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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Unwanted Associations

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.

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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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Five Open Letters

Dear Test Matches are Boring People:

I’m sorry. There is nothing here for you. I recommend that you seek alternate sources of amusement: maybe stare at a slowly revolving disco ball (so much SHINY! You’ll be amused for hours! Oh, wait, you don’t have hours, do you? Ok, minutes! You’ll be amused for whole minutes!), or go watch some MTV.

Dear Murali is a Chucker, Dammit! Stop celebrating him and loving him! I said STOP! People:

I’m sorry. It must be hard, living in your joyless, cobwebbed world where fun goes to die and everything is angular and narrow and unchanging. It sounds awful. But you know, most of you are really really old, so you can comfort yourself with the knowledge that the sweet release of death is likely near at hand.

Dear Pakistan Fans:

I am deeply, indescribably, bouncing-up-and-down-shrieking-nonsense-and-flinging-confetti thrilled for you. I really really am. But I am also concerned, knowing that many of you are probably still recovering from yesterday. Remember: if you are still experiencing seizures, blood rushes to the head, stomach-turning nausea and/or constriction in the chest area in 24 hours, seek medical attention without delay.

Dear Mohammed Aamer:

You are altogether adorable and delightful, and fucking hell you can bowl. May your career be long, illustrious and smiley. PS: Eat a sandwich or something. You’re clearly in great shape, but some of us are worried that if you fall over you’ll snap in two and that would be a tragic loss.

Dear Salman Butt:

Not to be a buzzkill or anything, and I want to extend my sincerest congratulations on your fabulous victory, but please, please, PLEASE don’t get ahead of yourself. The crash is going to make that one time you drank eight cups of coffee and everything was great until later that afternoon when you thought you were going to die seem insignificant by contrast. Also do not listen to Moin Khan: he means well, but the last time someone got as throughly carried away as Moin seems to have been after you won, his name was Mr. Fredricksen and he lived in a house with billions of balloons attached.

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