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Scott Oliver

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
Grenada, 2015: Samuels sees Stokes off. Samuels said he referred to Stokes as a "nervous laddie" to his batting partner, Carlos Brathwaite, during the World T20 final the following year  •  Associated Press

Grenada, 2015: Samuels sees Stokes off. Samuels said he referred to Stokes as a "nervous laddie" to his batting partner, Carlos Brathwaite, during the World T20 final the following year  •  Associated Press

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.
Guiltily or gleefully, most people enjoy an occasional spot of bubbled-over bad blood, petulant handbags, unreconstructed arseyness. Marlon Samuels saluting a cheaply dismissed Stokes was one of Test cricket's great esoterically funny moments, principally because it showed the lengths he was prepared to go to - maximal theatrics, no violence: the perfect blend - in order to assert his primacy over a foe, however temporary.
The overly sanctimonious guardians of the spirit of cricket occasionally imagine the sport degenerating into the sort of lawlessness that gripped South American football in the early 1970s, when players took pins onto the field to stab opponents at corners. But this spirit - which, though intangible, is something both real and valuable - isn't really threatened by pettiness, which is merely a puerile outburst of the competitive Palaeolithic brain, a symptom of how much a game means to its participants and not of how incapable they are of taking defeat on the chin a couple of hours later.
Not long into our innings it became clear that the opposition were bowling with a parboiled potato. The first ball I faced seemed to sit on the bat face for hours. My Basil Fawlty-esque protestations seemed to tickle them no end
The depth of meaning sparking these magnificently petty tit-for-tat spats usually derives from the wider context of history and rivalry. In cricket, these are often personal rather than collective - Stokes and Samuels, Stokes and Kohli, Stokes and Starc - although India and Pakistan, and Yorkshire and Lancashire, are believed to have some kind of beef between them.
Where rivalries endure, grudges may be borne. And they often enhance the experience. Maybe not at the time, but once your playing days - amateur or pro - are done and dusted, the spice sucked from the memories, they are unfailingly a source of humorous recollection: "I can't believe I went that far! What was I thinking?" That said, the professional game these days is fairly well behaved. Everything from sanctions for breaches of ICC codes of conduct, and the omnipresence of TV cameras, to players' increased fraternisation in franchise T20 leagues militates against things kicking off. It's not football. Or ice hockey.
No, the place to go for really spectacularly fractious small-mindedness is club cricket, where antipathies can fester long down the years. From 1996 to 2005, my own club, Moddershall, had a fierce rivalry with Longton, fuelled in part by our best young player leaving, aged 20, to fulfil his top-flight and county ambitions over there. We went up the following season, then became the first newly promoted side to win the top division. One or two of our improvised victory songs that night may have referenced our departed young star.
Longton were a city club, established and successful, us an emerging power. And rural. The games down there, in front of their invariably bawdy support, were always particularly fruity. It was the only ground with a PA system ("The outgoing batsman is Scott Oliver, lbw Tweedie 0"). It's the only place I ever kicked the stumps over in disgust, whereupon a Santa-shaped guy known as Zigger-Zagger - on account of him leading a regular chant of that name on the Stoke City terraces - bellowed, helpfully: "It'll still be ite in Mundee's Sentinel, mah mate".*
We contested several cup semi-finals and finals, Longton and us, duked it out in many championship-shaping battles, and played each other in low-stakes games like it was the Auld Firm. No backwards steps. Almost zero cordiality. And yet, despite all that (minor, rep-theatre) drama, the two standout memories I have are tales of plumbing the rivalry's potential pettiness, groping for the lengths to which we'd go either not to have the other lot take the piss, or to take the piss ourselves.
The latter involved me phoning their bar from our dressing room after we'd beaten them in a late-July league game that meant little to us, comfortably in mid-table after a shaky start, but damaged them, locked as they were in a two-horse race for the title with Stone, whose widely loved Pakistani professional I was impersonating during said call.
"Hello, this is Mo Hussain. Can you tell me result of game, please?"
"We lost, mate - 115 all out, they knocked off for five."
"Lost! To Modd-shall!! How you lose to Modd-shall? They're shit, mate."
Not full-on pettiness, of course. The glee was patently derived from the joke's target, although the non-disclosure that the call was coming from the away dressing room, essential to the humour, may have knocked some of the potential gloss off it.
If we'd played Longton at shove ha'penny, it'd have been war. And so it proved in the semi-final of a relatively insignificant midweek cup competition, played over 16 eight-ball overs with both sides to provide "a used cricket ball" for the occasion. Not long into our innings it became clear that Longton were bowling with a parboiled potato. The first ball I faced seemed to sit on the bat face for hours. My Basil Fawlty-esque protestations seemed to tickle them no end.
Upon being dismissed I promptly organised a rummage through the kitbags to locate the worst ball we had. A youngster was then dispatched to the back of the pavilion to throw it against the concrete slabs awhile, later followed by another to pummel it with a bat mallet. At the interval I informed the umpire that the originally submitted ball was needed for the 2nd XI game on Saturday, simultaneously handing him the replacement before he could query it. When their innings' first ball was punched firmly off the back foot and barely dribbled to cover, it was impossible to suppress our laughter. We laughed last, too. And loudest.
Of course, that's all many beers under the bridge ago. Now they're anecdotes, not incidents.
The beauty of sport - even amateur sport - is that in the thick of it, everyone, spectators and participants alike, acts as though it means the world, even though, eventually, inevitably, it doesn't mean anything; even though it's always just a game, finite and bounded by its conventions, unlike the open reality of history, where the antagonisms are potentially endless. Indeed, for rival supporters in professional sports - or rather, fanatics, with their often compulsory symbiotic loathing - it's not quite so straightforward to attain such a dispassionate, stoic, only-a-game perspective on things. As for the opposing players, they usually end up realising that the rivalry, however testy, however rancorous, is ultimately what lends their fatally intertwined stories their most interesting chapters.
*Translation: It'll still be out in Monday's paper

Scott Oliver tweets here