January 9, 2013

My 2013 wishlist

More Tests, a better New Zealand, more power to Kallis, and Dravid for ICC chairman

That impoverished woodman of fairytale fame had three wishes at his disposal but cricket's needs are a good deal more pressing than a lump of black pudding. My most fervent ones for 2013 are that, in ascending order of urgency, we witness the following headlines:

Hail Mahela
It says a lot about Mahela Jayawardene's aversion to spotlights that the record most likely to be associated with him 50 years hence is half a record: 624, the loftiest Test stand. To spend one's career competing with Kallis, Dravid, Lara, Ponting and Tendulkar is unfortunate enough; the final reckoning, moreover, will probably also find him trailing (in substance if never style) Kumar Sangakkara, with whom he shared those finest hours. Equanimity, happily, has long been an asset, so it's hard to imagine his autobiography being a moan-athon - beyond, of course, that double-barrelled shotgun of a chapter on the shortcomings and shameful goings of Sri Lankan administrators. With proven class exiting left, right and centre, cherish him while you can.

Fiery Hadlee in blazer blaze
If New Zealand are shaping up as the new West Indies (circa 2004 rather than 1984), the lack of wider concern is alarming. In their last 15 Tests against non-Zimbabwean opponents, stretching back to November 2010, they've scaled 300 four times in the first innings, and not unpredictably, won just twice - albeit mightily so, in Colombo and Hobart. One of these days, when the failed All Black wannabes who run the game there tire of mucking their best player about and Sir Richard Hadlee torches his 1986 England tour mementoes, we may yet see how good Trent Boult and Doug Bracewell really are. Still, let's not judge them too harshly if they reverse the trend and head for the Cape.

Jacques gets more laddish
Pete Townshend once hoped he'd die before he got old, then spent the next five decades wishing he hadn't and striving to prove he shouldn't. "It's better to burn out than fade away," advocated Neil Young, but the ornery old bustard still refuses to do either. In sport, fading away is natural, normal, inevitable, though nobody, plainly, told Jacques Kallis.

While rivals and contemporaries withered, shrank and retreated into retirement, the pride of Pinelands has not only kept a tight grip on his mojo but added new gizmos. In his autumnal splendour he's as effective over 20 overs as 450. Reverse sweep on the first day of a Test? Meet Jacques the Very Laddy. Maybe he's bent on compensating for the grisly exit suffered by his best pal, Mark Boucher? At the risk of sounding ungratefully greedy, please grant us another year at least, o taciturn maestro, if only to keep greatness within our sight and grasp.

DJ Sammy: Champion remixer
It may be some time before the five-day throne accommodates Caribbean bums again but that revival in the shorter formats has been distinctly heartening. Underrated with the ball, hit-and-miss with the bat, Darren Sammy probably shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a Test XI, but where would any contemporary West Indies combo be without that patience, that smile, and yes, that mother hen-ish clucking?

Given that Marlon Samuels has re-blotted his copybook and reverting to Chris Gayle is probably still too big a shift in the reintegration game, the West Indies selectors appear to have no choice but to persist with the Brearley Plan: ten good men under the right coaxer is better than 11 rudderless good men. Few will bid the Champions Trophy a tearful farewell, but winning it would keep such an unfashionably long-term strategy nicely in the groove.

Wasim and Waqar 2.0
I can't recall the last time anticipation exerted its exquisite hold quite as relentlessly as it did in the half-hour before India's chase against Pakistan in Kolkata. This was partly down to the pressing need for a reason, any reason, to be cheerful. The first half of the week, after all, had brought nothing but gloom. First Tony Greig died, then Christopher Martin-Jenkins: the game's foremost salesman and conscience-in-chief, both gone with joltingly premature suddenness. Then New Zealand did what had long seemed inevitable, mistaking a Test for a T20.

Mostly, though, that feverish state was attributable to the impending return bout between India's openers and Pakistan's new-ballers. In Chennai the southpaws had battered timber early and often. Mohammad Irfan might look as if he got lost en route to signing for the LA Lakers but packs a mean yorker and an even meaner bouncer. A year ago, Junaid Khan looked decidedly handy; however much the opposition's suspect footwork sharpened his threat, the way he whipped out the Indian cream, moving the ball both ways at pace, through the air, off the pitch but consistently on the mark, did nothing whatsoever to curb this unbridled enthusiast. In the (extremely) blue corner stood two classy old hands in search of form and self. Gautam Gambhir had been defiant rather than assured; Virender Sehwag had brought to mind a tiger fresh out of root-canal surgery: pissed off but powerless to stem the pain with an act of gratuitous savagery.

What ensued was a page-turner as well as an honourable draw. Luckless at first, Junaid achieved the key thrusts, unseating Gambhir after a steady start then hypnotising Virat Kohli into glancing a wide. Sehwag, though, kept both quicks at bay, venturing perilously yet encouragingly close to head-down, no-nonsense sobriety. Call it a minor triumph over nature: he knows he can't just click his fingers anymore.

In the end, Pakistan romped home, and can now look forward with realistic optimism to the Big One: three Tests in South Africa. Reinforced, one assumes, by Nasir Jamshed, those disciplined bats could unsettle the three horsemen of the apocalypse, Dale, Morne and Vernon, but the blooding of Faf du Plessis has made the hosts' top six the most formidable around. Not even Saeed Ajmal will be as crucial to the hitherto weedy challenge to Protean domination as Wasim and Waqar 2.0.

ACSU fixes it for umpires
This may sound terribly naïve, but when I heard it I couldn't believe it. In its apparently ceaseless efforts to combat match-, spot- and any other sort of fixing yet to be dishonoured with an official brand name, those purportedly commonsensical chaps known collectively as the Anti-Corruption and Security Unit do not routinely consult those closest to the action - the umpires.

Granted, six of the less reputable ones, assigned to World Twenty20 warm-ups, were suspended last October following a TV sting, arguably justifying such an oversight. But is it an oversight? Maybe the ICC and the ACSU sincerely believe the players are too well-versed in the dark and ancient arts of buttering up, suckering and playing umpires for fools, which, not unnaturally, devalues the latter's word.

The best things about the DRS are a) it exists, b) many more nations assent to it than don't, and c) the colossal number of decisions it suggests were bang on the money leads one to conclude, not unreasonably, that those who make them are on the straight and narrow. As the ultimate arbiters of fair play and foul, isn't it time they were equipped with a whistle (of the strictly figurative kind, natch)?

Dravid to sort out ICC philistines
The madness must stop. No, I'm not referring exclusively to the game's divided and ineffectual governance (a Lord took that one on and look what happened to his proposals) but, with marginally less despair, to that brazen thief of quality - the Future Tours Programme. The two chinks of light are the massive decline in ODIs (albeit counter-balanced by an even bigger rise in T20s) and next year's appointment of the inaugural ICC chairman. Time, surely, for someone completely different, someone who can see it from the perspective of both player and nurturer. And while we're dreaming, let's entrust what remains of our faith to someone respected from Wellington to Wellingborough and grant them the sort of dictatorial rights Lord MacLaurin enjoyed in his mixed if largely successful bid to bang English heads together.

Sangakkara will be perfect once he hangs up his jockstrap but the burden that will inevitably take up residence on the shoulders of the initial appointee should be left to someone accustomed to bearing heavy loads uncomplainingly, i.e. Rahul Dravid. We know he's a sensible fellow. We know how passionately he feels. So long as he's his own man as much as we think he is, it may not be too fanciful to believe he can get everyone rowing in the same direction as well as the right one.

As to specifics, he might care to consider the following a campaign donation: four-week IPL uninterrupted by internationals; nine-year home-and-away tour cycle punctuated by a mid-term, month-long World Test Championship knockout featuring the top eight countries, all games played to a finish; minimum of one home/"home" and one away Test series per Full Member per year; at least three Tests but no more than three ODIs and three T20s per tour; Test nations take turns to tour the leading associates, culminating in a four-day first-class match; broadcasters told to like it or lump it.

As Mickey Rourke's Boogie mused in Diner: "If you don't have good dreams, you got nightmares."

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

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