Sunday, March 29, 2015

Today's the Day


February 2001. Pukekura Park in New Plymouth, the most beautiful cricket ground in the world. Grassy recreations of Inca temples on three sides, ocean views on the fourth. I am there because I am paid to watch and write about cricket. The best of times.

The match is the third of a series of four-day games between the under-19 representatives of New Zealand and South Africa. I am looking forward to my first chance to watch the New Zealand captain, who has scored centuries in both preceding games. His name is Brendon McCullum.

He comes in at No 6, when the 16-year-old Ross Taylor is out. Soon, New Zealand are 93 for five. McCullum’s response? Attack. His third hundred in three matches comes up in 121 balls. As soon as he reached his century he was caught behind, playing loosely.

He returns to the pavilion furious with himself for giving it away. For most 19-year-olds, three centuries in three games would be enough. Not Brendon McCullum. There was a double there and he wanted it.

Don’t think that getting to the final will be enough for Brendon McCullum.


***********

September 1967. Herne Bay, Kent, 5.30 am. I am eight. I am catching a bus to go to Lord’s for the first time. Kent will get the glory years under way by beating Somerset in the Gillette Cup final.

There have been countless fine days in the sun since, but I have always assumed that nothing in later life could match the excitement of an eight-year-old’s anticipation of a big game.

Turns out I was wrong.

***********

June 1975. Back at Lord’s for the first World Cup final. Australia are all Chappells, fast bowlers and Aussie self-belief. But the West Indies have some exciting young players, an inspiring captain who leads the way with a century, a former captain who has been around for 18 years to steady things and they field like banshees.

They also have a point to prove.

They win.

***********

For New Zealand, this World Cup has been excitement and surprise from the start. England’s capitulation, Williamson’s six, Guptill’s double hundred, Vettori’s catch, every moment of the semi-final, McCullum’s nuclear batting, McCullum’s brain whirring away.

New Zealand has been consumed with cricket this week, if anything more than it was with the rugby world cup final in 2011, bold though that claim may seem. The nation will stop at 4 30 this afternoon.

Can’t wait.

 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

New Zealand v West Indies, World Cup Quarter-final, Cake Tin, 21 March 2015

Scorecard

We’re a cautious lot, we New Zealand fans. If our interest was the theatre, we would have gone to the Cake Tin yesterday hoping for a decent performance of something worthy. Ibsen, say, or Pinter. The provincial reviews had been good, but this was the West End, the knock-out stage. All we wanted was for the Brendon McCullum Players to remember enough lines to get us to the semi-final. Instead we got the most lavish Broadway show imaginable, full orchestra song and dance from start to end. Martin Guptill: the Musical.

What I love about cricket is its capacity for surprise, its ability to exceed expectation. After, yes, half a century watching the game you think you know what the parameters are. You assume, for example, that you will never see someone, particularly a New Zealander, score 237 not out in a World Cup knock-out game.

It was glorious. This New Zealand summer has conjured up cricket that stands with the best of the past fifty years. Williamson and Watling at the Basin, Southee at the Cake Tin, Sangakkara anywhere, McCullum everywhere. This innings of Guptill’s was the best of the lot. It has to be judged against Cowdrey at Canterbury in 1975, Richards at Lord’s in 1979, Slater at Sydney in 1999, to name but three, as the best I have seen.

It was the shots he didn’t play, as much as those he did, that measured its quality. No reverse laps, ramps or premeditated movements. Pure cricket, from the Rolex timing of the push drive that sent the first ball of the innings to the straight boundary to the pull that put the ball on the roof in the final over. Watch a recording of the innings and see how straight is the backlift, even for cross-bat shots. As well as being spectacular and surprising it was aesthetically pleasing, which the best batting always is.

Incidentally, it is not true, as has been reported, that Craig McMillan is the only batsman to hit the ball onto the roof of the Cake Tin. Guptill has done it once before, off Lonwabo Tsotsobe of South Africa in a T20 in 2012, a hit estimated at 125 metres, 15 metres longer than yesterday’s. His two-fingered gesture to McMillan after the hit was not, as Simon Doull said on commentary, to say “two of us have done it” but “I’ve done it twice”. Michael Lumb of England also did it, in a T20 in 2013.

Guptill’s innings changed in tempo. At times early on runs were hard to come by. His century came up in 111 balls, which is hardly laggardly. At that point it was already a classy, memorable innings. He got there in the 35th over, just before the start of the powerplay. With only two wickets down, the foot could be pressed firmly to the floor.

Cricket is a game of numbers, and those for this match stretch credulity. Guptill’s second century came in just 41 balls. All eleven of his sixes came after the century mark. 207 came for New Zealand from the final 15 overs, 85 from the final five. It was wonderful.

From the third ball of the first over, Marlon Samuels became Dick Rowe for a day. Rowe was the Decca Records executive who, in 1962, refused to sign the Beatles on the grounds that guitar groups were on the way out. Samuels had the opportunity to send Guptill back to the rooms, but put down a sharp but catchable low chance at square leg. That was the only one Guptill offered. Just as Rowe would have spent the following years avoiding news of the Fab Four’s record sales, so Samuels spent the next 49 overs looking in any direction but that of the scoreboards as they audited the ever-increasing scale of his error.

A word in praise of Ross Taylor, who has been a worry for New Zealand supporters during the World Cup. He is hard to get out, but has got stuck in situations that he has hit himself out of in the past. Yesterday, he began slowly, with 23 off 43 balls, but he scored a run a ball thereafter and supported Guptill superbly in a partnership of 143, an excellent platform for the ensuing carnage.

Guptill is very fast between the wickets but is sometimes more cagey about his intentions than his partner would find ideal. We had already had one episode in which he and Taylor headed intently for the same end, so it was no surprise when Taylor was run out.

Earlier, Williamson had looked in as good touch as Guptill and it was a surprise when he got out to a soft shot. Later, Anderson, Elliott, Ronchi and Vettori all added to the mayhem.

My heart was filled with joy at New Zealand’s display. Yet it was also a little broken. I have written often enough about how early exposure to the West Indians fed my love of cricket. One of them was at the Cake Tin yesterday: the great Clive Lloyd of Guyana, Lancashire and the West Indies, the captain who brought together Jamaicans, Bajans, Trinidadians et al and made them a great West Indian team.

For Clive Lloyd, watching the shambles that the West Indies became in the final fifteen overs of the New Zealand innings must have been awful. How can the team of Richards, Sobers, Marshall, Greenidge, Holding and the rest have come to this?

To see England humiliated was comedy. To see the degradation of the West Indies was tragedy. The writer Dileep Premachandran recently tweeted “each time West Indies do well, the inner 10-year-old pumps his fist”. Today, the boy wept.

Jason Holder, the 23-year-old fast bowler who has been lumbered with the captaincy, looked bereft towards the end, and placed himself at long on, symbolically near the exit to the dressing rooms. It is always a bad sign when the skipper fields on the boundary. A little later, Darren Sammy, one of many recent captains, was seen in heated debate with the bench.

The fielding lacked commitment. Where were the dives, where were the support fielders? How the crowd roared later when all three of New Zealand’s slip fielders chased a ball to the boundary. What a difference.

So it was good that the West Indies took an adventurous approach to their futile task of chasing 394 for victory. They achieved more than was expected in maintaining a rate of eight an over for the 31 overs that they lasted.

But, in the words of a young member of the catering staff who took a seat behind us when they ran out of chips, West Indies were doing well “apart from the wickets thing”. Indeed. In cricket, it’s the wickets thing that gets you in the end. The wickets fell regularly and they never stood a chance of getting near. New Zealand knew how much protection they had and did not panic.

There were two noteworthy aspects to the innings. First Daniel Vettori’s catch at third man to dismiss Samuels. Vettori has always been highly competent in the field, but has never presented the world with an athletic persona. So, when, at the age of 36, he executed a perfectly timed, improbably high standing jump to pluck the ball from the night, it was as surprising as Maggie Smith rapping.

My Blean correspondent and myself have long been connoisseurs of one-legged innings, those made by batsmen under physical duress. The benchmark has always been Basil D’Oliveira’s half-century in the Benson and Hedges final in ’76. Despite his elderly hamstring having pinged earlier, D’Oliveira almost turned the game.

There was Basharat Hassan’s century at Canterbury the following year. Also Terry (though it might have been Michael) Parlane’s hundred at the Basin four or five years ago.

Chris Gayle’s 61 from 33 balls, with eight sixes, may have beaten them all. He has a bad back and could only hobble singles when there would normally have been a safe two. All of us who thought that Gayle’s non-appearance against the UAE was simply because he couldn’t be arsed, owe him an apology. Yet his hitting was devastating, if Sisyphean.

New Zealand’s two World Cup games at the Cake Tin have been two of the best days I have ever spent at the cricket. Years hence I shall remember them if I can’t recall my own name. The nation has become consumed with cricket. You hear people talking about it as you walk down the street. I have always wanted to live in such a place.

Tuesday, South Africa, Eden Park.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

South Africa v United Arab Emirates, World Cup, Cake Tin, 12 March 2015

Scorecard

Public opinion is on the march. Social media is outraged, in a mild, cricket sort-of-way, that the lesser nations are to be excluded from the 2019 World Cup, which will be contested by ten teams. "Let them stay!" is the cry. This match was a rebuttal of that view.

John Arlott used to tell a story about Phil Mead, the prolific Hampshire batsman of the inter-war period. “Mead”, an old spectator said, “was a boring batsman. Saw him at Southampton once, blocked all day for 200”. The obvious point being that Mead was so much better than the bowling that he could score a lot of runs quickly without taking risks or appearing at all spectacular.

So it was today. South Africa—mysteriously put into bat—made 341 without hurrying or straying far from the orthodox. Only in the last over, when Behardien went after Amjad Javed, did any urgency appear in their approach.

AB de Villiers’ innings was a case in point. He made 99 from 81 balls, a pedestrian pace by his standards. After the match, he was flattering about the bowling. But we did not see a single sweep, reverse sweep, paddle or any of the bespoke shots with which de Villiers so magnificently challenges top bowlers. He didn’t need them. He knew that South Africa would reach an unbeatable target without any such exertion.

When they batted, UAE made not the slightest pretence of chasing the target. The required rate started at a little under seven an over. By the 13th over it was eight, by the 19th nine, by the 24th ten and then exponentially on. Runs were taken when available, but for UAE the honour lay merely in survival.

The fact that of the South African bowlers only Morne Morkel—in competition with Abbott for a place in the knock-out phase, according to some reports—was operating at full throttle assisted them, but the margin of victory was still a massive 146 runs. We all knew what would happen and it did. Where’s the fun in that?

Of the associates, only Ireland beat one of the eight major sides, and that was the West Indies, a team that makes the Greek economy look a model of stability. They also beat Zimbabwe, a country no more worthy of test status than it is of being called a democracy.

The twitterati have hailed the Irish for having shown up the ICC. I’m all for red faces among the ridiculous and self-important in Dubai, but on this issue there is scant evidence for it. The eleventh ranked team beat the eighth and tenth ranked teams, which is hardly a sensation.

If, as I hope, the ICC proves uncharacteristically resolute and the next World Cup is a ten-team tournament, there should, of course, be a qualification process. What would be a greater incentive for Ireland to continue to improve? To be handed a near-certain place or to know that if they work very hard, they will qualify to play against all the major teams at a World Cup? They are more than capable of doing so. Meanwhile, the ECB has a responsibility to assist Ireland in a more meaningful way than a one-off ODI in early May for which they will not even bother to recall the captain from the IPL.

I may be cynical, but I fancy that the patriotic devotion of the players to the Irish cause might wane quickly if they were granted the test status to which they aspire and found their county contracts plummeting in value because of their absence touring Zimbabwe or somewhere every July and August.

If there were any justice, England should also have to qualify after their hopeless display this time, but their status as hosts will probably protect them. Perhaps a Champions Trophy could be used to sort out a top six, the bottom team in both groups joining the qualifying process.

If we peer through the sentimental mist generated by the associates issue, we could see a wonderful ten-team World Cup in 2019. The format would replicate the 1992 tournament, the best of all according to many of those who have seen most of them. All teams would play nine games against all the rest, leading to semi-finals. There would be 48 games, one fewer than this year, but without a quarter or more being foregone conclusions like the non-event I watched today, and without a third of the teams having no realistic hope of progression.

I can’t wait. First, to the Cake Tin for New Zealand v West Indies.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

England v Sri Lanka, World Cup, Cake Tin, 1 March 2015

Scorecard

The crowd on their way to the Cake Tin on Sunday morning comprised three groups, all easily identifiable.

The Sri Lankans were clearly going to enjoy themselves, whatever happened.

The English bore the grim countenance of a congregation on its way to hear a particularly severe Calvinist minister deliver an all-day sermon about them all being sinners and having to live a lifetime of repentance.

The New Zealanders just wanted a cricketing equivalent of a lie down in a darkened room. We were still getting over our traumatic Saturday when the national blood pressure rose to a level seen before only during the last ten minutes of the 2011 Rugby World Cup final. As New Zealand staggered to a one-wicket victory over Australia, the nation experienced more twists of fate and plucks on its heartstrings than can be found in the entire works of Dickens. No more excitement please, not today.

For the English it was a return to Dunkirk a week after evacuation, the memories of devastation and failure so raw. Like last week, they won the toss and batted.

Lasith Malinga opened the bowling, which is always something to see. I am no closer to working out how he bowls the ball so straight with his arm at that angle than I was when I first saw him. In a darts team he would clear the pub. Every time I watch Malinga I am reminded that had he been English he wouldn’t have made it to a county second XI. His extraordinary gift would have been coached out of him before his sixteenth birthday. There were yorkers to order, but perhaps the edge is coming off his pace; batsmen seem to get after him a bit more often these days.

England set off well and there was no collapse, though Ballance and Morgan are still out of form. Moeen Ali took a cheap hundred off the Scots earlier in the week, but does not look convincing as an opener against better opponents.

Joe Root was the hero, England’s youngest World Cup centurion, which might lead one to think that he is still a mere boy. In fact, he is the same age as Pitt the Younger was when he became prime minister, which says something about England’s undistinguished history in the competition.

Root reached his hundred at exactly a run a ball and blended the orthodox with the unorthodox well towards the end of the innings. If there is any consolation for England supporters it is that the batting can be built around Root for the next decade. Buttler did well too, despite being clonked on the swede by Malinga first ball.

309 was a good score, but not as good as England thought it was, Since the game a great deal has been written in the UK press about England’s obsession with statistics, often dodgy ones in that they take in many matches played before the limitation on boundary fielders was reduced, so loading the dice in favour of the batsmen. It’s as indicative as calculating travelling times between venues on the basis that they will be going by sailing ship.

There was certainly drift in the middle overs, but the target was reached with late-innings acceleration. The problem is that there was a target at all. It should be up to the batsmen to work out what is the best that can be achieved in the circumstances and then to strive for it. Another 30 runs mid-innings might have made all the difference.

And then perhaps it wouldn’t. As early as the fourth over, when Root at first slip dropped Thirimanne, thus cancelling out his own century in an instant, there was an inevitability about proceedings. Most of the writers blamed Buttler for the drop, as he had started going for the catch then pulled out. This supports my long-held view that it is always worth picking the best keeper, but Root should have caught it no matter what.

Paul Downton should buy Eoin Morgan a bracelet etched with the phrase “What would Brendon McCullum do?” So, when Sri Lanka lost their first wicket at 100 in the 19th over, and Kumar Sangakkara, scorer of 13,000 ODI runs, came to the crease what would McCullum have done? I’m pretty sure that I know.

He would have twigged that if Sangakkara were allowed to get established he would be mightily hard to shift and would probably take Sri Lanka most of the way to victory. Therefore, he had to stop this happening and would have put on whichever of Boult or Southee was hottest that day, stationed some close catchers and told his bowler to attack, attack, attack.

He would not have put on Joe Root, occasional purveyor of rarely turning off spin, and thought himself crafty in getting through a few overs. He would have known that this would simply be to offer valet parking to one of the greatest batsmen to walk the Earth. Sangakkara scored from every one of the first 20 balls he faced.

Moeen Ali bowled tidily enough in an unbroken ten-over spell and took Dilshan’s wicket, the only one to fall. But he batsmen cruised through his spell at five an over, just right to set up the final push.

It was as if, in homage to the late Leonard Nimoy who had died a couple of days earlier, Morgan was observing Starfleet’s temporal prime directive of not interfering in events so as to change their outcome. Sri Lanka’s victory was already written in the World Cup timeline, so he wasn’t going to do a damn thing that would change it.

This is indeed the summer of Sangakkara. A double century in the test and two at the Cake Tin. It has been such a treat. This was the quickest of his 23 ODI hundreds, though it never seemed faster than languid. It was Shakespeare knocking off a sonnet, Rembrandt a self-portrait. Of course, the need that all the England quick bowlers had to test the theory that he was susceptible to the long hop on leg stump helped him along too.

My Orange County correspondent, a keen and knowledgeable Beatles fan, made a rare visit to the cricket and I must impress on him that Sangakkara batting is the equivalent of McCartney wandering out there and strumming the highlights from Revolver or Rubber Soul.

The England fielders wore a defeated air by the time Sri Lanka were halfway to the target. Run outs appeared the only way in which England might have broken the partnership, but on one of the few occasions the stumps were hit the batsmen took an overthrow.

The end came in the 48th over, though it would have been earlier had the batsmen not lost a little timing at the end, or had Sangakkara felt like it. Thirimanne was 139 not out at the end, a fine innings, but today he was Salieri to Sangakkara’s Mozart.

The joyous cacophony of the Sri Lankan fans added to the day. It reminded me of West Indies matches in England in the seventies, particularly the Monday afternoon at the Oval in ’76 when Greenidge and Fredericks flayed England and Tony Greig grovelled before the Caribbean supporters on the western terrace.

The ludicrous structure of the competition means that England’s convincing impression of the Italian army in full retreat notwithstanding, they should still qualify for the quarter-finals, which is outrageous. Defeat by Afghanistan and elimination would be cricketing justice.

New Zealand v West Indies, First Test, Basin Reserve, 1 – 4 December 2017

The third test of the year at the Basin Reserve, but the only one this season. When England are here in three months or so they won’t pla...