Sunday, 24 August 2014

"Oh captain, my captain"

So at last, after four months, my team won a game. And what a game. A 136 partnership for the 9th wicket, and the final wicket falling with almost certainly 3 balls of the match left. If you don't believe me, here's the scorecard. However, there's one name you won't see on that scorecard - MINE.

On Friday night we came back from the annual cricket tour and I had a little mishap. Slightly less than sober I tripped up and fell face-first onto solid tarmac. Cue a lot of blood, an 8am visit to A&E to have a gash in my lip stitched up and a visit to the dentist to get emergency repairs to one chipped front tooth and another front tooth that had snapped in half. Well after that I really wasn't in any fit state to play, so I got Joe to captain, left the scorebook with him and went home for some rest and recuperation. What a game to miss.

There's a poem by Walt Whitman that you may have heard of lately in connection with Robin Williams's character in Dead Poet's Society. For me on Saturday, lying in bed feeling terrible and hearing that the team I've spent four months working my arse off to organise had finally won, I couldn't help but be reminded of it. Here's the first verse:
O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:

     But O heart! heart! heart!
          O the bleeding drops of red,
               Where on the deck my Captain lies,
                    Fallen cold and dead.
Fate can be a right cruel bastard at times.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The middle third

Like the mighty Mississippi the season keeps rolling on, and there's now just half a dozen Saturdays left. One can feel the icy desolation of Winter approaching and it's that time where a certain desperation comes over you, as you strive to make the most of it before another season comes to a close.

Since I last found the time to post here the Fifths have shown a definite improvement, although as yet we still haven't won a game. We should have won one or possibly two but our batting simply hasn't been strong enough to take advantage of some very impressive work in the field. Our lowest ebb came against Onneley & Maer at home, where our 9 men conceded 247 for 3 before they declared and bowled us out for 24. Not the worst defeat I've been involved in, but this very much fitted the pattern of teams having one player scoring big runs that made the match unwinnable for us.

Three weeks later against Hales though we surprised ourselves. There was loads of rain around that weekend and we were amazed to get a game at all, but I'm so glad that the Gods allowed us a window to get a match in. I opened the bowling with Paul - a very impressive new player - taking the first over and at the other end, myself. The thinking was that I might as well get a bowl while the ball's dry, and I'd take myself off when it started to get too slippery. It never did though, and I bowled straight through - 15 overs, 3 maidens, 4 for 46 were my figures, with Paul taking 2 for 9 from 10 overs. We bowled them out for 95, but unfortunately I think we lacked a little belief in our batting and were bowled out for 59. We were all a bit peeved about that one but it showed us, for the first time I think, that we weren't quite the useless no-hopers we had been at the start of the season.

Next up against Norton-in-Hales you could see the improvement in the way the team played. Twice Norton threatened to take the game away and twice we pulled them back in, bowling them out for 167 - perhaps a bit high but not that far off a par score. Rhys Wilson was the star taking 6 wickets, and again it's as if he never previously realised his own strength. We had a bit of a shaky start before a shower of rain took us off, and with an hour lost we resigned ourselves to batting out for a draw, which we got without too much fuss.

There was another strong bowling performance the following week against Porthill, all the more impressive considering we had three players I'd literally never met before. All out for 116 with your humble narrator picking up 3 for 30 from another extended opening spell, and again I felt the sniff of a chaseable total. Sadly though we crumbled again and were all out for 45, and after getting ourselves into good positions three times without winning I think the guys felt this one was if anything more frustrating than against Hales.

This weekend we played the 4ths for the third and last time this year, but I was absent due to another commitment. I handed the team over to Manu, who did a great job getting the team together and leading them for the day. They held the 4ths down to 195 for 8 before they declared with five overs remaining, the wickets spread liberally between Rhys, Paul, James Waz and Manu, and this time instead of the 4ths having 2 centurions they only had one make it past 50. In reply there were some surprise performances with Callum and Waz both making the 30s and looking very good, and Ben making a nice 20 after some coaching in the week from a mate of his. Manu came in at 121 for 9 and muscularly saw the team past 150 for the full compliment of batting points but was bowled with about 10 minutes left of play. All out for 157 but another encouraging performance against a very strong side.

I watched the second innings and it was curious to note the contrast between the sides. The 4ths were all serious, rather aggressive, and far too ready to turn on their own players when something went awry. The 5ths seemed almost to revel in the contrast: enjoying themselves, enjoying each other's company, backing their team-mates and cheering any noteworthy achievements. They're a really good bunch of guys.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

So where has my exceptional form come from? I'm damned if I know. My last three bowling performances total up as O36 M5 W7 R103, giving me an average of 14.71, a strike rate of 30.86 and a barely credible economy rate of 2.86. Yes, you read that right, two-point-eight-six. Maybe it's just a minor statistical fluke, or maybe after five years I have finally got the hang of this leg-spin lark...

Sunday, 29 June 2014

The first third (and a bit)

I thought I'd post a brief description of how the fifths have been getting on. In short, we've had very little luck with rain, and when we have played we've been getting beaten by some reasonably big margins.

When I say we've had bad luck, I mean REALLY bad luck. Our first away game we had to wait for two hours while a boggy outfield failed to dry out before a heavy shower put paid to the match. Then the following weekend's home fixture was called off because our opponents couldn't find the players, followed by two away games cancelled shortly after we arrived and another away game called off shortly before we were due to leave Stafford.

Thus we've been restricted to playing at home, on that god awful astro wicket that's become the bane of my life. My team's pretty changeable and very inexperienced so I'm finding myself bowling more overs that I ideally would like to on that surface, and it's getting expensive. I'm feeling as if I have to chance my arm a bit to see if I can make the breakthrough, but that encourages me to attack more than I should, and any bad ball on that astro gets heavily punished. So far in 5 games I've bowled 21 overs and taken just the one wicket at the cost of 184 runs. It's just about the worst surface a team of inexperienced bowlers could bowl on, so it's no surprise we've been shipping a lot of runs.

As for our batting, more often than not we've been a little outclassed but we've had two matches where I was very pleased with our efforts. First of all we made 197 against Hales, sadly not enough to avoid defeat and it was a cup game so we didn't score points for it, but it was a pretty respectable score. Then against the 4ths - who look like they'll win the league this year - we faced a really impossible situation. I think it's fair to say we're the weakest team in the league, but the 4ths put out what I'm pretty sure is the strongest all-round team anyone in our league will face all season. We batted second and had no chance of chasing down 300, but we set ourselves to bat out the 50 overs against some very good bowling, and we were less than 7 overs short. I really liked the way the team was so focused on a single goal, and lots of players played their part.

I'm still feeling pretty inexperienced as a captain and I'm not all that comfortable fine-tuning my field settings, but the atmosphere in the team is exactly how I want it. I think everyone realises we're a team of new players and we're primarily about having a fun afternoon and enjoying each other's company. We don't want to keep losing week after week, but we understand that's the likelihood and we just have to make the best of it. There's a good attitude amongst the players, for example there's a group of five new guys of whom two or three play each week, and when our games were getting called off they'd immediately head into the nets for some practise.

That's how our season's gone after 10 out of 22 fixtures, and I've been starting to think about what happens next year. If the 4ths win the league they'll go up to Stone & District Premier league, while the 3rds may seek to switch to a different league. If the 5ths are still going we'll probably hang on in S&D 1st division and we should compete a bit more once our players have a season's experience under their belts, but if the 5ths were to be wound up there'd be no team for new players to start out in, so that'd be quite a loss for the club. I'm not entirely sure yet if I'll want to continue as captain (it's pretty stressful spending hours and hours each week trying to get 11 names together) so I perhaps need to think a little about possible succession planning.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Decisions, decisions...

Well today saw one of the worst decisions in any game I've ever played. Since I have a very strict policy of not arguing with umpiring decisions, one can deduce that the umpire in question was me...

We were playing in the Sunday league at Nether Whitacre, quickly becoming something of a jinx ground for me after last year's game was called off after one of my least favourite car journey's ever. This year we played and the one important detail to record here was that I bowled two reasonable overs and took my first wicket of the season. Nice to get that out of the way, and pleasing that it was a well-set batsman on a large score. It was my second ball, a top-spinner, and I was hoping he'd pop it into the air, which he duly did to Rich, a first team player and a very solid pair of hands. Sadly the subsequent 10 balls went for a few runs, but the ground was a curious one with very short boundaries at either end and to one side, with a more normal boundary on the other. Ideally I'd have wanted to bowl from the end with sweeps and pulls going to the longer boundary, but I didn't. That's why even with only two balls I was significantly unhappy with I went for 2 runs per ball - the fours were just too easy.

Anyway, in the end they lost five wickets for a huge score and we were left chasing something ridiculous like 291 from 40 overs, and Chan (the captain) asked if I'd do the scoresheet. I said I'd scored 100 overs yesterday for the 3rds (our game was called off) and I'd rather not do any more today, so instead the fateful decision was made to have me umpire, with Waz at square leg. We started very fast, boundarys all over the place. In the third over came the first big decision for me.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

And so the campaign begins

All the waiting is (nearly) over, and so on Saturday I start my first season as a team captain with the new 5th XI. The Thirds have had a few problems with the ground they're renting and their game is off this weekend, so my selection's been relatively easy with a few more players to choose from than will I imagine be the norm. The team's got a good mix of core 5th team players, juniors and a smattering of 3rd XI experience and we should at least be reasonably competitive.

For me personally pre-season has gone pretty well. I haven't had to entirely re-learn my bowling action and I've been able to find a good length more often than not. My batting is what it is but my bat just keeps getting better - I'm not sure it was properly knocked in before but the ball's been really flying off the blade on the few (but increasingly frequent) occasions when I've found the middle. I'll probably place myself at about eight in the batting line up, and hopefully I can get the team to bat through its overs more and I'll be able to look to score some runs this year. There's still issues, particularly a tightening of my right bicep that's throwing my bowling off occasionally, but I'm feeling confident enough and that's tended to be the main factor towards whether I bowl well or not.

As for my captaincy, I'm starting to believe that I am just about ready for it. I've had a decent four year apprenticeship in the fourths and especially towards the end of last year I was starting to really feel as if I was reading the game well, particularly on those two or three occasions where I unilaterally positioned myself right underneath catches, even if I did drop them. One great thing about being captain is I'll no longer have that nervous feeling as the overs tick by of wondering when, or even if, I'm going to be brought on to bowl, but I'll have to take care not to inflict that on others. There's a lot for me to learn and a fair amount of "fake it 'till you make it" in terms of being vocal in the field and giving off the right physical messages with my body language.

I found an apt quote today, and given the team I'll be leading will probably lose more often than it wins I think I'll make it the team motto. It's from Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics:
The important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well.
In my view what I need to get right is to get the team really playing as a team with everyone knowing their role, keeping everyone happy and seeing if I can make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Ultimately I'll know if I'm doing a good job based on how easy it is for me to find 11 players each week. It's going to be a really fascinating challenge.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Some advice for you Dave

Regular readers (hello to both of you) may have heard of Dave Thompson, an obsessive leg-spinner who blogs at and who I've been in contact with pretty much since I started. By astonishing coincidence, he has also found greatness, i.e. captaincy, thrust upon him by his club's elders this season, and he's written a couple of posts about some of the challenges he's facing. All very familiar to me, but since his blog doesn't seem to allow me to post comments I'll have to give him my advice in a place he's bound to find it: Here.

He's identified two issues that may cause problems with a team that, like mine, is pretty junior-heavy: scoring and umpiring. So here's my advice for Dave.

In the first place, get hold of a copy of Tom Smith's Cricket Umpiring and Scoring. It is the definitive text on how to umpire and score and gives a very good, if perhaps rather long, explanation of the correct way to fill out a scorebook. Secondly I'd add two rules:
  1. the captain needs to watch the batting without distraction so he knows how everyone is playing and can give appropriate advice and instructions, so he needs to have someone else do the scoring if at all possible.
  2. The scorer needs to be focused on the scorebook, so someone else needs to be keeping the scoreboard updated (unless he's in a scorebox that's designed to allow scorers to operate it from the inside). It doesn't ultimately matter whether the scoreboard is correct or not, but it very much DOES matter that the book is correct, and the laws specifically state that this is the scorer's duty, not anything else.
Tom Smith does have a very comprehensive description of umpiring but it's probably not the best teaching tool. For this you need to find a copy of "You Are The Umpire", which is a beautifully illustrated book with a whole host of scenarios designed to test one's knowledge of the laws. It should be a good book to pass around while the team is batting and gradually your team will learn what the laws say and how to interpret them.

Hope that helps Dave, and best of luck. It's funny we've both been handed this same challenge at the same time, but there's plenty of examples down the years to show that slow spinners make the best captains!

Sunday, 23 February 2014

A new season, a new start.

There's some exciting developments at Stafford CC. After struggling to put out four full teams a couple of years ago we've now found ourselves with probably enough players to field a fifth team, and yours truly has been invited to lead this new experiment as captain. It's a very interesting new challenge for me, but it will be a massive task to keep a team together when we're short of players, especially given there's now four other teams with first pick, each capable of kiboshing my plans as drop-outs work their way down through the teams.

There's a short but very good piece on the Pitchvision website about the six important roles a club captain has to perform. It lists these as Selector, Tactician, Motivator, Rudder, Coach and Player. It's just about the best summary I've found anywhere, but in those six words lies a whole host of challenges and countless opportunities to screw up big time. I've only captained four matches so far, and they've been a bit hit-and-miss, but the big difference is this season I won't be a mere stand-in, it's MY team, and I can develop relationships and give people clear roles and forge a strong team identity. My opportunity here is much greater than it would be had I taken over the Fourths, as with a new team there's no "well this is the way our old skipper did things" to get in the way. Wish me luck, because I'm really going to need it...

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

First net of the season

We're back in business for 2014, with my first net session taking place last night. There was a net session last week but I had stuff to do and had to skip it unfortunately. Last night was the first net for the U17s, so ahead of the seniors I had the luxury of an hour bowling to the little ones to get my mojo back.

For my first time bowling in two or three months it went reasonably well, although the speed was still pretty slow. There was a little movement in flight in evidence so that's a big tick as that means I've got some decent spin going. Added to that I stripped a bit of skin of the knuckle of my spinning finger, so it's fair to say I was trying... The end product was OK if we add in the caveat "at this stage of the season", and given that this is now my fifth pre-season I can feel I've started to get the hang of what to concentrate on and what not to worry too much about. There were a couple of balls that looped up and landed on the top of the net, and it really wouldn't be pre-season without them, but in the main I was very happy with how it went, and I think bowling at the juniors in October and November has prevented me from accumulating that thick coat of rust that I've struggled with previously.

As for batting, honestly after a couple of deliveries it hardly felt like I'd been away. That doesn't mean I batted well, just that it was the same as ever. I need to work on really watching the ball closely, but other than that it was nice to feel bat on ball again and I just need to keep showing up and keep facing deliveries. Whatever technical faults I have at this stage I need to work on seeing the ball better before I tackle them, so it's just about racking up experience.

Apologies if there's a lack of substance to this post, but as you can probably tell there simply isn't anything else worth saying. Good start and, er, that's it...

Monday, 13 January 2014

"Faced with what is right, to leave it undone shows a lack of courage"

So sayeth Confucius, and as with many of his sayings, it's both plainly, unarguably true, and at the same time something of a personal challenge to one's self.*

I mentioned a few posts back an end of season conversation with a senior player at the club, where my grumbles about not, in my view, getting a fair crack of the whip were wisely redirected into a conversation about where I need to improve next year and what aspects of my bowling are good and bad. With the start of pre-season approaching I'm starting to revisit this conversation so I'm properly focused on what I need to do.

The chicken and egg situation I have found myself in is that because I have often been given only very short spells in which to perform, I have gone all-out to achieve all I want to achieve in that short space of time. By attacking too much in search of quick wickets I have bowled expensively, at least in terms of economy rate. By having a poor economy rate I have put myself in the position where I only get short spells. Because I have only been given short spell in which to perform... You see where this goes, don't you? I can moan until I'm fully convinced I'm the most persecuted man since the Christians where thrown to the lions, but it doesn't get me a bowl, I don't gain experience, and my bowling doesn't progress.

So, my number one, chief goal for 2014 must be to do everything I can to remove all barriers to the captain having confidence in my bowling. I could have just said "I need to bowl more economically", but I think that economy rate is just a superficial indication of a deeper truth.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Leg-spin in 2013

That last post about Scott Borthwick has led me to do some further digging around on Statsguru, to find out how the World's Test leg-spinners got on in 2013. There was 9 to 12 of them depending on whether you count players like Tendulkar who bowl both leg-spin and off-spin, and what exactly you classify Mendis as bowling (finger spin if you ask me), with just three specialist wrist spinners, plus Steve Smith who is now clearly a batsman rather than bowler. So, how did they do?

I.S. Sodhi, NZ, 21
5 Tests, 11 wickets at 51.45, Economy rate 3.62, Strike rate 85.36
Best innings: 18.5 - 3 - 59 - 3 vs Bangladesh at Dhaka

A leg-spinner from New Zealand? Well it has happened before, Grimmett was born a Kiwi after all. Ish Sodhi was in fact born in Ludhiana in northern India and moved to New Zealand aged 9, and owes much of his success to a fluke. After Imran Tahir was named in the South African team to face New Zealand in 2012, Sodhi was employed to give the Black Caps some practise against leg-spin, and so impressed was Daniel Vettori by what he encountered in the nets that he intervened to give Sodhi's career a nudge. After a single season of First Class cricket Sodhi was picked for New Zealand 'A', then went into his first Test Match having not even turned 21.
Sodhi took six wickets in the two match series in Bangladesh and a further five in three matches at home against the West Indies, no performance particularly standing out as either brilliant or awful. He's undoubtedly raw and would appear to be merely keeping Vettori's seat warm for the time being, but the veteran rates Sodhi highly and adding some useful lower-order runs into the mix so far New Zealand seem willing to give him the patience every leg-spinner craves.

A.G. Cremer, Zim, 27
4 Tests, 9 wickets at 43.11, Economy rate 3.79, Strike rate 68.22
Best innings: 5.2 - 1 - 4 - 4 vs Bangladesh at Harare

Graeme Cremer made his Test debut as long ago as 2005 but with all the troubles in Zimbabwe 2013 was their first reasonably full Test programme since then.
Cremer didn't make the best of starts in the two match series in the West Indies, being rather expensive and only taking two wickets. His one highlight was a notable all-round performance at home against Bangladesh, a career-best 4 for 4 and some useful runs with the bat helping Zimbabwe to the win, but in his next match he again struggled and was dropped, with off-spinner Prosper Utseya preferred for the home series against Pakistan.

Imran Tahir, SA, 34
2 Tests, 10 wickets at 24.60, Economy rate 3.13, Strike rate 47.20
Best innings: 13 - 3 - 32 - 5 vs Pakistan at Dubai

The grizzled old journeyman pro on the list, Tahir's return to International cricket came late in 2013 following his battering at the hands of Australia the year before. His bowling seemed to have improved in his year out and he finally produced a spell worthy of his talents, taking his maiden Test five-for in his first innings back to decimate Pakistan.
However he took a step backwards in his next Test against India, conceding too many runs and taking just two tail-enders' wickets, and was dropped for the following match. It will be interesting to see when, and indeed whether, Tahir plays for South Africa again, but it's never going to be easy to maintain a place in the World's best team, even for a player of Tahir's skill and experience.

SPD Smith, Aus, 24
12 Tests, 6 wickets at 37.83, Economy rate 4.37, Strike rate 52.00
Best innings: 6 - 1 - 18 - 3 vs England at Lord's

Smith's days being touted as Australia's next #1 spinner are long gone, but at least now that his ever-improving batting is getting him a game we can occasionally enjoy his bowling on a part-time basis.
When called upon he did pretty much what you'd hope for from a non-specialist bowler - kept it reasonably tight, gave the batsmen something different to think about and snaffled the odd wicket here and there. His six over spell at Lord's produced his best ever Test bowling figures, taking the wickets of Bell, Bairstow and Prior in a manner that felt potentially match-turning before Australia stuffed up their own first innings. (Seems an age ago now...)
He's still astonishingly young, but it remains to be seen whether he will have the time or inclination to develop to his full potential as a bowler when his 2013 batting has brought him two centuries and an average of 37.42.

In conclusion

it's been a bit of a grim year, just three leggies picked for their bowling, of whom one is woefully inexperienced while the other two are currently surplus to requirements. The only one on this list guaranteed a place in 2014 is Steve Smith, while Borthwick's Sydney fluke may not see him in the teams to face Sri Lanka and India if others state a strong case early in the County Championship season. Well it's always darkest before the dawn* as they say, maybe the next great leg-spinner is only round the corner...

*it is, in fact, darkest exactly midway between dusk and dawn, but leg-spin often involves the triumph of optimism over vulgar things like facts.

Sunday, 5 January 2014


Rejoice indeed, for not only is that whole, horrible series now over, there's a new kid in town. Scott Borthwick has done the impossible. He has grown up bowling leg-spin in England and despite this has actually managed to bowl it in a Test for England. That does not happen every day. Over the last few decades it has hardly happened at all. Monday 11th December 2000 can now be stricken from the record books as the last time a leg-break bowler turned his arm over in Test cricket for England, Ian Salisbury bowling 3 wicketless overs on the final day of that famous Karachi Test after enduring a pretty awful tour.

The English leg-spinner really has become the Himalayan Snow Leopard of Test cricket, rarely seen and seemingly extinct until a small colony is miraculously unearthed every now and then. An Englishman undoubtedly invented the leg-break, since it is pretty much as old as cricket itself, albeit that it started as an underarm delivery. An English underarm bowler - George Simpson-Hayward - should probably take the credit for having invented the flipper action, and of course it was Bernard Bosanquet who introduced the world to the Googly, still often named as the Bosey in Australia in his honour. There were no end of English leg-spinners in the inter-war years such as Titch Freeman, Doug Wright and Eric Hollies, the latter two continuing after the war, but since then the number of leg-spinners playing for England has dwindled dramatically.