State of fear

The last time there was so much of a fuss over the “future of the game” was when Chris Gayle in one of his typically nonchalant riffs seemed to suggest that Test cricket should die — the emphasis on ‘seemed’, because that is not what he actually said.

There is a world of difference between saying ‘Test cricket should die’ and ‘I wouldn’t be sad if Test cricket died’ — but that difference was lost in the ensuing furor, with Andrew Strauss leaping to the defense of Tests, various past worthies from the West Indies ‘slamming’ Gayle for his remarks and demanding his head, or at least his captain’s armband, on a platter, and the commentariat writing reams about how Gayle’s statement could be the thin end of a dangerous wedge that could split the cricket world wide open.

Fear is the key

Fear is the key

A character in the Michael Crichton novel State of Fear moots the theory that it is in the

The Culture of Fear

The Culture of Fear

interest of the political class, the scientific/academic establishment and the media to keep people in a state of permanent fear of something or the other. A similar idea drives Barry Glassner’s non-fiction work The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of The Wrong Things.

It certainly seems to be in the interest of the cricket establishment and the media to stoke some fear or other — the imminent demise of the ‘game as we know it’ being the top of the pops. The establishment quaked with this ‘fear’ [and the media recorded every quake] when ODIs began to get popular — and the arguments then were, there is much money to be made [and India, horrors, is the one making it] in ODIs — so, oh, woe betide Tests.

And then, of course, the administration reacted to its own fear by trimming the number of Tests in its global schedule and squeezing in bilateral and multi-lateral ODIs wherever it could, producing a world championship in the format, and then producing an interim ICC Championship as well.

Fear makes you do strange things.

Now, ironically, the same establishment is in a pother about the future of — ODIs and Tests!

The latest to catch a ‘grave’ dose of the fear infection is Stuart Clark:

“What scares me the most is where does it leave the game if people just go chasing large sums of money for a bit of hit-and-giggle,” Clark said. “I think we as players all owe it to Test cricket to try and keep it afloat.

Reminds me of late 1995, when a bunch of us quit our jobs with the ‘traditional’ media to join the yet to be formed Rediff. Friends reacted with shock. ‘What’s wrong with you? You want to give up journalism?!’ Clark, in similar fashion, contrasts ‘the game’ [uttered reverently, to mean Tests] with ‘hit and giggle’ to mean T20s — and to think that a decade ago, that is what they were calling one day cricket. Here’s Clark again:

“I know the administration is working hard at it, but I personally hold grave fears for where the game is heading. But while tournaments like the Champions League are very lucrative, I’d personally like to think at this stage the players at New South Wales would prefer to play for Australia.”

Ah yes, well, as someone said in the comments field of one of my posts yesterday, thank god there are still top players prepared to put country and honor — and even family — above filthy lucre. Like Michael Clarke. Like, so. And on page two of the same article, there is this little nugget about the now fear-raddled Stuart Clark:

Stuart Clark ($US250,000 reserve) almost pulled out this week but remains a starter, according to his manager Richard Errington. “We were thinking, ‘Why bother,’ but the BCCI said, ‘No, we want you there.’ Whether he gets picked up or not, we don’t know. If we do, fantastic, if we don’t, Stuey will be starting his law degree,” he said.

Tag line of the story: Stuart Clark, even at a low reserve price, didn’t attract a single bid at the February 2009 auction. Andrew Flintoff, a day after turning freelance, is already being courted — in Clark’s home country. [Brief digression: Andrew Flintoff might be well served, financially, by his agent — he is the best judge of that. But Flintoff might seriously want to consider getting himself a new press agent — someone who doesn’t make his principal a laughing stock each time he opens his mouth. The other day there was the bit about turning freelance so he could experience different cultures; today there is this bit about refusing the England contract so he can bungee jump. For god’s sake: Just say Flintoff refused the binding tie of a central contract because with his body deteriorating, he cannot last the grind any more and needs to be able to pick and chose, and also because with his use by date approaching, he needs to maximize his earnings. That statement would be unexceptional. It also will have the advantage of being the truth.]

Moral of the story: Those who can, earn; those who can’t, express ‘grave fear’. Bonus moral because I’m feeling generous today: Not everyone can turn freelance, because not everyone has this undefined but very real ‘It’ factor to command the kind of remuneration that makes freelancing worthwhile [why do you suppose even good journalists prefer the security of a steady job to the uncertainties of writing freelance?]

Michael Atherton makes a similar argument in his piece in the Times:

To describe Flintoff as cricket’s first freelance cricketer is a nonsense: Flintoff is doing what generations have done before him, players such as Sir Garfield Sobers, who played for West Indies when international cricket was less demanding than now, but then plied his trade for Nottinghamshire and South Australia, and whoever else would pay him to do so, outside his international commitments. Cricket grew initially as a gambling game, the best players little more than hired hands for gambling gentlemen.

Flintoff’s position is only noteworthy now because it flies against the trend in recent years, which has been for cricketers to tie themselves exclusively to their national boards in return for decent remuneration and extracurricular benefits denied to earlier generations. It is unlikely, though, that Flintoff’s move in a different direction will encourage others to do the same, despite the whisperings from the Professional Cricketers’ Association, which is agitating for a greater role at the expense of a governing body that it deems to be incompetent.

After all, there are few cricketers in Flintoff’s position. Flintoff is not unique, but there are precious few with the reputation already made, the financial clout and the personality to gamble on going it alone. Reputations are still made in international sport, not franchise-based domestic tournaments, and sponsors demand the exposure that is driven by international-based competition. His move does not herald the era of the freelance mercenary, moving magnet-like to whichever franchise pays the most.

In passing, note Atherton’s point underlined in the clip above, ref the recent trend of cricketers to tie themselves to the national boards in return for security. The supplementary point is, a player offered a central contract had no choice, not really: He could either sign, and enjoy a fairly decent wage even if during the period of his contract he wasn’t playing at a high enough level to be picked for the team, or he could sit on the outside looking in, and hoping to get the odd game because the salaried players weren’t good enough.

What has changed now is that players — those who bring high skill and the X factor — have a choice. And that is what is throwing the establishment into a state of fear — a fear of its economic ecosystem being damaged, which it tries to pass off as a more altruistic fear for the ‘future of the game’. [While on this, a story from my archives: the Wall Street Journal on the rise of the ‘rabble’.]

In a post on the subject of Flintoff and ‘the future of the game’ yesterday, I was making the point that much of this ‘crisis’ owes to an administration that refuses to rationalize its international calendar, to give meaning and context to its playing schedule. Here, on a similar theme, is Grame Smith:

“I don’t think you can blame the individual, but it’s an interesting time for cricket, and interesting to see where it goes now,” Smith told Cricinfo. “The crucial aspect is the decisions the leadership makes in the future. The ICC needs to give cricket a good direction, and crucial to that is how they look at the Future Tours Programme, because the decisions they make around that are going to be so important for the future of the game.”

And:

“With the greatest respect, the seven ODIs taking place in England at the moment are more for financial benefit than meaningful cricket,” he said. “People want to see strength for strength, they want to see international sides trying their best in competitive tours. I mean, the Ashes was great to watch, it was competitive down to the last Test match, and speaking for myself as a cricketer, that’s how you want to see all cricket being played.

“But all these meaningless tours just sap your body, especially when you are playing away from home for a long time,” he added. “I think the ICC needs to really look at the format going forward, and really take control of the international game.”

Cricket clips

The debate on reform of the ODI continues, with Ian Chappell — a column I like over recent efforts by others because it examines multiple solutions to make the game more exciting.

ODIs are increasingly exercises in painting by numbers; there has been no real innovation since the 1996 World Cup that institutionalized big hitting in the early overs where the formula, till then, was a quiet start [a Krish Srikkanth, and a Mark Greatbatch, notwithstanding].

To break out of formulaic play will take more than a cosmetic change or two. It requires that the administrators, when setting out to reform, address all aspects of the game. Samples from Chappelli:

The boundaries should be as large as possible, which places an emphasis on daring running between wickets and athletic fielding, two features that originally attracted fans to the limited-overs game. Short boundaries tend to emphasise defending the ropes, and make some fielding attributes redundant, whereas larger extremities make containment difficult because of the big gaps between the outfielders.

There should only be one stipulation about field placings: four men should compulsorily be inside the circle in the final five overs. If captains aren’t told where their fieldsmen have to go then they’ve got to think where to put them, and the regulation is only there to stop teams having nine men on the boundary in a tight finish.

The other restriction on the fielding side should simply say that five bowlers have to deliver a minimum of five overs each. Apart from that the captain can utilize his bowlers how he sees fit. The more overs available to the better bowlers, the more likely a captain will attack rather than defend with stop-gap trundlers. Bowl well and you’ll be rewarded with more overs.

A good contest between bat and ball is the crucial factor, closely followed by a tense finish; all else is forgotten if the final moments are riveting. If every run is scrapped for and earned by skillful, aggressive batting and daring running between wickets in defiance of brilliant fielding, no one can complain about the game providing value for money.

Elsewhere, another worry often expressed by administrators threatens to come true, with Andrew Flintoff poised to become the game’s first official mercenary shortly after a group of New Zealand players made moves in that direction by refusing to sign national contracts until the calendar incorporated a window for them to make money in the IPL. Flintoff’s problem:

The ECB awarded an incremental contract to Flintoff as they hope will be key part of England’s limited-over sides when fit and has stated he wants to play until the 2015 World Cup. But England coach Andy Flower had said his players could take part in only three weeks of the 45-day IPL next year if they toured Bangladesh. That means Flintoff, the joint highest-paid player in the IPL along with Kevin Pietersen, could stand to lose about half of his US$1.55m fee by going to Bangladesh.

And the solution his agent has worked out:

“He’ll play for Chennai [Super Kings in the IPL], he might play for an Australian team, a South African team, maybe one in the West Indies,” Chandler told the Observer. “If he hadn’t have been injured he would have probably played in December-January in Australia. And then at the end of January, early February in South Africa. I was already negotiating with them. We were negotiating with South Australia and the Durban team, the Nashua Dolphins. And there’s been an offer from Northern Transvaal [Northerns] as well.”

Ashes to ashes

In just a few hours, the final Test of the 2009 Ashes series begins — and how good is that! It means that five days from now tops, we will know which of the two teams gets to keep the remains of burnt out bails.  Or more to the point, it means that five days from now, we will not have to read any more about what has turned into the Flintoff test.

Nothing against Fred; nothing against an iconic player getting a fitting send off either — but for over two weeks now, all discussion on England’s prospects seem to begin and end with Freddie, and this is getting to be faintly ludicrous. If the message is that for England to have a chance, Flintoff must play, what then does it say for the rest of the players? And extending that thought, can we all stop writing about English cricket next week on — since Flintoff will have left the Test scene, so England won’t rate any more? Steve James in a recent Telegraph piece speaks of the concomitant cacophony attendant on the outsize star:

What the England management didn’t want was further trouble from the awkward, avaricious PR machine that drives Flintoff – the reason why he has arrived at Tests this season wearing hooded tops bearing the logo of his personal sponsor rather than England’s, the reason why he shamelessly turns his bat round to expose another sponsor’s logo whenever a photographer ventures near a net session. But they did get that and, in a strange way, it was good that Chandler made his remarks. At the appropriate moment it has neatly provided the fuller picture. During this Oval Test there will doubtless be a guard of honour for Flintoff’s departure, deserved ovations, appreciative waves and even some tears. It will be emotional. It always is.


But, on the flip side, the truth is that Flintoff and his concomitant cacophony are often a distraction, and have been for some time. Flintoff has changed since his heroics of 2005. Team-mates will say as much in private. The cult of celebrity, our need for heroes and some naked commercial exploitation have all played their parts.

So buckle up for one last celebration. Hopefully, there will be some decent cricket in there somewhere, too. On the tangential note of cricketers and farewells, Dileep Premachandran on the cautionary tale that is Vinod Kambli’s career, and the stark contrast with contemporary Rahul Dravid:

In the years to come Kambli will be both cautionary tale and trivia question. After all, how many play their last Test at the age of 23 and finish with an average of 54? On the Waterfront’s “I could have been a contender” line will always shadow his every step…


The talismen

Is it just me, or is there something faintly ludicrous about pieces such as this one by Simon Barnes?

Flintoff came on as first change and made it his business to change all that. It was extraordinary the difference he made as soon as he came into the attack. The game’s intensity was instantly racked up. In the day’s most compelling passage of play, he came at Hughes with total ferocity and he instantly made it personal.
He turned it into a duel. He pulled rank and told Hughes that he was still wet behind the ears. He intimidated Hughes with his sense of authority. He also intimidated with such things as pace and bounce, with short balls intended to scramble the senses.
True, James Anderson and Stuart Broad had also been bowling with pace and purpose, but Hughes had no problem with them. It was the way Flintoff made such a set at him that made the difference.
Mind you, he also had a crack at Simon Katich. This was the one that got away, an impossibly sharp caught and bowled chance, the meaty hand grasping it with two or three fingers — for a second it was there — but it squeezed out almost reluctantly and fell to the ground. Sometimes Flintoff will turn himself into a Rodin statue, holding a vigorous pose to indicate extremes of emotion. There he stood, legs planted wide apart, head bowed, hands clasping head: Freddie Agonistes. It would have been a different day for all had that one stuck.
But he got his man. He got the upstart Hughes, befuddling him and inducing an inside edge, and a rather good catch from Matt Prior. Cue the next Rodin statue — legs once more straddled, chest inflated like a bellows, arms wide, hands high, no smile, gaze level: Freddie Rex. The entire team were ignited with hope and belief. Nothing to do but watch the next wicket fall.

Flintoff came on as first change and made it his business to change all that. It was extraordinary the difference he made as soon as he came into the attack. The game’s intensity was instantly racked up. In the day’s most compelling passage of play, he came at Hughes with total ferocity and he instantly made it personal.

He turned it into a duel. He pulled rank and told Hughes that he was still wet behind the ears. He intimidated Hughes with his sense of authority. He also intimidated with such things as pace and bounce, with short balls intended to scramble the senses.

True, James Anderson and Stuart Broad had also been bowling with pace and purpose, but Hughes had no problem with them. It was the way Flintoff made such a set at him that made the difference.

Mind you, he also had a crack at Simon Katich. This was the one that got away, an impossibly sharp caught and bowled chance, the meaty hand grasping it with two or three fingers — for a second it was there — but it squeezed out almost reluctantly and fell to the ground. Sometimes Flintoff will turn himself into a Rodin statue, holding a vigorous pose to indicate extremes of emotion. There he stood, legs planted wide apart, head bowed, hands clasping head: Freddie Agonistes. It would have been a different day for all had that one stuck.

But he got his man. He got the upstart Hughes, befuddling him and inducing an inside edge, and a rather good catch from Matt Prior. Cue the next Rodin statue — legs once more straddled, chest inflated like a bellows, arms wide, hands high, no smile, gaze level: Freddie Rex. The entire team were ignited with hope and belief. Nothing to do but watch the next wicket fall.

You can almost hear the trumpets blare, the drums roll through every one of those 303 words [I counted].

Bloody hell, mate — for all that regal flourish, Flintoff got one wicket. One. Of a greenhorn playing his third Test, and his first Ashes.

It’s only just now that I got some breathing space from the usual Friday madness to check the scores — judging by the way an Australian team that is clearly way past its peak is going, England is going to need a heck of a lot more than one solitary talisman held together with rubber bands and string: it needs eleven talismen. Scan the horizon, and there seems nary the signs of one.

Right, I’m done and dusted for the week; see you Monday, with Bhim and all else.