Keep Calm and Carry On

One of the chief qualities of limited-over cricket is the way in which it compresses and intensifies the pressures which the participants are under, while one of Andrew Strauss's impeccable strengths is the ability to look calm in the field when all logic would suggest that his head should be about to explode. Take yesterday: The greatest batsman the world's seen in many a generation going well on a Bangalore shirtfront with a potent range of supporting actors at the other end, and the job of trying to stem the flow of runs is down to you and your bowlers. That, in a cricket context, is real pressure, but with Strauss it rarely - if ever - shows.

Then, just when you might fancy sitting with a towel on your head for a couple of hours, no such luck. A twenty minute break and it's down to you to mastermind the chase: All but seven an over under lights, with a partisan crowd willing you to fail. So you make a superb 158, the only fault being the fact that you don't quite stick around long enough to assure the victory which should really have been your ultimate reward.

It's difficult to be sure who will take most from yesterday's epic. England should have won and still have form and selection concerns, India's bowling and fielding doesn't look what it needs to be. But, with weeks and weeks to go, there's plenty of time for teams to find form, lose it and find it again. And it still might not be enough.

We rarely use the word 'great' around here, but what we can definitely take away from yesterday is that Andrew Strauss is a very, very, good cricketer indeed, and not just in the game's longer forms.

It's a pretty safe bet that he'll need to show how just how good again if England are still going to be in with a shout when April comes around.


A General Air of Predictability

From a distance the World Cup so far has seemed like a succession of fairly predictable non-contests, although, as far as the 'debate' about Associate Members' participation in future tournaments is concerned, I'm happy to come down on the side of what their players think. And the majority seem to prefer the experience of being there and getting beaten to not being there and hence not having the opportunity to win. The ICC, in their wisdom (of course, I use the word satirically), have clearly forgetten all about the past successes of Kenya and Ireland. For all that it may seem like the future, increased Associate participation in future World Twenty20s is a poor substitute, always assuming ODIs in their current format remain a central part of the game.

An exception to the general air of predictability was England's relatively shaky win over the Netherlands. While all the Dutch players deserve huge credit, it applies especially to Ryan ten Doeschate, because to be your side's best player and the focus of everyone's expectations and then deliver the goods in such coruscating fashion takes real strength of temperament. Jonathan Agnew, with a lack of awareness of the county game that is typical if understandable, described ten Doeschate as a 'journeyman'. As more than a few Essex fans will tell you, he's a good bit more than that.

As for England, well, they were shambolic at times, but, at the tail-end of a winter itinerary like they've had, where's the surprise in that? Most of them are probably either knackered or sick of cricket or both. Add some ring-rustiness, poor form, experimentation and subsconscious complacency, and you have a recipe for problems.

They'll need to be a bit better on Sunday.


(Not) Being There

A nice piece from Siddhartha Vaidyanathan's excellent, varied blog.

This must strike a chord with anyone who's ever struggled to follow cricket as they go about the rest of their crowded lives. It certainly did with me.

With all the major cricket events of my lifetime I can instinctively remember where I was. And, while there are many exceptions - The Oval, 12th September 2005, Shane Warne's hat-trick in Melbourne, the Broad-Trott stand, Michael Vaughan's 197 at Trent Bridge - more often than not I wasn't there.

I was often in front of a TV set, which is the next best thing, but I've frequently been in all kinds of other places - exam rooms, weddings (not my own), hospitals, trains, planes and automobiles. For the last twenty years, during which period I've had a full-time job which only occasionally allows me to listen to the radio, I've mostly been at work, at least in body.

Apologies to anyone with whom I've had a work-related discussion while my mind was elsewhere. And equal apologies to my colleagues for the odd disappearing act down the years. As Brian Lara was gaining on 365 at St.John's in April 1994, I retreated to the toilet with a radio and nobody knew where I was for about half an hour.

As you get older it gets harder and harder both to follow the cricket exclusively and to convince people who don't know or care about the game that you have as much interest as they do in what's going outside the Test match bubble.

But I like it that way.


Giving it the Big Build Up

Tweets and blogposts from people employed in the heart of the cricket media are usually good reading. It's what they're there for after all. This week I've had the pleasure of knowing that Jonathan Agnew, Michael Vaughan and Patrick Kidd (of the Times and The Questing Vole) have all been on their way to the World Cup and have now successfully arrived.

I've been watching my letter box intently for the last few weeks in the hope that some kind soul would be prepared to pay for me to go to the competition and send me some tickets to the sub-continent. Sadly, it hasn't happened. Instead I'm going to be spending the duration of the tournament in England, relying on Sky to keep me in touch with events in the east.

There are compensations, though. For me this is still very much the rugby season, and there are plenty of big games coming up, both for the club I follow (the major success story of the English season) and in the Six Nations. I'm happy to be at home for these. Also, I experienced a deep frisson of world-weariness when Ricky Ponting said something the other day about having to play well 'over the next six weeks'.

Six weeks?! Well, I knew that the mistakes of the last World Cup were going to be repeated this time, but with so much interesting Test cricket going on over recent months I hadn't been thinking about it too much and it's hardly as if the world hasn't already got enough ODIs going on to last an epoch.

I'm sorry to sound so negative, and I'm happy to admit that my views would probably be different if I was fortunate enough to be there.

I gather it all starts in half an hour, so I'd better go and turn on the TV...


Trevor Bailey (1923-2011)

I was surprised by how sad the death of Trevor Bailey on Thursday made me feel. He was just a couple of years older than my own father, and the circumstances in which he died were tragic. But I think the strength of my feelings had as much to do with the fact that another key element of a central part of my childhood, adolescence and cricket-infected maturity had gone for good.

Despite his illustrious playing career, as The Old Batsman says, those of us in our forties and below knew Bailey only as a radio summariser. If you grew up in Britain in the 1970s, the 1980s or the 1990s and were interested in cricket, you will have listened to Test Match Special. In fact there's every chance that you will have listened to it for hours and hours and hours.

And this will mean that you will have become very familiar with Bailey's particular brand of acerbic perspicacity, individualistic, clipped delivery and precise, orthodox vocabulary. At times he could appear pompous and slightly deficient in the humour department, but, having had the pleasure of meeting him during an England supporters' tour to South Africa in the mid-nineties (when, for a range of reasons, a good sense of humour was required), I know that this impression was illusory. He was a genial and tolerant man, who, in a cricket sense, had really been around the block but wore his vast experience and knowledge lightly.

Like everything, TMS has changed and evolved. In some senses for the better, in others for the worse. But the loss of Bailey, following Arlott, Johnston, Trueman and Frindall, means that one more link with what many regard as the programme's golden age has been lost.


No Backward Glances

With the dust still settling, this probably isn't the time or place for a homily on the verdicts handed down to the Pakistan Three.

However, a couple of things require comment. Firstly, the strong implication in Osman Samiuddin's Cricinfo report that the tribunal would have preferred to hand down more lenient sentences, and then the sense of injured pride embodied by Amir's statements - such as 'two no-balls should not be five years' punishment' - both of which tend to indicate that both the accused and those judging them still don't quite appreciate the seriousness of what went on at Lord's last August.

The fact that it was 'only' two no-balls (if that's all it was) is irrelevant. Players deliberately under-performed as a result of outside influence. They cheated their fellow players, they cheated the spectators and they cheated the integrity of the game. They weren't the first, sadly they probably won't be the last, but they deserve everything they've got.

As this shows, I thought Mohammad Asif was a genuinely outstanding bowler who could have been great. In all probability, though, his career at the highest level is now over, and nobody who cares for the game should shed a single tear or cast him a backward glance. The same - apart, of course, from the possibility of greatness - goes for Salman Butt.

Mohammad Amir, who will only be 23 when his ban finishes, may yet have the opportunity to fulfil his huge potential.

Let's leave it there for now.


As Mad as O'Keefe, as Good as Trott

One of the only entertaining aspects of the deathless one-day series between England and Australia (for anyone who's fallen asleep, it's still going on but mercifully ends tomorrow) has been the commentary of the one and only Kerry O'Keefe. I've heard snatches of him before, but the fact that TMS has taken the ABC coverage wholesale has brought his genius to a wider audience.

With O'Keefe you get some of the most bizarre comments you'll ever hear, delivered with the wit and timing of a superb natural comedian, but mixed in with the stuff that makes you laugh are shafts of observation which make you sit up and think, even if he's not saying anything that's unusual or extraordinary. An example of this came the other day, when O'Keefe described Jonathan Trott as 'the best leg-side player to come to Australia in the last twenty years'.

This was noteworthy, not because it isn't true but because it still seems a little strange that people who have really seen some cricket are saying such things about Jonathan Trott. Yes, that's Jonathan Trott. Plays for Warwickshire, rising 30, losing his hair, with a perpetual scowl on his face and a batting style which even his best friend wouldn't write home about. But currently the owner of some of the best damn batting stats on the planet and a man who looks as sure of his place as anyone in an England side which is as stable as they come (in Test cricket, anyway).

Before Trott came into the England team in the late summer of 2009 I'd seen bits and pieces of him on TV. At times he looked quite classy, but he never seemed to have that many runs to show for it, and it's hard to assess people's temperaments on the basis of a truncated innings in a county hit-and-giggle game. He made runs here and there for the Lions, but if anyone had told you that two years on he'd be up there with the world's greatest run-machines, you'd have thought they were as mad as Kerry O'Keefe.

Trott, though, is tough. His unemotional demeanour reflects both his upbringing in a country where cricket is taken a bit more seriously than in England, and the fact that he has had to fight every step of the way to establish himself in an England side to which many people felt he didn't belong. Like Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan before him, this is a man who breathes more easily in the rarefied air of Test cricket than the safer surroundings of the county game. In a country which has had more than its fair share of players who have done things the other way round - at least one of whom also began life in Africa - such players are like gold dust.

Late in a long winter, two English batsman stand out. Alastair Cook, who had the good sense to get out of Australia before a constant diet of limited-over cricket started to sap his will to live, and Jonathan Trott. Both could be flashier and more elegant, but both hate, really hate, getting out.

To use the oldest phrase in the book of timeless cricket cliches, it's not how, but how many.

And Jonathan Trott is currently making as many runs as anyone, anywhere.

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