OPINION: The Specialist’s Lament

A very unusual scene unfolded at Eastcote Cricket Club last Sunday. In a 50-over Women’s County Championship match between Middlesex and Surrey, Middlesex skipper Izzy Westbury moved the field.

Leaving an enormous void on the leg side between backward square leg and long on, she packed the off side with attacking fielders, including a short (if not quite silly) mid off, and a slip and a gully just inches from the bat.

Such an aggressive field might not have looked out of place in an Ashes Test, but in a Women’s County Championship game it felt unprecedented, because 99% of the time the captain has to guard against “that” ball – the one which you know is coming, once or twice an over – the one that is pitched too short, or not pitched at all, or which slides down the leg side. And when it does come, a field like that leaks runs you can ill-afford; so the skipper plays it safe – square leg, midwicket, mid on – hoping to build pressure by saving runs – defence as a form of attack.

Westbury’s daring move – attack as a form of attack – was made all the more so because Middlesex were defending a lowish total (165) against an opposition batsman (Bryony Smith) who looked well set on 23 off 36 balls. Yet it was possible because the bowler was Alex Hartley – perhaps, with the retirement of Holly Colvin, the one bowler left in the county game who you can rely on not to bowl “that” ball.

That Hartley’s action puts one in mind of a ballerina reaching for a pirouette, is somehow appropriate, because for all the grace of the performance, what lies behind the execution is an iron will and an obsessive sense of discipline, to which few care to aspire and fewer still achieve.

So Westbury was able to set the field with a rare confidence in her bowler… and was rewarded with two wickets in two balls, both caught at gully as pitch-perfect deliveries turned away from the right-hander – a special moment, made possible by a special bowler.

But sadly “special” still comes at a price – Hartley bats at 11 even at county, where England tail-enders usually consider themselves all rounders; and she has to be hidden in the field, so they say. Thus when England needed to fly a spinner out to the Women’s World T20, they turned elsewhere – to a “steady hand”, who can “bat a bit”; who “turns the odd one”… but better keep that midwicket in there, just to be on the safe side.

And who is to say it wasn’t the right decision? England’s batting was fragile! They did need shoring-up in the field! So they demand excellence in two of the three disciplines – bat, ball or field – and brilliance in one is not enough any more.

Pragmatically, it makes sense; but romantically, there is still a longing for a bygone age, when a specialist… could just be special.

Catching Them Young: Girls Cricket in Toronto

Guest writer Aparna M tells of her experiences setting up a cricket academy in Toronto.

Cold, dark, long winters. Staying indoors for almost 7 to 8 months a year. Hardly an ideal setting for the game of cricket. But at the other end of spectrum you have a large, South Asian community. Mostly new immigrants. Trying to find a footing in a new country, environment and culture.

Throw economic hardships into the mix, and what do you get? Young families with children trying to find space to play sport, to stay engaged in some physical activity, where they do not have to spend a fortune. Organized sport is largely out of question for children of new immigrants struggling to make ends meet. In this setting was established a multisport academy which began its operations with cricket only, keeping in mind the largely South Asian population in the neighborhood in Toronto.

The first year of operation saw limited numbers both for boys and girls (there was just one girl). She too dropped out after a couple of weeks. The reason given by her father was that they tried to work out the timings but without success. This could have been discouraging both for the organizers as well as for other potential girl participants. However, the efforts to bring in girls to the program did not stop.

And these efforts did not go to waste. The second year of the academy saw more girls coming along. About six of them. No, it was not a lot. But it was the beginning. Most of them tagged along with their brothers. But that was okay. What mattered was that they were enjoying their time at cricket. That they wanted to learn the sport. They wanted to learn how to hold the bat, how to move their feet, how to bowl without bending their elbow and of course, they wanted to master the art of fielding, both catching and throwing.

Toronto Article 1

It was heartening to see these little girls all excited, and being part of the games after the practice session. They were developing game awareness. You could see it in their running between the wickets. Calling for a run. Or responding to their partner’s call. Throughout the summer, they would show up every day for five days a week, for seven weeks. And their numbers too went up.

Once summer was over, and the school year started, the program shifted to once a week in the evenings. Some from the summer dropped out, but other girls joined in. While almost all of them were still tagging along with their brothers, there were a few who were coming there on their own. Because they were enjoying the new sport. They were enjoying playing cricket!

It was heartwarming to see girls enjoying the sport at such an early age. It was important to keep the environment fun, with the aim for them to develop a liking for the game – hopefully a lifelong one. While of course it is too early to say whether they would ever be able to take up the sport professionally while they are in Canada, it certainly would do no harm if they could continue their association with the sport by playing it regularly.

The program saw success in the younger age group of 5-10 year olds, but it was difficult to attract the slightly older girls in the program. Separate sessions were set up for the 12-and-up age group after initial interest was shown by some of the older girls. However, once the schedule was set the response was extremely poor.

The reason was the pressure of studies. Of assignments and exams. Of coping with domestic chores. There was the peer influence aspect as well. The girls wanted to be part of the program as a group, but once a couple of them dropped out, the group’s participation fell apart. This for sure was a setback, but hopefully things could still be turned around in future. For example, some programs could be offered during school time, or even as part of after-school programs.

However, the participation of the younger girls is a definite positive. Hopefully by the time they are 12-13 they will have a few years of cricket under their belts, and will have developed a love for the game and a desire to continue playing it, even at recreational level. With women’s T20 leagues being set up across the globe, there might even be the chance to take up the sport professionally, if these girls continue to seriously develop their skills.

MATCH REPORT: Devon v Essex at Felsted School

Devon (265-5) bt. Essex (98-10) by 167 runs.

After being inserted on a green but hard pitch, openers Amara Carr and Aylish Cranstone played positively to build a solid foundation, before Carr was adjudged lbw for 38. Jodie Dibble started in a spritely fashion before being caught out by the lack of pace and gave a simple catch for Bird at mid wicket for 13.

Cranstone and Rosalie Fairbairn rebuilt and rotated the strike after an early flurry of boundaries, and the batting powerplay added some impetus, before Fairbairn was dismissed, caught for 29, a partnership of 99.

Cait O’Keefe was positive from the start with 26 off 21 balls, before being run out in an unlucky fashion when a dropped return catch was parried onto the stumps. Cranstone continued to hit the gaps and target a short boundary, bringing up her maiden county championship century, with 15 fours and one six in her 134 not out from 140 balls.

Essex’s reply showed intent from the start but they lost their first wicket in the second over, caught by Hazelle Garton at mid on off Sophie Mackenzie. A stunning catch from Alli Kelly at point accounted for England development player Cordelia Griffith, easing some concerns over her big hitting potential.

The building clouds were a concern, with the Met Office forecasting rain at 4pm, and Devon just completed the 20th over required to constitute a game just as the first drops of rain came down. Essex were still well behind the run rate, losing their sixth wicket in the 21st over, with the score on 75.

The light rain continued, but the pressure of the constantly increasing required run rate meant wickets fell at regular intervals. Pick of the bowlers were Hazelle Garton with 4-20 and Rebecca Donohue 3-23, Cait O’Keefe 2-20, as Devon wrapped up a convincing victory in the 30th over with maximum bonus points.

Players’ Player, sponsored by Wadey Polden LLP: Aylish Cranstone.

MATCH REPORT: Super Sussex Klobber Kent

On a day in which “Sunshine Capital of England” Eastbourne distinctly failed to live up to its name, Sussex were left celebrating a 42-run win over old rivals Kent, after an entertaining cameo from their number 7 batsman Izzy Noakes allowed them to set a competitive total of 173.

The match – delayed by the kind of mizzly, freezing rain which is more generally found in the Highlands of Scotland – did not start until 2.10pm, with the overs reduced to 30 a side. With the sky overcast and the pitch damp, Kent chose to put Sussex in to bat. While they started well, with a stylish half-century from Georgia Adams helping them reach 99-3 at the halfway stage, a mini-collapse ensued, as Hannah Phelps (4), Izi Collis (14), Ellen Burt (7) and Abbie Freeborn (1) all fell cheaply.

Cue the entrance of Noakes, and an innings which combined scrappy inelegance with middle-of-the-bat power-hitting, including two spectacular sixes in the penultimate over, which sailed over a 10-foot fence into the next door football ground. Perhaps on another day, one with a sharper Kent fielding performance, it might not have come off – but come off it did, and it was met with delight by the watching crowd, which included England coach Mark Robinson.

Noakes’ dismissal in the 30th over, bowled by Charlotte Pape for 38, saw Sussex all out for 173. She had enabled her side to add 40 runs for the 9th and 10th wickets – ultimately the difference between the two sides.

Kent’s innings began with the cheap dismissal of Charlotte Edwards, bowled by Tara Norris for 1, but Tammy Beaumont (49) and Lydia Greenway (33) then shared an 82-run partnership. For Kent, however, with rain clouds hovering ominously overhead, the issue was always keeping up with the required run rate, which they rapidly fell behind. After the dismissal of Beaumont, caught by Sally Clarke off Burt in the 19th over, the pressure told; and a combined effort from the Sussex bowlers saw them bowled out for 131.

Sussex were visibly delighted with the result, in a match which clearly had added spice after last year’s encounter between the two sides, which controversially ended in a tie after Sussex snatched a run off the last ball. Captain Georgia Elwiss, speaking to CRICKETher after the game, said that she was happy about the way her team responded after their 6-wicket loss to Warwickshire on Sunday:

“We had to turn up today and completely write yesterday off, and draw a line under it and learn from it. I’m really proud of the way the girls played today. It was a real team effort to get us over the line.”

“We knew [173] would be a decent score. With the short boundary and the players that they’ve got it was never going to be plain sailing, but we kept it tight and kept the pressure on, and as soon as wickets started to fall that’s when we really got into the game.”

“It’s a massive fixture for us…it’s the best winning’s felt for a while!”

Book Review: The Girls of Summer by David Tossell

The Girls of Summer is not the book that David Tossell – a veteran author, with a shelf-full of sporting chronicles to his name – wanted to write. When we first met him at the start of the 2015 summer, he happily admitted that he was hoping to tell the story of a triumphant victory; not the humiliating failure of which the reader can’t fail to be aware as they dash through its 300 pages.

And dash you will! Though his “day job” these days is in PR for American Football’s NFL, Tossell clearly remains a newspaper man at heart; and one who really knows and loves his cricket. His prose zips along, hot off the back page, taking you to the heart of the action on the field, as balls are belted and stumps are struck, in the kind of intimate detail that only a full-length book affords.

Tossell’s great coup is to have negotiated access to the dressing room. Sitting on the balcony beside the coaches gave him the opportunity to document a unique perspective on the game which definitely felt out of reach to the rest of us at the time – the coaching staff’s reluctance to engage with the media having become something of a running joke in the press box by the end of the summer.

Bestriding it all is the figure of the “Head of Performance” – Paul Shaw. Shaw comes across as something of a tragi-comic character, hiding behind his buzzwords and his flip charts, while ultimately refusing to accept any responsibility for the defeat, insisting right to the bitter end that he is the brilliant man manager let down by the failure of his players.

At one point Charlotte Edwards laments: “We didn’t play our brand.” And somehow this actually gets to the heart of the problem with Shaw’s regime, laid so bare by the view from Tossell’s window – that Shaw had instilled in the players the need to play “a brand”… while Australia were busy playing cricket.

If there are any flaws in The Girls of Summer, they are twofold.

First, Tossell’s occasional reluctance to directly confront the most difficult questions. For example, he clearly knows why Danni Hazell was (inexplicably, in the eyes of the Aussies who couldn’t believe their luck) left out of the early engagements of the series. He even hints obliquely at the reason, but somehow can’t quite bring himself to cast real daylight upon what has to be seen as one of Shaw’s most controversial decisions.

Second, if you were hoping to come away with some real understanding of the players as “people”, with lives and loves beyond the narrow confines of the game, then you are going to be sorely disappointed by The Girls of Summer, as it (with perhaps one-and-a-half exceptions) draws a coy veil across the idea that they might even have such lives, let alone loves.

Nevertheless, setting such quibbles aside, The Girls of Summer is a book that every women’s cricket fan… indeed, every cricket fan… needs to read – a subtly devastating glimpse into Paul Shaw’s bizarre “bubble” of management speak, motivational memorandae, and A PowerPoint for Every Problem which promised everything that summer… and delivered nothing.

MATCH REPORT: Hartley The Hero As Middlesex Mash Surrey

A Fran Wilson half century might have been the dominant entry on the scorecard on a sunny spring day at Eastcote CC, but it was actually a pair of cameos from Alex Hartley which turned an otherwise well-balanced game into a one-sided walk in the park for Middlesex.

Put into bat, Middlesex lost Dunkley (3) early, playing on as she tried to cut Nat Sciver, but Tash Miles and Fran Wilson rebuilt, taking the score to 47 before Miles (14) became the first of Cecily Scutt’s five victims. Wilson looked to push on, dominating partnerships with Anna Nicholls (3) and Beth Morgan (7) to take them to 102-4.

However, the collapse that followed was one of which England would have been proud, as Middlesex lost their next 5 wickets for 11 runs, including a magnificent catch by Sophie Pout to dismiss Wilson for 63, leaving them on the brink at 113-9, with only Alex Hartley to come.

Hartley is a self-confessed “tail-ender” and initially looked quite the part as a couple of streaky edges went through the vacant slip area; but as she grew in confidence, she began to find her shots as her and Naomi Dattani put on 52 for the final wicket – not only changing the course of the game, but grabbing a potentially crucial extra batting bonus point as they passed 150.

In reply, Surrey were soon under the cosh as Middlesex’s overseas, South African-born New Zealander Holly Huddleston, bowling with real pace and good length, removed Kirstie White (3) and Nat Sciver (5) cheaply. Surrey continued to lose wickets at regular intervals, but nevertheless at 70-5, with Bryony Smith well set on 23, a victory still felt like a possibility until Hartley intervened once again.

Changing ends, looking for the ball to turn with the slope, Hartley and skipper Izzy Westbury set an attacking field with a slip and a gully, and were rewarded with two wickets in two balls – both caught by Westbury at gully. Suddenly there was no way back for Surrey, and they subsided to 99 all out, as Middlesex celebrated what could prove to be a very important 17-point win.

Afterwards, Alex Hartley told CRICKETher: “I’ve been working over the winter on my role as a tail-ender, getting off strike and getting the ‘in’ batter back on strike. I felt a bit of panic when I came in – I’ve never been in that situation before, coming in with 22 overs to bat – but I just had to play my own game and today it came off – my highest score!”

OPINION: KSL – Winning the Phoney War

Guest writer Richard Clark on the importance of the countdown to the Kia Super League.

So we know the “hosts”, we know where the England players are allocated, we know where the overseas signings have gone, we know the full squads, and we know the fixtures. All this after a well-orchestrated two or three weeks of “drip, drip” style announcements from the ECB and the KSL.

And now? Well, now we must wait. There are, give or take, three months until the start of “KSL1” (if that is what we are to call it). Three long months. Of waiting…

Except wait is the last things the hosts and the ECB should be doing. These three months are, in some ways, more important than the competition itself, because to a certain extent KSL1 will not stand or fall on the quality of the cricket. In a competition that lasts only three weeks (and only two for a couple of the teams) there will be little time for the cricket to make an impact. By the time people make their mind up as to whether it’s worth watching… it will be all but over.

No, KSL1 will succeed at least in part if it “gains traction” in the public consciousness, if it pulls in punters on opening night, if it catches the eye of the media. On that score, so far so good, by and large. The process of gradually unveiling the set-up has been well handled and the “franchises” have generally bought into the need to shout about it. Interest has been piqued, and followings have tentatively been established [see our previous piece on Twitter impact].

Over the next three months, though, nothing much is happening, and it is now – through what you might term the “Phoney War” – that the ECB and the hosts need to earn their corn in terms of turning what I referred to above as “followings” into something more tangible as “fan-bases”.

Nearer the time, there will no doubt be personal appearances by players at events and coaching days close to the host venues, but how about in the meantime?

Marketing departments have got to work overtime in the coming weeks to ensure that they get their message out there. To an extent the mainstream media will not want to know at the moment (What’s the story? Oh, you’ve got a game in three months’ time? Come back and see us then…), so a lot of publicity is going to have to be self-generated.

Social Media will be key here. It will not be enough to put a page on a website and expect that to do the job. Via Twitter and other social media channels the hosts need to get themselves embedded into cricket fans’ minds. Each host has its own dedicated Twitter feed (with the exception of Surrey Stars – a serious mistake in my view). They need to use them daily to worm their way into their followers lives. And remember, it’s not just their followers they are aiming in – never underestimate the power and reach of the re-tweet!

The players too must be tweeting about it constantly – Twitter can be a dangerous world for the sportsman or woman, but the positives here should outweigh the negatives. If this is a “War”, then it needs to be fought with total commitment, and with every weapon available.

And KSL has some weapons – the likes of Edwards, Taylor (both of them!), Lanning, Perry, Matthews… These are potential superstars for my daughter’s generation, and they have to be used as tools in the coming months to make sure KSL1 opens with a bang.