One of the few good things about the Champions Trophy is that it's given me the opportunity to enjoy once again the remarkable commentary of Jeremy Coney.
To those of us who've been following world cricket for a while, Coney (aka 'The Playing Mantis', or so his autobiography was called, I must read it sometime)will always be familiar as the doughty batsman, crafty dobber and intelligent captain who led New Zealand during its 'Golden Era' in the mid-eighties.
My first memory of him as a commentator rather than a player is of him attempting to liven up the commentary box during one of the most boring overseas Test series England have ever been involved in. Until Coney recited a speech from The Tempest as the Wellington rains blew across the Basin Reserve in March 1988 nobody had performed Shakespeare on TMS. It's a fair bet, also, that nobody (except possibly Coney) has done so since.
I think the most percipient comment made during England's abject defeat by Australia in the Champions Trophy yesterday was that of the Cricket Correspondent of The Sun, John Etheridge, who made the point during his commentary stint on Five Live Sports Extra that whoever won (and I think this was before England collapsed) would say that the result had some bearing on the outcome of the Ashes series (if only in terms of boosting that side's confidence), while whichever side lost would maintain that it meant nothing at all.
I can't comment on what happened in the game as I saw virtually nothing of it, but I don't think it did very much other than confirm that England aren't very good at one-day cricket (in fact they're dreadful) and Andrew Flintoff's short of match practice.
Fortunately England are pretty good at Test cricket and so have a reasonable chance of pitching up at the 'Gabba on November 23rd and doing okay. Which may be enough.
Unfortunately Andrew Flintoff has just two 'first-class' matches before the first Test to try to get himself into the type of shape which he needs to be in.
My first reaction, when hearing the news yesterday morning that Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif had failed drug tests, was 'What?!!'. Then, when good old Malcolm Speed gave his first reaction to the latest drama to confront both Pakistan cricket and the wider world game and pointed out that the drugs involved were not recreational but 'performance enhancing', my first reaction was 'Performance enhancing? You mean someone's invented an illicit substance that helps you bowl a good line and length? Give me some of it now and the village batsmen of Devon will have to watch out next season.'
Of course, the truth was somewhat different.
Nobody has come up with an easy route to the seam bowler's penetrative nirvana of a tight off-stump line and just enough pace, deviation and bounce to trouble any batsman. All you can do is find yourself a body and an action like Glenn McGrath's and work like hell. Then you might just get somewhere.
And, even, if there were such a drug, there's no evidence to support the idea that Asif would need it. At times, after regaining his fitness for the latter stages of Pakistan's tour of England in the late summer of 2006, he looked for all the world like one of the most skilled young bowlers to hit the international scene in many years. Line and length, plus enough pace, movement and bounce to trouble virtually anyone.
As for Shoaib, like Asif he hardly needs any drugs to improve his bowling. He has as much if not more raw speed than anyone else who's ever laced up a bowling boot and the ability to land it in the right place as much as necessary. His only problems have usually been his head and his body. Which is where we came in.
It soon became clear that both Shoaib and Asif had tested positive for Nandrolone, a substance which, as those in the know queued up to tell us yesterday, enables players to train harder and recover from injury quicker than would otherwise be the case. Both players were injured for the majority of the England tour, before making late recoveries, so are we to suppose that they might not have recovered so quickly and made those comebacks if they hadn't been taking something they shouldn't have?
Who knows? It's been stressed ever since that the players' 'B' samples have yet to be tested but these rarely contradict the results of the initial tests, so it looks as though we have another 'cricket crisis' on our hands. The talk is of two-year bans, and, when Shane Warne got a year for taking a diuretic given to him by his mum, that's probably about right.
Shoaib has protested his innocence but everybody who's ever tested positive for any substance in any sport has done that. Which doesn't mean that he's guilty, merely that we need to ignore what both he and the media are saying until the second samples have been tested.
Just when Speed thought he'd managed to shift the fallout from The Oval off his desk another pile of dirty linen has been deposited there.
And, for once, Darrell Hair's nowhere to be seen...
England have lost a One-Day International to India. Forgive me if I don't get too excited or too downcast, but I simply can't manage to stir myself into any sort of emotional response to the news from the Champions Trophy.
It's good to see Flintoff back where he belongs and it looks as though England at least managed to avoid a complete thrashing.
But it's happened before and it will happen again. England simply aren't very good at one-day cricket.
And do I care? Well, not really. Sure, I'd like them to do better, but I won't lose any sleep over it (that's reserved for live coverage of Ashes Tests later in the winter).
Which may, as some have suggested, be part of the problem. Perhaps I exemplify the fact that people in England just don't care enough about one-day cricket. We prefer that strange, slow-burning, multi-dimensional form of the game called Test cricket. I think most of the players do too.
Lose a Test match, lose a Test series, lose the Ashes, and it hurts. Lose a prosaic, formulaic ODI and there'll be another stack along next year to lull everybody into ever greater extremes of ennui.
Bring on the Aussies (and I mean in Brisbane, not Jaipur).
Over recent months I've been watching a lot of cricket on ESPN Classic (it's on Sky 442 for anyone who hasn't heard about it yet). During the summer they showed highlights of most of the England-West Indies Tests from the 1973, 1976, 1984 and 1995 series in England, and, as the 2006-07 Ashes series approaches, they're currently showing England-Australia matches of a similar vintage.
One of the best things about watching the ancient BBC highlights packages (apart, of course, from laughing at what Richie Benaud was wearing in the 1970s) is that the images and voices, especially the sublimely evocative tones of Jim Laker, take me back to (and sometimes beyond) the very edge of my cricketing consciousness. While I can remember bits of the 1972 series between England and Australia (for years I had a hazy memory in my head of a bowler with a ridiculously curved run-up and had no idea who it was until, during an eighties rain break, the BBC showed the highlights of Lord's '72 and I realised it was John Price) my memories of the 1973 series against the West Indies are more limited (trying to impersonate Gary Sobers in the garden after my father and elder brother had told me I was watching the best all-rounder of all time). So it was pretty shocking and more than a bit amusing to see Geoff Boycott repeatedly trying to commit suicide at Lord's before finally hooking the ball down Rohan Kanhai's throat with the sort of ill-judgement which would make him apoplectic today. And then there was the unbelievable hostility of the West Indies attack and the coolness and stoicism of Edrich and Close at Old Trafford in 1976, Richards at The Oval in the same year, the peerless Greg Chappell at Old Trafford in 1977, the pace, rhythm and class of John Snow and the young Dennis Lillee. The one and only Malcolm Marshall at Headingley and The Oval in 1984 and Botham (not the best commentator but hell what a player) trying his best to fight fire with fire.
Despite the fact that the last final, played between England and the West Indies and ending in near-darkness at The Oval in September 2004, was quite good, and that Cricinfo has been carrying a range of articles designed to convince me that it means something, I still think the Champions Trophy, coming just five months before the World Cup, is a massive waste of time.
However, someone did remind me at a cricket club committee meeting during the week that England's win over Australia at Edgbaston in the 2004 competition paved the way for their glorious performances in 2005, and we are going to see Andrew Flintoff back on the field and at England's helm. So perhaps it's not all bad.
Time, I suppose, to check out the Sky schedules and plump up the cushions.
Although the weather in this part of the UK is still comparatively mild (almost warm, in fact) the English cricket season has long since disappeared into the darker recesses of the memory. I'm not fortunate enough to be personally acquainted with any professional cricketers, but I would imagine that most of them (with the obvious exception of Mark Ramprakash, who's dancing on television) are on holiday and some of them (Ian Blackwell) are on honeymoon.
It all seems quite a long time ago now, but, if you really try to remember, you can recall that Sussex won the County Championship and the re-vamped (aka ruined) Cheltenham and Gloucester Trophy, Essex won the First Division of the Pro 40 League, and Leicestershire won the Twenty20 Cup. The two first-class counties I follow most closely, Middlesex and Somerset, finished bottom of most of the competitions they entered, although my Minor County, Devon, did very well.
My lasting impression, though, is of what an unholy mess the county season's become. Okay, it wasn't much cop beforehand, but what really gave the ECB the peculiar idea that changing the C and G from a knockout competition into a group-based one where most sides lost interest after the first couple of games would be of benefit to English cricket? Not to mention getting rid of the Minor Counties, who rarely won and usually lost heavily, but whose participation in the competition had given people in many parts of the country their only opportunity to watch first-class cricketers in live action.
And then we had the re-launched Pro 40 League, which simply involved lopping five overs off the old Totesport League and pretending that a 40 over league was a radical new departure for cricket in this country. Well, maybe all the people who run the ECB are younger than me (the visual evidence suggests otherwise although I doubt the same is true of its marketing department) and don't remember the halcyon days of the John Player League, but it had obviously escaped their notice that the first league of that type actually began in 1969.
So, less a radical departure and more an example of re-embracing an old idea because you feel like altering things and can't think of anything original to do.
Anyway, that's all over and it's time to get on with the winter's cricket which certainly won't be devoid of meaning.
Oh dear, what's that? The ICC Champions Trophy has just started?
Many thanks again to Will Luke at TheCorridor, who pointed me in the direction of an excellent interview with the former Durham and England Under-19 batsman Michael Gough at Patrick Kidd's blog for The Times, Line and Length. Gough retired from the game at the end of the 2003 season, aged 23, and is now hoping to forge a new career as a first-class umpire.
As with most players who come out of the England junior ranks, I kept a close eye on Gough over his first few (and, as it turned out, only) seasons in county cricket. As Kidd explains, he had some initial success, going on an England 'A' tour in 1999-2000, and reached a peak in 2002, when he averaged over fifty in first-class cricket. But it was never enough.
With admirable candour Gough stated that he never enjoyed playing cricket for a living and was constantly thinking 'there has to be more to life than this'. Elsewhere in the interview, though, he emphasized how much he loves the game. This apparent paradox set me thinking.
When you watch county cricketers going through the motions, perhaps towards the end of the season, you sometimes find yourself wondering how many of them really enjoy what they're doing. And, if they do enjoy it, whether their enjoyment is suffused by the kind of emotional bond with the game that is customary to those of us who spend most of our waking hours following it. The answer, of course, is probably not, because, for all county pros, the game is their job. If and when they ever stop to think about it, most - at least those with enough runs or wickets under their belt to secure their next contract - would probably say that they enjoy what they're doing and are aware of how lucky they are, but you'd expect them to stop short of saying that they genuinely love the game. You tend to feel that those that enter the professional environment with an authentic love of the sport soon feel it wane under the remorseless pressure of earning their living from it. Which in turn may mean that those who stand the best chance of coping with those pressures are those who were a bit more ambivalent about it all to start with. Those who only ended up playing cricket for a living because they were good at it and it was always going to be more fun than working in an office or driving a van.
With all this said, though, one of the things which is drummed into you by youth coaches when you talk to them about young players and whether they'll 'make it' or not, is that it's very difficult indeed to sustain a professional career in any sport, and only those that really 'want it' (as well, of course, as having the necessary level of basic ability) will even make it to the bottom rung of the ladder.
The answer, I suppose, is to want it like hell until you get there but then be able to cope with the disappointment of it all being a bit more mundane than you expected. A bit, I suppose, like adult life.
Professional cricket clearly didn't suit Gough and he should be given credit for recognising this while he was young enough for it to be easy for him to switch his focus and still stay in the game.
He deserves to succeed and it'll be interesting watching him try.
We are what we want to see when we watch sport. The angry fan finds tribal belonging; the pessimist sees steady decline and fall; the optimist hails progress in each innovation; the sympathetic soul feels every blow and disappointment; the rationalist wonders how the haze of illogical thinking endures.
Ed Smith, What Sport Tells Us About Life (2008)
Cricket has lasted because it is what it is. It's a game which reflects life, with all the nuances in it. You can be a success in the morning and crap in the afternoon, then come back in the evening. As at work, you can spend four days doing something and nothing comes of it. Another time you will dash something off and it's terrific. Life resonates through cricket like no other game.