Friday, 27 May 2011

50* - The Art of Captaincy

An ex-Chairman writes...

“Captain of Cricket”. Those words take me back to a time when I first realised that the world wasn’t always fair. It was at a time when Ted Dexter and Colin Cowdrey were the choice for England, but I wasn’t for my school. Probably not surprising as every previous captain was also elected a prefect and that would have been a risk the school weren’t keen on. So instead, I took the role of elder statesman which allowed me to watch, sit back and criticise, something I’ve rather enjoyed in cricket ever since.

The world wasn’t fair for most would-be Captains in English Test cricket at that time anyway. Gentlemen versus Players, the final “Trial” for selection for your country, pitted the “Gentleman”, in other words amateurs rich enough to play cricket for “Fun”, and therefore potential Captains against the Professionals, the artisans who used different changing rooms and often different gates to reach the pitch and never became “Captains” of County or Country, but were paid. Perhaps the school should have paid me; on second thoughts…

Ever since, I have enjoyed watching and analysing why different people encourage a team to very different effect and who becomes a good or even a great Captain of Cricket.

Surely, you need someone to look up to – an Apollo-like figure, athletic, graceful, charismatic and charming, liked by everyone and envied by many? The sort of man one would follow “over the top” against even the fastest, nastiest bowler. Definitely he couldn’t be a bowler, with their muscles, effort and sweaty caps (have you ever umpired and held one of them? No, the cap...) Also bowlers are never the best judge of when to take a rest. He ought to be a good batsman but not necessarily a great batsman, and preferably not an opener as there’s always “business” to deal with during the break in innings. He has to be a great fielder leading by example; indeed leading from the front in everything.

This is where proper cricket differs from real life. In village cricket this last paragraph isn’t enough. The Captain has to buy the first round in the pub and be there at closing time – have long arms and deep pockets. While there on a Sunday evening he may have to rescue the fixture with the opposition, after the “Senior Pro” turned down a blatant LBW appeal, thereby winning the match for us. He has to have sons (or daughters) to fill 10th and 11th places at short notice on Sunday morning, and their school-friends have to be talented cricketers – even better, a daughter with a keen cricketer for a boyfriend, and a wife to make the teas far more than the others. Cunning as a fox and sneaky as a snake could be other attributes brought to the table. But is this all?

Our present captain wouldn’t recognise himself in many of these areas apart from having a delightful and talented family and being a very generous host. Being charitable, his 49 ball nought was the highlight of his batting; his fielding, perhaps, could do with more hands and less legs;; his figure is slightly more portly than portable; and as for athletic and graceful? Hmmm... Cunning and sneaky start to ring bells. Keen? Madly so! But that still isn’t it.

Sitting and watching rather than challenging Father Time allows me to watch and analyse and even criticise – yes, even me! How often would I have moved midwicket a bit deeper or dissolved the slip cordon (this is village cricket!), when something happens which really shouldn’t. A catch taken, a run-out by the team “rabbit” or the last three opposition wickets falling like a pack of cards occurs too often to be chance. How often have I put my list of my fielding placements or bowling changes that I would have made back in my pocket as I realise my mistake? On top of this everyone is encouraged to have a go, if you don’t bowl, you do get a bat and if you drop a catch or score a nought, there’s a comforting word, whatever he may think deep down. As far as batting is concerned, he swears that all the batsmen bat to his plan. I’m a bit dubious but our recent century was apparently scored with a few words in the changing room at tea – again “business”. Who am I to doubt? He defies all the rules of captaincy but he’s really good at it – really good, and it’s me saying that.

Why am I writing this little homily? Well, Charlie has just achieved his 50th Birthday, on Friday the 13th, no less. He deserves congratulations for his birthday and it’s a good time to reflect on what he has achieved for us. Perhaps the special date has something to do with his success. He certainly doesn’t fulfil any formula that I understand, but it certainly works. I feel a bit like the audience member at a meeting of the Magic Circle. “How does he do it?” The point is, it doesn’t matter how or even why. The point is Charlie Samuels is a really good Captain of Cricket – a prefect, however? No.

And back to that Captain of Cricket at school? He certainly made a better prefect than me and he was a nice chap. I still think I would have done a better job. I think he was a bit too nice; you need a bit of nasty there as well. Yes, even Charlie can do that, but usually with a smile on his face. A “gentleman” then, but a bit of a “player” too.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Nasser Hussain vs Shane Warne

While perusing Cricinfo's excellent stats archive (it's called Cricket Tragics for a reason, people!) we came across this list of batsmen dismissed most times in Test cricket by Shane Warne.

Now there are many things one could notice here, but one thing leaped out at us. Check out Nasser Hussain's average against the great spinner: a whopping 47.46, only 0.34 less than a certain BC Lara.

We leave you to draw your own conclusions here (as long as one of them is that Nasser is a bloody hero).

Ravi Bopara's Childhood

An anonymous reader of Tragics has contacted us with this little tasty titbit, concerning why he'd prefer to see Eoin Morgan in the England XI ahead of Ravi Bopara:

"Ravi just strikes me as a troubled child who definitely has class but has flash-backs of being touched up by a dirty foster parent when he is at the crease!"

We just thought we'd share that one with you...

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Chesham vs HHCC

Some are born great; some achieve greatness; and some have greatness thrust upon them. Sitting quietly outside the Plough at approximately 1.15pm this Sunday past, I, your ever-so humble (and, of late, with good reason) correspondent, had greatness unceremoniously thrust upon me. And when I say greatness, I do not use that term lightly – no; for what post could be greater, what role more noble and esteemed, than the hallowed captaincy of the mighty, all-conquering Hyde Heath Cricket Club?

Yes, with Charlie away, the gilded baton passed to Henry Capper, who, selflessly and in the interests of this fine and illustrious club, decided that he’d be better off nursing his still-broken finger down at fine leg and would therefore not be in an ideal position from which to marshal the troops. What selflessness! What gallantry! And so I, ever-modest, ever-humble, assumed the crown of leadership.

The toss was lost – no surprise then, as the now subordinated Capper had taken it upon himself to call the toss. Well, what cheek! Anyway, no matter – we were in the field first, as ever, and under my confident, direct, near-imperious leadership (softened of course by the understanding smile, the comforting arm round the shoulder...) things got off to a flier.

Ali found a perfect length immediately to gain some bounce and a little movement either way of a very green pitch, while Jez did extremely well to bowl with any degree of control into a ludicrously strong wind. Soon the opposition were four down with less than twenty on the board, as their talented but inexperienced top order never got going. We never quite pressed home the advantage that we might have done – and, besides, village cricket isn't really about burying the opposition into the ground – but still dismissed Chesham for 118, and that despite a frustrating last-wicket partnership of 40-odd.

I took my first wicket of the season (finally! So what if he was ten?) which was nice, but the highlight of the innings was two excellent reflex catches by senior pro Tim Barnsley at 1st slip. The first was a cracker, taken sharply to his left as the batsman tried to cut Richard Austin's bouncing off-breaks; and the second an excellent juggled, diving effort off Ali.

And then it came to the chase. And although we didn't exactly cruise home with authority, it was never really in doubt, with us batting all the way to 11. Henry anchored the top order with 30-odd, and, in something that is becoming a rather reliable double act, Brad and Spence put on 40 or so (including a monstrous 6 from Brad) to see us home with five wickets in hand. Victory was mine! I mean, ours...

Friday, 20 May 2011

Great Missenden Pelicans vs HHCC

Oh dear, Cricket Tragics really have been letting their readers down of late. We apologise wholeheartedly, but it's been a busy week wading through the usual combination of death threats and fan mail as well as some particularly pointed correspondence from a certain “Disgruntled of Hyde Heath”. Sorry! Please don't cancel your subscription to Cricket Tragics – it's the only way we can raise enough money for our daily diet of linseed oil and scotch eggs.

The other reason is that our esteemed editor seems to have rather mislaid his cricketing form... Yes, 'tis true, three matches into the season and I've yet to take a wicket or score a run. And I'm probably going for about 8 an over. Such stats don't make for good reading or fond reminiscing.

So let's focus on the positives, as professional cricketers like to say, and Sunday's match away at the picturesque ground of Great Missenden Pelicans will stand out in the memory for one reason: an unbeaten innings of 116 by James Shrimpton, his first hundred for Hyde Heath (not counting the one he scored against the Plough back in 2010 – putting on an unbeaten 150 partnership with a certain Tom Jeffreys. Oh happier days of yore!)

Anyway, to the point, and apart from a dropped chance on the deep midwicket boundary when he had about 85, this was as near a flawless innings as you could expect from village cricket. Everyone here has always known that James is a seriously quality player, and this innings was replete with his usual array of dismissive pulls and corruscating cover drives. The difference though was that at no stage did he get bored, over-confident or lose concentration. He just kept going, and dragged Hyde Heath to a comfortable victory.

Earlier we'd dismissed the Pelicans for around 170, with Bradley taking four and Jez two in a very long and accurate spell of swing bowling. Shrimpie also took four wickets to lay down a pretty strong claim for 2011's Outstanding Performance award.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

HHCC vs The Lee

They say that with the truly great sporting teams – and I'm thinking of the 1970s West Indians here, Bradman's Invincibles or Australia under Steve Waugh – it's not about never making mistakes, for that would be impossible. It's about learning from those mistakes and avoiding them in the future. Well if the speed at which that lesson is learnt is an accurate indicator of greatness, then Hyde Heath have just etched themselves into the history books.

Last week you may recall, our middle order crashed horribly in pursuit of an eminently gettable 150. This week, in pursuit of roughly the same target, history looked like repeating itself. But no! Hyde Heath stood firm, and despite a mini-wobble, Ben Sonley played sensibly and James Shrimpton (40*) with customary élan to see the team home with consummate ease.

Earlier, stand-in skipper Bradley Hoult had won the toss and fielded against what was a decidedly youthful Lee XI. To make up for it, it seemed, The Lee decided to opt for some dubious umpiring tactics and wided everything in sight. Jez kept things tight and picked up a couple of wickets, but Brad was a little wayward early on. I came on, and once again got the treatment, although in fairness I did bowl better than last week – I just kept hitting a middle and leg line against a batsman whose one shot was the sweep. Not ideal.

Thankfully Shrimpy wheeled away with impressive changes in pace to pick up four wickets, Jez returned at the end to mop up the tail (and earn him the privilege of buying a jug), whilst a run out accounted for the other dismissal. In between all this I managed to take a catch – amazing! It was a bloody dolly though.

And then it was our turn to bat, and with the top order all contributing it was a walk in the park. Almost literally.

Image credit: Dr Crystal Bennes.

Monday, 9 May 2011

HHCC vs Chartridge

HHCC Academy of Excellence

Apologies for the delay in getting the first match of the season written up. Regular readers have been emailing in threatening to cancel their subscriptions if I don't get a move on, and I had promised that the much-heralded new direction for Cricket Tragics wouldn't alienate our existing audience. Sorry!

And so to the cricket, the long-awaited first match of the season. Surprisingly, the day dawned bright and fair, and Charlie won the toss, and we fielded, of course. I can't remember all that much of what took place, other than rather predictably – after the amazing net sessions, and the promising warm-up match – I dished up a load of old tripe and got panned round the park. The others bowled well though, particularly Brad, who after an understandably rusty first couple of overs, really found his length and some movement back in through the air. Some of his deliveries genuinely looked unplayable and he removed the cream of Chartridge's top order (ie the one guy who actually looked like he might be good).

At the other end I leaked runs like an incontinent mutt and Chartridge took tea on about 150, eminently gettable we assumed, and we were right, just.

At 105 without loss we were cruising. Dom and Henry were batting well, easing smoothly through the gears and run rate wasn't much of a problem. But then it came. The inevitable Hyde Heath collapse. I think we lost 7 for 40 on our way to making an absolute meal of an extremely straightforward chase.

After a series of misjudged strokes, it was left to Brad and Ali to score 6 off the final over, with just two batsman waiting in the pavilion. Ali crunched an elegant square cut, and scarpered a single to level the scores. 1 to win off the final ball, it came down to. Cool as you like, brad played an immaculate forward defensive. And ran. Ali hared down from the non-strikers end. The throw was wild and we were home in some style. Quite what style though, I'm not entirely sure.

A note in passing: I suspect that the reason certain readers have been so desperate for the Tragics report to be published is that instead of loyally supporting the mighty Heath throughout the dying moments of a truly electric cricket match, they elected to pay a visit to the Plough. For shame!

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Chinaman - The Legend of Pradeep Mathew

There pretty much couldn't be a more perfect book with which to kick off this blog's foray into the world of literature. It's about cricket, obviously. It's about spin-bowling, which is nice. And the avuncular narrator is an unreliable drunken hack – something that should be fairly familiar to regular readers of Cricket Tragics.

Coming soon after Sri Lanka's appearance in the final of the 2011 World Cup (a tournament that they also co-hosted with India and Bangladesh) and amid accusations of widespread match-fixing made by former Sri Lankan batsman-wicketkeeper Hashan Tillakaratne, this is an apt moment for the publication of Shehan Karunatilaka's debut novel, Chinaman.

The novel centres on boozy middle-aged cricket writer WG Karunasena (known as Wije), his neighbour and friend Ariyaratne Byrd (Ari) and their quest to revive the reputation of fictional mystery spinner, Pradeep Mathew. Having seen him play in several matches in the mid-90s (before Sri Lanka's epoch-defining World Cup victory under Arjuna Ranatunga in 1996) Ari and Wije are convinced that he's their nation's greatest ever bowler. Like a cross between Murali, John Gleeson and Ajantha Mendis, Mathew is said to have bowled a bewildering array of deliveries – a Chinaman, googly, undercutter, doosra, Carrom ball, and several others, including, most fantastical of all, the double bounce ball, which bounces twice and turns a different way each time.

But Mathew is a mystery in more than just the way he bowls. In a highly stratified, divided and corrupt system (Sri Lankan cricket and politics more generally) Mathew riles his seniors, upsets those in authority and never plays more than seven Tests before fleeing to New Zealand in controversial circumstances. So keen are the authorities to airbrush Mathew from history that all official statistics are erased – although, amusingly, the publishers, Jonathan Cape, have set up fake Crikipedia and Cric1nf0 profiles to whet the appetites of stat-mad, internet-savvy cricket fans.

Make no mistake: this is a cricket book. It doesn't – like, say, Joseph O'Neill's much hyped but inferior Netherland – seek to use cricket as merely the means to explore other issues. This is a book steeped in a love of cricket, but a modern, commercial, corrupt, but still magical version of the sport we love. The last few years have seen the balance of power in cricket shift inexorably towards the sub-continent (event the ICC have been based in Dubai not Lord's since 2005) and now we have novel to reflect the times. Not for Ari (or the author) the ever-glowing Edwardian England of the tediously verbose Neville Cardus.

Paedophilia, match-fixing, violence, wealth, poverty, racism, and the complexities of contemporary Sri Lanka are all explored in this dense, sprawling, at times rather confusing work. With so many shifts in time and tone, sometimes it can be hard to follow exactly what is going on and when, but then this is fitting – both to the manic bustle of the backstreets of Columbo, and to the hazy, boozy recollections of our utterly charming, but badly flawed, narrator.

Chinaman is frequently hilarious, genuinely moving in places, and expertly evocative both of Sri Lanka and the intricate complexities of the the slowest, greatest sport ever invented. Like its narrator, Chinaman is flawed, but, in Karunatilaka's deft hands, it works. This is a truly brilliant novel – I urge everyone to read it.

Chinaman is published by Jonathan Cape. It's available on Amazon.