What do we call this?

Okay. Maybe you’re centre-midfield on a parks pitch in North Lincolnshire and it’s down to you. This. The ball plummeting towards, their grizzly number six feeling for your presence, aware you’re the one who can head. You’re gonna not so much head as clear out the universe, power through, make the most intimidating statement ever made in sport.

This only works if you bawl something as you leap; something kinda specific. Something like ‘RICKY’S UP!’ – which may on the page sound cheesy but in the moment, no. The two syllables of the name project, control, make real the intervention in a way that RICK just couldn’t. It would be ricdiculous. The words, the sound, the something… decide.

Everybody who knows footie – knows sport – understands this. The words in the event are massive. What you call yourself, what you get called, how you’re spoken of , is critical. Not possible to be bona fide without (weirdly, mainly) two syllables.

Of course this is why we get Gazzas and Glendas and (don’t worry I’m coming to cricket now) Rootys, Cookies, Jimmys. Cobblers to any other cultural-sociological considerations, it’s about what naturally fits, then. So I can be as Rick as I want but if I plant the ball majestically wide of cover’s left hand somebody on the boundary’s going to mutter ‘shot, Ricky!’ If the England number three does that beautiful unfurling thing through extra-cover, Farbrace is going to rumble ‘played, Vincey!’ as he’s stirred to his feet.

How else, though, is the gorgeous-but-infuriating Hants bat spoken to, or of?

When he strides back to pavilion, eyes down, caught at slip, what else could it be from Bayliss but ‘what the **** was that, Vincey?’

Actually it could be lots of things. It could be silence, for one. Bayliss may choose a later opportunity, maybe to ask a wiser, more searching question. Like ‘where do you think we are with the dismissals, Vincey*? In terms of pattern?’ And then they together choose what to work on.

*Could be of course that in the real world moment there’s another nickname. Not in there – don’t know. I’m betting it’s two syllables, mind. Vince is worth talking about; with yaknow, words.

Clearly there’s a lot of chat around all those starts, all those frustrating, demoralising finishes. (Sometimes I wonder if they’re worse for us poor buggers watching than for him!) Plus a rich vein of psycho-gubbins around personality, freedom, responsibility and yes, that coaching framework. There’s a documentary series, never mind a blog around What, Exactly, Vincey Should Do: for now, I’ll stick with the former.

Some are fascinatingly clear that what they deem a ‘failure to learn’ simply disqualifies him already; however he might purr, this cat ain’t suitable for Test Cricket. Others argue that the problem isn’t so much centred on poor choices as kindof disproportionately fiercely-punished non or near-execution. Failing to execute shots he very often plays. Outside off-stump. Imperiously.

From memory I think I’ve only seen one media name blame technical issues for Vince’s predicament. Chiefly he’s getting slaughtered for going there at all, given we’re under, or about to be pitifully legs and arms akimbo under the cosh. There may actually be something comical about the level and intensity of verbals aimed at the rather serene-looking strokemaker but head-in-talons at the unbe-leeee-vably serial transgression across the Don’t Play Eet Less Ya’ve To Principle, us nighthawks – Yorkie nighthawks? – have typically stooped full-tilt into raging fury. Perspective? Proportion? Intelligent Investment? Na.

Here’s a thing, though. Plenty of us have woken the dog – quite possibly immediately before the offending nick of the wide-ish one behind – with a snortaciously approving ‘Yesss, Vincey’ as the ball raced to the off-side fence. We’ve muttered something about ‘class’ – and I don’t mean his private schooling in medium-luxurious Wiltshire. Thus many a dark, dark December night has felt defined (or possibly caricatured?) by the cruel see-sawing between expressive pomp and dumb, tribal humiliation.

Incidentally, I wonder how many of us have marked a beautifully squeezed J.V. drive with a follow-up aimed (in increasing order of spitefulness) at Starc(k)y, Smithy or War-ner? And is there something else about doubling up – going bi? Bitterness? Bile? Emphasis? Certainty?

See, I am more sure of my two syllable hypothesis than any of the Vince cricket-things. He’s a fabulously gifted player – milky, honeyed, rich, pure. And yet we wonder either if no-one’s home, if nothing’s been said or if our fears about the empowerment of players through (ahem) *personal discovery* have in his case reached an epic high, or low?

Freedom for learning is a gift and a blessing. It’s also very much at the forefront of contemporary coaching philosophies. They change. The need to decide stuff arguably doesn’t.

Vincey, come out and tell us: what’s been said?



Chanceless at Coffs Harbour.

This is the first of two posts, covering Coffs Harbour in the 2nd AusvEng One Day International. For the England batting innings, go to ‘Outplayed’…


Australia, in the middle of our night. On the telly. Deep dark quiet: nerves. What feels like inevitable sunshine – although (seemingly ludicrously from my settee) rumours of a possible thundershower later. The dog stretches. Shrubsole to open, off a short-looking run.

A nervy, wide one – not called. Healy and Bolton for the Australians. Two runs off the third ball, which is short and steered easily through the covers. No great pace.

Brunt looks sharper but her first delivery is dispatched through cover for four by Healy. There is a little away swing for Brunt, who thought she may have a decent lb shout… but no.

Nine off the first two overs. Pitch looking good, the ball just doing a little in the air. Shrubsole beats the left-handed Bolton but then strays marginally down leg and is clipped neatly for four more. Australia appear generally untroubled.

Brunt staying full, looking to draw that swing but offering some hittable stuff off the pads. 16 for 0 off the first four and no dramas for the home side. The inswing/outswing (Shrubsole/Brunt) combination looking more threatening on paper than in reality.

England going to have to stay patient, by the looks of the early overs: Australia move untroubled to 21 for 0.

Brunt bowling notably fewer slower balls, today. Took the pace off a good deal more, in the first game. She applies herself, as always but to little effect: good strip, this.

Gunn to bowl the ninth. Tall, slightly awkward-looking arms into the delivery but hugely experienced and patient, you would hope. Good call by Knight  – England doing okay but it was time for a change. Gunn, as so often, drops nicely onto a line and length. Double-change, in fact, as Sciver replaces Brunt.

The bespectacled (do we still say that?) Bolton shows first sign of frustration, having been stalled for some time: miscues a pull off Sciver. England now applying some pressure – 30 for 0 off 9.

Healy answers with a four to square-leg, off Gunn. Entirely chanceless game, so far but with the run-rate below four, England may not mind the lack of penetration.

Sciver bowls wide of off and Bolton – whom Alison Mitchell feels is ‘struggling to get the ball off the square’ – flukes one to third man for four. A rare boundary – only five scored, from the first twelve overs. Game yet to find an urgent gear and therefore feeling even enough. Bolton has 24 only off 50 balls at the end of the 13th.

Healy fires the first shot in anger. Or rather simply goes for the first big shot. Succeeds beautifully, straight-driving    Sciver for six. Rightly, she backs that up with four more to leg then a two. Sciver, rattled, bowls a pie of a full-toss and this is also smashed over midwicket for four. Important over yields 17 much-needed runs and changes the energy.

66 for 0 off 16. Drinks. Lack of wickets clearly put the home side in a strong position… but they will be looking, naturally, to dominate from here. Healy looking well capable of that – Bolton less so.

Ecclestone, the eighteen-year-old spinner, brought in. Arguable that Knight might have shuffled things more, earlier: presumably the England skipper content enough with the run-rate remaining below four? Three off the over, backed up by a further change – Hartley from the other end.

Immediately she draws Healy into a rash shot – a rather clubbed effort falls narrowly short of mid-on. The intent is there, though; Healy collects two boundaries, one of which Gunn should surely have stopped at the boundary. Mixed, at best from, Hartley: runs look easier to come by with the reduction in pace. Knight would have wanted more. Healy reaches 50.

Another misfield yields four off a wide on from Ecclestone. England cannot afford sloppiness in the field, in a game they have to win, with wickets looking hard to come by.

Run-rate at 4.83 after 18. No wickets down, the innings remaining chanceless.

Bolton has been out of sorts, but reverse-sweeps Hartley for four. Challenge seems to be about whether or not England can remain calm and focused. They plainly lack a threat, here. ; will be fascinating to see if Australia are similarly blunted by the pitch. Early days but the signs are the home side should get into the high 200s.

From nowhere, Ecclestone’s arm-ball bowls Healy. Huge moment, as the right-hahder had seemed much more bullish than her lartner. 100 up, though, in the 21st, as Perry has joined Bolton.

Flight, now but some width, from Ecclestone. She’s drifting to leg a tad but Australia’s burst has been checked by the wicket.

Shocker from Hartley – almost a foot down leg – is rightly and easily clipped for four by Perry. Skipper will be having words, you suspect. Frustrating. Not enough control and very little in the way of meaningful spin – from either end.

Knight may be a less dynamic captain than her opposite number, judging by the first game and a half. Haynes was busy and pro-active first-up. Sense is Knight letting things ‘take their course’. 112 for 1 off 24.

Hartley misfields a drive off her own bowling – Perry gets four. England average in the field, as they were in the opening match. Work to do, there.

Shrubsole back for the 27th. Feels right, with Aus too comfortable (albeit non-dynamic) against the two left-arm orthodox spinners. Bolton’s relative lack of fluency the chief plus-point for England.

Ecclestone persists. Has flight but still minimal turn. Suspicion is she might vary things a tad more. Horrible pie absolutely boomed over midwicket for six by a grateful Perry, who has moved to 30 in goodish time.

Next over Shrubsole oversteps but negates the free hit to Perry with a fine yorker: one of few moral victories for the England attack. Big fan of Anya Shrubsole but she is is very much in containing mode here.

Re-enter Sciver, for the 30th. Bolton finally claims her 50: welcome but slowish and rather scratchy. 90 balls. Signs, now, that Australia looking to go; Bolton flays Shrubsole straight for four. 300 on? England may be in trouble – not unreasonably alarmist to suggest the series may be on the line here. Meaning real pressure.

Bolton is suddenly, post mid-pitch conflab, looking to hit everything – most of it through leg. Sciver coming round to her, which may be making the left-hander’s job easier. England need to find something.

Hartley bowls Bolton; a simple case of agressive run-chasing gifting the wicket. The opener’s contributed 66 off 100, 63 of these alongside a very controlled-looking Perry – so two strongish partnerships.

Villani is next. England have bowled two out but still failed to produce any further clearcut chances. May be reading too much into this but gut feeling is this doesn’t augur well: not for now, not for the Ashes.

Write that sentence and Knight dives to her left to clutch a fine catch, off Gunn. Villani. Can England now capitalise? 143 for 3, in the 35th.

Another *monent* Brunt, returning, fails to take a catchable caught and bowled. Perry clonked one straight back at her: Brunt will hate that! 187 for 3 off 37, first clear opportunity engineered… and missed.

With Aus skipper Haynes starting brightly alongside Perry, the home side may be targetting 280 plus, now. Reckon they’ll get 260, no problem but weather may become a factor – social media full of dark warnings re the cloudcover. England must claim wickets, you feel.

Brunt drops just a little short and Haynes pulls her disdainfully to the square-leg boundary. Exhibit K – good pitch, this. Charlotte Edwards joins the chorus of those wondering why England opted to bowl. My hunch is that Knight may be happier chasing, because she’s by nature somewhat conservative. Her team need a lift.

Perry, meanwhile, has another fifty – and the 200 is up, in the 40th. She never fails.

Into the last ten, all the pressure on the fielding side. 7.24 a.m. here in sleepy Pembrokeshire – and the pitch dark just coming alive with grey-pink and birdsong. Magic time.  I have porridge on the go.

13 off Shrubsole’s over – the 43rd. Haynes has 46 from 30, including a towering, sweetly-struck six off a fullish delivery from England’s World Cup-winning heroine. Australia get back on a charge and 285 is absolutely gettable.

Brunt is in and mixing it. Predictably taking the pace off but also bowling those looping attempted cutters. Tremendous competitor.

Gunn is back, too and also ‘looping.’ Perry charges, misses and is stumped, sharply, by Taylor, who has stayed up throughout. 250 for 4 in the 46th. Haynes is hit on the neck by an incoming throw that Taylor cannot gather. Only a flesh-wound; the skipper barely flinches.

Another drop – a shocker, I’m afraid – from Beaumont in the deep costs four… as well as Haynes’s wicket. (The Australia captain has been outstanding again, here – going 4,6,4 but that was awful, for England).

The controversy around Haynes’s appointment being dismissed as easily as the England bowlers now. Haynes batting inventively, dynamically and with power – none of which could be said about her opposite number, Knight, in the opening match of the series. Australia looking way ahead on 285 for 4 off 48.

Blackwell balloons one out to Brunt, off Gunn, in the last over but that loss feels meaningless. As does the wicket of McGrath who joins Haynes with four balls remaining but is caught off a top edge two balls later. Haynes drives the last for two and Australia finish on 296 for 6. As if things weren’t looking tough enough, for England, rain seems imminent…






Thinking soft.

With the Ashes won in a fashion that Michael Crawford might recognise – three parts drama to two trauma – we’re maybe entitled to settle back and think. Think hard. Or perhaps, given that following England’s recent upward curves and voluptuous positives implies pleasures yet to come, think softish.

Thinking soft can be good. It might mean transitioning smoothly over data or cruising serenely past spent or failed plans; understanding enough of the detail but still oozing good-naturedly through. Sure there must be the (real and necessary) obsessing over individual form or technique but there are bigger essences too. In fact there are whorls if not worlds of issues that resist Venn diagrams and/or the clasp of the Stat Man. These range from human foibles to philosophical matters – issues of approach.

Suddenly the game of cricket went both ape-shit and plural. We know this. It’s now certifiable to consider or (ahem) approach Test Matches in the same way you think about One-Dayers or T20. They are increasingly massively different animals and right here, right now is where England need to show us all they get that, because painfully obviously, until about a couple of months ago, they didn’t.

This is e-nor-mous, a-morphous and bloody gooey stuff, right? Sorting your approach, your way in, your (hah!) ‘exit strategy’.

It’s also why we all have to summon the energy to recognise and/or execute the fag end of this Aussie tour to the max. England, in particular, have to cast off any jadedness and grab hold again. They are mid-revolution in a generally good way and must must must find the energy to validate themselves in the carve-up that is short format cricket.

The ‘Top Two or Three Inches’ become ever more crucial. Mind games. For the coach, the ability to cut through to the players, to stir them. (When the game is about instinct, stir the instincts). For the players, that confidence thing; to see ball, hit ball. Essential. Electrifyingly different, though, from Test Cricket.

Post any series is a good time for closing your eyes and trawling gently through notions around character, comfort, suitability; the aftermath (if that’s what it is) of an Ashes Series, with its unparalleled frisson, being surely the ripest of moments to go walkabout into the team psyche?

I’m hoping Messrs Bayliss and Farbrace have the clarity of purpose and the time to go meandering just now – sometimes you really do need to circulate freely before landing somewhere honest – somewhere rewarding. I picture them bolting through the airheads at some gathering, in the knowledge that somewhere (in the kitchen, maybe?) there’s a profound and rewarding conversation to be had.

Everything these days is said to be – or said to need to be – ‘holistic’. Do you get me when I say I wish the England gaffers space for exactly that holistic look at… everything? Because time and judgments are tight. There’s faaaar too much, in fact, going on. Pressures are acute. Progress needs to be evidenced. Hence, for balance and for sanity and (I would argue) for productivity, some need for anti-machismo, anti-drive, anti-measure; some need, in fact, for softness – understanding.

Let’s get back to the prosaic before I get carted away.

It’s likely that the further we drift beyond this extraordinary Ashes the more ordinary we will judge it to be; particularly in terms of quality. But my point here is certainly not to downgrade any achievement for England. In fact let’s re-state the brilliance of a win against opposition who strutted into their warm-up games confident of their own, world-beating status and seemingly on the brink of a more or less crushing re-assertion of Aus Power. Pre the Welsh opener, England fans (let’s be honest) had retreated into Please God No mode, having rehearsed disappointments ready for public consumption after a solid and possibly humiliating pasting.

‘Twas not to be. Instead Cardiff – a city that knows how to host sporting stuff – provided the extravagant launch-pad for a surprise.

So how to build on this? How to not only fine-tune the personnel but truly develop a squad, or squads? How to (or whether to?) fashion policy which both challenges and encourages players towards a) team goals and b) improvement. It will be fascinating to see how the England coaches do what all of us coaches are meant to do – facilitate the expression of talent, join the dots between, blend – in the coming weeks and months. Not least because there can be no pretence now that cricket is but a single game.

We’re rushing breathlessly towards a series of One-Day and T20 Ashes encounters that will again re-calibrate our senses around short format cricket. Massively exposed, hugely competitive, economically necessary. Games which may leave us all exhausted but significantly more clued in to just how far England have travelled from their immediately brain-dead past.

The Ashes were almost a triumph; they were certainly a win against the head. It feels almost cruel that Bayliss/Farbrace and some of our proud protagonists have such an important and ludicrously different challenge so immediately ahead… but they do.

The sense is that Bayliss was employed with one eye on his nous for short format cricket; indeed the multi-counterintuitive fact may be that the ECB have excelled themselves by appointing the (apparently) born-to-be-conservative Strauss and that unassuming Farbrace/Bayliss combo and in doing so quietly but efficiently delivered us into the throes of the contemporary game dynamic and well-equipped. (And whilst we’re back-slapping the Old Farts maybe we should note that – as previously described – ECB Coach Education itself has been transformed towards the dynamic new era in a similarly seminal way… but let’s not go there too. Enough praise for one day.)

England Cricket has shifted forwards in terms of this flawed positivity thing: forward ‘cos we just beat the Aussies. We have talent and importantly we have fellas supporters might or already do love. (Rooooot, most obviously – and Stokes.) Things are medium rosy. But, as always, there is a huge amount of sorting out to do.

Key may be the general understanding that the three major international formats have separated and that this needs thinking about. Intelligently. Simply daft to equate ‘backing yourself’ with being good cricket for every situation. ( I imagine the Australians thought that pushing hard and looking to counterattack whilst under the proverbial cosh was good cricket; that ‘making a statement’ would be ‘massive’. I fear they may not be alone in letting their testosterone flood their finer faculties on that one.)

No, England want appreciation as well as power, sense as well as toughness, cuteness as well as dynamism. Because this is about range now – diversity and choice.

Dead Rubber?

Interesting how few folks seem to think the last Ashes Test is a ‘dead rubber’. Maybe the odd Croatian thinks that but most of us, despite the slam-dunkingly emphatic void where the competitive reality should be, can still feel the juices rising. The dander will still be up and the banter spiky as an echidna’s arse – as they say in Vauxhall.

It’s possible the Oval may be less of a cauldron than (say) Edgbaston was but even if us Poms do drift implausibly and non-demonstrably towards a rain-affected draw there will be meaning in some of this. Meaning for individual players – some of it life-changing – and meaning for the fans and for the game.

Pre- this final test, one rumour suggests Moeen may open with Cook and Rashid enter the fray, heralding multiple All New Possibilities for import or revelation.

Should this prove to be the case, it would necessarily imply medium-complex stuff – either the outright dropping (terminally or otherwise) of Lyth and/or a deliciously double-edged conversation with him (or about him) that may (who knows?) offer the hope that he would return should the second spinner syndrome no longer prevail.

How Lyth might actually read that hypothetical situation – even if there was a Scouts Honour-ability to any discussions with the coaching staff – is anybody’s guess; my guess is that he would publicly be A Brick and privately be pooping his panties. Being told however skilfully that the door is not closed is surely ver-ry nearly as cruel as being ruthlessly cast off?

‘Fella this is NOT ABOUT YOU. ‘S purely tactical – we’re looking at the options. So you go do what you do best… and force us to pick you.’
‘K boss.’  (*Cue manful trudge*.)

In contrast Moeen’s extravagantly rising star makes me think of Caesar and yaknow, firmaments. Except that there appears to be no fatal arrogance and no apparent threat to the man’s Polaris-like pre-eminence, despite his widely-perceived limitations as a bowler. Batting-wise, he’s creaming it: rarely have the fortunes around a tactical masterstroke gathered so beautifully as around the insertion of the Bearded One into the All Runs Are A Bonus zone.

Moeen’s multifaceted brilliance – stonewalling/stylishly gutsy/expansive and fearless with that bat, busy in the field, decent plus with the ball – has made him something of a darling for the fans and placed him absolutely at the centre of every strategy imaginable. You want an opener at eight or an opener at two or a counterattacking momentum-shifter hilariously and subversively low in the order? Here I am; me – Ali. Floating, stinging and doing just everything from that insurance policy thing (freeing everybody else up, right?) to just making this Test Cricket look pret-ty simple.

The quality of the clamour around Rashid these last few months tells us he is gorgeously ripe with potential. The Oval therefore provides another relatively de-stressed opportunity. All the selectors have to do is pick him: all he has to do is still the nerves entirely and tweak the ball fearlessly before giving it right old clout with the bat. Easy.

Bayliss and Farbrace must know they are lucky, luck-ee geezers to be offered another early chance to blood Rashid when the high-risk essence of the leggie’s game is mitigated favourably by circumstance – by the fact that the Aussies have been pre-battered. (Allez-loo.) There’s a strong case for playing a First Spinner alongside Moeen even if the conditions scream seeeeeeaaammmmerr!! Get the lad familiar with all this; work to be done in the Emirates and in South Africa.

But look, micro-climatic issues of selection, whilst providing all of us with ammo for the bantfest, may be less central to our Ashes Summer than the general level of public warmth. Allow me to indulge on this?

Some of you will know I’m proud to work for Cricket Wales. I’m charged (and I mean that in every sense) with going into schools (mainly) to fire up kids for sport.

As what we call a Community Cricket Coach I dredge up unseemly amounts of enthusiasm and energy and belief in the good stuff that cricket can bring. (Read earlier blogs or take my word on it; sessions in schools can be… powerful.)

I’m spookily on message with the cricket mission simply because it’s right and essential to get kids educated re sport – physically literate, if you like. It may be my job to say stuff like that but don’t go taking me for a government man. The more I see kids lit up by games the more I know we must make the case. Cricket is such a magical conduit for such a diverse and real and developing carousel of activity and learning that I’m happy to plant myself astride the whole sales-pitch.

I/we make a difference. We encourage and we coax a zillion skills into our players – from thoughtfulness to dive-catches. And yet…

It really could be that even my inviolable positivity shifts the earth a whole lot less than (for example) a magnificent Ashes series. A year of the Cricket Man’s coaching is a thing of daft and infectious beauty and some significant influence… but I ain’t kidding myself. Cricket on the telly, in the news, on the BACK PAGES is a whole lot more impactful.

What @cricketmanwales does is kinda great but not an Ashes series. Not an extraordinary and victorious Ashes series. Not like a Broady eight-fer or a Jimmy Jimmy visibly in his pomp. My lack of visibility works agin me.

In fact ALL the magnificent work that all of us Community Coaches do – and by God we do! – is wee-wee in the ocean compared to highlights or column inches that capture something of the sensaaaaaayshunull nature of this game, this rivalry, this victorious series. We proudly march to stir the grassroots (barmy)armies but we need drama and exposure – as do all sports.

Cricket doesn’t always get it. The Sky Sports conundrum epitomises difficulties around progress, pop-ness or whoredom. In a universe reduced to garishness and gathering market-share, this unique and superlative sport needs glorious, pitch-worthy moments to bung its smelling salts beneath the nostrils of the masses. We need to be on the news, in the news. We (England and Wales?) need to be heroically winning. Ideally.

We need unimpeachably brilliant role-models and we need them on terrestrial telly. Then the Cricket Man will work around that.

So the Oval is big. Big for Rashid/Lyth/Ali. Big for all of us. As a fan and as a ‘professional’, I’m looking for more from our guys. More stories and yeah, more glory.


Test Cricket’s changed, obviously – gone to the nightclub with a dodgy pipe. But whilst it sits there in Trap 3, head pleasantly whirling, feet gently twirling, those of us on the edge of all this do just need to nip out occasionally from the narcotic fug, to either inhale great puritanical clouds of insight – thankyou , Sir Geoffrey – or dart to the bar for a discombombulating chaser.

Well look how else are we to wrap this particular now, other than with blancmange-grade tortillas speaking loudly and in many tongues around the theme of IN-TOXI-CAYY-SHUNN? Tests – formerly the playground of gentlemen so starchily prosaic they may actually have been dead – now done in three, anarchic days. Batsmen windmilling psychotically at anything within arm’s reach. Crowds racily, indiscriminately, Stag Nightingly drunk. Glory and despair raging through our consciousness like a biblical torrent filmed by Nic Roeg. With a Stars on 45 backing track. How’s your head, dude?

Somewhere in this (literally) fabulous flux there’s a historic sporting contest – a cause. Which I think we still love and the essence of which maybe remains(?)
In fact it unquestionably remains; the cricket – the drama – however, is spectacularly different.

But do we like it? Surely most of us do – with a significant caveat or twelve- about whatever it is that’s replaced that traditional turgidity in the Getting On Our Wicks stakes.

With me that’s around the batting, I suppose and the whole positivity machismo. The sense that (let’s say England) have to ‘express themselves’. Clearly and obviously and wonderfully there is a truth in this notion that freeing up players to play is both a key role for the coach and (often) central to individual confidence. England have rightly signalled an intent towards dynamism which players and public alike are enjoying. (Remember that?)

In terms of selection a) Buttler (despite being weirdly hesitant by his standards in recent innings) is all about newness and switch-hitting counterattack and b) Moeen at 8 – 8, for chrissakes! – practically bullies the blokes from 3 to 7 into Belligerent Barsted Mode because they know he can bat for a day if things go pear-shaped. And c) (if we’re talking in essences again) every carve or drive from the likes of Root embodies this deliberately transformative policy. ‘Back yourself, bro. Back yourself!’

In other words this wild new wotsit is strategically sound as well as flushed with testosterone. As it should be. Farbrace and Bayliss are no mugs. England have caught up with the mood of things in limited overs and sprung fearlessly forward from there. Which is great, right? We’re catching up – right up. Finally.

It is all great but it’s also simplistic. And I hear the hand of the Sports Psycho Militia in all this. In their urgency to overhaul the humour or the approach of England Cricket, people have been sucked in to believing their own publicity/disappearing up their own backsides – all that.

There’s a crowd of folks doing stuff. It’s inevitably blokey and charged and focussed. There will be team meeting after team meeting where (and I’m not being cynical) important things will be said but this melee of egos and views creates difficulties. Too many voices, too much pressure to say something impactful and positive. Meaning too much freeing up and – despite the evidence from Edgbaston and strangely counter-somethingly? – not enough good Test cricket.

Huge holes in that argument. Firstly because plainly England played enough good Test cricket to blow Australia – the world number ones – away. Secondly because on the one hand I’m arguing for positivity (yes I am!) and on the other shredding its alleged fragility. Let’s try to deal with some of that.

Both Bell and Root were heroes at Edgbaston and I not only cheered them but crossed my fingers and willed it to be those two stylishly knocking off the winning runs. I respect Bell’s class hugely and like the rest of the universe I’m in love with Root’s magnificent, boyish presence.

And yet there were moments when I coulda tanned their backsides with a hazel stick; both were out, embarrassingly, mindlessly cheaply when the moment for called for further building. Building towards an unassailable total – building like you do against anybody in a Test Match.

Bell skied one when playing beautifully and Root reached ludicrously for a ball pitched in Humberside and they both got out. Out when England needed them in. In to build 400 because that was necessary at that time – a lead, an emphatic, hopefully demoralizing lead over Australia in the Ashes.

The fact that Australia’s first innings capitulation had put England in the box seat in no way abrogates the responsibility towards gathering a match-winning total. The fact that England bowled outstandingly again in the Oz second innings and they simply couldn’t cope is/was a dreamland barely within contemplation. Not even by the boy Finn – to whom we all send the choicest of hugs, yes?

So yes I am arguing that even though England were already on top and Bell and Root (for example) ‘backed themselves’ in exactly the manner they have been prompted to do, this approach was flawed; they were wrong to be so cavalier.

Even in the knowledge and agreement that fellas behind were primed to come to the rescue. Even when England win the game by a street.

Test cricket is a test over time and through conditions. You look to maximise score as well as establish superiority in terms of momentum/body language/team psyche. It’s not all about making points through hitting. How ‘bout if Bell goes on to make 160 in that first innings and stands there twiddling his bat, humming between balls as Starc snorts around him? How ‘bout if Root leaves the daft-wide ones – all of them, until the match situation swings entirely England’s way – and picks out the lush drives or the easy pulls?

In Test cricket you choose your time and you do that as part of your (reasonably sophisticated) Game Plan. There is perspective and there is consideration amongst the swash and buckle.

I suspect that because of the flood of positivism and the commitment towards ‘making a statement’, Bell and Root and England Cricket PLC were clear that they had licence to go get the Australian attack. Whenever/wherever the ball landed, if they felt good about it. This is a legitimate tactic; it’s just not intelligent enough. Their gamble – which worked, which I almost loved – was an indulgence. Wickets were always likely to fall in clusters in the game, so unsexy as it sounds… take account for that. Why fall for the notion that we have to be as ‘aggressive’ as the Australians? Why not play and build and go sailing past that dumb machismo?

Why not play better cricket, in fact?


Lots of good things about a diabolical Lords test for England. Maybe firstly it’s right that reality has checked – or rather thudded – in. Maybe it’s great that there are debates re-ignited about whether pitches should be tranquilized or away teams simply offered the choice of batting or bowling. Possible too that this assumption towards ‘positive cricket’ from England should be challenged.

Don’t get me wrong I was in Cardiff for two of the four days and can rubber-stamp the brilliance of that event and the extremely decent-plus nature of the England performance. But it might be that the victory there was more about discipline than liberating culture-change. (England bowled tighter lines/Aus under-performed/job done?) The SSE Swalec pitch –derided for the first four overs, broadly accepted thereafter – was surely less of a factor than the Aussie seamers inability to keep the cherry in the slot? So whilst Root and Stokes again gave us Brits an exciting whiff of Horny Expressionism, one view might be that Test Match cricket is about passages in time as well as inspired clonks… and that we are advised to recognise that wonderful peculiarity.

In other words, New England are growing up in public. Against – asitappens – the best cricket team on the planet. There are issues arising – some of them to do with hitting a ball or not.

Now our relationships with the Shackle-draggers (thankyou, Brian Moore) are *conflicted* but not to the extent that I can’t (grrrrrrrarrrrunnnchhh) express some (ffffuuurkanaall-lla) reeeeasonably convincing appreciation for their work down at Lords. Where the bastards were magnificent. Clearly however, from the local’s perspective the fascination turns immediately away from applauding Johnson and Smith and and towards philosophical discussions around what I am admittedly appallingly going to call The Bigger Pitcher… and to eeking out explanations.

Skirting for the moment right past the issues around That Pitch – and therefore flopping foolishly into the trap of talking (actually) about what happened – we are confronted with the question; how could the Aussies dominate every facet of play so utterly completely? Given the previous and allowing, yes, for their great-ness?

On that inevitable sliding scale, how come we (England) failed to register on any –ometer of any description, at any time? In fact is it possible that the reason Australia scored all them runs and took all them wickets was because England *literally* did not turn up at Lords? So Clarke threw a few pies for Warner and Smith to slap around the place. And Blowers and Aggers ‘batted’ one and two for ‘England’ to fulfil the fixture. Because proper England – Cardiff England – were stuck in an ice-bath at Celtic Manor for four days.

This explanation seems as plausible as any of the alleged ‘transmissions’ by Sky Sports over the last week.

Ok we have to note and even respect the quality of the Australian fast bowling; and mark that it tends to be significantly sharper than ours – a few mph around the 90 bracket being disproportionately key, so it would appear. Reluctantly we may also have to accept the evidence that their top three batsmen are playing at a contemptibly higher level than ours but… where does this get us? Nowhere. Team England has to (actually) do stuff to get back into this.

Messrs Bayliss and Farbrace and Strauss (I imagine) will be looking at both technical competence amongst our frontline batsman and scrutinising psychological profiles to find evidence for a satisfactory match-up. Whether this means consulting with wacko’s or havin’ a beer and a quiet word the end result presumably needs to be either a change in mind-set or personnel or both, unless conditions – not necessarily but possibly That Edgbaston Pitch – conspire in England’s favour. Which (as they say) could happen.

But back to what could be done. Lyth and Balance look pret-ty close to shot, as does Bell but the latter’s enduring quality and doughty English quiet man-who-may-yet-blossomness may, I suspect save him. In fact all three may yet survive to duck another day, either because the management believe they themselves shouldn’t twitch or because it’s notoriously tough to step in as an opener or number three bat. There are candidates but it may be wrong or unfair on Hales or Compton or anyone else to parachute them into this. (Not that this constitutes a reason not to act; it just complicates things.)

Is it not somehow fabulous, however, that this test – the Ashes – is suddenly again the largest and hairiest in the sport? With the biggest black and whitenesses and turnabouts by the ton. Cruelly absurd and yet predictable(?) that England, having been in dreamland, must now blast or grind or spirit a way back to being *remotely* competitive.

It’s unreal drama but excruciatingly trying for players and coaches of both teams. All that physical effort really just the flanneled tip of an immense iceberg-like accretion of tensions and yes (for Lyth/Ballance etc.) traumas . And howsabout we pause for a moment’s sympathy for the New England gaffer? I mean – what a week and a half for Bayliss?!? What state is the poor fella in NOW?

Time to gather oneself and think back to those positives, loaded though they may be with counter-griefs.

It may be painful for fans of Ingerland but it’s also surely exhilarating that high quality fast bowling – one of the most glorious and somehow viscerally-received spectacles in sport – puts us here? Cook is right to describe the capitulation at Lords as ‘unacceptable’… and yet.

Australia were in their zone, their element and (goddammit) they were undeniable in a way that may even make Bayliss’s genius redundant. For though there must always been a response – planned, calculated, mature, skilful, evolutionary – and though conditions may be engineered, the peculiar combination of big wedges of time and world-class pace can prove overwhelming. Plainly England were overwhelmed at Lords.

Even those who don’t get the finer points of bowling sharpish get that the exceptional ferocity and skill of the Australian fast bowlers has pinned England somewhere evidently vulnerable. The urn just lurched back towards the southern hemi. A mere week on from Cardiff, individuals look and unquestionably feel vulnerable, both in a ‘Jee-sus, that could hurt!’ kindofaway and in terms of their professional security. Making it a rare challenge, this. The Ashes.

Sport is about tactical stuff and theoretical stuff but it’s also – as we are seeing – about holding firm when a hunk of leather is flying at you unfeasibly quickly… and arcing or not… and bouncing or not. And amid and amongst any indulgences we, the fans and pundits may get caught up in, Lyth and Cook and Ballance and Root and Bell, or their immediate successors, must face up and front up when the challenge resumes.

Regardless of the toss, regardless of the qualities of the strip. They really need to get playing and then maintain that intensity and that freedom… for days.

What we know is…

Okay so what’ve you heard? I’ve heard Freddie (sounding convincingly like he was trying to convince himself that England would win) saying England will win. I’ve heard saddish news (which may or may not be *important*) about The Rhino. I’ve read a zillion ‘head-to-heads’ or low-downs or updates or ‘inside-the-camp’ briefings so like you, my dear sagacious friends, #Ashes-wise, I could barely be wiser. And yet…

I love that we’re all clue-less. Or if not clueless then pasting up the photofits from twelve different crime-scenes. I wallow in the anticipation – contingent as it is on striving to know. I *live off* the hilarious earnestness of our building up and deconstructing. I smile at the kooky/quirky/pompous/belligerent/mindless genius of it all.

Don’t you? Surely this pre-comp festival of hunch and cod-psychology is essential to the enjoyment of the thing – this very particular thing? Throw in the spice – the low-burning, barely understood Empire v Banished Reprobate animosity – lace with alcoholically-fuelled #bantz and the thing stirs itself nicely. Nicely into a frenzy.

This is a proper rivalry. Hence the piquancy and the obsession around lapses or choreographed ‘dips’ into sledging. (How much energy has already been expended by both camps and both sets of supporters on the import or otherwise of verbals, by the way?!? Record-breaking levels of talk about talk.)

I’ve pontificated elsewhere on this site about some concerns I have about bitterness undermining the event but promise to refrain again from mentioning the SOC words. Sledging cannot affect this match more than about 2% either way… and if you’re wondering why that figure well… I just made it up. As part of my *rationale*.

Look let’s get real. This time around, Australia are right into comic-book machismo mode. Replete with tattooed quickies and objectionably feisty fronter-upper/upper-cutter. Johnson – having been woeful last time in Cardiff – has morphed into He Who Must Be Feared and Warner has filled out as a batsman but inevitably failed or more likely chosen not to grow up.

So us Poms/Taffs can’t stand him, for a start. And we will relish the opportunity to guffaw passionately at any ill-luck that might come, with v-flicking relish, Warner’s way. Smith and to a lesser extent Clarke may feel like key wickets but when Warner cops it he’ll get a Valleys Welcome back to the pavilion. People get that he’s at the apex of feeling between the teams and that he likes being there; Australians will fist-pump every four emphatically dispatched and yeh… the locals will give him a welcome.

There is therefore an argument that Warner is ‘what the Ashes is all about’. Let’s go past that.

Johnson, arguably in contrast, has changed and developed, becoming, a symbol of the Australian (great word alert!) attack… and of the scarily brutal soul it wants /needs to project. He has rebuilt himself, much to his credit, from the wayward slinger whom I saw at Cardiff last time.

Then he was sharp but almost embarrassingly off-target. I watched from behind that arm as he floundered; my central memory is simply that he was fortunate not to concede more wides. Now Johnson runs in with more things pumping vertically and levers alarmingly and consistently violently where he wants to lever. He’s been arguably The Force in world bowling over the last two years; fair play to him.

We know there is scar tissue in the England camp following MJ’s assault on their senses in recent encounters. (Poor loves.) But the possibility that this really may be a new England provides us with exhilarating scope to cobble deliciously daft theories on the consequences of the advent of 21st Century thinking within ECB.

Could the ‘freeing up’ of the limited over squad and the ‘refreshing new outlook’ of England Cricket generally undermine Johnson’s spell over them willowy Poms? Could the Express Yourself mentality get England past that rabbit-in-headlights-with-feet-planted-in-concrete blockage; that fear of the man? Could those without the scar tissue stand up? And what’s Broad gonna do – run?!? The Mitchell Johnson howitzer-moment(s) will be worth the entry fee alone: he may have something to say with the bat too.

As I write I can only surmise that Wood will get a slot in the England bowling line-up but I hope he does. He may not disturb the peace of the Australian top end but he will offer a little variety, a little surprise even, which I suspect England may need. Plus there’s something profoundly pleasing about seeing some bloke bowl bloody lively off a run-up from within the same county. Plus I like horses.

For Wood, many would argue Rashid. In the sense that he is something new and offers something new. He may be high-risk; he may get flailed mercilessly around the park; he may ‘simply not be ready for it’. Who knows? But he represents something bold and recently that boldness did change the momentum around the England side both on and off the pitch; remarkably so.

Whether Rashid plays in Cardiff or not, pretty much the only universally-accepted fact in world history seems to be that he should have got a game or two in the West Indies. And that may or may not count for anything.

Let’s get back to the quickies – or in England’s case, the reasonably quickies. If there is no major help for the seamers from conditions (and if there is this may play right into Starc/Johnson and co, yes?) Anderson and Broad will need to really find something. Weirdly, like Johnson you can’t help wondering if they’re just beyond this. Or beyond their best. Will the uniqueness of the Ashes challenge – all that wild, magnificent, centrifugal, focusing/disorienting force! – reinvent England’s senior pairing? Or will the Aussies simply be too proficient? Too skilled at batting?

Broad and Anderson’s commitment is unlikely to be in question but they are known quantities; I wonder then, that much may fall on the emotive capabilities of the management team around them. Bayliss and Farbrace, I’m imagining, may need the Churchillian rhetoric to spike their dander.

But no. Maybe things are too sophisticated now (with all due respect) to summon beaches and blitzes. Instead I’m picturing Bayliss sweetly leading some cute visualisations or planting some very shrewd plans – calmly.

Rooty and Stokesy will bring the chirpiness and the spunk. Cooky will absent himself from all the banter… and let his batting do the talking. But you knew all that. Like me you know loads of stuff about the Ashes.

So let me finish with a question to you.

Could it be that positivity from England might stun or even bring down the rampaging beast that was/is Aussie cricket?

I’m in the ‘Gawd Only Knows’ camp on that one.


I’m one of the least neurotic blokes I know but I do have concerns. Amongst them – somewhere between transforming the diet of the working classes and saving the narwhal – is the question looming most threateningly towards relevance as a certain iconic sporting contest approaches.

To sledge… or not to sledge.

That may be the question. Or one of them. Or it may be the symbol around which bigger, broader issues kerr-plunk. For if the Aussies and Engerland come over all noisy and unsporting on us, we could surely find ourselves re-pitched into conversations about that Spirit of Cricket thing? And I’d need to be ready for that one. And I don’t think I am.

After the series we’ve just seen, between the aforementioned (and radically re-booted) Engerland and the somehow inappropriately and mildly underwhelmingly named Black Caps of New Zealand, this becomes, I think, more likely. McCullum has been breasting magnificently towards demi-goddery for some time but the last month or two his entire posse have strode or swanned or peacocked stylishly in behind, feathers fanning. Rarely has a team that’s allegedly lost won so many friends. Rarely has that swell of esteem been so deservedly won.

Williamson to Southee; the whole soul brotherhood were practically lapped up by the Great British Unwashed, who roared and fawned over their brilliance and the brilliance of their understanding of what sport is.

The Daily Mail readership sent them rubies and Turkish Delight. They were waved off (back to the Commonwealth) with bouquets and without being chained to the poop deck.  We gave them spare wives and maize and stuff. It was the kind of love we reserve for National Treasures.

Fast forward to today and Australia in town, rehearsing their cricket-as-testosterone with County-level victims. Am I the only one fearing a tectonic hoohaa – or rather the possibility of unseemly (and critically now) incongruous controversy following poor sportsmanship come Ashes time? Could the Aussie boors, with their fascinatingly needy brand of ‘aggressive cricket’ be so-o insensitive as to try to out-muscle and out-nasty England? After the love-in the spite-fest? I do slightly fear that.

New Zealand have, in truth, been fine-tuning their culture of invincible fabulousness for a year or two but 2015, England represents a kind of peak. So compelling was their positivism that the fella temping as England Gaffer became enraptured to such an extent that he capitulated and followed suit. (I know this. I read in the Daily Mail that ‘the cherub Farbrace shared man-hugs and twenty-six Heinekens with Brendan McCullum before signing a Mutual Slashing Pact’). Something – lots of things – transformed. Players lived rather simply and beautifully up to their billing… as players.

If there was a moment of discourtesy or cynicism we all missed it. If the Black Caps were in any way diminished by their cruel ‘defeats’ we missed that too. Instead we remember a charged excitement that somehow blended the machismo around national resurgence with appreciation of such a pure kind I wonder that it lacked a habit – habit as in Monk’s. There really was something cleansing and uplifting about both the change in psyche from England and – at least as importantly for the quality of the spectacle – the generosity, the freedom unleashed into the contest from New Zealand. All of us from geek to pundit to part-time supporter understood this as great sport. And how gratifying to see how obviously invigorating and enriching it was to the players too.

Enriching? Well, yes. If this implies a moral quality to the affair I can kinda live with that. It did feel like something significant and if not life-affirming then certainly sport-affirming had been flagged up – planted on some previously barren pole. And this is why I have concerns.

Australia may yet win back the Ashes with the most commanding and emphatic and gentlemanly displays for twenty years. They may. But that would be out of character for their group. They actively seek to express superior toughness as well as superior skills. They are tremendously matey and blokey and chirrupy and in your face. They look to test you and some of this is contingent upon the sheer intimidating pace of their fast bowlers. They can get bodies in around the bat. They can have a word. They will feed off any fear. (Imagine how it might be for Stuart Broad, striding in at number 10 of an evening, Mitchell Johnson snorting?) It’s a test.

It is a test and one in which the Aussies are entitled to play hard, a) because that’s likely to work for them and b) because all the insinuations I may have made above mean eff all, mate if they stay within the laws of the game. (I should say here, that England may opt to either instigate conflict or (more likely?) take no backward step should handbags break out. The likes of Anderson and Broad have serially offended against good taste and the allegedly lovable Root likes a word or two, I think.)

What would be unfortunate is if moments of controversy or plain cheating undermined the event. Or if it was even soured by verbals. We all know sledging will occur – it can even be part of the entertainment. But there is drama and there are duels enough without yaknow, using Dum-dums.

Anyway the Black Caps came, saw, got beat but conquered. In the process the game was so absurdly liberated as to be practically re-invented. This was part Farbrace-inspired (and maybe, to be fair, Strauss?) and part Eoin Morgan/New Engerland’s new understanding. See ball, hit ball. Free yourself. Belieeeeeeeve.

The revolution may possibly have been coming whoever the opposition might have been… but I doubt it. The delightful but skilled abandon with which the Black Caps committed to the sport was a revelation which made possible the event, which in turn made possible New England. That’s why we Brits loved the Black Caps and thank them – for pointing us to the treasure.

The pressures and the prize itself will be of another dimension against the Australians. I hope that in chasing that next level of achievement the level of sport can be maintained.