Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Chris Lewis

It's hard to have much sympathy for Chris Lewis. he was, after all, found guilty of smuggling several kilos worth of Grade A shit into the country – a move as stupid as it is reprehensible.

But Chris Lewis was my favourite cricketer when younger. A swashbuckling, and frustratingly mercurial, talent he could be equally destructive with bat and ball and was probably the greatest England fielder of his generation.

So many cricketers fail to become that which they may have otherwise been, and Lewis was no different. I'd guess that this is because cricket is as much about confidence, frame-of-mind, toughness, touch and rhythm as raw talent.

If those stars are not in alignment, a cricketer is likely to be found lacking much of the time at the highest level. Couple that to a personality the country's cricket writers singularly failed to pin down when the coke story first broke, and you have a recipe for a troubled and unfulfilled talent on your hands.

Punctured tyres, Playgirl spreads, a career change to become a preacher, match-throwing allegations, an unlikely late-in-the-day recall to Surrey as a 20/20 specialist. All of them conspired to lend Lewis an aura of a difficult and slightly unhinged character, in a sport filled with unhinged characters.

None of this, however, goes towards explaining how he ended up trying to carry a bag of cocaine into the country.

I'd guess that the same fate that befalls the Gazzas, Alis, Stone Cold Steve Austins, Kirk Stevens' and Jocky Wilsons of this world.

The pressures of living a normal life – away from the routine, the money, the glamour, the attention, the camaraderie, the discipline – can be tough for sportsmen, as it often is for actors and musicians who fade from the spotlight.

But where arty types can always struggle on gamely, the frailties of the body end careers decisively and suddenly, exposing further frailties of the mind and character.

Footballers used to open pubs, boxers opened gyms, cricketers became umpires. But not everyone gets lucky. Some fall through the cracks.

This is particularly, and peculiarly true of cricketers, and the number of cricketers who have taken their own lives is a bizarre phenomenon.

Perhaps morose characters are drawn to cricket, perhaps cricket makes people morose. But cricketers – even internationals like Lewis – earn far less than most other national sportsmen.

That your professional life can be over before you hit 40, your best years gone and money blown on fast cars and high times must be a galling prospect, and one that many sportsmen and cricketers especially must face.

Perhaps the unlikely comeback or the choice to gamble it all to remain in touching distance of that high life are too attractive. Maybe in that context Lewis' actions make more sense.

To have little to fall back on, little to look forward to, little comfort beyond memories must be unimaginably harsh. If the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, then it must be fearful to be burned out before middle age.

Friday, 8 May 2009

First XI Cricketer Seen at Decent Gig Shocker!!!

OK, it was only Jeff Lewis; hardly cutting edge stuff but likewise you can't imagine him appearing on the Radio City playlist anytime soon.

However, to be sharing the Barfly with someone who’s actually quite good at cricket initially led me to doubt my own far from impeccable taste in music. Is James Cain the exception who proves the rule that the better you are at cricket (and most other sports it would appear) the less credible your music taste? Or is he just a wannabe third-teamer?

The club darts tournament walk-ons offered a good snapshot of the theory: first-teamers happily strolling out to Tom Jones and Shaggy, lesser cricketers milking the crowd with Nick Cave, PIL, Alice Cooper. Informal games of cricket amongst the chalet lines with the indie fops at All Tomorrow’s Parties have left me feeling somewhere approaching akin to Garry Sobers. Watching the Twenty20 Cup on Sky reveals a litany of aural travesties as players’ favourite songs. Unfortunately we know better than to think it’s all just a massive jape on their part.

From this you could conclude that they play ‘Proud’ by Heather Small or something equally banal in the first team dressing room before they take to the field. It's evidently the kind of inspirational stuff we middling-to-indifferent tryers are lacking.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

TMS, Sky and cricket commentary: whimsy versus whinge

It's become something of a cliche to say that it's preferable to listen to TMS on the radio while watching the TV footage with the sound turned down, but that's only because it's so prevalent.

This has been common for years, and the reasons behind it are clear when the TMS commentary is compared to TV commentary. For every Johnners, Fowler, Boycott, Aggers, CMJ, Selvey and Marks on TMS there's a Willis, Botham, Knight, Hussain, Greig or (worst of all) Mark Nicholas to endure on TV.

BBC commentary wasn't too bad, with the avuncular Lewis, Benaud, Peter West and token opposition commentator (Ian Smith, Colin Croft, Barry Richards among others).

Things took a turn for the worst with Channel 4's coverage, introducing the horrifying prospect of Mark Nicholas as anchor and frequent commentator. Recruiting Benaud, Boycott and Simon Hughes were good ideas. The pairing of Nicholas with Dermot Reeve was unbearable.

But C4 had nothing on Sky. Sky is where retired cricketers go to serve out their days, offering bitter and dour pot-shots generally devoid of insight or humour.

Whereas Aggers may pass lyrical comment on the state of the weather, Botham will whinge about it. CMJ may offer a vaguely dismayed comment on a poor umpiring decision, like a disappointed schoolmaster; Willis will slate the ump personally. Boycott ribs; Holding attacks. Blowers may spot a sedentary seagull; class clown David Lloyd makes a thinly-veiled reference to some bird's tits.

Elsewhere Atherton sounds like he wants to be somewhere else, albeit with the odd welcome wry remark; Hussain spends all of his time pleading with England to get 'real aggressive'; Nick Knight is blandness personified and Gower is like an ineffectual teacher, forever trying to prevent another tedious Botham rant about administrators.

Last summer Botham actually went as far as to suggest he hoped the day's cricket would be called off, so he could go and play golf. What an astonishing remark to broadcast to hundreds of thousands of fans forced to pay to watch cricket by the government's craven kow-towing to Rupert Murdoch and the idiots at the ECB.

Survive these multi-faceted attacks of miserableness, bile and personal agendas and – like an end-of-level boss – Bob Willis appears.

Presumably because he's too miserable and clearly barking for commentary, he's confined to the studio like a sporting Miss Haversham, only one whose trousers don't fit properly.

Willis never has a good word for anyone, and has made snide rants his stock-in-trade. He calls Pietersen the 'dumbslog millionaire', a funny pun that's undermined by its inherent spite.

There's an idea, clearly shared by Willis, that his depressing opinions somehow constitute a kind of refreshing straight-talk.

Anyone of that opinion has simply mistaken Willis' misery, and eagerness to complain about every possible facet of the game, for verity.

Meanwhile, clearly being lined up as a replacement to Charles 'handbag' Colville is Ian Ward, a kind of Colville/Nicholas Mini-Me.

The sheer ineptitude of Ward as a journalist, exacerbated by his furrowed-brow posing as if he were a latter-day David Frost deconstructing Nixon, was exposed in a confoundedly bad interview with Shane Warne, where the Aussie leg-spinner protected Ward like a batsman protecting a tail-ender, producing interesting answers from Ward's embarrassingly by-the-numbers questions.

The interview heralded Warne's imminent arrival on Sky as a commentator, where he may inject some life into the moribund proceedings, but once again Sky's habit of simply choosing the most high-profile cricketers to fill commentary positions is clear. Expect Michael Vaughan soon.

In short, Sky's commentary effort is truly awful. Common themes among the team are the need for attractive cricket on the pitch and off, but as a whole they have forsaken any effort at entertaining or informing in favour of a 'the-world's-gone-mad' brand of populism, occasionally offset by Lloyd's village idiot routine.

Sadly, there's a quite unwelcome, albeit so-far limited, Sky-ification of TMS going on, benchmarked by the sacking of Mike Selvey.

Last summer the new producer, who is apparently liked by no-one, unveiled an absolutely huge list of recently-retired or benefit-year county cricketers, most of whom have played for England.

Meanwhile, a slew of generic Five Live commentators have joined the ship, some of whom clearly are not sufficiently familiar with cricket to pass comment with any authority.

Whether there is some kind of new-boys network at play here, or a favour to a particular agent or simply a sledgehammer attempt to jazz up TMS – the equivalent of trying to sex up I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue – is unclear, but the parade of monotone voices stumbling through summarising stints was not encouraging.

Two new summarisers, Derek Pringle and Angus Frasier, are at the forefront of the ex-cricketer-turned-journalist movement of recent years, where they purvey their own brands of misery.

The news that both would be in the commentary box simultaneously last year elicited the response from the outgoing Selvey: "That'll be a laugh."

It's a depressing state of affairs that cricket journalists are being phased out. Phil Tufnell may supply some laughs, but the remorseless trudge of boring county cricketers and excitable genera-journalists from other parts of the BBC will kill off what makes TMS special as surely as a ban on fruitcake in the commentary box.

It's tempting to assume that any changes greeted with dismay from loyal followers is simply indicative of a mindset stuck in its ways and resistant to any change.

This is quite simply not the case with TMS, where the quality is clearly suffering. Hearing Blowers trying to cope with the influx of new voices last summer was oddly sad.

BBC radio has form with these kind of sweeping changes, seemingly in pursuit of an imaginary demographic and reeking of the Beeb's pointless attempt to compete with commercial stations.

With Radio 2 and 6 Music also hurtling towards the anodyne mainstream, the obvious conclusion is that the changes are an attempt to smooth off the corners of interesting radio stations and shows. In the case of TMS it could well kill it.

Humour, insight, irreverence, nostalgia, anecdotalism. These are the things that define the quality and popularity of TMS.

It's no coincidence that these are the things entirely lacking in Sky's clinical, downbeat fare. It's whimsy versus whinge.

Take them away and there's just another boring cricket report staffed by former cricketers with no understanding of broadcasting, or broadcasters with no understanding of cricket.

Sky, like Channel 4, is a write-off, but who will we listen to if TMS continues its descent into the same pits of prosaic and miserable fare?

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Every team needs a talisman

Every team needs a talisman, someone with the ability to raise a team, to win a game single-handed, to transcend the abilities of his colleagues and opponents.

Sefton's is Vinny Abel, a man who can bowl with either arm and once, in the same game, hit a ton and took a hat-trick as part of a five-for.

Vin has little understanding of the LBW law and does not take a guard when batting. The only part of his game in which he cannot excel is his fielding, which is as languid as his attitude to defensive batting.

Vinny has been out to the first ball of a game three times. He may be out hitting a long hop in the air to mid-off as easily as he may thrash a six that clears the boundary, Mossley Hill Drive and lands in Sefton Park.

His wobbly in-duckers are always a threat at third-team level, but can often be wildly inaccurate. Just as often, though, they are devastating. Vin has an analysis of 7 for 20-odd in at least two Sefton games.

Off the pitch Vinny enjoys Friends, Lost and Harry Potter.

Like every enigma – every Dominic Cork, Chris Lewis, Chris Cairns, Shahid Afridi – Vinny is as often frustrating, because his weight of talent often seems unfocussed.

But just as often Vinny is the best player in the league, bar none. He wins games single-handed.

In his own way, among his peers, at the far-from-heady level of third-team cricket, Vinny is a genius. He's the most valuable player at the whole club.