We’ve just read that Australia’s ‘in-your-face approach’ underpinned their first Test win. It’s the kind of thing you hear a lot. Ex-players often plead for the team to be more combative. They say that Australia play their best cricket when they’re aggressive.
But is it that they play better when they’re aggressive, or is it just that they tend to get a bit gobbier when they’re winning?
One’s a cause; the other’s a symptom; and each says something rather different about the players who become more vocal.
As Mitchell Johnson said about the first Test:
“It was pretty quiet the whole match until sort of closer to the end.”
When you’d basically already won, you mean?25 Appeals
Sunday starts for County Championship matches and Twenty20 matches on a Friday night. It ain’t all bad.
The latter could even become ‘a thing’, as detailed here. Shall we try and make it a thing? What should it involve? Perhaps we could try and source beer brewed in the counties playing the televised match each week. Or we could try and prepare a delicacy native to the region – throdkin for Lancashire, balti for Warwickshire and a food closely associated with Northamptonshire’s opposition for Northamptonshire.
We’ve a faint suspicion this is going to turn into one of those posts where you all start listing things in the comments. That’s fine. Knock yourselves out.23 Appeals
Writing in The Times, Mike Atherton has said of the England setup:
“The impression is of a closed, institutionalised and claustrophobic world.”
We’re sure he chose his words carefully. It’s also worth noting that this is a man who felt the strains of international cricket despite only ever considering it a game. He has previously written of his efforts to quash feelings that what he was doing was inherently trivial in a bid to muster more emotion and passion:
“I somehow had to convince myself that what I was doing was the most important thing in the world – that if I failed all manner of plague and pestilence would descend.”
The point is, even a man like Atherton felt the pressure and he now perceives an even more mentally taxing environment for current England players.
It’s not so much that players are managed and mollycoddled and supervised, it’s what David Hopps draws attention to in his article for Cricinfo, that players feel like they are being judged at all times.
Imagine that level of surveillance. The principle behind the Panopticon was that people would behave in the desired manner even when they weren’t being watched, simply because they would feel that they might be being watched. Imagine the pressure of that. Imagine the effect it has on you.
The Panopticon was a design for a prison, by the way.
Hopps uses a quote from a nameless England player who says that it can feel like you are constantly being assessed when you’re within the England setup. We have no idea who that player was, but it instantly brought to mind the strange case of Nick Compton, who said after he had been discarded that he didn’t feel that the management really knew him.
More than anything, Compton appears to have been rejected on the basis of his character and while much of the incriminating detail will have been culled from the skittish innings in his final match, you wonder how much was gleaned while watching him away from the middle. Maybe the selectors got that one right, but if other players watching on deduced how the decision was reached, what was the cost?6 Appeals
For all that we’re meant to be enlightened, modern folk who are au fait with mental health issues, there’s an odd reluctance to enter into specifics when someone is suffering ‘a stress-related illness’.
Physical v mental
In a sense, medical problems are nobody’s business but the sportsman in question. It seems invasive when we learn of Shoaib Akhtar’s genital warts or the problems Tom Boonen’s been having with his barse. But yet we’ll hear all the details about a hamstring strain or knee problem. We’ll hear too many details. We’ll hear medical jargon most of us are ill-equipped to comprehend.
But with stress, we don’t get a clear picture. Apparently that would be prying in a way in which providing the details about a physical injury would not. That’s probably correct, but as readers we’ve become conditioned to expect detail. The absence breeds conjecture.
‘Stress-related illness’ is a vague slice of the depression spectrum. There’s mild anxiety at one end and suicide at the other. There are many different symptoms – such as pessimism, destructive thought patterns, persistent elevated heart rate, insomnia and self-harm – and different people will experience different combinations to different degrees.
Everything we experience goes through the brain. When that’s fucked, you can’t shrug it off. It’s all-consuming; a muddied bottleneck which soils everything that passes through it. This is why modern society is increasingly sympathetic to sportsmen who are struggling – because more and more people understand, or, unfortunately, have experience of depression.
So why so few details?
A sportsman’s personal identity and sense of self worth are invariably closely linked to performance. For a batsman, that is something intrinsically fickle and fragile. Most of us therefore understand that depression is a very real occupational hazard. Why then is the information provided to the press so vague?
Perhaps mental fragility is considered a professional weakness and therefore somehow ‘off limits’ to the press, but Michael Clarke’s bad back is a professional weakness to which endless column inches have been devoted in recent months. What’s the difference?
Is it that detailing the problem might pile extra pressure on the player who is suffering? A counter argument would be that getting things out in the open has been shown to lighten the mental load for a number of people in a similar position. Men are particularly prone to crippling themselves with their attempts to conceal their struggles and no men attempt to be men’s men like sportsmen.
You’d hope we aren’t seeing an aspect of the kind of institutional warrior culture so spectacularly eviscerated by Brian Phillips writing about the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal, but you suspect we might be.
So what of Jonathan Trott?
Is it related to his struggles in the first Test? Probably to a degree, because as we said above, personal identity is likely to be entwined with professional performance. However, it will certainly have been something that’s been slowly building rather than a direct response. In that sense, his second innings at the Gabba could be seen as a symptom, rather than a cause.
Inevitably, there will be talk of weakness. Invariably, it will be from people who aren’t worth listening to. Some Australians have a propensity to stereotype their compatriots as mentally tough, physically tough hardcases and a corollary of this is that they see the English as mentally flimsy big girl’s blouses. They will take Trott’s departure as vindication of their prejudices.
However, they might like to ponder something first. The man they perceive to have crushed Jonathan Trott is Mitchell Johnson. Johnson sought counselling as a result of the baiting he has received at the hands of a large number of England fans. He isn’t the first Aussie quick to show mental fragility either. Shaun Tait has been open about experiencing bouts of depression. It can happen to anyone – although it’s pretty obvious that it’s more likely to happen to cricketers.45 Appeals
Today’s grim moment of clarity came courtesy of Mark Butcher midway through the highlights which show immediately after the day’s play. “Michael Clarke made good decisions throughout this match,” he said.
Note ‘made’ not ‘has made’. Australia had won then? The rest of the highlights were a joy, particularly when they told us about long rain delays which constricted the time in which England had to lose all of their remaining wickets.
It’s hard to pinpoint what went wrong in this match. However, that’s only because a pin is an entirely inappropriate tool for the job. What you instead need is a nine-inch paint roller with which to daub a great big cross.
England batted like idiots. The bowlers did a great, if not flawless, job in the first innings and actually performed creditably in the second innings given that the pitch was true and they’d only had about nine minutes’ break since bowling in the first innings. The batsmen, however, failed twice.
Yesterday, we identified Jonathan Trott’s dismissal as being among the worst of recent times. Today, we’d like to nominate Matt Prior’s. It probably wasn’t as bad as Trott’s, in all honesty, but playing at a ball you needn’t play at when it is only likely to go to one of two fielders positioned behind you on the leg-side? That would be pretty stupid even if you didn’t get out doing exactly the same thing off the only ball you faced in the first innings – a dismissal which itself happened one ball after another batsman had been dismissed in identical fashion.
Towards the end of the match, a stump microphone picked up Michael Clarke saying to Jimmy Anderson:
“Get ready for a fucking broken arm.”
Clarke later described it as ‘banter’ which is further proof that you would never want to spend time with anyone who ever uses that word.
Not that we’re necessarily getting on our high horse about the comment itself. Say what you like. We actually think it might work. Jimmy fights a perpetual battle to keep the rage that fuels him from devouring the control which allows him to do his job. There may well come a point at which he hates Clarke so much, he’ll lose control. That’s fine for a fast bowler, but control is basically Jimmy’s weapon.27 Appeals
We’re wondering whether we just saw the most unforgiveable dismissal of all time. There have been worse shots, certainly, but IJL Trott c Lyon b Johnson 9 ticks a lot of boxes.
First, there’s the backdrop. For months, the opposition have told you that you can’t play the short ball directed at your body, so you’ve had plenty of warning. You were then dismissed by just such a delivery in the first innings, so there’s confirmation that this is what’s happening and that this is how you’re at risk of losing your wicket.
Then there’s the field, with two men back. Don’t try and play the ball in that area. You are likely to get out. If you still don’t get it – which apparently you don’t – here’s a narrow escape as a little aide mémoire, the ball dropping between two fielders.
Now do you get it? Now do you get the phenomenal degree of risk that comes with your trying to play short balls to leg? You’ve been the coolest, most logical batsman England have had in years. Surely you get it? Surely?
“The brutal truth is he’s rattled.” Mike Atherton
It’s a tough game. If your dismissal looked inevitable, you don’t have a lot of time to work things out.
Watching this unfold on television brought feelings of helplessness and frustration not seen since Brian Lara Cricket where a false button press would see the batsmen setting off for singles even while the ball was nestling in the wicketkeeper’s gloves. This experience lasted longer though, so it was worse – albeit it wasn’t that much longer.14 Appeals
There are times when you simply do not want to see James Anderson’s face. Switching on the TV at 6am was therefore a bleak moment. Upon noticing that he wasn’t wearing a helmet, the mental calculations were rapid, even at that hour. There was, quite simply, no way that this could be a good thing.
Batting even worse than Australia’s
Andrew Strauss made a good point on commentary. He said that players hide behind collective responsibility at times like this. Listen for it. Listen for: “We need to perform better as a batting unit.”
No. You need to perform better. You need to perform better and he needs to perform better and so does he. Do that and the ‘unit’ will take care of itself.
So in the spirit of humanising the unit, we’d like to put Jonathan Trott, Joe Root and Matt Prior forward for greatest opprobrium (although really no-one should escape).
Trott was strangled down the leg-side, which might be forgivable if it hadn’t happened several times before and Mitchell Johnson hadn’t spent the last few weeks scheduling an appointment for strangulation. Joe Root played a crappy shot, doubtless looking to ‘be positive’ and for some reason thinking that playing away from his body at a ball angling across him was the time to do that. Matt Prior kindly provided an action replay of Ian Bell’s dismissal for those who had missed it the ball before.
The only real difference between Australia’s poor innings and England’s dire one was that numbers seven and eight didn’t bail the tourists out. However, if you’re setting your standards according to what Australia’s batsmen achieve, you’re not going to win too many Test matches.
Rough ‘em up
The worst thing about this collapse and the fact that two of the specialist batsmen got out to short balls is that it encourages the Australian fantasy that they’re a nation of hirsute hardcases.
Note to Australia: Mitchell Johnson is your hard man. He is hairy for precisely one-twelfth of a year and he’s as brittle as the wishbone of a bird.
On the other hand, he is currently a fast bowler and we’re a fan of those regardless of nationality. Their rarity multiplied by the infrequency of even slightly hard pitches equals a rare opportunity to see one of the greatest aspects of cricket – batsmen struggling to cope with pace.
Trends and facts
It’s no longer a trend; it’s just a fact. England’s first innings on every Test tour will be an absolute horror show. The batsmen don’t hit the ground running. They hit the ground and then stand there, wincing at the resultant knee pain.
Here’s a suggestion: whatever you do before the second innings of the tour – why don’t you do that before the first innings?24 Appeals
Brisbane’s Courier Mail floated the possibility of not mentioning Stuart Broad by name at all during this Test. Does anyone know if they did actually go with this front page in the end or was it just a canny publicity stunt?
The newspaper suggested that they were only going to refer to him as ‘the 27-year-old English medium pace bowler’ but that clumsy, inaccurate description’s going to be something of a yoke around the neck while they try and report on his five wickets. You fall to 100-5 against a medium-pacer? What would happen against a real quick?
Is this likely to be a low-scoring game? It could be, but as the clock ticked towards 2am UK time, it looked for all the world like we’d be getting up to see the same two batsmen at the crease in a few hours’ time. The surprisingly small wicket-taking window presented by the new ball appeared to have been shut and locked with the latch key lost down the back of the sofa.
We therefore conclude that Australia’s batting was ‘not all that’.42 Appeals
They’re on Pick. You know… Pick!
Yeah, you do. It’s the one you always skip past on your way to Eden when you think that maybe, just maybe, you’ll fancy watching something informative if exactly the right sort of programme just happens to be on. But it isn’t, so you put How I Met Your Mother on instead, ignoring it completely while you pointlessly cycle through the same five pages on the internet, hoping that one of them has changed since the last lap.
Pick is apparently what used to be Sky Three. We sort of remember it changing, but not really. It mostly run repeats of stuff like Dog The Bounty Hunter and Most Haunted. We also note that it is showing When Vacations Attack in the early hours of tomorrow morning, which sounds like a classic. We daresay that programmes of the oeuvre ‘World’s Blankiest Blanks‘ feature heavily.
This is to say that it’s probably not where you’d go looking for Ashes highlights on free-to-air TV. However, it is where you’ll find them. A full, hour-long highlights programme, culled from Sky’s coverage, will show at 10pm the day after each day’s play.
Because it’s a Sky channel, you’re probably assuming you don’t have it, but you almost certainly do. It’s just that you haven’t noticed it before because it’s rubbish.68 Appeals
A change of venue for the Heavy Rollers Test match jaunt this year; in the absence of a Test match at Edgbaston, we opted for the first three days at Chester-Le-Street. Nigel “Father Barry” White, Charley “The Gent” Malloy and I were the three regular rollers on display. Daisy joined us to make a fourth, honorary roller.
Charley “The Gent” was especially skittish in the evenings. He tried to sell Daisy several lines of bullshit about the Heavy Rollers’ exploits over the years and also took great pride in explaining his persuasion techniques for getting exactly what he wants when booking rooms, tickets, nets etc.
“You have to find the right person in authority and then gently persuade them; it’s just transactional analysis basically…”
By contrast, Nigel “Father Barry” White seemed quite subdued this year. He seemed especially irked when Charley tried to convince Daisy that Nigel is a top rate singer. I had never heard Nigel sing.
When we met Nigel at the ground just before the start of day three, he seemed like a man transformed; pumped even. The first bars of Jerusalem blared through the speakers and Nigel was off, singing Jerusalem at full pelt. Impressive singing too – more “Barry White” than “Father Barry”.
It transpired that Nigel’s mood had been improved by none other than Jonathan Agnew. Nigel had come to the ground very early in order to buy a personally signed copy of Aggers’ new cricket anthology at an early morning book signing. Back in the mists of time, Nigel had played in a friendly match against Aggers and had dropped him on his way to a rare 50. Aggers didn’t remember batting that well, nor the specific drop, but he did remember playing in those friendly games and reminisced briefly with Nigel. Aggers then emblazoned Nigel’s copy of the book: “To Nigel – even Geoffrey’s mum would have caught that,” which amused and pleased Nigel very much.
Charley “The Gent” studied the book and inscription very carefully before saying: “I fancy one of those for my boy. Let’s go to the shop at lunch.”
Of course, at lunch there was no actual Aggers book signing, but a pile of pre-signed copies available for purchase.
“I want a personal inscription,” said Charley to a sales assistant, showing her Nigel’s copy. “Look, he’s inscribed my friend’s copy. I want him to inscribe my copy too.”
“I’m sorry,” came the reply, “but Aggers isn’t coming here again today. He’s in the media centre doing his radio work. He’s coming here for another book signing early tomorrow morning.”
“But I’m not here tomorrow” said Charley. “I’ll be on my way home. Please take my copy of the book up to the commentary box and get him to inscribe it for me there. It’s the least you can do.”
“I’m really sorry, I cannot help you there,” came the predictable, polite reply.
“But it’s for my boy.” Charley cried. “Just a short inscription – corridor of uncertainty, grandmother, stick of rhubarb, something along those lines.” Charley continued to mumble, with decreasing confidence and increasing incoherence.
Nigel counselled Charley kindly. “The metaphorical umpire has lifted the finger, Charley. Tuck your book under your arm and stride away from the metaphorical crease while you still have your dignity.” Nigel then gently guided Charley out of the shop and back to his seat.
Daisy couldn’t stop laughing when Nigel related this sad tale. Charley disappeared a couple of times during the afternoon and evening sessions; we guessed he was returning to the shop to have another go. But Charley was silent about the matter for the rest of the day, so we suspect that his fail-safe persuasion techniques drew blanks that day. Goodness only knows what the shop staff made of Charley “The Gent,” mumbling Boycott Bingo phrases while seeking Aggers’ personal inscription.9 Appeals