Sunday, May 20, 2007


Nice to see that the corporate soft drinks world, never knowingly under-ironic, has decided to advertise Old Jamaica Ginger Beer with the tagline - you'd better sit down for this one - "Jamaica? No, she went of her own accord." And, even funnier, England are playing the West Indies for the first half of this summer, so you can hear this excellent joke AT LEAST EVERY HALF AN HOUR ON SKY SPORTS!!! It's these little things that make life worth living.

One searches for meaning in this series - it feels somehow meaningful - but it's a fairly negative saga. English cricket has returned to its hinterland days of the mid 1990s. When Nasser Hussain became captain in 2000, there was a feeling that things were on the up. We started beating the Asian teams, and carried on getting thrashed by Australia. And then Vaughan took over in 2003, and the winning streak continued, and we beat the West Indies in the Caribbean for the first time since 1968, and crucially there was a collective feeling that the Ashes was within reach. From 2000 to the beginning of 2005, England had leaped from being pretty much the worst team in the world to being the second best. And in 2005, we won the Ashes.

The difference in styles between Nasser and Michael Vaughan is instructive here. Nasser was always moody, brooding, melancholic, gritty. He really was a batsman of considerable panache, but it never really felt like that. He was the man to get you out of a hole, grimacing as he did so. Vaughan, by contrast, is a man of the people, a swashbuckler. Under his captaincy, the team looked like they were having fun. Nicknames came back into vogue - Freddie, Harmy, Banger, King of Spain - and the team bonded over hours of quality Playstation time. They had become chirpy, almost annoyingly so. I remember during one of the luncheon intervals in the 2005 Ashes series when Michael Atherton did an interview with Graham Thorpe, who had just quit international cricket. It was like watching men from an entirely different cricketing era - Atherton and Thorpe were both thinkers, loners, self-absorbed types, just like Nasser. Vaughan had livened up the troops, done away with any lingering melancholy, and pumped them full of self-belief. Despite losing the first test at Lord's, this was first time I had ever seen an England team who knew they were capable of beating Australia.

But in the end, Vaughan's approach has been the undoing of England. Their record since the Ashes has been mixed at best, and in the last six months it has been abysmal. Chirpiness quickly morphed into complacency, and it continues to this day. England currently face a dilemma, brought on by an embarrassment of riches (of sorts). With Flintoff and Vaughan likely to return from injury soon, two players will have to make way for them. It is highly likely that Shah will give way to Vaughan, feasible that Bell may be dropped for Flintoff (given the options, and the positions in the order, I can't see an alternative), and quite possible that no further changes will be made to a team that goes into day 5 with a 33:33:33 chance of winning, drawing or losing the test.

The point is that neither Vaughan nor Flintoff need to prove their form, even though both have consistently failed to perform since 2005. Vaughan has played two test matches since the Ashes, the last of which was nearly 18 months ago. Flintoff has not scored a century in that time, and averages only 30. And as for Harmison who, like Trescothick, actually seems to be hewn from a similar substance to Atherton, Hussain and Thorpe - the celebrity, the success, the touring - whatever it is, Harmison seems to have tired of it. His bowling in this test has been dreadful. As one emailer to the Guardian's coverage today said,

Stroke his sulking head one last time, look into those big baleful eyes of his, wipe away that sentimental tear and hit him swiftly and smartly on the noggin with something large and blunt. Its ok now, he's going to a better place, Harmy heaven, where it's always 2004/5 and its always Northumberland and Fred still loves him.

It won't happen though. These three, more than any others, were the symbols of the Ashes win. England are terrified to drop them, lest the crown should fall. The point is, the crown fell quite a while ago.

As for the West Indies....

I am not old enough to have seen the likes of Garner, Holding, Marshall, Lloyd and Richards emasculate a generation of English cricketers by snapping their wickets in half or mullering them to all parts. I caught the end of Richards and Desmond Haynes, and of course saw Walsh and Ambrose in their prime. Oh, and my days as a cricket fanatic more or less coincided with the start of Brian Lara's test career, so if I don't view the West Indies with the same fear that someone, say, 15 years my senior might, there is certainly a crackle of excitement that fires up in me whenever England play them.

Or, at least, there should be, only this West Indian team is awful. They have been allowed to amass some runs in this Test because of England's Hoggardless (and, if not in body then certainly in soul, Harmyless) bowling attack, and only got wickets in the second innings because England players were deliberately and correctly throwing their wickets away. The Windies haven't been anything much to shout about for a decade or more - Lara is the greatest batsman I have ever watched (i.e. the best since around '92 - better than Tendulkar, Ponting, the Waughs, even John Crawley) because he won so many Tests singlehandedly. During the 131 Tests he played for the West Indies, he scored around 20% of their total runs, and nobody has scored more runs in losing Test matches. And - awesome statistic alert - his famous 501 not out for Warwickshire in 1995 came off only 427 balls.

But yes, this team is a travesty, and there is nothing as tragic as watching a ropey West Indian team. Gayle promises much, most of it brutal, but rarely delivers (7 centuries in 64 Tests is not good enough, even if one of them, a 317 against South Africa, temporarily wiped the smirk off Graeme Smith's face) ; Chanderpaul is good but never fearsome ; and there have been so many bowlers in the West Indian attack over the past four or five years, I struggle to remember who's who (a problem shared by England). One rather gets the feeling Ramnaresh Sarwan has been given the captaincy because, well, who else is there?

My prediction, for what it's worth, is that England will win the series 3 or 4 nil. The West Indies are horribly demoralised after the World Cup ; their morale will sink lower before it gets better, I'm afraid. And I really am afraid because this downward curve is self-perpetuating : as Clive Lloyd said in the Telegraph last week, Guyanan kids today are playing football, basketball, squash, running - anything except cricket. And at the moment, why should they do otherwise?

On the subject of cricket, excellent to hear Trevor Bailey back on the airwaves on Saturday. He wasn't commentating as such, but he popped into the TMS box for a chat with Henry Blofeld. Bailey used to add a very distinct timbre to the barbershop of dulcet tones that make up the TMS box - his accent is a little like Boycie out of Only Falls and Horses trying to be posh, but he speaks with a faintly unnerving growl. Anyway, Henry had been extolling the virtues of Panesar on Saturday, just before lunch.

"What do you think of him, Trevor?" Henry asked.

Long pause.

"Who?" replied Trevor.

"Panesar. You know, the left-handed spinner."

"Ah yes. Well, you see, he's a bowler. And he's very ... very ... good."

See, you don't get analysis like that these days. Neville Cardus described Bailey's style of methodical run accumulation thus :

Before he gathered together 20 runs, a newly-married couple could have left Heathrow and arrived in Lisbon, there to enjoy a honeymoon. By the time Bailey had congealed 50, this happily wedded pair could easily have settled down in a semi-detached house in Surbiton; and by the time his innings had gone to its close they conceivably might have been divorced.

Which reminds me - Geoffrey Boycott commentates on TMS these days too...


One more thing - a quote from CLR James's book Beyond the Boundary, generally reckoned to be the greatest book on cricket ever written :

I haven't the slightest doubt that the clash of race, caste and class did not retard but stimulated West Indian cricket. I am equally certain that in those years social and political passions, denied normal outlets, expressed themselves so fiercely in cricket (and other games) precisely because they were games. Here began my personal calvary. The British tradition soaked deep into me was that when you entered the sporting arena you left behind you the sordid compromises of everyday existence. Yet for us to do that we would have had to divest ourselves of our skins. From the moment I had to decide which club I would join the constrast between the ideal and the real fascinated me and tore at my insides. Nor could the local population see it otherwise. The class and racial rivalries were too intense. They could be fought out without violence or much lost except pride and honor. Thus the cricket field was a stage on which selected individuals played representative roles which were charged with social significance.