28
Nov
13

The curious misdiagnosis of England’s rigidity

It’s a cold November day. England have been thumped in the first test. The home side has their number. They’ve got tailor-made pitches and by far the best attack to exploit them. But England have their plans and they’re going to stick to them come what may. So it looks like some long, tortuous nights are headed our way – sleep-addled minds echoing with the sound of tumbling wickets – half-whispered curses doing nothing to ease them, serving only to further aggravate long-suffering spouses/partners/housemates/pets/parents.

Or is that just bollocks?

England are in (almost) exactly the same position as they were a year ago. Then, a decisive change of tack led England to play two spinners in the second test in Mumbai and thrash India by ten wickets, before going on to dominate the rest of the series. They did this despite having clearly intended to employ an attack made up of Graeme Swann and three seamers, supported by the part-time spin of Samit Patel, for the whole of the series.

One feature of the, initially rather muted, press build up to this Ashes series has been the constant reminders of England’s meticulous planning, their habitual unwillingness to deviate from a pre-set course and, the fact that they have done so ever so slightly proves that they are all at sea. Or, roughly translated:

‘Oh my God – England are going to pick Michael Carberry! I can’t believe it! I didn’t think they would – so they must be going mental!’

Michael-Carberry-001In the last few days, we’ve heard similar statements suggesting England won’t have a clue what to do now their pre-tour plans have been even further blown out of the water by Jonathan Trott’s departure: “England’s tendency will be only to consider Plan B when the wheels are falling off and smoke is pouring out of the engine”.

In reality, throughout the Flower era, England have been far from rigid or predictable in their selection. Obviously, certain things have remained constant throughout – Cook, Pietersen and Trott (until now) have been ever-present when they have been fit, not rested or dropped for sending stupid texts to the opposition (since 2009 in the case of Trott). The same can be said for James Anderson and Graham Swann.

But, let’s face it, they’re pretty much five of the best players to have ever played for England. Dropping them would be ridiculous. This core aside, England have, whether through choice or necessity, shuffled their pack, changed their plans and experimented on numerous occasions, and generally done whatever they’ve had to do to be successful.

After their very first test in charge, Flower and Strauss dropped Ian Bell and gave Owais Shah and Ravi Bopara chances in the middle order. In following summer they gave test debuts to Graham Onions and – somewhat surprisingly at the time – Tim Bresnan. Later that summer they dropped Bopara only a few games after he’d scored three back to back centuries and, despite the bizarre clamouring of the press for the return of Ramprakash, gave Trott his debut. They plumped for Morgan after his Lions hundred when everyone said he shouldn’t have gone to the IPL and dropped Finn while he was the leading wicket taker in the last Ashes series down under, ending the series with Tremlett- and Bresnan-propelled victories at Melbourne and Sydney, neither of whom started the series.

More recently, they picked Samit Patel in India because of his bowling and proficiency against spin and gave Root his debut in Nagpur when people assumed he was just there to carry the drinks. Just a few months again they threw Stokes and Kerrigan into the last home Ashes test – just to see what they could do.

In the shorter form of the game they’ve even dropped Kevin Pietersen when he’s been out of form and left James Anderson out of the World T20 winning side in the Caribbean.

Some of these decisions have been a success, others quite clearly haven’t. There are some that we’ll only be able judge with time. What is certain is that England under Flower are not afraid of making big decisions when they need to. And they certainly need to now.

England plan meticulously. That means they will have planned for a number of eventualities on this tour. I don’t believe suddenly realised Carberry could open the batting and Root could bat at six after the first tour game. Even I realised that was an option, and I’m basically an idiot. Anyone looking at the touring party six weeks ago would have been able to foresee situations where England might play a couple of tall fast bowlers if they wanted to, or bat Stokes at 6 to get Panesar in the side – or just strengthen the bowling.

That said, I’m not sure anyone, even in the England management, would have foreseen Trott going home after the first test. It’s clearly a huge loss, but England have a number of perfectly adequate options could use to fill the number three slot – including one that has twenty test centuries, and another that scored 170-odd opening the batting against the same team a few tests ago. I’m not entirely sure who they should pick, but I’m glad people have stopped suggesting Mark Ramprakash.

23
Nov
10

Battle of the bowlers: England have the edge

We’ve heard a lot in the last couple of weeks about how England’s bowlers will struggle in Australia, how they might not have the firepower to take the 20 wickets needed to win a match, how they won’t be used to the Kookaburra ball. Australia on the other hand, have the faster, more aggressive, more destructive bowlers who will be more effective in their own conditions.

But is that fair? I’ve got a feeling that England’s bowlers are being underestimated slightly.

Firstly, let’s look at ‘The Mystery of the Kookaburra Ball’. As everyone who’s ever been to a game of cricket has so knowingly pointed out, they don’t use Dukes balls in Australia. They use the Kookaburra ball. And it’s so vastly different that the England bowlers won’t know what to do with it. It won’t swing, it won’t seam, and it goes soft so there will be no bounce.

Of course, that only applies to any England bowlers who have never played a test in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the West Indies, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe or Pakistan before, where they also use the Kookaburra balls.

It’s just unlucky that none of England’s bowlers have played test series in any of those places. Oh…hang on. They have. Remember when Graeme Swann got four 5 wicket hauls last winter against South Africa and Bangladesh? How about Jimmy Anderson taking 5 for 73 in Wellington when England were 1-0 down in the series? What about Stuart Broad’s match-winning demolition of South Africa’s top order in Durban? That’s right. All of those performances were with the unfathomable Kookaburra ball. Even Steven Finn, England’s newest fast bowler, made his test debut with the Kookaburra ball in Bangladesh. Far too much has been made of this. England’s bowlers are skilful enough and clever enough to know how to use the Kookaburra ball to good effect.

So what about Australian conditions? From what I’ve heard, they’re so unlike anything else that you have to access them through a door at the back of a wardrobe and contend with a disgruntled lion. Are they really that different? Admittedly, they’re usually less green than pitches in England or New Zealand, although Australia’s unseasonably wet summer might prove even that generalisation to be false. But, in the modern game, where pitches are almost uniformly flat and lifeless, it’s hardly something England’s bowlers won’t be used to. And, with the possible exception of Adelaide, they will have a great deal more pace and bounce than the featherbeds played on in Sri Lanka, India and the West Indies these days. With the height of Finn and Broad, England won’t be too worried. They certainly won’t mind having some bouncy decks to attack Ponting and Clarke, given their recent troubles against the short ball.

Furthermore, unlike years gone by, where reverse swing was seen as some sort of unmasterable, sub-continental sorcery, it is now part and parcel of England’s fast bowling armoury. Jimmy Anderson demonstrated his ability to reverse the ball both ways in the West Indies a couple of years ago, and should have the chance to exploit this skill again this winter. Broad and Finn can also reverse the ball when conditions suit, certainly more consistently than Mitchell Johnson with his renegade wrist. While England’s bowlers may not be quite as effective as at home, they will certainly still pose a threat.

Having said all that, until a few days ago, I probably would have agreed with the growing consensus that Australia’s bowlers have a slight advantage, mainly due to experience in their home conditions. But that was a few days ago. Since then, Australia’s bet-hedging has turned into spectacular knee-jerking, and they have jettisoned their occasionally innocuous but often effective off-spinner, Nathan Hauritz, in favour of Xavier Doherty, who is untried, unproven and lots of other words beginning with ‘un-‘. One must question the wisdom (and fairness) of dropping a bowler who has taken a five wicket haul as recently as two tests ago, while retaining a batsman who has scored one test hundred in 14 months, seems strange to me. Now we hear that they plan on leaving out Doug Bollinger, arguably their best bowler in the last year, in favour of Peter Siddle, who hasn’t played a test match in the best part of the year and is recovering from a stress fracture to his back and getting used to a remodelled action.

Without Hauritz and Bollinger in the side, the Australian bowling unit looks fragile, in more ways than one. When Johnson gets it right, he is dangerous, but those days seem to be getting fewer and further between. Doherty is a unknown quantity in a way, but you have to assume England aren’t too worried about a man who has got a grand total of 84 first class wickets in 9 years at an average of 48 and a strike rate of 84. Siddle is admirable bowler who has done well for Australia, but rushing him back after such a long lay-off could leave the Eeyore like Ben Hilfenhaus shouldering a heavy burden. If Siddle and Hilfenhaus fail to break through England’s top order before the fabled Kookaburra stops swinging, I can see it getting very difficult for Ricky Ponting to contain England’s batsmen.

Finally, the question of firepower. Stats don’t lie. On the face of it, there’s not a huge amount between the two bowling attacks. England’s attack boasts a combined bowling average of 30.33, while Australia’s is 29.95. England’s strike rate is 56.63, compared to Australia’s 56.46. Barely a hair’s breadth between them. However, England’s attack are far more experienced and have taken far more wickets – 430 to Australia’s 274. They also have the best bowler on either side by far in Graeme Swann.

Perhaps most importantly, England’s bowlers are all match winners. While the batting benchmark is the century, for bowlers, it’s the five wicket haul. Five-fors win games, and in this measure, England are streets ahead. Between them, England’s bowlers have amassed 24 five wicket hauls, compared to Australia’s eight. Anderson has ten on his own, at a rate of one every five games, and Swann nine, at an incredible rate of 1 every 2.67 games. Broad, statistically the weak link in England’s unit, but a bowler who is improving rapidly, only has three five-fors to his name in his 32 games. Even Steven Finn has picked up two in his short eight game career (admittedly against Bangladesh). In comparison, only Mitchell Johnson can compare with England’s bowlers, having taken 6 in 38 games. Between them, Australia’s other bowlers have two five wicket hauls, both of them taken by Siddle at a rate of eight and a bit games. It’s a far cry from four years ago that’s for sure and, I think that this time, England have the edge.

England

Matches Balls Runs Wickets 5w Average Games/5w SR
Anderson 52 10777 5970 188 10 31.75 5.20 57.3
Broad 32 6274 3328 97 3 34.30 10.67 64.6
Finn 8 1182 743 32 2 23.21 4.00 36.9
Swann 24 6116 3001 113 9 26.55 2.67 54.1
Total 116 24349 13042 430 24 30.33 4.83 56.63

Australia

Matches Balls Runs Wickets 5w Average Games/5w SR
Siddle 17 3763 1892 60 2 31.53 8.50 62.7
Johnson 38 8870 4824 166 6 29.06 6.33 53.4
Hilfenhaus 13 2836 1491 48 0 31.06 0.00 59
Doherty
Total 68 15469 8207 274 8 29.95 8.50 56.46


19
Nov
10

Stage set for Pietersen to let rip?

Kevin Pietersen should be dropped. He’s not scored a hundred in any of his last 28 innings and averages a meagre 35. If you discount Bangladesh, he averages 22. That’s in 18 months of cricket. That’s like having Heath Streak batting number 4. Now don’t get me wrong, I like Heath Streak as much as the next man, but he shouldn’t be batting number 4 for England. Don’t bother pointing out that he can’t play for England because he’s not English. When did that ever stop anyone?

That’s settled then. Pietersen should be dropped. Right?

Wrong. This Ashes series is made for KP. It’s come at just the right time.

For two years in 2007 and 2008, Pietersen was essentially a one man band in the England batting line-up. If KP didn’t score runs, England were in trouble. In that period, in which he played 23 test matches, he averaged 50. That’s like having Brian Lara batting at number 4 for England, or Viv Richards, or Sunil Gavaskar. He averaged a full 10 runs higher than any other England batsman in the same period. He was, in short, awesome.

 

The pressure on Pietersen was immense. Every time he went out to bat, he did so in the knowledge that if he didn’t score runs England would struggle to post a match-winning total. Of those 23 games, England won 8, with Pietersen averaging 60. In the 7 games they lost, Pietersen averaged 25. (He actually averaged highest in drawn games – 69). Either way, when KP didn’t score runs, England didn’t win. That’s a hell of a lot of pressure on one man – pressure that reached its peak with his short spell as England captain, and the soap opera style bust up with Peter Moores that ensued. Since that point, KP hasn’t been the same man.

From England’s go-to-guy, bristling with confidence and aggression, KP has become a shadow of his former self, scratching around, desperately trying not to get out the latest part-time left arm spinner that’s been summoned to torment him. Two years ago, it would have been inconceivable that Pietersen would be dropped from any form of the game. So England’s decision to leave him out of the one day series against Pakistan this summer shows just how far his stock has fallen. KP is no longer the man that England rely on. It’s a shame. But in a way, it’s been a blessing in disguise. England learned to live without him, win without him. These days, he’s just another player. And that’s why Australia should be worried.

England are a very good side without Pietersen at his best. They’ve already won the Ashes once without him and, judging by the early tour form of the rest of England’s batsmen, they could well do so again. But imagine what they’d be like if they had the old Kevin Pietersen back. How good would they be then? This series could be the moment we find out.

Now the pressure’s off. KP doesn’t need to carry the team anymore. He doesn’t need to worry about single-handedly keeping England in the game. He can go out and play with freedom and attack Australia, just as he did when he made his debut in 2005. He now knows that he’s surrounded by good players – players that will graft and get a score on the board. He doesn’t need to worry about keeping England in the game – he can go out there and win it. Two hours of Trott and Collingwood will put England in a decent position. Two hours of Pietersen could win them a test. That’s why he should be encouraged to go out and attack. It won’t work every time, but it doesn’t have to.

The driving force behind Pietersen’s early success was the desire to prove to everyone just how good he was. He relished playing on the biggest stage against the best players, the best teams and proving his worth against them. And he succeeded. Few batsmen have treated Warne, McGrath and Muralitharan, the three best bowlers of a generation, quite the way Pietersen did. For the man they call the Ego, this is the perfect opportunity. The world is watching. He can forget everything else, and just show the world how good he is. KP – don’t worry about batting for the team, just bat for yourself, and take Australia to the cleaners in the process.

18
Nov
10

Ashes build-up: too good to be true?

‘When do the Ashes start?’ I got asked in my lunch hour today. How can people not know? Why are people talking about another pathetic England football performance when England are on the verge of consigning years of Australian cricketing hegemony to the historical dustbin? Three out of four ain’t bad. That’s what it will be when Andrew Strauss lifts that not-so-fragile faux terracotta Ashes replica at the SCG in eight weeks time. That’s bordering on dominance. And it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion. At least, that’s what most of the  of journalists, experts and ex-players on either side would have us believe.

It’s a strange time for England cricket fans. Where’s that strange mixture of excitement and foreboding? What’s happened to ‘Oh, I wish so-and-so were fit’ and ‘If only we’d picked Whatsisname’?

Where are all the overly confident Australians (who we really know aren’t overly confident at all but justifiably positive) bandying about predications of 5-0 scorelines?

It’s all very strange indeed. I think I even saw Michael Atherton giggle live on air last night. What is going on?

To be fair, by this point in an Ashes tour, England would usually have been humiliated by a bunch of grade cricketers, lost half of their key players to injury and seriously considered recalling Mark Ramprakash. The Australians, meanwhile, would basically have stood around, laughing and pointing at their hapless future victims, safe in the knowledge that they were the heirs to the all-powerful Australian cricketing empire, and thus, indestructible.

Given the changing fortunes of both sides in the last 18 months, it’s understandable that the England are more optimistic this time. But it all seems a bit too good to be true at the moment.

In series gone by, I don’t think I’ve ever heard what the various members of the Australian squad have been up to in the weeks leading up to the first test. Occasionally one of the batsman would pop-up as a token gesture in a tour game to watch his ludicrously talented understudies flay England’s bowlers to all parts with their eyes closed, safe in the knowledge that his place in the test XI was under no threat.

This time around there seems to be an Australia-wide cricketing edition of X-Factor taking place. Anyone dressed in white seems to be in with a shout. There are almost hourly updates on the latest damning failures as discarded candidates get left by the wayside and new, brighter prospects come to the fore. Even Steven Smith, hitherto leg-spinning successor to Shane Warne, is now being touted as the answer to Australia’s middle order woes on the back of one half century against England’s reserve bowling line-up.

If you want, you can even place your own vote as to who will take the field as Australia’s number one spinner next week. Cast your vote now. (Apparently Doherty’s winning but there’s a chap in Wollagong who took a 3-for this afternoon, so it’s all still up for grabs!)

It all seems, well, rather English.

In the meantime, England’s preparations couldn’t have gone any smoother. As the press keep pointing out, they’re ‘going under the radar’. No-one’s really talking about them. Well, that is, apart from the frequent updates about how well they’re doing to stay under the radar and go about their business in the way they are doing.

Everyone’s fit and confident. They’re taking wickets, scoring runs, walking on water. The management are calm and seem to have a settled side, with capable replacements ready to step in. They have even arranged for a whole extra squad of players to be the country, just in case the entire touring party are victims of a plane-falling-on-them-killing-them-in-a-blazing-inferno-Emmerdale-type catastrophe.

Strewth, (sorry, I can’t do the accent), it all sounds a bit Australian to me.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m enjoying it as much as the next man. I love drifting off to sleep to the sound of Bill Lawrie begrudgingly acknowledging that Ajmal Shazhad, who isn’t even in the squad, is making the flower of Australia’s cricketing youth look like Guildford 3rd XI. I can’t get enough. And I do think England will win the series. Or I think they should do.

But I think we should all calm down just a little bit. Please. Let’s not jinx it just yet.

All it needs is for Jimmy Anderson to dish up a few long-hops on Thursday morning for Shane Watson to smash to the boundary, and it could all change in an instant. Australia, for all their weaknesses, still have some good players capable of winning games should England give them the chance. They’re not the Waughs, McGraths and Warnes of yesteryear, but England have lost to far weaker sides. And, for all the smoothness of their preparations, England are still capable of losing to good, and even mediocre sides. They haven’t played a top test side since Johannesburg in January, where they were unable to withstand South Africa’s last gasp, series-saving onslaught.

Perhaps more worryingly, England are now favourites. Not nominal, ‘let’s let them think they’re favourites’ favourites like they were in 2006-7. But actual favourites. If England lose in Brisbane, all the rancour and ridicule of the Australian press, currently reserved for their own players, will swiftly be refocused on the ‘same old Poms’, who’ve talked a good game once again, but fallen lamely at the first hurdle. Except this time it will be worse, and the Ashes pressure cooker could suffocate England’s players, as it has every time in my living memory, even if they are the better team.

That’s why it’s so important for England to win in Brisbane and keep the glare of the media spotlight firmly on Australia. Then we can all really start to enjoy it.

‘When do the Ashes start?’ I got asked in my lunch hour today. How can people not know? Why are people talking about another pathetic England football performance when England are on the verge of consigning years of Australian cricketing hegemony to the historical dustbin? Three out of four ain’t bad. That’s what it will be when Andrew Strauss lifts that not-so-fragile faux terracotta Ashes replica at the SCG in eight weeks time. That’s bordering on dominance. And it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion. At least, that’s what he  of journalists, experts and ex-players on either side would have us believe.

It’s a strange time for England cricket fans. Where’s that strange mixture of excitement and foreboding? What’s happened to ‘Oh, I wish so-and-so were fit’ and ‘If only we’d picked Whatsisname’?

Where are all the overly confident Australians (who we really know aren’t overly confident at all but justifiably positive) bandying about predications of 5-0 scorelines?

It’s all very strange indeed. I think I even saw Michael Atherton giggle live on air last night. What is going on?

To be fair, by this point in an Ashes tour, England would usually have been humiliated by a bunch of grade cricketers, lost half of their key players to injury and seriously considered recalling Mark Ramprakash. The Australians, meanwhile, would basically have stood around, laughing and pointing at their hapless future victims, safe in the knowledge that they were the heirs to the all-powerful Australian cricketing empire, and thus, indestructible.

Given the changing fortunes of both sides in the last 18 months, it’s understandable that the England are more optimistic this time. But it all seems a bit too good to be true at the moment.

In series gone by, I don’t think I’ve ever heard what the various members of the Australian squad have been up to in the weeks leading up to the first test. Occasionally one of the batsman would pop-up as a token gesture in a tour game to watch his ludicrously talented understudies flay England’s bowlers to all parts with their eyes closed, safe in the knowledge that his place in the test XI was under no threat.

This time around there seems to be an Australia-wide cricketing edition of X-Factor taking place. Anyone dressed in white seems to be in with a shout. There are almost hourly updates on the latest damning failures as discarded candidates get left by the wayside and new, brighter prospects come to the fore. Even Steven Smith, hitherto leg-spinning successor to Shane Warne, is now being touted as the answer to Australia’s middle order woes on the back of one half century against England’s reserve bowling line-up.

If you want, you can even place your own vote as to who will take the field as Australia’s number one spinner next week. Cast your vote now. (Apparently Doherty’s winning but there’s a chap in Wollagong who took a 3-for this afternoon, so it’s all still up for grabs!)

It all seems, well, rather English.

In the meantime, England’s preparations couldn’t have gone any smoother. As the press keep pointing out, they’re ‘going under the radar’. No-one’s really talking about them. Well, that is, apart from the frequent updates about how well they’re doing to stay under the radar and go about their business in the way they are doing.

Everyone’s fit and confident. They’re taking wickets, scoring runs, walking on water. The management are calm and seem to have a settled side, with capable replacements ready to step in. They have even arranged for a whole extra squad of players to be the country, just in case the entire touring party are victims of a plane-falling-on-them-killing-them-in-a-blazing-inferno-Emmerdale-type catastrophe.

Strewth, (sorry, I can’t do the accent), it all sounds a bit Australian to me.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m enjoying it as much as the next man. I love drifting off to sleep to the sound of Bill Lawrie begrudgingly acknowledging that Ajmal Shazhad, who isn’t even in the squad, is making the flower of Australia’s cricketing youth look like Guildford 3rd XI. I can’t get enough. And I do think England will win the series. Or I think they should do.

But I think we should all calm down just a little bit. Please. Let’s not jinx it just yet.

All it needs is for Jimmy Anderson to dish up a few long-hops on Thursday morning for Shane Watson to smash to the boundary, and it could all change in an instant. Australia, for all their weaknesses, still have some good players capable of winning games should England give them the chance. They’re not the Waughs, McGraths and Warnes of yesteryear, but England have lost to far weaker sides. And, for all the smoothness of their preparations, England are still capable of losing to good, and even mediocre sides. They haven’t played a top test side since Johannesburg in January, where they were unable to withstand South Africa’s last gasp, series-saving onslaught.

Perhaps more worryingly, England are now favourites. Not nominal, ‘let’s let them think they’re favourites’ favourites like they were in 2006-7. But actual favourites. If England lose in Brisbane, all the rancour and ridicule of the Australian press, currently reserved for their own players, will swiftly be refocused on the ‘same old Poms’, who’ve talked a good game once again, but nothing fallen lamely at the first hurdle. Except this time it will be worse, and the Ashes pressure cooker could suffocate England’s, as it has every time in my living memory, even if they are the better team.

That’s why it’s so important for England to win in Brisbane and keep the glare of the media spotlight firmly on Australia. Then we can all really start to enjoy it.

01
Mar
10

Has it come to this?

‘It’s not something we like to talk about but let’s deal with it first and get it out the way.’

That line from an adulterer with ears was indicative of the bilge that poured from the mouths of commentators and pundits across the land yesterday.

Don't leave me hanging Wayne!You have to love it when the football fraternity tries to scramble aboard its high horse. That horse was pulped for premiership brand adhesive long ago. They were all at it yesterday though. Particularly when it comes from those who ply it, the pritt sticks in the throat.

‘I just want to watch a game of football’ said Helen Chamberlin on BSkyB’s ‘soccer am’, which of course directly preceded BSkyB’s early kick-off showdown.

My objection to that statement is at least twoooo fold: Firstly she is a she and secondly she is every bit a company man.

Helen is, like me, a girl. I’m not a doctor but it’s indisputable that from within our lovely lady lumpage emanate chemicals that make us crave three things: Chocolate, Shoes and Soap. Not the self-cleaning-stuff, that admittedly we do bloody love in a bewildering array of shapes and smells, the other kind of soap…soap opera.

Set against this fact and by proxy her breasts, her exquisite breasts, Helen’s hypocrisy is transparent. How could she pretend? I know girls love soap, you know we love soap, Hells Bells knows it and, God knows, Tulisia knows it.

‘Man Dem Don’t Shake Dem Hand Dem Snub Snub’, as it’s being dubbed by the N-Dub, was the finest moment in soap since ‘The Mini Throng in the Lily Pond’, when Alexis and Krystle got it – right on – long before Rupert had established his ‘Dynasty’. One that fittingly, if coincidently, took hold of English football just as the last bastion built by moral men crumbled.

What jars about Helen’s quote, along with the hypocrisy of the day and indeed the entire modern game, is that it’s rich.

She could have been honest and told us her company would bring us John Terry’s head in all new, 3-D in some pubs, high definition, stocks. Then we might have been better able to bear the weight of the rotten tomatoes in our hands and ‘Sky’ subscriptions on our conscience. She did not.

Though the lady did protesteth, football has become inseparable from soap opera. In the light of yesterday’s events the muddled words of Stuart Pearce, a man so cruelly robbed of the option of ‘letting his feet do the talking’, have been given new clarity.

He told the Metro newspaper a few weeks ago:

‘The bottom line is, it’s a matter for John, his family and everyone concerned in the matter.’

Be they French model, Saudi Prince, Icelandic banker or debt laden American it would appear that, with regard to the modern English game, indeed ‘everyone is concerned in the matter’.

Some of us are deeply concerned.

15
Dec
09

Swings, Roundabouts and Merrygorounds – England up against it in South Africa

As the inexorable merry-go-round that is international cricket keeps turning, England find themselves facing another formidable challenge. A lot has happened since Andrew Strauss’ men won the Ashes less than four months ago. Australia have won yet another ICC one-day tournament. South Africa have risen to number one in both forms of the game, only to be knocked off the top again while their backs were turned. India and Sri Lanka have churned out millions of runs on ludicrously flat pitches. New Zealand and the West Indies have shown that they are capable of being good test sides again, and equally capable of being rubbish. And Pakistan have finally re-entered the test cricketing fray, drug cheats and all.

Despite England’s success in the one day series, the task that awaits them in the coming weeks is a seriously tough proposition. England may be coming fresh from an Ashes victory, but on paper, the South African side that takes the field at Centurion tomorrow will be far stronger than the Australian team they beat in the summer. There are no makeshift openers or faltering veterans in this side. They are an experienced and battle-hardened unit.

Their batting line-up is enviable. De Villers, Duminy and Amla have added flair and aggression to the belligerent run scoring efficiency of Kallis and Smith, while Ashwell Prince has quietly become one of the most dependable performers in world cricket, helping himself to two centuries in four games against England along the way. Their bowling attack is also strong. Ntini has more test wickets than any other fast bowler playing today. Dale Steyn has taken phenomenal 138 wickets at an average of 21 in the last three years – the type of record not seen since the days of McGrath and Pollock, and almost unheard of in these batsmen friendly times. Morne Morkel is quick, dangerous and looked to have found some of his elusive rhythm during the one day series. Paul Harris, the unsung hero of the attack, has taken his first 71 test wickets at a better average than Daniel Vettori. England underestimated him the last time they faced him and would be unwise to do so again. Jacques Kallis is injured for the first test, but will add further strength to the bowling if he returns for the later games.

South Africa aren’t just good on paper. They’re pretty good on the field too. While India may have jumped above them in the test rankings earlier this month, when it comes to winning test matches, South Africa are the best in the world. In the last three years, they have won 19 out of their 30 test matches, a far better record than India, who have managed only 13 wins out of 33 in the same period, and streets ahead of England, who have won only 12 out of 36. Not only that, but in that time, they have beaten both England and Australia in away test series, and managed a 1-1 draw in India. Andrew Strauss wasn’t joking when he said that this series will be tough as they come.

While South Africa have been a model of ruthless consistency, England have seen more swings and roundabouts than a kid’s playground – seesawing from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again in the blink of an eye. Having said that, there does seem to be something about England these days. The two Andys at the helm of the England appear to be moulding them into a far more stable unit than the chaotic regime that preceded them. There’s calm steeliness about the captain and coach that have had a positive effect on the players and team as a whole. There are still calamitous batting collapses and bowling meltdowns, but these seem to be becoming fewer and further between, and when they do occur, they are being treated with a sense of perspective lacking in previous years. As a result, this England team are far better equipped to bounce back from failure than their recent predecessors – their resounding seven wicket victory at Cape Town following hot on the heels of a murderous 100 run drubbing at Centurion in the recent one day series being a case in point. One bad performance doesn’t make a bad team, and Strauss and Flower have managed to instil enough self-belief in the team to help the players realise this. England will be no pushover in this test series either.

England now believe they are a good side, and the number of strong characters in the side will more than likely make the series a close one.

Andrew Strauss has shown an almost super-human strength of mind since taking over the leadership, and has carried the team along a wave of sensational individual performances – the kind that were hoped for when Kevin Peitersen was named as captain, but never expected from Strauss. Having continued his good form in the warm up games, South Africa will be worried about the man who scored three hundreds in five games on the last time England toured there. Jonathan Trott has looked as unfazable as brick wall since his Ashes debut in the summer and will be determined to prove himself to South African, as well as the English, public. England’s rock in a hard place, Paul Collingwood, is in the form of his life, embodying the new attacking mindset demanded by Strauss and Flower. He made the South African bowling look pedestrian in the one day series and has averaged almost 48 since his career saving century against them at Edgbaston last year. In the new regime, Collingwood’s substance is more highly valued than Ian Bell’s style, and should mean he keeps his place at number 5, until the summer at least.

There have been a few questions about the form of Alastair Cook, but, these seem harsh of a 24 year old who has already notched up 3500 test runs at an average of over 42. Cook’s mental toughness should ensure he overcomes his technical problems. After all, technical weaknesses are much easier to resolve than mental ones, and he’ll like the pace and bounce of South African wickets. When you add Kevin Pietersen’s inevitable return to form into the mix, England’s batting looks a strong unit.

England’s bowling doesn’t look bad either. Graeme Swann is the best spinner in the world these days, or has been since his introduction to test cricket a year ago. Graham Onions has looked more than the part as well. Rightly preferred to Harmison, he is quick enough, accurate and aggressive when he needs to be. He also seems to have a good temperament. His memorable two wickets in two balls at Edgbaston in the Ashes came immediately after being flayed to all parts the previous evening, showing a strength of character so often absent in his Durham colleague. If Anderson and Broad are fit, and Sidebottom’s current return to form continues, England’s seamers should be able cause South Africa problems – if not blow them away.

This brings us to the most pressing issue – the absence of Freddie. The statistics suggest that England have been more successful recently when playing six batsmen, than five bowlers. But many of these victories have come against lesser teams – the only notable exception being against Pakistan were beaten by an on form Harmison and Panesar in 2006. Unfortunately, England’s current bowlers don’t have quite the same firepower as Harmison and Panesar in their pomp. England need five bowlers to consistently take 20 wickets in a game – and England should play five bowlers if they want to stick to their new, attacking approach. It certainly appears to be the way they are leaning at the moment, with Luke Wright the favourite to fill the all-rounder role. The danger of this approach is that, by opting for an inferior all-rounder, England will diminish both disciplines.

Luke Wright has shown in Championship cricket this season that he has the ability to be a good batsmen, and may well be good enough to bat at number seven in test cricket eventually, but his bowling, quite frankly isn’t up to much. He bowls quickish – but at full tilt, for short spells and gun barrel straight. Every ball seems to be an effort ball. This is fine for four or five overs in a one day game, but he will undoubtedly struggle to bowl long spells of penetrative bowling in a test match, without finding some way of deceiving batsmen with movement off the seam or in the air. If England are going to play an all-rounder, it needs to be a bowling all-rounder, which is largely what Flintoff had become by the end of his career.

The elusive balance that England are trying to find doesn’t come along very often. When England were at their best, in 2004-2005, they essentially played three different degrees of all-rounders: Andrew Flintoff, Geraint Jones and Ashley Giles. Multi-dimensional cricketers were the order of the day under Duncan Fletcher, and the fact that England could count on people scoring runs at numbers six, seven and eight in the batting order, meant they could play five bowlers. The runs were important, but wickets were the key. This is why Wright, a batting all-rounder, doesn’t fit the bill. Tim Bresnan, who has over 200 first class wickets to his name and could quite legitimately feel aggrieved not to be in the squad as a bowler, would be a better choice to do the job.

What England don’t seem to realise is that they already have an out and out all-rounder in the side in the form of Matt Prior. Prior averages over 44 in test cricket, and is a test match number six. This should give England the flexibility to play bowling all-rounders at numbers seven and eight. This means that whoever bats at number seven doesn’t need to replace Andrew Flintoff, they need to replace Geraint Jones – not quite such a tall order. Both Broad and Swann average over 30 in tests at the moment and should be more than adequate to replace Jones and Giles.

If England are really the attacking side they claim to be, they should play five proper bowlers, with Anderson, Broad, Sidebottom, Onions and Swann, and take advantage of the fact that South Africa only have four bowlers in the first test. This will give them the best chance of winning. Either way, it looks set to be another close, hard-fought series between two well matched teams.

As the inexorable merry-go-round that is international cricket keeps turning, England find themselves facing another formidable challenge. A lot has happened since Andrew Strauss’ men won the Ashes less than four months ago. Australia have won yet another ICC one-day tournament. South Africa have risen to number one in both forms of the game, only to be knocked off the top again while their backs were turned. India and Sri Lanka have churned out millions of runs on ludicrously flat. New Zealand and the West Indies have shown that they are capable of being good test sides again, and equally capable of being rubbish. And Pakistan have finally re-entered the test cricketing fray, drug cheats and all.

Despite England’s success in the one day series, the task that awaits them in the coming weeks is a seriously tough proposition. England may be coming fresh from an Ashes victory, but on paper, the South African side that takes the field at Centurion tomorrow will be far stronger than the Australian team they beat in the summer. There are no makeshift openers or faltering veterans in this side. They are an experienced and battle-hardened unit.

Their batting line-up is enviable. De Villers, Duminy and Amla have added flair and aggression to the belligerent run scoring efficiency of Kallis and Smith, while Ashwell Prince has quietly become one of the most dependable performers in world cricket, helping himself to two centuries four games against England along the way. Their bowling attack is also strong. Ntini has more test wickets than any other fast bowler playing today. Dale Steyn has taken phenomenal 138 wickets at an average of 21 in the last three years – the type of record not seen since the days of McGrath and Pollock, and almost unheard of in these batsmen friendly times. Morne Morkel is quick, dangerous and looked to have found some of his elusive rhythm during the one day series. Paul Harris, the unsung hero of the attack, has taken his first 71 test wickets at a better average than Daniel Vettori. England underestimated him the last time they faced him and would be unwise to do so again. Jacques Kallis is injured for the first test, but will add further strength to the bowling if he returns for the later games.

South Africa aren’t just good on paper. They’re pretty good on the field too. While India may have jumped above them in the test rankings earlier this month, when it comes to winning test matches, South Africa are the best in the world. In the last three years, they have won 19 out of their 30 test matches, a far better record than India, who have managed only 13 wins out of 33 in the same period, and streets ahead of England, who have won only 12 out of 36. Not only that, but in that time, they have beaten both England and Australia in away test series, and managed a 1-1 draw in India. Andrew Strauss wasn’t joking when he said that this series will be tough as they come.

While South Africa have been a model of ruthless consistency, England have seen more swings and roundabouts than a kid’s playground – seesawing from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again in the blink of an eye. Having said that, there does seem to be something about England these days. The two Andys at the helm of the England appear to be moulding them into a far more stable unit than the chaotic regime that preceded them. There’s calm steeliness about the captain and coach that have had a positive effect on the players and team as a whole. There are still calamitous batting collapses and bowling meltdowns, but these seem to be becoming fewer and further between, and when they do occur, they are being treated with a sense of perspective lacking in previous years. As a result, this England team are far better equipped to bounce back from failure than their recent predecessors – their resounding seven wicket victory at Cape Town following hot on the heels of a murderous 100 run drubbing at Centurion in the recent one day series being a case in point. One bad performance doesn’t make a bad team, and Strauss and Flower have managed to instil enough self-belief in the team to help the players realise this. England will be no pushover in this test series either.

England now believe they are a good side, and the number of strong characters in the side will more than likely make the series a close one.

Andrew Strauss has shown an almost super-human strength of mind since taking over the leadership, and has carried the team along a wave of sensational individual performances – the kind that were hoped for when Kevin Peitersen was named as captain, but never expected from Strauss. Having continued his good form in the warm up games, South Africa will be worried about the man who scored three hundreds in five games on the last time England toured there. Jonathan Trott has looked as unfazable as brick wall since his Ashes debut in the summer and will be determined to prove himself to South African, as well as the English, public. England’s rock in a hard place, Paul Collingwood, is in the form of his life, embodying the new attacking mindset demanded by Strauss and Flower. He made the South African bowling look pedestrian in the one day series and has averaged almost 48 since his career saving century against them at Edgbaston last year. In the new regime, Collingwood’s substance is more highly valued than Ian Bell’s style, and should mean he keeps his place at number 5, until the summer at least.

There have been a few questions about the form of Alastair Cook, but, these seem harsh of a 24 year old who has already notched up 3500 test runs at an average of over 42. Cook’s mental toughness should ensure he overcomes his technical problems. After all, technical weaknesses are much easier to resolve than mental ones, and he’ll like the pace and bounce of South African wickets. When you add Kevin Pietersen’s inevitable return to form into the mix, England’s batting looks a strong unit.

England’s bowling doesn’t look bad either. Graeme Swann is the best spinner in the world these days, or has been since his introduction to test cricket a year ago. Graham Onions has looked more than the part as well. Rightly preferred to Harmison, he is quick enough, accurate and aggressive when he needs to be. He also seems to have a good temperament. His memorable two wickets in two balls at Edgbaston in the Ashes came immediately after being flayed to all parts the previous evening, showing a strength of character so often absent in his Durham colleague. If Anderson and Broad are fit, and Sidebottom’s current return to form continues, England’s seamers should be able cause South Africa problems – if not blow them away.

This brings us to the most pressing issue – the absence of Freddie. The statistics suggest that England have been more successful recently when playing six batsmen, than five bowlers. But many of these victories have come against lesser teams – the only notable exception being against Pakistan were beaten by an on form Harmison and Panesar in 2006. Unfortunately, England’s current bowlers don’t have quite the same firepower as Harmison and Panesar in their pomp. England need five bowlers to consistently take 20 wickets in a game – and England should play five bowlers if they want to stick to their new, attacking approach. It certainly appears to be the way they are leaning at the moment, with Luke Wright the favourite to fill the all-rounder role. The danger of this approach is that, by opting for an inferior all-rounder, England will diminish both disciplines.

Luke Wright has shown in Championship cricket this season that he has the ability to be a good batsmen, and may well be good enough to bat at number seven in test cricket eventually, but his bowling, quite frankly isn’t up to much. He bowls quickish – but at full tilt, for short spells and gun barrel straight. Every ball seems to be an effort ball. This is fine for four or five overs in a one day game, but he will undoubtedly struggle to bowl long spells of penetrative bowling in a test match, without finding some way of deceiving batsmen with movement off the seam or in the air. If England are going to play an all-rounder, it needs to be a bowling all-rounder, which is largely what Flintoff had become by the end of his career.

The elusive balance that England are trying to find doesn’t come along very often. When England were at their best, in 2004-2005, they essentially played three different degrees of all-rounders: Andrew Flintoff, Geraint Jones and Ashley Giles. Multi-dimensional cricketers were the order of the day under Duncan Fletcher, and the fact that England could count on people scoring runs at numbers six, seven and eight in the batting order, meant they could play five bowlers. The runs were important, but wickets were the key. This is why Wright, a batting all-rounder, doesn’t fit the bill. Tim Bresnan, who has over 200 first class wickets to his name and could quite legitimately feel aggrieved not to be in the squad as a bowler, would be a better choice to do the job.

What England don’t seem to realise is that they already have an out and out all-rounder in the side in the form of Matt Prior. Prior averages over 44 in test cricket, and is a test match number six. This should give England the flexibility to play bowling all-rounders at numbers seven and eight. This means that whoever bats at number seven doesn’t need to replace Andrew Flintoff, they need to replace Geraint Jones – not quite such a tall order. Both Broad and Swann average over 30 in tests at the moment and should be more than adequate to replace Jones and Giles.

If England are really the attacking side they claim to be, they should play five proper bowlers, with Anderson, Broad, Sidebottom, Onions and Swann, and take advantage of the fact that South Africa only have four bowlers in the first test. This will give them the best chance of winning. Either way, it looks set to be another close, hard-fought series.

27
Oct
09

Why I love baseball (or at least I think I do)

I say ‘I think I do’, because it’s early days yet. There’s still a long way to go. But it’s looking good so far. In fact, I’ve become a little bit obsessed. It all started back in June, when I spent two weeks on holiday in California. Now, I knew baseball was America’s national summer sport. What I wasn’t prepared for was quite how much baseball there was – how incredibly ever-present it is over there. I mean, cricket is England’s national summer sport, but, finding a pub that shows the test match is usually a quest of Odyssean proportions.

In America, baseball is literally everywhere. It’s on in every bar, often multiple games at once. Games follow on fast from one another. When games aren’t on, there are incessant replays of the plays of the day and endless reports of yesterday’s games. Now, you’d be quite right to point out that, in summer, there is no basketball, football (of the American kind) or hockey (of the ice-bound kind) to detract the sporting attention away from baseball. As baseball has the full attention of the American sporting public, you would expect to hear a lot about it. But, bear in mind that the two weeks I was there were the two weeks immediately following Michael Jackson’s death and also happened to coincide with Andy Roddick’s incredible run to the Wimbledon final. Yet these two events barely seemed to make a dent in Baseball’s dominance.

Eric Aybar breaks his bat.

Being a cricket fan, I’ve always had a fairly one-eyed view of baseball. I sort of thought of it as cricket’s uncouth and unsophisticated cousin. I’d always found it mildly interesting, although whenever I did watch snippets of it, I generally did so as a comparative exercise, and never really got into is as a sport in its own right. However, after two weeks of enforced exposure, baseball had won me over.

Of course, it’s perfectly possible that, had I been exposed to basketball or American football in the same way, a similar conversion may have occurred. To be honest, such is my addiction to watching pretty much any sporting activity, two weeks of total immersion in water polo could have had a similar effect. If I accidently turn over to the darts for more than three throws I’ll end up watching it for hours, unable to change the channel until the match has finished.

However, I’d like to think that another sport wouldn’t have won me over quite so easily. I think I’ve been hardwired to like baseball. It appeals to my nerdish nature. Baseball, like cricket, has an array of rules, and exceptions to rules, and exceptions to exceptions to rules that make it almost incomprehensible to the uninitiated. For example, if a batter ‘fouls it back’ – i.e. hits a ball behind the foul ball line – it counts as a strike against the batter, except if this occurs after the batter has already had two strikes in his at bat, in which case, it does not count as a strike, except if they are attempting to bunt the ball rather than hit the ball. Now, I’ve watched quite a lot of baseball games by this point, and I only finally managed to decipher the intricacies of this rule about a week ago. I love that! Give me a sport that is overly complex and has rules that people don’t understand and can’t explain the reasons for and I’m hooked.

One thing I always resented when speaking to Americans about cricket was that they, without any knowledge or experience of the game, labelled cricket as ‘slow’, ‘boring’ and ‘too complicated’. Well, the words ‘pot’, ‘kettle’ and ‘black’ spring to mind. To be fair, cricket can be slow, boring and complicated, but only when you don’t understand the game – and specifically the context of what is happening in the game. In the past few weeks, while trying to convert my flatmates to the game, I’ve been on the other end of some equally impartial comments from cricket fans towards baseball – ‘nothing’s happening’ being the most common one. And, to be fair, I can see their point.

The very first game of baseball I paid attention to while in California, was a game in which nothing really did happen. Or if something did happen, I didn’t see it. When we first tuned in during the second inning, the score was 1-0. By the time we had watched about half an hour, had showers, got dressed, gone out for a meal and a drink, returned to the hotel room in time to watch the end, the score was 2-0, with the second run coming courtesy of a walked base. Essentially, to a cricket fan, nothing happened.

What's happening? Nothing probably.Similarly, having forced my housemates to watch large portions of the American League Championship Series between the LA Angels and the New York Yankees, one of them said ‘You know, I’ve watched a hell of a lot of baseball this week and I don’t think I’ve seen anyone hit the ball’. And, to be fair to him, he hadn’t. There is a hell of a lot of time in a baseball game where not a lot actually happens.

While the cricket fan in me wants to use this to fact as ammunition in the fight against American anti-cricket hypocrisy, the baseball fan in me wants to defend it. Baseball, in many ways, is more similar to cricket than it appears. Context is everything. When people say that ‘nothing happens’ about either sport, the truth is that they just don’t quite understand what is happening, or why it is significant. In both baseball and cricket, it is the build up to, and anticipation of, significant events that make them all the more satisfying when they do come. Good things come to those who wait.

Moreover, the more you watch both sports, the more you get to appreciate the ‘nothing’ happening. To many people, watching Paul Collingwood grind his way to 74 off 245 balls would be boring. To a baseball fan, watching Collingwood leave and defend ball after ball, only breaking from this pattern to nurdle the odd ball to mid-wicket for a single, would seem like ‘nothing’. In the same way, to a cricket fan, watching CC Sabathia concede just four hits in seven innings would seem like nothing. Yet, while they may be less exciting than watching balls fly out of the park, or stumps being sent flying, they are admirable and intriguing in their own right. Once you understand the importance of these acts, the pressure each of these performers are under and the consequences of their potential failure, they are no longer nothing – in fact they are incredibly important, and real fans can appreciate them for what they are.

Perhaps more importantly, these passages of play create the context in which the more spectacular performances take on increased significance. No-one can deny the significance of Paul Collingwood’s almost super-human innings in Cardiff in this year’s first Ashes test. His 245 ball innings contained exactly 201 nothings. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t important. In fact, in its own way, it was as important as Andrew Flintoff’s barnstorming five-wicket haul at Lord’s or his breathtaking run-out of Ricky Ponting at the Oval. Collingwood’s limpet-like dourness allowed England to snatch a draw from the jaws of an almost inevitable defeat, and created the backdrop for Flintoff’s heroics. He made them mean something.

My conversion to baseball was finally completed when, after two weeks of watching baseball in bars, restaurants and hotel rooms, my final evening in California was spent at Angel Stadium, watching the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim entertain the New York Yankees. I could finally put my hastily acquired and somewhat patchy knowledge to the test at a live ball game, and I wasn’t to be disappointed.

Kendry Morales's game-changing home run.Up until this point, I had found baseball interesting, intriguing and certainly impressive. But I can’t say that I’d found much of it all that exciting. This was all about to change. The Angels, after giving the Yankees a four run head start, eventually prevailed 10-6. The noise made by the 44,000 fans in Angel Stadium when Kendry Morales thumped a fifth inning home run over the wall, earning the Angels three runs and squaring the score at 5-5, was as loud and enduring as any I’ve heard at a sporting event. And, more significantly, I was excited as everyone else and delighted when I saw the ball fly over the wall. At last I understood.

It had taken a while to get going. The first few Angels innings had indeed contained a fair amount of nothing. In the meantime, people ate their hot dogs, drank their beer and chatted to their friends, almost as if the baseball was a mere backdrop to an overly-subscribed picnic, but suddenly, and without quite understanding why, a sense of anticipation had started to grow throughout the fifth inning. A single by Bobby Abreu at the start of it had pulled the Angels back to within three runs. Then a combination of scrambled hits and fielding errors allowed the Angels to get two men on base. Suddenly, the atmosphere was very different. Everyone seemed to sense that something was going to happen. Then, right on cue, Morales belted one out of the park. A whole lot of not very much suddenly seemed to be something after all. The crowd went mad, and the game had turned on its head.

Joba Chamberlain gets taken out of the game after conceding four runs in the fifth inning.I think this is why I like baseball. Watching and sensing the pressure build on a pitcher as a situation develops is very much like watching a batsman in cricket struggle to find his timing, or play and miss a few times. The pressure mounts and you can sense something will have to give to relieve the pressure. The pitcher may throw that final strike with bases loaded on a full count and end the inning, or they may leave one hanging over the plate, get hammered out of the park and get taken out of the game. The batsman may finally middle one through the covers to ease the tension and take control of their innings, or they might edge that very same shot to the keeper and trudge back to the pavilion knowing they’ve just handed the initiative over to the opposition.

In baseball, as in cricket, even when not much appears to be happening, it nearly is, or is just about to. That’s why I love cricket, and that’s why I think I might love baseball.

Unfortunately, for me at least, the Angels fine season ended this weekend, as they lost the sixth game of their Championship Series to the very same Yankees I saw them beat back in July, going down 4-2 in the series. With this loss went their chance to compete in baseball’s flagship event, the World Series. The Yankees will be there instead, taking on last year’s champions, the Philadelphia Phillies. While the Angels might not be there this year, I’ll still be tuning in to watch it when I can. Game 1 starts at 11.30pm this Thursday on ESPN America. I’d highly recommend it. It might take a while, but it’ll get you in the end.

I say ‘I think I do’, because it’s early days yet. There’s still a long way to go. But it’s looking good so far. In fact, I’ve become a little bit obsessed. It all started back in June, when I spent two weeks on holiday in California. Now, I knew baseball was America’s national summer sport. What I wasn’t prepared for was quite how much baseball there was – how incredibly ever-present it is over there. I mean, cricket is England’s national summer sport, but, finding a pub that shows the test match is usually a quest of Odyssean proportions.

In America, baseball is literally everywhere. It’s on in every bar, often multiple games at once. Games follow on fast from one another. When games aren’t on, there are incessant replays of the plays of the day and endless reports of yesterday’s games. Now, you’d be quite right to point out that, in summer, there is no basketball, football (of the American kind) or hockey (of the ice-bound kind) to detract the sporting attention away from baseball. As baseball has the full attention of the American sporting public, you would expect to hear a lot about it. But, bear in mind that the two weeks I was there were the two weeks immediately following Michael Jackson’s death and also happened to coincide with Andy Roddick’s incredible run to the Wimbledon final. Yet these two events barely seemed to make a dent in Baseball’s dominance.

Being a cricket fan, I’ve always had a fairly one-eyed view of baseball. I sort of thought of it as cricket’s uncouth and unsophisticated cousin. I’d always found it mildly interesting, although whenever I did watch snippets of it, I generally did so as a comparative exercise, and never really got into baseball as a sport in its own right. However, after two weeks of enforced exposure to it, baseball had won me over.

Of course, it’s perfectly possible that, had I been exposed to basketball or American football in the same way, a similar conversion may have occurred. To be honest, such is my addiction to watching pretty much any sporting activity, two weeks of total immersion in water polo could have had a similar effect. If I accidently turn over to the darts for more than three throws I’ll end up watching it for hours, unable to change the channel until the match has finished.

However, I’d like to think that another sport wouldn’t have won me over quite so easily. I think I’ve been hardwired to like baseball. It appeals to my nerdish nature. Baseball, like cricket, has an array of rules, and exceptions to rules, and exceptions to exceptions to rules that make it almost incomprehensible to the uninitiated. For example, if a batter ‘fouls it back’ – i.e. hits a ball behind the foul ball line – it counts as a strike against the batter, except if this occurs after the batter has already had two strikes in his at bat, in which case, it does not count as a strike, except if they are attempting to bunt the ball rather than hit the ball. Now, I’ve watched quite a lot of baseball games by this point, and I only finally managed to decipher the intricacies of this rule about a week ago. I love that! Give me a sport that is overly complex and has rules that people don’t understand and can’t explain the reasons for and I’m hooked.

One thing I always resented when speaking to Americans about cricket was that they, without any knowledge or experience of the game, labelled cricket as ‘slow’, ‘boring’ and ‘too complicated’. Well, the words ‘pot’, ‘kettle’ and ‘black’ spring to mind. To be fair, cricket can be slow, boring and complicated, but only when you don’t understand the game – and specifically the context of what is happening in the game. In the past few weeks, while trying to convert my flatmates to the game, I’ve been on the other end of some equally impartial comments from cricket fans towards baseball – ‘nothing’s happening’ being the most common one. And, to be fair, I can see their point.

The very first game of baseball I paid attention to while in California, was a game in which nothing really did happen. Or if something did happen, I didn’t see it. When we first tuned in during the second inning, the score was 1-0. By the time we had watched about half an hour, had showers, got dressed, gone out for a meal and a drink, returned to the hotel room in time to watch the end, the score was 2-0, with the second run coming courtesy of a walked base. Essentially, to a cricket fan, nothing happened.

Similarly, having forced my housemates to watch large portions of the American League Championship Series between the LA Angels and the New York Yankees, one of them said ‘You know, I’ve watched a hell of a lot of baseball this week and I don’t think I’ve seen anyone hit the ball’. And, to be fair to him, he hadn’t. There is a hell of a lot of time in a baseball game where not a lot actually happens. While the cricket fan in me wants to use this to fact as ammunition in the fight against American anti-cricket hypocrisy, the baseball fan in me wants to defend it. Baseball, in many ways, is more similar to cricket than it appears. Context is everything. When people say that ‘nothing happens’ about either sport, the truth is that they just don’t quite understand what is happening, or why it is significant. In both baseball and cricket, it is the build up to, and anticipation of, significant events that make them all the more satisfying when they do come. Good things come to those who wait.

Moreover, the more you watch both sports, the more you get to appreciate the ‘nothing’ happening. To many people, watching Paul Collingwood grind his way to 74 off 245 balls would be boring. To a baseball fan, watching Collingwood leave and defend ball after ball, only breaking from this pattern to nurdle the odd ball to mid-wicket for a single, would seem like ‘nothing’. In the same way, to a cricket fan, watching CC Sabathia concede just four hits in seven innings would seem like nothing. Yet, while they may be less exciting than watching balls fly out of the park, or stumps being sent flying, they are admirable and intriguing in their own right. Once you understand the importance of these acts, the pressure each of these performers are under and the consequences of their potential failure, they are no longer nothing – in fact they are incredibly important, and real fans can appreciate them for what they are.

Perhaps more importantly, these passages of play create the context in which the more spectacular performances take on increased significance. No-one can deny the significance of Paul Collingwood’s almost super-human innings in Cardiff in this year’s first Ashes test. His 245 ball innings contained exactly 201 nothings. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t important. In fact, in its own way, it was as important as Andrew Flintoff’s barnstorming five-wicket haul at Lord’s or his breathtaking run-out of Ricky Ponting at the Oval. Collingwood’s limpet-like dourness allowed England to snatch a draw from the jaws of an almost inevitable defeat, and created the backdrop for Flintoff’s heroics. He made them mean something.

My conversion to baseball was finally completed when, after two weeks of watching baseball in bars, restaurants and hotel rooms, my final evening in California was spent at Angel Stadium, watching the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim entertain the New York Yankees. I could finally put my hastily acquired and somewhat patchy knowledge to the test at a live ball game, and I wasn’t to be disappointed.

The Angels, after giving the Yankees a four run head start, eventually prevailed 10-6, with a combination of ‘small ball’ and ‘long ball’ which, in cricketing terms, essentially equates to having Michael Atherton nudge it around for ones and twos while Kevin Pietersen belts it out of the park at the other end. Up until this point, I had found baseball interesting, intriguing and certainly impressive. But I can’t say that I’d found much of it all that exciting. This was all about to change.

The noise made by the 44,000 fans in Angel Stadium when Kendry Morales thumped a fifth inning home run over the wall, earning the Angels three runs and squaring the score at 5-5, was as loud and enduring as any I’ve heard at a sporting event. And, more significantly, I was one of them. I was excited as everyone else and delighted when I saw the ball fly over the wall. At last I understood.

It had taken a while to get going. The first few Angels innings had indeed contained a fair amount of nothing. In the meantime, people ate their hot dogs, drank their beer and chatted to their friends, almost as if the baseball was a mere backdrop to an overly-subscribed picnic, but suddenly, and without quite understanding why, a sense of anticipation had started to grow throughout the fifth inning. A single by Bobby Abreu at the start of it had pulled the Angels back to within three runs. Then a combination of scrambled hits and fielding errors allowed the Angels to get two men on base. Suddenly, the atmosphere was very different. Everyone seemed to sense that something was going to happen. Then, right on cue, Morales belted one out of the park. A whole lot of not very much suddenly seemed to be something after all. The crowd went mad, and the game had turned on its head.

I think this is why I like baseball. Watching and sensing the pressure build on a pitcher as a situation develops is very much like watching a batsman in cricket struggle to find his timing, or play and miss a few times. The pressure mounts and you can sense something will have to give to relieve the pressure. The pitcher may throw that final strike with bases loaded on a full count and end the inning, or they may leave one hanging over the plate, get hammered out of the park and get taken out of the game. The batsman may finally middle one through the covers to ease the tension and take control of their innings, or they might edge that very same shot to the keeper and make their way back to the pavilion knowing they’ve just handed the initiative over to the opposition.

In baseball, as in cricket, even when not much appears to be happening, it nearly is, or is just about to. That’s why I love cricket, and that’s why I think I might love baseball.

Unfortunately, for me at least, the Angels fine season ended this weekend, as they lost the sixth game of their Championship Series to the very same Yankees I saw them beat back in July, going down 4-2 in the series. With this loss went their chance to compete in baseball’s flagship event, the World Series. The Yankees will be there instead, taking on last year’s champions, the Philadelphia Phillies. While the Angels might not be there this year, I’ll still be tuning in to watch it when I can. Game 1 starts at 11.30pm this Thursday on ESPN America. I’d highly recommend it. It might take a while, but it’ll get you in the end.




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