Thursday, 21 March 2013


For some reason, I never much liked the sentence “I am a ___,” no matter which word or phrase completed it (I’m sure people that know me have a few choice – mainly profane – options to hand, but I’m talking about careers or other forms of identity). It always seemed so fixed, so final, so definitive, and I had always liked eluding definition. Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not, as Arctic Monkeys put it. 

The other day, while trudging through a conversation’s introductory small-talk, someone I’d known for two gulps of lager asked me what I did (I presume he meant for a job). “I’m a cricket writer,” I said, without much thought. No sooner had it left my mouth, however, than I wanted to qualify it, de-glamourise it, be accurate – “It’s not regular work and I’m barely making ends meet”; “I’m freelancing at a time when journalism as a whole is struggling to pay the bills, what with all the free content on the web”; “I’m a chancer, a bum”; “I’m constantly having to think of ideas, pitching them to stressed editors, badgering stressed editors, annoying stressed editors, looking for other editors”. It feels like hard work, alright, but not like a job.  

Old friends at Moddershall may also say that if there was one thing I was expert at, it was avoiding work. At times, I’ve followed that famous maxim of Mark Twain: why put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after that. But it’s not true that I’m work-shy; I’m merely trying to avoid work that I dislike doing – which, given that I dislike most of it, is proving quite difficult. A real effort, in fact; pretty much a job.

Anyway, in January 2011, having finally submitted my PhD thesis (ten years, much extenuation) and while waiting for the viva voce exam (a two-hour interview with internal and external examiners, the latter an expert, to ensure you haven’t copy-pasted it off t’internet), I got involved as sports editor with a Nottingham magazine, Leftlion, my sole purpose being to wile away some time watching Notts from the comfort of the press box before the July Judgement Day arrived (it arrived the following January after Professor Beasley-Murray, University of Vancouver, also decided he didn’t like work, and went AWOL). That and the odd free lunch.

That summer, I watched two days of the season opener against Hampshire and perhaps spent another dozen days down there, the highlight being seeing Trescothick make an imperious 80-odd in the same game that Kieswetter and Hales both made big, though less impressive, hundreds. While the standard was high, it was, apart from the T20 games, all snoozily low-key. Blasting Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Bonkers’ over the PA system (mandatory at T20) at a ‘Champo’ game might truthfully describe the few hundred sloppily shaven, biscuit crumb-covered men dotted about the ground, just out of range for small-talk with any other living soul whatsoever, but would, on balance, probably have been a tad incongruous. 

view from Trent Bridge press box
In any case, I grasped that this county reporting malarkey was a perfectly pleasant way to make a living (several hacks think Trent Bridge’s press box the best in the country, due to its perfect viewing angle and, crucially, having the canteen right behind it), even if it lacked real big-stage excitement. Last year, however, I got to feel what cricket writing could really be like as I covered the England versus West Indies Test down by the Trent for Spin magazine.

After two days of sedate pre-game press conferences with coaches, skippers and the Duracell enthusiasm of Sky Sports’ Tim Abrahams, the game, at last, arrived. I awoke as excited as if playing a title-decider or cup final. Nottingham basked beneath some late-May sun – it had rained for a week either side of this six-day period – and I, King Slugabed, eagerly caught tram and bus across the city, walked over the bridge through the buzz and swell of slowly lubricating supporters (even before 10am), had my ECB accreditation swiped, then went up to find my seat, fire up the laptop and, well, get some complementary food. Nom, nom.

The chalk-and-cheese difference in the bleachers from County Championship to Test was replicated within the press’s inner sanctum: where a county game might have ten there (couple of the broadsheets, local press, cricinfo, press officers for the two teams, OPTA), here around 70 of the 92 seats were taken. There were the Oxbridge-educated ex-internationals: Mike Atherton and Ed Smith (Times), Derek Pringle and Steve James (Telegraph), Mike Selvey and Vic Marks (Guardian); there were the correspondents, Peter Hayter, Stephen Brenkley, Paul Newman, the red-toppers John Etheridge and Dean Wilson; a couple of Caribbean scribes; reporters from press agencies (AP, AFP, Reuters) and websites and the other magazines; owlish Wisden editor Lawrence Booth; ECB employees; sponsors reps; plastic zebras; a scorer with a microphone, helpfully dispensing statistics. TVs were on and a masseuse right behind me soothed the probably-already-quite-relaxed muscles of MCJ Nicholas as he whispered his probably-minor stresses to her.

Notts had provided stewards to ensure there was no movement within (or traffic in and out of) the press box when the bowler was operating from our end, Radcliffe Road (which was, y’know, roughly half the time…). The lugubrious Pringle, keen to avail his massive heft of the masseuse’s kneading skills, tried to beetle along the row between deliveries, only to be admonished by some sergeant-majorly volunteer who set about explaining why the hacks couldn’t move. “Yes, thanks, I get it,” Pringle fired back, tersely. “I did play the odd game, you know. Here and there.” 

Pringle bowls at someone...
Nasser Hussain would bob in between commentary stints, open his laptop, keeping himself to himself; Bumble occasionally shuffled in to sit next to his ghost writer, feeding him opinions and generally grinning (apropos of drawing breath); Mikey Holding dropped in now and then, soft-shoed and cool; Beefy remained up above somewhere. The canteen was full of people I had spent idle days watching when I ought to have been researching Peronist Argentina: Mark Butcher, relaxed as a pussycat, playing finger drums on the table; Alec Stewart carefully unfolding his napkin, neat and tidily in character; Michael Vaughan, asking if he could borrow the salt and pepper. Aggers, Tuffers, Wardy, Simon Hughes buzzed through.

It was, I guess, an intimidating experience. Your eyes cast around for friendly faces, looking – hoping – for small-talk. I had an ice-breaking device (no, not an ice-pick) or two, however, inasmuch as I’d been collating questionnaires from cricket writers, which gave me an excuse to approach the seemingly more approachable characters. Amiable men I’d seen on the county beat – Andy Wilson and George Dobell – struck up conversation over lunch. I soon got into the swing (although the ‘work’ is much more intense, as the game seems to skip by) and was even able to steal 10 minutes with the doyen of Caribbean broadcasters, Tony Cozier, receiving a comprehensive answer to the question Id bundled into his day about why West Indies had so many players of Indian descent. While people are too busy to spend too much time away from their computers or microphones to chit-chat, I was, by and large, welcomed. I was even asked to do a Two Chucks 20-second slot on cricinfo after a close-of-play ‘presser’.

Fortunately, Spin also asked me to cover the (rain-ruined) Edgbaston Test, in which, you may recall, former Leek professional Tino Best broke the world record for highest Test score by a number 11, coming within five runs of a hundred. It was here that my other ice-breaker – a project about Minor Counties cricket’s acts of giantkilling – afforded me the chance to chat with Geoffrey Boycott, twice part of a Yorkshire team downed by amateurs: Durham (pre-first-class) and Shropshire. He very generously gave me 25 minutes of his time and, listening respectfully to my questions, was far from the strident, shouty curmudgeon he can occasionally seem on TMS. Nor did he make any excuses about poor pitches or dodgy umpiring. “No, no. We were just rubbish”. 

Edgbaston press box
Yet perhaps the highlight of it all came amidst the long Edgbaston rain breaks. Having stockpiled my plate at the buffet, I found an empty seat next to an unattended, equally full plate. A mouthful or two of pasta later the inimitable figure of Sir Vivian Isaac Alexander Richards sidled up and sat down beside me. Viv! 60 years old and still with the figure of a middleweight boxer, he happily indulged my questions (I was being self-consciously blasé and casual about shooting the breeze with arguably the greatest batsman of the modern era). I got round to Tino, mentioned I’d faced him, said he didn’t get me out. Viv didn’t look particularly impressed. I told him I was a little afraid, mainly because Tino seemed capable at any moment of bowling a beamer off 19 yards, and I asked whether he himself – despite the gum-chewing gunslinger’s swagger, no helmet required – had ever been afraid. He finished what he was chewing. “Man, you face individuals like Jeff Thomson, Dennis Lillee, those guys, you going to be a bit afraid. But if you let them see it, oh boy, you’re a dead man. You gotta walk out there proud, in a fashion that says ‘I am Vivian Richards’, you know what I mean?”

I knew what he meant. I knew because I had played over a hundred Tests before my thirteenth birthday and, more often than not, had walked into bat saying to myself “I am Vivian Richards” (perhaps the reason why my default release shot was to try, with scant success, whipping length balls over mid-wicket).

Walk out there proud. Yeah.

This was my second offering for ‘Barnfields Buzz’, my club’s newsletter. The first is here. Once again, the column appears to be twice as long as it should be. Next time, I promise… 

Monday, 11 March 2013


I had a second debut last month, this time with Wisden India, who published a short piece of mine arguing that it was time to repeal or modufy 'The Bodyline Law' to allow finger spinners more appropriate fields on helpful pitches. 

Original Piece: How an archaic Law has stifled spin

The only disappointment was that, in describing the attritional game of facing spinners on helpful pitches and trying to manoeuvre the field, I couldn't work in a gag referencing The Simpsons, along the lines of: "having three behind square-leg in the cat-and-mouse battle on a dustbowl might see the batter grow scratchy or the bowler's feet get itchy..."


Last month I had a first piece published in All Out Cricket, originally pitched as a PR piece but with the emphasis changed slightly after (a) I was dismissed from the job (a blessed relief) the day before the pitch was accepted, and (b) the former England opener and architect of the UCCE system Graeme 'Foxy' Fowler rubbished the idea of short-term intensive academies in Australia, one of the (costly) products being sold by the company for which I was doing PR work.

I was helped also by Jarrod Turner of University of Queensland CC and Andy Laws, an emerging all-rounder at Leeds-Bradford MCCU who has also played for Middlesex 2nd XI and Cambridgeshire.

Friday, 1 March 2013


Metamorphosis (n.): a complete change of character, appearance, etc.; a transformation from one type of thing to another.

Cinderella at the ball. Madonna perpetually ‘re-inventing’ herself. The humble caterpillar, bane of lettuce growers everywhere, snuggling up inside a chrysalis and, in nature’s own Stars in Their Eyes-type moment, emerging later as a butterfly, adored by all. And what do we do with butterflies? We catch them, pin them to a board, and stick a big label on them.

As with butterflies, so too with cricketers. Here is a list of XI cricketing caterpillars that became butterflies. Or, if you prefer, XI butterflies who evaded the pins and labels of categorisation – XI cricketers who underwent a metamorphosis.

Richardson (left) in beige lycra for traditional snail race
Mark Richardson
Picked on first-class debut to bowl left-arm spin and bat at 10, Richardson soon succumbed to a bout of the yips. Over the course of the next decade, he developed himself into a nailed-on opening batting selection for the Black Caps, averaging a respectable 44.77 in his 38 Tests. Sticking unrepentantly to a stonewalling, low-risk method (with typical wry self-deprecation he described his game as “the straight drive, the forward defensive and 27 variations on the leave”), he also accumulated 9994 first-class runs, a decimal point from the Don’s iconic numbers. Richardson became a cult hero for NZ’s self-styled ‘Beige Brigade’ on account of his ritual end-of-series slowest runner head-to-heads – ‘Sprint of the Snails’, resplendent in beige lycra bodysuit – with defeats to Ashley Giles and Neil McKenzie offset by victories over Danish Kaneria and Darren Lehmann. 

Chuck Fleetwood-Smith
Unusual not only for being the sole double-barrelled recipient of the hallowed baggy green, Fleetwood-Smith also underwent a remarkable transformation early in his cricketing life when a fractured right arm caused him to take up bowling with the opposite arm and he went on to become one of the earliest notable purveyors of ‘chinamen’. Despite the presence of such luminaries as Clarrie Grimmett and Bill O’Reilly, he was able to play 10 Tests between the wars, taking 42 wickets, although his final analysis of 1-298 (still an unwanted record) augured badly for life after retirement, when alcoholism led to vagrancy, destitution and arrest for theft, before the intervention of ex-PM Sir Robert Menzies brought a brief peace to his final days. 

Lance Klusener
Klusener’s first incarnation was as a decidedly brisk, wide-of-the-crease deck-hitter who brought bags of aggression to an attack fronted by the rapier of Pollock and the sabre of Donald. Over time, however, his batting developed to such an extent that – extraordinarily, and despite that hare-brained run – he won Man of the Tournament at the 1999 World Cup due to his willow-wielding exploits. And all from number 8! In the process, ‘Zulu’ invented a niche ODI role that SA have not quite managed to replicate with the likes of Justin Kemp and Albie Morkel. His bowling wilted under the strain of ankle injuries until he found himself picked to bat at number 5 in the Test team, before carving out a cricketing autumn in the shires as a specialist batsman.

Mohammad Ebrahim Sanuth
ME Sanuth is hardly a household name even within his own four walls, but the twirler from Trivandrum on the southern tip of India is at the cutting edge of a trend predicted by ex-Australian coach and renowned innovator John Buchanan: ambidextrous players. The metamorphosis came about by observing, then emulating, the left-arm spin of Kerala bowler P Prasanth, since when Sanuth’s ability to bowl controlled spin with both arms led to him being picked up on a four-year deal for the academy of the Kolkata Knight Riders (head coach: Buchanan). With a single appearance in both List A and first-class cricket, the 21-year-old’s career is yet to ignite, but with a visit to the National Academy seeing Indian spin-bowling legends Bedi and Prasanna invite him to concentrate on one arm or the other, it may be that he settles for orthodoxy.

Kevin Pietersen
It is now well known that Pietersen started his cricketing life as a promising off-spinner, impressing Nasser Hussain in a tour game in December 1999. The following summer the still shy, gangly lad from Pietermaritzburg arrived in Cannock for a stint of Birmingham League cricket under the tutelage of former Kent and Leicestershire spinner, Laurie Potter. Legend has it that, after three or four games of mixed results, Potter sat his fellow spinner and then Number 9 batsman down for a tête-à-tête: “Kapes, listen. I’ve got to tell you – I don’t rate your bowling much but you’re one hell of a f****** batsman. You’re going up to Number 4.” Cannock won the league, while Pietersen, forced by circumstances to develop his batting, won a contract at Notts. The metamorphosis was complete and the rest is history…

Colin Miller
Through several seasons of steady yet unspectacular achievement in State cricket, Colin ‘Funky’ Miller forged a reputation as a resourceful and clever medium-fast bowler and nuggety tailender. However, it was an ankle injury in a club game in Hobart that saw him bowl off-spin with enough success that he would thereafter mix both styles. This hybrid approach served as the catalyst for a late-career flourish in which he broke records for most wickets in a Shield season and best match figures for Tasmania, propelling the sometime blue-, pink- and peroxide-haired Victorian to an unlikely Test debut and, remarkably, the 2001 Australian Test player of the year award.

Collins Obuya
The game is not short of promising leg-spinners to have forsaken the art for the safer waters of top-order batting – ask Michael Atherton and Nasser Hussain – and one of Kenya’s most famous cricketing sons, Collins Obuya, was also affected by its unique set of rigours and perils. It was his 5/24 in the 2003 World Cup victory over Sri Lanka during the Kenyans’ remarkable progression to the semi-final that caught the eye of Warwickshire, who offered the leggie and part-time tomato vendor a one-year deal. He played just two Championship games (taking 3/180) and was unceremoniously discarded, only to reappear in the spotlight for Kenya some eight years later, now having re-invented himself as a frontline batsman to such an extent that he could take 98* off the Aussies, 52 from Sri Lanka, and 47 against Pakistan.

AC Smith
Later in life Chief Executive of the Test and County Cricket Board, forerunner of the ECB, the former Oxford University, Warwickshire and England wicket-keeper Alan Smith was, during his playing days, one of the more versatile glovemen around in that he took 131 first-class wickets bowling attritional medium-pacers off the wrong foot. Smith’s metamorphosis happened both episodically (during matches in which he was originally selected to keep wicket, even taking a hat-trick against Essex in 1965), and definitively, with the arrival of Deryck Murray at Edgbaston late in his career, leading to his selection by the Bears as a frontline seamer. Given that he skippered the side for a decade, succeeding namesake MJK, one is tempted to ask whether the frustration of trying to dislodge Jim Parks in the Test team led him to indulge his first love. 

Chris Broad
The quintessential poacher-turned-gamekeeper, Chris Broad was hardly a ticking time bomb but certainly more prone than most to red mist-shrouded fury (whence Stuart Broad’s moxie, perhaps). Good enough to be International Cricketer of the Year in 1985, a couple of years later he was at the epicentre of the simmering fractiousness that embroiled the tour to Pakistan (which culminated in the infamous Shakoor Rana–Mike Gatting stand-off), refusing to leave the field for over a minute having been given out. Later that winter he kicked out his middle stump out in the Bicentennial Test in Sydney. Post-retirement, however, Broad became one of the ICC’s firmest match referees – showing instinctive courageousness when caught up in the Lahore terror attack on the Sri Lankan team bus in March 2009 – thus completing a transformation from tempestuous anti-establishment figure to custodian of the spirit of the game. 

Douglas Carr
With a footballing knee injury having prevented his somewhat mediocre right-arm medium-pacers from gracing first-class cricket while up at Oxford, Douglas Ward Carr then played club cricket for Maidstone until, at the ripe old age of 36, he took the decision to experiment with a googly and develop his slow bowling. The transformation in his fortunes was remarkable: the following year, 1909, he trialled successfully with his native Kent, took a 5-fer against his old University on debut and finished the season playing his one and only Test against Australia. The summer after he was among Wisden’s Five Cricketers of the Year, but this most unlikely end-of-career metamorphosis was ended by the Great War, by which time he had 334 first-class wickets at 16.7 apiece.

Geoff Cope
To have to remodel your action once is ordeal enough, but twice – that’s enough to make Hercules himself shrink. Yet such was the fate of niggardly Yorkshire off-spinner Geoff Cope, whose first recalibration came in 1972, at the age of twenty-five, and required 18 months of daily 200-mile round trips to see Johnny Wardle for remedial work. However, he bounced back well enough to gain selection for England’s tour of Pakistan in 1977-78, almost taking a hat-trick on debut (Mike Brearley recalled the third ‘victim’, unsure as to the legitimacy of his catch), but was once more suspended later that year. Again he fought back, yet, without ever having been no-balled for throwing, the rumours re-surfaced and in 1980 this twice metamorphosed tweaker was put out to pasture, 686 wickets to the good.


Sanath Jayasuriya
In 1991, Sri Lanka gave a Test debut in Hamilton to a young all-rounder from the southern port of Matara – equal parts left-arm spinner and middle-order batsman. Half-a-decade later, Jayasuriya’s Popeye-forearms and liquid reflexes had transformed him into a pinch-hitting opening batsman in the Lankans’ World Cup-winning side and a true cricketing pioneer, scything short balls over backward-point for six, or pulling them brutally to the opposite square boundary. He also took this approach to opening the batting into the Test arena, where he continued to purvey his tweakers, more often than not in a defensive capacity. But the day job had most definitely become being his team’s first line of defence. Or rather, attack.