A Beautiful Game by Mark Nicholas

 A semi-autobiography and  the winner of The Cricket Society/MCC Book of the Year for 2017, A Beautiful Game was worth the time it took to read it. Mark Nicholas gives a very readable account  of his playing career, nearly two decades with Hampshire; the early years in the 2nd XIs  running errands for the first team and generally looking up to playing greatness, to the decade when he was captain of his county,  narrowly missing out on becoming England captain in 1988 at one point.

While this part of the book is likely to be of most interest to those who remember him playing, he is frank, disarmingly so at times, about key relationships with his team-mates, a fund of good stories and generally draws the reader into how he sees things well. He is also good on his playing triumphs, Hampshire eventually got to a Lord’s one-day final under his leadership (they were the 17th county to do so), the near misses (a Championship in the mid-80s in particular) and the days when things went badly (most notably in a match against a Pakistani touring team). His account of Robin Smith’s struggles with alcohol and depression after his playing career was over was written with great heart.

The writing is full-on for much of the book, which achieves its dramatic effect in the telling of his encounter with Kerry Packer that helped set his media career on its way in Australia, the re-telling of  the 2005 Ashes series and also in his comments on the game’s greats. In relation to his playing career the built environs of domestic English cricket were, by contrast, sometimes rather modest; the dressing room for the home players at Southampton for example the small cottage in the photos above (the visiting team a room behind opposite the gents used by members).

In a career lasting some forty or so years in the game, some things of course, as the saying goes, could have gone even better. He played a prominent role in Hampshire’s  move to the Rose Bowl, the development  of a purpose built ‘England outground’, a risky venture, that over the years has been rather fraught financially and  overall it seems to have been a less happy change than, say, the relocation of Southampton FC to St Mary’s.

The final chapter, his crystal ball, is thought-provoking. CLR James argued that cricket, its people should be seen in societal context; WG Grace a figure produced by Victorian England, the  market reforms on the sub-continent of the early 1990s and the rapid growth that followed background context for Lalit  Modhi and the IPL. In the last decade the Indian economy has more than doubled in size, that of this country has not and the monies from the media rights deal negotiated by the BCCI  this year were about twice those announced by the ECB; left to market forces the future of cricket, it seems fair to say, is likely to be what the sub-continent wants.

A member of cricket’s global media,  he appears to tacitly accept this and his view of things contrasts rather with those in this country who see the longer form of the game as being above T20 cricket, and who might also see the ECB’s revenue generation from overseas markets as being decidedly two-edged. He comments on a structure for Test match cricket, which seems largely uncontroversial and likely to be quite widely welcomed,  other things, four days for a Test and his support for a city based T20 competition are or have been contentious; England, he comments, desperately wants an equivalent to the Big Bash. The  point of a crystal ball, is of course, to try and shape the future, as much as to see into it, and reading the final chapter does rather prompt the question as to how much of England there now is in the Englishman that wrote it?

 

 

 

 

 

Hampshire at Dean Park

Many thanks to Gary Sanford, who watched much Hampshire cricket at Dean Park for the photographs of the ground that prompted this post. Mark Nicholas in his book A Beautiful Game gives a very readable account of his time playing for the county at the time, as to the spectators who took pleasure watching, they were a fortunate generation who saw high level cricket played on the county’s outgrounds of which Dean Park was the most picturesque.

Those by the sightscreen at the end  of the ground from which the photograph here was taken  were collectively known as the ‘Winton End committee’;  individuals that came from well beyond the county’s borders each year for the Bournemouth week as well as those who lived locally; an annual pilgrimage of sorts for some, the member for Woking declaring ‘this committee meeting open’ each year.

On a wall of the pavilion there was a photograph of WG Grace at the turn of the 20th century when on the ground, and two distinctive bearded members  of the aforementioned committee  certainly did their bit for English heritage over the years; one who became the chair of the Campaign for Real Ale in its formative years, Dean Park a convivial place to organise and also a place of informed opinion on ales.  By the time the photograph above was taken a decade or so later, ‘Tony’ remained a prominent figure, often immersed in the cricket seen through his binoculars, to the side or at times just in front of the sightscreen, a prime spot from which to watch the game. He was also a natural with a cricket bat.

Despite the very English idyll suggested here, the 1980s were in some respects also very different; a decade in which, for example, Viv Anderson and John Barnes were at different times booed by sections of the crowd when they played at Wembley. Sunday League fixtures at Dean Park had spectator numbers increased  by  ‘football supporters’  and when Gordon Greenidge’s wife approached a group of about 20 or so sitting by the sightscreen collecting for her husband’s benefit, her face betrayed genuine uncertainty as to the nature of the response she was about to receive. Courtesies followed and £1 for the raffle tickets was collected about 20 times over.

As for the ‘actual committee’ Gary’s  photos show  the mayor’s tent and other hospitality tents, the forerunner of today’s corporate boxes; seemingly natural homes for some of its members.  Socially very different, the two worlds did intersect on occasion, the expeditions to distant outgrounds organized at the Winton End being instances of such, most memorably perhaps the trip to Darley Dale in 1975; those who went returned a full 24 hours later after traveling on a very different road network.

About the time these photographs were taken those who held offices on the main Hampshire committee  first mooted the prospect of a new ground with the aim of hosting Test Match cricket, and also alleviating the parking problems at the Northlands Road ground in  Southampton. While it would  be fair to say that the county game as a whole has become more centralised over the years, Stephen Chalke’s book, Summer’s Crown, also makes it clear that Hampshire have been the only county that has relocated away from a town or city centre. The wisdom of this decision in relation both to the county’s heritage, and its future, escaped the blogger at the time, the photos here are a reminder that it still does.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arrowgate

Kartikeya Date  wrote a comment piece a while back expressing amazement at how few professional observers seemed to be aware of how over rates are calculated in international cricket and the  indulgences in mistaken arithmetic that follow from it (http://cricketingview.blogspot.co.uk). The subject of over rates was again prominent this week in English cricket with the Championship standings for 2017 finally settled;  Middlesex’s appeal against a penalty of two points for slow rates, in the game when an arrow landed on the Oval, rejected.

Championship cricket requires a minimum of 16 overs an hour, which, maybe confusingly, is not to say that those counties who meet the minimum will actually be bowling 16 overs an hour as pavilion  clocks tick round. The over rate calculation that is used is

(Time spent in the field in minutes- allowances)/3.75

Rule 16.4 in particular states that two minutes are allowed for when a wicket falls, although not the last wicket or one that is followed directly by an interval. There is no allowance for a drinks break. So, if a team was in the field for an hour with no wickets or anything else to allow for, the calculation becomes 60/3.75 = 16, although, in practice, if a team is to incur a penalty they have to be in the field for at least four hours. As to the anything else that is allowed for, the ECB rules have this to say

“Any suspension of play for an injury to a player or for any other reason beyond the control of the players shall be a deductible allowance”.

So, if an inebriated spectator made their way onto the field and held up play an allowance could easily be made in the calculation. What Arrowgate raised is what happens when there is a longer suspension,  such as one from a safety or security alert, that might lead to the early termination of a match, or otherwise seriously reduce the available time for play.

The  rules are, of course, cast in terms of the team fielding at the time play is suspended,  although the calculation for determining penalties is done on a match basis and  a longer suspension might, of course, affect the team batting as well; as arguably happened on the 4th day of the Surrey v Middlesex match. Actually giving players leeway on this appears problematic given the way the rules are expressed through the over rate calculation;  at the  moment players are given consideration for relatively short interruptions, but not for more lengthy ones, something that,  on the face of it,  seems ironic.

This time round it appears that the ECB have dealt with a problem by sitting on it. It would be a very good thing for spectators if the safety-related issues  raised that day were not sat on, the need for ground authorities to communicate and co-ordinate operationally in particular. A comment on the blogger’s experience that afternoon is here http://bythesightscreen.com/surrey-versus-middlesex-4th-day/

Over on planet football, when Manchester United played AFC Bournemouth at the end of the 2015-16 season, there was a safety alert when a suspect package was found in the toilets before the kick-off, leading to a postponement. During the  evacuation of the ground, which took 20 minutes plus as one side of the stadium was emptied followed by the other, the blogger’s experience was that the PA was telling spectators  to remain by their seats, while turnstile operators directly underneath were allowing spectators  to exit, that of others that spectators were still being admitted to the ground at the time of the evacuation.

Happily all who went to the ground that day went home again, as might be expected when the suspect package was, in fact,  a training device. The follow-on question here is were it necessary to evacuate a large crowd at a cricket ground, say 15 minutes before the start of a T20 match, would the response be better than at Old Trafford 18 months ago?

 

Batting for England I: 1970-1999

An Ashes series ahead and England doing issues with their top order batsmen to the extent that Jonathan Agnew wrote that those chosen for the tour party were, at best, “a lucky dip”. What, therefore, to make of the signals from the county game about players who have the potential to play for England? A long time ago, before TMS had had its twentieth birthday, Trevor Bailey used to comment that a county average of 40 was a marker for a Test prospect; he was not alone, then or now. Of course there were exceptions, Mike Brearley, for example, is often remembered  for his captaincy rather than his runs, particularly during ‘Botham’s Ashes’ in 1981. 

1981 was a year of change that saw the  full covering of pitches in the domestic game and the players’ averages over the years reflect this. Taking for instance the England batsmen turned commentators now, whose career averages on their Test debuts are shown in the chart, David Lloyd and David Gower for example debuted in 1974 and 1978 with averages of 32 and 27; the other four who  first played in Tests over a decade later all had higher averages.  By comparison, Geoff Boycott, who first played for England against the Australians in 1964, had an average of 46.   

 

When players’ careers are on the rise and they first come into the England team, the average in the season when they are first picked (or the season before they go on tour)  could be expected to be above their career average more often than not; David Lloyd  and David Gower  had averages of 62 and 41 when first picked.  As to the general picture there is a pretty well defined list of 66 players who were picked to play as specialist batsmen for England between 1970-99 and their numbers are shown in the second chart. 

 

The overall average of the career numbers is 37, that for the season 44, add them and divide by two results in a figure just over 40!  As is evident there is some upward drift in the numbers and there is also a fair bit of variation from one player to another.  The variation around the career and seasonal averages itself averages 5-6.  Apart from David Lloyd in 1974,  the two others with averages of 60+ in the season picked were James Whitaker in 1986 and Steve James in 1998; although as with David Lloyd, Steve James was selected early in the season after a relatively small number of innings. James Whitaker had a very good season in 1986 that included  9 not outs. The two standouts with  career averages of 60+ are Allan Lamb in 1982 (as with others based on runs scored in England) and Graham Hick.

As for the relationship between a player’s average(s) when first picked and their subsequent Test career there is no obvious close and direct association. Of the major run-getters for England during these years, Allan Lamb and, to a lesser extent,  Nasser Hussain had numbers above the average line on their Test debuts; the others starting with Graham Gooch in 1974 and ending with Michael Vaughan in 1999 were either on or below it; in the case of Michael Vaughan, whose numbers are at the right hand end of the chart, quite a way below it.

TMS commentators in the 1970s,  Trevor Bailey, Henry Blofeld and Brian Johnston, with end of play summaries by EW  Swanton,  had a certain confidence that came from their backgrounds and with it also suggested a certain stability about the order of things; the relationship between Test and county cricket included as well perhaps, whether justified or not. But broadly, the numbers here do give  some sort of credibility to the idea that the county Championship then sent out useful messages about those with Test potential, or at least those that the selectors thought had it.

 

2017 Extras

It is sometimes said that the whole world is on YouTube, certainly it has the interview with John Cleese by Cricket World, who recalled when his first trip to Clarence Park, Weston-super-Mare,  was the most exciting thing in his life and when playing the game was more about honour. The Spirit of Cricket well remembered.

In 2017 many Championship fixtures were drawn, so credit to the players  who continued to work hard, even when the games were going nowhere and spectators in attendance were sparse.

The T20 Blast drew crowds of 20,000 plus to  the Home of Cricket on more than one occasion and when Middlesex took a game to Old Deer Park, a record number turned up there as well. It would be fair to add there were some obvious limits to the interest of a cosmopolitan crowd in the capital on a night out, large numbers were not turned away from ODP (gate 4,000 that evening) and a very noticeably smaller number attended  Surrey’s quarter-final against Warwickshire, the Friday evening before a bank holiday. 14,000 tickets were pre-sold said the Sky commentator rather anxiously  as the cameras panned the empty seats. As for the wisdom of two t20 domestic  competitions from 2020, this seemed a bit bonkers at the beginning of the season and still seemed that way at the end of it.

A first for the blogger was an afternoon watching a WCSL fixture, Surrey Stars versus Western Storm, £5 a bargain. Plenty of free hitting and a highly competitive  match.   In the afterglow of winning the World Cup the women’s game looks like it could grow and grow; spectators who were new to the game of cricket came as did those who have been before, touches of colour appeared in parts where, so far, in the men’s game it hasn’t.

Not good was the day when a nut with a bow let go of an arrow. It landed on the Oval, the players took cover and the pigeons moved over. It could be said that all is well that ends well although, security wise, some things can always go better and hopefully they will, if one day they be needed.

And finally, Rory Burns was out, and also off, 30 minutes or so from the end of the Surrey v Hants Championship match in July. The Surrey captain and opening bat was stumped by Lewis McManus off the bowling of Sean Ervine for 68; Surrey were following on after he had carried his bat in their first innings making 219. Some staying power in the era of T20 cricket; it was  a becalmed afternoon in high summer in a game that was still a pleasure to watch.

Uxbridge

Middlesex versus Hampshire, 12-15th September 2017

To every Hove its Arundel, although to Uxbridge in September when it would have been better were it Lord’s was a test of patience. After a blank first day, a start was made on the second morning, although when some rain came the players did not delay in leaving the field, a reminder of times of old, before the arrival of T20 cricket and the changed attitudes that have come with it. To be fair, given the problems with the covers it was probably of some help to the ground staff as well.

In a nice touch after lunch the PA informed that Felix Organ from the Hampshire academy, who had travelled to the ground after James Vince withdrew in the morning, was present in person making his debut for the county; alas a quick deluge followed after a few minutes and whereas at a major ground coverage, drainage and a resumption in an hour or so would have probably followed, that was it for the day. Middlesex 76-3.

The blogger renewed his enthusiasm for spectating on the third day by listening to the BBC commentary, a job well done by them as it usually is. Play resumed on time on the Friday morning, some warm sunshine, free admission and a sprinkling of spectators to witness proceedings. The Middlesex innings closed on 204 and in reply Hampshire made 146,  no-one really batted with any sense of permanence at the crease on either side, although Joe Weatherley, Felix Organ and Ian Holland played attractively for the visitors. A pleasant few hours to watch and a reminder of the charm of watching at outgrounds.

Middlesex play much of the time at Lord’s, ground preparations by the MCC, their outgrounds, prepared  in high summer by club/school; it came to light that they do not have their own ground staff and it seems that more time was lost in this match than might have been as a result. The 2016 winners of the Championship go into the final two rounds of matches with Yorkshire and Somerset their chief rivals to avoid the drop, the tables turned on a year ago and some added spice to the end of season given the way the title was won last year.

Elsewhere,  Essex became  Champions for 2017, a title won at Edgbaston with a team that had seven players born in what might be termed  the historic cricketing county. It was the seventh time in all and their first win since 1992. To use Stephen Chalke’s phrase  they are a grounded club; other counties have mortgaged their futures, gone prospecting for prestige since then, while Essex, it could be said, have played the game.

 

Surrey versus Middlesex 4th Day

Surrey versus Middlesex  31st August 2017

It having been a good week for red ball cricket, to the Oval to see the final afternoon of the London derby. A Middlesex rear guard action and a game heading for a  draw after tea, when the players  suddenly and unexpectedly left the field. No announcement was forthcoming although after a  few moments some sort of security alert seemed very probable.

Time and other things are suspended rather in these situations, two security staff walked round the boundary edge on the Harleyford Road side of the ground, up the steps, passing by this spectator, being good enough to indicate an arrow being carried by one of them, onwards in the direction of the hospitality custom above, where (presumably) they thought they might find a bow. I gather they didn’t.

Meanwhile members in the pavilion looked around at each other awaiting communication as did other spectators; after a period of 10-15 minutes, perhaps more than that, a plainly nervous gentleman on the PA apologised for the delay in making an announcement, but would spectators please take cover now, which being sensible people they did. The BBC commentary team spoke of lockdown  although this spectator and others simply headed out of the ground and down the road to Vauxhall Station.

From a distance of about two feet the arrow certainly looked like it would have done a serious damage to someone had it struck them; luckily as well as happily this day it didn’t.

The individual response by the security staff was good; as for their managerial co-ordination there was a rather long delay in telling spectators to take action and before the episode  is passed into the filing cabinet, mental and otherwise, what could be done to shorten it on any future such occasion should be somewhere near the top of the list of priorities.

 

 

 

T20 Blast Statistics 2017

If T20 is the future of cricket what to make of the data analysis that comes with it? Performance stats help decide how to bowl at opposing batsmen, set markers for the number of wickets during a powerplay and so on. Win the  toss and bat? Time was when this amounted to something like a conventional wisdom, although the Guardian newspaper this summer reported that 72% of teams in T20 matches in 2016 batted second and that 55% of teams chasing won;  a conventional wisdom overturned maybe.

Middlesex versus Hampshire at Lord’s 2017. Middlesex won the toss and batted, Hampshire won.

Underpinning much of this is the belief that T20 cricket produces a limited number of variations and, given many games, what statisticians measure will be stable for long enough to introduce an element of predictability. While games may mimic some of the features of an experiment, it would be fair to add that data analysts have not solved what the 18th century philosopher David Hume called the problem of induction. So, if scientific methods in T20 cricket might be useful up to a point, the question is which point or points?

The new wisdom of win the toss and bowl  seems to have permeated well in the T20 Blast; the bat: field first ratios being approximately 30:70 both last year and this. Prior to Finals Day, the number of games won batting first:second in 2016 was 52:63, something very similar to the (presumably more general) numbers given in the Guardian.

As to why there might be an advantage batting second, uncertainty about how the pitch will play and what constitutes a par score may be part of it. Limited overs games may be ‘moving on’ all the time, the effects of changing bat sizes, boundary ropes and mind sets that play the game. The average score of those batting first in games this year was 172,  seven more than in 2016; given this background, playing wait and see after winning the toss is an understandable decision.

Middlesex versus Kent at Richmond 2017. Kent won the toss and fielded, Middlesex won.

This seems believable enough for some games, although the numbers in 2017 after the quarter finals for those winning batting first:second were 58:53; which raises the question of whether the new  wisdom has moved on to the point where it tilts the odds in favour of the opposition.  Perhaps winning streaks in high profile matches have a disproportionate influence on thinking: in the 2016  T20 World Cup the West Indians won the toss, fielded first and won all six matches. Less commented on, maybe, was the experience of the 2016 T20 Blast winners, Northamptonshire, who won the competition on a losing streak of eight coin tosses.

It is, of course, possible that a more sophisticated look statistically, controlling for (measurable) other influences on winning might retrieve support for the current fashion for fielding first. It might do the opposite.  It might also just be that statisticians have been making available the benefits of a sugar pill, or a data placebo, for those minded to swallow one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dean Park, Bournemouth

Hampshire versus Middlesex, 3rd September 1978

Hampshire  won both their county Championships at Dean Park and in 1978 they went on to add the second of their three  Sunday League trophy wins there as well. In the weeks since the match at Cheltenham, covered in another post, they had defeated Kent at Southampton, but  lost at Northampton, so when Gordon Greenidge and Richard Gilliat walked out to bat in front of a large and optimistic crowd, a win and a Somerset loss was needed.

Their opponents that day were a Middlesex team who were (joint) Champions the year before and who boasted an array of Test players in their ranks. The Hampshire opening pair again got off to a fine start, sharing a stand of a 100 against a bowling attack that included Wayne Daniel and Mike Selvey, Phil Edmonds and John Embury, before two wickets fell quickly. Trevor Jesty, who also had a fine match, then made 47 in another century partnership with Gordon Greenidge as the innings finished on 221-4, a good score, if not more than a good score, at that time. For the Middlesex spin twins it was not the easiest of afternoons, although the scorecard did record three catches by Phil Edmonds.

Three years before on the same ground Barry Richards played an outstanding innings in the penultimate game of Hampshire’s successful Sunday campaign that year; of which it could be said that it anticipated rather the way the game would be played in the T20 era. Gordon Greenidge made 122 in this match, and played the sort of innings, 5 sixes…. those that were one bounce into the hedge and those that went straight over it….that was to become more common decades later in a game played with a different attitude, and with different sized bats; markers of two great players.

The Middlesex reply started well with Clive Radley and Norman Featherstone putting on 76, then with Graham Barlow at the crease the second wicket pair reduced the required runs to under 100 in the evening sunshine. The balance of the game swung again as Trevor Jesty, well backed up in the field and helped by a brilliant catch by David Rock,  removed  the visitors’ middle order, and, with the game slipping from them, three run outs followed. The Middlesex innings eventually subsided to 195 all out.

As was the norm for such occasions then a pitch invasion followed, as did quite a wait for the result at Taunton. In 1978 Somerset were on the threshold of their ‘glory years’, the era of Ian Botham, Joel Garner and  Viv Richards, but happily for Hants that day this was to start in 1979, as Somerset fell two runs short.

Richard Gilliat, Hampshire’s Oxford educated captain, was to play in one more Championship fixture after this game. In an interesting interview he gave to Peter Walker on the BBC that season, he spoke of the sense of pursuing a career in sport, or music, taking a  risk in life at least for a time, rather than taking the ‘safe option’ of going to work in a bank or similar;  still an admirable sentiment in 2017 in an otherwise much changed world.

As for Dean Park,  Hampshire played their last home game there 25 years ago, after a decade in which the county began to rather lose its way off the field. As seen now the available  comforts and catering for members, the parking spaces are, of course, of their time. The (partly modernized) ground has since been used by Dorset  and is now owned by a private school. As one of the county game’s past outgrounds it is still a place of happy memories for those who were there when Hampshire were.

 

Clarence Park, Weston-super-Mare

Somerset versus Hampshire,  August 9-11th 1978

While the main interest for Hampshire and their supporters in 1978 was the Sunday League,  three Dean Park regulars in a Hillman Imp also went to Clarence Park for the second day of the  Championship  fixture during the Weston-super-Mare cricket week that year.  A delayed  start, time enough to visit a hostelry, arriving to see David Turner and Trevor Jesty resume the visitors’ innings on 111-2.

Wickets soon fell on  a difficult surface, which brought together the Taylor twins: Mike (MNS, the batsman) and Derek (DJS, the wicketkeeper). There have not been that many twins who have played first class cricket, those playing against one another fewer still, although the Taylor brothers did so on several occasions during the 1970s; including a fixture in 1974 when Mike was caught by his brother and Derek was caught off the bowling of Mike. They played a part in dismissing each other on several other occasions as well, although as it happened not in this match as Mike was caught by Vic Marks off the bowling of Colin Dredge.

Clarence Park  is a municipal ground and the wicket could,  in the language used then, be spiteful.  Four years later a Somerset innings was to last for 85 balls against Middlesex, one of the shortest in the history of the game in England. The Hampshire Handbook for the 1978 season pointedly commented  that it was necessary for Richard Gilliat to take a precautionary visit to hospital after being hit in the face, and the Somerset innings also produced some moments of concern for Peter Roebuck, although he was able to resume.

The highlight of the afternoon for most spectators was, of course, to see Viv Richards bat. The following year he was to captain the West Indies in their successful defence of the World Cup at Lord’s, this particular afternoon he helped solidify the position of the home side by making 49, before being stumped at the wicket by Bob Stephenson. Somerset finished the day on 86-3. Home time, and, as was the way of things then a chance to listen to the reading of the cricket scoreboard on Radio 2 at 7.30.

The Lord’s museum in 2017 has been holding an exhibition on West Indian cricket, of some interest here is the contract letter between Somerset and Viv Richards for the 1981 season in England. The accepted offer was more, but not much more, than a recent graduate might have been paid at that time.

 

The letter also incidentally shows just how careful Somerset, not the most prosperous county then, were with the husbandry of their office stationary. As elsewhere the county has ended the festival weeks at   outgrounds,  Weston (1996), and Bath (2006), developing the county ground to the point where Taunton in 2017 is quite unrecognisable from the way it was when Hampshire visited at the time of the match remembered here.

Of Somerset it seems fair to comment that they have not had the problems of underfunded rebuilding projects, and declining interest in areas where outgrounds were once in use; in respect of T20 Blast attendances in 2017, quite the opposite. As seen on TV of the three grounds used for the T20 matches between England and South Africa this summer, Taunton, both on the ground and  from the air, was showing well.

 

 

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