Ifs and Butts

When English cricket summers end I usually experience a feeling of disappointment and regret. Not this time.

Not just because of what's gone on in the past month, but also because this has been a messy, badly constructed season. England switching formats and opponents as frequently as Eoin Morgan switches hands. A needlessly divided and therefore denuded County Championship, a Twenty20 tournament expanded to the point of meaninglessness and another competition of a length, as Neil Kinnock said twenty-five years ago this coming week, 'irrelevant to the real needs'. For someone who loves the game but has an increasing number of competing demands on his time, it is becoming harder and harder to follow what is going on, let alone write about it. But the love will endure. It always does.

Talking of irrelevancies, a final word on Ijaz Butt, who's been making all the headlines this past week and will probably find himself on the receiving end of a writ before long. It would be interesting to know what the Pakistan players think of him, given that his statement simultaneously undermined the diligent efforts of the Pakistan team (especially the outstanding Umar Gul) and gave extra motivation to their opponents. Not much, I would guess.

England go to Australia in good shape. For the first time in many years they have the world's leading current spin bowler in their ranks, and they have a decent - I wouldn't put it any more strongly than that - chance of retaining the Ashes. I'll be with them in spirit, if not in person.

With or without the shadow of corruption, the endless carousel that is modern international cricket never stops (which, of course, is part of the problem), and Australia are now in India for a short series which will supply some further pointers as to what may happen in November and December.

See you soon.


The Glorious Uncertainty of the Unrefined Talent

My first clear memory of Andrew Flintoff dates back to a Test match between England and India at Lord's in 1996. David Lloyd, then the England coach, had invited the likely lad from Lancashire to act as his country's Twelfth Man. I stood and watched for a while at the gap between the Allen Stand and the pavilion and soon became aware of a looming presence next to me, blotting out the light. I'd seen his picture so knew when I looked up that I was literally being overshadowed by Andrew Flintoff. Despite regular exposure to the behemoths turned out by the professional Rugby Union academies, he remains one of the biggest eighteen year-olds I've ever seen.

Just two years later he was in the England side; raw, over-promoted, destined to take a very long time to rise and an equally long one to fall. But for a relatively short time his best was as good as anyone's around, and my favourite memories all come from that brief heyday between 2003 and 2006: Dispatching South Africa in an ODI uniform at Edgbaston in partnership with Michael Vaughan, July 2003, one sublime cover-drive instantly awakening memories of Ian Botham; raging against the dying of the light at Lord's and The Oval, same summer; repeatedly turning games in partnership with Geraint Jones, a contrasting man if ever there was, but someone he always seemed to bat well with, in 2004 and 2005; that over to Ponting and a wealth of other moments from the summer the Ashes came back.

Other than in one specific area of his game - his bowling in one-day cricket - Andrew Flintoff wasn't a truly great cricketer. Simply a very good one whose greatest individual Test series happened to coincide with what was perhaps the greatest Test series of all. But, to the average English cricket follower, his huge popularity owed far more to his image as an outwardly unsophisticated, often gauche everyman who embodied and fulfilled people's hopes while retaining an endearing sense of vulnerability. The British tend to be wary of self-conscious sporting excellence, preferring those who succeed in spite of themselves and who routinely appear to be only a step away from failure. The glorious uncertainty of the unrefined talent.

One image to leave: It is September 2003. Makhaya Ntini bowls, and the coiled, vengeful power of Flintoff's drive lofts the ball upwards, seemingly destined for space. It only makes it as far as the upper tier of the Oval pavilion but no matter. This is something we've waited since 1985 to see. It is special, he is special, and we want more.

Flintoff's future also has more than a tinge of uncertainty about it. But he, and we, will always have his past.

Seeing is Believing

A recurrent theme in the first few years of this blog was the discrepancy between Ian Bell's transparently exceptional batting ability and his failure to establish himself in the England team. I well remember writing a sentence which began 'if Ian Bell ever realizes how good he could be...'.

Over the last year the disconnect between potential and performance has become less noticeable, largely as a result of his batting in South Africa last winter. After an injury-interrupted home season, his return to the Test side for the start of the forthcoming Ashes series appears a formality. At last, in his 29th year, there are signs that he's finally started to really believe in himself. And there's plenty to believe in.

Yesterday evening, as Bell steered Warwickshire to victory against Somerset in the final of the Clydesdale Bank 40 at a floodlit Lord's, he put together an innings which served both as reminder and confirmation of what he is capable of. Mark Turner is a journeyman seam bowler. He's just been released by Somerset and is joining Derbyshire, the team cricketers join when they can't go anywhere else. So, when he came on to bowl the 38th over of the Warwickshire innings with Bell facing, things didn't look good. Six balls later, with Bell having creamed Turner for twenty runs and the Warwickshire win assured, things looked even worse.

But, in fairness, it probably wouldn't have made much difference who was bowling. Bell was playing with such a potent mix of command, assurance and even, whisper it, arrogance, that many another more talented bowler would have gone precisely the same way. It looked to me suspiciously like the work of a player who finally knows how good he is, and that, my friends, is very good indeed.

Of course, attempting to hold together the England batting in the febrile cauldron of the Gabba, or amid the brutal partisanship of the MCG, is a different thing. We will see, but the signs are good.

The 'CB40' feels like an unloved competition, and Ian Bell has frequently appeared an unloved batsman. Defending his corner against the doubters has often been difficult; more than once I've given up and embraced the majority opinion.

Ian Bell won't be giving up any time soon. Last night he showed the British cricket community what he can do, but it's time he showed the world.


To Tweet or Not to Tweet

I tried 'Tweeting' for a few months late last year and early this. I tried to be the Tweeter with the fewest followers in the world until the pointlessness of it all became clear and I gave up participation in favour of seeing what people more famous and interesting than me had to say about their lives.

Most of the people I follow are involved with cricket in some way, and are well-known. Graeme Swann's Tweets are ebullient and slightly childish. David Lloyd's reflect his humour and wide range of passions. Jimmy Anderson's tend towards the dull and worthy, but are notably well structured and punctuated. It's clear, unlike some, that he went to school. Agnew's reflect a life so utterly wonderful that he must wake up every day thanking some higher authority (the BBC Appointments Board, I suppose) for its munificence. Michael Vaughan is a late adopter who shows promise.

Something worth keeping in mind, though, is that if you put something on Twitter, more or less anyone, anywhere, can see it. And if they don't see it for themselves, someone will tell them about it.

If someone's responsible for selecting a cricket team that you'd like to play in, it's best only to refer to them as a c**t (or even a k**t) or a w****r in private. People generally don't like that sort of thing, and if you give them another reason not to select you, well, as good old Devon Malcolm apparently once said, 'you guys are history'.

Don't expect a call anytime soon, Dimitri.

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