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Cricket Gangnam Style

After the Pietersen debacle, I went into this year’s World T20 without any desire to see England win. I certainly wouldn’t claim that KP is without faults, far from it, but the way that ECB handled the situation and the stench of hypocrisy (see David Collier’s recent comments and the fallout, and lack of consequences for him, as an example) and totalitarianism that taints the air around them meant that, for the first time in decades, I approached a global tournament hoping England wouldn’t win. Actually, I should correct that, I was delighted to see India win the fifty over World Cup because I thought Sachin deserved to have a medallion to add to all his other honours. But, this was the first time that I had actively wished England ill, and it was an odd feeling.

I am not a massive T20 fan, but I prefer the international version to the often facile IPL, and I am such a cricket tragic that I will watch any cricket that I can. So, I had to decide what team I was going to pin my hopes of victory on. Used to the emotional rollercoaster that is supporting England, I had to go for a team that had a chance of winning but that had equal ability to excite and disappoint its fans. Like millions of other cricket tragics choosing a second team, I couldn’t go past the West Indies. It wasn’t just memories of past glories and a hope for a revival, it had a great deal to do with their captain, Darren Sammy – a point I will come back to.

On paper, the West Indies looked like a very likely prospect, with some of the most powerful hitters in the game and a mystery spinner the likes of which I am sure George Bailey would trade his entire middle order for. Add that to the fact that many of their players have been commanding big money to play in T20 leagues all over the world and you would think that mix of experience and talent would make them a sure thing. But, as their fans would tell you, the West Indies have flattered to deceive many times over the past twenty years and have given the appearance of being about to turn the corner.

The West Indies guys seemed to really enjoy the favourites tag, but by the semi final I think that most people had written them off. They had only squeaked in via some very exciting super over performances (poor Tim Southee), and while I was hopeful, deep down I didn’t really think that they would be able to beat Australia in a semi final. Yes, Australia are a shadow of their former selves, but bitter experience has taught me never to write them off and they are the sort of team that delight in destroying brilliant but inconsistent opponents by finding the chinks in the armour.

Just like in general life, it was interesting to see how certain narratives had emerged by the semi final, and had become commonly accepted truths to be parroted at every opportunity. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the execrable before the game show on Foxtel before the Grand Final. I think because Australia had just been eliminated that they had given up on caring, but it was woeful television. But right throughout there were a number of things that I continually heard that were either proven wrong by how events unfolded, or were demonstrably false all along.

If you get Gayle out then you will win

There is no doubt that Gayle is a pivotal member of the team and that when he performs the West Indies are extremely hard to beat. It is no wonder that teams celebrate his wicket because he can really hurt you. But, the West Indies batted deeper than any other team in the tournament and I think had more individuals who could turn a match on their own. When Gayle was out cheaply in the final I am sure the Sri Lankans thought that had won the game, but Marlon Samuels played the innings of the tournament and showed how far he has come along.

I’ve been really impressed with Samuels over the past year, he has shown that he is that rarest of creatures, a man who has made some major mistakes and gone off the rails, but has learned from them and come back stronger and better than before. He has played great innings in very form of the game and it was heartening to hear him affirm the primacy of Test cricket in the strongest possible terms.

There were points when every member of the West Indies team stood and performed, they were far from a one man team. You could argue that Australia depended more on their openers, or Sri Lanka on Jayawardene than the West Indies did on Gayle.

That the West Indies bowling was too weak, and they’d have to win with the bat

Given that they struggled in the lead up matches, this was an understandable mistake to make. Even in the semi final when the West Indies killed Australia’s chase of a mammoth total before it could even begin with a wonderful bowling performance, they let things slide when complacency crept in. It would have been very hard to lose even with Bailey playing out of his skin, but better teams than the West Indies have learnt you take your foot of Australia’s throat at your peril. However, the game was pretty much won when what might have been seen as the weak link in their attack (a humble leg spinner in this age of mystery spinners!) took two key wickets, and early.

But, their bowling attack peaked at the right time, and what may not have seemed like a massive total in the final proved more than enough. They may have won the semi final with the bat, but without taking anything away from Samuels, they won the final with the ball.

That most West Indian players are mercenaries and don’t really care

One of my pet hates with the West Indies was watching some of the younger players who had received a share of the Stanford millions wearing their finger thick gold chains and swaggering around like they were Viv Richards. The great West Indies teams of the 70s/80s/90s earnt the right to be arrogant, but what had these new guys done, really? When it counted they were not to be seen, and it was hard not to think that the appearance of being cool was more important to them than winning.

But, watching Chris Gayle bat with a side strain against Australia, or Darren Sammy abusing a fielder who had been sloppy, you could see this was a team who desperately wanted to win, who wanted to live up to the legends of the past. They did care, and it was obvious in everything they did. And yes, they swaggered and were far cooler than I will ever be. But, they backed it up with performances that really mattered.

That Darren Sammy didn’t deserve his place in the team, let alone the captaincy

I’ve always rated Darren Sammy very highly. He is exactly the sort of cricketer I like, someone whom may not have as much natural ability as the superstars, but who always puts in maximum effort and gives his all for the team. But, he has been the subject of an incredible amount of vitriol from fans around the Caribbean. Part of this is because of the inter island rivalries mean that people will always react harshly to real or imagined slights against players from their own country, and Sammy was seen by many to be stopping a more deserving player from finding a place. But, I think that another part of it was that he is not a glamorous, swashbuckling player. He bowls tidy medium pace, and the only thing exciting about him is his ability to hit a long ball.

But he brings other qualities to this team, qualities that I think have been lacking for too long and have been a big part of the decline in West Indies cricket. There has been no shortage of exciting players, players who have all the talent in the world and the sort of charisma that makes them incredible to watch. But, Sammy brings a discipline and work ethic that really impressed me, and something else – the ability to subjugate his own ego in service to the team. He seemed to understand that real leadership is servant leadership, not the desire for personal glory. In this he showed that his constant references to Christ were not mere lip service, but a sign of a genuine faith that shaped the way he lived. You listened to his interviews, especially after winning the final, and he refused to take all the credit or even lash out at his critics. That must have been a huge temptation but instead he dwelt on the positives and expressed the same wish as so many back in the Caribbean have been expressing for decades, that this win might be a step towards reclaiming the glory the West Indies once possessed.

Jarrod Kimber expressed it really well in this article, and this paragraph sums it up nicely

Sammy has heard all of this. He’s just a nice guy. You could imagine him at a friend’s party, being holed up in the corner by someone who is telling him he should step down because he isn’t good enough. Every day he plays for West Indies, he simply does his best. Sometimes it is not good enough, but you can see how much he tries, see how much he wants it, and see that he is trying to build something for the islands and cricket team he loves.

So, I was glad to see him shine in this tournament. His captaincy was as good as, if not better than, any of the other captains, he didn’t seem scared to try new things or back his hunches (like getting Samuels to bowl the Super overs, something that nearly backfired). It is often said that team spirit “an illusion glimpsed in the aftermath of victory” but the West Indies were obviously enjoying their cricket the whole way through the tournament (how many times did we hear Gangnam Style?) and they looked genuinely happy to be playing under Sammy’s leadership. Plus, he contributed some vital spells with the ball, and some very important cameos with the bat.

He is definitely more suited to this format than to Test cricket, but I hope that this will buy him some more time to shape the side in his image, and perhaps take his game to the next level. He is the sort of leader that the West Indies need as they try and take this victory and keep the momentum going. They have all the pieces in place now, a good leader, a terrifying opening batsman, some young guns in the form of their life, a true mystery spinner and even some pace reserves. There is no reason why they can’t move up the ranking in all the formats and I would love to see Sammy leading them onwards and upwards.

That Sri Lanka were destined to win this one

I have to admit that I have never been a fan of Sri Lanka as a team, even though Sangakkara is one of my all time favourite players. They just seemed to constantly skirt very close to the boundaries of what I consider fair play, whether it was Ranatunga’s gamesmanship or bowling wides to deny opposition players a century (I want to stress that this was never my opinion of Sri Lankans as a whole!). I also don’t rate Jayawardene as highly as a batsman as so many seem to do. Sure, he has as amazing average and looks wonderful when he bats, but the difference between his home and away records means that he falls short of true greatness (as opposed to Sangakkara who has played some amazing overseas knocks).

But, when you read articles like this ( and you should read it, one of the best cricket articles you will ever read – I mean it. Go. Now. Read.), and realise how much a victory would mean to the people of Sri Lanka, it is hard not to feel a degree of sympathy for the Sri Lankan cricketers, who have been perpetual bridesmaids. That article really opened my eyes, and may me think about things I hadn’t before – the mark of good writing. If they had won it wouldn’t have been unwelcome, but I always felt that West Indies cricket needed this win more, that yet another disappointment would have further marginalised cricket in the Caribbean as more youth drifted away to basketball or cricket. Sri Lanka losing is not going to dent the popularity of cricket there, especially if financial scandals and corruption haven’t been able to.

This win, and the style it was achieved in, means that there is a new generation of West Indies heroes to inspire young people to pick up bat and ball. Perhaps they haven’t reached the peaks of achievement that their forebears did, and may never do so. But, this West Indian team saw the destiny that was waiting for them and, unlike so many teams over the past twenty years, reached out and seized it and refused to be pushed aside. Listening to Gayle after the semi final, you saw the arrogance sportsmen need, the belief that if they played the game they were capable of then no one would be able to stop them. And they were right. Sri Lanka were never going to win.

Well done, West Indies and congratulations on your win. For the sake of cricket as a whole may it be only the first of many.

I’ve said it before..

…but I will say it again. Gideon Haigh is the the greatest living cricket writer, and one of the all time greats. Not only does he fiercely champion Test cricket as the paramount form of the game, but he refuses to compromise by pandering to the dominant forces in world cricket and hands out criticism equally, not just to one or two groups. Sadly, I feel that the jingoism prevalent amongst many fans (one only has to read the comments on Cricinfo to see what I mean) means he doesn’t receive his due, because people cannot accept comments critical of their nation or team – even when they are true. There are famous cricket writers who seem to write their articles to appeal to the lowest common denominator, fortunately Gideon Haigh is not one of them. This article is well worth reading. And for those who accuse him of bias against India, the following quote:

Number one today is India, which is a happy event, because they also happen to be the most attractive team to watch. And for all the hypermodernity of Indian cricket, MS Dhoni’s team is full of genuine five-day cricketers, not jumped-up one-day players and Twenty20 non-entities. Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag, VVS Laxman, Zaheer Khan, Dhoni himself, would succeed in any age; when you watch them excel at their craft, time seems almost to stand still. That is an illusion, as you realise when you range back over the generations and grasp the way that the leading teams of their time have been just that: creatures of their time. But it’s an appealing and warming illusion, and a comforting one to nurture at the pub.

It’s not the Indian team, or India itself, that he scorns, it is the BCCI who certainly deserve it. There are lots of people who can’t differentiate between criticism of the BCCI and criticism of India the nation, which I think says more about them than about Mr Haigh.

Speaking of wonderful cricket writing, I came across an article today that I had to mention. I didn’t necessarily agree with it all, but there was one phrase that stood out. I often do that in books, it’s like watching a cricket match and seeing a perfect on drive or a brutal pull shot, you just sit back and admire the skill and artistry that goes into, the joy of a craftsman at work. This was an equivalent moment.

Yesterday we had the ultimate cricket pathos of Sachin Tendulkar, the Little Master still pursuing his 100th international century, polishing a little diamond of an innings among the Indian rubble. He hit boundaries of exquisite quality, he explored the best of what is left of his repertoire and showed us why he has been revered for so long. It was like looking at a masterpiece hung in an otherwise ransacked museum.

That is good writing.

Dhoni deserves some of the criticism coming his way for the team’s performance, he is captain after all. But, he went up in my esteem a great deal after his recall of Ian Bell, as did the the entire Indian team. You can argue about Law versus Spirit all you want, but it was an edifying moment in a sport that needs all the edification it can get. To me cricket is the noblest sport of all, despite the money grubbing and the politics and all the rest, and it is moments like this (or this) that embody why it is more than just a game. Bravo, India!

Sambit Bal’s article on the event is well worth a read, as well as this one.

I hate to say this…

…about a piece on cricket written by an American, but this is one of the best short works on cricket I have read in a long time, in fact I would put it in my top five or so. Perhaps sometimes you need an outsider’s perspective to get a fresh outlook.

It really is well worth reading, an excellent exploration of cricket’s place in India and the phenomena that is Sachin Tendulkar, and of the changes that are sweeping the cricketing landscape challenging both its history and its future.

Chak de India!!!

And the winners of the 2011 ICC World Cup are…India!

As much as I can’t stand the venality and arrogance of the BCCI, I was thrilled that India won, though I have to say I thought they were going to choke at the final hurdle. Why did I want them to win? Two words.

Sachin Tendulkar.

After more than twenty years of service to the game, being a role model on and off the field and winning and losing with equal humility, there was only one last honour that had eluded him, a World Cup winner’s medallion. I can’t think of anyone more deserving, and it would have warmed the heart of any true cricket fan regardless of allegiance to see how much it meant to him. There aren’t often fairy tales in professional sport, but there was a happy ending last night.

I was very impressed with Kumar Sangakkara, too. He is always very articulate, and he was extremely gracious in the face of what must have been a bitter defeat. Between him and Tendulkar, there are lots of role models worth emulating in world cricket, hopefully the IPL generation will take heed.

Speaking of which, I think the best line came from Virat Kohli, and I think it is worth finishing with.

This goes out to all the people of India. This is my first World Cup; I can’t ask for more. Tendulkar has carried the burden of nation for 21 years; It was time we carried him. Chak de India!

Good Old Collingwood Forever

In sad, but not unexpected, news today, Paul Collingwood has announced his retirement from Test cricket as of the conclusion of the SCG Test.

I have always been a huge Collingwood fan, not least because to me he epitomises the sort of player I would like to be, someone who who is not as naturally talented as others, but wrings every last drop from the abilities he does have. To me, that is far more admirable than the lazy but brilliant who just phone it in and often don’t fulfill their potential because when everything comes easy there is no incentive to work hard and go that extra mile.

I am sure many articles will be written in the next few days, and I will try and link to a few here, but as an England supporter I just wanted to express my appreciation of such a great servant of English cricket. From his dogged rearguards that saved series (the last Ashes, South Africa) to his exceptional fielding (perhaps only Jonty Rhodes has been better in the last 20 years) he really has been one of the big contributors to the successh tat England is now experiencing. At least we will still get to see him in ODIs and T20s.

EDITED TO ADD: A great piece here from Andrew Miller that says it far better than I could. What more could any player ask than to be remembered like that?

A poignant read

As I was rather snowed under at the time, I didn’t write much on the Pakistani spot fixing scandal, and it seemed that enough had been written since to make any words of mine superfluous (there are some great opinion pieces to be found after that link). However, I was reading the Wisden Cricketer this morning and came across this article. What a slap in the face the whole saga must have been for the English Cricket Board and the MCC, given all they had tried to do for Pakistani cricket!! Reading this excerpt:

There are only 10 full members of the ICC. We must have an outstanding Pakistan team – experienced and confident – as part of our rich international landscape, with a vibrant domestic game. It is remarkable what Ijaz Butt and his colleagues at the PCB have done – let alone the achievements of Salman Butt and his players – under immensely difficult circumstances.

and then Ijaz Butt’s arrogant and downright dishonest comments is poignant indeed! It is in character though, witness his slandering of Chris Broad after the Lahore atrocities, and makes you wonder how Butt could be trusted to run a 711, let alone a cricket board. I really feel for Giles Clarke especially. Whatever faults he has had as an administrator, he cannot be faulted for his selfless attempts to aid Pakistan cricket in this time of need.

But, it is not just the ECB that has been betrayed. Match fixing is a betrayal of the fans who invest their money, and far more importantly, their dreams in the sport they love and the players they idolise. That is a sacred trust and it has been broken by an establishment that exists to serve itself, not the game.

Playing the Field

I have always had a lot of time for Aakash Chopra. While his stats on the Indian tour of Australia in 2004 may not seem anything to write home about, the fact is that his steadiness at the top of the order was the perfect foil for Virender Sehwag and allowed Sehwag the the chance to express himself. It was this complementary opening partnership that made a major contribution to India’s strong showing.

I thought he was very unlucky to be discarded, but since then he has carved himself out a niche as an articulate and insightful feature writer for Cricinfo and proved a class above the usual player turned pundit. I particularly enjoyed his latest piece.

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