Thursday, 1 November 2012

Proudly unprofessional

It was fitting that the latest TMS/TMS row began with an article in the Times before being fuelled by Twitter. At its base, much of the Test Match Special team's hostility to the Sofa upstarts comes from a misunderstanding of new media and the opportunities it provides.

As this and the many other blogs and podcasts are testament to, technology has merely provided a wider space than the pub for non-professionals to air their views. Often they're inane, often they're unoriginal and often they're brilliant. Always, though, they're driven by nothing beyond a love for the game and maybe a taste for the weekend-cricketer type spotlight.

It is a trite point that can't be made strong enough. Thankfully, Gideon Haigh's recent Bradman Oration was a timely manifesto for the value of amateur cricket. Amateurs are the 99% who love playing, watching, writing and talking about the game but don't get handsomely paid to do so.

Haigh's focus was on club cricketers but he could easily have extended it to media. On Twitter and on the blogs there are people discussing, enraging, engaging and informing; spreading their love of cricket because they simply can't stop themselves. The idea that they have either the desire, or capacity, to be “predators” is odd. Moreover it speaks of a strange logic where promoting the sport is a zero-sum game.

Clearly, as cricket's highest level, pushed by walls of cash hungry for returns, gets ever more commercially glamourised, it is dragging establishment media with it. One result is a trend to homogenise the voice of sport. Generally male, generally well-known and generally sanitised. For every Ian Ward or Nasser Hussain there are many more ex-pros like Danny Morrison* and Brad Hogg, hammering out clichés and hyperbole as freely as limited-over sixes.

Another is that broadcast media especially can lose its reflective instinct. Mark Taylor is both a Channel Nine commentator and employed by the ACB, while the BCCI employ Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri who uncritically peddle endless outrage and hot air. In England there was a clear rupture in how media insiders and outsiders treated the Kevin Pietersen affair, with the more nuanced and balanced accounts coming overwhelmingly from outsiders.

Yet what matters most about the professional fetish is that it distances the game from its roots among the many. Which brings us to Test Match Sofa. Beyond a core group of participants scraping a living from the Sofa's Cricketer ownership, it runs on devotion. Dark rooms, early starts, and no Tweetpics of the pressbox spread, theirs are the voices of the amateurs.

The flourishes, digressions and dependency on listener contribution (via Twitter) often makes the Sofa's commentators seem more human than the in-joking TMS team. And the plurality of ages, genders and ethnicities makes a welcome change from the standardised sound of the pros.

Yet equally there are times when the Sofa's one-speed irreverence misses the hum of Test-match tension that TMS captures so well.

There is no way that the Sofa could replace the older TMS, which makes Agnew and CMJ's outrage all the more puzzling. For a game that jostles at the margins for attention of Britain's sports-mad public, the greater coverage and variety that the Sofa provides can only enhance the ECB's product, not dilute it.

Professionals, with their insider experience and at-the-ground insight will always be a necessary part of the media landscape. It's just that now, helping and prodding them along, the rest of us can join in.

This was changed from Simon Doull after Avi Singh reminded me I'd mixed up my retired NZ quicks

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

KP and the moneyball effect

It is difficult to see who gains from Kevin Pietersen's ongoing expulsion from England colours, but it is clear who has won: management. By slapping down the maverick, the ECB have shown exactly where power lies in English cricket.

Call it the Moneyball effect but never – in what's actually a rather brief history – have cricket's managers been held in higher regard. This is much less an era of player power than it is one of managerial power.

The Moneyball story – of a coach who used expert skills to reconceptualise his sport and build an (almost) champion team from scant resources - is now familiar. The broad idea was that by focusing more on processes and less on outcomes – and finding the stats to help that end – coaches could devise new strategies that make all the difference. The old-wives intuition of gnarled ex-pros was outdated and for real insight into the workings of a sport a new breed of rational, coaching-course-trained technocrat was necessary.

Interestingly, the visible effects of the Moneyball generation have so far been felt much more keenly off the field than on it. There have been no especially revelatory tactics or unexpected selections. Bowling dry in a free-scoring era helped England climb the rankings but it is was hardly revolutionary. Similarly the Taylorist attention to detail saw England's fitness and fielding improve, but did not transform the game.

Instead, as the Pietersen episode shows, it's the power granted to managers that has been the real consequence. Resources are made available for all manner of different specialists, and coaches can make demands on their national boards that were never possible even 15 years ago. Flower, as coach, is given far greater scope to shape the team than any senior player has. That may well be fair, and Flower's on and off-field history shows he is a deeply impressive man, but perhaps management in general should be treated with more caution.

Is it too simplistic to ask which of Pietersen or Flower has contributed to more England victories? Perhaps, but looking beyond cricket we see how thoroughly ingrained the cult of management is. The extraordinary reaction to Steve Jobs's death last year was emblematic of it. Rather than it being the team of researchers, designers, App developers, or indeed the fingers of suicidal Foxx-con workers that were credited for creating Apple's products it was the 'genius' of Jobs that had to be celebrated.

The belief that in the heads of coaches lies insights that nobody else can muster makes their influence enormous. Players have been emasculated to the point where they are reliant on experts for everything.

The wider effect of the subordination of players to management is making them more equal with each other. To 'buy into the approach', as managers love putting it, is to agree to relegate your own desire to that of the manager's. Why? So that everyone 'pulls in the same direction'. By extension when somebody, as Pietersen did, undermines the management structures he undermines the principle of unity-from-above.

The balance of power between different fractions of a collective – be it a cricket team or a company - is always unstable. Different environments at different moments will favour different groups but, judging by Pietersen's situation, the current consensus leaves management untouchable.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

After The Oval - All that is solid melts into air

Suddenly everything feels different. The quiet certainty built up over the last three years in the minds of England supporters, media and surely to some extent the players themselves, has shattered.

It was, though, a devastating result at The Oval. Maybe a mystic few saw it all coming but the magnitude of South Africa's first-Test win must be a surprise to most. England may yet produce a monumental turnaround and salvage the series but that seems unlikely. If they don't, the damage done to England's self-perception will have deeper consequences.

It's all so different to a year ago but the No. 1 ranking is clearly toxic. India arrived last year with that lofty status but unravelled spectacularly, losing all four Tests as England grabbed the crown. At that stage it seemed right to talk about legacy building. Though incomparable to the great teams in history, England seemed to have a formula well suited to their era. They were skilful, disciplined and with their best years still to come. Moreover they had a structure in place that was the envy of set-ups around the world.

Instead, since the end of that 2011 summer, England have lost five Tests out of nine. After The Oval, the UAE results look less an aberration to be cast aside and more a stark warning of things to come.

It has left Andrew Strauss with the toughest challenge of his captaincy career. If confidence is a habit born of winning, then every defeat must etch away at the belief that separates the best teams. What's more, the stability that helps individuals flourish in their roles is now under significant strain.

Andy Flower and Strauss can't wave-away the five-bowler question by pointing to the results. The rotation policy that kept key players sidelined can no longer be defended with the crisp repetition of the rankings. Even the attritional, bowling-dry strategy that underpinned England's climb up the rankings is not so easily justifiable any more. Twice in four series England have found opponents attuned to their pace and prepared to out-leave them.

It is premature for now, but it does not take much for cast-iron certainties to dissolve. Another defeat and the management team that have had the board dish up their every passing whim will come under more scrutiny. Hell, even the national structure may soon no longer be able to call itself the nursery to the best team in the world. It didn't take many losses to start doubting Australia's once totally hallowed system.

The 'aura' that teams long to create is less a force to lord over the opposition and more a sense of comfort that binds a team together. 637 for 2 changes that.

It doesn't all crumble overnight. And it's grossly unfair to all those who have strived so hard to turn England into a top team to write-off their chances. After all, over the last two years England have won 14 of their last 25 matches compared with South Africa's six from 14. Yet before India arrived in England they had won nine and lost three as world No. 1s. During their first Test last summer, though, they felt like a team heading the wrong way and have lost every Test since.

England are a fine side and one home defeat doesn't change that, but it does change how people feel about them. Comeback and confidence will never be surer but subside as grimly in the rest of the series and nothing will be sacrosanct.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Tom Maynard

A week ago I wrote how fans develop strangely meaningful relationships with players. Tom Maynard's death, at 23 years old, brought that home horribly.

It has forced perspective on a community - sports lovers – who often lack it. For his close friends and family, losing Maynard must be a deep, personal tragedy and incomparable to what those on the outside will feel. Foremost, it is desperately sad that a man has died so young.

Yet even when confronted by cricket's ultimate worthlessness, it is still cricket that makes Maynard's death matter for many. The majority of people know Maynard only by his cricketing personality. And his was magnetic.

He had glittering talent, a spark of cockiness and a future wide open. It's sad that someone bursting with potential will never get a chance to realise it fully. It doesn't make his untimely death any more or less of a tragedy than anyone else’s, but it does make the cricketing family mourn a stolen future.

I remember watching him against Sussex a few weeks ago, trying to pull Surrey out of a first-innings muddle by nonchalantly advancing down the crease at 90mph James Anyon. It was typical of him.

Maynard was the sort of cricketer that made you want to watch the game because you could never play it as easily as he could. I'll miss him because of that.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Excitement without tension

Maybe the cliché is true and cricket does actually give a compelling window into the minds of those playing; or maybe it’s just because it takes so long, but as England's series against West Indies showed, the relationship between players and those watching them is oddly meaningful.

Neither Tino Best nor Graham Onions know who I am but their return to Test cricket was genuinely pleasing. Likewise I don’t know Marlon Samuels, but his charisma and class were bright spots in a dank month. Even Dinesh Ramdin, a fairly anonymous sort, delivered an unforgettable moment. The series proved how, even where teams are mismatched, the fortunes of individual players can create real entertainment.

As production technology allows analysis to become ever more technical it’s easy to overlook the emotional story at the heart of every contest. It’s what makes Ed Cowan’s book so refreshing. He describes the stress, embarrassment, anger and dejection that go with playing the sport. How "patches of failure leave you with an empty state of doubt.”

It’s worth reflecting on when thinking about Ramdin’s A4 scribbling. It was his first Test series in two years. Having played professional cricket since he was 18, his Test runs are the barometer by which most people, and to an extent even the man himself, will judge his life. That scrawled response to Viv Richards' barbs was testament to how important his hundred was. Not for the team performance, nor for a financial gain it may help secure, but for something more fragile, his self-worth. It cannot be easy for West Indian cricketers playing out their existence in the shadow of a gargantuan past. It makes the ICC’s fine all the more staggering. Of all things bringing the game into disrepute, a player’s desperate pride should be the least of its worries.

Samuels is another who has faced criticism. His murky history has included bookmakers, chucking and years of squandered talent. Having remembered his debut series against Australia 12 years ago, and the promise it held, it was fantastic to see him succeed this summer. His runs were enjoyable not just for their style and their match importance but also because they were his redemption. That he also spoke a dialect humans, and not PR executives, could relate to made him all the more magnificent.

Samuels’s series-long asversary, James Anderson, was rested for the final Test. It meant Onions returned to the side for the first time since his career was almost ended by a back injury. After the first day he tweeted: “Today has been a special special day, I’ve had the most unbelievable support over the last 2 years to get me to put the 3 lions on again..” It was a testament to the personal that underpins the professional. Having reached the pinnacle of his career in 2009, he suddenly faced the possibility of losing his livelihood altogether. Watching the fruition of months of rehab made a dead Test matter more.

And then there was Tino. For two years he has pined on twitter, pleading anyone who would listen (and plenty who would not) for another chance with West Indies. His jubilant, delirious comeback was something we could all celebrate.

It’s these individual stories that get contextualised through competition. While closely-fought contests are obviously the most enjoyable, sometimes it’s nourishing just to share in someone else’s personal fulfilment.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

West Indies and memories of Atherton's Young Lions

Like your favourite childhood meal or that desperately meaningful teenage film, there is something about formative memories that make them the most poignant. West Indies' 1st Test defeat was hardly pulsating cricket but watching a struggling team scrapping to pick itself up off the mat did stir bittersweet recollections of England's 90s woes.

Myopic and Anglo-centric though that is, it is an interesting thought. Back then England were the team playing under the shadow of its past; where the names of former legends weighed heavily on a group of young, inexperienced players. Cricket in 90s England felt uncared for, unfashionable and in a state of unflinching decline.

So throughout the Lord's Test, I kept asking myself just which 90s period were West Indies in? Alec Stewart's prim yes-men? Nasser Hussain's early streetfighters? Or how about the first throes of Mike Atherton's leadership?

It's difficult to place but the approach Ottis Gibson and Darren Sammy are adopting – with senior players dumped in favour of a brick-by-brick rebuilding – reminded me of the time the sides met in 1994.

“Young Lions are going to go” sung the Skysports intro music to that series (“back to the pavilion,” my brother used to add). Atherton, in his first full series in charge, was without Graham Gooch who had top-scored the previous Ashes summer but opted out of touring. Likewise, Mike Gatting and John Emburey were left out as a Atherton backed a clutch of youngsters - including Nasser Hussain, Graham Thorpe, Mark Ramprakash – to tour the world's best team.

“My vision," wrote Atherton in his autobiography, "was of a group of young, athletic and talented players with the dedication to work hard and grow together, taking a few knocks along the way but coming through on the other side.”

The 1st Test, on a Sabina Park flyer, was not unlike this one at Lord's. England mixed talent with brain-fades to slide to an under-par, though not disastrous, 234 batting first and conceded a first-innings deficit of 173. An innings defeat looked distinctly possible at 63 for 4 but England fought to 267 on the back of Hick's heartbreaking 96, leaving a small target that West Indies knocked off easily enough. Defeat, sure, but not humiliation and enough for genuine positivity about the youthful project.

Through the series England were maddeningly inconsistent with an innings defeat the next game and that horrorshow finish to lose a match they had dominated in Trinidad. The stunning victory in Barbados (“historic,” I remember Willis repeating on commentary) followed by a draw in Lara's first world-record at Antigua was enough for Atherton to recall: "I was happy with my efforts on the tour... The team was beginning to take shape in my mind. New Zealand were soon to arrive in England and I felt sure it was the perfect opportunity to achieve some long overdue success."

Yet by the following winter, England's new 'supremo' manager-selector Ray Illingworth, had lost patience with Atherton's ideal and the young lions were exchanged for old soldiers. Back for the Ashes came Gatting and Gooch, who both retired by the series' conclusion as England slumped to a 3-1 loss. It took another four years - and a plunge below Zimbabwe and New Zealand in the Test rankings - before Hussain and Fletcher finally turned England's tide.

Gibson and Sammy's stated aim is to restore pride in West Indies cricket. Their rush to do so has left some high-profile casualties. It was sad to hear Ramnaresh Sarwan talk about how managements' public criticism of his attitude had broken him. Clearly in form Sarwan would add much more than Kirk Edwards. But Gibson and Sammy's thinking – a star team over a team of stars - is right and progress is being made in a way that has not happened before.

The flashes of promise in West Indies barren recent years have been on the back of outstanding individual feats. Lara in the 2-2 draw against Australia in 1999, Jerome Taylor's freak spell to flatten England ten years later. This time, after fight against India, Australia and again at Lord's, the progress feels deeper.

The limit, though, seems to have been reached. Thanks to the impoverished and incompetent WICB, gifted players are missing, itself a significant block to improvement. Yet it's also Sammy's ability, as batsman, bowler and captain, that his holding his mission back. Atherton in 1994 was the best player in the team and if supported could have led a youthful team forward in his image. Unless Sammy can improve, his lack of class will eventually undermine both his authority and the values he and Gibson are looking to instil.

When the fall-out happens, though, West Indies would do well to avoid the tried-tested-and-failed approaches of the past. It's up to the younger players being trusted by management now to carry the fighting attitude forward.

Monday, 23 April 2012

The radical County Championship

Sat among pensioners, loners and pigeons at The Oval, Surrey's Championship outing against Worcestershire didn't feel like a typical gathering of anti-establishment agitators. The rumbles of discontent from members sounded familiar perhaps, the polite cheers less so. Yet the spectacle we were witnessing – four-day domestic cricket – was as brazen a two-fingers up at the ruling ideas of the day as any Occupy protest.

The hackneyed view of the Championship is that it replays a lost era of pastoral England. At 122 years old, people often see it –to mangle Derek Birley – as an institutionalised anachronism. Some hail this as its virtue, dialing down the pace of life at a time when everything else seems to be speeding up. Others vilify it as irrelevant for the very same reason.

But the Championship is no relic. A glance at the first few scorecards of the season show wickets and boundary boards clattering rapidly. The rate of scoring is as unmistakeably modern as the batsmen's inability to tough it out on lively wickets. Similarly the way the game is covered – online radio, live blogs, Tweets – is more contemporary than dated technologies like television or print media. We know vast numbers follow the games online – one day perhaps they can prove as economically valuable as TV viewers.

Yet what's radical is the experience of the sport itself. A game sprawling four days is entirely antithetical to the commercial interests that rule our age. A marketeer likes few things more than an easily-digestible, quick sell. It is why Twenty20 is the era's golden goose. That does not make it bad – Twenty20 is extremely watchable – but its slavish compliance with the commercial rulebook makes it deeply conservative.

Like most big-budget blockbuster entertainment, the way Twenty20 is sold is also rather patronising. The entertainment industry – which Matthew Hayden will tell you is where cricket squarely belongs – thrives on making passive spectators of us all. Rather than trust us to participate in making our experience of the sport we love, the kings of commerce prefer to spoon feed us every step of the way. Cricket's natural cadence – where pauses outstretch action – gets disrupted by a chaotic cocktail of cheap stimulants. Crack go the fireworks, up go the cheerleaders' legs, “phew” go the money men. By preventing supporters from filling cricket's empty spaces ourselves, we become disenfranchised from the game.

The Championship, though, demands more of us. Unlike other forms, there are no commentators selling products, or dubious governments, mid game. Neither do they script our emotional reaction to every passage of play. In between deliveries, overs, sessions and innings we are instead left to muse. Sometimes about what we've seen, often not. With no visual or aural noise demanding attention when the action pauses, two people can sit a row apart and spend entirely different days at the cricket. That's a fundamental challenge to business ideals that prefer homogeneous, interchangeable experiences that market easily.

That the Championship is unique in this regard is less conspiracy and more cold calculation. Shorter cricket is ‘what the market wants’. But there is a danger of misunderstanding the market 'forces' the game cowers to. The market has no force of its own. It doesn't even exist. Instead it takes players, TV companies, administrators, sponsors and countless other groups to make it. Currently these groups shovel plenty into promoting limited-overs cricket and very little into even protecting – let alone promoting – the longer game. They have no confidence that the sport itself is strong enough to carry its own weight.

Nobody, of course, admits this. Instead administrators point to market research that becomes like an unknowable Big Brother we must obey. Yes, cricket's governing bodies need to find ways of listening to fans but surveys are a sham democracy. They are neither empowering nor always effective.

In a different sphere, Apple's overwhelming success makes them a favourite of business gurus, yet they avoided market research when developing their products. “It’s not about pop culture, and it’s not about fooling people, and it’s not about convincing people that they want something they don’t,” Steve Jobs once said. “You can’t go out and ask people, you know, what’s the next big [thing].” Similarly US TV network HBO – makers of The Sopranos and The Wire - shunned the easy route their competitors followed and instead developed unfashionable, quality programmes that they are now lauded for. There is a lesson in that.

There is much about the County game that remains entrenched in the past. It is dominated, on and off the field, by privileged white men. Though crowds grew last year they remain small and don't reflect the demographics of the country nearly fully enough. These are challenges administrators, players and minority communities themselves must take seriously. Yet cricket is entertainment and like all forms of entertainment is says something about the society it's in. Far from nostalgia, the Championship should be celebrated for its unique progressiveness.
This post also appears at Spin cricket

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Cricket in the killing fields

Today 25,000 people around the world will die needlessly of hunger, while three billion people will scrape less than $2 to live off. Today Sri Lanka play England in a Test match. It is obvious and frustratingly trite to point out that sport doesn't matter. Of course it doesn't. Except that millions of people believe it does. The countless number following the Colombo Test will smile, scream, tut and cheer because of it.

Those of us who do believe that it matters are not just a brazen minority with a skewed sense of perspective. By investing meaning in the teams we follow we form a community that, in the case of international sport, helps keep the precarious idea of nationhood alive. When a Dhoni six prompts the same delight for a dalit woman in Bihar as a Mumbai executive, a kinship forms that momentarily gives India a common bond. It's why the cliché about sport and politics not mixing misses the point entirely. Sport is politics.

While the Ten Sport commentary may insist otherwise, politics and sport are deeply intertwined in Sri Lanka's current Test series against England. The cricket is happening in the midsts of a recent genocide. Channel Four's Killing Fields unearthed serious evidence that 40,000 civilians, mostly Tamils, were systematically murdered in the final weeks of Sri Lanka's civil war. The government accused is intimately tied to the Sri Lanka cricket team, even affecting - as we saw last summer - the make up of the side. When you add that SLCB's corruption means some of the world's best cricketers are not being paid on time you have a strong case that international cricket should not be supporting the regime by touring.

But that would miss sport's significance. In Kumar Sangakkarra's brilliant MCC address last year he recalled his shock at meeting a soldier who told him: "It is OK if I die because it is my job and I am ready for it. But you are a hero and if you were to die it would be a great loss for our country.” It again sounds like an absurd lack of perspective.

Yet as Sri Lankans – and many others - are discovering to brutal effect, holding the idea of a nation together is incredibly difficult. Different histories, classes, ethnicities, religions and genders have to be subsumed under an identity strong enough, ultimately, to override all others. When American schoolchildren swear their allegiance to the flag each morning it's a nod to just how much work goes into keeping the imagined community alive.

Angelo Matthews, the Sri Lanka vice captain, has returned from injury for the second Test. Matthews is the highest-profile Tamil in Sri Lanka cricket since Muttiah Muralitharan retired. His presence is practice, however fleeting, of the ideal of a diverse country unified by common interest. When Sinhalese and Tamil supporters cheer for Sri Lanka cricket, they stick a finger in the eye of the forces that aim to rip the nation apart. It's why cricket must continue to be played in the country.

The recent cricketing boycotts have been precisely because diversity was sucked out the 'national' team. South Africa refused to allow the idea of a multi-racial nation be demonstrated by a multi-racial cricket team and were rightly boycotted. Discrimination happens, of course, in far more subtle and bureaucratic ways: you only have to think of Australia's inability to find non-white players and England's inability to find cricketers from less privileged backgrounds. Equally the fact Matthews is Sri Lanka's only Tamil player and was himself brought up in a Sinhalese area shows that significant obstacles exist. But directly blocking an ethnic group is different and Sri Lanka's government are yet to do that.

This isn't to say that calls for reform should be ignored. Ten Sports' continual promotion of Sri Lanka tourism and its studied indifference to the political context is difficult to stomach. A board as cash-strapped as Sri Lanka's are in no position to make demands of a TV company. Likewise the ICC and the other member nations' total silence over the SLCB's endemic corruption is a disgrace.

Yet those are off-field matters. National identity is about more than administration. It's about people who never meet sharing the same symbols and experiences and feeling united because of them. As the national sport, cricket is a vital part of that.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

What cricket tells us about... regulation

In Ed Smith's What sport tells us about life he regales a set of familiar sporting stories to pontificate about the world as he sees it. It's lovely writing and the kind of armchair-academic fun that made Malcolm Gladwell a millionaire. England's recent 3-0,0-4 desert turnaround against Pakistan probably doesn't tell us much about life but it did get me thinking about the peculiar nature of economic regulation.

After England's catastrophic second-Test defeat in Abu Dhabi, Andrew Strauss wondered whether his side would have fared better if they had fewer overs to chase the 145 needed. As it was, they had around 130 overs, spread across two days and a target that was neither close to dash for the line nor far off enough to resist trying. With no scoreboard pressure to force their hand, the batsmen floundered and Pakistan were able to spring a stunning victory.

In the one-dayers, England's task was much more defined. They twice set and twice chased targets successfully. The lack of close-in fielders and the 10-over limit to Saeed Ajmal helped unclutter their minds, but the main reason they coped so easily was that the rules and regulations of ODI cricket did most of the mental hard work for them.

The limit of 300 balls, two (newly restricted) Powerplays and a clutch of other rules meant the batsmen had all the tools they needed to guide their innings. Unlike in Tests, where the match spreads out in front of you as a vast, uncharted terrain, the regulations of the limited-overs game map out the land ahead of you and hands out a compass for the journey.

That's not how mainstream economists see things though. In a world dominated by their dubious beliefs, regulations are viewed as restrictive: pesky obstacles on the path to the free market at the end of the rainbow. To them limited overs mean limited freedom.

The opposite is in fact true. Though it may not seem it, what regulations help direct us towards matters far more than what they stop us doing. Think of drinking games. Yes, the rules control when you can't drink, but much more importantly, they decide exactly when you should. Similarly when lobbyists and governments design regulations they shape what businesses can do much more than what they can't.

Take England's batting in the opening ODI. They had to decide what a decent target was but after that the rules almost dictated the correct approach to take. Halfway through England's innings if Alastair Cook had targeted 270, he knew England needed 157 more from 150 balls, with eight Ajmal overs to go and eight wickets in hand. There's a lot there with which to develop a strategy. If Cook's innings slowed, for example, the 'asking' rate was on hand to remind him it's probably time to risk that slog-sweep.

Long-form cricket offers no such relief. You're left isolated, trying to decide when to do what. In the one-day series Cook's strike rate was 88.98, in the second-Test chase Cook's seven runs took 15 overs. Everyone watching knew paralysis would be fatal. England's batsmen may have known it too; Pakistan's captain, bowlers and fielders certainly did. Yet against inspired opponents in unfamiliar conditions England's minds scrambled as taming the great empty space of Test cricket proved too demanding.

Regulations – whether in sport or economics – help people make decisions. It's why Test cricket – a game with fairly few - is less predictable than the shorter forms. It's also why 'experts' like the Economist miss the point so spectacularly when they moan about prohibitive regulation.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Winning 'dry'

There was a lot to enjoy about Pakistan’s shockingly straightforward victory in the first Test. Saeed Ajmal bewitching England’s batsmen into submission on a first-day pitch was a highlight. But for a team celebrated for their volatility, it was Pakistan’s stubbornness in pursuit of victory that impressed most.

It has been Misbah-ul-Haq’s way since he took over as captain after the spot fixing debacle. While victories against Test cricket’s weaker nations showed promise, to outdo England - at their own conservative approach - was something to cherish.

Though Andrew Strauss may be reluctant to admit it at this precise moment, he has something of a kindred spirit in Misbah. Both give the air of enlightened bureaucrats, mucking in stoically for the greater good. Both claimed the captaincy at moments of relative turmoil but Misbah has had little of the structural support Strauss enjoys. Pakistan’s backroom organisation has been improving, but it’s been Misbah alone whose forged unity and discipline on the field.

It’s the first time England have been up against a side prepared to match their pragmatism shot for shot. Or leave for leave. England have climbed the rankings by being prepared to dial down the pace of the game at a time when the rest of the world seemed intent on hurrying it up. Bowling ‘dry’ was matched by Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott laying sturdy foundations with the batting equivalent.

But in the first Test Pakistan too resisted all frivolity. After bundling England out in less than a day it would have been easy for their batsmen to come out trying to dominate and kick home the advantage. But that might have let England back into the game.

Instead openers Mohammed Hafeez and Taufeeq Umar calmly negotiated the new ball - England’s biggest hope - before Younis Khan, Misbah himself and Adnan Akmal all made solid contributions. By nudging and tucking their way, at 2.82 an over, to a 146-run lead, they effectively closed the door on England.

Though Pakistan’s bowlers hardly needed patience - the tourists were too generous for that - they were still miserly. Misbah set low-ego fields, just as Strauss might have done, and allowed England to make the mistakes they seemed intent on.

In the past England could have taken hope from the fact a crushing Pakistan win could easily be followed by a clanging defeat a week later. Team Misbah may prove a far more robust outfit.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Swann should beware the No.1 tag

If India’s recent troubles show anything it’s that life up top is precarious. All the sweat exhausted inching to the summit can rapidly feel wasted tumbling back down again. As Graeme Swann looks ahead to the first Test against Pakistan, it is something he might reflect on.

More than anyone else in the England side, he has had to struggle to get to where he is – the world’s best-ranked spinner in the world’s best-ranked side. But when reaching the top is greeted with a shower of rewards, it is easy to forget just hard that journey is.  Fine margins separate the best and dropping even an imperceptible level - think Rob Key relaxing a fraction against Damien Martyn - can leave you grimly exposed.

Be it the prickly autobiography, the out-for-Christmas DVD or the fact that, over the last three series, his 40 wickets have come at 35.22, Swann gives the impression of a cricketer just off the boil. His rise has closely followed England's and as he and the team enter a two-year period that will go a long way to defining their history, he needs to prove his focus is fastened to the task at hand.

After a forgettable performance - along with the rest of the team - in the ODI series India, Swann has started this tour being outbowled by Monty Panesar. He is clearly one who enjoys his standing as England's best and if that rivalry doesn't sharpen him then lining up against Saeed Ajmal should. 

Ajmal has blossomed under Misbah-ul-Haq and - with 50 at 23.86 - was Test cricket's leading wicket taker in 2011. Like Swann, he is a mischievous type and, armed with the best doosra in the game, is the main challenger to Swann's top-dog status.

With vapid pitches and cloudless skies expected in Dubai, Swann's role in a four-man attack is the most important in the team. Ajmal, likewise, is the key Pakistani threat. England's tail, already weakened by Tim Bresnan's absence, has been central to the team's resilience. The lower-order, from Matt Prior down, have bailed England out on more than one occasion. Ajmal, though, has the variations to run through them. Swann's importance won't just be with ball in hand.

How Swann fares will give a good window into the how firm a grip Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss have on the mindset of the squad. All the right noises seem to emerge from press conferences, with every player on message with platitudes about 'new challenges' and the like. But under bright sun and in a bare stadium, just how driven the side are will be revealed.

Both Swann and England will do well to leave UAE with their lofty reputations intact.