June 13, 2012

The Jimmy riddle

Was Andy Flower right to convince the Fast Bowler Who Would Be King to take a breather?

In dismal and dismaying contrast to the gripping if extremely confusing 1971 Sean Connery movie of the same name, The Anderson Tapes do not make for illuminating, close or even remote inspection. ESPNcricinfo can now exclusively reveal them here in only slightly abridged fashion for the first-ever time in the history of the world, evah.

Flower: "Look, Jimmy… mate… Andy No. 3. I know you fancy a few more cheap wickets against this shoddy lot, and I know you're rather partial to the notion of becoming the first Lancastrian to 300 Test wickets - apart from Wasim Akram and Muttiah Muralitharan, that is - and I know you're quietly paranoid about how good Finny is, but you know it makes sense to give you a breather at Edgbaston."

Anderson: "Yeah, but no. As in, yeah, you're right, but no, I don't agree. But you're the boss, I guess. And I could do with a bit of head space to continue with my dastardly and really rather nifty plot to prove I'd be a far better captain than that Bedfordshire farmer. Tell you what, I'll cut you a deal. I make a bit of a fuss - not much, just to show 'em how much I care - and you take the flak from the hacks."

Of late, my prejudices have been suffering a right old seeing-to, thanks to a pair of Pommy (whoops, almost wrote "pongy") footballers: Joey Barton, who clearly fancies himself as a bit of a Renaissance Man-Thug, and John Terry, who (if he read this) would probably have a giggle about René Sonce being that right-back who fiddles about for FC Nancy. Instinctively, in any dispute between staff and management, my default position is to back the workers.

One makes money out of the other's sweat; the other is not a benefit to the firm but a labour cost: who's likelier to dictate terms? Workers can only punish management by refusing to sweat; they cannot discipline, fine, suspend or ban, cut wages or trim budgets. Curt Flood, who took Major League Baseball all the way to the Supreme Court because he didn't see why he should be traded to another club without consultation or approval (or even a couple of hours' warning), encapsulated it to perfection: "A well-paid slave is still a slave."

Hence my hearty and blind support for those murmurings from Michael Clarke and company about boycotting the forthcoming ODIs in England if they don't get a fatter slice of Cricket Australia's amply proportioned pie. Likewise the Sri Lankans, who had to go wageless for the best part of a year, and those from all corners still being played for suckers by the Bangladesh Cricket League.

But oh, all the same, for my Beefy and my Lamby and my Imrany. Where oh where are the delicious rows and PBIs (press-box incidents) and lawsuits and endless Lord's disciplinary hearings that so dominated my journalistic youth? The latest Kevin Pietersen Annoys Everyone Saga might have given us something to get our teeth and schadenfreude into but that's been swamped by the Jimmy Riddle (though I wouldn't be in the least bit astonished to learn that the full-time members of the fourth estate had agreed, in the interests of team harmony, image, sponsors and decent lunches, to switch horses and give KP a break). Talk about a change of guard.

In the undistinguished annals of storms in teacups, L'Affaire Anderson is right up there with The Fortunes' ditty of the same name (which any cricket-tragic pop-pickers out there might well be aware entered the UK charts at the end of January 1972, the very same week that saw Graeme Pollock hit 136 for a World XI in Adelaide, his last hundred in Oz). Not quite, admittedly, up to the standards set by the harrumphing over whether Englebert Humperdinck should have received a few more points in the recent Eurovision Song Contest, but certainly looking down from a distant cloud on the kerfuffle over whether Kevin Pietersen should be allowed to realign his stance and grip mid-delivery (sorry Chappelli, we'll have to agree to disagree vehemently on this one: if he's good enough to do what 99.99% of batsmen could never do in a zillion millennia, or at least not without looking like a prize pranny, let him, so long as he accepts that the official lbw laws cannot apply).

Last week the ECB signed a new seven-year deal with ESPN STAR Sports worth north of £100m for, as the press release trumpeted, "the exclusive multi-platform rights to broadcast ECB's domestic and home international programme across all the broadcaster's territories in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa". Three hundred-plus days, in other words, of putting the England team on show. If any specialist bowler above the speed of Graeme Swann figures in two-thirds of those, it'll be a small but not insignificant miracle.

It is highly improbable, of course, that Anderson will still be in the saddle come 2019 - unless your name is Curtly or Courtney, after all, 36 is no age to be contemplating new balls. Then again, as challenges go, out-Courtneying Courtney or out-Curtlying Curtly would be up there.

But let's be realistic. If tended and cosseted and guided correctly, Anderson - who is one of those fast bowlers whose professed disdain for the speedgun could allow them to be more effective at 34 than 28 - could conceivably go on for another five years.

Fred Trueman was still getting all fiery for his country at 34, Brian Statham at 35, and neither had remotely the same assistance from technology and personal trainers, dieticians and physios or psychologists and homeopaths, let alone the security of knowing, at 29, that three fruitless outings on the trot wouldn't be tantamount to career suicide. Yes, international cricket is appreciably more arduous and multi-disciplined than it was in their day, but in terms of overs bowled, Anderson will have considerably fewer miles on the clock by the time he reaches 34 than Statham or Trueman had at 30.

Anderson is a man seemingly as comfortable in his own skin (and hence parading it) as any sportsman I've come across. I don't recall Mike Brearley recommending such a virtue, but if he didn't, I bet he wishes he had

Go back 50 summers, to the England-Pakistan series that featured both. Despite creaming Javed Burki's ingenues 4-0, the home selectors, mindful of the coming Ashes tour, picked no fewer than 18 players, encompassing, among others, four opening pairs, three new-ball duos, four twirlers and a brace of stumpers.

Go back 30 summers, to the twin three-Testers against India and Pakistan (won three, lost one), on the eve of another Ashes campaign: selections spanned five bowling allrounders, four new-ball duets and three opening alliances.

Australians feast on such dithering, of course, and repulsed both raids. By stark and intoxicating contrast, over their past eight Test series, the 2009 Ashes conflab (when 15 were permed in pursuit of victory) is the only one in which England have called on more than 13 men. Oh for my Dexter and my May.

It speaks thunderous volumes for the current state of affairs, therefore, that with series looming against South Africa, in India, then home and away to the oldest enemy, one bowler being persuaded that skipping a match after a rubber has been won might not be the worst idea or greatest sacrifice, could create such an almighty stink. But that's just about the only alibi.

But back to the Jimmy-for-skip campaign, which he tentatively launched himself in an interview with All Out Cricket a couple of years back and which this column hereby relaunches, live and exclusively.

This is not to decry or demean the credentials of the Bedfordshire farmer, whose temperament appears to every bit as sanguine as the incumbent's, a trait that becomes more alluring with every passing season (even if they do all blur into one these days). His only apparent shortcoming, on the evidence thus far, is a lack of edge. The edge that equips you to make difficult and unpopular decisions for the collective good. The edge that Anderson has sticking out of virtually every orifice.

Forget the lout who harangued Marlon Samuels to no avail at Trent Bridge (although, as intelligence hardened into wisdom, we still saw the dark side of Glenn McGrath far too often). Think of the thinking woman's cricket hunk, the lad from Burnley who used to do brave things with his hair and now thinks nothing of posing for the cover of a gay magazine. A man seemingly as comfortable in his own skin (and hence parading it) as any sportsman I've come across. I don't recall Mike Brearley recommending such a virtue, but if he didn't, I bet he wishes he had.

Is rotation the new chop-and-change? Was Andy Flower right to convince the Fast Bowler Who Would Be King to take a breather? Is every decent Catholic a would-be Pope?

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton