Scott Oliver

How much motivation can statistical targets provide?

Pre-season anticipation often inspires one to set goals, but when this takes the form of chasing numbers, the effect can be stultifying

Scott Oliver
Spring has officially sprung - at least according to Facebook, which greeted me a couple of days ago with the following message: "Today's vernal equinox means longer and brighter days are on their way. We hope you enjoy the season ahead". Why, thank you, cute cartoon birds, I shall.
Glorious, glorious spring, when Mother Nature rubs a couple of vigorous knuckles in her eyes and takes a quick shower before turning to tend to those club cricketers emerging from rigorous winter training ready for the summer ahead. Essentially this means batsmen confident they can check-drive balls through extra cover off pretty much any length, while even the most pacelessly ham-thighed and heavy-footed trundler still capable of an effort ball has been convinced by three months' bowling off 19 yards with a cheap, small, new ball that the four-bumpers-an-over tactic could be their default mode. Spring: a time for cricketers' delusions to be indulged. And why not? The horizons shall bring you great bounty.
Below Facebook's well-wishing doves came photos of the hallowed square's first trim, this image immediately provoking a steady swell of anticipation as the approaching season's enticingly blank canvas is painted in by fantasy's finest strokes - at least, that's what used to happen, on the long, light-footed skip up towards one's peak, before reality's unrelenting proof of one's limitations became terminal. Of course, ambitions can always be scaled back in line with those withering talents but that seems an affront to fantasy itself, which if it exists for anything is precisely to get the better of reality every now and again. On the other hand, a fantasy lacking even the slightest connection to reality is known as a delusion.
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Why we need needle

We all enjoy watching a little pettiness, bad blood and low-grade squabbling between players, let's admit it

Scott Oliver
Of the many outstanding things that James Anderson has brought to English cricket these last 15 years - inswing, outswing, wobble seam, comedy reverse sweeps - perhaps the greatest is his unbridled, unrepentant, completely unforced churlishness. He could chunter for England, and frequently does.
In the midst of Virat Kohli's recent 18-rated runfest, Jimmy was invited to opine as to the brilliance of the Indian captain's batting. He could only muster a token agreement, before muttering peevishly about Kohli being "good in these conditions", the implication being that back on English decks, he'd be all over him like a cheap suit, just as - and still reading between the lines here, the lines of Jimmy's scowl - he had previously been with Sachin. Not one to drop his competitive guard, our Jimmy.
Anderson may or may not make it to the reunion with Kohli, but he has a worthy heir in Ben Stokes, who, while not possessed of the Burnley Lara's delectable swing-bowling skills, nonetheless does seem both to get under the opposition's skin and to be a bit of an irritation magnet (ask Virat Kohli). And what's not to like about that? You have to admit, it's entertaining.
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Can you get your eye in before you get in?

How soon before teams turn to virtual reality to facilitate the process?

Scott Oliver
Until quite recently I had only really struggled with half of the cardinal principle of batsmanship, "See ball, hit ball", but then my eyes started to go and the whole lot became impossible. Despondency set in after I was rendered crease-bound and shotless while facing someone bowling accurate yet filthy moon-ball offbreaks, each one soaring from the hand, then disappearing into the zebra-skin silhouette of branches looming darkly over the sightscreen. I may as well have been blindfolded. It is hard to get your eye in when you can't see the ball.
Getting your eye in has always been a thing of mystery. There are days when you don't really need a sighter - you feel in from the moment you walk out there; pitch, form and light are all good, and everything seems already somehow familiar - and others when you never feel as though your eye is quite in, no matter how many times you copy Ricky Ponting's "Watch the ball, watch the ball." Usually, however, it just happens at some barely discernible point in your innings, with everything up to then comprising the struggle to get in.
I always thought the optimal ball to receive first up was a shin-high full-toss on about seventh stump: a gift-wrapped boundary, almost impossible to drag on or slap dozily to point.
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Does promotion and relegation really foster competition?

It makes teams use all sorts of methods to stay alive - harming themselves and the sporting culture in the process

Scott Oliver
You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who disagreed with the notion that competition is the lifeblood of sport. Monopolies asphyxiate. Consider European football over the last 25 years, where "financial doping" has arguably created unsurpassed aesthetic spectacles through the concentration of megastar talent but - Leicester City's miracle notwithstanding - has largely killed surprises, and thus restricted true competition to a smattering of clubs in each league.
Competition can mean many things, of course. It can be the competition for places within an organisation, which pushes people to raise their standards, while competition between teams has the same standard-raising effect. Yet - and here, seemingly, lies a paradox - the competitive drive, such as seen in the previous example of European football, doesn't necessarily contribute to the overall competitiveness of a sporting culture, or "ecosystem".
In other words, competitiveness - at least not in all its senses and frames of reference - might not be quite the unequivocal virtue that it's often assumed to be. (Recent events concerning my own club have borne this out, more of which below.) And attempts to stimulate greater competitiveness through the device of promotion and relegation don't necessarily serve to produce a stronger or "healthier" sporting culture, either.
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Is it time to change the Bodyline Law?

Permitting just two fielders behind square on leg is generally harsher against fingerspinners than other kinds of bowlers

Scott Oliver
How do you go about solving a puzzle like Virat Kohli? Such will have been the question taxing England's management on the flight from Visakhapatnam to Mohali, where this intriguing Test series rumbles, already, into its third act.
While Virat's Vizag contributions - utterly imperious in first wresting the initiative and then snuffing out the light as England sought an unlikely route back into the game - ensured the plot played out to pre-series expectations, he probably hadn't imagined he'd spend the final session in Rajkot in survival mode. Nevertheless, he rose to and embraced the challenge, displaying the timeless virtues of batting on capricious, turning pitches: quick to judge length, light on his feet, poised, balanced, judicious and pragmatic in shot selection, and, as always with Kohli, doing everything he can to cow the bowler with that strutting body language.
Two Tests, then, and two masterclasses of technical brilliance and adaptability. Kohli's transitions from defensive resolve to relentless, single-minded orthodoxy to counterattacking flair as the differing match situation and pitches have demanded have served to remind of cricket's endless variety and richness, its ceaselessly modulating challenges.
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T20 or ODI: which one's more conducive to upsets?

The shorter the game, the greater the chances? Perhaps not

Scott Oliver
Suppose you were to play Ronnie O'Sullivan in a frame of snooker. You would lose - you know this before you start; the only question being by how many points. The game simply requires too much sustained excellence - potting accuracy, cue-ball control, safety-play precision - for you to even contemplate an upset. Were you to play Ronnie at pool, however, and broke off by sinking one ball and spreading the rest, then provided you held your nerve, the chances are you could beat the greatest cueman the world has ever seen. Compression - potting eight consecutive balls on a table a quarter the size of a competition snooker table - provides opportunity.
Does the same logic apply to cricket: the longer the game, the less chance of a giant-killing? Does T20 carry the greatest chance of a potential upset, followed by List A (or ODI), followed by first-class cricket (or Tests)?
It was a discussion that surfaced in 2014, when Michael Vaughan floated the idea of an FA Cup-style domestic T20 competition - straight knockout, no seeding to protect the big clubs, with Minor Counties sides and others invited - to run on free-to-air TV alongside the existing NatWest Blast round-robin format. Of course, cricket's thralldom to finance and need for guaranteed fixture lists rendered the idea a non-starter, but it was interesting to ponder whether such a tournament would provide a greater chance of an upset - Vaughan said "5%" - than in the minor counties' 41-year participation in the Gillette Cup and its successors, which produced ten giant-killings in 336 matches. (In the Benson & Hedges Cup, the Minor Counties representative XI won six games out of 139.)
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My 5600-mile golden duck

Our correspondent travels to Connecticut, USA, to play a club game - alongside Adam Sanford and against a motley expat crew

Scott Oliver
What's the furthest you've been for a golden duck? Last month, having hooked up with an old club pro of ours while holidaying in New York, I made a round trip of six hours and 45 minutes - from my lodgings in Manhattan's Upper East Side to Queens, and from there to New Haven, Connecticut - all for a largely hightlight-free one-ball innings. Chuck in the journey from Nottingham via London and Reykjavik, and that's 5600 miles.
Not that I went to the US specifically to play cricket, of course. But I did want to catch up with Adam and see what standard of club cricket might be available Stateside to an ex-West Indies Test player. I only realized he wasn't joking about me playing having emerged from the Jamaica St Subway at 10am into an already vicious heat to hear, "Whassup, Scott. You're looking fit". It was nine years since I last saw him, and my middle-age spread had spread.
Sanford's two passengers, Dominic Ricky and Cassius Burton, were tickled enough to drop their impassive, Marlon Samuelsesque air, although Dominic at least tried to pretend he was laughing at a text message. Initiation complete, I was now part of the team: the Hamden Combined Caribbean XI of the Southern Connecticut Cricket Association.
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How Northants have embraced success through white-ball love

A nostalgic look at the team's limited-overs' wins since the '70s

Scott Oliver
Earlier this season I was at Trent Bridge when the ample frame of Rory Kleinveldt sidled to the crease with his side 206 for 5 in response to Notts' 445 in 50 overs of freewheeling, record-breaking carnage.
The deep-blue afternoon sky had receded behind the floodlights, and with the sun firmly past the yardarm, a raucous crowd grew giddily sozzled at the home team's Test-ground, East Midlands superiority. And then Kleinveldt - which in Afrikaans means "small field" - started to plonk the ball into the stands with brutal power and regularity.
At one stage, "a Johannesburg" looked decidedly on, but alas Kleinveldt, batting with a runner, ran out of steam, having bludgeoned - there is no other word for it - 128 from 63 balls with nine sixes, and Northants finished 425 all out with ten balls remaining, having smitten 17 maximums in their innings.
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