Friday, 1 August 2014
There is an uncomfortable recognition that the beauty of James Anderson's cricket comes with a professionalism that has been taken to the limits but weak umpiring has to share the blame
David Hopps in Cricinfo
As James Anderson prepares to face an ICC enquiry into his alleged misconduct during the Trent Bridge Test, it is hard to suppress a feeling of frustration about how this wonderful fast bowler has been allowed to become England's guilty pleasure.
Anderson is close to the apex of a fulfilling career, only 12 more wickets needed to draw equal with Ian Botham as England's leading Test wicket-taker. He is championed in England as a true craftsman among fast bowlers, a manipulator of a cricket ball who deserves to stand alongside the best.
And yet, this faith in his bowling purity sits uneasily with a sullied reputation; a player now well known to all but the most casual follower of the game as one of the most ingrained sledgers around and, a natural development, who allegedly has now tipped over into the pushing of Ravindra Jadeja as well. It does not take long to find an opponent, or a past opponent, who says there is nobody worse - even if they then admit it is a crowded field. It should never have come to this.
This then is England's guilty pleasure: on one side, the shy craftsman who became one of the finest fast bowlers in the world; on the other, the Burnley Lip, whose abuse of opponents has been incessant for many years. Many in the game will tell you it doesn't matter a jot. It does. Cricket has a problem - and it needs to deal with it before everybody starts to grow Luis Suarez fangs.
It is important to observe - and his captain, Alastair Cook, was shrewd enough to do so from the start - that the ICC code of conduct commissioner, Gordon Lewis, a retired Australian judge, has been appointed to judge one specific incident at Trent Bridge, about which the details remain at issue, and not to pass opinion on a verbally-strewn career.
The ICC's judgment, in the simplest terms, will determine whether Anderson is banned from his home Test at Old Trafford next week, and perhaps for the rest of the series. For many, that outcome is all that matters. It might swing a Test series towards India in the process, although the suggestion that this is India's reasoning is overly cynical.
This is not a tactic; this is a campaign. And once Lewis makes his ruling, we will wait to discover if it is the first campaign of many or if Anderson is to be its sole victim. A trophy killing for India's mantelpiece.
Anderson's fate will be determined on whether video evidence really does exist - India say so, but they might be bluffing - and on the dubious testimony of witnesses about Who Pushed Who When, Who Said What To Whom, all of which tittle-tattle should be enough to make Lewis wonder whether he should be doing better things with his life.
Cricket's fate will take longer to determine. What we may also be experiencing is the start of India agitation against persistent on-field abuse, a habit resented for its disrespect and occasionally because of its implied threat of physical violence. The reality is that only India is empowered to change the nature of the game - to say "we will not play this way". What is less unclear is whether it has the will to try to transform the way the game is played - or whether perhaps Lewis' ruling will carry wider encouragement for cricket to clean up its act.
We may know a lot more about the repercussions by Christmas. If India, and in particular their captain MS Dhoni, have taken a stand against what they regard as Anderson's excess, how will they respond when India pitch up for a Test series in Australia? They have acted independently of the umpires and match referees once. If Lewis rules in their favour, will they feel obliged to do it again?
If Mitchell Johnson snarls from underneath his vaudevillian moustache, will India be consistent and immediately lay a charge with the ICC? If David Warner yaps like a dog for much of a session, as he once stupidly did to irritate Faf du Plessis, will another charge be laid? If Shane Watson adds some sly words of his own, will three Australians be in the dock?
Anderson's alleged push of Jadeja is presented as the catalyst for the complaint, but it was his reputation as a serial sledger that made Dhoni so anxious to pursue it. Anderson was charged because he has form - the alleged push was just a chance to get even. And physical contact, incidentally, is not necessarily needed to win a case. There is plenty in the ICC Code of Conduct that pretends to punish verbal abuse. It is just that nobody ever presses charges.
While England is invited to regard Anderson as a guilty pleasure, international umpires and the ICC must be feeling nervous. If India is embarking upon an attempted clean up, the umpires will need to intervene in a manner they have not seen fit to do for years. If they do, it will be long overdue. What we have at the moment is a sham.
So much in cricket is disingenuous. The Spirit of Cricket has become a widely-ridiculed moral salad dressing on a game where umpires allow verbal aggression to go unchecked in the misguided belief that they are permitting the vital confrontational elements that enhance the game at the highest level. As long as the invective isn't aimed at them, as long as nobody actually makes physical contact, they are only concerned with ensuring the public does not know too much.
Most of us - at whatever level we play the game - relish a clever sledge, most of us permit a physically-straining fast bowler a display of frustration, most of us don't mind a bit of backchat, but umpires have utterly failed in their duty to check the incessant boorish behaviour that has now become regarded as just a daily reality. Where were they when Anderson indulged in his 30-metre rant at Jadeja as the players walked off for tea? Where is the dividing line? Is everything acceptable unless you actually push someone? It is time we were honestly told.
Instead, we have Anderson, the essentially gentle guy trying to play tough; the diffident figure who has been told by coaches to become more aggressive; the man who could barely spit out a sentence in press conferences at the start of his career, transformed into a venomous on-field malcontent; a natural leader of no-one proudly bowling more Test overs than anyone in the world as he forever strives to be the Leader of the Attack; a talented, likeable lad who has been gradually lulled by this failure of umpires and administrators to rule and has developed, in his immense desire to win Tests for England, into a twisted, nastier on-field personality than he really is.
Considering all the jokes about his grumpiness - his best mate, Graeme Swann, loves to joke that it takes a couple of beers to cheer him up - this role play does not seem to have made him very happy.
As England celebrated an overwhelming victory at the Ageas Bowl, Anderson's hugs with his team-mates seemed slightly troubled. A few minutes later, he was collecting another magnum of champagne, another man-of-the-match award logged. He had produced his finest all-round performance for a year, a display summoned out of adversity, adversity not just for himself, but for his captain, Alastair Cook, and indeed the entire England Test set-up.
|While we cherish Anderson's skill, we prefer to be spared a truth. The abuse has become the sourness we would rather not recognise|
It was a pleasure to see Anderson and Stuart Broad remembering once again how to play with joy - "play with the happiness of your first Test," the coach, Peter Moores had urged them as he sought to arrest England's worst run for 20 years, and England's senior players, as one, had released the yoke from their back. England kept their lips buttoned - and won by a country mile.
But on the one occasion that Anderson allowed himself some backchat - a sentence or two to Ajinkya Rahaneat the end of the fourth day - the response from Rahane was so melodramatic that India's zero tolerance policy was abundantly clear. Was this personal animosity, a tactical manoeuvre ahead of the hearing or further proof a long-term attempt to change the nature of the game?
Anderson's post-match interviews, as ever, were conducted in that vulnerable, polite, halting style. It is the Anderson that England wish to celebrate: the self-effacing, bashful sportsman who has succeeded in a physically-demanding, confrontational job. We would rather dwell on his 371 Test wickets and not wonder about his tally of C words when the game gets tough.
His newly-adopted beard looks like a defence mechanism against the uproar surrounding him. When he was asked after the match if he was confident about the outcome of the hearing, his "don't know" response sounded abashed. There was no petulant strut, no words of defiance, just a world-class player trapped in a behavioural mode that might be about to bring suspension.
While we cherish Anderson's skill, we prefer to be spared this truth. The abuse has become the sourness we would rather not recognise: the stain on the luxury, hand-woven carpet; the dodgy financial dealings that produce the beautiful marina; the uncomfortable recognition that the beauty of Anderson's cricket comes with a professionalism that has been taken to the limits. The alleged push has finally forced us to take notice.
We all know this: fans, team-mates, opponents, former players, umpires, administrators, all playing our part in this endless charade.
The ECB defends Anderson because it wants to win the series and protect its players; no thoughts here - not publicly anyway - of the wider picture. The ICC just bleats that the authority of the enquiry has been compromised because both Dhoni and Cook have passed comment on the situation, more concerned with systems and processes than the long-term health of the game.
Meanwhile, James Anderson, is hung out to dry.
And nobody is imposing, for all of us to see, the behavioural standards by which the game should be run.
Thursday, 31 July 2014
Jarrod Kimber in Cricinfo
Lawrence Booth, editor of Wisden, met Pankaj Singh in a lift. They talked about Pankaj's day, which turned into Pankaj's luck. It was exactly the sort of conversation you would expect from any bowler in the world when talking about a wicketless day. At the end, Pankaj left Booth with the words: "That is cricket".
There is a ball that Pankaj Singh bowled in the IPL that hit the pitch and cleared the keeper's head. That is a combination of pace and bounce. He also has swing. Lovely curling outswing that he can maintain even with an older ball. Then there is his offcutter. That makes him a bowler who can move the ball both ways, get bounce and bowl in the mid-80s mph.
His action is uncomplicated and rugged. His body seems to have been chipped from solid stone. His wrist position at release is good. He has got a smart bowling brain. He works with his captain on his fields. He works batsmen out. He bowls to plans. He is willing to do grunt work.
This is an international bowler. And for the last ten years he has been a domestic bowler. This Test may send him back there.
If you were playing Indian Quick Bowler Bingo, Pankaj would go close to completing your sheet. He played U-19 cricket for India, went to the MRF pace factory, was a quick bowler, became a slower swing bowler, played one ODI, toured Australia without bowling a ball and then went about playing some IPL.
Pankaj is not a good IPL bowler. He averages 33 with the ball; he goes at over 8 an over. When you YouTube an Indian bowler's name, you generally just find clips of them disappearing into riotous, crowds. Pankaj has a large selection of them. It's not his format. So there is no hype for him.
Between his tour of Australia and this tour, India have used roughly 43 million other fast bowlers. Despite the fact that year after year Pankaj is near the top of the wicket-takers list in first-class cricket. Despite the fact that he has helped Rajasthan win the Ranji Trophy. Despite the fact he is obviously just a really good cricketer.
His one ODI game was in the Zimbabwean Triangular series of 2010, which was a tournament so useless, relocated witnesses running from the mob could have sat openly in the stands and not been found. His first ball almost took the edge of Upal Tharanga. But he ended with no wickets that day as well. He disappeared off India's radar so completely that he might as well have been in a witness relocation programme.
Cricket Journalists ooze cynicism from every single pore of their being. It's the first thing you're asked about when you apply for the job. So it's rare that they get behind someone with match figures of 0 for 179. Usually that would invoke snide remarks, casual jokes and general chuckles. Something about Pankaj meant they didn't do that.
Cries of "Get Pankaj on", "Give Pankaj a bowl", "Come on Pankaj" were heard as Pankaj thudded around the outfield. Sure, they still laughed when he fell over fielding the simplest ball. But no one thought he deserved the worst figures ever by a debutant. No one thought he hadn't been unlucky. No one wanted the loveable lug to fail.
Even on Twitter where snark is king, people just seemed to feel sorry for him.
"@reverse_sweeper Please, someone give Pankaj a hug. Is there a backroom guy for that?"
"@SpiceBoxofEarth Would be a real shame if Pankaj Singh was judged on just his figures alone. This has been a very decent debut. "
"Yogesh @YOGESHBOND The Oscar for making the unluckiest debut ever in tests goes to pankaj singh.. This guy needs a jaadu ki jhappi.. #UnluckyPankaj "
"Mark Pougatch @markpougatch I'm not alone am I in really wanting Pankaj Singh to get a wicket?"
He is the MHMOTS (Most huggable man of the series).
A right arm bowler coming around the wicket to a left hand batsman that can take the ball away is quite a skill. Few can do it. Pankaj can. He angles the ball in, Cook pushes at it as it seams away. His pace and bounce ensure it carries to slip. But Jadeja doesn't take it.
Later Dhoni will try one of his leg slip traps to Ballance. To help make it work, Pankaj bowls the perfect inswinger on middle stump which Ballance gets enough bat on for it just to drop short of leg slip.
At the 80 over mark, Pankaj is promoted to new ball bowler status. Reward for being the best bowler of the day. Then he placed a ball on leg stump. Every single batsman in the world knew that meant it was slipping down leg. But it didn't slip down, it didn't even straighten, it came back towards middle. It was the ball swing bowlers wet dream over. It could not have been more perfect.
He appealed like he was trying to feed his family, his village, and every single person he had ever met. It was about as emotive as a human being could be. It was the closest any human being had ever been to making themselves explode. He wanted a wicket, he deserved a wicket, every single molecule that went into this impressive chunk of cricketer pleaded for a wicket.
Rohit Sharma got a wicket with a ball that missed the bat. Moeen Ali got one from a half tracker. And Ravi Jadeja, the man who cost Pankaj a wicket, and perhaps India a Test, took one with a half tracker down the legside that if you received it in the nets you would catch it and throw it back.
Pankaj did not bowl overs full of the sweetest peaches at all times, he also bowled poorly. He couldn't group the ball together enough. He got tired. And when England attacked he didn't seem to have many answers.
The worst was Buttler. Buttler 'Bryce McGained' Pankaj. In five balls he took 20 runs. Pankaj probably won't remember much more than a front leg clearing and a bat flying through. But the 20 runs in that over in England's first innings was the 20 runs that helped him fly past Sohail Khan and Bryce McGain as the worst-ever bowling figures by a debutant in Test cricket history.
If he was unlucky not to get a wicket, then we need a new word to describe that achievement.
There are many small things to like about Pankaj. On day one, it was his nipples. Which were probably the best seam bowling nipples seen in England's South. He is also an unusually violent ball shiner. His throwing style is more like that of the local butcher playing a club game that a professional athlete. He doesn't stop balls in the field as much as runs along beside them. His shirt is often untucked. He is an older player who has earned his position through deeds. His running often makes it look like his shoulders are too big for him to stay upright. And he bats like a proper 1930s tailender.
Pankaj is part of a small club of cricketers who have been stumped facing a seamer with the keeper standing back. It happened because he wanted to sledge Ajit Agarkar for bouncing him. You have to commend him for standing up for himself against a senior player like Agarkar. You have to laugh at him for getting stumped while he did it.
When Pankaj was asked what he would do with a million dollars, he said he would build schools, improve infrastructure and find jobs for his village. In almost every way he is a thoroughly lovable big lump of lad who has spent years trying to make it.
There is brief excitement in the eyes of Pankaj as he sees another ball take the outside of Cook's bat. The ball flies in the air towards a well set double gully trap. Had Mohammed Shami bowled the ball, it could have probably nestled into the hands of one of them. But this is Pankaj, so the excitement quickly becomes pain, then acceptance.
For a few seconds, he stares in the direction of the ball, even though it has been returned. He waits for Dhoni to say something, but nothing comes. Then he turns, a turn so heavy you can hear it from 100 metres away, and he gingerly walks back to the umpire, Rod Tucker, who is smiling sympathetically. It is the smile of a man who spent 103 first-class matches bowling luckless spells. Tucker says something and gives his cap back.
Pankaj walks alone towards the boundary. None of his team mates go over, the time for encouragement has passed. They know he has probably bowled his last ball this match, and possibly the last of his entire Test career. He fields one more ball, and then walks off the ground to get some treatment. No one claps, no one pats him on the back, he just moves through the few spectators and support staff, three stairs at a time.
Just as he is about to disappear into the changeroom, he takes off his cap and slams it on his leg.
That is cricket.