Wednesday, 31 July 2013

How do we talk about cancer?


Knowing whether to say 'how are you?' or mention 'bravery' is one problem, another is our society in which death is a taboo
A young cancer patient
'If you ask someone with cancer how she or he is, do be prepared to listen to the answer.' Photograph: Ali Jarekji/Reuters
Among cancer sufferers there's often a shared moan about how some friends or acquaintances "just don't get it", how some turn away and retreat, and some meddle and proselytise.
Cancer sufferers all have their own pet grievances and I wouldn't claim to speak for others. In fact, recognising the infinite variety of individual responses to cancer is a necessary part of having, handling and treating cancer. To revise Tolstoy, all healthy people are alike, all unhealthy people are unhealthy after their own fashion. We are all variants from a norm; that's why we're being treated.
So there are no uniform rules of the game when it comes to talking to friends or acquaintances who have cancer about their condition.
Take "you're looking well" or variants thereof. Sometimes people do get a boost from such remarks, or are at least relieved to know that they don't look as bad as they feel. But for me there's always a disconnection: if I really do look well (and I suspect that's mainly because I don't look as bad as people expect or fear), then my appearance belies reality. I'm not well. I'm ill. And there are times when "you look well" feels like a denial, and places you in the awkward position of having to deny the denial (and say you may look well but feel like shit) or to go along, keep up the pretence, and thereby suppress an underlying, insistent truth.
Some people feel buoyed when people compliment their "bravery". Others, including me, find the bravery rhetoric around cancer deeply misconceived. It shifts responsibility on to the patient; if you succumb to your cancer, or even if you just complain about it, are you wanting in "bravery"? When someone tells me I've been "brave" I don't know what to make of it. There's no choice in the matter. This is a front line it's impossible to flee from.
Then there's "how are you?", a casual enquiry, in practice little more than a salutation, that acquires all kinds of challenges for the person with cancer. How do you answer? What does the person asking really want to know? How earnest is the question? Responses vary according to mood and context. Sometimes, I simply say "OK" – either because at that moment I can't muster the energy required to give a meaningful answer or because I'm unsure whether the inquirer really wants to hear that answer. Sometimes, when I do attempt to give a candid reply, I sense the inquirer shrinking way, uncertain how to respond, how to handle this discourse of pain and mortality.
While I don't think there can be a protocol to govern this kind of dialogue, I would say that if you ask someone with cancer how she or he is, do be prepared to listen to the answer. And remember that listening to it is nowhere near as uncomfortable as living with it.
Before I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, and began my own journey through the labyrinth of cancer, I was as insensitive as anyone to these issues. So I know this question – how we talk about cancer – is not about individual foibles. It's not about making people feel guilty. The situation, for both parties, is impossible: a convergence of reticence and disquiet, closeness and distance, helplessness and the desire to help. The conventions of everyday language are stretched to breaking point.
But while some of our difficulties in engaging in this kind of dialogue may be rooted in the human condition, I've also been asking myself how much of it is peculiar to our own society. Surrounded by commercial displays of young, trim, blemish-free bodies, it's easy to feel marginalised. Our culture enjoins celebration and affirmation; huge efforts go into the manufacturing of "feel-good" moments, one succeeded rapidly by another. The affirmative act becomes a social duty, a gesture that we, the ill, are expected to make, and for which we are congratulated.
Sure, even for the severely ill, there's plenty to affirm in life – wondrous works of art, sublime acts of rebellion, love and friendship – but life is also arbitrarily cruel, and it's an additional cruelty to ask people to deny that reality.
A society that vaunts individual success, where nothing is disdained so much as a "loser", does not quite know what to do with the ill or disabled. Unless our suffering can be sentimentally packaged, or recast as part of the neoliberal cult of "can do, will do", it remains unrepresented. The consumerist regime generates a perpetual present, in which life is a succession of satisfied desires, without links to past or future. Terminal illness cannot be accommodated within that framework.
We lack the ritual and social contextualisation of death found in pre-modern societies, and while there's no going back to that, an honest, self-aware, humane society must find ways and means of integrating death and suffering into its everyday norms.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

The dishonesty in counting the poor

UTSA PATNAIK
  

The Planning Commission’s spurious method shows a decline in poverty because it has continuously lowered the measuring standard


The Planning Commission has once again embarrassed us with its claims of decline in poverty by 2011-12 to grossly unrealistic levels of 13.7 per cent of population in urban areas and 25.7 per cent in rural areas, using monthly poverty lines of Rs. 1000 and Rs. 816 respectively, or Rs. 33.3 and Rs. 27.2 per day. These princely amounts will pay for one urban male haircut while they are supposed to meet all daily food and non-food living costs. The poverty decline claimed is huge, a full 8 per cent points fall in rural areas over the two years since 2009-10, and a 7 per cent points fall in urban areas, never mind that these two years saw the aftermath of drought, poor employment growth and exceptionally rapid food price rise. The logically incorrect estimation method that the Commission continues to use makes it an absolute certainty that in another four years, when the 2014-15 survey results become available, it will claim that urban poverty is near zero and rural poverty only around 12 per cent. This will be the case regardless of any rise in actual deprivation and intensification of actual poverty.

Substantial rise

All official claims of low poverty level and poverty decline are quite spurious, solely the result of mistaken method. In reality, poverty is high and rising. By 2009-10, after meeting all essential non-food expenses (manufactured necessities, utilities, rent, transport, health, education), 75.5 per cent of rural persons could not consume enough food to give 2200 calories per day, while 73 per cent of all urban persons could not access 2100 calories per day. The comparable percentages for 2004-5 were 69.5 rural and 64.5 urban, so there has been a substantial poverty rise. Once the NSS releases its nutritional intake data for 2011-12 we can see the change up to that year, but given the high rate of inflation and sluggish job growth, the situation is likely to be as bad, if not worse. Our figures are obtained by applying the Planning Commission’s own original definition of poverty line. Given the rapidly rising cost of privatised health care, education and utilities (electricity, petrol, gas), combined with high food price inflation and exclusion of the majority of the actually poor from affordable PDS grain, it is hardly surprising that the bulk of the population is getting more impoverished, and its nutritional level is declining faster than before.

What is the basic problem with the Planning Commission’s method which produces its low and necessarily declining estimates, regardless of ground reality? The Commission in practice gave up its own definition of the poverty line which was applied only once — to get the 1973-74 estimate. After that, it has never looked over the next 40 years even once for deriving poverty lines at the actual current spending level, which will allow the population to maintain the same standard of living in terms of nutrition after meeting all non-food costs — even though these data have been available in every five-yearly NSS survey.

The Commission instead simply applied price indices to bring forward the base year monthly poverty lines of Rs 49 rural and Rs.56 urban in 1973-74. The Tendulkar committee did not change this aspect; it merely altered the specific index.

Price indexation does not capture the actual rise in the cost of living over long periods. Those doing the poverty estimates would be the first to protest if their own salaries were indexed only through dearness allowance. A fairly high level government employee getting Rs.1,000 a month in 1973-74 would get Rs.18,000 a month today if the salary was only indexed. The fact that indexing does not capture the actual rise in the cost of living is recognised by the government itself by appointing decadal Pay Commissions which push up the entire structure of salaries — an employee in the same position today gets not Rs.18,000 but a four times higher salary of over Rs.70,000. Yet those doing poverty estimates continue to maintain the fiction that the same standard of living can be accessed by the poor by merely indexing the original poverty line, and they never mention the severely lowered nutritional access at their poverty lines which, by now, are destitution lines.

Worsening deprivation

The fact is that official poverty lines give command over time to a lower and lower standard of living. With a steadily lowered standard, the poverty figures will always show apparent improvement even when actual deprivation is worsening. A school child knows that if last year’s percentage of students passing the annual examination is to be compared to this year’s percentage, the pass mark should be the same. The school principal cannot quietly lower the pass mark without informing the public, say from 50 out of hundred last year to 40 this year, and then claim that the school’s performance has improved because 80 per cent of students are recorded as ‘passed’ this year at the clandestinely lowered pass mark, compared to 75 per cent of students last year. If, at the same pass mark of 50, we find that 70 per cent of students have passed this year, we are justified in saying that the performance, far from improving, has worsened. If the school is allowed to continue with its wrong method, and lower the pass mark further next year, and again the next year, so ad infinitum, it is eventually bound to record 100 per cent pass and zero failure.

The case is exactly the same with the official poverty lines as with the pass mark: the poverty lines have been lowered continuously below the standard over a very long period of 40 years. ‘Poverty’ so measured is bound to disappear from India even though in reality it may be very high and worsening over time. The Commission’s monthly poverty line for urban Delhi state in 2009-10 is Rs.1040 — but a consumer spending this much could afford food that gave only 1400 calories a day after meeting all other fast rising expenses. The correct poverty line is Rs.5,000 for accessing 2100 calories, and a staggering 90 per cent of people have been pushed below this, compared to 57 per cent below the correct poverty line of Rs.1150 in 2004-05. Given the very high rate of food price inflation plus the rising cost of privatised medical care and utilities, it is not surprising that people are being forced to cut back on food, and the average calorie intake in urban Delhi has fallen to an all-time low of 1756. While a high-visibility minority of households with stable incomes is able to hire-purchase multiple cars per household and enjoy other durable goods, the vast working underclass which is invisible to the rich is struggling to survive. Fifty five per cent of the urban population cannot access even 1800 calories today, compared to less than a quarter in that position a mere five years earlier.

Why, it may be asked, do the highly trained economists in the Commission ignore reality and continue with their incorrect method? Surely they can see as we do, that their Rs.1040 poverty line gives access to a bare-survival 1400 calories. Part of the answer is that the ramifications of using the wrong method extend globally, for the World Bank economists have, for decades, based their poverty estimates on the local currency official poverty lines of developing countries, including India.
The World Bank claim of poverty decline in Asia is equally spurious. In reality, under the regime of poor employment growth and high food price inflation, poverty has been rising. To admit this would mean that the entire imposing-looking global poverty estimation structure, employing hundreds of economists busy churning out wrong figures, would come crashing down like a rotten termite-eaten house. The rest of the answer is that since the method automatically produces numbers showing spurious poverty decline, it is convenient for arguing that globalisation and neo-liberal policies are beneficial for people. Truth will always out, however.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

George Osborne's description of the economy is near-Orwellian


The fact that even Labour accepts the UK is 'on the mend' shows how low our expectations of economic performance are
IPPC
George Osborne this week. 'The UK's economic performance since the start of the coalition government … has been so poor that Thursday's announcement of 0.6% growth … was greeted with a collective sigh of relief.' Photograph: Christopher Thomond
If all else fails, they say, you can always lower your standards. This is what we have become used to doing in relation to the UK economy. The UK's economic performance since the start of the coalition government in May 2010 has been so poor that Thursday's announcement of 0.6% growth in the second quarter of 2013 was greeted with a collective sigh of relief.
Having declared the UK economy to be "on the mend" on the strength of this growth figure, George Osborne is said to have regained his swagger. Even the opposition grudgingly acknowledged that the latest figures were good enough news, although it was quick to add that the benefits of the recovery have been almost exclusively concentrated at the top.
But even the opposition's interpretation may be too charitable. Including the last quarter, the UK economy has grown by just 2.1% during the 12 quarters since the current government came to power. This compares very poorly with the 2% growth that the economy had managed in just four quarters between the third quarter of 2009 and the second quarter of 2010. The coalition blames this poor performance on the eurozone crisis. But this argument is not very persuasive when output has more than recovered to pre-crisis level in many eurozone countries, including France and Germany, while UK output is still 3.3% less than what it was at the beginning of 2008.
It gets worse. During the past five years, the UK's population has grown by 3%. This means that, on a per capita basis, the country's income is 6.3%, not just 3.3%, less today than it was five years go. This performance is far worse than what Japan managed during its infamous "lost decade" of the 90s. At the end of that period, Japan had a per capita income 10% higher than at the start.
If the UK is to match this performance during what looks certain to be its own "lost decade", it will have to grow at the rate of 3.9% every year for the next five years (or 3.3% in per capita terms, assuming that the past five years' population growth rate of 0.6% per year continues). Even the most optimistic cheerleaders for the coalition government are not talking such numbers.
Thus seen, describing the UK economy as being "on the mend" is a near-Orwellian redefinition of economic recovery. The fact that most people accept that description, even if with reservations about the uneven distribution of its benefits, shows how low the standard of performance we expect of the UK economy has become.
But even applying this low standard, it is not clear whether we can expect a sustained recovery in the coming years. There are at least two factors that can derail the recovery process, especially given that it is so feeble. The first is the likely evolution of the global economy. The eurozone may be dragging itself out of a recession, but things can turn for the worse at any moment. Especially given the severity of austerity in countries such as Greece, Spain and Portugal, the policy's continuation may result in another bout of political unrest, negatively affecting the economy.
Thanks to its avoidance of the worst form of austerity policy, the US economy has recovered from the 2008 crisis more strongly than the European countries. But with another federal debt ceiling negotiation looming later in the year, it is possible that the US recovery will be set back by another round of budget cuts. The Chinese economy has visibly slowed down. And the Chinese government seems determined to keep it that way for a while. Concerned with financial stability, it has clamped down on credit expansion. Worried about seething public anger against government corruption and extravagance, it has imposed a ban on "wasteful" government spending (lavish buildings, banquets, and foreign trips). These are all good policies in the long run, but they will dampen Chinese demand in the immediate future.
The other two biggest "emerging" economies, Brazil (second largest) and India (third), have both seriously slowed down in the last couple of years. India's growth rate fell from 10.5% in 2010 to 6.3% in 2011, and then to 3.2% in 2012. The equivalent figures for Brazil were 7.5%, 2.7%, and 0.9%. Both these economies suffer from high inequality and social tensions, as shown by the recent protests in Brazil and the resurgence of Maoist guerillas called the Naxalites in the eastern part of India. Therefore there is always a possibility that political unrest may dampen these economies even further.
These global factors are, of course, beyond the UK's control, but there is another factor at least partially within its control that may derail the recovery. It is the asset bubbles that have developed in the stock market and the property market, fuelled by cheap credit (sounds familiar?).
Share prices have reached levels that simply cannot be justified by the state of the economy. In May 2013, the FTSE 100 share price index surpassed the pre-crisis peak of June 2007, although it has come down a bit since then. Given that the pre-crisis peak was supported by a buoyant (albeit unsustainable) economy, current share prices, which have no such support, can only be described as an even bigger asset bubble.
Although the rest of the country is still experiencing a stagnant housing market, property markets in London and the south-east are beginning to look inflated, given the state of the economy. And the government is stoking this property bubble with the Help to Buy scheme.
These asset bubbles have provided important sources of demand in the UK economy in the past few years. But the trouble is that they are quite shaky even for asset bubbles, for they are only sustained by historically low interest rates and the massive indirect subsidies given to banks through the so-called quantitative easing scheme.
The fragile nature of these bubbles is revealed by the nervousness with which financial market participants react to pronouncements by central bankers. They know that the current price levels are viable only with QE, so they are readying themselves to jump as soon as there is a sign that it may come to an end. When the asset bubbles deflate, there is likely to be a serious fall in demand that will derail the recovery.
In the past few years the UK should have found a way to stage a recovery without having to rely on state-sponsored asset bubbles. As it hasn't even tried, it is facing the prospect of having a "lost decade" that is even more "lost" than the original one in Japan. 

Thank God we have an archbishop who views Wonga's loans as modern slavery


Justin Welby is keen to recover the economic meaning of salvation as redemption. We are lucky to have him
Welby condemns attacks on Muslims
The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, wants the Church of England to expand credit unions as an alternative to payday lenders. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA
"Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us." The familiar words of the Lord's prayer, right? Except, in the earliest Greek manuscripts, the word isn't sins, it's debts. "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." That is how the King James Bible renders the Lord's prayer, though it still feels clunky when used in church.
But it feels even more clunky in the context of the whole Jesus v Wonga debate. The archbishop may want the church to have a greater role in supporting credit unions. But what sort of a lending model can be sustained when the mission statement of that organisation has the forgiveness of debts at its heart?
OK, to be fair, it's not the church that will be doing the lending on the Welby plan. The idea is for the churches (who have more outlets that the banks) to offer their facilities and human resources in support of credit unions. And it is credit unions that will be doing the lending. But even so, the church does have serious historic issues with money and the advent of a capitalist archbishop serves to bring these to the surface.
Though lots of Christians talk about sin (often translated in the mind as sexual misadventure), debt is the more basic theological category. Redemption, for instance, is a word that the church has borrowed from the ancient financial services industry. It is the recovery of something pawned or mortgaged. In a world of slavery, that something can be one's very life. And so it is today. Those who are trapped in Wonga's wicked 5,000% APR, often borrowing money to pay off other loans, thus deepening the crisis, have their lives owned by other people – by those, in this instance, making £50m a year profit off their misery. This is modern slavery.
Those who argue that it is not the church's business to get involved in this have little knowledge of the Bible. Redemption is absolutely what the church is for. And it is something supremely practical. Of course, when the church itself was subject to a successful takeover bid by the Roman Empire, all this forgiving debts stuff had to be re-imagined (as did all the anti-war stuff too). And what better way for the marketing department of the Caesars to do this than to turn its newfound religion into something spiritual. Better "blessed are the poor in heart" (St Matthew) than "blessed are the poor" (St Luke). And in this process of ideological rebranding, sin becomes a more convenient category than debt.
But if the debt and slavery idea was conveniently re-thought, the church retained a peculiar and eventually poisonous doublethink about money. Lending money at interest was deemed a sin for centuries. And this meant that Christians ended up forcing Jews to do it for them, and then hating them for doing it, thus generating the conditions for European antisemitism. It took Calvin to argue that usury was not lending money at interest but lending money at excessive interest. As Max Weber famously explained, this was the point at which capitalism was given moral sanction by the church. Even so, Calvin would have been perfectly comfortable with the idea of legislating against Wonga's 5,000% APR – ie a cap on interest rates – rather than having to out-compete them through credit unions, which is the Welby caring-capitalism plan.
And however much I am with Calvin on this one, the C of E is lucky to have found an archbishop who is keen to recover the economic meaning of salvation as redemption (listen up, church commissioners). In Liverpool and Durham, he recognised the existence of modern slavery. And thank God he is pressing the church to do something about it.

Friday, 26 July 2013

The DRS problem: it's not the humans stupid


Kartikeya Date 

The controversial Trott decision: what many observers don't get is that it wasn't actually the third umpire who made the final call  © PA Photos
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The DRS is a system in which umpiring decisions can be reviewed by players. Events on the field can also be reviewed by umpires in some circumstances before a decision is made. A widely held view about recent problems with the system is that while the DRS is fine, the way it is used by players, and on occasion by umpires, has caused difficulties.
I hold the view that the problem, if there is one, is with the system, not with the way it is used. The way the system is defined strictly determines the way it is used.
The DRS system I refer to is described in detail by the ICC in its Playing Handbook (pdf). It is worth clearing up a few misconceptions at the outset.
The TV umpire does not overturn a decision under the DRS. The TV umpire is explicitly prohibited from discussing whether or not a particular appeal should result in an out or a not out. Further, there is no standard in the DRS requiring "conclusive evidence to the contrary" to overturn a decision, as many commentators are fond of telling us.
The rules make only three points. First, the TV umpire must limit himself to the facts. Second, if some of the evidence requested by the umpire on the field does not permit a conclusion with "a high degree of confidence", the TV umpire should convey to the umpire on the field that a conclusive answer is not possible (the conclusion in this case is not the decision itself but about individual points of fact potentially influencing it). Finally, if some information is not available to the TV umpire, he is required to report this to the on-field umpire. He is also required to provide all other evidence requested by the on-field umpire. If we go by the ICC's DRS rules, at no point in the review process is the TV umpire required to provide a definitive conclusion by putting together all the evidence.
The Guardian reported that the ICC did admit to a protocol error in the way the umpires addressed Australia's review in Jonathan Trott's first-ball lbw dismissal in the second innings at Trent Bridge. The ICC has declined to say what the protocol error was, citing a long-standing policy of not revealing communication between umpires. A number of observers think that the absence of one Hot Spot camera angle should have automatically meant that the outcome of the review should have been inconclusive, allowing Dar's original not-out decision to stand. I think this is a misreading of the ICC's DRS rules.
Let's reconstruct the case of Trott. Umpire Erasmus in the TV umpire's box would not be asked "Is Trott LBW?", or even "Did Trott hit the ball with the bat?" Going by the ICC's rules, he would be asked a different series of questions. Does Hot Spot show a touch? No. Does the replay show a touch?Inconclusive. No clear evidence of a deviation. (Some people have argued that there was evidence of deviation on the replay. I disagree. As did Michael Atherton on live commentary.) Does the square-of-the-wicket Hot Spot show a touch? This angle is unavailable. Can you hear any relevant sound on the stump microphone? Inconclusive. Did the ball pitch in line? Yes. Did it hit the pads in line? Yes. Does the ball-track predict that it would have hit the stumps?Yes.
According to the rules, Erasmus would be prevented from providing probabilities or maybes. It would have to be yes, no, or can't say. After getting all these factual responses from Erasmus, Dar would have to make up his mind. Did what he heard from Erasmus merit reversal? As we know, he decided that it did. The protocol error could have been that Erasmus neglected to mention that one of the Hot Spot angles was unavailable. It could also have been that Dar weighed all the facts Erasmus provided to him incorrectly and reached the wrong conclusion, though it is difficult to construe this last possibility as a protocol error, since the protocol explicitly requires the on-field umpire to exercise judgement, which is what Dar did. "The on-field umpire must then make his decision based on those factual questions that were answered by the third umpire, any other factual information offered by the third umpire and his recollection and opinion of the original incident" (See 3.3[k] of Appendix 2 of the Standard Test Match Playing Conditions, ICC Playing Handbook 2012-13).
This is the central faultline in the understanding of the DRS. To some technophiles, it promises an end to interpretation; that, with the DRS, there is to be no more "in the opinion of the umpire". Technology will show everything clearly - make every decision self-evident.
Not so. Under the DRS, a judgement has to be made about whether or not evidence is conclusive. A judgement also has to be made about whether all the evidence (often conflicting, due to the limitations of the technologies involved), taken together, merits a reversal. There have been instances where outside edges have been ruled to have occurred, though there was no heat signature on the bat.
The ICC has consistently insisted that the idea is not to render umpires obsolete. It is right, but in a convoluted way. What the DRS does is allow umpires a limited, strictly defined second look at an event. But it does so on the players' terms. Umpires are currently not allowed to review a decision after it has been made on the field. The "umpire review" element of the DRS takes place before the decision is made on the field in the first instance. Simon Taufel, who has wide experience of both DRS and non-DRS international matches, has questioned whether this is reasonable.
So far, the DRS has been badly burnt in the ongoing Ashes, and has received criticism from some unexpected quarters. Add to this a recent report that a few boards other than India's also oppose it. I suspect that the DRS will not survive in its present form for long.
The ICC is experimenting with real-time replays, which it says will allow TV umpires to initiate reviews. The ICC has long claimed that this is currently not done because it will waste time. The ICC's statistics suggest that in an average DRS Test match, 49 umpiring decisions are made (a decision is said to be made when an appeal from the fielding side is answered). Let's say an average Test lasts 12 sessions. This suggests that on average about four appeals are made per session of Test cricket when the DRS is employed. These numbers don't suggest that allowing umpires to initiate reviews will result in too much extra wasted time, do they? It should be kept in mind, though, that the ICC assesses time wasted relative to the progress of the game, and not simply as a measure in seconds or minutes.
The most damaging consequence of the DRS is off the field. It has now become a point of debate among professional observers of cricket about whether dismissals are determined by the umpire. The idea that the umpire is an expert whose role it is to exercise judgement, and whose judgement is to be respected, is now only superficially true. Time and again, eminently reasonable lbw decisions are reversed for fractions, and as a result are considered clear mistakes. Cricket has lost the ability to appreciate the close decision, the marginal event. It has lost the essential sporting capacity to concede that an event on the field is so close that perhaps a decision in favour of the opposition is reasonable.

Cricket - Private Schools England, Public Schools Australia

Steve Canane in Cricinfo 26/7/2013

In cricketing terms Ed Cowan comes from a disadvantaged background. Australia's top-order batsman was educated at Cranbrook, an elite private school well known for producing accumulators of wealth (James Packer, James Fairfax) as well as a few de-accumulators (Jodee Rich, Rodney Adler), but not so many accumulators of runs and wickets.
But Cranbrook is not alone. Despite having access to the best facilities and good coaches, cricketers from elite private schools across Sydney are up against it when it comes to making it into the Test arena.
When Jackson Bird made his debut in last year's Boxing Day Test, veteran sports journalist David Lord pointed out that he was just the fifth Sydney GPS old boy to play Test cricket for Australia in 80 years. (The others are Stan McCabe, Jimmy Burke, Jack Moroney, and Phil Emery - Cowan's old school is part of the Associated Schools competition). By Lord's calculation, Sydney GPS schools have produced 132 Wallabies but just ten Test cricketers since 1877.
So why the imbalance?
One of the reasons is that cricket, unlike rugby, is a game in which 15-year-old boys can compete against men. If you attend a state school or a non-elite private school, you don't have to play for your school on a Saturday. A teenage boy playing grade or district cricket early has his temperament and skills tested against men. As a result, his development is accelerated.
"Historically yes, not being able to play against men regularly between those formative years of 15-18, particularly in New South Wales, is a bit of a disadvantage," Cowan told me in the lead-up to this Ashes series. "Playing on good wickets you get mollycoddled a little bit in the private school system, and you're not playing against great cricketers."
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Youth cricket in Cambridge - A structured middle class affair.


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Cowan was lucky his headmaster at Cranbrook, Dr Bruce Carter, was a cricket fan. Carter released him from school first XI duties so he could play first grade for Sydney University in his final year of school. Cowan was able to test himself against first-class bowlers and has no doubt it made him a better cricketer.
"I definitely think that last year, if I had to play school cricket, that would have been a bit of a handbrake on my development."
Former Australia captain Greg Chappell is adamant that quality young cricketers need to test themselves against men. When I was researching my book on the formative years of Australia's best cricketers, he told me attitudes needed to change in the private-school system.
"This whole idea of holding kids back in their age group is one of the greatest impediments to their development."
Chappell was one of three brothers who played Test cricket for Australia. All attended Adelaide's Prince Alfred College. But when Greg and Ian went to school, the first XI played in the men's District B Grade competition. At the age of 14 they were facing bowlers who had played, or would soon play, first-class cricket.
By the time younger brother Trevor attended Prince Alfred College, the first XI team was only playing against other school teams. Trevor dominated schoolboy attacks but never dominated Test attacks like his older brothers. Both Ian and Greg believe the school's withdrawal from the men's competition was detrimental to their young brother's development.
"I believe," Ian wrote, "playing against grown men at a young age gave Greg and me a huge advantage over Trevor."
When Ashton Agar made his extraordinary debut at Trent Bridge, cricket fans were struck by his maturity and unflappable nature. Playing in his first Test at the age of 19, he broke two significant records: the highest ever Test score by a No. 11 batsman (98) and the highest partnership for the last wicket (163 with Phil Hughes).
Agar is only 18 months out of school. Would he have been able to show such maturity if he hadn't been playing against men from an early age? Agar's old school, De La Salle College in Melbourne, plays their first XI cricket on a Wednesday. This allowed Agar to play district cricket for Richmond on weekends. He made the club's first-grade team when he was in year 11.
Agar's school coach Marty Rhoden, a former first-grade legspinner, has seen other young boys stagnate after winning sporting scholarships to elite private schools.
"I've witnessed several cases of students who would have benefited if they stayed at their schools, where they could keep playing club cricket on Saturdays. I'd argue it had a direct effect on their development."
Of course there are exceptions. Shane Warne won a sporting scholarship to Mentone Grammar, as did current fast bowler James Pattinson at Haileybury. Pattinson's school coach Andrew Lynch, now Victoria's chairman of selectors, believes it benefits good cricketers to keep playing for their school.
"They get an opportunity to dominate, which is important, and the competition only goes for ten weeks, so if they're good enough they can still go and play for their clubs."
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Of the 12 players chosen for the Australia Test team of the 20th century, eight went to state schools
 
Cricket is a game of statistics as well as stories. So let's lay out some numbers. If we take the NSW squad as an example, of the 19 players contracted last season, 14 went to state schools, four went to religious private schools, and one went to both. None of the squad attended an elite private school in Sydney.
If we look at the Australian team at Trent Bridge, the figures are closer. Six went to state schools: Michael Clarke (Westfields Sports High); Phillip Hughes (Macksville High/Homebush Boys High); Steve Smith (Menai High); Brad Haddin (Karabar High); Mitchell Starc (Homebush Boys High); and Peter Siddle (Kurnai College).
Agar, as discussed earlier, went to a Catholic college that allowed him to play cricket for his club. Four went to elite private schools: Shane Watson (Ipswich Grammar); Chris Rogers (Wesley College in Perth); Pattinson (Haileybury in Victoria); and Cowan (Cranbrook).
But if we split it up into those who grew up in NSW, it becomes five state school boys, and one private school boy, who was released from school duties to play club cricket in year 12.
If we look at how elite private schools in other states go about their business, there may be some clues. Watson played grade cricket in Brisbane for Easts/Redlands while still at school. According to Ipswich Grammar's cricket coach Aaron Moore, in Brisbane's GPS competition they play only eight games, kicking off the season in February, and encouraging their boys to play senior cricket up until then.
In Tasmania it's similar. Launceston Grammar, which produced David Boon and current Ashes squad member James Faulkner, only plays six to eight games, freeing up their boys to play for their club sides more often than their Sydney counterparts.
In Western Australia, the private school system seems to be working. In recent decades, the Darlot Cup has fostered Test players such as Justin Langer, Stuart MacGill, Chris Rogers, Simon Katich, Geoff Marsh, Shaun Marsh, Tom Moody, Terry Alderman, Brad Hogg, and Brendon Julian. Seven private schools play each other in a competition that lasts seven weeks, with each game played over two days - Friday afternoon and all day Saturday. While the schools are considered elite, they are more accessible and affordable than those in the eastern states.
According to John Rogers, a former NSW Sheffield Shield cricketer, and father of the current Australian opener, the Darlot Cup was where his son first found his feet.
"I had no prospect or intention of sending my sons to GPS schools in Sydney. I was astonished to find I could in Perth and the facilities were superb and the competition played with intensity. Darlot Cup is a long, tiring exhausting battle and the boys love its drawn-out, competitive nature. Perth is quite different from Sydney and Melbourne. What Greg Chappell says has always been the case in Sydney - but in my view it doesn't apply to Perth."
Having scored several hundreds in the Darlot Cup, on wickets as good as the WACA, Chris Rogers made a seamless transition to club cricket with Melville in his last term at school, making 70 in his second first-grade game against a trio of two-metre tall Test bowers - Jo Angel, Brendon Julian and Tom Moody.
"At the same time," Rogers says, "Michael and David Hussey were making their way through the grade system. WA has the advantage that both systems have been shown to work well."
Despite the productivity of Perth's private schools, graduates of state schools have tended to dominate the ranks of Australian Test teams. If we look at the top tier of Australian cricketers, they tend to have been exposed to men's cricket from an early age.
Of the 12 players chosen for the Australia Test team of the 20th century, eight went to state schools: Bill Ponsford (Alfred Crescent School); Arthur Morris (Newcastle Boys High and Canterbury Boys High); Don Bradman (Bowral Public School); Neil Harvey (Falconer St School); Keith Miller (Melbourne High); Ian Healy (Brisbane State High); Dennis Lillee (Belmont High); and Allan Border (North Sydney Boys High). Two went to private schools: Greg Chappell (Prince Alfred College); and Ray Lindwall (Marist Brothers, Darlinghurst). The remaining two players went to both state and private, the rogue legspinners Shane Warne (Hampton High and Mentone Grammar) and Bill O'Reilly (Goulburn High and St Patrick's College, Goulburn). Of the 12, only Warne did not play regular club cricket against adults in his final years in school.
If we analyse Australia's team in the first Ashes Test 12 years ago, when they put one of their best ever teams on the field, it's an almost identical story. Eight of the 11 went to state schools: Michael Slater (Wagga Wagga High); Ricky Ponting (Brooks Senior High); Mark and Steve Waugh (East Hills Boys High); Damien Martyn (Girrawheen Senior High); Adam Gilchrist (Kadina High); Brett Lee (Oak Flats High); and Glenn McGrath (Narromine High). Two went to private Catholic schools: Jason Gillespie (Cabra Dominican College); and Matthew Hayden (Marist College, Ashgrove). Shane Warne went to both state and private schools, as mentioned, and once again was the outlier, being the only one in the team who did not play regular club cricket against adults in his final years at school.
In 1998, fast bowler Matthew Nicholson was picked to play against England in the Boxing Day Test match. A former student at Knox Grammar, Nicholson was the last graduate of Sydney's elite private schools to make it to Test cricket before Cowan and Bird were selected. He is now the director of cricket at Newington College.

Tony Greig's ten-year-old son Tom talks to Michael Clarke, Australia v Sri Lanka, 3rd Test, Sydney, 1st day, January 3, 2013
Michael Clarke, who went to a sports high school, had the time, the inclination and the facilities to hit balls for hours on end © Getty Images 
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Nicholson doesn't feel that attending a private school held back his development: "I don't think so. I captained my side and was able to develop in other ways. I learnt how to be a leader and learnt about myself, and I was still able to play for my grade side, Gordon, for eight weeks in the school holidays."
Nicholson makes a valid point that in private schools, boys have to juggle a range of activities that might put them behind cricket-obsessed boys in state schools: "A lot of our boys are pulled in different directions - school commitments, drama, music and academic. For many of them cricket is a small part of their life, for other boys it can be almost everything; all they do is hit balls."
You can't imagine a 16-year-old Michael Clarke having to miss a net session to rehearse for The Mikado, or make sure he did his euphonium practice. Clarke went to a sports high school and his parents ran an indoor cricket centre. He had the time, the inclination and the facilities to hit balls for hours on end.
If neuroscientists like Daniel Levitin are right when they say that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master any skill, then Clarke had a big advantage over his private school contemporaries. Private school students in Sydney often spend hours commuting to and from school. State school students and private school boys in smaller cities can spend more time in the nets and less time stuck on the bus in traffic.
In an interesting aside, in England it is an advantage to go to a private school. Writing in History Today, former English Test cricketer Ed Smith points out that having a private school background is an advantage in England: "Simply, if you want to play for England, first attend a private school."
Smith claims over two-thirds of England's 2012 team were privately educated, an extraordinary figure when you consider around 7% of English children go to private schools. In Australia, it's a different tale. Around 35% of Australian children go to private schools, or five times the number in England, and yet the majority of our Test team continues to come from the state-school system.
So what are the lessons from all of this? Should private schools in Sydney look at the Perth and Brisbane models? Should they be more willing to release their best players to play grade cricket?
Nicholson says the most important thing is the development of the boys: "If they feel like they are being held back, then we should let them go."
Maybe the private schools should be asked to move their first XI cricket to Wednesdays or Sundays so all the boys get a chance to play against men from an early age on. But there's little chance of that happening. In elite private schools, tradition is everything.
As one coach told me, "We had enough troubles changing the start time by half an hour, let alone changing the days!" 

On Cricket - Hawk-Eye is cockeyed, says Bishan Singh Bedi

Former Indian captain Bishan Singh Bedi, one of the finest left-arm spinners the world has seen, shared his views on contentious issues surrounding the game in an exclusive chat with TOI 26 July 2013. Excerpts...

The first two Ashes Tests have put a big question mark over the reliability of the Decision Review System. Are you for doing away with DRS?

Look, the whole idea behind allowing players to review umpiring decisions was to eliminate human errors with the help of technology. Nothing is wrong with that. The problem lies with the technology itself. I have never been a big fan of the Hawk-Eye and now it seems the Hot Spot too has gone cold. I completely endorse Ian Chappell's view that DRS should be taken out of the players' hands and handed over to the on-field umpires, who should be able to get technology-based inputs from the third umpire.

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But, as you said, the technology is still not foolproof...

It is not. There are inherent flaws in Hawk-Eye that in my opinion makes it cockeyed. What I particularly don't like about this technology is its standard approach to deviations. All bowlers know that very often balls deviate - more or less - without any particular reason. It may also depend on whether the bowler is bowling into the wind or against it. So these decisions are best left to on-field umpires, for they are in the best position to adjudicate.

Do you agree with the basic premise for a decision review in case of LBW appeals - that the ball should have pitched in line with the stumps?

The key to an LBW decision, in my opinion, should be not where the ball pitches but whether it would go on to hit the stumps if the batsman's did not come in the way. Let me point out that Mike Gatting would have been declared not out (on an LBW appeal) had Shane Warne's much-hyped 'Ball of the (last) Century' struck him on his back foot instead of sneaking in between his legs to hit the stumps! After all, Warne's big leg-break had pitched way outside the batsman's leg stump!

So how does one factor in the deviation?

It is a tough one. That is why I maintain that umpires should be very skeptical while ruling in bowlers' favour on front-foot LBW appeals. Look, the depth of the crease is four feet, and assuming that an average six-foot batsman would cover another four feet while playing forward means the ball would strike the pad some 8-9 feet from the stumps. The challenge before an umpire is that he not only has to read the line correctly but also factor in the trajectory of the delivery and possible deviations before deciding whether the ball would have gone on to hit the stumps.

So you are not in favour of umpires giving LBW decisions when batsmen are playing well forward?

Umpires should be more than 100% sure before upholding such appeals. All batsmen are not six-footers, so the umpires have to use their discretion.

Isn't it a pity that during your playing days batsmen got away by simply padding up?

Not only me, all four of us (Prasanna, Venkataraghavan and Chandrasekhar included) too missed out on a bagful of wickets because of this. Each one of us would have ended up with at least 200 more victims had umpires in our era given batsmen out when struck on the front pad.

Don't you think that umpires are under too much pressure because of DRS?

The umpire's job is an unenviable one. It is up to the governing body to make life easier for them. The players are not making it easier by appealing for everything. Umpires are human and are bound to succumb to pressures.

Why blame the players for this? They are, after all, playing within the rules...

The history of the game tells us that new rules had to be introduced because players pushed the parameters too far. 'Bodyline' bowling was possible because there was no restriction on the number of fielders on the leg side at that time. Fast bowlers used bouncers, a legitimate weapon in their armoury, to intimidate batsmen rather than trying to get them out. Ball-tampering became an issue. Match referees had to be introduced to make sure that there was no hanky-panky at the toss and to curb sledging. 

There seems to be a dearth of umpiring talent in the world...

You know why the English umpires used to be the best in our time? It was because they were mostly first-class cricketers for whom umpiring was a logical career option.

Is that the reason why it is not fair to compare players from different eras?

Just look at the bare facts. Together the four of us played 231 Tests, picked up 853 wickets but only 12.5 per cent of them (107) were LBW dismissals. Of my 266 Test wickets, only 16 came from LBWs (Prasanna 189/25, Venkataraghavan 156/24, Chandrasekhar 242/42). Muralitharan alone has 150 LBW victims, Shane Warne 138, Kumble 156, Vettori 74, Harbhajan 68 and Swann 68.