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Saturday, 11 April 2015

What would be marvellous....

When Phil Hughes passed on, there were huge amounts of dignity and appropriateness displayed on the world's pages and front walls. The tributes and the putting out of bats seemed perfectly in tune with the feelings of cricket, its players and public. What was perhaps a little overreaching was the notion that his tragic death would herald in a new era of so-termed spirit of cricket decency whereby all perceived notions of ill behaviour would magically cease. That was never, ever going to happen and some people got themselves in a terrible muddle attempting to use a tragic one-in-a-million accident as a lever for cloying morality.

Richie Benaud's passing is similar and different. No tribute will be too adulatory. No gesture, even a state funeral, can do justice to who he was and what he represented. But, in contrast to the somewhat grasping notions of betterment that attached themselves to Hughes's death, Benaud's genuinely offers the possibility for tangible improvement of one aspect of the game. When Channel 9, as it will, airs shows in his remembrance its producers should really pause for a second and ask themselves why the world has stopped in his honour. Pause and question just why it is he was, is and will be so loved, admired and respected and then, uncomfortable as it might be, contrast that with the coverage they serve up to viewers and really, truly consider the barbecue and banter-based direction in which they are going. The allegations against their current commentary are too tedious and worn to go over, but suffice to say we should be grateful in some twisted respects that Benaud's stints were limited by circumstance in the last couple of years. When he did appear, it was like seeing Maria Callas on the panel of X Factor, his otherworldly brilliance forced to mingle awkwardly with the squalor of mediocrity.

So amid the sadness and eulogies, if it is not too crass and immediate to ask, we should all enquire of Channel 9 that that they have a deep look at how they cover cricket and whether some, not all, members of their present commentary team could be just a little more articulate, just a little less self-obsessed, just little more cricket-based. 

Richie Benaud spent decades making cricket better for everyone. If he can do it from beyond the grave no one should be in the least surprised. 

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Farage calls for England to leave ICC

Talking perineum with a pint Nigel Farage today called for England to withdraw from the International Cricket Council. Speaking after his nation's disappointing World Cup exit, the UKIP leader stated that the only way to get the England cricket team back to its former greatness was to "regain control of our boundaries and be allowed to choose exactly who we want to play against." 

Speaking from The White Lion in a slightly dispossessed community ripe for spreading contrived hatred, Farage explained his plan thus: 

"For too long, we've just sat back and allowed the ICC to impose rules upon us. Only four men outside the circle when Stuart Broad's bowling, foreign batsmen claiming the benefits of the power play while honest English players go without runs, these are just yet two more examples of our cricket team's sovereignty being trampled underfoot. By making us accept games against the likes of Australia and New Zealand, the bureaucrats in Dubai have made us a laughing stock." 

A UKIP spokesman later clarified that Farage would welcome a points-based approach to selecting the teams allowed into England to play against Peter Moores's men: "Instead of this blanket rule whereby we are duty bound to take in any old foreigners with full Test membership of the ICC who will doubtless come over and abuse our hospitality, what we'd like to see is a system where the ECB can choose teams with the skill set which will most benefit the England side. People say we're racist bigots, but how can that be so when under our new diverse framework there'd be a two-Test series against the Vatican City followed by a triangular ODI competition featuring Alaska and Madagascar?"

ECB managing director Paul Downton, however, played down the furore over Farage's call, saying he and Giles Clarke had already been working on something "very similar". 

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Friday, 6 March 2015

Book Review - 2nd XI: Cricket In Its Outposts


The ongoing World Cup - and the 2019 incarnation's intended culling to ten teams - has brought debate over the place of associate nations at cricket's showpiece into sharp and occasionally angry focus. Regardless that these sides have contributed to many of the most exciting matches in the tournament as games between full member teams have largely been one-sided processions, there remain those who take the occasional wallopings some have received and use them to lament that cricket is traduced. Both Dhoni and Tendulkar have expressed their displeasure at the treatment of associate nations in the last week, but some still wince and grumble at the likes of the UAE or Afghanistan being at the event, as if their participation is some sort of niche fetishistic pornography from which the game's sensitive eyes must be protected. 

The position is absurd. No other major sport would use its premier global gala as a means to limit the spread of participation or enthusiasm across the planet but, in essence, full members' attitudes (and particularly that of the 'Big Three') towards the future World Cup format is merely a logical extension of an international cricketing structure which was hewn from colonialist notions of whim and supremacy rather than meritocracy. Although 2nd XI: Cricket in its outposts, is a book I would challenge anyone not to enjoy, its central message on  both this issue and the more generally inherent unfairness faced by associate nations should bring little cheer to any fan. Written mostly by journalists Peter Miller and Tim Wigmore - with supporting contributions from Tim Brooks, Sahil Dutta and Gideon Haigh (who also provides a ferocious foreword) - each chapter is on one of these second-tier, as they are regarded, cricket nations and details the historical, cultural, personal, administrative and on field developments and struggles which have taken place since cricket's nascence in that particular country. 

It is an absorbing and edifying book from which pleasure can be derived on any one of these socio-sporting levels, but it is the simmering, though never swivel-eyed, horror and despair with which it is shot through that lends real value. Readers hear of the rank ludicrousness that infuses the lopsided nature of ICC funding brought about by the present system of the have-Test and ODI statuses and have-nots. While there are many examples of this given, it is never better illustrated than when Ireland made it to the Super 8 stage at the 2007 World Cup: "Research by the journalist Richard Gillis," Wigmore writes,"..has found that Ireland received just $56,000 in prize money for their performance in the Caribbean. Zimbabwe, who tied with Ireland and lost their other two matches and exited in the group stages, received an $11m share of the tournament’s media rights. As it had always been, cricket was a private members’ club with no time for those outside it."

A further jarring sense of injustice comes when the book details the personal sacrifices and hardships so many players and, indeed, administrators from associate nations have made. We are told of the Kenyan team, ahead of the 2003 World cup at which they made such an impact, having to train with red balls painted white to replicate those used in ODIs rather than being able to buy the real thing. We learn of UAE players struggles with visa authorities and then exhaustion as the only time to train was after completing the long factory shifts many (still) work, a scenario that could nevertheless be regarded as a utopia by those Afghanistan players who first started to play the game in the Pakistani refugee camps in which their war-ravaged upbringing took place. 

The book benefits from a range of writers, but all - not surprisingly given their pedigree - maintain a style which is always reportage rather than merely match reports, one of the cardinal sins many cricket tomes slip into. The book is necessarily serious, but is not without moments of wryness or levity, such as Dutta's take on recently meeting at Lord's the two men charged with running cricket's administrative body (the CCA) in China: "Neither Zhang nor Song were familiar with cricket before 
the CCA was established. And it wasn’t entirely clear that they were overly familiar with it now." There are also delightful tidbits of trivial to make the cricket tragic smile, such as the fact that Dean Jones once lent his name to a variant of Kwik Cricket in Papau New Guinea called Liklik Cricket or that Bradman played his final innings on British soil not at Lord's or The Oval, but in Aberdeen. 

As it is customary there should follow a few quibbles about 2nd XI, but it is genuinely tricky to think of any. It is a book that is as forceful as it is timely and should be read as widely as possible, not least by those at boards across the world and in Dubai whose combination of power and tunnel vision is doing the game an injustice. Outposts are not something of which a sport as great as cricket is deserving. 

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You can order or download Second XI: Cricket in its outposts here:

Friday, 27 February 2015

Morgan to sing "Dirty Old Town" during national anthem

England captain, Eoin Morgan, today defended his decision not to sing the national anthem at the World Cup and announced he will from now on be bawling out Dirty Old Town instead ahead of all future matches. Morgan, whose scowl has been known to make doves fall from the sky, has largely kept his counsel about the affair on the grounds those questioning his stance were "just twats". The under fire skipper today, however, chose to face down his detractors by saying he'd be singing the folk classic made famous by The Dubliners at full volume over the top of God Save The Queen before England fixtures. Speaking from Wellington as his side prepared for their next game against Sri Lanka, Morgan explained his controversial strategy:

"To be perfectly honest, I hadn't really paid much attention to the criticism because it was coming from the sort of pricks who'd like to share a pint with Nigel Farage while giggling about something that upset the locals on a Top Gear special. Then I just thought, sod it. If these what I suppose I'm expected to term 'eejits' want me to be all oirish just so they can blame England's failure on a lack of patriotic singing rather than the chronic mismanagement and anachronistic absurdity of the ECB, then so be it. The song's actually about Salford, not Dublin, by the way, but whatevs." 



Piers Morgan, one of the fiercest critics of his namesake during the outcry, was understandably apoplectic at the latest news:. "Our captain not singing the anthem is the single biggest reason English cricket is ten years behind the leading sides at this World Cup. As I've said, I'm Irish - part of the famous East Sussex Morgans - and if I was England captain I'd sing the anthem. Why can't Eoin see that his entire family upbringing and international sporting career is near analogous to mine and that he is thus completely in the wrong? It's baffling." 

Mail Online readers were quick to join the debate with one commenter, ProvenceExpatNO2EU, suggesting that during the tournament the England ODI captain also "shouldn't be allowed to drink Guinness" or "love the craic" and "any other cliches which define someone as Irish in my limited head", adding later in the thread that "I don't like that beardy one either". 

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Pakistan to fit bionic arms to Akmal brothers

Following the news the world's first mind-controlled arms have been successfully trialed, the PCB today announced they would be buying a couple of pairs and fitting them to the Akmal brothers. Fed up with the continually hapless wicket keeping of both Kamran and Umar, board president Shahryar Khan said that this was the most obvious way to improve their performance:

"We've long hoped scientists might come up with a cure for acute Akmalism, but until now nothing has done the trick," he explained. "The beauty of the technology is that the mind and bionic hands don't actually have to belong to the same person so we've decided to employ Adam Gilchrist as Kamran and Umar's brains. It's perfect. Whatever Gilly thinks they should do with their hands they do it. No more spilled chances, no run outs fluffed, no more embarrassments. The manufacturers have also assured us it's only their hands not their legs which are mind-controlled, though, so he can't make them walk if they nick one."

The PCB are also believed to be looking into whether the technology could be used on Moin Khan to stop him picking up his phone and calling taxis to take him to casinos. "The potential is endless," Khan said. "If we can rig Misbah's brain up to Shahid's body we'll be laughing."

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Wednesday, 7 January 2015

A Parody of Human Decency

As someone who frequently makes efforts at satire, there are a number of thoughts that accompany any attempted lampooning of those in either power or the public eye: Is this funny? Is this too cruel? Is this somewhat cruel but nevertheless funny and justified by the poor behaviour of those at which it is directed? One thought that obviously never goes through your head - and, of course, it's a near comically ludicrous juxtaposition when the focus is on cricketers' foibles - is whether this will see you murdered in cold blood. 

Regardless of subject, however, be it sport, politics, celebrity, dog shows or religion, the idea that death is the legitimate response to a satirical ribbing is utterly and sickeningly repulsive and cuts to the very heart of the basic human dignity of being able to pass judgement on and laugh at those who hold sway over our lives in whatever capacity. Personally, and entirely irrationally given my relentless joy at watching The Life of Brian, the notion of ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad in a cartoon doesn't sit terribly comfortably - it somehow seems just a little ungallant - but the slighted offense of the fervent believer is nothing next to the affront on enlightenment and progress if religion's still immense and not infrequently vituperative influence over the planet cannot be challenged in whatever format or media.

Ostentatious displays of faith are a regular facet of cricket, most obviously because perhaps such a high proportion of the stellar players are devout Muslims. The fact this axiom has been subsumed in the main so seamlessly is a strength and a source, even surely to the most cynical, of pride for our game and, natch, for all other sports, which so thankfully override humanity's boundaries of so many ilks. Every time a Pakistan player kneels in praise on the turf after making a century while his opponents of whatever religion or none applaud behind them is a heartening snapshot of simple respect and decency, as was every Inshallah that accompanied so many of the expressions of sadness and support in the wake of Phillip Hughes's tragic passing. These things don't need to be overthought. They are just nice.

Peshawar, Sydney, Glasgow, the ocean off Borneo. The world recently has seen a near intolerable and relentless parade of grief and grief-stricken friends, family and loved ones. Getting slightly older (as I am) only heightens the empathy with bereaved strangers because death or its spectre - be it in relation to relatives, acquaintances, colleagues or fortunately only very occasionally mates - starts to encroach ever more frequently on your own life. As the Indian and Australian players take the field and take with them their various faiths or none, we will all on Twitter, with our various faiths or none, joyously take the piss out of them. None of it will have the remotest connotation with religion, but if we now live in a world where you deserve to die for mocking a faith we may as well start to believe we live in a world where you deserve to die for mocking Shane Watson's front pad. Pathetic, puerile, misguided, murderous hate, raping the decency that it is absurd not to acknowledge religion can imbue in so many will never win. Reposez en paix. 




Saturday, 27 December 2014

Siddle Appointed India Team Chef

After Ishant Sharma and Suresh Raina were forced to leave the Gabba during the Second Test to forage for decent quality vegetarian food, the BCCI today confirmed that Australian bowler, Peter Siddle, would be joining the squad as its full time chef. The paceman, famous for his non-meat diet, said he was “thrilled and delighted” to have been given the role, and was looking forward to trying out some of his spicy soya cutlets on Murali Vijay. 

Although the move was broadly welcomed by observers, some warned Siddle that he'd have his work cut out to meet the exacting standards required by team captain, MS Dhoni. "Everyone knows how MS can be if he doesn't get his food exactly as he specifies," said a BCCI insider. "In fact, he actually wanted Rayudu's mother to take up the role - he loves her biryanis - but Ambati vetoed her appointment because he's still bitter about that T20I against England back in the summer. 'If you starve me of the strike, I'll starve you of my mum's home cooking,' he said. It got so heated they had to be pulled apart by Virat and Shikhar, apparently.”

Speaking from Melbourne, India head coach Ravi Shastri, who had accompanied the two ravenous players on their search for culinary satisfaction in Brisbane, explained the thinking behind Siddle's new job: “For me, the fact that no decent quality food was available for our guys was the biggest insult to Indian cricket since Peter Moores gave Jaddu a signed photo of Jimmy Anderson for his birthday. Peter Siddle is a cool customer in the kitchen and, importantly, has got a bit of time on his hands due to this big man Hazlewood. As a team we're so thrilled he'll be our cook. The new potatoes will be crucial.”

Siddle himself said he was relieved to finally be involved with a nation that didn't believe you had to eat steak tartare for breakfast in order to bowl a cricket ball. "When I missed a match against South Africa in 2012, many of my fellow Australians suggested it was because I wasn't eating enough KFC Zinger Burgers in between overs. I personally thought the reason was more to do with the fact I'd bowled 64 overs in 100 degree heat the previous Test, but there you go. I'm also so sick of standing around awkwardly at barbecues. I just hope I can do Duncan's salads the way he likes them.”



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Friday, 19 December 2014

Captain Cook's Ultimate Sacrifice

There's a terrific Beyond the Fringe sketch, building on Wilfred Owen's poetic exposés of flawed patriotism and later drawn heavily upon by Blackadder Goes Forth, about how in wartime it's always one of the ordinary men that has to take the fall for the errors of their seniors and betters. In it, Peter Cook, ever the maestro of puncturing pomposity, plays an RAF officer addressing one of his pilots, portrayed by Jonathan Miller. Cook, adorned with that wonderful voice for lampooning privileged bluster, explains thus why his charge has to throw himself on the pyre of symbolism:



Cook Perkins! (Jonathan Miller breaks away from the singing) Sorry to drag you away from the fun, old boy. War’s not going very well, you know.
Miller Oh my God!
Cook  …war is a pyschological thing, Perkins, rather like a game of football. You know how in a game of football ten men often play better than eleven?
Miller Yes, sir.
Cook Perkins, we are asking you to be that one man. I want you to lay down your life, Perkins. We need a futile gesture at this stage. It will raise the whole tone of the war. Get in a crate, Perkins, pop over to Bremen, take a shufti, don’t come back.
Goodbye, Perkins. God, I wish I was going too.
Miller Goodbye, sir – or is it – au revoir?,’ 
Cook No, Perkins.

In the case of Alastair Cook's sacking, it is neither a mere gesture nor futile and England have no shortage of eleventh men with which to replace the fallen. It is undoubtedly the correct decision but, nevertheless, one which, by dint of the ECB's tediously foppish prevarication and cowardice dressed up as loyalty, irrefutably gives the impression that the now ex-England skipper has belatedly yet hastily been made to get in a crate solely to human shield the reputation of the high brass. Cook himself has not been unselfish, clinging to power and harming the development of younger players, but it is a sweet and beautiful thing to captain your country and one which is understandably hard to give up. Ultimately, he has been doomed ever since his generals decided to send him into battle without his finest piece of artillery by axing Pietersen and then proceeded to further torpedo his steadily sinking submarine with their numerous, near inconceivable, barrages of the wrongest sort of cack-handedness. 

However late it has arrived, Cook's departure will undoubtedly raise the whole tone and morale of England's World Cup campaign, but no one should take any pleasure in seeing a man who has scored 11,688 runs for his country reduced to the haunted, ashen husk he seemed following defeat in the Seventh ODI, however self-centered he may have been in not resigning. The real ire here should be for those at the ECB, who through their obstinance and dopey, analogue propaganda, have turned the last twelve months into the most bitter, most divisive and, frankly, saddest of the twenty-eight years I have been watching England play. Cook had to go, but he had essentially and unfairly become an impotent pawn in the silly games of English cricket's silly, portentous politics. Any England fan who cares about the side should welcome, albeit with some regret at the eventual circumstances, his departure whilst tenfold echoing the sentiments of his comic namesake in modified form:

Pop over to the city bank you came from, Mr Downton. Take a shufti. Don't come back.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

An Open Letter To England Fans From Paul Downton

Dear Fans,

Hi. I'm Paul, but you can call me Mr Downton. You might remember me from the bank, which, regrettably for you, I no longer work at. You didn't meet me recently - I keep my interactions with people outside cricket as infrequent as possible - but earlier this week some of the gentlemen of the press started going on at me about public dissatisfaction and the welfare of the England cricket team. But what mattered to me wasn't public dissatisfaction or the welfare of the England cricket team; it was my pride and ego, so I didn't address those questions.

Which is a shame, because the points you weren't able to make do actually deserve answers. Although not - and I can't emphasise this enough - as much as I deserve not to have to eat any humble pie, especially as it's been going cold since the day I started my new job. Now, before I go any further, I should clarify exactly what my current position is because, having spent the last year being  a faceless yet incredibly damaging influence which has brought misery to millions, many still seem to think I do actually still work in the banking sector. I don't. I work full-time running the ECB.

So, for the people who weren't at the press conference, let me describe the kerfuffle. With no warning except a call from my exemplary head of media a day earlier, people with microphones and voice recorders burst into the room where I was trying to get some work done and started asking me questions. What were they hoping to achieve? I expect they hoped to find me leading Giles Clarke around on some diamante leash as we both quaffed champagne. And then, instead of doing something educational, like altering my words so that they made some sort of sense and didn't come across as the deranged rantings of a man whose business bookmakers would kill to secure, those very same press men then aggressively decided to print my words verbatim. I'm sorry, fans. That's not basic journalism, but a global conspiracy to make me look an elitist ninny.

You also claim that the ECB have propped up a failing captain with public school money. But here's the thing about the Alastair Cook bailout, fans. The plan was never to bail out Alastair Cook so that he could continue to make huge losses. That would be asinine. The idea was to support Alastair Cook with public school money, wait until he became profitable again, and then stick two fingers up at anyone who disagreed with us. People who, incidentally, are going to look pretty silly when we get the returns on that scheme sometime in 2018.

And that is the key thing you need to know about being an England cricket fan. It comes with conditions attached, namely that the game is still run by a group of rich, pompous men like me that would rather have to eat a plate of cold sick than admit that those beneath them might have been right all along. 

I'm off for a quinoa paella.

Yours,

Mr Downton

Friday, 28 November 2014

Cricket, Australia

It felt so wrong, so screwed, so illusory, to see David Warner outside a hospital raising his hand to his eyes to futilely try and stem a flood of tears. This is the jock of jocks, the Aussie epitome. The joker, the lovable brute, the puncher. You just don't want to see him having to be held upright by Candice, this bristling lion of a man you've so often watched prowling and pouncing about a cricket outfield reduced to such a state of impotence by grief. It is a macabre fantasy. 

Ten minutes later Malcolm Conn, the resolute CA head of media, iconic ex-journalist and a soul who loves to josh, bait and squabble on Twitter - not least famously with Warner himself - arrives on a BBC radio news bulletin, his voice crumpling into a heap as he tries to pay tribute to Phil Hughes and his infectious smile. This isn't what cricket is. This isn't what Australia's men of cricket are. This just doesn't take place in my understanding of the game or them.

We can all over egg our perceptions, of course, but Australia vaunts the notion of unbowed machismo in its cricketers probably more than any other nation. The country's present captain had to battle for many years against the idea that he was, despite ever mounting greatness, not quite to be trusted. The peroxide, the photoshoots, the model girlfriend and accompanying scandal greeted with a hint of schadenfreude by his detractors. Full, unadulterated acceptance was, to an outside observing pom, only fully granted after his innings in Cape Town earlier this year when he walked off the field with 161* to his name and a graffiti of bruises and pain tagged all over his body. South Africa, and Morne Morkel in particular, had earlier subjected him to a short-pitched barrage of such piercing violence that you feared, well, we all now know just so precisely and devastatingly what anyone watching cricket at its most viscerally thrilling and gladiatorial can legitimately fear. Except back then we didn't. Because, at the time, the concept of a fatality was, regardless of Morne's ferocity and the basic logic of knowing what a 150kph rock could do, just a peripheral, distant thought compared to the irresistible, pugilistic magnificence of the cricket to which we were privileged to witness.

Watching Clarke sit in front of the media on Thursday to read, with a dignity and stoicism near impossible to conceive, a statement on behalf of Phil Hughes's parents, I couldn't but think back to that knock at Newlands. The relentless targeting from Morkel, the balls rearing up like leather grenades, Australia's leader taking the blows, reeling slightly at times and at others seeming near broken and literally if not figuratively on his knees, but making his stricken muscles, bones and flesh carry on. I have rarely, if ever, seen a cricketer endure such intense and sustained brutality, but it was an irrelevance compared to the horror which Clarke must have been feeling as he sat there having to somehow force out the beautiful yet heart-crushing words of his close friend's family to a despairing and numbed country, sport and world. 

Phil Hughes has left us and left us all broken. Watching David Warner's tears and hearing Malcolm Conn's, it still seems a sadistic trick the gods have played, a spiteful toying with decency, goodness and our comfortable normality to bolster the case of any atheist. Australia and its cricket, its summer pearl, lifeblood and compass, is traumatised with sadness. But its machismo, whether you interpret that through the prism of Chappell, Border or Clarke, will inevitably drag a nation up again from the bed of grief on which it presently lies distraught and agonised. This is cricket. This is life. And Australia just simply doesn't stay on its knees for long in either. And that is surely exactly how Phil Hughes would want it. 

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