Archive for category New Zealand

For Grant

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.

For Grant.

Happy birthday, GE.

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Toeless White Mongol’s Fantastic Incredible Adventure

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.

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Does not compute

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.

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…aaaaand we’re back.

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.

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Return of the Mac

I just referenced a song in this post title that was released in 1996. FOURTEEN. YEARS. AGO.

I am SO OLD.

…anyway.

You’re probably expecting me to talk about Brendon McCullum now. You would be entirely justified in this expectation (and yes, I’m very aware of how many times I have used the word ‘expectation’ and its alternate conjugations here in the last few days, it has in fact started to lose all meaning for me) since, of course, Baz done good today. He’s been persona non grata a little bit for his decision to quit keeping, at which he is undeniably excellent, and for being all reputation and no runs of late. Going out to bat against the world’s number one Test side and scoring a shitload of runs is obviously the best way to counter this sort of thing, which is exactly what Baz did and bloody good on him for doing it.

But it’s the other Mac that has drawn my interest. The inconspicuous Mac. Mac the Lesser. Also known (by me, in my head, involuntarily, every time I see him or hear his name mentioned) as TIMMAY!*

Tim McIntosh.

Tim McIntosh is a bit of a cipher. He’s New Zealand’s Test opener, but no-one really knows anything about him – most people, even those who watch cricket regularly, probably couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. Yet in the past year he’s not done too badly – scoring 4 50s (and twice – against Australia and Bangladesh – getting agonizingly close to 100s) in addition of course to coming off a pair to score 102 and 49 against India in Hyderabad. This relative annonymity is quite possibly because unlike the Big Mac (sorry) Brendon McCullum, he isn’t exactly an electric batsman. (Cricinfo’s profile of him calls him ‘a graduate of the Mark Richardson School of Batting,’ which pretty much sums it up.) It is just so typical of the fate of guys like him that when he does something awesome, like score a century and a fifty in the same match after coming off a pair, flashier stars like Baz, Harbhajan, and Chris Gayle swoop in to eclipse him.

Not here, though. Today I celebrate the achievement of quiet, unassuming Timmy Mac. He took on the top Test side in the world on home turf with the axe hanging over his head, and if it wasn’t for him, New Zealand could well have fared far worse in this match.

A footnote: People who know me should have suspected I wouldn’t let this go unmentioned: my beloved Grant Elliott – now CAPTAIN of the Wellington Firebirds, bitches! – has just scored 122 against Northern Districts in the NZ Plunket Shield. It is possible that the percentage of my readership that cares about this is less than 3%, and that’s being optimistic, but you know what? I don’t care! GO GRANT ELLIOTT! WHOO!

 

*I know, I KNOW. I’m a horrible person for this. Tim McIntosh is a fine upstanding and rather hot specimen of a man in the peak of physical and mental health. I AM NOT PROUD, OK?! IT IS AN INVOLUNTARY MENTAL ASSOCIATION!

 

 

 

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On Expecting the Expected

Ever since it became apparent on the second day of the first Test in Ahmedabad that New Zealand weren’t in fact going to be crushed into dust by India, as everyone and their grandmother had predicted, I’ve been giving Dileep Premachandran a hard time for this article. (Mostly because he called Chris Martin “ready for the knackers’ yard” and anyone even casually familiar with me or this blog probably knows that suggesting Chris Martin is anything less than completely awesome is, in my opinion, punishable by torture and execution.)

But.

Truth be told, I was predicting the same thing everyone else was. I believe my exact words were “Vettori’s 100th Test appearance for New Zealand is going to be a nightmarish, bloodstained massacre.” If I felt any ambivalence I disguised it well.

I love New Zealand (yeah, not news, I know). I have a massive amount of faith in their players. I know that they have an uncanny ability to come good when appearing totally down and out. The fact that the spellcheck on WordPress still doesn’t recognize ‘Zealand’ as a word AS IT IS DOING RIGHT THIS FUCKING MINUTE sends me into a mini rage spiral. Still.

It was impossible not to. One of the oldest cliches in cricket is that anything can happen, but that’s sometimes just not true. Put Canada into the field with Australia and there’s a 99.99% chance that you could correctly predict what would happen. It’s like the lottery: technically, yes, there is a chance of winning, but you have a greater chance of being struck by lightning, twice, in the same place on your body at the same time of day while wearing the same 6 items of clothing. After the Bangladesh tour, with India coming off beating the mighty(ish) Australians 2-0, it would have just been unrealistic to think that the Kiwis – in a Test series no less (statistically the format in which they have been least successful in recent times) – would be anything other than woefully outmatched. They no longer had Bond or O’Brien. Their batting lineup was shakier than a house of cards on a seesaw in an earthquake. They had just emerged from a series in which they had failed to win a single ODI…against Bangladesh.

If the New Zealand team were a horse, it would have been taken behind some sheds and shot as an act of mercy.

There is very rarely anything nice about being proved spectacularly wrong, but (as England fans who were around in the 90s and early Aughts will attest) there’s nothing better than the team you love winning when you had prepared yourself for them to lose. It’s SO much better than an expected win. It more than compensates for the contrasting feeling – losing when winning should have been a foregone conclusion. It may in fact be one of the best feelings there is for a sports fan.

Shane Bond has said publicly that he’s always hated the ‘underdogs’ tag New Zealand have long been saddled with for this very reason, that they were expected to lose and winning was a bonus. And I agree with him. It’s not healthy for the team to think that way. It’s probably more than a little pathetic for the fans to constantly think that way. But it’s so hard not to, when it means that you occasionally get to experience this feeling. Because, for real, it feels fucking fantastic.

Or maybe I’m biased and the feeling is heightened for me because my long-beloved Chris Martin took 5 for 63 when certain people-who-will-not-be-named-except-that-their-first-name-rhymes-with-Felipe-and-their-last-name-is-Premachandran had written him off as old and past it. It’s possible.

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The Ghost Who Rocks

I love cricket. Possibly more than is entirely healthy. But probably 80% of what there is to know about the game, I don’t.

Here are some things I know.

Chris Martin is 36 years old. Chris Martin is a punchline. Chris Martin cannot bat. Chris Martin is not Shane Bond.

Chris Martin has 187 test wickets, at an average of 34.44 and an economy rate of 3.42.

Chris Martin has a sense of humour. Chris Martin got Jesse Ryder to his maiden Test Century. Chris Martin leaps like a lanky-shaven-headed-yet-still-graceful gazelle at the end of his run-up. Chris Martin has knocked over 5 top-order Indian batsmen for 25 runs. On November 7 2010 Chris Martin scored three times as many runs as Virender Sehwag before sending Sachin Tendulkar back to the pavilion with a flick of his wrists. Chris Martin has really pretty eyes.

Pretty, pretty eyes.

So dreamy!

When Chris Martin takes a wicket, he roars his awesome badassery to the skies, and the very ground trembles beneath him.

Chris Martin is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

They call Chris Martin The Phantom, even though he doesn’t wear a purple bodysuit and stripy Y-fronts. (That I know of. But even if he does, he probably rocks that look. Rocks it hard.)

Chris Martin is cooler than you.

No, I don’t know who you are. But I know Chris Martin’s cooler than you.

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