Napier makes a name for himself

On Tuesday evening I made a last-minute decision to hop on a Chelmsford bound commuter train to catch a taste of the English domestic Twenty20 Cup. The fixture was Essex versus Sussex and as I took my seat in the most oddly shaped higgledy piggledy stadium I have ever seen, I could never have guessed at the kind of innings I was due to see.

Essex won the toss and were around 20 for 1 after 4 overs when a fellow by the name of Graham Napier began shifting gears upwards. More of a bowler than a batsman, Napier revelled in his pinch-hitting role at number three as he struck an extraordinary number of aerial boundaries in his unbeaten 152 runs off 58 balls. Napier’s assault was brutal and his 16 sixes smashed Brendon McCullum’s Twenty20 record of 13 sixes in his unbeaten 158 runs off 73 balls for the Kolkata Knight Riders in Bangalore at the inaugural IPL match earlier this year.

Napier’s knock allowed Essex to post a massive 242 for 3 in twenty overs and his record of 16 sixes in an innings may well be the most in any professional cricket match ever. The highest number of maximum hits in a Test innings is Wasim Akram’s 12 sixes in his astonishing unbeaten 257 against Zimbabwe in 1996. The record number of sixes in a first-class innings is also 16 and is held by Andrew Symonds during his innings of 254 runs when playing for Gloucestershire against Glanmorgan in Abergavenny in 2005.

While the boundaries at the already small Chelmsford ground had been brought in to enhance the Twenty20 excitement and to allow more spectators into the capacity crowd, it was nonetheless a remarkable display of big hitting and a fearless innings against quality bowling that those present shall never forget.

Until Wednesday New Zealand had never beaten a Test playing nation in an ODI at the Oval. But that all changed with a certain poetic justice as Graeme Swann’s last ball overthrow handed victory to the visitors in front of a glued-to-the-edge-of-their-seats London crowd.

Enough has been said about the controversial Grant Elliot run-out but I would like to say that no matter the extent to which Paul Collingwood made the wrong decision to not take back the appeal after running out a batsman who had been knocked over by a bowler, it was not very good to see the visiting team refusing to shake hands with their hosts. The wonderful thing about having the moral high ground is just that. And it is especially sweet when accompanied by victory.

With England one down with one to play in the Natwest ODI Series they will be a worried and downbeat camp heading to Lords for Saturday’s final match. Even more distressing for England is that the South African camp has just arrived on these shores.

This article appeared on Cricket365 in June 2008

Four-one to the Proteas

So the Proteas end their tour of Australia with a 4-1 lambasting of a series thrashing in the Commonwealth Bank ODI series. Victory in the final match came by 39 runs on Friday at the WACA in Perth, the same ground where South Africa got the Test tour off to a winning start in December. Indeed the wheel of fortune has come full circle for the visitors, now the number one ranked ICC ODI side. A colossal arrival party is expected at O.R. Tambo airport in Johannesburg at the weekend.

Unfortunately Herschelle Gibbs will not be afforded the opportunity to break David Boon’s mile high beer drinking record.

There were doubts as to whether Johan Botha had the know-how to fill Graeme Smith’s captaincy boots but no-one can argue that he didn’t do the job with aplomb. He bowled darn well too, returning figures of over the five ODIs of: 47 overs, 188 runs, 8 wickets. To concede exactly four runs per over against Australia is miserly.

The single match South Africa lost was the second ODI at the Bellerive Oval and it was a match they well and truly should have won. After bowling Australia out for under 250 the tourists needed under 8 an over inside the last ten overs of the chase with six wickets and a powerplay in hand. It could so easily have been a 5-0 series whitewash.

It has often been said that when the Springboks play rugby in Perth it should count as a home game as so many South Africans live here. While it isn’t quite the same at the cricket in Western Australia, the WACA has been good to the Proteas this summer.

After all Perth is not much further from South Africa than it is from the rest of Australia. The most isolated city in the world, Perth boasts a few other extraordinary stats. The locals say that it has the highest per capita rate of millionaires in the world and is also reported to have the highest worldwide rate of serial killers. And I thought Australia was boringly safe.

A sell-out crowd here tonight witnessed an exceptional recovery by Hashim Amla (97 runs off 117 balls) and AB de Villiers (60 runs off 71 balls). A good total was ensured by their 138-run partnership after the tourists’ innings looked precarious at 58/2 with the ball swinging. JP Duminy (60 runs off 42 balls) then converted that platform into a total as the South Africans posted 288 for 6.

Lonwabo Tsotsobe (4 wickets for 50 runs) took a wicket with his fifth ball in ODI cricket as he helped bowl Australia out for 249.

Mickey Arthur said at the pre-match conference that “the number one ranking is too soon for a team developing as an ODI unit”. I think he’ll get over it.

Another thing; have you ever noticed the bizarre similarity in appearance between Ricky Ponting and Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman?

This article appeared on Cricket365 in January 2009 following the conclusion of the one-day series between Australia and South Africa.

Back in NZ, where everyone knows Richard Hadlee

Last New Zealand cricket season I received some angry responses to this column from Kiwis who thought that I had been a bit harsh in my descriptions of the lack of excitement in the land of the silver fern. But having been before, I knew to expect scenic landscapes and one-horse towns this time around. And I must say I am really enjoying myself.

When the luggage X-ray operator at Christchurch airport saw on my immigration card that I was in the country to follow the cricket, he told me that he himself was a cricket journalist for 25 years and that he had been at school with Richard Hadlee. I told him that I thought this India series would be close, he said: “I couldn’t give two hoots about it anymore!”

I don’t know what drove him from cricket writing to X-raying luggage for biltong and hiking boots (if they find you with these they take them out and give them to the bio-hazard people to give them good clean for you – a most handy service). But what I do know is that when I hopped on the bus into town and I asked the driver how he thought the Black Caps would fare against the visiting Indians, he told me that he too had been at school with Richard Hadlee.

Now I would have been impressed by this kind of co-incidence on my first trip but, knowing that New Zealand is just one small village on two medium-sized islands, I wasn’t the least bit surprised that the first two Kiwis I had a chat to had been to school with New Zealand’s best ever fast bowler and all-rounder. I also wasn’t surprised that when he answered my question about who would come up tops in the upcoming series, he said: “I’m not bothered, I’d rather be surfing in Jeffrey’s Bay with your lot, mate”.

New Zealanders are great sportsmen and sports fans but, while they like a bit of cricket in the summer, it’s rugby that they are crackers about for the rest of the year. The summer is not very long and the Super 14 rugby tournament is already in full swing. But while Hadlee’s classmates aren’t too bothered about the cricket, this is a potentially huge series on our hands.

Everyone likes to host a tour from India because that is where the money is in cricket and because with the profit sharing structure of ICC series, New Zealand Cricket will earn half of the broadcast rights fees generated from the series. Because India is playing, this translates to a windfall of some $25 million for NZ Cricket. That is a lot of money for a cricket union with only a few hundred professional cricketers.

It is also a lot of money to pay for the rights to broadcast endless drizzle at little grounds with drop-in pitches, 45 metre boundaries, a handful of spectators and a few advertisements for local paint and hardware stores.

With bit of luck they’ll spend some of it on replacing old benches with chairs and putting internet connections and lights in some of the cricket ground’s press boxes!

New Zealand is friendly, beautiful, cosmopolitan, clean and extremely well catered to tourism. The sports section of the newspaper is the same size as the rest of the paper and they make good beer. It’s also not an outrageously expensive place to visit since the old credit crunch crept up on us. A year ago a US dollar bought you $1,25NZ. Today a Yankee dollar buys you two kiwi dollars and I haven’t noticed much inflation – all good reasons to start planning your trip to the Rugby World Cup here in 2011.

Value for money wouldn’t have been Preity Zinta’s primary reason for being on holiday in New Zealand. I had the chance to enjoy a few words with her before play today in Napier and the Mohali Punjab Kings IPL franchise owner told me she is just out here on a bit of a holiday. The A-list Bollywood actress of 36 feature pictures said she has loved going to cricket since the IPL got her into the game. I was jealous after seeing the bombshell give Yuvraj a hug so I asked her if she would come out and paint the Napier town red with me tonight. She said yes but I have a feeling she’s going to stand me up.

While I am name dropping, another very exciting thing happened to me today. Mark Greatbatch came over and gave me a big shiny red homegrown apple. It had a sticker with a picture of him that says “Mark Greatbatch – Cricket Legend, 1987-1997”. I remember him well because I was secretly listening to some Radio 2000 live Test commentary aged 11 in maths class when I got into trouble for laughing out loudly. The reason I was laughing was that Greatbatch was so slow in chasing a ball to the boundary that Jonty Rhodes and his partner ran five runs, without any overthrows.

Over the past few days, cricket lovers around the world have been able to do what’s good for them: watch the civilised game virtually around the clock. Simultaneous Test matches in Pakistan, South Africa and the West Indies (in order of where the sun comes up first). Pure bliss if you live in South Africa or England, countries where for a little bit of money every month you get this sort of thing on your satellite television.

A bad country to be in at such a time is New Zealand where none of these matches was broadcast, even though Sky TV here has something like seven sports channels. This is very good for Cricket 365’s ratings as desperate fans sit up following our commentary all night but I think this lack of international cricket on the telly would even put my mother off moving here.

In every other country I have visited over the past year my clever phone has automatically picked up 3G internet on whichever pay as you go mobile network I have used. But in New Zealand, there is only one mobile phone network and GPRS/3G is only available to residents on a two-year contract. It’s fair to say that for a developed country with high levels of GDP per capita, the place is a bit backward. No wonder the rate of Kiwi emigration (mostly to Australia) is the highest it has ever been.

But it is also no surprise that New Zealand currently gains about 3000 more inhabitants than it loses every month. Immigration is needed to stimulate the economy and there are plenty of people who put their hand up to move to this green and pleasant land where work is easy to come by and the government looks after its residents generously.

A majority of this immigration comes from India, the very country against which the Black Caps are currently doing battle. There must be far more Hindi than Maori spoken in New Zealand and I was amused when Daniel Vettori, a captain who never puts his foot in it, joked that it would be a home series for the visitors. I don’t think he was supposed to say that but it does seem that way at times.

In terms of the conditions however, this is anything but a home series for India. Indeed the principle reason for India’s weak performances in New Zealand over the years has been the fact that the pitches and weather could not be more alien to anyone from the sub-continent. Slow drop-in pitches where dibbly dobblers can look unplayable, more rain interruptions than hot meals, gale force winds disturbing bowlers’ run-ups and grounds that don’t have any practice nets, because they are primarily rugby stadiums, are just some of the conditions to which this young Indian camp must quickly adjust.

After losing the two Twenty20 games in close matches at the AMI Stadium in Christchurch and the Westpac Stadium in Wellington (both Super 14 rugby grounds), India came back with a good win in the first ODI at Napier. In a rain interrupted 38-over match, the tourists posted a substantial 373/4 after Virender Sehwag got the Indians off to a flyer with 77 runs off 56 balls. M.S. Dhoni captained the ship with 84 not out off 80 balls and Suresh Rana finished off the innings with a bang as he sought and found the short square boundary several times as he clobbered 66 runs from 39
deliveries.

The home side just never got gong in the chase and when the rain came down after 20.5 overs in the second innings, five balls after the 20 overs required to find a winner via the Duckworth Lewis method, New Zealand were in all kinds of trouble at 111/4. When play resumed, the Back Caps needed 105 runs off 7.1 overs (a mammoth 14.62 runs per over). It was never going to happen once Martin Guptill was out to Harbhajan Singh for 64 runs off 70 balls. Harbhajan added two more quick wickets and the hosts finished on 162/2, some 53 runs behind the revised DL par of 215 runs.

World cricket is in a very healthy position when there are four close contests between the ICC’s top eight ranked sides simultaneously. India in New Zealand promises to be very exciting and the drama of the recent Antigua and Wanderers Test matches have provided such good advertisements for the longer version of the game. After 14 months in the wilderness it was wonderful to see Pakistan finally play in a Test match in which their new captain, Younis Khan, made a fine triple hundred.

But today will not be remembered for any positives. Instead it will mark one of the saddest days in cricketing history. It was a day when the best game in the world was stolen from a public by audacious terrorists who attempted to murder another nation’s cricketers. Five Pakistani policemen were killed and at least five members of the touring Sri Lankan team and management have been seriously injured.

The cricket world must unite to help Sri Lanka come through such a violent attack on its team and country and it also must offer empathy to Pakistan cricket, which will not be staging any international cricket at home for a very long time.

This article appeared on Cricket365 in March 2009, during India’s tour of New Zealand.

The definitive list of Aussie slang

Apples, she’ll be: It’ll be all right
Banana bender: A person from Queensland
Banger: G-string
Bastard: Term of endearment
Batter: Batsman
Beaut: Great, fantastic
Billabong: An ox-bow river or watering hole
Billy: Teapot. Container for boiling water.
Bizzo: Business (“mind your own bizzo”)
Bloody oath!: That’s certainly true
Bog in: Commence eating, to attack food with gusto
Bogan: Person who takes little pride in his appearance, spends his days slacking and drinking beer
Bonzer: Great, ripper
Booze bus: Police vehicle used for catching drunk drivers
Boozer: A pub
Bottle shop: A liquor shop
Brisvegas: Brisbane, state capital of Queensland
Brumby: Wild horse
Buck’s night: Stag party
Bundy: Short for Bundaberg, Queensland, and the brand of rum that’s made there
BYO: Unlicensed restaurant where you have to Bring Your Own grog, also similar party or barbecue
Cane toad: A person from Queensland
Chrissie: Christmas
Cook: One’s wife
Corker: Something excellent. A good stroke in cricket might be described as a ‘corker of a shot’
Crow eater: A person from South Australia
Cockroach: A person from New South Wales
Cut lunch: Sandwiches
Dagwood Dog: Deep fried banger on a stick
Daks: Trousers
Dead horse: Tomato sauce
Dob (somebody) in: Inform on somebody. Run them in.
Dog: Unattractive woman
Dog’s balls, stands out like: Obvious
Drongo: A stupid, inept, awkward or embarrassing person, a dimwit or slow-witted person
Dunny: Outside lavatory
Durry: Tobacco, cigarette
Dux: Top of the class
Ekka: The Brisbane Exhibition, an annual show
Esky: Large insulated food / drink container for picnics, barbecues etc.
Exy: Expensive
Fair dinkum: True, genuine
Fieldsman: Fielder
Footy: Australian Rules football
Franger: Condom
Fremantle Doctor: The cooling afternoon breeze that arrives in Perth from the direction of Freeo
G’Day: Hello!
Gabba: Wooloongabba – the Brisbane cricket ground
GAFA (pron. gaffa): The big nothingness of the Australian Outback. Great Australian F**k All.
Garbo, garbologist: Municipal garbage collector
Handle: Beer glass with a handle
Heaps: A lot, e.g. “thanks heaps”, “(s)he earned heaps of money” etc.
Hussy: Slutty girl
Jug: Electric kettle
Jumbuck: Sheep
Lair: A flashily dressed young man of brash and vulgar behaviour, to dress up in flashy clothes, to renovate or dress up something in bad taste
Larrikin: A bloke who is always enjoying himself, harmless prankster
Lollies: Sweets, candy
Longneck: 750ml bottle of beer in South Australia
Mackers: McDonald’s
Mappa Tassie: Map of Tasmania – a woman’s pubic area
Mexican: A person from south of the Queensland or New South Wales border
Middy: 285 ml beer glass in New South Wales
Milk bar: Corner shop that sells takeaway food
Mull: Cannabis
Muster: Round up sheep or cattle
Nasho: National Service (compulsory military service)
Naughty, have a: To have sex
Never Never: The Outback, centre of Australia
Op shop: Opportunity shop, thrift store, place where second hand goods are sold
Onya: Good on you
Pash: A long passionate kiss; hence “pashing on”
Pav: Pavlova – a rich, creamy Australian dessert
Pig’s arse!: I don’t agree with you
Pink slip, get the: To get the sack (from the colour of the termination form)
Pint: Large glass of beer (esp. in South Australia)
Pokies: Poker machines, fruit machines, gambling slot machines
Polly: Politician
Pommy bastards: People from the country that will lose the Ashes this year
Pot: 285 ml beer glass in Queensland and Victoria
Pluggers: see thongs
Rage: Party
Rapt: Pleased, delighted
Raw prawn, to come the: To bullshit, to be generally disagreeable
Reffo: Refugee
Rellie or relo: Family relative
Roo: Kangaroo
Root (verb and noun): Synonym for screw in nearly all its senses: “She’s a great root”
Rort (verb or noun): Cheating, fiddling, defrauding (expenses, the system etc.). Usually used of politicians
Salvos, the: Salvation Army
Sandgroper: A person from Western Australia
Schooner: Large beer glass in Queensland; medium beer glass in South Australia
Servo: Petrol station
Shark biscuit: Somebody new to surfing
Sheepshagger: New Zealander
Sheila: Woman
Skite: Boast, brag
Skull/Skol (a beer): To drink a beer in a single draught without taking a breath
Slab: A carton of 24 bottles or cans of beer
Snag: A sausage
Station: A big farm/grazing property
Strewth: Exclamation, mild oath (“Strewth, that Chris is a bonzer bloke”)
Strine: Australian slang and pronunciation
Stubby: A 375ml. beer bottle
Stubby holder: Polystyrene insulated holder for a stubby
Sunnies: Sunglasses
Swagman / swaggy: Tramp, hobo
Tall poppies: Successful people
Tallie: 750ml bottle of beer
Taswegian: Derogatory term for a person from Tasmania
Thingo: Wadjamacallit, thingummy, whatsit
Thongs: Cheap rubber backless sandals.
Throw-down: Small bottle of beer which you can throw down quickly.
Tinny: Can of beer
Top End: Far north of Australia
Troppo, gone: To have escaped to a state of tropical madness; to have lost the veneer of civilisation after spending too long in the tropics.
Ugg boots: Australian sheepskin boots worn by surfers since at least the 1960s to keep warm while out of the water.
Ute: Utility vehicle, pickup truck – what saffers call a bakkie
Vee dub: Volkswagen Kombi / minibus
Vejjo: Vegetarian
WACA (pron. whacker): Western Australian Cricket Association and the Perth cricket ground
Walkabout: A walk in the Outback by Aborigines that lasts for an indefinite amount of time
Whacker, whacka: Idiot; somebody who talks drivel; somebody with whom you have little patience
White pointers: Topless (female) sunbathers
Woop Woop: Invented name for any small unimportant town – “he lives in Woop Woop”
XXXX: Four X, brand of beer made in Queensland
Yabber: Jabber
Yakka: Work (noun)

All set for cricket’s richest match

When I told the esteemed cricket writer, Peter Roebuck, that I was leaving the India versus Australia Test series to follow the Stanford Super Series, he gave me the kind of look umpire Rudi Koertzen gives Monty Panesar when the excitable spinner over appeals for an LBW decision where the ball has yet again pitched a foot outside leg stump.

“Stanford represents everything cricket shouldn’t be” said Roebuck, clearly a cricket aficionado of the old school. I used to agree with him. But if you can’t beat them, join them.

The biggest single event of the Twenty20 revolution is upon us with the winner-takes-all 20 million dollar exhibition match being played this Saturday, the 1st of November. It is the highest prize money of any sporting event ever.

Sir Allen Stanford’s enormous investment in the game in the Caribean has not yet started to show in the performance of the West Indies team but I am assured by the locals here that his cash splashing antics have breathed fresh air into the sport and are keeping the game alive across the islands.

Antigua is extraordinarily beautiful and extremely laidback. The sea is Topaz blue and the island’s population of 60 000 people (just over half the capacity of Eden Gardens or the MCG) are so relaxed they look as if they might fall over. The beautiful Stanford ground seats only 6000 spectators, mostly under palm trees. Sir Allen mingled with the crowd, hugging children and smiling for photographs. It is an unusual setting for the most mouth watering, heart racing, nail biting three-hour reality show.

The warm-up games got underway on Saturday night with the Stanford Super Stars comfortably beating Trinidad and Tobago, the winners of the most recent regional Stanford Twenty20 tournament. A very slow pitch ensured a low scoring encounter, a trait which is not usually relished in the shortest form of the game.

I couldn’t help but notice that the first five high catches turned out be dropped catches as they were all spilled in the outfield under lights. What fun it will be if something similar happens on Saturday.

This article appeared on Cricket365 in October 2008, ahead of the Stanfor Twenty20 for 20 clash in Antigua.

Time for a reality check, India

Winning is everything in the modern era of international sport. To come second, regardless of the closeness of defeat, is never anything like as good. India won the inaugural hit and giggle Twenty20 Championship in South Africa and well done to them for doing so. Looking back on that exciting game of baseball at the Wanderers, it could so easily have gone the other way.

Here in India, that victory is still being celebrated in euphoric fashion. You would think that after the six hour float parade through 30 kilometres of Mumbai streets it was time to focus exclusively on the near impossible task of winning the current seven match ODI series. Not to take anything away from that fantastic team performance, but it is not as if they whitewashed Australia in a five Test series down under.

The Australians are an extremely professional unit and are on a serious business trip without the distraction of this never-ending party. It is guaranteed hangover material for Dhoni’s men. Every time I turn on the sensational 24-hour cricket news channel here, I see pictures of Australians at fielding practice and Indians being paraded up and down red carpets. A cricket tour in India is something like a celebrity road show for its stars. The Indians, a good cricket team, were comprehensively beaten by the best cricket team in Kochi on Tuesday. The same result is likely again tomorrow. But while the Australians were practising hard at the Rajiv Gandhi stadium last night, the men in blue were making money.

The Twenty20 squad was being handsomely rewarded with plots of property at a smart hotel, Sachin Tendulkar lunched a website and then presented a car to the Indian women’s cricket captain, while Dravid promoted motor oil for the second night in a row. Then Pathan, Uthappa, Gambhir, Harbhajan, R.P Singh and Sharma modelled footwear at an apparel showroom. After all of this, the Indian team attended a dinner hosted by the son of panchayat raj minister. It is no wonder Sresanth was so hot headed in the Kochi ODI – the youngster has probably been disillusioned by this instant stardom.

The first time I visited the Australian team in their Bangalore hotel I found them a bit serious. I thought they were being spoilsports the way they treated their dinner table as a boardroom. They didn’t even want to come out for a drink! But they are in India to win and not to holiday and that is what they will continue to do.

Modern professional sports teams spend countless hours analysing video footage, meeting with team dieticians and even psychologists and planning strategic moves. How can India find time to do this if there isn’t enough time for a daily net session?

Ponting didn’t show any signs of his hamstring injury at practice yesterday and I imagine he will take the field for the toss at 8:30am tomorrow. This is ominous for India, who failed to make the winning of a big toss count in Kochi. After an impressive start on a wicket that provided adequate assistance for the bowlers, the Indian attack continued to bowl the wrong line and length and it was all too easy for the Australian middle order as Andrew Symonds taught them a few lessons. He really is about the best there is at the 50-over game.

I cannot see Australia being bowled out by this weak Indian bowling attack. As it was with their recent tour of England, India’s best chance of winning a match is to score lots of runs. In order to do this, two of the experienced campaigners, Tendulkar, Dravid and Ganguly need to make runs in any given innings. Unlike many of the other Indian batsmen, they have level heads and understand that 50-over games are won by keeping wickets in hand, not by playing rash shots a la Twenty20.

However, it appears that the Indian selectors plan to rest one of the three big guns in every game so as to give the youngsters a chance, another decision they will surely rue.

This article appeared on Cricket365 in October 2007, during Australia’s one-day tour of India.

England capitalise on short sightscreen

A short sightscreen at the Pavilion End here at Edgbaston nearly helped England enough to win the extraordinarily exciting third Test match. As has happened before at this ground, a number of full-length deliveries from that end arrived at the batsman entirely unsighted.

The problem, which is not a completely new one at the Birmingham ground, arises specifically for yorkers and full tosses as the ball that is delivered from above the angle covered by the sightscreen stays above the white background and in the line of the members’ dark jackets for longer as a result of their flatter trajectory.

On day one of this match the six-feet-and-five-inches Morne Morkel sent down a ball from his delivery height of nine feet which the left-handed Alastair Cook knew nothing about. When I say he knew nothing about it, I mean he didn’t even react to it. Fortunately for Cook, the ball was outside the off stump.

Jacques Kallis was not as fortunate in either of his two innings when he was dismissed by the fiery six-feet-and-four-inches Andrew Flintoff. Kallis’s second dismissal (which really was his third as a plumb LBW to a full-length Flintoff delivery was turned down on day two) was the most unusual of Flintoff’s sightscreen related scalps – a full toss which Kallis ducked as he thought it was a short ball. The ball hit him on the top of the pad, trapped LBW and swung the match in England’s favour. Kallis was furious.

Earlier when Neil Mckenzie was out LBW to a full Flintoff ball from the Pavilion End, South African coach Mickey Arthur went running to the match referee to complain. But nothing could be done as the sightscreen flaw had been the same for both sides.

It does seem strange that all of this helped Flintoff on many occasions while only one Morkel ball appeared to go unsighted. Flintoff is marginally shorter than Morkel but I think the difference can be explained by the fact that his unusual wrist-on action makes it difficult to pick the length of his deliveries. Indeed most readers will remember his success with the yorker against Australia during the incredible Ashes series for England in 2005.

Is it bad sportsmanship to exploit such an apparent advantage? Should Vaughan have bowled Flintoff from the other end? Is it dangerous to do so for an accidental beamer could cause injury? Test match cricket is a highly competitive beast. It is ruthless and unforgiving and it can only be expected that a team will use any advantage within the rules to the maximum, especially if they are one Test down in the series with only two results outstanding.

I do however believe that when Flintoff bowled a bodyline full toss, which fractionally missed AB de Villiers’s back and his leg stump as he narrowly evaded the hard red leather, he should have apologised to the batsman.

I can see only two ways in which the Warwickshire County Cricket Club can solve this problem. One would be to do away the club’s best members seats. The other would be to instruct the ten or so members behind the bowler’s arm to don cream Richie Benaud style jackets.

This article appeared on Cricket365 in July 2008 during the third Test between England and South Africa.

Great weather, dull cricket

Record snowfall in London, nearly two hundred dead in heat wave fires in Australia, and England bowled out for 51 in Jamaica. We should pay Al Gore some attention; this global warming business in serious.

In Sri Lanka however the weather is perfect. But the cricket has been a little dull compared to the excitement of the current series in Australia and the West Indies. India thrashed Sri Lanka 4-1 in the one-day series with the result of all five matches being decided by the tossing of a coin half an hour before a ball was bowled.

Sri Lanka went into the series coming off a terrific 2-1 away win in Pakistan but they have given their fans very little to cheer about at home recently. Historically very hard to beat at home, Sri Lanka have now lost their last three home one-day series. The last two were to India (4-1 and 3-2) and the one before was to England (3-0).

In Sri Lanka there are five religions: Buddhism (70%), Hinduism (15%), Christianity (8%), Islam (7%) and Cricket (100%). Sri Lanka is a small island with a population 20 million people. India is an enormous country with a population of 1000 million people. So it’s a wonder the Lankans have consistently produced such competitive teams at all.

New Zealand has a population of four million people and 40 million sheep. But that is a different story.

The proudest moment in Sri Lankan cricketing history was winning the World Cup in Lahore in 2006 under Arjuna Ranatunga. Their strategy of pinch hitting in the first 15 overs revolutionised the game. The chief protagonist then, Sanath Jayasuriya, turns 40 this year and is still playing with the same aggression for the national side. Although his quick reactions are fading he had a cracking IPL season last year and knocked up a fine hundred in Dambulla in the first match of this recent India series.

Sri Lanka is probably the loveliest country I have ever visited. It is similar to India in many ways but it is obviously much smaller and less economically advanced. It is less crowded and less polluted and the food is even spicier. Service levels are extremely high and come at good value with five star hotel rates at under one quarter of their Mumbai counterparts. One can swim in the sea in the capital city and see the stars, the moon and the sun, which is just as well as every full moon is a public holiday.

The coastal train from Colombo down to Galle is most romantic as it noisily clangs its way past endless white sand beaches and coconut groves. The sides of the train are open and the cool tropical air smacks of bliss. The three hour train journey in a comfortable leather second class seat costs 103 rupees (under a dollar). The historic Dutch fort town of Galle is home to what was once about the most scenic cricket ground in the world until it was flattened by the Tsunami on Boxing Day in 2004. With the help of cricket legends like Ian Botham and Shane Warne the stadium has been rebuilt. That Tsunami devastated the coastline, killing many thousands of people, and the cricket world’s charity in all manner of projects was the least they could give back to a nation that has given so much to the game.

The region makes for the best beach holiday destination I have ever visited. Excellent seafood, crystal clear water, terrific surfing, turtle conservation projects and scuba diving on dazzling coral reefs are just some of the highlights at places like Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna. All of this for less than the cost of a night out in Ibiza. Sri Lanka is a largely unspoilt and unearthed treasure and is thankfully yet to be discovered by the lager louts and Euro-trash that have spoilt so many a tropical paradise.

The 1864-built colonial Galle Face Hotel in Colombo is such a splendid old place that it employs a man in a dinner jacket with a catapult to ensure that guests can enjoy their high tea by the pool without being disturbed by the squawking crows.

Indeed the doom and gloom of the worldwide economic recession seem a million miles away from idyllic Sri Lanka. But there is one slight snag: this is a country at seemingly perpetual war with itself. While the violence is isolated in the North, it is of an horrific nature and sees innocent civilians killed everyday. The army believes it is in the final stages of finally crushing the terrorist LTTE (Liberation of Tigers Tamil Eelam or Tamil Tigers) but civilians without access to medical facilities continue to be trapped in the warpath. It is a little known fact that the Tamil Tigers have carried out more suicide bombings than Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and al-Qaeda combined. One such bomb killed 70 people yesterday.

Considering the Tsunami in the South and the war in the North it is remarkable that the people of Sri Lanka remain so positive in their demeanor. While Colombo has been the target of Tamil Tiger attacks it seems a very peaceful city and is a pleasure to travel around so long as you don’t mind occasionally being stopped at army roadblocks by soldiers waving AK47’s around. In many ways their presence is reassuring.

Nor is Sri Lanka is without vicissitudes when it comes to its cricket administration. Arjuna Ranatunga was fired in December 2008 as chairman of the SLC interim committee. The sports minister had decided that change was necessary after Ranatunga had just fired 16 SLC staff members. It is believed he was fired because of his firm stance against the IPL, an obvious cash cow for the country’s players and an opportunity to scratch the back of the all powerful BCCI.

“People who run cricket here don’t know anything about cricket. Do you think they love the game? No they don’t,” said Ranatunga a couple of days ago in the capital.

The former captain blames the administrators for the ODI series loss to India, pointing out that the pitches prepared were better suited to the tourists in that they didn’t offer enough assistance to spinners Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis, who the Indians found unplayable last winter at the Asia Cup in Pakistan. His point is valid in that spin-friendly pitches would have negated the obvious advantage of winning the toss and batting first in evening matches where the ball swings under lights.

It was dull that four of the five ODIs were played in the Premadasa stadium. Add that to the poor performance of the local side and it was no surprise that the last few ODIs attracted very poor crowds, running as low as 30 percent of the 25 000 capacity ground.

However the Colombo faithful proved the mind boggling popularity of Twenty20 cricket in the subcontinent as an estimated 40 000 crammed into the same ground for the one-off match. They came to see runs aplenty and old man Jayasuria gave them 33 of the things from only 17 balls to get the ball rolling. But the 171/4 they posted proved a few runs short as India chased up the target with three wickets and four balls to spare.

Lasith “Slinga” Malinga returned to cricket a year after he took a bump on the knee that led to excruciating pain. An operation in Australia helped the pain but didn’t fully heal the injury and it was then that the president of Sri Lanka introduced Malinga to a special quack that miraculously cured him.

“The president introduced me to Dr Eliyantha White. He works with supernatural powers and herbs,” Malinga told Sriram Veera of Cricinfo.

“I don’t know what he does and how he does it but it works. I am very grateful to him and the president.”

Veera reports that Dr White has since successfully treated Sanath Jayasuriya for a long-standing back problem. I’ll certainly be coming back to Sri Lanka to see Dr White whenever I next develop any physical ailment.

This article appeared on Cricket365 in February 2009.

IPL would be a coup for SA

Beware Potchefstroom, Kimberley and Paarl. Rumours have been doing the rounds that the big-time Bollywood Banjoree that is the IPL could be coming to town. Unlikely venues the Afrikaans South African backwaters would be to host the glitz and glamour of one of world sport’s richest tournaments, but maybe it would be a good idea.

Yesterday Cricket South Africa chief Gerald Majola said: “There have been no talks. It is definitely a rumour.” And when a mate of mine from SkySports got through to IPL boss Lalit Modi, he gave one of those answers that doesn’t actually answer anything at all. Today Majola put out the following statement: “There has been no official approach by either the BCCI or the IPL and we don’t know where these rumours are emanating from.”

But South African Cricketers’ Association chief Tony Irish told Cape Town’s Weekend Argus newspaper, “I understand that discussions have been taking place and these appear favourable”

“Reading between the lines, I think it will happen.”

Wanderers, Centurion and Potchefstroom would be the likely venues if South Africa takes over the tournament, the newspaper said.

In the marvellous press box at Newlands as we watch South Africa annihilate debutant Bryce McGain against the backdrop of the enticing SAB brewery and the magnificent Table Mountain, the media are talking about little else. Except for Stuart Hess from Independent Newspapers – he is singing “Everybody have fun tonight!”

The Indian government has so far rejected all scheduling proposals by the IPL. Time is running out for the tournament that is due to start in three weeks and continues to be threatened by security fears. The Indian government’s chief concern is that the tournament is due to coincide with general elections, already a major security headache in a country of a billion people and in a sub-continent where terrorism is out of control.

The Mumbai blasts in November 2008 led to the cancelling of the BCCI-back Champions League and only a few weeks ago the Sri Lankan cricket team bus was directly attacked in Pakistan. It was long believed that cricket would never be targeted by terrorists but that has certainly changed.

Cricket is undoubtedly India’s favourite thing and the IPL is a plaything for India’s super-elite, the very people who were targeted in last year’s Mumbai blasts. Indo-Pak tensions are as strained as ever and Pakistani players will not be playing in the IPL, should it go ahead. It would be naïve to believe that the IPL would run without incident, should it go ahead in India next month.

It may seem ironic that South Africa be deemed a safe haven for such an event but temporarily moving the tournament to these shores could be an efficient solution to a problem that just isn’t going to be solved.

South Africa’s cricket grounds are good for Twenty20 matches in that they have nice bouncy pitches and are spectator friendly. The month of May is a bit late for cricket but the weather is generally still okay. Accommodation, transport, practice, media and broadcasting logistics will all be easier in South Africa than in India. There may be a little rain but April / May is the hottest season of the year in India and it is a gruelling time of year to play such a hectic tournament there.

It would seem a bit trivial if the Indian Premier League were played in South Africa. Imagine the Bangalore Royal Challengers playing a home game at Buffalo Park in East London. But moving the tournament could offer a quick fix for the IPL. Expensive contracts would not be broken, players’ lives would not be put at risk and the show would go on. And what a coup it would be for South African tourism and cricket.

Of course the downside to shifting the tournament would be that many matches would be very poorly attended. While the IPL would be able to retain the large revenues from broadcasting rights, it would no doubt lose some of the appeal that makes it such a successful television product. You just can’t compare an Eden Gardens crowd of 100 000 people to a handful of South African wrapped in blankets on a grassy bank for entertainment value.

Either way, I hope there is some truth in the rumour mongering. Though the Caribbean would also be nice!

This article appeared on Cricket365 in March 2009.

Sad day in England, carnival time in Kandy

While the News of the World were breaking an extraordinary story about spot-fixing, I was in a press conference listening to MS Dhoni explain to the Indian media why his team had been so shoddy so recently. Hearing the esteemed captain’s views on “pitches that are no good for one-day cricket because teams are 80 all out” and how “Gambhir and Tendulkar could have made the difference” are one thing, but smashing a multi-million pound betting racket is far more interesting.

It always seems a great pity that a rotten tabloid like the News of the World breaks such a magnificent story. Of course it is because they have no shame in stooping to the same level as the criminals they are after exposing. Setting traps and laying cash notes out for Fergie or illegal bookmakers is all part of the job at such a place. But what a story! And well done to them for finally getting something tangible on the Pakistan side. We have all suspected that the Pakistani team is often up to something. “They are just so unpredictable,” commentators always say. Well, they are unpredictable if you are none the wiser in your arm chair but it seems that for those in the know they are very predictable indeed.

I can’t imagine the ramifications of this bust on a side that has been playing some stonking good cricket recently. Doing their country proud while a million or so are trapped in floods at home has added a special element to the summer’s action. Pakistan did themselves proud in the MCC “Spirit of Cricket” series against Australia and Asif and Amir, two men implicated in the fixing rig, have shown that they are as good as any other quick bowlers in the world. Probably better.

The ICC has just issued a press release that the fourth day at Lord’s will go ahead as usual. Millions will tune in to watch Pakistan be humiliated in a match where they had England on the ropes and then somehow let the game slip away from their grasp. It is maddening that this Test will be remembered for a reporter who put a lot of cash on a table to organise a few no-balls (what is it with no-ball scandals recently?) rather than the fairytale 332-run eighth-wicket partnership between Broad and Trott that represented one of the biggest match turnarounds in Test cricket history. Pakistani players appear to have tainted the beautiful game of cricket. Again.

It is nowhere near as interesting but I started writing this blog before the scandal broke so please allow me to finish it.

After travelling around Sri Lanka on the most threadbare of shoestring budgets, it was a great relief when my mum arrived on the island to spend a week with me. First stop, the Wallawwa hotel. Goodbye squalor, hello luxury. If you are considering coming to Sri Lanka in February for the World Cup or indeed at any other time at all then do not pass go, do not collect 200 quid, go directly to the W. It is no wonder that this oasis of a boutique hotel gets higher ratings on independent travel websites than any other hotel one can look up. It is about the nicest hotel I have visited, let alone slept in.

The secluded hideaway is a relaxing place to begin or end any journey to Sri Lanka, given its close proximity to the airport and the main roads to Colombo, Kandy or Galle. It is civilised and feels contemporary, despite being the oldest manor house in the Western Province of Sri Lanka – croquet lawn, secret swimming pool, top-drawer chef and staff, beautiful cocktails… you get the point. It was wasted on me but I’m not complaining. Go there.

It was also goodbye scooter, hello car and driver. Home was never like this! For the price of hiring a car in most countries, we scored a car and a charming driver who has been showing tourists around for 30 years. Hemadasa, a Sinhalese gentleman and proud grandfather has driven us everywhere for six days and takes pride in opening doors, fighting our corner at the bargaining table and stopping to buy us samples of the most wonderful exotic fruit. Did you know that red bananas contain far more vitamin C and beta-carotene than yellow ones and that there are over 500 types of bananas out there? Or that I am going to make my fortune by selling mangosteens in Europe? They taste so good that they make you tingle from head to toe.

Kandy is such a fine place that the whole city is a UNESCO world heritage site. The botanical gardens are regarded the best in Asia and boast over 4000 labelled species of tropical flora in 150 acres of paradise. A ticket to the Peradiniya Botanical Gardens costs twenty times more for foreigners than it does for locals. But I’d have paid twenty times that inflated rate for a stroll around. It is glorious.

Our trip to Kandy coincided with Poya, a national no-booze-allowed religious holiday and the climax of the Esala Perehera, a festival of the sacred tooth relic that was brought from India many moons ago and is housed in a large Buddhist temple. Basically, many thousands of dancers and a couple of hundred elephants dress up to the nines and slowly parade their way down the main drag. It was quite a spectacle and after watching men walk barefoot across hot coals we enjoyed a fine dinner in the wonderfully colonial and broken down but still resplendent Queen’s Hotel, sipped some scotch from my hip-flask and then got stuck into the action along with tens of thousands of other spectators.

I was too much of a cheapskate to fork out 100 pounds for the privilege of two seats on the side of the road so mum and I pushed our way through the crowds, waited and waited for the procession to begin and, once we felt we had seen enough of it, decided to make a bee-line for Hemadasa’s fine maroon Nissan sedan. But there was a catch. We were stuck on the wrong side of the road and the numerous police on duty wouldn’t let us cross it. Three hours later at 11pm we hadn’t moved an inch, our feet ached and there was no end in sight to the string of elephants and dancers coming from the darkness beyond the temple. We risked all and made a break for it, bravely dodging our way through fire dancers, men spinning plates atop poles on their heads, large splodges of animal droppings and even a terrifying five-legged elephant. For many onlookers, seeing us running the gauntlet it must have been the highlight of their parade. The police were not impressed but we hopped into our getaway car and were soundly asleep before the festival was over.

The white sand and blue water of the North-East coast beaches allowed us a taste of the good life and a cosy Italian-owned and run guest house on the beach kept our bodies rested and our stomachs full. A new highway has been built that way and it was most enjoyable watching a jittery Hemadasa refuse to drive faster than 40 miles an hour – clearly these fellows are used to non-stop traffic as he had no notion of putting pedal to metal.

The final of this limp tri-series was over-subscribed. If Sri Lanka hadn’t made it to the final, no-one would have come. But they seemed to have the gods (and umpires?) on their side and the 16,800 capacity stadium easily fitted in about 30,000 fans, half of them stinking of arrack and falling on my dear mum in the stands. She had Hemadasa on standby but stuck it through to the end, despite my advice to get away ahead of the crowds. God knows I’d have left when India were 100 for 5 chasing 300 if I had had the option! But fortunately for me, I was able to watch South Africa beat Australia at Loftus Versveld in a nine-try, 75-point thriller. David Scot, a Lankan-based Kiwi, had it going on his laptop next to me in the press box as the inevitable was delayed out in the middle. Don’t ever employ anyone who likes sport if it is as easy as that to watch it live from your computer anywhere in the world!

So that’s a wrap from Sri Lanka. It was a pleasure to see Sehwag score a hundred in the penultimate match against New Zealand. Justice was done after he was denied one by a dirty trick a few matches ago against Sri Lanka. Dambulla is not a venue conducive to close ODI cricket – all six matches were horribly one-sided and there was little by way of entertainment for the masses. Dilshan’s century in the final boosted the home side to 299 in 50 overs and India weren’t going to chase that under lights. The Indian team is tired and I don’t fancy their stars to take the CLT20 by storm on bouncy pitches in South Africa.

Let’s hope the cricket administrators work out what to do with the 50-over game. And I hope it isn’t this new-fangled split-innings nonsense they are about to trial in Australia.

This article appeared on Cricket365 in August 2010, during the tri-series between Sri lanka, India and New Zealand.