From Nass to Captain Cook to Smokin’ Joe

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Cook passes the baton to Root

            Alastair Cook after a long stint as the English captain has finally thrown the towel after an embarrassing but quite expected demolition at the hands of the Indians in their den. To be honest most were predicting a whitewash, but against all expectations infact England played very well at times and were undoubtedly the favourites in the first Test and had they had some more time on their hands, Indians would have been surely beaten. The next four were just cakewalks for the hosts and Virat Kohli’s majestic form continued and carried Indians to victory in relative ease. But should we judge Cook on his last tour as captain. True it hasn’t been an easy ride all the way but we should never forget about the two Ashes victories against arch rivals and a great performance last time around in India.

         History won’t consider Cook as one of the finest captains no doubt but a great batsman indeed, destined to beat many a record if not already broken. He is the all-time highest English scorer of Test runs as well as most Test centuries; no mean feat considering he is an opener primarily. Though the opposition bowling and the pitches these days are more than conducive to batting exploits in this day and age. It doesn’t take away the fact that one has remained injury free and fit as well as the hunger for runs remained all these years despite hectic schedules and playing 10-12 Tests an year on average which the older generation could only dream of. It helped a lot that he concentrated more on the longer format and was dropped from the shorter format though a reasonably handy batsman in ODIs as he had shown his mettle and scoring at reasonable pace in the recent past. While players like Virat Kohli and Joe Root who are adept equally in all three formats and would play a lot more and in the long run their Test careers might suffer consequently. Cook still being young has plenty to look forward to when the burden of captaincy is off his shoulders, he can have a record which can survive for a long time if not till eternity, having the opportunity to play so much each year, could easily end up with more than 200 Matches and more than 17-18000 Test Runs.

             Now a quick look at the English captains before Cook….Starting from the disastrous side which Nasser Hussain inherited when England was being defeated left right and centre and with ease. He was the one who changed the mentality of the team. The highlight was the win in the dark and gloomy sunset of Karachi against Pakistan at their strongest home venue. Vaughan was the more impressive of them in terms of record, leading to the famous Ashes victory against the powerful Australian side. Flintoff came and went and had an Ashes thrashing to his credit. Kevin Pieterson, never the establishment guy, stayed for only 3 matches before the rebellion and the ECB clipping his wings and eventually out of the team too, Strauss followed having easily defeated a weakened Australian team with 24 victories to his name eventually and a 48% win record was an envy for the next coming captain Cook, who managed to win the Ashes twice and cementing his name in folklore. Cook’s win percentage of 40% is in no way close to Strauss or Vaughan’s 50.98 and the most successful of them all Brearley’s hefty 58% but very impressive in view of the performances given in India, though the heavy defeats by Pakistan in the Emirates and bad performances in the subcontinent would remain a blot for the team at their very best when playing at home. He has captained in more matches for England than any other player. He is still going strong at 11,057 Test runs in 140 Tests at a healthy average of 46.45 with 30 Hundreds to his name, all British records, apart from the average.

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Majestic Root

            Joe Root has just been appointed as the 80th English Test captain, though the always the overwhelming favourite; others like Stokes, Bairstow and Broad were in the frame too… Where will he carry the team in the years to come, how much it would it affect his own performance as the premier English batsman is open to discussion. Currently alongside Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson he is probably the only one who is equally good in all three formats of the game and can easily go into any International side without a doubt. His Test record speaks volumes already at such a young age, he has shown his mettle against the best bowling attacks already whether spin or premier pace or swing. He is still very young at 26 years of age, having already scored 4594 Test runs at an average of 52.8 with 11 centuries and 27 half centuries, and he has shown his stamina and will to stay for long by making big hundreds, having a highest score of 254. His ODI average of 46 is also very impressive. He is quite a handy spinner and a jolly good fielder and safe pair of hands. I am sure as his Yorkshire colleagues testify he has a good cricketing brain and would lead England to much more attacking cricket like their T20 Captain Morgan, who would probably still continue as their captain in the shorter format. Who would have thought that the young kid who made his debut with a solid 73 at Nagpur only 5 years back will be the future Lions captain. He can be most stylish as well as dogged when needed with an artistic flair unmatched in English Cricket. Together with Stokes and Bairstow, he is the future of English cricket no doubt!

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As the Crowe Flies……..

A Tribute to Martin Crowe!

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One of the finest Kiwis to have graced the cricket fields, passed away last week; leaving many a cricket lovers in sadness whom he thrilled with his batting prowess, whether in the Eden Park or in the Indian subcontinent. One of the classiest batsmen of his era and an inspiration for many in the New Zealand side which have scaled new heights recently under McCullum, the batsman who made his mark very early in a talented but underperforming Kiwi side, been the star of the 92 World Cup, heroically leading the black Caps to the semis and a heart breaking defeat to Pakistan at Auckland; fought a battle too good for him at the end. The Follicular lymphoma was too much even for Martin Crowe, who never swayed in front of Waqar and Wasim, Ambrose and Walsh and the Allan Donalds, Glenn McGraths and Brett Lees of his era.

I came to know about this promising but raw Kiwi, when I saw him play for the first time in the summer of 83 in England, when the pace of Bob Willis seemed too much for him and his elder brother Jeff. He had made his debut the year before at home vs Australia while still a teenager and to be honest didn’t quite make an impression and if for not a very ordinary batting reserve lineup, he might have not been given much chances after his relative failures in the first year or two. The persistence of the selectors and the faith paid off in the way of one of the finest batsmen New Zealand had produced, with the likes of John Reid. Only Kane Williamson and probably Ross Taylor comes any closer in the current team. He was a complete batsman with excellent defensive prowess and an attacking instinct which could dominate any bowler whether the guile of Warne or the pace of Waqar.

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By the end of his Test career, he was New Zealand’s highest run-getter and century-maker, scorer of 10,000 international runs. His best performances might have been at his home ground at the Eden Park, known for its short boundaries which he knew off the back of his hand. The highlight was his 299, then the highest score by a Kiwi in test Matches till broken recently by Brendon McCullum. IN all he played 77 Tests and 143 one-day internationals for New Zealand, scoring 5,444 Test runs including 17 centuries. Last year he became the 79th inductee into the International Cricket Council Hall of Fame, the third Kiwi to receive the honour. He was Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1985.

All those who have benefitted from the exhilarating presence on the cricket field of this great Kiwi, his brilliant strokeplay and utter dominance of the bowlers at times, will always cherish those moments. Once he was the only shining star in a not so brilliant side so far competing against the mighty with the swing and all round prowess of Richard Hadlee who had won them so many unlikely victories. He was a great leader and led the Black Caps from the front, the prime example being the 1992 World Cup, when they became favourites from once outsiders and being declared the best player of the tournament, getting inured at the worst time possible. The destiny was not with him and neither was it at the end when his lymphoma relapsed and he opted not to go for further chemotherapy.

His latter life as a commentator and a columnist shed so much light on his perspective on life and many a readers benefitted from it,  coming from a wise man, who had not only seen cricket but life from a close angle from the start to the end. The news of his getting cancer was a big shock to the cricketing world, his failing health and the emaciated face was at times a reminder of what life can bring. Nevertheless his love for cricket never waned as he watched Kiwis play Australia in the World cup Final at Melbourne. We will always remember the Kiwi with a bandana who had such a big heart and won so many the world over with his fine display in the cricketing fields all over!

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Rest In Peace M D Crowe !

Vigil for Phil Hughes

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A flashy youthful southpaw from a small town called Macksville in NSW knocking on the doors of Test Cricket for yet another chance that was up for grabs in the coming Test series against India tried pulling just another rising short delivery from another upcoming fast bowler just trying to get his wicket as thousands of others round the globe, gets hit on the side of his neck as many others have been in past. He stands stunned on his knees for a few seconds and then goes flat on the pitch on all fours, head first, all the opponents wanting to see the back of him in the pavilion, stand concerned and immediately know something really nasty has happened. The rest is history and Philip Hughes has left this finite world after making a slight mark in Test Cricket by his twin centuries especially against the likes of Steyn, Morkel, Ntini and Kallis in only his second Test against South Africa. He has indeed left an indelible mark on our memories by the way he died and made huge question marks on the safety of the elegant and artistic game that is cricket, with millions of diehard fans spread across the continents.

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The last week has been terrible not only for Cricket Australia but the sombre mood and mourning continued all over the world whether it was Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan or England, New Zealand and West Indies. Everyone felt as if something close to them has been taken away. People who had never seen or met him in person mourned his death and got badly affected by it. Myself included, perhaps since the death of Ayrton Senna many years ago, haven’t felt that bad on the death of a sporting personality whom I didn’t particularly admire due to his flashy style of play unsuitable to Test Cricket, being exploited in past time and again in the slip cordon. I had heard about his injury a day before and seen the video even, and thought like many others it would likely be an Extra/Subdural Haematoma and after prompt evacuation and induced coma he would be back on his feet in few days maybe playing cricket in a few weeks’ time, at the most out for a season, and ruing his missed chance in the coming Test in his close mate Clarke’s absence. While on close observation of the video which I only studied in detail later on, showed quite well he was unconscious within few seconds after standing upright for a short while. Later reports mention he was given a CPR and intubated as we was having a Cardiopulmonary arrest before being taken to hospital. Certainly something as bad as the Vertebral Artery Dissection with massive intracranial bleed killed him instantly while he was artificially kept alive. It was a freak accident and no one would have thought Sean Abbott the least who delivered the bouncer and no doubt would be having nightmares, that it could have killed him. I checked online before work to check the score as a ritual in the morning as Pakistan was playing the Kiwis and quite unusually the play was called off and there was the terrible news. Phil Hughes was no more! I had trouble focusing starting work in a few minutes, his strokes and his cricket life flashed in front of me, how I had ridiculed at times, this guy couldn’t sustain being in the Aussie team with his flashy cuts and chasing the wide ball as in England a season ago. I didn’t have to make life and death decisions imminently as at times we had in emergencies in past but the loss of a young life affects one deeply especially so if taken away in such a way. He was a brave person indeed, a great executor of the cut and the pull short, not easy shots to play and can cost one’s wicket easily; could easily be classified as reckless……But then so were the likes of Lara, Hayden, Gower, Gilchrist, Saeed Anwar all left handers, great players themselves, flashy yet elegant!

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Cricket on the surface doesn’t appear to be a dangerous sport at all especially if we observe the way it is played in a leisurely manner in some of the most beautiful picturesque fields in the serene countryside whether in England or New Zealand or on the streets and driveways in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh using makeshift equipment whether it is the ball, bat or the wickets. Mostly it is an entertainment for all and sundry, the main hazards being the house windows and cars being damaged by the hits splayed in the houses/streets. Yes an occasional blow in the ribs, bruises on the thighs and broken fingers is a norm and everyone including me have had his fair share. We all often get hit in the face, skull to the absolute delight of the bowler who at times intend to hurt you. We have all been through these phases, trying to unnerve the batsman, bowling chest or head high bouncers imitating the Marshalls, Holdings, Roberts, Lillees, Imrans, Waqars, Wasims and Shoaibs amongst many others. Luckily I have only been hit on the head once with a cricket ball and that too while fielding which is as hard as a stone weighing around 5 ½ Oz, countless other times rapped on later badly bruised fingers, thighs and once a very badly bruised toe attempting to flick a Yorker. I have had the discomfiture of watching some of the very horrible injuries sustained on the cricket field, once live when a friend on the non-strikers end got smacked by a full blooded shot right in the head and immediately taken to hospital luckily unscathed with any serious injury. Even in a normal days play especially if you are a keeper, for those who haven’t played the game much, you end up with bruised swollen hands and fingers, unless you let the balls go!

We have all taken pleasure at the sight of opponents being floored by whether the likes of Imran especially against India, be it a  non helmet bearing Mohinder Amarnath on the receiving end or Richie Richardson spitting blood being hit by Ratnayeke or a helmeted Chanderpaul knocked unconscious by a Brett Lee screamer and at others many illustrious and non-illustrious ones under the barrage of Wasim, Waqar, Steyn, Ambrose and Shoaib. Even the likes of Ponsford and Bradman had to bear the brunt in Bodyline series, a strategy devised by Jardine employing Larwood and Voce to tame the free scoring Aussies in 30s. Many were injured and a diplomatic furore occurred. The Australian captain Woodful himself hit on the heart commenting “there are two teams out there and one of them is playing cricket!” It was highly effective, in those days without helmets, Australia losing the series but with a heavy price of shame on England’s part. Larwood never played at a high level again afterwards. And the irony was that it was done deliberately to hit and injure the opponents! Even the best of the best including Ponting, Lara, Miandad, Zaheer, Richards have been hit on the head. No matter how good you can hook and pull and no matter how good your reflexes are, one is liable to get hit if one takes a chance or momentarily takes his eye off the ball. There are some pitches and at times the ball is moving around in a way being virtually unplayable by any bastman even the best of the trade. Nasser Hussain was prone to breaking his fingers, which is quite a norm and considered very minor. Steve Waugh and Atherton in recent history are known for facing the barrage from the likes of Ambrose and Donald respectively with valour and resolve, taking blows on their body time and again but unremitting and winning battles in the end. Gatting having a bloodied nose with shattered nasal bone on the cricket ball delivered by Malcom Marshall who also died incidentally at a young age but outside the cricket field of bowel cancer, recently Ahmed Shahzad breaking his zygomatic bone, Alex Tudor breaking his skull off a Brett Lee ball are just some of the vast library of memories which come to one’s mind. A youthful Ian Botham being hit by a Andy Roberts snotter breaking his teeth and then fighting on to help his county win a semi final match made him a hero all over UK long before his Test debut. Saleem Malik and Malcolm Marshall playing with a broken hand, the latter incidentally blasting England in a test match was a sight to watch indeed, prompting headlines of Marshall Law in Leeds. There have been people like Ponting and Waugh who after being hit just shrug off and continue playing as if nothing has happened, some get awfully scared and throw their wicket away in the next few balls visibly shaken. But it is the battle between a fast bowler and a great batsman which delights a test match crowd, whether it was a duel between Imran and Richards, Greenidge or DeSilva or one the likes of Lara and Tendulkar with Waqar and Shoaib or one between Steve Waugh and Ambrose or between Lillee, Thompson and Richards. Inevitably the man with the character and courage comes on top!

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Then there are occasions of Umpires being hit awkwardly as well as the non-vigilant spectator in the crowd, a passer-by or at times freak collisions between two fielders going for a catch, a bowler twisting his knee in his stride like David Lawrence who never played cricket for England again, someone sliding badly and damaging his knee ligaments and ruining one’s career like the heartthrob Simon Jones who helped England win an Ashes. At once a spectator whether on the field or in front of the TV screen knows something really terrible has happened. The feeling is not comparable to the one when someone getting hit and falling unconscious, with a immobile flaccid body is something we all dread, Ewen Chatfield it is said stopped breathing for a while after being hit in the head on his debut and resuscitated by the physio. It is an awful feeling for the bowler even if he had tried to hit the batsman deliberately never intending to kill him or injure him badly.

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Senna’s death at Imola is a flashback every time any such injury happens in any sports whether it was a Robert Kubica crash in Canada or a Mark Webber flip in Korea. Nicki Lauda with his severely burnt face is a reminder for all of the dangers of Formula1. But he came back to win a World Championship later on and nearly won the same year when he was badly injured in a near fatal crash. Felipe Massa nearly lost his life and so did Bianchi who is still recovering. The multiple World Champion Schumacher is still recovering slowly from his severe head injuries after a skiing accident in Alps and may not completely regain all his mental and bodily functions. Boxing is fraught with injuries all the time quite bad ones too as time and again one is battered in the head by the opponent in the name of a game I too once adored. Some sports are more dangerous than others and some pretty harmless but freak accidents can happen in any even in Squash or Tennis. Contact sports or extreme sports are more likely to cause severe injuries. Cricket once thought to be just an elegant game of the elites now popular amongst millions and millions of people, has now posed some serious safety questions, helmets and body protection has been there for quite some time and restrictions on bouncers, policing on beamers and deliberate threatening bowling especially to tail enders is discouraged but still some menacing fast bowlers try to intimidate, which will carry on and for the fine battles we had been used to will continue forever and people will forget Phil Hughes as yet another casualty in a freakish accident. Helmets would be probably of more protective nature in future but it was a good omen for cricket in the recent first class match between the Aussies and Indians that fast bowlers were bowling bouncers with freedom and batsmen negotiating and not fearing to attempt the pulls and hooks which if taken away from the game will make it a boring spectacle. The spirit of the game must carry on and the battles between fast bowlers and the finest batsmen will continue to enthral audiences worldwide. That’s what Phil would have wanted certainly, Sean Abbott needs lots of support as his skipper Clarke offered to play him in the nets first up!

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Phil Hughes maybe 63 not out forever and there won’t ever be a No 64 in Cricket Australia, this World Cup might be for Australia to win in his memory, the game of cricket that we all adore, would carry on and we would always cherish the memories of the #408 who once played for the Aussies and was never scared to execute his favourite strokes across the field…………………RIP!

The Master Blaster!

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The swagger, the aura, the swinging of those powerful Antiguan arms, the invincibility , the sheer power and timing……was never to be forgotten, whosoever has witnessed amongst the ardent of the cricket lovers.  The man you had never seen with a helmut or guards, no matter whom he was facing, whether the likes of Thomson, Lillee and Imran or his own Holding, Roberts and Marshall. Whatever the situation was, he was as cool as a cucumber. I have never seen that disdain for the opposition from even the likes of Tendulkars, Laras or Pontings, they have all been dancing at some point of their lives to the tune of bouncers and yorkers by great fast bowlers of their era. There was no respite for the opposition once Greenidge was gone, the gum chewing Viv’s arrival was dreaded by everyone. He had the eye of a hawk, his reflexes supreme and it seemed he had all the time in the world to wait for the ball, whether to play on the backfoot or front, hitting through the covers or over the bowler’s head or hooking it out of the park. True the numbers don’t tell us the exact story to the statistician cricket fans especially the younger generation who might think, he was just another swashbuckler in the long line of West Indian greats. Just another is quite an understatement!

Sir Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards was one of a kind, a rare breed. He came to a West Indian side, made up of small Islands, full of greats but not always fulfilling their potential. The bigger islands of the likes of Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados ruled roost in the cricketing hierarchy, similar to the dominance Lahore and Karachi held over the rest of the cities in Pakistan. Richards along with Andy Roberts was the first notable Antiguan to play for the West Indian team. It is no doubt difficult to unite people from so many different islands. The overwhelming defeat of the West Indies by the Australians orchestrated by Thomson and Lillee turned the tide in the cricketing world. The Windies were humiliated but they came back with a vengeance under the leadership of Clive Lloyd and there was no looking back. They gained strength from strength and after Lloyd’s retirement, Richards took over the reins and West Indies never lost a series under him. Only Pakistan genuinely posed a threat to their dominance in the decade that followed. There are so many innings which are worth mentioning; the last wicket partnership with Holding scoring 189*, hitting England all over the park, scoring the fastest hundred in test matches when no one played aka Gilchrist, Hayden or Afridi and the bats were not as light as these days. We can certainly remember the 181 scored versus the hapless Sri Lankans, also Thomson and the Australians being smashed all over in the 1983 world cup. Not only his batting, but his useful off spin was quite handy especially in one dayers. He was a great leader too, uniting the Caribbean islands, also promoting the smaller islands which produced great players in years to come. Richie Richardson, Curtly Ambrose to name a few of prominent Antiguans who put Antigua on the World map. Viv has been a great ambassador of sport, a vocal supporter of human rights and anti racism and respected world over for his views. In fact I was proud to see his photograph and remarks when I visited the Slavery museum with a special exhibit on West Indian Cricket in Liverpool.

West Indies had come a long way from the slaves brought over in ships from West Africa in subhuman conditions via the slave traders at the Albert Docks at Merseyside. The plantation owners were defeated by the capable strong slaves in their own game, the supremacy shifted from the untainted white to the brash dark skinned! The pendulum was shifted and the downtrodden ‘Jamaicans’ in UK could once again own an Antiguan as one of their own kind who made them proud. I have seen no one from that era who had watched the great Viv, whichever country he belonged to, not to have adored this cricketing legend. Never before, any cricketer was so admired universally and idolized perhaps after Bradman and Sobers, children copied his style and swagger, the way he entered the cricketing field, looking up at the heavens, chewing a gum always swinging his arms, giving a warning shot to the opponents; here comes Viv, the fear was instantly instilled and the crowd expectant with enthusiasm for strokeplay mastery never seen before.

And boy were they ever disappointed…Seldom!

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