Sidhartha Mallya, royal high commander of Royal Challengers Bangalore, is a singular individual. Heir to a brewery fortune, apparently beneficiary of a fine overseas education, he would seem the epitome of upwardly mobile nouveau Indian youth, exuding an air of success and self-confidence every time he steps out onto the RCB balcony
for maximum camera time to support his boys.
He maintains a connection with the unwashed masses through, of course, Twitter, where he Tweets as @sidharthamallya, ‘Business Boy’, looking out at the Twitterverse with an off-camera-directed smirk over the collar of, naturally, a business suit. Through this platform he expresses loyal support for his team, praising, cheerleading, and, where necessary, defending, as is his right and responsibility. It doesn’t make for particularly scintillating discourse, but that, of course, is beside the point.
Last night, the news broke that RCB batsman Luke Pomersbach had been involved in an altercation with a couple at his hotel, and was the focus of an investigation after the woman involved accused him of assault. Very few facts were disclosed, which hardly mattered because there were plenty of rumours and speculation to fill that particular void. I’m no PR expert, but I would still assume that, with one of their players facing a charge of assault, even an as-yet-unproven one, RCB would issue a brief statement, reassuring their fans that the matter was being looked into and that any offense committed by one of their players would result in decisive and appropriate consequences for that player. It’s a fairly obvious reaction. You don’t want to commit one way or another because nothing’s been proven yet, but you certainly don’t want to publicly condone assault, especially on a woman. Especially given the horrific global and local figures showing the prevalence of violence towards women, and the absolute necessity for public figures like sportsmen to display their fervent opposition towards such violence. Of course, there have been cases of spurious accusations by women of rape or assault where the accused men have actually been innocent, but those cases are so incredibly few in comparison to the millions of cases of actual terrible assault, where the perpetrators have been allowed to walk free, or even where the women themselves have been blamed for having brought their own assault upon themselves, that surely, surely a statement from a prominent figure in the RCB wouldn’t be an assumption that the Pomersbach case was a spurious allegation? Surely a prominent RCB figurehead would not misogynistically and crudely proclaim, in the early stages of investigation into the incident, that the woman was a whore and a liar? Surely he would not use the ‘oh, and also she was totally hot for me and that’s how I know she’s a lying slut’ line? Surely not?
Let’s throw it to Sidhartha, shall we?
Yeah. In the interests of full disclosure, ol’ Sid then went on to clarify his statement by explaining how ‘everyone wants their 15 minuets [sic]’ (I can only assume he means ‘minutes’ since I can think of very few people with a burning desire to dance an old-school French ballroom dance exactly 15 times) which, of course, he knows all about. He then finished up by plaintively wondering why everyone couldn’t just focus on the cricket instead. Because seriously, when Chris Gayle scores 128 off just 62, who the hell cares if some lady might have been beaten up by a professional sportsman, amirite?
You know, Sidhartha, I have to give it to you. In a world where we are slowly, painfully, struggling to recognize and rectify things that have been swept under the carpet for centuries, like the frequent denigration and systematic oppression of the female gender, you dare to stand alone with views that were good enough for the 18th century so, dammit, they’re good enough now! Where others strive to bring to light the horrible truth that the vast majority of women are routinely exposed to horrific bodily violence, many unable to even tell anyone what they’re going through, many with no recourse for justice because of the established mindset that women must accept and indeed deserve whatever treatment men see fit to give them, many accused of being whores and bringing their pain upon themselves (the men who beat and rape them being, of course, blameless), you staunchly live in a world where the first assumption on hearing a woman accuse a man of assault is that she’s a lying slut who by the way wanted your body too, you stud you! You’re quite something. And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that you’re exactly the touch of class RCB needs in their wheelhouse. Classy with a capital K. That’s you.
RCB player Dirk Nannes tweeted about how happy he was to see Mallya “coming out in support of his players.” This made me sad, because I like Dirk Nannes, and because what Mallya did wasn’t “coming out in support,” or defense. A defense would have been, “I’m positive the allegations against Luke are untrue and that he is innocent. We believe that the accusers are not being at all truthful.”
Exactly how is it a defense to bring in the woman’s sexuality? How is that relevant at all to her accusations? What Mallya has said is this, ‘The woman said Luke hit her fiance. She’s a whore who was all over me and not acting like a wife-to be.’ Nothing other than that to indicate that the accusation was false. That was the entire explanation. She’s an unwifely whore, so clearly she’s lying. Would Mallya have used similar rhetoric if it was the male friend making the accusation? Would he have said, the guy was coming on to every woman in the room, he’s clearly a liar? No, of course not, because to the Mallyas of the world, it’s only OK to judge and condemn women with the label of promiscuity. Not only that, but it’s the only condemnation necessary! No need to actually address the actual allegations, whether Pomersbach actually did what he was accused of doing. Nothing about Pomersbach at all actually.
For the record, Pomersbach may well be innocent. I believe it’s entirely possible that the allegations against him were completely fabricated. It doesn’t matter, this isn’t about him.
It wasn’t Luke Pomersbach’s actions, innocence or guilt that Mallya was talking about, which would be necessary if he were, in fact, “supporting his player,” Dirk. For Mallya, it was enough to condemn the woman with the oldest, ugliest way possible. Brand her a whore. What other evidence could anyone need?!
That’s misogyny for you, folks, ingrained and ugly and, of course, completely unquestioned.
I first saw Grant Elliott play in 2008. New Zealand were playing England in an ODI at Old Trafford, and, batting first, had lost their top 5 batsmen for less than 50 runs. Adding insult to injury, two of those wickets had been taken by Stuart Broad, his accuracy miraculously unimpeded by his combination emo-bangs-Flock-of-Seagulls hair. Broad and Tremlett, enormously tall bowlers both, were extracting vicious rearing bounce and movement off the pitch, and the Kiwi batsmen had looked alternately clueless and frantic in the brief moments they were actually at the crease.
I was watching for Daniel Vettori. He may have batted like a man still learning how to control all four of his new prosthetic limbs, but everyone knew he was the only one who could save New Zealand.
I had never seen nor heard of Grant Elliott before – unsurprisingly, as that was only his second ODI. After leaving his native South Africa for New Zealand, doing time in domestic cricket, and playing for Weybridge in the Surrey leagues to hone his skills, he’d finally earned a call-up to the New Zealand side, as injury cover for the all-rounder they would clearly much rather have had, Jacob Oram.
Jacob Oram is tall, burly, a well-known presence with his shambling walk and shaggy hair and broad gleaming grin, promising big hitting and salvation in the middle order. Grant Elliott, lean and rangy, walked out to the middle wearing a New Zealand kit at least two sizes too big for him, every inch a stoic yet forlorn substitute for the Real Thing, epitomizing the hopelessness of the cause. A club cricketer being unceremoniously tossed to the wolves that had decimated the heavyweights, his presence barely registered. A bored-sounding Geoffrey Boycott mentioned that, though this was Elliott’s second ODI, it would be his batting debut, then promptly resumed talking about how terrible New Zealand were. He didn’t mention that though Elliott hadn’t batted in his debut ODI (rain had curtailed New Zealand’s innings) he had bowled…well enough to return figures of 3-23, claiming Owais Shah, Paul Collingwood and Luke Wright. Perhaps Boycott didn’t remember, or thought it wasn’t relevant. Surely one of Broad, Tremlett or Anderson would take out the newcomer and the England juggernaut would roll on.
Two dot balls, a few moments of Daniel Flynn’s wild slashing, and Elliott was facing up to red-hot Stuart Broad. A ricocheting short ball sent him leaping, arching back as it whistled past his helmet, far too close for comfort. Broad grinned his best version of a shark’s smile; and I saw Elliott smile also, wide and easy, considering, amused…relaxed. It wasn’t a shaky grin of false bravado, or the sweaty anxious involuntary grimace-smile of a newbie who knows he is cannon fodder. Suddenly the overlarge shirt, not being Jacob Oram, and the direness of the situation didn’t seem to matter. He resumed his stance, touched his bat to the deck. Looked up again, directly at Broad standing at the top of his runup, and smiled again, even wider this time. A lopsided, Han Solo smile.
Bring it on.
He didn’t set the ground alight that day with explosive hitting. Grant Elliott is not that kind of player, quite, and Brendon McCullum had already tried that only to hole out for 17. What he did instead was stay at the crease, calmly leaving good deliveries and putting away bad ones, remaining as Flynn, Hopkins and even Vettori the saviour came and went in quick succession. When Kyle Mills opened up and began to hit long and hard, Elliott let him, concentrating on his self-imposed task. Leave good balls, hit anything that’s there to be hit. Only at the end of the penultimate over, in a bid for a final quick haul of runs, did he go, misjudging only slightly, but enough for Luke Wright to hold the catch a step in from the boundary. He’d made 52, but he’d stayed for 102 balls and over 2 hours.
Later in the day, he would run in, send down a fast fullish delivery to Chris Tremlett, and watch it balloon up off the top edge of the bat directly into his captain’s hands – his second wicket, winning the game for New Zealand with 22 runs to spare, and he’d smile again, a huge triumphant grin as his teammates mobbed him.
He wouldn’t be remembered for any of that, though. Five minutes at the Oval ensured that Grant Elliott would be permanently stamped That Guy Ryan Sidebottom Smashed Into and Paul Collingwood Screwed Over. Even as Mark Gillespie hit the winning runs, in the glorious chaos as Kyle Mills completed the run and leapt, punching the air, and the usually mild-mannered Daniel Vettori, who had sat glowering with cold, barely-suppressed rage on the balcony though the final overs, sprang to his feet screaming obscenities and pounding the railings with clenched fists, the cameras only briefly caught Elliott, laughing with joy before disappearing into a tangle of hugging New Zealanders.
The next time I saw him, he steadily took New Zealand to victory against Australia at Melbourne in the Chappell Hadlee series, and I wondered if he’d do it again to give them the series in Sydney.
I didn’t see the Han Solo smile in Sydney. The Sydney innings was pure grit, and running. Lots and lots of running. Watching big-hitting batsmen rack up boundary-runs is what people seem to want to see, but I couldn’t stop watching Elliott, sweating profusely, chest heaving, pale eyes intense and staring in his narrow dark face, pounding the SCG pitch. Always forcing one more run, darting in and out of the crease in a way that most Indian batsmen can’t even visualize as part of an aspirational yoga excercise, tempo never easing until a final, tired swing at the death found Michael Hussey at deep midwicket. He sweated and bled for his runs the same way Iain O’Brien did for his wickets, because he had to.
I was riveted.
He became a stabilizer, a composed middle-order striker with correct, technical strokes and the ability to stay at the crease instead of perishing in a flurry of misguided shots. And he kept chipping in with the ball, economically bowling wicket to wicket, getting swing, prising out a wicket here, two more there, a strong solid extra bowler. And every now and then, breaking through the earnest intentness: the incongruous wide, lopsided Han Solo grin – a misplaced swashbuckler’s smile.
The Champions’ Trophy would be the pinnacle. A ripping bowling spell, produced out of nowhere, in his home city of Johannesburg, was more of a joyous fairy tale than you ever usually get in real life, a bellow of incredulous jubilation ringing out at each wicket. After the high, he was out for just 3 at New Zealand’s turn at bat, which went mostly unremarked on in the wake of the Brendon McCullum and Martin Guptill blitzkrieg that carried New Zealand through to the semis. It emerged later that a spitting delivery from Stuart Broad had snapped his thumb. It was still broken as he fought his way to an unbeaten 75 in the semifinal, and as he shook hands with a Pakistan team gracious in defeat.
The thumb was the beginning of what looks to be the end. Injuries forced him out of the New Zealand side at the highest point of his rise, and the window closed. In 2011, he was 32, still fighting injuries, and not selected for the Test or ODI teams, remaining instead captain of the domestic Wellington Firebirds. In that capacity, a few days ago, he reached 188 not out against the Central Stags in the Plunket Shield, breaking free of a lean run of form, just shy of a maiden first-class 200. He then declared the innings, remaining on 188, to give his team the best chance of bowling out the opposition for victory in the rapidly worsening weather.
It didn’t work. It’s difficult for a non-player like me to comprehend the frustration of something like that, but despite the fact that it’s kind of heartbreaking, it’s reassuring in a way. It’s always nice when an awesome, classy player does something to remind you of that fact about himself.
Grant Elliott turned 33 yesterday, which is why I’m writing this. Because I was a fan ever since that first ODI and that first awesome Han Solo smile, all the way through. Because I still listen to Plunket Shield on the radio in the middle of the night to see how the Firebirds are going with him at the helm. Because cricket is great at fêting its rockstars and celebrities, but usually ignores the quietly classy, and the gritty, driven guys who do the hard unglamorous stuff well. For reasons I can’t begin to understand, ESPNcricinfo didn’t include Grant Elliott’s birthday on their list of notable happenings in cricket for the 21st of March. I’m not sure why they didn’t feel they needed to acknowledge him, but they didn’t, and it’s not the first thing they’ve done that I disagree with, but it is something I can combat. So I wrote this.
Happy birthday, GE.
So this is how it ends for Ricky. I had truly hoped it wouldn’t happen this way. He was never my favourite player in the world, but he is still Ricky Ponting, bona fide legend, one of the best there’s ever been with a bat and in the field. One day, even his hairy arms and that constant disconcerting hand-spitting will be discussed with respectful awe, in the tone used to discuss those chosen, near-mythical few, because he is a legend and there’s probably not a cricket fan in their right mind who would seriously attempt to dispute it.
Today, though, seated behind a table with flashes going off left and right in his face, he looked almost painfully human. Ricky is not a small man. He’s still in the shape that befits an elite sportsman, and he remained entirely composed, not visibly distraught, not stricken or anguished. But he looked, even if only infinitesimally, diminished, because there was no way to escape the fact that he was there not to announce a decision of his own choosing, that he was there because the axe had been dropped and everything about Ricky that makes him legendary wasn’t enough to stop it. He was there because he had not seen the writing on the wall, had not taken the many chances tacitly offered to him to accede to the inevitable on his own terms. Dignified as he was, he was there to talk about the fact that someone had been forced to finally tell him what they’d been hoping he’d figure out for himself but didn’t, and with such a thing comes stinging humiliation no matter how you try to slice it.
I started watching cricket properly late in life. In 2005 I still didn’t know too much about things, but I knew enough to quake slightly for England when Steve Harmison’s bouncer smacked into the side of Ricky’s head on Day 1 at Lords and sliced open his face. It was as reflexive as when, in the split second after you see someone tread on a cat’s tail, you know with complete certainty that bloody retribution will follow. It’s the natural law of things. In 2005, I didn’t have to formulate a conscious thought to know for sure – for SURE, beyond a shadow of a doubt – that cutting Ricky Ponting’s face open would result in truly terrible vengeance, so much so that I didn’t even have to particularly like England to wince at the thought of the ravaging that awaited them.
That Ricky seems a distant, dim memory now. Even though Ricky will still play Tests, even though I have no doubt that he will still continue to prove his immense worth there, he’s not the same Ricky.
He’s never been a favourite. I’ve never even really liked the man. But that still makes me sad.
Martin Guptill is a man who demands nicknames. This would be true even if he weren’t a sportsman existing in an environment where everyone must be referred to by nickname (even if, as with England a lot of the time, said nickname is pretty much just the player’s actual name with a ‘y’ tacked on the end.) For one thing, there’s his unusual last name; for another, the fact that the man has only 7 toes. My old nickname for him, therefore, was ‘Guppy Two-toes’ – which, if not exactly supremely imaginative, was at least a hell of a lot more so than ‘Cooky,’ ‘Belly,’ ‘Straussy’ and the rest of them, as if the England team were made up entirely of cutesy singing dwarves.
That is a nickname of the past, from a time when the New Zealand team – and especially their batting lineup – were either plucky underdogs who never quite made it happen for themselves, or a straight-up punchline. Their bowlers were mostly immune from the criticism, on account of not sucking at their own jobs and regularly picking up the slack after each inevitable batting collapse. Practically every set of photographs taken of Daniel Vettori from that time has a couple showing him, jaw set and brow furrowed under his helmet, padded up and striding out with an air of angry resignation to bail his team out of trouble by batting for a couple of hours (in a style apparently learned from a coaching manual printed by Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks).
But things, it seems, are different now with New Zealand. Their Atlas, Vettori, plays only Tests now, and their team lineup is suddenly bristling with fresh-faced players not old enough to know what audio cassettes are. But it’s working for them. Zimbabwe might not have been the most challenging of opponents (though they have the capacity to be much tougher than they were during this last series), but New Zealand demolished them, over and over again, at every venue and in every format. To my obvious delight, one of the main architects of New Zealand’s dominance was none other than Chris Martin, 37 years of age and in the bowling form of his life, perhaps invigorated by reducing Phil Hughes to a bloody smear on the ground in the Australia series. This may in some part explain why one of the search phrases used to find this blog recently was “cricket the back of Chris Martin’s head,” but that’s something I don’t really want to think too much about except to assume that someone out there has a thing for graceful bald men who can swing a cricket ball, which is fair enough.
The other standout Kiwi was, of course, Guptill. He’s always been a superb fielder, so much so that he manages to stand out in a side that is primarily known for being a uniformly excellent fielding unit. He was the third part of the Hughes b. Martin equation in addition to flinging himself all over the place taking catches and stopping runs, and when he wasn’t doing that he was batting like he’s never batted before. He’s showed flashes of this ability in the past, but never so consistently, and now he resembles a man who has ‘Eye of the Tiger’ playing constantly in his head and has entrenched himself so deeply into The Zone that he probably cuts his food and puts on pants with exactly the same intensity and optimal use of technique. It showed clearly in today’s T20, the one that kicked off the start of the South Africa tour (a.k.a. the real test of the new-and-improved-now-with-40%-more-BADASS New Zealand side). After a spectacular runout of Hashim Amla that ended with both players and several stumps tangled up in a heap on the pitch and had everyone and their grandmother instantly referencing the legendary Jonty Rhodes moment, he then proceeded to carry his bat through the New Zealand innings and score most of the runs – except the winning ones, which he graciously left to James Franklin. The man seems unstoppable.
However, he is also possessed of facial hair and bone structure that, especially when he’s wearing a helmet, makes him look uncannily like a less-Asiatic Ghenghis Khan. It’s actually distracting. Yet, it might just be the source of all his powers, and so should be accorded due respect. Thus, his new nickname will now be the Toeless White Mongol. It’s not short and snappy, like good nicknames should ideally be, but I think it’s the name he’s earned. Go forth, TWM, and conquer.
It’s that time of year: time for the Champions’ League, aka the T20-Tournament-That’s-Kind-of-Like-the-IPL-Except-More-Involving-and-Slightly-Less-Idiotic-In-Execution (or TTTKLIEMISLE, as it is almost certainly never referred to.) It has IPL teams, obviously, since otherwise no-one in India would watch and none of the usual slew of advertisers would want to make their presence known with their customary deft subtlety.
I actually quite like this tournament. I will almost certainly like it less and less as the final draws nearer between what will very likely be two IPL sides, complete with the massive avalanche of idiocy that scenario will entail. The reason I like it at the moment is because of the presence of the strong club and county sides filled with talented and motivated players that are, for the most part, familiar to only their home supporters. (And to people like me who follow county/regional cricket in New Zealand and England despite not being from or living in either of those countries, but we are a rare and unbalanced breed.) As glorious as it is to see the elite players and the legends working their magic/screwing up royally (delete as applicable) during the rest of the year, there is a special pleasure in watching the as-yet-undiscovered kids and the small-time pros step up to their time in the big arena.
The New Zealand contingent, obviously, weren’t quite good enough. I did get to watch Chris Martin and Lou Vincent (my adoration of whom is well documented), which is a silver lining, albeit admittedly a pretty slender one. Maybe more of a silver tracing? Somerset, who are of course playing without their front-liner Marcus Trescothick (another of my all-time favourites) have done far better, and this makes me happy because even Bangerless, they are awesome, with a fantastic captain in Alfonso Thomas.
I’m neither entirely proud of this nor able to fully explain it, but the greatest joy by far that the Champions Trophy affords is the sight of the IPL teams getting beaten by county and regional teams. The more comprehensive the defeat, the happier I am. I don’t care if it’s an English or an Australian or a South African team dealing the damage. I should point out that this has little to do with the players (with the exception of a small but fuckwitted handful of them) and more to do with the simple fact that they’re IPL teams. They’re associated with the shrillness and painful stupidity of that entire ridiculous overblown klaxon show and therefore the more matches they lose the more vindictively happy that makes me, because I am an angry person who doesn’t like stupid shit.
Maybe it’s partly because of the IPL owners? Watching KKR going down in spectacular fashion at this very moment against the South Australia Redbacks is a delightful experience, not because I dislike Ryan ten Doeschate, or Gautam Gambhir (…ok, maybe a little) or Brett Lee (quite the contrary, in fact), nor out of any especial love for South Australia. KKR just needs to lose. They have a stupid name, dumb outfits and an owner who is one of the most painfully idiotic and narcissistic men in existence.
So, Viva Le Champions’ League. I approve. If there was a decent Test on right now you can be sure as hell that would be on my TV instead, but this will do in its place. A little schadenfreude is good for the soul. Bring it on.
After the last post, on my feelings regarding the death of the late Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, these were the top searches that led newcomers to the blog:
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……..seriously? SERIOUSLY? Screw every last one of you.
The last Nawab of the former Princely State of Pataudi, former Captain of India, died today in a Delhi hospital. I didn’t see it coming. Apparently very few people did. His death was a result of a lung condition that had plagued him for some time, but if you hadn’t been reading about it over the last few days you wouldn’t have guessed he was unwell. He was at there at Oval at the end of the 4th and final Test to present the conquering England team with the trophy that bears his family’s name (a tribute both to him and his father, the senior Nawab, Iftikhar Ali Khan Pataudi), apparently in perfect health. His profound disappointment at India’s 4-0 series loss was tangible then, but it didn’t affect his poise. Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi was born a prince, and class practically dripped from his pores. It was always that way.
I never saw him play – not properly. He was 70 years old at his death, and he had been made Captain of India at the age of 21. Flickering grainy black-and-white clips of video footage and the reverent words of others are all most of us have as proof of his sublime ability with a cricket bat. A slight, bare-headed figure, stepping out and swinging, or slouched with languorous elegance in the field. Neither the photos that captured his easy, slightly dreamy smile nor the footage that recorded his prowess as a batsman give away his sightless right eye. Sunil Gavaskar is, in my humble opinion, an arrogant blowhard far too fond of the sound of his own voice, but I will nevertheless use his analogy here to explain the scale of Pataudi’s accomplishment after the accident that took away his eye: forget facing down a fast bowler, try walking around with an eyepatch for just one day and see if you’re able to light a candle.
Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi was among the last of the Indian royals to hold a title, and among the first to inform a diverse collection of young men hailing from all parts of India and all levels of wealth (or lack thereof) that they were all equals, himself included. Many people more suited to the task than I have written, and will write more, on the many ways he changed the game, the many strokes of genius and faith and inspiration that have made him legend. Four spinners. Playing to win. Attacking. Forthrightness. I hope they do. The more the better. Their words, and his, as when he spoke out boldly in lone opposition to the IPL governing council of which he himself was a part, are now all we have left.
My mother is not an avid cricket watcher; she tolerates her husband and youngest daughter’s fixation with it, but knows little about the game and cares only out of an instinctive sense of nationalistic pride that India do well when they play. The death of Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, however, has shaken her deeply. She tells me now of days spent as a young woman at the Bangalore cricket ground with friends and cousins, ooh-ing and aah-ing over the dashing Nawab. How they would watch the cricket because of him, because of the new feeling he had brought to a sport that had seemed flat and boring to them. She is a practical woman, not prone to sentimentality, but her eyes light up now, reliving the frisson of many years ago, at the memory of arguing with a cousin over whether the figure in the box five metres ahead of them was really him, only to have the dispute silenced as the man himself turned his head for a brief, wide smile.
I never saw Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi play, but I didn’t need to for his death to weigh on me. It is impossible to express how deeply he will be missed. Rest in peace, Tiger.
Some days, when I’m feeling particularly masochistic, I try and imagine what it must be like to be a Pakistan cricket fan. Of all the brutal, frustrating, agonizing, heartbreaking, apoplexy-inducing existences a sports fan could lead, that must at least rank in the top five. From STDs to fixes, factionalism to nepotism, idiocy to instability, and – the shit icing on the cake of festering crap – the continued presence of Ijaz Butt, Pakistan cricket has not merely hit bottom (repeatedly), it’s scraped bottom with a spatula and then broken its fingers trying to claw even further down through the bedrock with its bare hands.
Watching Pakistan play, as a neutral supporter, carries with it certain guarantees. Not many, obviously – after all, calling the Pakistan team ‘inconsistent’ is somewhat akin to calling George Bush ‘a bit dim’ – but there are a few. Umar Gul will send down some perfectly pitched yorkers. Misbah will bat as though caught in the glacial timescape of a Salvador Dali painting. Shahid Afridi will bellow and gesticulate like a deranged orchestra conductor, then do his Messiah impersonation when he gets a wicket. Kamran Akmal will fill silences with high-pitched yodelling shrieks reminiscent of a boy soprano attempting to summon sheep from high mountaintops.
He will also drop catches and miss stumpings. Lots of them.
The incredible thing about Kamran Akmal’s keeping – and, indeed, Pakistan’s fielding in general – is that you expect it to be terrible. You always know what you’re likely to see – but it’s still capable of astounding. I know I’m going to see Kamran Akmal fumble a take – ok, who am I kidding, many, many takes – that a paraplegic chimp could have nailed with ease. But every time I see him do it, I throw up my hands and yell ‘Are you fucking kidding me?!’ – or some variation thereof – at the TV screen. The incredulity is fresh every time.
After a point it becomes surreal. I’ll be as blunt as possible – I do not for the life of me understand how it is possible to be as shit at keeping as Kamran Akmal is. Ok, wait, that’s not entirely accurate – I’m probably a far worse keeper than he is. Same for my 81-year-old grandmother. Here’s the thing though – I AM NOT KEEPING FOR MY NATIONAL SIDE AT THE HIGHEST LEVEL. So I guess it’s not so much Akmal’s breathtaking ineptitude that baffles me – it’s more the fact that he continues to be able to display it every time Pakistan plays. If your keeper’s performance is so consistently shithouse that spot-fixing is the less embarrassing explanation, THERE IS SOMETHING DEEPLY WRONG. Either Kamran Akmal has incriminating photos of Pakistan’s entire selection panel in flagrante delicto with minors and livestock, or…actually, no, there is no other possible rationale for his continued presence behind the stumps.
What makes it even more mindblowing is the Pakistan camp’s reaction every time it is pointed out to them that their keeper is an embarrassment and a liability, which essentially boils down to, ‘He’s not that bad. He just had an off day.’ Really? Ok, well, does he ever have ‘on’ days? Because you could have fooled us! Honest to God, someone needs to check the Pakistan drinks cart for Kool-Aid.
After the debacle of Tuesday’s match against New Zealand, during which Akmal twice missed edges from eventual centurion and MoM Ross Taylor – at least one of which should not have been missed by any wicket keeper at any level of the game unless he or she was experiencing an epileptic fit or bleeding profusely from the head – coach Waqar Younis stated that the key for Pakistan going forward was not to panic. I entirely agree. Panic does nobody any good, and in any case Pakistan had no cause for panic. They would if they were unable to pin down the reason for their defeat. But the reason could not have been more conspicuous if it were walking around wearing a neon sandwich board and trailing a 5-piece brass band in its wake.
Let’s be clear, I don’t think that dropping Kamran Akmal will magically turn Pakistan’s fortunes around, or that everything that went wrong against New Zealand was his fault (Ross Taylor’s blitz in the death overs was courtesy some incredibly crappy bowling, for instance). But that’s not the reason he should be dropped. If a player performs badly over the length of time Akmal has, he no longer deserves to be part of the team. Simple. Then again, affairs in Pakistan cricket are never simple. Even so, even knowing the murkiness that surrounds the team and its selection, I still can’t dredge up anything even approximating a good reason for keeping him on. He really is that bad. And Pakistan’s refusal to acknowledge that fact only makes them look like idiots. Although, in fairness, they have had Ijaz Butt for an awfully long time, so that ship has pretty much already sailed.
February 18, 2o11: The ICC, in their infinite wisdom and ever-mindful of their weighty responsibility to promote and shepherd the growth and development of the beautiful game worldwide, announce the reduction of teams participating at the World Cup from 14 to 10, effective from 2015. The tournament is too bloated, everyone says, so we’re only giving the people what they want. It’s not entertaining to watch the inevitable, interminable, first rounds of heavyweights annihilating the minnows. You know, if they want to play in the ODI World Cup they should just play better! There’s nothing to stop them, certainly nothing like a lack of money and cricketing infrastructure, or a shortage of match experience because they aren’t pencilled into the international calendar anywhere.
But, to show that we care, we’ll let them go to the World T20 tournament. Tests are the purest form of the game, so obviously these young aspiring teams cannot be allowed to play it! They’re young sides, just starting out, who need to develop their cricket, and what better way then by effectively restricting them to no cricket except the dumbest, hollowest, most technique-bereft format of the game?
February 22, 2011: England, holders of the Ashes, narrowly avoid a loss to the Netherlands, securing victory with 8 balls to spare.
March 02, 2011: Ireland, having given Bangladesh a brave fight days earlier, chase down England’s score of 327 in their final over, spurred on by the fastest century in World Cup history, scored off 50 balls by Kevin O’Brien.
Of course the Associates do not belong at the top level. They clearly are incapable of matching the levels of skill and discipline displayed by the top-level sides. Why, an Ireland or a Netherlands could only dream of being able to field like Pakistan, or bowl like England. They certainly cannot produce compelling cricket or close-fought matches. And, of course, their inability to match the big boys is entirely their own fault – it’s certainly nothing to do with a lack of support from the ICC, or from not having the chance to play competitive cricket on a regular basis, or from not playing higher-level teams, ever, except at the World Cup. Obviously. Their stagnation is entirely of their own making, and heaven forbid they continue to besmirch the gloss of the Ultimate Cricket Contest with their presence.
Well, that was anticlimactic.
My training is scientific, so it’s impossible to watch this New Zealand side play without my brain almost involuntarily formulating a giant experiment to evaluate how they perform under different levels of expectation. Is there really something to this wretched underdog thing that Shane Bond hates so much? Test it! Send them into three series deciders, one as favourites, one as 50-50-too-close-to-call competitors, and one as these-jokers-haven’t-got-a-hope-in-hell rank outsiders. Repeat several times to get a decent sample size, play the same 11 every time at the same ground against the same opponent (preferably a consistent side – Lanka? SA?) to reduce the number of variables. It would make a fascinating research study, albeit one that might be a little bit hard to get funding for.
Normally I wouldn’t advocate treating international-level sportsmen like lab rats (even though it would be frankly awesome to see Alastair Cook frantically trying to find his way though a giant hedge maze to the Maybelline stand at the other end) but honestly, there might really be no other way to explain this NZ side.
This is not to say that the NZ setup should feel badly about this series. They performed far above anyone’s expectations – so much so that the third test shitshow was even more bizarre because of the gritty fighting that had come before. Verily, New Zealand cricket, you are a mystery wrapped in an enigma sprinkled with really hot men.
I know I’m probably supposed to be writing about the Ashes, but everyone else in the known universe, along with their great-aunt and their great aunt’s cocker spaniel, seems to be providing fairly comprehensive coverage already, so I will abstain. I will say, though, that of all the members of the England Test side, I would never in a million years have thought that Tim Bresnan would be the one with the most rhythm.