Getting topside.

I’m as fed up as you lot with the KP saga and can only justify writing about it by saying… consider this a fly swatted.

The major difficulties here, for me, are issues of timing and lack of clarity – and here I’m not talking about the actual batting.  KP should have been sacked (it would have been easier, England would have moved on) after the South Africa Strauss-subverting text fiasco, when it was plainer than ever that the man really has no conception of what the loyalty thing, the team unity thing is all about. There was a more genuine pretext then. Now it’s messier, partly because the ECB can’t say ‘look sorry we should have done this ages ago but… ya know…’

We’ve all always known Pietersen to be some either gorgeously or repellently exotic island – you make your case. But the fact that many of us would prefer to abandon a marooned KP to his own rather silly pomp than gather him in for a rescue, a singalong maybe and that chummy outward haul through the surf, speaks volumes. Many of us feel he’d never do his fair share of graft… and not all of that is envy of his gifts.

So the man’s a drain on the energies. He makes himself central. He does have an ego. Plus we’d be kidding ourselves, would we not, if we failed to acknowledge the politically sensitive subtext? That not only has the gifted one not generally truly been with us, he’s not truly one of ours, is he? Is he? (Make your case – I ain’t going there.)

And yet – depending on your personal location in the spectrum of tolerance/nationalism/downright bigotry – he’s either arguably England’s finest batsman ever, or (just) the finest batsman to play for England. Or the biggest talent? Or could take the game away from the opposition more dramatically than almost anyone we could think of – I think? Or not.  At least… he’s been really big. Like I said, he’s a drain on the energies.

I’m glad he’s gone and I want it to be over now. But the sniping persists because the Powers That Be have relinquished their power to control. They’ve shut up shop or just shut up. On the one hand I understand this; we know (really) that they can’t say the unsayable – why put yourself in that position? However, in the hugely frustrating void hooligans and Michael Vaughan and ooooh Piers Morgan have railed against their perceived cowardice , their lily-livered, old-school namby-pambi-ism.

You old farts just want Yes Men! Ya daren’t pick a bloody indeeviduall – a talent! Why dya drop ‘ im? We have a right to know! And by the way FREE NELSON MANDELA!!

Some of this stuff is fair enough. Which is why I come back to the timing – that and poor management of KP earlier in his England career.

Sir Geoffrey was really good on this in a column fut’ Telegraph. He argued well that KP should been slapped about a bit, or dropped, when he played shockingly irresponsibly. Good shout. For me, Pietersen, despite his impressive stats, has underachieved significantly for exactly this reason. Wickets thrown away in a moment of arrogance. That whole argument that he ‘must play his own way’. Cobblers. The essence of Test Cricket in particular, is the tactical and intelligent building of an innings; seeing and feeling and recognising the bigger picture rather than determining to show that chopsy bowler a thing or two and then blast on to glory.

Even in his alleged maturity, Pietersen has too often failed to see this. Because he’s KP. Somebody should gotta hold of that one early – got’ topside of ‘im’, as one of my old coaches would have said. Instead Pietersen has got away – sometimes majestically, sometimes infuriatingly – with just being him.

Being you is essential, of course in any endeavour, sporting or otherwise, but because there are pretty significant talents opposing you at the international level you have to have an appreciation of context, of the moment in the game. (I might add incidentally that at any level you also owe it to your mates, by the way. That minor sacrifice is one of the wonders of team sport.) Kevin Pietersen hasn’t been big on the team thing, though, has he? Ultimately, that’s caught up with him.

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Wildflowers.

Cricket fans of Ingerland, recalibrate your heart to the joys of orchid or vetch-watching and give a warming phenomenon a chance. For one of the loveliest things about the natural world is the seemingly illogical blooming of wildflowers on wasteland. Thus you residents of Croydon or of Barry – or Dublin, Jo’burg or Harare, come to think of it – in your bland estates, need only import a 50 tonnes dollop of subsoil (not topsoil) and hurl it round the gaff before the tiddly gems appear, free of competition from nettle or from ryegrass. Hopefully. Hopefully this works.

The worldly wise may counsel for strategies plural, however, amidst the trauma of ahem… overwhelming events Down Under.

Therefore I wholeheartedly offer both Wildflower Innoculation Therapy and, as a Plan B, in this clunkingly deflating instance, for the restoration of national pride, the following; the defiant public bellowing of ‘Darkling Thrush’ by former Gloucestershire quickie, Thomas Hardy, featuring mainly a psychotically trilling bird – a bird trilling against the cruel universe, a bird whose pain we might know.

Because we’re smashed, smashed and bewildered too, right? And something has to be done or said, or screamed hysterically to the heavens.

Gor blimey. Just re-listened to Sir Geoffrey on Five Live; really hurting. Whatever you think of the bloke his umbilical link to the game visibly/audibly remains intact, his views carry both the weight of genuine experience and well… love actually. The man cares as well as spouts. He felt the final day’s Ashes Capitulation was possibly the worst he’d ever seen from an England side, unsurprisingly, making this Pink Day a kind of remarkable low point.

So what’s to do? Who has to carry the can or step aside or go back to their county and re-earn the right? In a case so extreme – one where a side of ours is so unrelentingly battered by a worthy but hardly majestic opponent – it’s not just that weird vengeance thing that cries out for change. Even the steadiest of us can barely contain our rage and disappointment. What’s to do? Here’s a few scattered thoughts from another scrambled brain…

We’ll agree on very little, no doubt, my friends (and that’s fine – great fun, even) except that the most immediate and arguably most central issues are those over captain and coach(es). This team have failed so utterly against a decent rather than exceptional side that falling upon swords by the alleged ‘leadership group’ – zoiks, they probably do describe themselves that way! – has to be/to have been considered. One way or t’other, material changes in coaching and playing staff are unavoidable.

Head Coach Flowers has been one of the world’s best for several years but for him to preside over a tour where energy, brightness and morale as well as decision-making of all sorts has been so consistently, dispiritingly poor or vulnerable suggests some fundamental reboot is necessary. Hard to know how much his personal mojo has deserted him and how much is down to players failing to execute; in either case the dearth of motivation and professional focus is a huge grubby mark against the Flowers record. If he survives, he is lucky – but I could live with that.

Batting Coach Graham Gooch fits even more snugly into the stolid, anti-inspirational mould than his ultimate boss. For me this means he goes. Players have evidently stopped listening; he goes.

Cook has had such a lousy tour and is so patently not a Test skipper that the only thing that can keep him in place is the lack of a viable replacement. He is a bland man and a historically tremendous batsman who must clearly stay in the side to re-groove his run-making habit at the top of the order. Folks might follow him in that order and indeed the record books but crucially they ain’t truly gonna follow him. He lacks charisma, he lacks a captain’s wit, he lacks spunk (actually.) What’s to follow?

There is no-one in this group with the class, invention or implacable will to step in and replace  Cook; hilariously, Broad is probably the closest we have to the spirited ideal. But given that Pietersen and Bell – other crypto-contenders? – are too cheesy and too chalky respectably, who is there and where is he at?

This surely is what most fans are wondering , if indeed they are sufficiently engaged after this horror show to think or talk England Cricket? Should there be a county skipper out there who is strongish and spiky and can bat middle order he may well be in contention. May that conversation continue, eh?

In terms of who stays in the side on merit, we’re looking at Stokes and um… Stokes, I suppose. The stats say Pietersen has done okay and the pro pundits all seem to idolise his talent but I do wonder where we would be if he had been dropped (permanently?) for his arrogance and subversion late in the Strauss era?

We could not possibly be any worse off right now and it could be somebody like Root might perchance have exploited that KP void whilst a happier, better expressed Swann might still be twirling away. (And yes, I probably am making a case for a KP-less England being a chirpier, more holistically-sound unit. Less eggshells to walk on, more team-aware/state-of-game-aware batting too, quite likely, as players actually listen to the gaffer rather than ‘play their own way’.)

Pietersen’s work in Australia has been mixed. One or two mildly shocking outbreaks of grit and application in the usual matrix of ‘confident’ expression; by which I mean the reach for dominance. Mostly again, in my view, he was a prize rather casually gifted – look at the dismissals and who got him out. Team spirit is really big in team sport – just look at the Aussies now they’ve sorted theirs. KP remains an island in solitary, slightly fading pomp.

Carberry is a fascinating one. I wondered aloud re-Ashes about his scratchiness but hoped his apparent coolness/rootedness as a bloke might see him through. Arguably, it did but it may be deemed a too significant failure that he made all those starts and never went on. Expect him to be victim of the inevitable and justifiable culling and ‘rejuvenation’.

Bell had a tour he will wish to forget. He crumbled, something a technically robust and generally temperamentally sound and experienced international must not do. He will barely believe some of his dismissals happened to him.

Root was a big disappointment but looks likely to benefit from the longer-term view; Ballance may get another shot at it; Bairstow may too but his keeping and batting were ordinary and Prior will surely return?

The bowlers were forever playing catch-up but they were rarely up to it. They wilted, generally, in a way that surprised and disappointed me more than the batting debacle. Selection, strategy and execution were equally as shambolic. God knows these guys have enough information about where and how to bowl at particular players – the famous ‘plans’ – and what is likely to happen under the various conditions across the Oz continent. I know I’m not alone in suspecting that this may even be part of the problem – bamboozlement and overcoaching. Too many ideas, too little focus and no execution. Certainly our bowlers lacked what we might call, with some hesitation, mental strength.

At junior levels we think of 2 or three things only to guide a player through. Could it be that the 42 objectives coursing through the brains of our bowling attack only served to increase the level of befuddlement?

If there was a word that encapsulated England in these Ashes it was ‘scrambled’. Bowlers too; they lacked threat then became directionless – often literally. They were humiliated every bit as much as the batsmen. OK, the injury to Broad didn’t help, but the feeling arose very early and then persisted that we didn’t know either our best bowling attack or how to take on the Australian batting.

Look we have to credit the Aussies for a pretty complete performance throughout. But even or especially at elite level, the non-negotiables – playing with spirit, bowling line and length, batting watchfully – mean you are at the very least always competitive. What hurts Boycs and me… and probably you the most is that England were never competitive. Never.

Find the wildflower in that desert.

Fall into the ashes.

The issues. Whether or not Tremlett and Prior are ‘risked’. Whether or not Carberry makes a doughty seventy-something in the first test (and Root either triumphs or drops anchor at six). And –surprisingly? – whether or not rain spoils Brisbane. Job done. No dramas. End of column.

Yeh right. Too much fun to be had to get that focussed. Too much atmosphere to stage-dive into. So, of course, I will.

It’s not, at the time of writing, totally clear what the England side will look like. Who will represent us in that gladiators-in-white flannels thing soon to flutter into our consciousness via some barely-credible signal bounced off the moon/Ayers Rock and Kylie Mynogue’s left nipple. Who exactly will that be? And how much does the finer detail matter? When it’s actually all about a blur of our lot steaming in to scud cherry-red grenade-replacements at a couple of isolated Aussies performing defiant shuttles across the transported village green? Do we care who (exactly) does the slaying – which symbols come to hold aloft the severed heads? Do we?

‘Cos it’s all a bit – in fact remarkably, is it not? – tribal? And therefore both appalling and wonderfully of us. And given that this (cricket) us is maybe more… well, middle-class and allegedly therefore able to simultaneously walk, talk and think than the footie us (for example) this does make the ashes yet more extraordinary, huh? And anthropologically hilarious? I think so too.

But enough of the painstakingly researched detail. We need to talk about the forty-four limbed monster that is the team. Because despite my hunch that Broad is so pumped with Vitriopomp (available from all good pharmacists now) that he might win the first test within the first ten overs, there is likely to be a contest of sorts thereafter. Maybe a brilliant one. The poutingly punchy non-walking blonde may well reaffirm that what really matters is more about transcending lust than technical nuance but he may not. In which case we are drawn in to the myriad confrontations – the chess match of it, the bit for brainy blokes who say things like fascinating and I dunno… read the Telegraph. Here the microweb of bluffs, plans and sledgeo-funk may yet entrap us, enthral us even in our starlit vigil. Thus, if ‘nothing’s happening’, the coach and the expert in all of us will come out to play.

We’ll bang on to the sleeping dog about why that third seamer question will be so pivotal. How reckless it was for Flowers – that i-i-diot Flowers! – to have left out the season’s leading wicket-taker. How we always suspected Finn’s temperament just wasn’t up to it. How Tremlett’s such a li-a-bility – can’t get him on the park without pulling an eyelash. How Onions would have mopped up the last three no problem, ‘stead of them getting a hundred and forty bloody runs!! In short, our knowledge will grow in direct proportion to the drift against us.

But will there be drift? Or rather when is it most likely to hurt us?

Feels to me like there is more class in the England side – Cook, Trott, Pietersen, Bell, Prior, Swann, Broad and Anderson falling into the Top Player category – but how much of this is an anglo-centric view? For the Aussies Watson, Clarke… Siddle maybe for his fire? Then I’m either not convinced or not familiar enough, or just biased. Others feel more like good players (Finch?) with a tad more to prove.

But where – if these things turn out to be in any way predictable – are the likely chinks in the armour for England? Obviously the promotion of Carberry may be something of a gamble which conceivably could undermine them from ball one – meaning the scramble could start early. The contrary view is of course that Carbs may be brilliant and that if he isn’t the inclusion of Root at six will compensate – may even prove a masterstroke. How great would it be if Root came in and absolutely destroyed a tiring Australian attack?

I also love the idea that Carberry may go from part-time electrician to ashes god but am unable to expect it just now. The first test is hooooge for him and I genuinely wish him well; signs were encouraging when finally England got some meaningful practice recently but I was frankly not struck on him when I saw him dab and feel unconvincingly at the Swalec in August. (And I fully accept this was a very different form – and a very different form of event – to Brisbane.) Carberry’s temperament however appears to be good; if that holds he may not need to be special to be effective.

That third paceman call for England feels like it may be most central. And most likely to get us armchair cricket-rocket-scientists animated. Putting aside the Finn/Tremlett/Rankin conundrum, I have a certain sympathy for the pro-Onions faction. Right at this moment (and in this weather?) yonder Graham of Durhamshire has a particular appeal as safe-pair-of-hands-plus option. In fact he is palpably a whole lot better than that; his classic seamerness, that subtler timbre to his threat (compared to the robotic violence of the other candidates) plus his broader range of questions asked may not be the photofit for hard, dry Australian pitches but is not multidimensionality in a side generally advantageous? In his absence I slightly favour Rankin – strong unbreakdownable action.

The Prior situation is less fraught with choices. If he is fit (and not likely to break down and bugger up his series) he plays. Otherwise it’s the Yorkie lad. Might actually be good to have two keepers comfortable – or at least experienced – in ashes-style conflict.

But it’s the craic and the sledging and the rivalry that’s special. Us growed up folks regressing into that diabolical/essential/childish(?)/politically indefensible world of disproportion.

Don’t tell me you’re unfamiliar with this falling – so inevitable, so natural – into hallucinatory mode? Combining palpitating nationalism with higher-planed, weirdly supra-personal capacity to judge? Where the default position is (in this case Arm’s Length) Intermittently-Frantic Bolshie Interventionism. As though we too, are both satellites – omnipotent, circling at some supremely discreet but advantageous realm and then zooming in madly to bawl, or throw fruit – and (I guess) The Barmy Army on the ground. In their faces. Us.

NRG re-fueller.

Something a bit strange is going on when I’m sat in me new motor – the one I’m a bit in love with – enjoying views over Gwbert and Aberteifi, in buttercup-swaying sunshine, radio on but distracted – tetchy even – around the off button. You’ll know we’re talking Uniquely Weird, friends, when I report to you that in the moment of this ravishing, olfactory/audio-visual bliss-temptation, #TMS is on. Yes! TMS; that lush verbiocrumble for our dreamy afternoons. Now, mind, it’s elevenish. Can’t be at home; got reception; parked up. Play stopped.

Stopped for rain. Which is erm, fine – de rigeur even, for Headingley – but most unusually, the inter-droplet verbio-thingies rilly got to me. Or rather the cyclic nature, the endless haul of drips did. The boy Vaughanie and the Kiwis in particular – although Aggers complicit – banged on about Trott and Cook for an absolute age. I know it was raining and there was time to fill. I know they have every right – we all do – to chip in with their opinions. But the sheer weight of comment around slowness (Trott) and negativity (Cook) was lumpenly unnecessary, surely? I agree that Trott was too slow and the skipper was too conservative but bloody hell, fellahs!! England were then four wickets away from a second reasonably surgical dismemberment of the Black Caps and the ONLY POSSIBLE ESCAPE for McCullum and co was via a Yorkie downpour or two. (And England did, crucially, go on to win, in a way we might justifiably call handsome.)

Perhaps Trottie’s dull-but-spiky interview, in which he came over all bullishly protective of the England Massive cranked up the criticism? Perhaps he might have been more self-aware, more honest even? But if he had been ‘honest’ in the appallingly anodyne manner of most leading sportsmen – i.e. if he’d had appeased his way through the conversation with the sole aim of saying bugger all controversial – would that not have been worse than his offensive defensiveness? Whatever; the volume of the (quite possibly) well-meaning picking over of Trott and Cook stuff was, in my view, the problem. It was overdone.

I didn’t in fact turn off. There was clearly the potential for either/both sporting and meteorological drama, so why would I?

Maybe one of the jobs of the pundits is to get under our skins, eh? Calm down and listen. For one thing, look on the bright side – there might be Blowers. Oozing and defiantly timeless; ludicrous. Like some Darkling Thrush-Pigeon for the very concept of delight. Retro to the point of Hardyesque and cake-obsessed, describing both the technical minutiae, the loopy shadow-boxing of possibilities and the occasional interloping bird. Blowers. Shame that I heard not a word from him, given how humid with chance the game seemed. Things were well set for a grasping of the moment moment. And really I suppose it was Swann who grabbed hold. Let’s talk about him.

Swann is a remarkable bloke. Not only is he right right up there with the great slow bowlers – a sentence so glib-sounding I insist you read it four times and translate into eight different (allegedly) Celtic languages for the addition of y’know, profundo-spin – he is a genuine wit, a soon-to-be, gargantuan multi-media mover-and-shaker and for all I know a member of the Black Panthers. But mainly he can bowl. Immediately after coming back from a significant op, in a Test Match, he can bowl.

He competes; he spins the ball refreshingly sharply, faking and tempting. At what is unfortunately often termed The Death, whilst not entirely bamboozling the Kiwis he plucked them out in a fashion that seemed undeniable. Even as the weather and the Trott and Cook stuff threatened to become issues, he turned that key, that seam, expertly but with some violence clockwise, dismissing the froth and the chatter alongside the commendably feisty opposition.

He took eleven wickets in the match. On a pitch, in atmospheric conditions that were designed and built for Anderson or Southee (actually.) Swann it was who dominated; by that combination of personality, threat, persistence, guts and – of course -notable spin. We should therefore not be underestimating how significant an effort it is to have that much effect on a Test Match so soon after an enforced lay-off – whatever may be said about the level of opposition or the playing conditions. Swann is special.

So whilst I too often indulge in more or less constructive sounding-off on this or that sporting matter, I’m thinking I guess that we might merely note in passing that Cook had too few catchers in too often and that at one stage Trott misjudged the necessary scoring rate. But neither of them are criminal underachievers, are they? Brief note taken and move on, you reckon?

Reflection of a mature and critical nature is undoubtedly good and necessary; it’s part of the challenge to improve, the fabric of aspiration.  However, is it not the case that this, the Second Test was (also) won… and that it was won simply and undeniably through a telling contribution of remarkably positive energy from one player in particular? That off-spinner bloke; our gem. Let’s celebrate that.

Jimmy.

Jimmy Anderson – the England ‘quickie’ – has a whole lot going for him. An authentically dashing pseudonym (arguably two?) a talent so poetically/sensually indivisible from biomechanical foreplay it may need a watershed… and just the right amount of chest hair. In addition, the ‘Burnley Express’ can like really bowl too.

On a weekend dominated by that flashier but frankly less beautiful exponent of the slinging art – Broad – #Jimmy produced a moment of such stunning quality that for me it quietly outshone even the lanky one’s seven wicket haul. Like a ruby amongst Fool’s Gold. Broad brought blonde bombshell-shock, total disorder, to a Black Cap batting line-up which may even have fancied its chances at the change of innings. Jimmy meanwhile brought that whiff of the unbuyable, the uncoachable. Though apparently just getting on with it, he brought seduction – the guile of the artist. So whilst player after player was flummoxed by a rare outbreak of fullish length bowling from the coltish giant’s ‘hitting of his straps’, Anderson purred in and pressed his sable from t’other end.

Close investigation, supported in the eye-poppingly High Definition era by revelatory (but now standard) camerawork, confirms it’s not just his further experience that exempts Jimmy from the need for shit-or-bust pitch-hitting. There’s that other dimension going on. What the northern maestro does with the ball really is rather different to the stuff his comparatively one-dimensional new-ball partner serves up. It’s richer. There really is a kind of genius in there. Anderson steps outside the everyday.

Speaking as a member of the Pretty Decent and (Formerly) Occasionally Swiftish Bowler’s Union and now a coach, I can opine on these matters with what I feel to be meaningful closeness – even if much of this proximity may, in truth, have occurred during hours of darkness. Well… sleeping. I do know kindof how Jimmy does it; and it really all is about seam position. Allow me to indulge in something close to an explanation… which will only flirt briefly, I promise, with the prosaic.

Watch Anderson bowl and you may well be struck with the consistency – one might stretch to the word ‘purity’ here – of his seam position. Meaning that effortlessly and rhythmically and consistently the ball is (yes the word is…) delivered at the batsman with the seam skewed that crucial touch either towards the slips (for an away swinger to the right-hander) or towards fine-leg for one that will duck in. For this latter delivery – and it’s this one, the one that flared and snorted and pretty much unzipped Brownlie in the second innings, before he was actually out the next ball – that we’re obsessing ’bout here, right? This delivery, with the shiny side to off and the matt or worn hemisphere to leg had us jolting from our armchairs, did it not? Because its giggle or gag-inducing flight, absurdly challenging as it was for Brownlie, was both an extreme and a perfect expression of mouth-wateringly special co-ordinated brilliance. So much so that it defies the explanation I seek. It was a wonder ball.

Jimmy was seeking to get one to swing in. Late, ideally. So he subtly programmed in (probably) a minor cock of the wrist to shape that seam towards leg. A little. Then he may have just offered a wee tweak on release to impart a touch of clockwise rotation; to increase the likelihood of cut off the pitch (probably) but also (maybe) to exacerbate that swing and duck through the air. Key was and is that keeping your shape and not over-cooking the emphasis. Maybe there is a minor adjustment in timing or opening/closing of the torso but when you know the ball is swinging, present it and hold… and let the chanceful/wonderful airiness of the moment take over. Like it did; how it did!

The ball appeared to shift from well… Lords to somewhere in Belgium in the last four feet of its flight. It landed and kept heading east. It was a truly unplayable delivery; the kind that as a bowler you cannot baleeeeeve has failed to get you a wicket. You are tempted to pretend you’re on telly and milk your own grievous ill-luck. Jimmy gathered, strode back and nailed him next ball with one that went the other way.

Unbeleeeevably, I failed to find this delivery on youtube/similar for your edification and delight. You may find it or you may just take my words for it. Totally bewitching.