West Indies may be the team that we need right now…

The BBC have lucked out with getting the highlights back just in time for England’s hastily arranged series versus the West Indies. 

West Indies cricket has always been about more than just cricket. Just look at Fire In Babylon (a documentary I touched on a couple of weeks ago) for an insight into how cricket is about independence, colonialism and national identities far beyond what the crowd at Lords really understand. Throw in a global pandemic and the horror of George Floyd and suddenly sport becomes irrelevant.

Except it doesn’t. Sport is always about more than bat and ball and that is especially true in cricket (see the 1980s rebel tours of South Africa and the fall out from that which still resonates.)

In this series, the spectators (socially distanced and at home naturally) have been lucky to be exposed to insights and impassioned rhetoric from some of the most articulate thinkers on the game currently working today.

In the lead up, ESPN’s George Dobell ran a brilliant piece on What Has English Cricket Has Been Like for Black Players

Then, two of the people who had spoken to Dobell were given the space by Sky to talk at length about what was happening with the intersection between Black Lives Matters and their experience. Michael Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent spoke from the heart and moved those who heard them, one hopes. The next day, Holding was even more open, reflecting upon the struggles of his own parents

However, just as important were the people of colour just getting on with their jobs and being excellent. The mighty TMS had brought in Carlos Brathwaite as commentator and he was everything you would have hoped: insightful about the techniques, light-hearted and relaxed alongside his colleagues and a pleasure to listen to. He slipped in well, as did Sir Alistair Cook. I look forward to hearing them for the rest of the summer.

West Indies captain Jason Holder holds his arms aloft during the first test match against England
West Indies captain Jason Holder

But best of all, was West Indies skipper Jason Holder. A 6ft 7in military medium allrounder sending the ball down at only (“only”) 80mph, his accuracy, movement off the seam and joy in his artistry was magnificent. 

A small aside: I am not a betting man. I’m not claiming I never have a flutter but, for a number of reasons – fundamental innumeracy, catastrophic mismanagement of money (see previous point), poor decision making and an addictive personality to name but four – I don’t bet regularly. But if you do want a tip this is it: always bet against England in any sport.

For some reason, bookies always over promote England even when it’s a two horse race. To whit: the current West Indies cricket tour of the England. The West Indies were available at 12:1 in a two horse race.

Considering Holder is the number one ranked Test allrounder, the number two Test bowler in the world – his batting lets him down a bit, he’s only ranked 35th – he captained with heart, imagination and skill.  

Man of the Match Shannon Gabriel celebrates with his West Indies teammates during the first test
Man of the Match Shannon Gabriel celebrates with his teammates

Shannon Gabriel got the Man of the Match award for his tight five wicket haul which exposed the oft underbelly of the England team but in Holder, the Windies have a leader for our times.

The BBC have lucked out with getting the highlights back just in time for England’s hastily arranged series versus the West Indies and they may have just found a contest which will resonate for a long time to come.

Without Hindsight – Reconsidering The Hundred

God, I hate The Hundred. I hate the concept; I hate the ridiculous names of the artificially concocted teams; I hate the faux-Americanism of the “franchise” model; I hate the sponsors; I hate the way these corporate sponsors have dressed top class international cricketers in shiny, polyester kits shilling for crisps and junk food during an obesity epidemic; I even hate the ridiculous drawn-by-a-ham-fisted-three-year-old font for god sake: I hate the fact it’s like a metaphor for modern Britain, a shiny surfaced death trap designed to rip money away from idiots.

The search for WMDs of sporting events.

And yet…

It isn’t for me. I mean, “it isn’t for me” in the sense of “I hate it” (did I get that across before?), but it also “isn’t for me” in terms of design or execution.

I don’t live near a large population centre. I don’t have a lifestyle where I could finish work and pop to an evening game.

I like Test cricket, with its lulls, its skill, its tests of character and concentration. The nine course tasting menu of a la carte excellence.

One-day cricket is fast food.

The Hundred a bottle of Happy Shopper panda pop and a bag of 25p crisps rammed in your face on the way home from defacing a bus shelter.

And yet… People do drink pop and eat crisps. Even snobs like me.

And yet… I read a piece on twitter from Katie Levick, (@katie_lev) pointing out that not a lot of voices have been speaking out about the hit that the women’s game. Not having the money from The Hundred means these players are going to be out of pocket. It’s not just hit-and-giggle-all-the-way-to-the-bank merchants like Steve Smith, Aaron Finch, Alex Hales et al that are affected.

And yet… it is bringing cricket back to TV. Of all the tragedies I’ve seen and the travesties carried out by sporting bodies in the UK, the worst was the removal of cricket from terrestrial TV. I was there in Edgbaston in 2005 (and not in the way 150,000 people claim to have been – I have tickets and proof!), I was fielding calls from my mother’s church congregation to hear score updates and I was in a park in Birmingham when the win was sealed watching families playing as far as the eye could see and even then we were saying what an idiot thing it was that it was going to Sky from the next series.

Incidentally, I’ve seen more days of Test cricket in person in the intervening 15 years than I have on TV. So… nice one ECB.

And yet… Cricket changes. Bat width, materials, timeless tests, pyjama cricket, Twenty20 (another nauseating brand by the way) have all arrived or vanished and yet, the game endures.

Yes, developing a new format few if any existing fans like just after winning a World Cup in a format you’re about to downgrade to a second XI jamboree filled with lanky fast bowlers too young to shave and old pros too tubby to secure a contract with one of the sleazy new franchises, is almost as stupid as… Well, as stupid as finally winning a premier sporting contest for the first time in 18 years, inspiring a nation and ensuring the rights went to a broadcaster that would allow less people to watch the final test than the Columbo repeat on the BBC (that happened)

Still, if it brings new people to the game, if it’s free to see it on TV, if it inspires even one girl or boy to spot a new hero and pursue the game – although good luck with no playing fields – then perhaps it will be worth it. And if it offers gainful employment while the women claw their way to financial parity then, maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to hold my nose and chow down.

Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2015

Wisden 2015 - a welcome addition to the shelf

Wisden 2015 – a welcome addition to the shelf

Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2015

I remember reading a review of a previous edition of the Great Yellow Book that compared reading it to the eating of a Cadbury’s Cream Egg (the line of thought was something like the strapline – ‘How Do You Eat Yours?’ if memory serves…)

Well, I ingest mine in a gluttonous, inelegant fashion, diving headlong into the annually weightier tome with the certain knowledge that if Wisden is here, then Summer is here and I can go back to dreaming about cut shots and hook shots and pull shots that I do not have the talent to actually play when the season proper actually begins.

If the Great Yellow Book is to cricket fans what the Little Red Book was to Maoists, then this latest edition sees editor Lawrence Booth taking no prisoners and hitting the ECB hard for their bungled handling of the sport over the last 12 months.

Indeed – if you’ll allow me to labour a simile – it was Mao who said, “Members of the Party committee maintain only formal, not real, unity among themselves. This situation must be changed,” and that’s not far from Booth’s sentiments in his Editor’s notes, which maintain that, “It was nexus of self-preservation – yet, as the wagons circled, the wheels kept threatening to come off.” Ouch; harsh, but fair.

This is, apparently, not a sentiment shared by the ECB themselves; as evidenced by the reports of out-going Chairman Giles Clarke’s confrontation with Booth at the launch dinner of the almanack.

As on so many topics, I disagree with Clarke and am very happy with the 2015 incarnation. Booth’s notes are strident – but accurate to a large percentage of observers. But to read Wisden is never to endure a one-note innings; there is always timbre. Here we have Gideon Haigh’s affection ode to nicknames in the game, Ed Cowan on the mindset of opening batsmen and the ever-readable Simon Barnes on the increasingly rare joy of the genuine “bunny” no.11 batsman and Michael Clarke’s emotional farewell to Philip Hughes.

These joys are supplemented by the, long overdue, inclusion of a section dedicated to Women’s cricket as well as an expanded obituaries which takes in some of the people omitted for various reasons in the past (and I’m surely not the only person reduced to hoping for a call up due to illness/injury of a player while watching a first class match as my final hope of being included in this section in the future?)

Quite simply, Wisden is the go-to place for a collection of the finest writers, writing about a sport with an (arguably) greater literary tradition than any other. So alongside Booth, there is Simon Hughes on he-that-shall-not-be-named, Michael Atherton, Rob Smyth, Stephen Chalke, Jarrod Kimber, the ever-green Marcus Berkmann and the first fiction entry in the annual Wisden Writing Competition by a writer I’d not encountered before, Peter Casterton.

The final joy is the Chronicle of 2014 where you can read about the Pakistani Taliban’s refusal of a good will match against the government and the use of Cannabis growing lamps, confiscated by West Midlands Police, to aid the growth of Warwickshire’s (legal) grass alongside many other vignettes of the charming, and slightly dotty, world of cricket.

If you’ve not invested before, you’ll not be disappointed. This edition makes a fine addition to any cricket lover’s shelf.

The Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2015 in five words: Another delightful first class innings.