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.

The Best Sports Documentaries for Lockdown

Yes: sport is back. Well, some sport. For football fans in Europe that means tinny sounds of piped fake “crowd” noise and watching Bayern Munich sleep walk to another title like a schoolboy bully crowd surfing over cowed spectators.

At least in New Zealand they had full crowds for the rugby. Scant consolation to former Wales coach Warren Gatland who had the full backyard horror of being beaten by his son played out in the full glare of the media. Gatland Senior’s Chiefs were playing the Highlanders in Super Rugby and leading by two points as the clock wound down. However, baby Bryn – who hadn’t originally even been in the squad and was a late injury call up – popped over a drop goal with 90 seconds left to leave Daddy in disarray.

Basketball:

The Last Dance. I wrote about it here last week. The 97 Chicago Bulls; Michael Jordan – a sneaker-selling monster; Scottie Pippen the unsung hero with the best voice since James Earl Jones; Dennis Rodman the lunatic dating Carmen Electra and swanning off to Vegas to die his hair a luminous green patchwork and turning up to practice in a wedding dress. A 10-part tour de force, which teaches us about what it takes to win and how lonely it is at the top. Netflix

In this promotional poster for the 'The Last Dance', Jordan (centre), Pippen (left) and Rodman are seen walking  in their kits with Steve Kerr (far left) and a suited Phil Jackson (far right)
Jordan (centre), Pippen (left) and Rodman lead the charge in Netflix’s The Last Dance

Hoop Dreams – Before the winning comes the work. This 1994 movie follows two African American high school students from Chicago at the same time as the city’s Bulls are tearing up the professional game. This epic movie shows what you have to do to move from an underfunded public school system to the professional game and the institutional barriers put in the way of young people. Moving, inspirational and frustrating all at the same time.

The DVD cover of 'Hoop Dreams' is shown with a basketball player in a yellow top raises his arms aloft in celebration and ecstasy.
Hoop Dreams – a moving documentary examining what it takes to get on in basketball

Rugby:

Living with the Lions 97 – The first rugby documentary: Rugby Union had only been professional for two years. A British and Irish Lions team headed to South Africa, then world champions and at their peak. But the Lions had a returning set of players from Rugby League looking to show what full time rugby looks like, pace and guile in a young Brian O’Driscoll, a leader etched from stone and broken bones in Martin Johnson and a coaching pair in Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer who knew what it took to make a Lions squad gel. Living with the Lions is by turns jaw dropping, hilarious, thought provoking and gloriously uncensored. Amazon Prime

A young Brian O'Driscoll offloads while playing for the British and Irish Lions
A young Brian O’Driscoll offloads while playing for the British and Irish Lions

All or Nothing – The All Blacks – A modern day Living with the Lions, this series got exclusive access to the dressing room of the mighty All Blacks for the first time in their history. The footage and the match play are second to none – every bone snapping tackle is seen and heard in high def – and the characters within the team are fascinating. It’s well worth watching, highly polished series, if a little sanitised and “official” in what is actually shown. Amazon Prime

Football:

An Impossible Job – Fancy watching an England manager screw up qualification for a World Cup, get compared to a root vegetable and upset that nice bloke off Match of the Day by substituting him for a doughy poor imitation called Smudger? Of course you do. Channel 4’s 1994 Cutting Edge documentary saw Graham Taylor’ career go the way of all things and is why so many documentaries now control access so tightly. YouTube

England manager Graham Taylor is seen open mouthed and pointing towards the camera with two fingers alongside an England football "Three Lions" crest.
England manager Graham Taylor who’s reputation was not enhanced by a documentary

All or Nothing – Manchester City – In the same series as the All Blacks documentary, Amazon Prime were welcomed into the whole world of Manchester City’s locker room, their match day experience and behind the scenes of the Pep Guardiola briefings as the team steamroller their way through the Premier League in 2071/18. A bit soulless and corporate, but hugely enlivened by Benjamin Mendy who is a “lively” member of the team, some brilliant match day footage and Guardiola’s chicken dance dressing room motivational speech. Amazon Prime

A poster advertising the Prime Original show 'All or Nothing Manchester City' shows Pep Guardiola looking towards the heavens with the quote from one of his half time team talks "Sit down... Nobody Talk!" is written out in block capitals.
Pep Guardiola who’s every movement is followed in the All or Nothing series from Amazon

Sunderland Till I Die – What does it do to a person to support a club like Sunderland? According to this, some sort of mental disorder. A town based on football where bishops pray for the club and people name their kids after the last time the team weren’t dross. Honestly has to be seen to be believed. Characterful. Netflix

An advert for the second season of 'Sunderland Till I Die' shows a group of Sunderland players celebrating the scoring of a goal as the crowd celebrate in the background
Sunderland players celebrate

Cricket:

The Test – I know cricket makes a lot of people roll their eyes. But Australia were at their lowest ebb – a coach, a captain and a vice-captain (who happened to be tow of their only world class players) are banned for heinous cheating. The Australian Prime Minister weighs in and suddenly, squeaky clean batting legend Justin Langer is thrown into the job needing to create a squad who can win matches and restore civic pride during a year featuring a one-day World Cup and an Ashes series. This is another Amazon behind the scenes, unprecedented access series but here the focus on institutional culture and what it takes to make a team tick transcends sport. Come for the bouncers and the blazing batting, stay for the quiet dignity of captain Tim Payne and the bromance between the coffee boys which would not have been allowed in previous cricketing eras. Amazon Prime

This poster from Amazon Prime Video shows new Australian skipper Tim Payne with a batting helmet on. He must help his side restore their reputation after a cheating scandal decimated the national side.
New skipper Tim Payne must help his side restore their reputation after a cheating scandal

Fire in Babylon – Before The Test, before Black Lives Matters, before the Windrush scandal there was “Grovel”. 2010’s Fire in Babylon is the story of the most successful team in cricket and, arguably, all sport. If you have ever seen the West Indies pace attack of Michael Holding, Joel Garner, Colin Croft and, later, Malcolm Marshall then you know what a cricket ball can do to a human body when propelled at speed. What many people may be less aware of is the racism and barriers encountered by this team under the leadership of legend Clive Lloyd and gum chewing Black Consciousness figurehead Viv Richards. Fire in Babylon is the real deal. DVD

The poster for 'Fire in Babylon' shows five cricketers in shadows walking together as a golden light shines from behind them

Boxing:

When We Were Kings – Lots of people know the story of the Rumble in the Jungle; or at least think they do. 1996’s Oscar winning When We Were Kings explains the politics behind the sport, the brutality of Zaire’s dictator President Mobutu contrasting with the brutality within the ring. George Foreman is all at sea; Muhammad Ali connecting with the people in a spiritual way. A towering achievement of a documentary which explains the boxing in as captivating a way as the politics behind the sporting spectacle. DVD

The DVD cover of Oscar winning documentary 'When We Were Kings' shows Muhammad Ali drenched in sweat and looking very serious

‘The Last Dance’ Filling Dance Cards

It feels like just me – and the rest of the world –  have been enjoying Netflix and ESPN Films’ 10 part documentary The Last Dance.

It is, of course, difficult to know exactly how many people are watching, courtesy of Netflix’s notoriously secretive metrics for success, but 2,310,000,000 Google results added to less quantitative social media hype, does tend to imply that the series is doing OK. Especially impressive is that, in the UK, Basketball barely gets any coverage.

For those who don’t know, the programme follows the 1998 Chicago Bulls as they aim to win the NBA Championship for the third year in a row, and their sixth in eight years – the notorious and unprecedented “Three-peat”. It follows this journey intercutting with the backgrounds and stories of the disparate cast of characters which made up the playing, coaching and management staff at the Bulls in those days.

There is much to adore about the show: both personally and as a consumer. If, like me, you were playing basketball as a teenager in the 90s, the Bulls reigned supreme and Jordan especially. However, Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen were hardly under the radar. I was never a good basketball player: too short, too tubby. But I could scrap like Rodman – even if I couldn’t pull off the hair.

Then there’s the merchandise: my Dad bought me a Jordan-sponsored Chicago Bulls black and red basketball which was constantly getting dribbled on the path outside the house. I only got rid of it when I moved my Mum out of that house a couple of years ago and, if I hadn’t been travelling on a plane, that ball would have made the trip back with me, smooth and ancient though it then was. It had to go in the skip. Now, both my father and the ball are gone and… What can you say: there’s the nostalgia.

However, in some ways, the thing I have enjoyed even more is the rabbit hole it’s sent me down. First, there was a podcast – The Dream Team Tapes with Jack McCallum which tells the story of the US Olympic basketball team from Barcelona 92. McCallum is a basketball Hall of Famer and has been with Sports illustrated for a very long time and his delivery and unravelling of the story behind this remarkable team is first class. Is it a shameless coattail ride on TLD? Yes, and for a book, The Dream Team, released in 2014  but now I have to read the damn thing. Oh, well sure I’ll cope.

Then there was this profile by Wright Thompson on ESPN from 2013 when Jordan turned 50. I got to it from The Ruffian, the newsletter of journalist and author Ian Leslie http://ian-leslie.com/about/ and it’s super. Top notch sports writing: revealing, emotional, inspiring – a little horrifying in places.

I know some people think that TLD is a puff piece but, if this is Jordan censored and touched up, then he may be an actual monster because I think the makers go for balance as much as possible. The scene where Jordan tearfully calls for a time out in an interview when he is asked if winning came at the expense of being a nice guy is heart-breaking and revealing.

I know it doesn’t address Craig Hodges However, Jordan’s hesitancy to speak out over issues of race (“Republicans buy sneakers too”) is addressed by no less an authority on these issues than former President Obama so, that’s not exactly ducking it.

I know it doesn’t address Horace Grant and the stories about Grant being denied food after bad games. But, Grant does appear in the show, so feelings can’t have been hurt that badly.

What this programme does over 10 episodes is look at what it takes to win – what the fire and fuel it takes to dominate in any profession and it does it in a warts and all way. There’s lots of rabbit holes to go down with wider context and that’s a form of nostalgia I can enjoy.

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.