Thursday 19 May 2016


A chat as part of my "long-running", "highly respected" series for All Out Cricket magazine with the long-serving Sussex opening batsman and occasional off-spinner, Chris Nash, not long after the death of his teammate, Matt Hobden. 

Shire Brigade: Chris Nash


It started with a chat about Gloucestershire's loss to Minor Counties in the 1980 Benson & Hedges Cup, the first such giantkilling in that tournament. At the end of the chat, reasoning I had someone on the line whose reflections and opinions on the game would be saleable (romantic, I know), I asked if he'd do a longform interview for cricinfo, with the theme being selection. 

He would, he said, but could I send the questions through in advance?

I could, I said. 

So, having first asked cricinfo if they would commission such an idea, I devised a load of questions, trawling through his eleven-year stint picking the England side, and emailing my go-to guy for cricketing insights. And then I emailed them to him. Tis was February 2015. 

Still in the employ of the ECB, Grav perhaps needed to ensure there would be no hidden traps, no ambushes. That wasn't my aim. It's not 2008. 

He gave the questions his assent, but we couldn't seem to fix a time. The interview was eventually carried out in June. He gave very little away. Admirable, in a way. Confidences should be kept. But he had that curious facility for appearing to say a lot while saying very little that is the hallmark of politicians. Not even talking about Duncan Fletcher could get through his forward defensive. I put it down to him being indecisive, overly collegiate, a weathervane who blew this way and that. We made some polite small-talk and he asked if he could see the transcript before I filed it with cricinfo. I said that would be fine (while secretly thinking it was a bit much given he'd barely suggested there might be any cats in bags, let alone let them out –to get among the pigeons or otherwise).

I then told cricinfo I had done the interview. This was eight months after it had been commissioned. After the 2015 World Cup, when ESPN had spent a huge amount of money building a studio overlooking Sydney Harbour, not to mention manning it with expensive pundits. They told me they were cutting back on freelance contributions and now no longer wanted it.


I contemplated trying to flog it elsewhere, but thought I'd wait and see if the lie of the land in Bangalore might change. By the new year, it had. So, I transcribed the interview always, always a tedious task
–and then emailed David to let him know. I told him to get back in touch and "I will do the amends (within reason)". 

He said he'd be in touch, because "there were several changes". I sighed, then told him he needed to do this before the end of the week. He didn't reply.

Three days later I emailed again, by now starting to feel a bit irritated at all the hoops I was having to jump through. It may have shown in my tone, too. I told him I'd agreed to make amends "within reason" but didn't want to "bleed the interview of all colour", especially since "there was nothing controversial in there". 

The email I received back was an unequivocal baring-of-teeth, definitively refuting the notion that he was a pussy cat (which I may have based entirely on the fact that he smoked a lot). Afterwards, I posted this status on Facebook, which sort of completes the story. 

Here is the interview. It's interesting, without being incendiary. I think we parted on good terms. But boy, it makes you realise how the jousting between a ravenous news media eager to fasten on to a poorly chosen phrase and officials keen to protect themselves thereform starts to pollute the air in which even these fairly harmless conversations take place.

Oh well. Glad I'm not doing this particularly seriously. 

Talking Cricket: David Graveney


Friday 26 February 2016


Moddershall 1st XI when I started out 

The run up to a new cricket season is markedly different for an old(ish) man – a man perhaps able to count his remaining cricket campaigns on the badly gnarled fingers of one hand – than it is for a fresh-faced, bright-eyed youngster. Back when I was a teenager, life stretching out before me as a seemingly endless sweep of run-soaked summers, my pre-season thoughts were usually little more than idle daydreams – the usual fantasies of scoring 1000-plus runs, cup final centuries, hooking this or that West Indian pro out of the ground.

As you get longer in the tooth your horizons draw in, and you merely hope your body survives the five months without breaking. You hope, too, that your enthusiasm isn’t snuffed out by the various off-field duties and dramas that come with seniority and responsibility. Having already lost the buzz once, in 2010, after which I stopped playing for three years, I now know what the warning signs are. But the beauty of that three-year hiatus, I later discovered, was that my focus shifted away from myself, and my own diminishing powers, and onto the young players in my team, helping them develop their talents. Pass on some wisdom, learn about their personalities.  

Of course, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with those lofty individual ambitions of youth, since to take care of your own contribution is almost always going to help the team realize its collective goals. Nevertheless, it’s easy to become too excitable, too fixated on personal targets, build it up too much. As a batsman, a slow start to the season – a few unplayable balls, a couple of bad decisions, a run out, an abandonment or two – can mean those initial targets become more or less unattainable, and therefore oppressive, a numerical reminder of the “failure” that the season is shaping up to be. We can be our own worst enemies.

My best ever season in terms of runs started fairly slowly. I don’t remember the details (I have it written down in some dusty folder somewhere, when such things seemed to matter a lot and before there was the Internet to document it for you), but it wasn’t until late July that I really got going. I was heading to Spain for my university gap year in October and so, to earn some cash, spent a couple of months working at the Creda plant in Blythe Bridge, loading the parts for white goods into big kilns then taking them off again. Then putting others on, then taking them off. The tedium of the work made me appreciate the weekend’s cricket all the more. Crucially, it made my thinking much clearer. It made me value my wicket more.

the good old days
I ended up scoring 895 league runs that year, but during those last six or seven weeks of the season I didn’t think about aggregates or targets. I just batted. I was ‘in the zone’. Relaxed concentration. The game was easy. The noise in my head was off, for once. Yep, I just batted.

And that’s the thing about targets: if you’re going to have them, they should be about the process not the end result. That’s something of a sports psychology cliché these days, but it’s true. And it’s true because it works. What focusing on process not outcomes means is that you should draw in the frame of reference for “What I want to do” from the whole season to the next game, the next hour, the next over, the next delivery… Stay in the process.

Simplifying a little, that process boils down to three things, depending on the discipline. For batting, it’s decision-making. For bowling, it’s pressure. For fielding, it’s awareness (or concentration, you could call it).

Making the right decisions as a batsman of course requires several skills: judging the pitch and which shots are on, which not; working out each bowler’s threat and how they’re trying to get you out; assessing the scoreboard situation and what needs to be done. None of this is in your head as the bowler is running up, of course. It’s done between balls, in conversation with yourself, and between overs, in conversation with your partner. 

For a bowler, maintaining pressure also requires several ancillary calculations: what each batsman’s strengths are and what fields to set; what’s in the wicket for you and what the condition of the ball might allow; what the game situation requires, etc. Nevertheless, the process is all about maintaining pressure, being patient.

As for fielding, and awareness, that’s simply about being tuned into what the team is trying to do – i.e. what a hyper-precise skipper wants when he moves you three yards this way, two yards that – and what the batsman is trying to do to counter it. And it is about keeping the team buoyant, switched on, optimistic.

In his autobiography, Out of My Comfort Zone, the great Australian skipper Steve Waugh wrote that “fielding is a true test of players sacrificing themselves for the interest of the team because it’s the only facet of the game where you don’t get statistically rewarded for your efforts”. And that is precisely the point about making a slow start to the season, falling short of your targets, be that as a batsman or a bowler. If you don’t hit the ground running, you can still make a contribution that isn’t statistically rewarded. Be a good teammate. Keep the troops going on those hot afternoons. Encourage your mates out there scrapping hard to get you a total. Take your weary bowler’s jumper to the umpire. Polish the ball. Go and console a fielder who’s dropped an important catch. Buy the skipper four or five pints of lager because you love him. Step out of your bubble (it’s stressful in there), think about what the team needs, and keep putting in the pot.

Wednesday 3 February 2016


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

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

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

When Entertainment becomes Intrusion

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

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

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

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

Ridiculously over-the-top laugh from Nicholas.

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

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

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

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

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

Jadeja is running in again…

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

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

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

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

Smith (to Finch): Yeah, push, c’mon!

They settle for one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Shire Brigade 09: Steven Croft 



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

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

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

Meanwhile, have a read of this:

T20's Spiritual Brother