that the Kiwis do not miss Stephen Fleming at slip.


Nobody has ever fielded further from the bat at backward point and still been able to save the single. As ‘Pup’ he had an absolute longbow of an arm but back troubles and captaincy have now pushed him into the cordon, where he is equally brilliant. Possible nostalgia pick, but deserves it.


Unfairly derided because of (a) Australian selectorial idiocy, picking him either as a Test number 6 or frontline leggie, and (b) the ‘availability heuristic’ of his non-golden boy looks. Exceptional fielder.

Broke the world record last year with seven outfield catches in an innings and is widely considered the best grabber on the county circuit.

Pollard catches Patel, 2010

‘Always have your tallest fielder on the fence’ says the ancient cricketing lore, and this once cost Notts a T20 semi-final, as Pollard’s hang-time and span saw him pluck an awesome, game-turning catch. Also does well in the circle for a big man…Presence.


Explosive boundary rider, super-quick to the ball, bullet throw. Don’t mess with ‘Toby’.


Announced himself as a cricketer with a stunning non-catch at Trent Bridge in the 2009 World T20 and has probably usurped Tillekeratne Dilshan as his country’s best fielder.


Not 100% reliable hanging on to the lacerated cuts, but super-mobile in the deep with an unparalleled ability to throw accurately off the wrong foot.

Jimmy snaffles on on the boundary

Arguably the greatest quick-bowling all-round fieldsman of the all time, Anderson can prowl in the ring, cover the fence or take reflex catches at slip from spin or pace with equal facility.


With Kohli, part of the Indian nouvelle vague, Jadeja’s work off his own bowling is staggering. Fields at backward point with the insouciance of the Pink Panther.


Brilliant in gully, saving one, or out in the deep, he always looks like he’s enjoying it, which helps.


A jet-heeled ferret. Just check out this catch, like a goalie going to his left and saving with his right hand. Natural heir to Colly. Say no more.


Catches pigeons in the slips, sensational at backward point, can keep wicket.

Still mobile, still blessed with the anticipation and awareness of a clairvoyant cobra, still the most accurate at throwing down the stumps, incredible at silly point, almost as much of a genius at second slip, his urchin face and tatty cap only added to the anti-glamour ‘here to do f**king business’ vibe.

Jonty's heir

Little-known Cape Cobras bits-and-pieces merchant who shone in the 2010 CLT20. The natural heir to Colin Bland and Jonty Rhodes, but deficiencies in his other departments – plus the (possibly archaic) rule preventing special teams in T20 – might deprive the wider world of his skills.


In any other era, he would be the best, no question. The fact that he ousts ABdV speaks for itself. Phenomenal off the quicks at point, even better when moving round to the drive positions off spinners, nobody dives and gets to their feet quicker than Faf.


I have never seen a better all-round fielding display than the one he gave in the last World Cup against South Africa. It’s almost true to say it won them the game. Vettori was so grateful he was moved to namecheck him in the Stand In Front of Sponsor’s Livery interview.