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Is Gary Ballance back?

Photo by Sarah Ansell

Photo by Sarah Ansell

It’s a reference to a headline pun that’s overused on this website but which isn’t itself a pun. Jokes don’t come much weaker than that. Except for all our other ones.

Is Gary Ballance back? Sport is brutally cold and England won’t go into the first Test of the summer with an empty batting slot where James Taylor would have been. They’ll pick someone in his place. Possibly Gary Ballance.

For a time, two of our most common thoughts while watching a Test match were, “At least Ballance is still in,” when England were batting and, “Get Ballance on!” when they were bowling. We like Gary Ballance. We like his doughy tenacity. We like the chaos of his part-time right-arm semi-filth.

Last year’s imballance was a strange one with our man seemingly decked by the coaching team’s faith in him. Returning from injury, he was thrust into England’s World Cup team at number three and short of practice, he floundered. England’s World Cup campaign was a catastrophe and he carried his newfound runlessness through to the summer, at which point he was dropped.

Experts love a technical weakness and declared this to be the cause of his ills. Gary is of a different mind. He reckons that far from being the problem, his technique is what got him to where he is.

The line between delusional stubborness and justifiably single-minded conviction is a narrow one and it is defined by how many runs you score. ‘Gary Ballance’s back’ hinges on what happens next.

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Let’s keep tabs on Jake Ball

There was a phenomenon in Premier Manager 2 where all of your team’s young players would improve by about 20 per cent over the summer break. If you stacked your side with teenagers and managed to avoid the sack, you were all but guaranteed promotion the following season.

Has something similar happened with Nottinghamshire’s Jake Ball? Has he gone from being Very Good ***** to Outstanding? Those five asterisks denote the highest level of Very Good, by the way. Don’t count them wondering whether we’re being filthy.

Ball’s said to have added the clichéd yard of pace over the winter (when will cricket go metric?) and has duly taken a five-for in the first match of the season. April is just about the worst time to judge a seamer though. It’s a little like judging an Olympic rifle competitor by how many barrel-fish they can shoot. Still, it’s all we’ve got to go off at the minute, so we might as well count the carcasses.

Five. Plus one in the first innings.

Fortunately, the modern world being what it is, we’ve more to go off than in days gone by. Nowadays we can get wrong-end footage of events in the County Championship.

Here’s some wrong end footage of Jake Ball’s five-for.

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Test Cricket by Jarrod Kimber – book review

Full disclosure: We went to Jarrod’s wedding and were also sent a free book to review. However, we did also have to pay £3 in bail money to release said free book from a Royal Mail prison after it had been charged with insufficient postage, so we pretty much balance out as impartial.

There is a need for this book, you will learn from it and you will enjoy it. We can pretty much guarantee all of those things, so in many respects the review ends here. That is all you need to know. Buy it now before you forget and then read it whenever. If you for some reason need a bit more convincing, read on.

Warts and all, but with more focus on the warts

You will not struggle to find books about the history of cricket. Where this one stands out is that most of those books sand away rough edges whereas Jarrod’s inclination is to seek them out and preserve them. It makes for a truer account of the sport and one which is way more readable. At times, it has an unsettlingly authoritative air about it. To offset this, we pretended that Jarrod had stuck a line break in after every frigging sentence like he always used to, and then we felt okay again.

What’s it about? It’s about the history of Test cricket; all the most significant characters and events that have brought it from where it started to where it is now. It’s the kind of subject matter that in other hands might lead you to glaze over, but this book is light on stats and heavy on hyperbole, which keeps you interested and sneaks the facts into your brain as a result.

Asking Don Bradman to understand why people rated Victor Trumper above him is “like asking a calculator to understand a painting.” In the early days of cricket, a sticky dog was “a wet pitch that got a bit dry and behaved like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.”

Those two lines are on consecutive pages. the book maintains roughly that tone from WG Grace to the three Ws to Imran Khan to Brendon McCullum.

In summary

Test Cricket: The Unauthorised Biography is a serious book. It’s an earnest story told colourfully, rather than a funny book that makes serious points. It’s not that Jarrod’s lost his sense of humour so much as that he’s looking to inform more than he was before; a shift in emphasis rather than an outright change in approach. Whether that’s an improvement or not is probably a matter of opinion, but if the alternative is knocking out the same sort of writing as he did way back when, it would be subject to the law of diminishing returns. This feels new and fresh and is as page-turny as anything else he’s written.

History books can be staid and tiresome and hard to engage with. This is anything but. If we had to pick someone to do the research and tell the story of Test cricket, we’d pick Jarrod. Fortunately, we don’t have to because he’s already done it.

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James Taylor has a literal heart problem

If James Taylor’s public pronouncements betray an admirable desire to retain a sense of humour about things, his retirement from cricket at the age of just 26 due to arrhythmogenic right ventricular arrhythmia is anything but funny.

It’s easy to point to his having had a job as a professional cricketer as a means of highlighting how others may have it tougher, but at heart we’re all selfish bastards. We only truly know the life we lead and Taylor’s life has just turned down a very unexpected dead end.

You make plans, you work towards things and that’s what keeps you sane. It’s not the goals themselves that matter, but finding purpose in striving for them. With his destination obliterated, a man could quite easily find himself derailed. Throw in a serious heart condition and pessimism could become a default emotion.

A high-achieving cricketer’s sense of self is greatly bound up with the game. You are a cricketer. You are a batsman. You score runs. It’s not just what you do, it’s who you are. James Taylor is no longer that and when your occupation has been so all-consuming, how much room was there for anything else? It may be just a game, but a game can be everything and people feel the impact when everything is snatched from them in an instant.

Taylor will eventually be able to redirect his energy and pursue different things, coaxing his mind back to normal in the process – we’re sure of that. As for the heart condition, he is set to undergo an operation. His retirement from the game makes it clear that this will not be a cure in the fullest sense, but it will, presumably, improve his physical health.

James Taylor retires from cricket with the fourth-highest one-day batting average of all time. Decent player and, by all accounts, a decent bloke. The latter is something he can continue to be, no matter what he does next.

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Cricinfo still lumps first and second division matches in together in their live scores box

Drives us mental.

Why do people most often visit Cricinfo? To check the scores. Yet if we look at the current live matches, there is no way of telling which match is in which division, unless you happen to have memorised the teams in each league.

At the time of writing, the list of England domestic matches reads:

  • Durham v Somerset
  • Gloucestershire v Essex
  • Hampshire v Warwickshire
  • Northamptonshire v Sussex
  • Nottinghamshire v Surrey

So that’s first division, then second division, then first division, then second division, then first division. Yet there is no obvious distinction between them unless you click through to the scorecard.

Smooth, Cricinfo. Smooth.

This is one small element which has contributed to this website’s official position of ignoring the second division.

One of the joys of county cricket is that the season is so long and sprawling and varied. There are countless stories to be told, concerning different players and their triumphs and despairs in the various formats. However, the canvas is so damn massive, the job of the media is surely to provide focus and help us make sense of things.

Cricket coverage is built on scorecards. You can easily follow the entire season without watching a ball being bowled; listening to a minute of commentary; or reading a single match report or interview. A very simple step towards providing greater clarity for county cricket followers would be for the world’s top scorecard repository to make it clear which division each frigging match belongs to.

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Monty Panesar’s back!

As in ‘returned’. He hasn’t got anklosing spondylitis or anything.

Like many people, we have a soft spot for Monty Panesar.

Firstly, he lent his name to our assistant.

Monty

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, he was for a time exceptionally good at bowling spin for England.

Now he’s back. Back at Northamptonshire at any rate. He also hopes that he’s pretty much back to himself after being blighted by paranoia and other mental health problems in recent years. There was that bladder control thing as well.

His low-key county return is therefore what we like to call ‘a good thing’.

Barney Ronay has written a nice piece for The Guardian about Panesar. We agree with much of what he says – not least because he agrees with much of what we’ve said.

He takes issue with the ‘Monty Panesar hasn’t played X Tests, he’s played one Test X times‘ line for similar reasons to us – namely, that if that one Test is a perfectly good one, it’s really not that big a problem. Also, since when has one-dimensionality been such a flaw for a bowler?

They say the animals are always the first to know, so we’ll ask Monty’s namesake how this latest comeback is going to pan out. We’ll get back to you once we have the details.

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Most of the County Championship starts fairly soon!

The wind is tearing the blossom from the trees and depositing it on the dirty wet earth. Men and women in thick winter coats turn their pallid faces to the skies, scrutinising the clouds for tip offs of impending rain showers. Firewood is gathered. Thermostats are turned up. It is time for the county cricket season.

The County Championship starts with six-ninths of a bang on Sunday with just three first division matches. A table comprising nine sides often only finds balance before and after the season, but even so this seems a strange way to start; not so much breaking the door down as gently pushing it open only to find that the cat’s somehow pulled up the carpet and the door’s now wedged.

So sliding through the narrow gap, what do we find on the other side? Durham v Somerset; Hampshire v Warwickshire; and Nottinghamshire v Surrey.

Is it worth looking to last season’s finishing positions to deduce which might prove to be the most meaningful fixtures? Counties seem to bounce up and down almost at random. Sussex were third in 2014 and in 2015 they were relegated. Middlesex narrowly avoided the drop in 2014 and were runners-up last year. The constant has been Yorkshire, who won in both years and were second the year before. As you’ll no doubt notice, Yorkshire aren’t playing.

The story is yet to unfold, you could argue. Weather permitting, let it do so.

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Four things we learned from the 2016 World T20

We could have done more than four, but the article was starting to look a bit long so we just arbitrarily drew a line under things. It’s not even the best four. It’s just the first four that came to mind.

Darren Sammy can channel energy

Marlon’s upset with Shane Warne, Chris is upset because he got told off, everyone’s upset with the West Indies Cricket Board and with Mark Nicholas for saying they were short of brains. ‘Good,’ says Darren Sammy. ‘Use that.’

The Windies captain even managed to convince his side that the world was against them when they were playing England in the final and the cricket world was therefore most definitely with them.

Quarter finals aren’t for cricket

Upsets are still possible when international cricket tournaments have quarter finals, but when a sport generally has precisely eight teams that are noticeably stronger than the others, whittling the contenders down to eight doesn’t tend to deliver much in the way of jeopardy or excitement.

This tournament, which went straight from the group stage to semi-finals, had a much better way of doing things. It meant the first phase of the tournament had actual hard-to-predict knockout matches.

The bigger the match, the more likely it is that a bit of part-time dob will buy you a wicket

Joe Root’s part-time offspin, while not technically dob, accounted for both of West Indies’ openers in the space of just three balls in the final. Virat Kohli’s rather more classical dob also reaped instant dividends in the semi.

Dob is much undervalued in professional cricket. Bowl it in the County Championship and there’s no real danger, but in a high pressure Twenty20 match, the batsman feels compelled to hit out. All that talk of targeting weaker bowlers means that when a captain brings on Alan McMilitary-Straight-Up-And-Down the batsman feels compelled to maximise his return on the next six deliveries. As often as not, this seems to involve him skying the first one to an outfielder.

There’s more than one way to win a Twenty20 match

Maybe this could replace that famous cat-skinning saying, which after all isn’t really very nice. A lot of people like to assume that whoever’s won a given Twenty20 match must therefore be playing the best ‘brand’ of cricket, but it’s clear from this tournament that all any result really means is that the victors were playing their brand of cricket better than the opposition were playing theirs.

New Zealand duffled – yes, duffled – their way through a series of matches by smothering the opposition with an endless rotation of spinners; England tried to score as fast as they could throughout their innings in the knowledge that there were always more batsmen to come; and The Windies dawdled about and then hit sixes. All were perfectly viable ways of setting about things. One day you could be watching Joe Root or Virat Kohli winning a match by refusing to face a single dot ball. The next day, Marlon Samuels faces 21 of them and the West Indies still win.

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Everyone knows that hitting four successive sixes is hard, right?

We’re just checking, only a great many people seem to be holding Ben Stokes entirely responsible for England’s defeat. Sometimes the player hitting the sixes has some sort of say in things too.

Think of it like this: if you were a primitive human and you sent one of your tribe out to take on an alien with a pointed stick, only for the alien to vaporise him with his ray gun, would it be fair to take issue with Terry’s stick-prodding technique?

Carlos Brathwaite hit four sixes on the bounce to win the World T20. With tens of thousands of people shouting at him in the ground, millions more watching at home and everything he’d worked for his entire life hinging on what he did next, it was a thick slab of brilliance.

It’s not like Brathwaite set himself for one particular shot and Stokes served it up on a trendy oblong plate garnished with fresh herbs and drizzled with some sort of balsamic jus.

The first one was angled into his pads and he picked it up and hoisted it behind square leg. The second one was again legside, near enough a yorker, and he did some sort of weird contortion and wristed it over long on. The third one was again yorkerish, this time on the stumps, and departed over long off, despite having taken what looked like a leading edge. The fourth was again legside and Brathwaite just snapped his wrists through it and plopped it into the crowd.

There were good balls and bad balls in there, but the bad ones were arguably even harder to hit for six.

The first one was a bad ball in a Test match because it would never take a wicket. A batsman could easily run it away for a single or possibly even clip it for four. It wasn’t easy to hit for six though. From that angle, into the body, it was bloody hard to hit for six. Just because it ended up over the ropes doesn’t mean it was always destined to end up there. The outcome colours our perception of what came before.

To hold Ben Stokes responsible for what Carlos Brathwaite did seems a peculiarly backwards way of looking at things to us; like blaming a pedestrian for getting hit by a drunk driver. Maybe the victim could have worn hi-vis or taken a different route, but that’s not really the point is it? The point is that the guy behind the wheel was pissed and decided to drive.

So, to recap: hitting sixes is hard.

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West Indies’ 2016 World T20 win: Fortunately for them, they weren’t playing cyborgs

Ben Stokes’ coolly outmanoevred Carlos Brathwaite at the death. Had the West Indian launched his attack earlier in the match, he could have hit six sixes in an over. As it was, he was denied by winning the World T20 after just four balls. Stokes is doubtless delighted.

The desired rate

There was no required rate when England batted, but there was certainly a desired rate. Samuel Badree’s opening salvo (2-16 off four) meant that they were always behind the desired rate. A few extra risks perhaps ensued.

There’s actually a case for saying that Eoin Morgan’s golden duck in the semi-final was a better innings than his 12-ball effort in the final. Facing for a tenth of England’s innings, Morgan contributed just five runs. In some respects it’s hard to blame him being as England were 8-2 when he came in, but in other, more meaningful respects, it also wasn’t good enough. Those who followed him were forced into trying to pick up the slack.

Contrast Morgan’s innings with that of Joe Root, who calmly and seemingly effortlessly rebuilt while scoring at a rate of 150 runs per hundred balls. That’s what was needed. No, it’s not easy to do, but this is the final of a world tournament. It’s about being the best.

Singles par or swingers par?

England’s score apparently fell short of ‘par’. For most of their innings, West Indies also didn’t look like achieving such a thing. Despite this, the commentators continued talking about it, as if it were of any relevance whatsoever. Maybe if the teams were playing against some sort of generic cyborg side whose results were generated by a computer before the match, it would have made sense. But they weren’t. They were playing each other.

West Indies’ innings

There’s definitely a case for bowling your five shittest bowlers in the most high pressure matches. There is nothing harder for a professional batsman to time than loopy filth.

Then there’s the ego aspect. If you open the bowling with Joe Root, for example, there is almost an obligation to get after him lest England fiddle through a couple of economical overs. And if you’re going to play on someone’s ego, pick your target carefully. Chris Gayle did what was expected of him. Johnson Charles was a bonus.

But it wasn’t really enough. Even when it got down to 19 needed from the final over, 19 didn’t seem all that large a number – although we couldn’t really have imagined how small it would prove to be. Carlos Brathwaite produced what must rank as the most brutally clinical finish under unimaginable pressure.

Moral of the story

The best way to win Twenty20 matches is to bat slowly and patiently, building a platform, before having a great big slog at the end. Turns out England were ahead of the game all that time. And now they’re behind again.

No, the truth is there’s no secret to Twenty20. The trick, really, is to play well no matter what your strategy.

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