Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Finn: England's missing paceman


Cricket doesn't often offer much for adrenaline junkies, but when fast bowlers find fast pitches, it's intoxicating. Pace is the most visceral and unforgiving part of the game. Weakness against spin can be tolerated as a technical failing; falling to pace is invariably a moral problem.

It was Mitchell Johnson's pace that made the first Test the most pulsating Ashes match since 2005. Until Jonathan Trott's departure from the tour, the post-match talk was all about the unique challenges real quick bowling presents. Curious then, that England's fastest bowler – Steven Finn – was entirely absent at the Gabba.

Finn is not quite as explosive as Johnson - his orthodox action means he'll never feel quite as raw - but he's equally volatile and just as potent. Like Johnson he was spotted early, promised much but never seemed settled. And like Johnson his reputation belies his record.

From 23 Tests Finn's strike rate is 48.3, better than James Anderson and Stuart Broad by 10. His average (29.40) also shades England's senior bowlers. He was England's highest wicket taker in the tour matches leading into the first Test but also their most profligate. And therein lies the problem for the selectors. England deem Finn too pricey for their parsimonious preferences.

Yet it is interesting to contrast Finn's development with England's Gabba standout, Broad. Finn made his debut an equally willowly quick in Bangladesh three-and-a-half years ago. Since then he has added bulk to his body and speed to his bowling but has been dropped six times. Some of these were horse-for-course changes where England preferred a second spinner. But many were not and they speak of enormous instability.

It took Broad less than two years to play the same number of Tests and by his own acknowledgement he had to learn on the job. Unlike Finn, he was allowed to. Broad has been dropped for poor form only twice in his Test career. At the equivalent stage to Finn he had 23 less wickets at an average – 36.14 – that was much worse.

Part of the reason Broad was allowed to develop in the team was the presence of a fourth seamer. Andrew Flintoff played in 10 of Broad's early Tests which meant if Broad had a shaky day his overs could be found elsewhere. After repeated batting malfunctions it is unfair to focus on the bowlers, but England miss a fourth seamer. Not just to free Broad and Anderson up, but maybe most significantly to allow Finn to develop.

England's obsessively detailed management has been well documented and their devotion to professionalism has undoubtedly lifted standards. But while they focus on the marginals, Finn is quickly becoming their biggest failure.

He has all the attributes of an outstanding fast bowler. His second-innings spell at Lord's against South Africa last year was every bit as devastating as Johnson at the Gabba and before his difficult Ashes outing at Trent Bridge in July he troubled New Zealand's batsmen.

It's unlikely Finn will be recalled at Adelaide. England are desperate for the steadier Tim Bresnan to return. But genuine pace is a rare commodity. Finn might soon prove more expensive out of the team than he would in it. 

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Piercing the hot air - Sachin's 38


It was tough trying to wade through the torrent of saccharine sentiment. Of course it had to be like this, the entertainment industry loves instructing people how to feel.

Cricket, ever more so, is no exception. Though the Test format is less malleable to the banal storytelling of marketeers, Sachin Tendulkar's final Test was an easy sell.

And boy they sold it. Cricinfo was bursting with Sachin, while Twitter was melting from tedious twos-and-fros between those lauding Sachin and those taking the piss.

Tendulkar's final Test innings (and with that shambolic West Indies outfit it was always going to be his last) was a massive occasion. It was just that being told over and again how important the man and the moment were made me numb.

I understood why so many said so much. I've long been struck by the gloriously earnest instinct in India for both sentiment and categorisation. Tendulkar's career and retirement tapped both. His many feats meant he was No. 1 runscorer, No. 1 century-maker, No. 1 match-player. And having watched him live his entire adult life as a champion on the pitch, people had every right to feel emotional.

So I did not belong with the curmudgeons grumbling about the quantity of the coverage. It is just that I could not engage with it. The noise - visual, aural and mental - that cluttered Tendulkar's final moment made me immune to it.

But it just so happened that I was home when the moment came. Cricinfo told me Murali Vijay was out and that the crowd had erupted. The only video coverage I could get was through my mobile. A small screen pathetically at odds with the occasion.

The sound of the crowd as he sped out the middle, the chaotic slog-sweep to get off the mark, the half-volley stroked through cover. That punch drive down the ground. Of his 15921 Test runs, the 38 he made that evening must count among his least significant.

But those 20 overs were among the most dramatic I'd seen. As was always the way with Tendulkar, the guff was cleared aside to make way for the sport.

It was 20 overs that snatched the moment from the promoters and returned it to the fans. For that I #thankyousachin.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Let the umpire call it

What makes a good umpiring decision? Thirteen years ago England were chasing an unlikely late-evening victory, against Pakistan in Karachi, in light that was manifestly poor. Conditions were unfair to the fielding team, who couldn't see the ball, and dangerous for the batsmen. Yet the umpires - Steve Bucknor and Mohammad Nazir - got approval from the batsmen and stayed on. Their reasoning was that Moin Khan, the Pakistan captain, had deliberately wasted time and so had no right now to complain.

Last month Michael Clarke's self-indulgence combined with Kevin Pietersen to gift a capacity crowd a stirring Sunday-evening finish. A middling Ashes series was set for a spectacular denouement. Yet with the climax in sight, the umpires pulled the plug on the party and sent everyone home four overs from the finish. Why? Because the light had dipped below a benchmark level.

In Karachi the umpires used their common sense. Strong-willed and sensible, they spat on the rule book but ensured a fair and memorable result. At The Oval the umpires were consistent. The precedent was set earlier in the series and no matter the context, rules were rules and needed respecting.

It seems that when it comes to umpiring, you can have consistency or common sense but you can't always have both. Our inability to decide which we prefer means umpires get berated for making the wrong decision and similarly pilloried for making the right ones too.

Whether Saturday league cricket or a Test match, players at all levels often seem to value umpiring consistency more than correctness - the odd decision may go wrong, so the thinking goes, but it is forgivable if the reasoning is consistent. At the highest level that demand for ever more consistency, though, has meant stripping umpires of the ability to exercise their judgement in the way Bucknor did.

By necessity rules are written in the abstract and when put into practice may not be appropriate in every situation. Because cricket sprawls over five days and encompasses so many variations and contingencies, its laws are incredibly intricate and open to interpretation.

It is this ability to tailor the laws to the situation that makes umpires so important. Bowlers, for example, normally have enormous leeway for wides in Tests, but on the exceptional occasions when a chase enters the final afternoon, it makes sense for umpires to intervene and tighten up the margins. Though not necessarily consistent, few would deny its appropriateness.

Yet the more professional cricket has become, the more players' demands for consistency have been met, and the more umpires have been robbed of authority and discretion. Andy Flower, for instance, suggested after the Oval Test that there could be a universal benchmark for bad light. This would clarify any grey area but reduce the umpires' role in the matter to meter readers. And could a one-size-fits-all approach really cope with the nuances of every situation? Absolutely not.

The DRS is another area where umpiring judgement has been curtailed. The system was introduced to account for the outliers (howlers) that human umpires will occasionally make. Given that players and spectators will use all technology available to judge the quality of umpires, the officials deserve similar resources. By demonstrating just how many deliveries can go on to hit the stumps, the DRS has also helped even the balance between bat and ball and bring fingerspin back into the game. For that it should be celebrated.

The trouble is that by forcing players to decide when to use technology, it necessarily becomes tactical. It is that marginal use of the DRS that too often makes a mockery of umpires. Reasonable decisions get overturned, and umpires are reduced to go-betweens in a process dictated by players and the technology. Not only does that needlessly undermine umpires, it means reviews can get used up on marginal calls while being unavailable to correct the really poor decisions.

Better would be to give the third umpire three opportunities an innings to review what he considers to be howlers. The existing protocol for suspected edges makes a sound place to start. Through consultation with the third umpire, the on-field official gleans all information and then decides whether to change the original decision. Like in rugby, the officials' reasoning could be explained live to the public and players, and their authority upheld.

The Ashes summer was marred by some extraordinarily poor umpiring, especially by the third umpires. There is, though, no legislating for such incompetence and neither should there be. Professionally trained, well-paid and well-rested umpires must be trusted to make good decisions. Their independence also allows them to safeguard the wider interests of the sport in a way players cannot.

When empowered, umpires would then be in a better position to act in other areas of the game. The scandalously poor over rates could be tackled with much stronger umpiring. Similarly, the issue of low catches being obscured by camera-lens shortening, which often leads to the wrong not-out decision being made for the sake of consistency, could be resolved by on- and off-field umpires collaborating to try to make more positive judgements more often with clear explanation.

No matter how hard they strive, cricket's administrators can never deliver faultless decision-making. Broadcasting technology has helped, Elite umpires too, but the game is just too peculiar to guarantee perfection. Yet in a choice between more rules telling umpires how to act, or more trust in them to do what's best for the game, it's the umpires who should be supported.

This blog was first published on Cricinfo's Cordon

Monday, 19 August 2013

Panesar deserves support


A couple of years ago a friend of mine from Brighton saw Monty Panesar taking his bins out. As he walked back to his door, Panesar wheeled his bowling arm over. It's a lovely image and much in keeping with popular perceptions of Panesar at the time: unaffected, exuberant and innocent.

News of Panesar's ugly night out in Brighton blew that apart. Harassing women and pissing on bouncers jarred with our idea of the once teetotal man. The stereotypes about Panesar, though, were always lazy. Though partly an affectionate reaction to his hapless fielding and wide eyes, the repeated caricatures of Panesar as an essentially meek and laughable man risked slipping into murky territory.

Panesar has struck a disaffected figure this season. His marriage broke down and he has, apparently, been repeatedly in Sussex's bad books. His bowling has also suffered with 23 Championship wickets and 40.39 this year, though he still the leading English spinner in Division One.

From a distance it seems as though Panesar has been trying for some time to be taken more seriously. Gone last winter were the wild wicket celebrations as he was delivering one of England's greatest overseas triumphs. In their place were more aggressive and poised reactions. He also added an MBA over the winter to his earlier BSc, taking his exams while on tour with England. 

Despite his resounding success in India (something people forgot far too quickly), Panesar's ability was again questioned after three poor games on unhelpful tracks in New Zealand. The grumbles over his batting and fielding resurfaced, complaints over monotonous bowling returned, and the names of young spinners across the country were talked up.

On Sunday England dumped Panesar and picked Lancashire's Simon Kerrigan for The Oval squad. Though understandable for now England should be doing all they can to support one of their prime assets.

Panesar is unlucky to have played in the same era as one of England's greatest spinners. Having basked in limelight at the start of his international career he has been stuck on the margins since Graeme Swann's emergence. His mentor Neil Burns told the Daily Mail Panesar “sees himself as “an outsider”, who only becomes “an insider” when he is bowling well.

“Some have developed an inflexible view of him and only seem to value him as a bowling machine, and tend to ridicule other parts of his game and personality,” said Burns. “Dealing with rejection, and feeling on the outside again, proved a difficult emotional challenge.”

Panesar is off to Essex until the end of the season and it is possible he will return to Northants next year. When he left his boyhood county in 2009 Panesar was reportedly suffering in a hostile dressing-room atmosphere. Still he donated £10,000 to Northants, thanking them for their role in his development. It's difficult to think of many others who would do the same.

Swann's sore elbow might curtail his England career soon and though 31 years old Panesar is very fit and a proven matchwinner. Of course Panesar himself is responsible for resolving his problems but as he looks to get his life back on course, he deserves respect and support.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Bairstow's nervous wait


Jonny Bairstow had to wait. Cricket is cruel like that. Not the seven weeks he went without a first-class game in the build up to this series. Rather the 47 hours between the end of his tortured first innings and the start his second.

Other sports distract their players by forcing them to play. Cricket refuses that get-out clause. Instead the mind is allowed to fester in the long pauses that outstretch action in any Test match.

At 23 Bairstow is having his technique publicly severed. The tag-lines are building. Ravi Bopara's Test match career can't be discussed without reference to being "found out by Australia" and Bairstow is watching the same thing envelope him.

In 2009 Bopara, batting No. 3, shambled 105 runs at 15 before being cut loose for The Oval finale. Bairstow has 203 at 29 in this series. The backroom army would have routines to try and help him "stay in the present" and "focus on processes" but he would not be human if his mind didn't wander.

Right now his team-mates are being celebrated for their stirring late-evening victory dash. Nestled in the eulogies, though, are questions over Bairstow's position.

Waking up on day three – with Australia 222 for 5 overnight - he would have known his second innings was coming. But it didn't until well into the final session of the day. Until then his contribution had been nothing beyond the 77-ball first-innings ordeal.

Of course Bairstow is used to batting down the order and waiting his turn. He's done that for Yorkshire throughout his career. But usually as a wicketkeeper. The dual role may help liberate his free-wheeling natural game. Shawn of wicketkeeping duties his batting comes under even closer scrutiny.

Since Paul Collingwood's retirement at the end of the 2010/11 Ashes England have trialled six middle-order pretenders in 31 matches. Collectively they average 27.5. Joe Root was the one outright success but that only propelled him to the top of the order.

The instability – especially the manner of Nick Compton and James Taylor's dropping - was another thing Bairstow had to mull over as he waited for that second chance. When it did finally come England were only 123 ahead and tottering. It was an match-defining opportunity to grab.

He didn't quite do so, making 28 before an underwhelming edge behind off Nathan Lyon. Yet Bairstow should take solace from the fact he found some freedom in the last-chance saloon. Just like Collingwood used to. His innings was brief but studded with six boundaries and was decisive while it lasted. It suggests he has the fortitude to overcome cricket's peculiar rhythms, even if his technique remains doubtful.

He has another nervous wait now before the squad for the final Test is announced. His positive second-innings batting might just have earned him a reprieve. If England are certain they don't want a No. 6 who can bowl, Bairstow deserves another chance.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Are teams affected by their past?


History matters to those who love cricket. Fans and commentators obsess over statistics and old stories, while TV analysts and tweeters thrill themselves with footage from the past.

But what about the players? With old failures and successes just a laptop away, it is harder than ever for them to escape their history. If one particular team or cricketer struggles, we're quick to pounce on weaknesses. Think choking South Africans or Kevin Pietersen and left-arm spin.

Are tropes like these just commentary clich├ęs or is there something more? Do past defeats haunt future performances? Can teams even remember together, or does each individual carry their burdens alone? These are the questions all teams confront, and ones Michael Clarke's Australians will need to answer before the Ashes double header begins in July.

Clarke has played in four Ashes series, and lost three of them. Five of his colleagues have played England in the past but only in losing series. It is one of the many ways the teams have flipped positions from a decade ago.

Through the '90s, England's players would prepare for their biannual mauling with nothing but defeat to guide them. When, by 2005, they had a youthful team capable of overcoming Australia, Michael Vaughan didn't want a dressing room crowded with past disappointments. It meant Graham Thorpe - a veteran of five defeated Ashes campaigns out of five - was dropped for a callow Ian Bell. England's series win justified the decision, but it's doubtful whether Thorpe's presence would have really harmed Vaughan's chances.

After South Africa's recent Champions Trophy semi-final flop against England, their coach Gary Kirsten was quick to cite the c-word. South Africa's history of semi-final defeats was enough for Kirsten to blame that common curse. Similarly, in 2012 when England lost Tests to Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India, the conclusion was that they had a collective - and historical - weakness against spin bowling.

Yet for Bill Filby, a sports psychologist at Brighton University who works with the Sussex county team, too much is made of the past. "As a group your confidence is related to, and influenced by, past performances in similar situations," he says. "So if you had exactly the same players, playing in exactly the same conditions against exactly the same opposition, then of course [past results] would be expected to have a significant impact. But defeats from four years ago in different situations shouldn't really make much of a difference."

On the surface it sounds reasonable. Yet why should sports teams be immune to history and culture when other groups are not? Countries draw on founding myths and symbols of collective meaning to maintain certain ideas about themselves. Similarly past traumas scar nations and affect the decisions societies make. The memory of 1920s Germany contributes in some part to creating a country terrified of hyper-inflation and mass unemployment.

According to Filby such group dynamics are not that significant in cricket: "[It] is a team sport in name but really each moment is an individual battle." Forget no "I" in team, there is no team in "I". That's certainly an appealing idea to sportsmen intent on scripting their own destiny, and useful to the management teams that insist they can help.

But reputations matter. Australia are no longer the best side in the world and their once revered system is failing to produce the high-quality players of old. Yet to a generation of players, coaches and fans around the world, memories of Australian dominance still burn bright. You only need to look at the over 30 Australians in the last IPL, and the dozen-odd who will feature in county cricket this summer.

Similarly the history of Pakistani cricket suggests the presence of an ineffable collective force. When they enter one of their haal moments, clicking into their unique zone where they summon opposition collapses out of the ether, are they not drawing on a cultural memory deeper than any one individual's experiences? It is something as difficult to quantify and control as it is to ignore.

The effects of winning or losing linger well after the stumps are drawn. Australia's reputation - especially after their off-field shenanigans - is creaking. If over the next two series they make it five Ashes defeats out of six, it will take a long time to repair.

This blog was first published on Cricinfo's Cordon

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Misunderstanding cricket's value

We're living in the golden age. Never have cricket's financial foundations been more secure. Yet still, worry abounds. Oddly, it is these very riches causing the uncertainty, because by obsessing on the revenue-generating parts of cricket, administrators are putting the value of the wider game at risk.

It is worth reflecting on how much has changed. 17 years ago the sport's most lucrative product – the 1996 World Cup – earned full member nations $500,000 each. At the time it was big money. In 2011, the IPL alone – a notionally domestic tournament - made the BCCI nearly $50m. Such largesse is unprecedented.

With this wealth has come much wrangling over the direction the game should take. Players, broadcasters, boards and franchises all see themselves as the key to future fortunes and the ones deserving of greater rewards. Over the last few months this has played out in a number of spats.

There was the PCA claim that England players are “substantially underpaid”. Before that Nottinghamshire announced contracted players would be blocked from playing in the IPL. The lead-up to England's Test series in India saw the 'TMS war' where the BBC took umbrage at having to shell out great expenses to cover England internationals while Test Match Sofa didn't pay a penny. And in India, the BCCI denied access to photographers, web-journalists and broadcasters unwilling to meet stringent financial conditions. In short, the sudden wealth brought a poverty of vision and much backbiting.

In some sense it is right for the England players to demand flexibility. Central contract retainers pay between £200k - £400k a year, so England's stars are hardly impoverished, but they do earn less than Australia's. Michael Clarke and Shane Watson receive £1m from the ACB while, crucially, remaining free to sell themselves in the BBL and IPL. The early-summer Test matches in England clash with the IPL and are frequently underwhelming affairs against underprepared and understrength oppositions. A rejigging of the summer calendar is welcome but players should accept that their demand for higher salaries drives congestion of the international fixture list.

If the PCA case is an attempt to harness player power, Nottinghamshire's stance is the reverse. Cricketers like Alex Hales would undoubtedly learn (as well as earn) plenty from playing alongside the best in a high-pressure atmosphere at the IPL. What that experience and opportunity contributes to the English game might be vast, but difficult to quantify. It is understandable Nottinghamshire should want the services of their player but it is an unsustainable decision in the long term and if all county teams did the same it would not necessarily do much good for English cricket.

Both the BCCI and critics of the Sofa share a similar short-sightedness. The inflated cost of broadcast rights has priced all competitors to Sky out of the television market in England, but the BBC's radio coverage was thought sacrosanct. The Sofa changed that by opening out to a new online audience but was criticised for not making a direct financial contribution to the ECB.

Greater coverage – whether through online radio, or photography, or web-journalists - broadens the reach and raises the profile of the sport, which can only improve commercial worth down the line. Ensuring people in Australia can listen to radio coverage of the Test series against India, for instance, deepens the presence of the sport globally. That is something to be fostered for tomorrow's good, not blocked in search of a better return today.

Underlying all this is a false logic over how wealth in the game is created. On the surface it may seem obvious. Punters watch short-form cricket, especially T20, and this makes broadcasters happy to shell out vast sums for the access to sell adverts to them. Longer forms of the game are less attractive so should be, at best, set aside solely for nostalgic safekeeping. In England specifically, the international team is what is marketable, so the needs of county cricket should be demoted. The implication is straightforward. Limited-over cricket is the must-have product, broadcasters the financiers, and the game should be run to best appease both.

Yet if the last five years have taught us anything, it is that balance sheets can occlude more than they reveal. The value of a product can't be understood by how much it is sold for. This is because of the difference between what business textbooks would call “value-creation” and “value-capture”. The first is a complex, messy and often unintended process involving many parties over a long period, while the second is a more simplified snapshot of all that went before.

International players can point out it is their labour on display that people enjoy watching, so should be entitled to a handsome share of the revenue created. But where would they be without an administrative set up that provides them the place to showcase their skills? Counties and other domestic teams don't attract the kind of crowds, sponsorship or rights deals that allow them to generate much revenue, but it is they who identify and nurture the talent that goes on to become broadcast-valuable international cricketers. So while they may not capture value, they certainly help create it. Similarly, women's cricket may not yet draw the same audience numbers or rights deals as the men's game but by opening out cricket's audience and changing perception of the sport, it helps cricket as a whole become more lucrative. As such women cricketers could demand a greater share.

Looking further down the ladder to grass roots, clubs play a pivotal role fanning the first flames of interest in youngsters. Without Burnley CC, James Anderson might have become an estate agent. Moreover the communitarian spirit recreational cricket instills forms an important part of the affection for the sport more broadly, which matters when boards sell sponsorship and rights.

At the most basic level, cricket is valuable because people like it and it takes all these groups to ensure that's the case. How this love gets monetised is a different matter and changes as society and technology evolves.

Cricket's first flourishing was thanks to aristocratic patronage. High society benefactors showcased their wealth and status by paying amateurs and shamateurs to compete. The popularity of both the cricket and especially gambling on it, then allowed the game to expand with punters happy to pay to watch matches. Fast-forward two generations and the post-Packer era of bumper media rights provided the engine for the multimillion-pound growth in the game. Just lately the circle is intriguingly returning in some way to its origins, with IPL teams being bought partly as very public displays of status. In the long term, as technology further undermines the ability for monopoly broadcasting, it may be that the sums available for the game diminish.

It is important to remember all this in the dash for cash. Those arguing that Test cricket's pre-industrial sprawl is out of kilter with contemporary commerce, miss where some of the short-form's value comes from. In part it is the context and contrast provided by the longer game that makes T20 attractive. Also it is the star personalities, forged over international series, that brings value to the IPL and BBL brands.

These two dominant Twenty20 tournaments rely on the stardom of international cricketers to market themselves. How else to explain Shane Warne's continued presence? Unlike football, cricket is a sport that blossomed primarily through international competition. Even in the private, city-based tournaments, the success of the national team matters. The 2012 BBL is forecast to make a £7.2m loss at just the time the Australian national team are floundering. Likewise the IPL's brand value, while still sizeable, dipped along with the form of the Indian side.

The skills and new audience developed in the shortest form have already crossed over to the longer game. Test cricket is going through an especially fast-paced period. While recognising how gains from one form can cross-subsidise another in this way, administrators seem less able to see the reverse. The South African cricket board's decision to stage a T20 international on Boxing Day last year instead of a Test was a galling example. Pulling support out of Test and long-form cricket and hoping to get by predominantly on limited-over games might look commercially sensible now, but may undermine the value of the game further down the line.

One way or another, the new wealth will dramatically restructure how cricket is played. It provides administrators with a wonderful opportunity to expand the game. Yet if they continue to chase short-term gains over broader support they will only squander the chance.

This article appeared first in the May 2013 issue of Spin Cricket. Subscribe here

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Broadcast biggies wary of pirate streams

Pirate internet streams were once described as “the biggest danger to the future of the sport”. Greater than dwindling Test crowds; as vilified as match fixing. Why? Because they put no money into the game. For a sport awash with cash, it is a strange worry. Two decades ago, the ICC’s revenue was a meagre £100,000 (Haigh 2012). They now command deals worth 10,000 times that amount.
Given this, it seems churlish for administrators to fret over murky corners of the internet.  Surely they should be glad fans are finding new ways to follow the game they love? Not so. Even small web outlets like Test Match Sofa* leave some feeling vulnerable. Take Jonathan Agnew’s outburst over how the internet radio station was undermining the game. At the heart of it is a deep-seated fear over how technology is threatening to break-up the broadcasting cartel that bankrolls the game.


Continue reading at Wisden India

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Mike Gatting, rebel tourist and MCC president

Forgiving is not forgetting; it's actually remembering - remembering and not using your right to hit back. It's a second chance for a new beginning. And the remembering part is particularly important. Especially if you dont want to repeat what happened. - Desmond Tutu

Forgiveness is more forthcoming for some than others. On Wednesday Mike Gatting was named the next MCC president. It completes a rapid journey back to the heart of the establishment for the once rebel tour captain.

In 1990, while Nelson Mandela was being released from his jail in Robben Island, Gatting was leading the final, and most reprehensible, tour to apartheid South Africa. The tour was a disaster from the off with Gatting waving away questions over its appropriateness by declaring: "I don't know much about how apartheid works but one way to find out is by going there." He soon discovered plenty.

The English tourists were met with demonstrations at the airport and a larger, angrier protest in Pietermaritzburg where the crowd chanted "Gatting go home!". Never blessed with an especially silver tongue, Gatting felt it all “just a bit of singing and dancing”.

Unlike the previous tours, which had been funded by private sponsors, Gatting and his team were paid directly by the apartheid regime.

The tourists have since been far happier to discuss their reasons than their regrets. Gatting had been harshly stripped of the England captaincy a little over a year after winning the Ashes in Australia. Clearly he felt no overwhelming loyalty to the TCCB. It was a time when cricketers weren't paid the substantial sums of today so perhaps were more easily swayed.

Yet their swift welcome back into the bosom of the authorities feels grubby. David Gravney, tour manager in 1990, became a well-respected ECB chairman of selectors in 1997. Gatting was back in the England team to tour India the moment his ban ended in 1992. Now, having never apologised, he has become the ceremonial figurehead of cricket's self-appointed moral anchor.

Gatting's treatment seems to jar with the authorities' more forceful condemnation of spot-fixers. Mervyn Westfield was sentenced to four-months in jail after admitting that he accepted £6,000 in return for conceding a set number of runs off an over in a Pro40 match against Durham in September 2009. He came forward and assisted the ECB's investigation of Danish Kaneria, hoping they would treat him with more understanding.

Instead he was banned from professional cricket for five years and club cricket for three. The ECB vehemently pursued his case, obtaining a summons from the High Court to compel him to appear at Danish Kaneria's ECB disciplinary panel.

Westfield felt abandoned by English cricket's governing institutions – the ECB and PCA – and few defended him after he spoke of his dismay at his treatment. “What a sad young man Mervyn Westfield must be to think that it was anyone's fault but his own that he sold the game down the river,” tweeted Mike Selvey.

Westfield was 21 years old and on the margins of the Essex team when he disgraced the game. Gatting was 33 and an Ashes-winning captain.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Pujara's wait

It was the pause. The ball had passed; it was already behind his head. He still waited. Eventually he just dabbed, deflecting its flight path well over Matthew Wade and away to the boundary. He was Cheteshwar Pujara orchestrating India's final run-chase of a triumphant series.

He must have played many more significant and less eye-catching strokes through the series but that upper-glance off Mitchell Johnson betrayed a batsman in complete, devastating control.

Pujara is emerging out of the haze surrounding Sachin Tendulkar's future as one of names that will loom over the next decade. Growing up through the 1990s, Lara, Tendulkar and Steve Waugh were the triumvirate that towered over the cricketing landscape. A benchmark that others (Dravid, Kallis, Ponting later) were checked off against. The batsmen whose dismissal opposition fans would celebrate desperately, but whose runs they would later cherish the most.

Over the next 10 years Pujara looks likely to join that rank. Already his numbers are frightening. After 13 Tests, Tendulkar had 666 runs and Lara 1108. Pujara has 1180. But it is the things the statistics don't reveal that is so magnetic.

The elevated calm, classical execution and understated charisma. The fact that ever since his debut, when his 89-ball 72 top-scored in a successful runchase against Ricky Ponting's Australia, he has flourished under Test-match pressure.

Set alongside his nationality and batting position, the Dravid comparison is obvious. But Pujara is very much a man of his time. His mentality and technique forming in an era where Twenty20 dominates means he has greater resources than Dravid to draw from.

Pujara's two (already!?) Test double-hundreds both began cautiously before shifting stealthily through the gears as opposition bowlers fatigued. When he feels the moment appropriate, he has all the shots of a short-form specialist. In fourth innings chases, with matches to be seized, he averages 93.00.

As a product of post-Ganguly India there is no trace of deference in the way Pujara carries himself. After his methodical dismembering of England in Ahmedabad he crowed: “The way they were batting it looked like they were a fragile batting line-up for sure. It's going to be a challenging task for them”. He has Kohli's aggression with (almost) Sangakkara's elan.

An enormous tasks awaits him in South Africa. They possess the world's most incisive pace attack and have the pitches to match. In three innings there – his only Tests outside of India - he did not pass 19. But there is nothing in Pujara's makeup to suggest he'll struggle.

He is neither front nor backfoot dominant and doesn't rely on a freakish eye in the way Virender Sehwag did. At no point has he appeared overawed with the duty of carrying India's top-order into the next generation. It suggests a temperament cool enough to ride out the dotball storms Philander and co will create.

There is something especially thrilling about watching youthful talent in its first throes. Kids coming to the game now will scrawl Pujara's name on their notebooks for years to come, fantasise about bowling to him, and try, over and again, to copy that pause before unfurling their strokes.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Office space Australians

There is a great scene in Mike Judge's 1999-film Office Space where protagonist Peter Gibbons is reprimanded by his boss for failing to include a cover sheet on the report he filed. His six managers mean he gets the same reprimand over and again. Each time his argument that he 'forgot, the report is done, and it won't take long to sort a new cover sheet' is ignored. Eventually, he just stops caring.

It came to mind when news broke that Australia are dropping their best bowler, vice-captain and two leading reserves for failing to submit to management three points on how they and the team could improve.

Despite the lavish salaries and lifestyles cricketers enjoy these days, it's managerial and not player power that defines the era. It is clear in this case like it was with the KP fiasco last summer.

Perhaps these management tasks matter. It's possible Mitchell Johnson had crucial insights on the technical failings of his team's top-order but he's more likely to have made a difference with his left-arm slingers. On the field James Pattinson looks one of the world's brightest fast-bowling prospects; he's certainly Australia's best bowler. Is that not enough?

Iain O'Brien put it best when he Tweeted: “What if those 4 Aust players were training/netting/gyming – making themselves better personally - & didn't have time to “form fill”?”

In a managerial era such commitment doesn't count unless it's demonstrable through means acceptable, and accountable to those up top. In Britain this means NHS nurses are told they don't care unless they fill out the appropriate forms “proving” they've paid attention. In the Australian cricket team this means players must 'take responsibility' and be 'more professional' only by completing the tasks set by managers reading the latest in business leadership. It's less a case of empowering people than it is about infantilising them.

Drop Shane Watson for his failings as a batsman, not as an administrator. Else, treat him as a child and he might just stomp off home.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Warne's manifesto and the managerial dream

If you ignore the grammar, 90s nostalgia and traffic-driving promotion in the Shane Warne manifesto, there is actually some wisdom in what he writes. Over the last 20 years cricket's drive for “professionalism” has merged consultants of the business world with coaches from the sporting world, and left a game dominated by the ideals of management.

Australia may have been Warne's target but all countries are caught up in the trend. Dressing rooms now strive to be “businesslike” which seems to entail employing an army of technocrats to help control and prepare players. Alongside the head coach, there are specialists for each cricket skill, statistical analysts, fitness bods and self-help gurus.

Undoubtedly some coaches provide essential help. Matt Prior, for example, readily credits his improved wicketkeeping to the work he's done with Bruce French. But the infiltration of corporate ideals into the running of cricket teams has also had more questionable effects.

South Africa, for example, employ Paddy Upton as a "performance director". In his own words, Upton's brief is to help cricketers move “out of the shadows of the ego and into the light of awareness.” It isn't just the appointments that seem spurious. Business lexicon has also infected the way people discuss the game. “Informed player management” is an especially jarring example, but obfuscating corporate speak is a staple of most press conferences.

It is difficult to question the abundance of managers without sounding like a Boycottian luddite. The professionalism of Kerry Packer and World Series Cricket forced a focus among some players who had previously lacked it. Now, with the financial stakes raised further still, perhaps it is inevitable that teams should seek other avenues of improvement.

Yet it is debatable whether the management drive has really achieved success. In the corporate world, the only industry that management consultants have really transformed is their own. Similarly in men's cricket at least, it is difficult to claim that anything other than fielding has really revolutionised.

Injuries, especially among pacemen, seem as frequent as ever, and for all the praise Nathan Leamon gets, statistical wizardry has not dramatically altered team strategy. Instead, professionalism's most telling effect has been to deepen the layers of management into the game.

Cricketers can expect their food, drink, sleep, hobbies, and public interactions to be carefully surveyed and controlled. In England, cricketers are hauled out of adolescence and brought into "the setup" so that they too can familiarise themselves with what is expected of a "professional".

In some senses this is a good thing. Joe Root is a perfect ECB specimen having played age-group cricket with England since Under-16s and been part of their Lions and Academy setups. At 22 he has had experience of conditions from all around the world which has left him well prepared to join the international fold.

These cricketing skills are the first level of management input. The second is the moneyball-style numbers analysis. The final is the kind of personality management Upton deals in. Though covering different areas, these are all part of management science's broad aim: shifting focus from outcome to process with the underlying belief that success is a simple matter of the correct planning.

Jeremy Snape, once an England limited-over offspinner, is now a consultant business and sport psychologist. He writes that “to deliver our goals of wickets or runs we will need to have divisional goals for fitness, concentration and technical skills. These become our daily focus, not the gold medal.” Who could argue with that? It is not without reason you have cliches about playing each ball on its merits and take each day as it comes.

But the obsession with planning has created an entire industry to support the idea. Statisticians devise metrics that hold cricketers accountable to process, and sports psychologists design formulas to help them “stay in the moment”.

Management science began in army barracks before expanding to factories and boardrooms. It is, at base, less about performance than it is about control. You needn't have watched The Wire to recognise the feeling that sometimes work seems more about following the right protocol than doing the right job.

The belief that there exists a process to control every outcome implies that egotists like Kevin Pietersen or worriers like Morne Morkel can be coached into perfect sporting drones; that injury-prone quicks can be conditioned into unbreakable cyborgs. The practice is more tricky. No amount of self-help psychology has solved a riddle like Ravi Bopara, for example.

Cricketers and cricket teams aren't machines. Some will succeed at the highest level and most will not. This human unpredictability may make cricket fascinating but it is at odds with the managerial dream.