I’ve tried cynicism, but I still love the Lions

I’ve written before, at significant length about my love affair with the British & Irish Lions rugby team.

Something I’ve found new and interesting about the current tour has been driven by my addiction to social media. Since the last tour I’ve well and truly engaged with various social media portals, one of which almost got me fired, but that’s another story.

I follow and engage with a lot of Irish rugby fans on Twitter, given my love of Munster Rugby. I was initially surprised at their hostility to the Lions, both the concept and reality. From the rugby point of view, I can understand a certain amount of cynicism. Stepping back, it’s perhaps not so surprising.

The sport has become infinitely more complex since the turn to professionalism. It is nigh on impossible for a scratch team, no matter how good the players are, to play flowing, attractive, attacking rugby and win a test series against the best team in the world. The Lions therefore have to play a somewhat limited game if they want to be successful. This can lead to a certain level of cynicism about the enterprise and its ability to entertain,

However this tends to be a secondary argument from my fellow Munster / Irish loving tweeps. At the heart of the issue, is a feeling that the Lions is a colonial jaunt that wants to bring Ireland back into the British fold and pretend that 1917 never happened.

Or something like that. I may be simplifying for reasons of space, time and comedic effect.

This then leads to he argument that there’s no room for the Lions in modern rugby due to both this issue and the scratch team point mentioned above – and the fact that it weakens Irish rugby as the best players come back injured and knackered. Also, in years past there was an argument that Irish players might have learned new techniques from the process; however given the improvement in Irish provincial and national teams, this argument has far less weight, especially when balanced against the other negatives, especially the injury one. Munster can’t afford to loose any of its Lions.

At its heart however, I think that the general complaint against the Lions from my Munster / Irish following friends is that

1. This team does represent me

2. The aggressive marketing being shoved down my throats emphasises the fact that this team does not represent me

3. The British, but particularly English media coverage of past tours has emphasised the British nature of the Lions and has quickly turned on some Irish players. Ronan O’Gara is often cited as a player who got far more stick than he deserve by British media that opened historical wounds.

As an ethnically British / Irish onetime historian and COIN analyst I get all this. It’s entirely understandable. Of course there’s the complication that the Irish rugby team isn’t the team of the Republic; it’s an all island team. Some of the team will consider God Save the Queen as their anthem, not the Soldiers Song. Then there’s the point that proud Irishmen such as ROG, Keith Wood, Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and the Wallace brothers are entirely committed to the Lions concept, despite the pretty horrible treatment he got whilst wearing the shirt.

As a rugby fan, I’m not optimistic about the Lions’s chances in NZ. It’s statistically the hardest place to go for anyone, let alone a scratch team. The Lions shouldn’t have a chance. They should really lose every test and most of the provincial matches.

In fact, at the start of this tour, I might have shared some of these feelings, especially the naked commercialisation and money making drive that is a little bit too obvious for my liking. I don’t like sporting financial juggernauts. Of course everyone needs to make a living and the tour has to be paid for, but in he same way that Munster in combination with a willing media might have created something of a myth about the team as brand, the mythos of the Lions feels more and more artificial. I don’t like being sold to, and this is very aggressive selling.

Then there was the first few games where the Lions looked poor and I became more pessimistic and cynical. I was mentally preparing myself for the same disappointment I’d had last time the Lions toured NZ and trying not to care.

And then

I decided to stop being a cynic, around the time the Lions started looking like they might have become a team.

I revelled in some of the old stories being told about 89 and 97. I loved the fact that Munster scrum half Connor Murray was playing really well. Then there’s the story of Peter O Mahony. He’s gone from being on the bench for Ireland to the Lions test captain via a heart wrenching year for Munster. There’s a scriptwriter sitting down at his desks now to write the incredible conclusion.

The three provincial / Maori wins have given the Lions a sense of purpose and a roadmap of how they might be successful. A sickeningly suffocating and powerful pack will tie up opponents and put the All Blacks on the back foot, where their dazzling back line will not be as effective. Behind the pack, moves are beginning to work, passes are sticking and tries are being scored.

They probably won’t win but their odds are shifting every day they spend together.

Also, all that stuff I wrote about loving the Lions concept remains true. I treasure my memories of watching games with my Dad and now my wife. This will be the first series that Aidan knows what’s going on. For a committed romantic like me, lost causes like a rugby tour to NZ are perfect.

Then there’s my own identity. I’m a half English, half Irish rugby nut that has never felt entirely at home at Twickenham and the Barbour Brigade in the West Car Park. I own numerous rugby shirts. Two London Irish, one Munster, three Lions, one Team GB Olympics, one Biarritz. Note the one missing? I love the idea that centuries of bad shit can be put aside in an impossible dream of taking on the best in the world and making something better out of the best of four countries.

I’ve given up on cynicism until the tour is over. Come on lads, shove the blacks around the park and shoe the shit out of them if they lie over the ball.

“Lions, Lions, Lions, Lions”

Axel Foley RIP & why I love Munster Rugby

Anthony “Axel” Foley died today aged just 42. He was an excellent rugby player, good enough to play 60 odd times for Ireland in the back row. In a year of celebrity deaths, this is one that’s left me genuinely miserable.

As some of you know, I’m a Munster fan. Which might seem strange. I’m a British bloke from south London. Yes, my maternal grandparents are from Kerry, but my sporting identity was basically English. Spurs, Surrey CCC, England cricket / rugby / football. When I was a boy I followed the Wasps team of Rob Andrew, Nick Popplewell & Dean Ryan. I liked their combination of being from London, playing tough rugby and their slightly earthy reputation. Basically, they weren’t Harlequins. I love rugby, but I’ve never been one of the Barbour brigade.

Wasps and the rest of rugby changed in 1995 and I was looking for a new team. It took a few years but when I was at university I watched a game that changed my life. Munster were playing Toulouse in the supposedly neutral venue of Bordeaux in a Heineken Cup match. Munster smashed the aristocrats of European rugby, with supposedly slow hooker Keith Wood doing international winger Emile Ntamck on the outside. I was giggling with excitement and I was hooked. A 16 year love affair that continues to this sad day.

Back then, Munster had a great story. They were proud outsiders, from the western edge of Europe, having surprising success against better funded French and English teams from richer, more glamorous parts of the world. What appeared to set them apart from their better heeled opponents was a heady mixture. There was the absolute embrace of their outsider status; a sense of community and pride in where they came from; an old fashioned embrace of the dark arts; an understanding you could win by being brutally direct. There’s nothing wrong with 10 man rugby if it’s always wet and windy, which it is all the time on the SW coast of Ireland.

It was this proud outsider trope, a refusal to bend the knee that hooked me in, combined with the fact that they were a very good team, and I had a personal connection in that the Connell and Higgins families that I’m related to are from Kerry, one of the counties of Munster. By discovering Munster rugby, I found something new in myself; a more sophisticated and sympathetic understanding and appreciation of my Irish heritage and history. I found something that willingly drew me into an Irish community where it was my choice to engage and learn as much or as little as I wanted to. I’ll stop now before I disappear up my own behind.

The story of Munster grew with the telling. Near misses at semi final and final stage added to the folklore. What became a highly professional elite sport organisation was somewhat romanticised by rugby media that saw value in promoting the “hard men from the edge of Europe with fanatical fans” narrative. Unlike the other three provinces, Munster had a flash Adidas kit, with Toyota as lead sponsor. We weren’t quite the poor relatives we liked to portray. The underdog tag was psychologically useful, if not quite accurate or objective anymore.

At the heart of the story however, there was a kernel of truth. Men like Axel Foley believed that Munster was different because they were representing something bigger than a sports club. Mick Galwey may have started it, but Foley took on the idea that Munster Rugby was a representative of a community on a global stage. They were playing for the honour of their home, each other and the wider community; which is why they played so hard and well. Foreigners that came in had to buy into this philosophy. We had a few great ones; Jim Williams, Dougie Howlett and others understood, and improved the team. They and their followers were on a journey. We were a true community, with triumphs celebrated vigorously and the rare losses mourned.

The narrative and feeling grew richer with time. A series of nearly moments made me wonder if we’d ever win the big one. The most exciting, highest quality rugby match I’ve ever seen was a loss. Wasps just beating us on a bright sunny day in a semi final that was better than any international I’ve seen. Poor old Strings got battered over the line in injury time in a one on one with a Polynesian prop. Incredible drama kept the story moving on time and time again. Also, Strings would get his redemption.

Axel Foley was the totem of the great Munster team I fell in love with. He took the journey from not good enough, to contenders that couldn’t quite make it. Then the next step. He took over as captain and we reached our Everest. Munster beat Biarritz in Cardiff on a desperately tense game where we deserved to win, but only just did do due to a mixture of what we’re even then Munster clichés. The 5 meter scrum where a smart TV producer showed live pictures of O’Connell Street in Limerick watching the match. The 60 odd thousand Munster fans in the crowd roared. The pack heard the roar, saw the screen and reacted. Or so the story goes. I was there but can’t confirm it did happen like that due to excessive consumption. I hope it did though.

That story wouldn’t be viable if it wasn’t for men like Axel. Deeply rooted in Munster rugby he was a second generation Munster player who embodied the history, passion and community, combined with ferocious sporting excellence that made Munster the team it was, and that made the story of Munster at least mostly believable. I have to admit, he wasn’t my favourite player. As a scrum half I loved Strings’s pass, I thought David Wallace was a quality flanker, Hendo was a great bosh merchant who with the Lions had shown he was far more and Quinnie & Leamy were very good players with a bit of edge. But Axel was the core.

He was the physical representation of what was an amusing irony. For a team that played brutally direct, effective rugby, Munster was about something romantic. The connection between the team, and a wider community that they represented seemed almost magical. For the first time in my life I understood the passion of the truly committed sports fan, and for us it was better because men like Axel seemed to buy into a narrative that we were all part of. Normally in sport there’s lip service to the fans, but for that Munster side, they seemed to share the belief that they played for us.

This experience has made my life so much richer, and it’s why I cried today watching this http://youtu.be/cPjso4MH8ic
RIP Axel

Thoughts on the RWC. You’ve got to care about the outcome to have a successful tournament

I know we’re all meant to be excited about the Rugby World Cup. There’s been some great rugby played by Japan, Georgia, and Scotland. I’ve liked having more rugby on TV. Good chat on the pod at work as well.

My favourite minutes haven’t been technical. They’ve been about belief and the ability of supposedly lesser teams to operate under massive physical and mental pressure. Japan getting over in the corner. Scotland scorning what I hoped would be a winning try. Massive Georgian hits. Some great Fijian offloads. Canadian guts and skill vs France. Romanian passion, and skill especially in the tight

Of course the big boys have provided some too rugby and entertainment. NZ look ominous. The Bokke coming back through direct play. Great Australian breakdown work and handling. Even the Argies showing a few years playing top rugby has taken their game to new heights.

The broadcasting has been good, without touching greatness. It’s been close to being a greatest hits of what the BBC, ITV, BT Sport have to offer. Inverdale is a smooth, professional host. He must have left his rose c&nted glasses at home. Ben Kay is a perceptive analyst of the game. There’s a few ex pros I’ve missed. Brian Moore and Jonathan Davies either weren’t invited or  turned it down. A personal highlight has been David Flatman’s commentary, which matches the knowledge of a pro, with a dry wit and sly humour of a malevolent imagination. I suspect a night out on the beer with Flats would be awesome but would necessitate a few days of recovery.

BUT

I missed the semi final because I didn’t really care. I might / not see the final, depending on what the family are doing on Sunday. This is coming from a man that got BT Sport so I could watch rugby every week.

The thing is, the (national) teams I care about, England and Ireland, were never at the races. It was apparent that neither side had what it took to beat the Southern Hemisphere Giants. This is why I took joy in the performances listed above. When those teams were beaten however, there was the empty realisation that the teams I follow, in a sport I love, simply don’t have what is necessary.

It’s worse because England have fallen a long way, and Ireland consistently don’t live up to their abilities at the RWC. This makes it hard to care, which in turn makes the RWC less important.

When it comes to it, I don’t watch sport to stroke my beard and admire the technicalities. Whether that’s a rolling maul, a topspin backhand, an uppercut or a forward defensive, I want to care about the people that make the shot / pass / tackle / combination.

I watch sport for the developing narrative that grips the soul. That’s why the Scottish loss was so devastating, because that most dangerous of emotions had entered the house. Hope. (One for Guardian cricket obo readers).

For me, the RWC was lacking a crucial ingredient to be a real success. There just wasn’t enough hope to realistically believe my teams stood a chance.

And what made it worse? The players looked like they knew it too.

Sporting Films: Ron Shelton tells our stories

I’ve played a lot of sport in my life. In no order, Rugby, cricket, athletics, football have all dragged something from me. Then there’s the individual stuff like weights, boxing training etc. I loved them all as a participant however crap I was. Now I love them as a spectator.  There’s something about the shared experience of sport, and also the company of men that made the pain worth while.

I broke fingers, ankles, tibular; I dislocated fingers and shoulders. I now suffer with arthritis. It was all worth it for a few hours with men that are still friends, despite not having seen them for years. I know if / when seeing a few of them that when we meet over a beer, there will be a common bond.

This bond is the meat and drink of thousands of men around the world that play games for the love of it, or for a few that get paid for it. That it is such a common subject, it is surprising that there are so few genuinely memorable movies that really capture the essence of sport. The sound as a ball is hit perfectly by foot or bat, the realisation that you’re going to make a diving left handed catch; the ache the next day. Most importantly the chatter around sport. The interaction of men around sport.

The thing about sporting interaction is that we can all spot a liar. The man who doesn’t really understand football but knows how many assists Lampard has grabbed for Chelsea this year. The man who doesn’t know boxing but talks about how great “Sugar Ray” was, despite not knowing there were two.

Perhaps this is why there are so few great sport focused artists. Scorsese might or might not love boxing,  but he made a great film focussed on boxing with Raging Bull. Scorsese however was a genius. A Bradman, Babe Ruth or Pele, he would have made it in many trades. He didn’t necessarily feel boxing in that way that a few authors clearly did.

Boxing might be an exception to the rule. Kid Galahad, Fat City, The Champ, Million Dollar Baby and an awful lot of other fiilms all hit on the madness and ongoing drive of professional boxing. The sport works within a camera frame. It is, essentially, a cinematic sport.

Other sports struggle by comparison There’s no really great cricket film, although Lagan is a good post colonial tale. Football is poorly served. Rugby has “This Sporting Life” but that’s really a “kitchen sink” drama based around sport, rather than being about sport.

If you really want to know about sport, and about the men that play it, you’ve got to find yourself a Ron Shelton fillm. Shelton never quite made it as a baseball player. Years in the minor leagues gave him perspective, an ear for male interaction and an understanding of an impossible dream.

His greatest film is Bull Durham, which has the unique combination of Kevin Costner as a handsome, charismatic, worldly and attractive lead; Susan Sarandon as a seriously sexy baseball philosopher cum groupie and Tim Robbins an idiot with a god given thunderbolt for a right arm

What it really gets right however, what is repeated through White Men Can’t Jump and Tin Cup are the things that always draw us back to sport. The chat between colleagues. The competition. The pathos. The failure. The mirage of success and then a golden second of success itself.

Sport  has an essential truth at its heart that Shelton understands. For something that doesn’t really matter, it’s sometimes the most important thing in the world. Think about it. The ball nestled in your fingers. Humidity in the air. You had too much to drink the night before, but you know the guy down the other end leaves a gap when he plays a cover drive, and you’re going to  swing it though the gate.

Shelton gets 10 minutes out of that. The internal questions; the nervous chatter between players. The fear that the other side are going to take you out of the game. Then the camera focuses on the 1:1 conflict.

Strangely for films that are fairy tales, Shelton hits on a truth, That grown men play sport to believe in the miraculous., Whether it’s the last ball in your bag for a miraculous chip; beating a legendary team, or going a full season unbeaten, Shelton knows the targets we sportsmen set ourselves and why we surround ourselves with men that will cut us to the quick wit cruel humour then rebuild us with sympathy when we need it.

Crash Davis’ lament for “the show” is perfect – as is the way they all stop when they hear how good he was. Just like we do when we find out “old fred” played against Sobers.

Yeah, I was in the show. I was in the show for 21 days once – the 21 greatest days of my life. You know, you never handle your luggage in the show, somebody else carries your bags. It was great. You hit white balls for batting practice, the ballparks are like cathedrals, the hotels all have room service, and the women all have long legs and brains”

A example worthy of Shelton. My nickname for years in cricket was “state” because I was always in one. I was pretty good and got a lot of wickets, but regularly got slagged off for being hungover and not concentrating. Then my wife and I split up and nothing was said. Nothing until the end of the season. I took 3 wickets and scored 30 runs on a very hot day. On my birthday. I bought a jug of beer as is traditional. One of my fellow bowlers asked how old I was. I was 29. He said, “fucking hell, no wonder she left you, you’ve had a hard paper round”. We choked on our beers.

Shelton couldn’t have scripted it better. Jezza then bought be drinks for the end of the night.

We never made the show, but we were good enough, for a little while.

Thoughts on the first test

  • Chris Jordan looks like a proper player. Skilful fastish bowler that could get faster with a smoother run up and more aggressive follow through. He’s a handful now, and will get better. He won’t ever be Marshall or Tweety, but he could be as good as we’ve had. He can bat properly as well. He played an on drive for four that was seriously classy.
  • Gary Balance has the calm to be a test match batsman. It’s not just about skill. It’s not just about being able to play great shots. It’s about being able to forget the last ball for up to 10 hours batting, with the ball coming at you at 90 mph. Balance might not have had a trial by fire, but he showed enough calm and ability to just bat to suggest he might well have a big future
  • The England cricket team looks comfortable again. They looked like they’d been through combat after the Ashes. At least they look like professional cricketers again. It’s a start, but as Joey the lips says in the Commitments, “Rome wasn’t built in a day, give yourselves a pat on the back from a job well done”
  • Matt Prior took a small step back. Looked good behind the stumps. Took a good catch or two. Looked in form with the bat, although could have been out early. It’s a start again, but I’d still have a fit and in form prior above any keeping in the country. Butler’s time will come, just not quite yet.
  • We need a real spinner. Moeen Ali looked like he might be a test match bastman in the making. That’s great. What he isn’t yet is a test match spinner, even in the constraining, hold up an end sense. He might become this, but he’s not there yet.
  • I’m not sure how long we’ll get from James Anderson. He remains an excellent swing bowler in English conditions, but he looks like he might be close to losing that nip that is vital to take wickets of the best batsmen. I hope I’m wrong, as he’s great to watch.
  • I’m not sure about the batting order. It worked well enough against a fairly straightforward Sri Lankan attack, but there remain serious questions about opening.
  • Who gives way for Stokes – or is Stokes now at the back of the line?
  • Plunkett was admirable, but to me, didn’t look lightning. He’s a strong all-round cricketer, but if he can’t put an extra 2-5 mph on and bowl better on a good length he might be marking time before Finn gets his mojo back.
  • I can only stand so much G Boycott and I’m finding M Vaughn rather annoying. I know professional sportsman have to have bullet proof self confidence, but the hectoring “I’m right” tone from both of them is beginning to get on my wick(et).
  • I still love TMS. The burble in the background, keeping me and Kirsty up to date with the test as we drove back from the New Forest.

The Optimistic World Cup

I’m actually enjoying a football tournament

Those of you that have read this blog will know that I normally write about a few sports other than football. Cricket, rugby and boxing are probably 1-3 and then football. I was never a great footballer myself, and therefore concentrated on other sports. It’s not that I don’t like the national game. The pace, power, skill and excitement can be great. Its just the week in week out drudge of being a spurs fan and the fundamentals of the premier league leave me somewhat disillusioned.

This feeling is magnified by international football. I grew up watching genuinely good England teams. Mexico 86, Italia 90 and Euro 96 were all genuinely good teams. If not as good as the 66 team my Dad watched as a young man, any teams with players as good as Shilton, Hoddle, Lineker, Barnes, Beardsly, Waddle, Gazza, Shearer and Sherringham would catch the imagination. They had a bit of luck as well, both with draws, playing at home or the odd penalty here or there, like against Cameroon.

The last few years however have been pretty grotty, and not just watching England. I like football played at pace. Not long ball Jack Charlton era Ireland stuff (although David O’Leary’s penalty was great) but the sort of game that England v Germany used to be. Spain’s tiki taka leaves me cold. Yes it’s technically impressive, but I want to be excited by football, not stroke my beard thoughtfully and discuss the merits of 3-5-1-1 vs 4-1-3-1-1. Then there’s the fear of failure that has taken over many tournaments, creating stodgy, dull football.

This world cup has been different. Teams appear to see the benefit in attacking, even if that’s counter attacking, that’s fine. Chris Eubank was a great counter puncher and no one suggests he was dull. Spain getting “humped into submission” (dodge ball) was a great night of sport, as was Croatia’s admirable fight against Brazil. I couldn’t believe Croatia didn’t get a draw, as their fight suggested they deserve. Costa Rica surprised everyone and well done to them. As I try, Mexico are playing very well against Brazil. 0-0 so far, but it’s exciting.

I haven’t really liked any England team since Euro ’96. Too much has been promised without any real delivery. Some individuals have shown a distinct lack of class. Not enough heart , guts or skill. Too much ego, not enough objective self analysis. I loved the Italy game. It was exciting. They fought hard till they ran out of gas, and they fought with no little skill. Italy were the better, more controlled team, but at least England didn’t fold and admit defeat, certainly not till they were so tired they were seeing double.

I’m going to call this the optimistic world cup. People are enjoying it. It’s great chatting about it in the morning at work. It’s great sharing views on what we like and don’t and then there’s the great debates it starts: favourite team ever? Best broadcaster / commentator? Best player? Best team?

FWIW mine are as follows: England at Italia ’90, for what they meant to a little boy and all his mates who loved the drama. BBC every time for me, particularly with “Oh you have to say that’s magnificent” Barry Davies. Best player? The two footed Andy Brehmer is a personal favourite. So talented with a great engine. An ultra modern fullback designed by some gold like German engineer. I loved the French team of Zidanne, Blanc, Deschamps and Desailly. They might have got better in the Euros after their world cup win.

It’s great to be enjoying football again. Whatever Bill Shankly said, football is not a Matter of Life and Death, but like the great Powell and Pressberger film, its great when a lot of nations come together and gives of their best.

UNE-QUESTION-DE-VIE-OU-DE-MORT-A-MATTER-OF-LIFE-AND-DEATH-1946_portrait_w858

Thoughts on fast bowling

Apparently its one of the questions old pros get asked all the time. “Who was the fastest?” Depending on generation, they might have answered: Larwood, Tyson, Miller, Thompson, Holding, Croft, Marshall, Bishop, Younis, Donald.

There’s just something about watching and talking about fast bowlers that’s exciting. Listen to commentators and summarisers and you’ll hear their cadences and word frequencies speed up. The adrenaline hits them as well; if not as much as it does the batsmen.

As a teenager I toured Barbados and realised (a) I wasn’t any good anymore and (b) I needed glasses when I heard the ball go past my nose as much as see it. I’ve also been in a net at Gover’s and had the machine cranked up to 90 – but they made sure it was on a different line to me.

So whilst I’ve never faced really express bowling for real, I’ve had enough of a taste to understand the gut churning adrenaline + fear combination it could have on heretofore supreme international sportsmen. We’ve all seen it; where they’ve been completely done for pace. Where a man with such exquisite eye hand co-ordination as David Gower had no answer to Waqar Younis’s inswinging yorker, or Graeme Hick had a tough first series against an attack he’d pasted for Worcs.

All of the above is sort of an introduction as to why I loved the current SA v Aus series. There are two champion fast bowlers that currently deserve to be mentioned with the list above. Dale Steyn has 350 wickets @ 23. That stands the test of time as pretty incredible. Mitch Johnson is in the middle of an incredible purple patch, where he has 9 wickets at 13.14 in his last six Tests. Add in Ryan Harris and Morne Morkel as pretty outstanding No2s (especially Harris) and it’s been pretty special.

The series narrative has been constructed by fast bowling, and the batsmen’s ability to cope with it. We’ve been amazed at Warner and ABdV’s skills, and possibly most important their bottle. They’ve got their head around what has got to be done. Unlike Graeme Smith, who looked pretty much done with cricket at the end. Great player that he has been, I wondered if, and commented on a Guardian over by over, how good he would have been against sustained real pace. Rob Smyth of the Graun suggested that “all players of his generation should have the same asterisk next to their name in Wisden, but he probably would have found a way”. Probably, I reckon.

I don’t think any great batsman can really be great if he hasn’t been through the fire. This is why Viv is the best for me. He took on and played Lillee, Thompson and Imran, three of the fastest ever. Whilst wearing a cap. Christ that man was and remains the epitome of cool. That walk. That voice. Smoky velvet with a razor’ edge. Smokin Joe.

Of course some could handle pace and weren’t great. Two of my favourites, Robin Smith and Alec Stewart averaged big against some very good windies attacks, and Waqar and Wasim, but ran for cover when spinners came on. I’ve seen some great spin v bat confrontations. Particularly Muralitharan v Thorpe one year at the oval. It was compelling. Two great champions.

But i tell you what it wasn’t. Surrey vs Hants, A blazing hot lords Nat West 60 over final. My birthday. Gower was smashed out for pace with a ball none of us could see, and send shivers through the crowd. “Did you see that? That was FAST”. Adults cursed, and boys whistled and we all wished we’d been born with a body that could do that.

For all of Gower’s effortless grace, he was just blown away. Then it was the contest the full house wanted. Waqar vs Smith. First ball was through him with 95 mph in swing . Crowd roared. Second ball, bit of width. Reached the point boundary in about 0.25 of a second. More roars. Then we were on the edges of our seats as the confrontation ebbed and flowed like a boxing match. If I had the time, I’d find the fight that would match it. Perhaps not as great a narrative as; “they told me you were washed up joe”……”they lied” left hook; but it was every bit as epic as the great British middleweight fights of the 90s.

Actually fast bowling and boxing have many similarities. It’s about the fear and overcoming it. Having a strategy but adapting to reality. Being born with a body that can be physically honed to perfection (so not me). Fast twitch muscles and a high pain threshold (nope). And finally both keep us on the edge of our seats, our mouths open in amazement, as we rise to our feet in a moment of communal joy as the in swinging yorker / left hook to the body homes in on its target.

If I could have a life skill, I’d be able to play the piano like marcus roberts, or play soprano sax like Branford Marsalis. But for one afternoon, I’d be a (very white, very South London) version of my beloved Curtly Ambrose.

As a teenage wannabe fast bowler, I had big white sweatbands and a waggle of my wrist pre delivery, that were a direct copy of my favourite bowler. I even copied his response when asked to remove them by a snotty opponent. I beamed him, then knocked out his leg stump with an I swinging Yorker. I wasn’t embarrassed because I was 15, and that’s what Curtly did. Dad wasn’t impressed.

Arise Sir Curtly and other great fast bowlers. May you continue to terrorise batsmen and bring joy to the rest of us.

 

Curtly's whiter, younger alter-ego is in the back row with silly hair

Curtly’s whiter, younger alter-ego is in the back row with silly hair