Monday, 1 August 2011

Geoffrey Boycott apologises to Aggers

I wonder how many people have ever received an apology from Sir Geoffrey Boycott, resident loon in the Test Match Special commentary box.

Fiery has something of a reputation for being a combative character, which is, of course, a euphemism for narky old fruitloop, but we've always had a soft spot for Geoffrey.

The man's mischievous mirth, particularly at the misfortune of others, is a delight to behold, particularly in his partnership with Aggers on TMS - an unlikely due that put one in mind of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon.

The best example of Boycott's spiteful hooting is the famous 'Bad luck you Aussies!' - a sound clip I'd gladly have as a ringtone.

The second Test against India at Trent Bridge, however, brought forth a completely different side of Boycs, who apologised to an astonished, and clearly rather touched, Agnew for being 'too forceful' in his commentary on Bell's run out that wasn't the previous day.

I didn't hear it - I expect Fiery called Aggers an idiot or something similar - but have been delighting in this peculiar, rather lovely exchange on the radio all day.

There's a wonderful lack of side to Boycott, especially evident in his gauche apology to Agnew, whom he addresses bashfully as his "best friend". Agnew is so taken aback he can initially manage a simple "...Geoffrey," like a colleague on the receiving end of a passionate, if somewhat unexpected, emotional confession.

And there they are - the words probably every single person who has ever met the man has failed to elicit.

"I'm sorry."

Normal service is soon resumed with some spluttering laughter - and it ends with an amusing observation from Aggers that "it's Yorkshire day as well," - completing the image of Boycott and Agnew as a pair of old bachelors in a parallel world version of Radio 4 comedy series The Shuttleworths.

I think that's how we all like to imagine these ridiculous fellows, perhaps in some sort of nursing home with a shed at the bottom of the garden, from which they somehow manage to broadcast to Radio 4 Longwave. One pouring tea, another cutting cake. Tufnell round the back smoking a rollie.

It's 30 seconds that encapsulates TMS beautifully. Funny and touching. And quite, quite mad.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Yes, we do mean 4.43AM

If you came here from the Guardian (or not) looking for details about the Solstice Cup game we play at 4.43AM on the longest day of the year you should hit up the club's official website at Sefton Park Cricket Club and stay tuned.

Otherwise, you could just turn up on the day. It starts when the sun comes up at 4.43AM and consists of a 20/20 game between two teams of Sefton players and was done and dusted by about 8AM last year - so plenty of time to get to work.

Here's a press release we did about it last year that should cover any further required details.

Monday, 28 March 2011

The genius of Shastribot

You'd think that during a World Cup we'd be writing about KP's commitment, the end for Strauss and Collingwood, Yardy's collapse and general wailing about the paucity of quality in England's squad... blah blah tired, blah blah crowded international schedule.

Instead there's the unmitigated brilliance of the Twitter account @shastribot. For the uninitiated, Shastri rivals Mark Nicholas, Ian Botham and Robin Jackman as the worst cricket commentator ever.

However, at least Shastri is enthusiastic - as far as the seven phrases he uses throughout any given game he's commenting on anyway.

Since the mid 90s the phrase 'hit like a tracer bullet' has been in regular use by players at Sefton Park CC; a Shastri special used to denote a ball struck particularly powerfully towards the boundary.

A tracer bullet, of course, is not especially fast. - not any more so than any other bullet. Nevermind. Another of Ravi's sayings that stuck with is describing someone struck in the lunchbox as taking a hit 'right in the unmentionables'.

Shastribot fires off a Ravi classic to anyone talking about cricket on Twitter. It's not big or clever - but it's damn funny.

In the end Twitter was the winner.

• You can follow Sefton Park CC on Twitter

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Hoggy: The not-so peculiar world of Matthew Hoggard

Someone told me that Matthew Hoggard's autobiography was one of the better entries into the genre, among a load of ghost-written stocking fillers that are stacked high post-Ashes series, like Fray Bentos pies in a Home Bargains.

No doubt we can soon expect Colly: My Autobiography and Belly: My Ashes Autobiography and Cooky: My Autobiography soon. Say what you want about KP, he gives good copy.

Recent cricket autobiogs I've read include Hussain's Playing With Fire – a typically gritty and rather stolid effort, but Nass doesn't mind sticking the boot in and dishing the dirt on some of the unlikely events under his captaincy - and Darren Gough's effort which, with all the will in the world, is what you'd expect.

Hoggy's effort, like his role in the England squad, is a little left-of-centre but it's not exactly Herschelle Gibbs or even Geoffrey Boycott.

The former Saffer's book is all sex, drugs and rock'n'roll; the latter tends to focus on Fiery's contempt for Mike Denness, among many many others. Suffice to say, Hoggy: WElcome to my World is hardly Mike Brearley either.

Hoggard comes across rather like his bowling always did. Honest, hard-working, with a touch of guile and oddity. Imagine what a cricket-playing sheepdog's autobiography might be like and you're on the right lines.

The swing bowler is, by his own admission, pretty daft but comes across as a good lad. The book promises that Hoggy is as mad as a box of frogs, but it's all of the "we put some shaving foam in Bumble's kit bag, he didn't have a clue, everyone fell about" variety. The back cover, featuring Hoggard looking like an idiot on an elephant, kind of says it all.

He's fairly circumspect on the dressing room disagreements, though he does have a dig at Peter Moores' focus of fitness above all else and is clearly ambivalent about Duncan Fletcher. He gives a good impression of Michael Vaughan's measured captaincy, though, and paints a familiar picture of Hussain as a prickly, if respected, character. His impressions of Strauss are predominantly of observation on Strauss's poshness and his "loud, booming voice".

Hoggard does give the impression of a huge gulf between the outlooks of test bowlers and batsmen, something akin to a caste system in cricket teams, and his criticism of trying to 'overthink' bowling and complaints over the fast bowler's lot seem spot on.

Hoggard's notion of a 'pisstaking coach' in dressing rooms also seems wise – witness the difference between a team enjoying each others' company during the current Ashes series and the miserable bastards that populated 90s squads. It's enough to make you wonder whether, under the daft hair and dafter banter, there's a very astute cricket brain – certainly Hoggard's bowling tended to be the most thoughtful of his England contemporaries.

Hoggy's supposed madness comes across in a number of basic pencil drawings and 'Hogfacts' - irrelevant miscellaneous factoids peppered throughout the book presented as footnotes, like a print version of pop-up intext adverts. An intro narrated by his dogs and sidelines from his wife and son, Ernie, also give the impression of a different kind of cricket book, but it's only really in the presentation that the book veers away from the traditional cricket autobiog rules.

Given Hoggard's fondness for silly voices, silly jokes and, well, silly everything it comes as quite a shock when he admits to almost breaking down while bowling in a Test in New Zealand – 'doing a Tres' as he puts it. Other tribulations include difficulty in conceiving and that peculiar sports brand of depression mixed with a crisis of confidence that afflicts cricketers in particular.

Hoggard is an engaging narrator, but 90 per cent of the anecdotes consist of the sanitised "Harmy blasted out the top order, then Gilo and Jonah weighed in with a couple, Freddie picked up a key wicket and I chipped in with a four-fer to wrap things up" variety. Further, chapters on the Hoggard exercise regime are hardly the stuff of wonder.

More serious a problem are the lack of details on the more interesting events that Hoggard's career covered. The Ashes stuffing of 2006/07, his dropping from the England team and his release from Yorkshire are barely mentioned.

There are tantalising glances of Hoggard's unique take on life, but they've either been excised from the book or they are simply that - the odd glances. It's a valuable reminder that what passes for 'mad' in the uncomplicated minds of many pro sportspeople - reading books, knowing things, actually having a sense of humour and the like - is actually nothing of the sort.

Throwaway spread on the hardest hitters in cricket and the like are diverting but hardly indicate the insanity we're led to expect by quotes from fellow cricketers. Neither is there much meat, beyond the few scraps we're thrown. Perhaps that's for another book in the future, when the dust has settles a little more.

I hope to see more from Hoggard on TMS and the like - he's a character with a lot more about him than anyone in the current Sky box - but, as a book, Hoggy rarely delves beneath the surface, beneath the hair, beneath the daftness.

It's a book that's neither particularly mad, nor by any means bad, but it's only a few steps removed from the quickfire My Autobiographies we can expect when Colly, Belly, Broady et al get back to Blighty.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Whingeing Aussies

It's been noticeable that few have expressed any sympathy for the Australian cricket team during their various trials and tribulations during the 2010 Ashes series.

So abject have they appeared, and so quick the fall in Ricky Ponting's star as a captain and as one of the best batsmen of his generation, that it would seem only human to express a modicum of pity for the Aussie team and its struggling skipper.

But several reasons have prevented me from feeling this way. Firstly, as was shown at Perth, it only takes a different track, a couple of England off days and the rub of the green for the Aussies to get right back into the series.

Secondly, Australia became so feared throughout the nineties and noughties because they were so ruthless. Leading into my third reason, another key trait, at least until 2005, was how unpleasant a team they were reputed to be.

The Aussies like to believe they're a little bit tougher, a little more stoic and generally more manly than their opponents – especially the Poms. The idea of English cricketers as perpetually whingey, self-indulgent and flaky has been a popular one for a couple of decades.

I think a number of myths sprung up in the 15 years or so when England were handed out repeated whuppings in Ashes series. That they were naturally more querulous, lacking in spirit and prone to complaining rather than getting on with the game were popular theories among the Aussie players (see Justin Langer's secret dossier) and press. No-one paused to wonder whether it was simply a case of having an inferior team.

Now the boot is on the other foot. The behaviour of some in the Australian team during this series, particularly from the skipper, has been pretty disgraceful. It paid off in Perth, where the Aussies probably preferred to think of it as 'mental disintegration', but it's looked curiously like the whingeing that is apparently so despised down under in most of the other Tests.

To see Ponting continually complaining about bad decisions, good decisions, bad batting or good batting – continually whining at umpires and England players; the former for doing their job; the latter for doing their jobs well – has been appalling, amusing and vaguely pitiful by turn.

And while some of the England players are hardly the most likeable of sportspeople – Jimmy Anderson's perpetual sledging similarly ridiculous - Punter's behaviour has been among some of the worst on the international cricket stage for some time.

Understandable, perhaps, for a man probably facing the twilight of his career as an Aussie skipper to lose three Ashes series and possibly as a declining force with the bat – but there will be plenty of English cricket fans who will enjoy seeing Ponting, so long their tormentor, whingeing like the biggest bitch in cricket as England edge towards an Ashes win on Aussie soil.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Tennis-ball bounce and bowling a heavy ball

Cricket goes through periods of coining new, unusual and meaningless phrases and terms that seem designed to baffle casual spectators and act as an affront to users of the English language.

The phrase 'very adjacent became very fashionable in the late 90s, invariably used to describe an LBW that looked plumb. However, instead of describing a ball hitting a pad in line with the stumps as 'very close' on something similarly descriptive, the term 'very adjacent'.

This always struck me as an unnecessarily roundabout and fairly meaningless way of saying 'it looks out'.

To be fair, Channel 4 seemed to do their best to combat this with the excellent jargon buster segments - but Sky seems to be doing its level best to introduce a whole new series of baffling terms, including the currently popular 'tennis-ball bounce' and 'bowling a heavy ball'.

The latter has been around for some time, and I remember Kenny Benjamin being described as bowling a 'heavy ball', though I've never heard a description of what this is supposed to mean, beyond the similarly bemusing term 'hits the bat hard'.

Bowling a heavy ball seems to be a term applied, mainly, to fat bowlers. Jacques Kallis, Freddie Flintoff, Mitchell Johnson, Darren Gough, Ravi Bopara, Ryan Harris and Tim Bresnan have all been described as bowlers of the heavy ball. Most could be described as a bit porky. Perhaps it's a kind of cricketing euphemism.

Bowls a heavy ball=fat?

At its most basic, bowling a heavy ball must mean that the bowler has some decent speed behind them, but I don't remember genuine out-and-out quicks like Brett Lee, Steve Harmison or Shoaib Akhtar every having the 'heavy ball' moniker directed at them.

So what is a heavy ball? A ball that isn't actually that quick but feels harder when it hits the bat or body? How does that work? A ball that has more power behind it but not necessarily speed? Does that work within the laws of physics? A ball that's simply back of a length and therefore likely to hit the top of the bat? Or, most basically, a ball that's quicker than you expect?

The only thing I can think that the heavy ball means - when commentators refer to it - is that it's delivered by a skiddier bowler, who may lack the pace of a Lee or Akhtar but will skid the ball off the pitch, meaning the ball doesn't drop as much of its initial speed as a delivery speared in from a height, at an acute angle, and losing more of its initial pace.

The fact that cricket followers are bemused by exactly what a 'heavy ball' is supposed to mean strikes me as particularly absurd, and something of a lazy shorthand for commentators. Type 'bowls a heavy ball' and you get 3,200 results, probably referring to just about every international bowler imaginable.

Asking some of the cricketers from Sefton returned the following explanations:

'a ball that thumps into the bat, as opposed to a fast one being easy to slice away'

'one that seems to pick up pace off the pitch, rather than from the hand... traditionally back of a length and hitting the splice of the bat, thus hard to get away'

'a ball that looks faster than it is and hits the bat harder than expected'

'one that rushes on to you after pitching'

All of which seem like rather differing and somewhat vague explanations as to what the heavy ball actually is.

So, what of the tennis ball bounce? This one seems a little more obvious to me, being applied to pitches rather than bowlers. Presumably it refers to a pitch that's springy, rather than hard, that saps the pace of a ball but may provide unexpected, steepling bounce.

The WACA Test pitch, we were told, had a lot of tennis-ball bounce. The MCG, by comparison, hasn't had a lot of tennis-ball bounce. I imagine the likes of Broad, Finn and particularly Tremlett should be able to get 'tennis-ball bounce', as they're all pretty tall (probably thin) chaps.

Tennis-ball bounce and bowling a heavy ball should, therefore, be pretty much opposites. And so are the bowlers who deliver them. Heavy ball=fat. Tennis ball bounce=thin. Simple as that.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Shane Warne continues to trouble England - but they myth of natural Aussie superiority is shattered

There was a great moment in the Adelaide test when Kevin Pietersen stepped away from a Doug Bollinger delivery at the last minute, having been alarmed by the sudden appearance of a gigantic Shane Warne advertising a chicken burger on the sight-screen.

It was amusing to see the fat, be-wigged leggie genius still troubling England, far more than the current Aussie attack has been able to do in this series thus far. How 'Straya' must long for a spot of Warnie magic. Or even a spot of assistance from McGrath or Lee. Or Kasprowicz, McGill or Gillespie, come to that.

Seeing the Aussies have their noses rubbed in the dirt hasn't really pleased me as much as I thought it would. Partly because it's too easy; partly because things can change very quickly.

But mainly because we're going through a cycle where England is in the ascendancy. In a few years time it will be the turn of the Aussies again. That's how it goes, and it's what made the 90s bearable for me as an England cricket fan; I knew it would come back to England.

This is something a lot of Aussies totally failed to grasp over the last 20 years. They convinced themselves that they kept beating England not because of having a superior team, but because Aussies were naturally superior to the English.

This was most evident in the Aussies' secret dossier around the time of the last Ashes, written by Jason Langer and making this 'Aussie dominance' belief most explicit. Here's an excerpt:

"Aggressive batting, running and body language will soon have them staring at their bootlaces rather (than) in the eyes of their opponent - it is just how they are built.

Langer clearly believed, at the time, that Australian cricketers were simply tougher and less mentally or psychologically fragile than their English counterparts.

That was essentially blown by an England series win, although the Ashes series of 2009 was tight and England had home advantage.

But the first two tests of the Ashes 2010 have totally scotched the idea. Ponting has been shown to be a limited skipper; the Aussie bowling attack have looked weak, old and bereft of ideas; the fielding team has looked totally demoralised.

Look again at Langer's phrase about having the opposition 'staring at their bootlaces' - it could easily apply to Australia at the moment.

But I'm not getting carried away. There's a long way to go, even though I expect England to win. Not because England are more manful, or tough, or because my team are natural winners and the opposition natural losers. But because England are currently the better team. Sometimes, it's just as simple as that.