May 28, the Cowdrey Lecture
The spirit of cricket was enshrined by the MCC in the preamble to the laws of the game almost 20 years ago. Colin Cowdrey was behind it, along with Ted Dexter, who picked up the baton after Cowdrey died at the relatively young age of 67. The lecture was introduced in memory of Cowdrey and it is delivered every year at Lord's, providing focus for many of the discussion points that make up cricket's broad canvas. Distinguished speakers and panelists have had their say, among them Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mr Boycott himself; Sunny Gavaskar, Imran Khan and Martin Crowe; Richie Benaud, Tony Greig and Brendon McCullum. A month ago, Anthony Wreford revealed his successor to be Kumar Sangakkara, who will become the first MCC president from overseas and the youngest for goodness knows how long, if not ever. Sangakkara gave the Cowdrey Lecture in 2011, interweaving exciting use of the English language with fascinating references to literature; his passion for Sri Lanka, and for the game, shone through.
Mike Brearley gave the lecture last week and did so with typical attention to detail and clarity of mind. He supports the spirit of cricket, choosing not to agree with other senior cricket figures who have dismissed it with words such as "impractical" and phrases that have included "meaningless guff". He likes its ambiguity, which in turn allows interpretation, and thinks it reflects the rules of life: essentially, to do unto others as you would have done to you.
Sangakkara and Shane Warne were with us on the panel. Warne is a marvellous entertainer, irreverent, of course, but more importantly a provider of revealing insight to the inner game. His mind is wired to cricket in a way that leads to remarkably creative, though invariably subjective, thought. It is not just that he is ahead of the game: better perhaps to say that he looks deeper, further, longer into its moves and people. Of those with whom I have spent time, Dexter, Barry Richards, Duncan Fletcher and Crowe come close to Warne's forensic appreciation of the game without quite matching his ability to translate it for everyman.
Wreford had used his opening speech to bill this year's lecture as a special World Cup occasion, which allowed us to rib Brearley about the 1979 final in which he picked a Boycott-Larkins-Gooch combo as the fifth bowler. The cost was 86 from their 12 overs and the overall result a West Indies total of 286 for 9. "Brears" then opened the batting with Boycott, and they put on 129 in 38 overs, which sort of sounds okay... except that the chief defenders of the West Indian faith were Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Colin Croft and Joel Garner. Thus, one can understand why those who followed felt that captain and senior pro had rather left them with their trousers down. On stage, Brearley made a reasonable argument for the make-up of the bowling attacked but cursed the fact that he and his famous partner from Yorkshire let Viv Richards ease his way through ten overs for 35. How the game has changed!
May 29, Commentators' meeting and dinner
An eclectic body of 25 mainly household cricket names gathered at The Oval to be talked through the event by the television arm of the game's governing body and its production company, Sunset and Vine. We were each given a commentator's manual, which a few of us baulked at. I mean, please, how long have we been doing this.
Later in the afternoon and back at home with a cup of tea, I browsed through and rather enjoyed it. Good, simple guidelines for a job often assumed easy but, in truth, easy enough on the surface but a little more difficult to become good at. Ian Smith, who was sitting next to me, has undoubtedly done that. He is my favourite commentator today, only pipped at the all-time post by Richie Benaud and Tony Cozier.
I particularly liked the stuff about criticism in the booklet. "Criticism of a player or official is legitimate and an important part of your editorial comment. But never make the criticism personal or vindictive [...] if you do level criticism, explain why [...] and be sure of the facts. It is always better to temper criticism with praise." Yup.
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I also liked "Television is drama - and sport is drama. Use the crowd roar to punctuate your commentary - never fight over it. A classic situation is when a wicket is taken [...] and there is a second's pause as this sinks in - then the roar. Get your line in when you've got that split second but don't say anything over the crowd as it rises. In this way the viewer will get to feel the atmosphere of the event, the flavour of the game and the emotion of the incident."
And finally: "Silence is golden [...] the dramatic pause has been used more effectively in movies than in 10,000 lines of script [...] so never be afraid of "dead air". Set up the situation and sit back as it happens. But never lapse into overall silence; the viewer must understand what it is going on, so use these moments of silence confidently, and dramatically." Good stuff. Richie Benaud was the master of silence, and loved for it. These days, producers want you to say more and particularly to keep explaining the game and its gizmos. I'll take one Richie line as the mantra - "Engage brain before mouth." Bingo.
May 30, The Oval
Any which way you look at this, England have all the bases covered and are the team to beat. It's now a pleasant morning, mercifully warmer than yesterday, so much so that like Bruce Springsteen, whose newest song was released the other day, we can say "Hello Sunshine" and then implore it to hang in there for the next six weeks.
South Africa look pretty good to me, though Simon Hughes assures me their batting is iffy and their bowling short of a quality fifth man. Simon is the "Analyst" after all, so I'll take his word for it. Dale Steyn is only 80% fit, says Faf du Plessis, so he won't play today; David Miller isn't picked. I'll repeat that: Miller hasn't been picked. On the old adage of "Do what the opposition least wants you to do", England won't mind that.
The walk up the Harleyford Road is nice and buzzy, like this is the real thing, and the atmosphere in the ground reflects exactly that. Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow walk out to a tremendous roar and Jonny walks back after nicking his first ball to Quinton de Kock. Having figured it would be tricky against the new ball, I can't say I'd expected Imran Tahir to be using it. Nice one, Faf.
Roy and Joe Root play beautifully before both are out in quick succession and England stutter. My brother sends a text that says, "Ooh dear Root and Roy, now let's see." Well, bro, Morgan played great, Ben Stokes too, and England passed 300. The South Africans alongside me didn't think it was enough. Repeat, "How the game has changed!"
It was plenty. England were truly brilliant in the field, a performance underlined by Stokes' amazing boundary catch. Jofra Archer bowled fast, sconning Hashim Amla and seeming as if he might take a wicket with every ball he bowled. My goodness, England have found one here. In Barbados. The margin at the end was 104, which only marginally exaggerates England's cricket on the day. South Africa were unusually limp, needing to get back on the bike against Bangladesh on Sunday.
Warne holds court in the Sky studio next door to our commentary position, where he is providing analysis, pre- and post-match. He has lost weight on a diet of Chinese herbs, which, he says, are disgusting. He is not a food man, seeing it as fuel before the main event, which is talking about cricket, playing golf or poker, and then hitting the town. Never a dull moment.
Nor with Kevin Pietersen, who was floating about, doing some add-ons for Star Sports in India. Pietersen's work to save the rhino is quite something. "The government could write a cheque now and save the rhino from extinction," he said recently, having also mentioned it to the Queen when he received his MBE. As we know, he's not shy, and that helps when the mission is so challenging. Contrary to the view that self-promotion is behind his every move, KP is devoted to this cause. His commitment is unconditional; the ambition admirable. Mark Boucher and Graeme Smith are in this with him and the growing number of projects to save the rhino give real hope.
After Warne, I bumped into Sachin Tendulkar, which was a treat. Looking fit and well, he said he would be in London for much of the summer. The family love it here: relative anonymity, I suppose, and so much to do that is different from life in Mumbai. A couple of years ago he played in a charity cricket match I help to organise. It was a private affair for invited guests only but made £300,000 in an afternoon for Wellbeing of Women. Sachin came with the family - Anjali, Sara and Arjun and one or two off-siders, though not an entourage. Arjun played as well and it was clearly quite special for them to be on the field together.
May 31, Trent Bridge
"Those strong and muscular shoulders creating tremendous pace," exclaimed Ian Bishop as Andre Russell knocked over Fakhar Zaman with a ricochet off his helmet. No one likes a fast, short ball bowled by a West Indian quite like a West Indian fast bowler does. Oshane Thomas received the Man-of-the-Match award for his four wickets but Russell set it up with his two. Fifteen of the 18 balls he delivered were back of a length and most of those flew past head or shoulder. Somewhere along the way, a star has been born. Russell stormed the recent edition of the IPL and promises much the same at this World Cup. One worry: his knee. We interviewed him afterwards and it was unpleasantly swollen - not that he seemed in the slightest bit bothered.
West Indies made light work of a feeble Pakistan. No one will be hurting more than Mickey Arthur, the South African coach of Pakistan, who wears his heart on his sleeve. We had dinner together last night, with Jeff Crowe too. Mickey has rather fallen for this team and for the friends he has made in Lahore, and on this showing, Mickey might have some painful World Cup days ahead.
Jeff, as ever, was in fine form. He is loyal to the ICC and unambiguous about his role in ensuring that standards of on-field behaviour do not deteriorate. It is a path previously taken by his brother, Martin, and pursued by Jeff with much resilience and typical fairness. We talked about the 1992 World Cup and fondly remembered Martin's wonderful batting and imaginative captaincy. The New Zealand dream ended at the semi-final stage, as Imran Khan's iron will took Pakistan to the title and to the building of the hospital that was the first real sign of his move into public and political life.
June 2, The Oval
The ground on which Len Hutton broke the world-record score; Don Bradman got a first-baller in his last innings; Denis Compton hit the winning runs to reclaim the Ashes; Derek Underwood bowled out the Aussies after the crowd had helped dry the playing area; Ian Botham took his 356th wicket to pass Dennis Lillee; Michael Vaughan lifted the urn after 16 years; and Pakistan beat India to win the 2017 Champions Trophy. Bangladesh beat South Africa. Pretty easily too.
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It was a beautiful day and an immaculate conception of a match. Put in to bat, the Bangladesh opening pair got stuck into the short ball, the middle order maintained momentum, and the lower order slogged the last four overs of the innings for 54. Then wickets were taken at regular intervals as South Africa's chase fizzled out, much as it had done against England a few days ago. Du Plessis said simply, "I'm very disappointed, we're not firing at all."
Fact: Bangladesh are no longer a banana skin, haven't been for a long time. These are savvy cricketers, hardened by years of famine and eager to feast on the plenty at their disposal - by which I mean skilful, aggressive batsmen, intelligent bowlers, a fine and feisty wicketkeeper-batsman and an attitude of never-say-die. Beware all you non-believers, Bangladesh is a difficult game.
June 3, Trent Bridge
Over the years, I've done a bit with the Starlight Children's Foundation, which looks to brighten the lives of seriously ill kids by granting wishes of a lifetime. Today 14-year-old Samuel Hull, who has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair, has tickets for England's match against Pakistan, and best of all, met the whole England team before play began, joined in the huddle, and posed for pics. What a guy! And bravo Eoin Morgan and all the players who gave their time and smiles to Samuel. A little bit goes such a very long way.
Pakistan 69 for no wicket from ten overs as I write. Maybe Mickey's World Cup days are looking up.
They are, and how! "If you take this game for granted, it will bite you on the backside" says Nasser Hussain on commentary after Pakistan complete a fine win against the favourites, who, from afar, seemed off colour. The fielding, for example, was as poor as it was brilliant last Thursday. Root and Buttler played terrific hands in the run chase but the target of 349 was simply too far away. The senior Pakistan players "came to the party", as Tony Greig loved to say.
For what it's worth, I don't think England have got it right choosing to bowl first at every opportunity. On good, dry pitches that batting line-up can put games away without the pressure of the chase, especially in these one-off matches where the fear of losing must niggle away at the back of even the strongest minds.
As for Pakistan, well, they lost 11 one-day internationals in a row before beating England at home in the World Cup. Nice one, Mickey.