Saturday, September 30, 2017

25 Years On

A special evening.
In a corner of the ECG, in front of the flats at the Hayes Close End, are some ladies toilets. For reasons long since forgotten, these have become affectionately known as 'Nasser's Loos'. The steps leading up to 'Nasser's Loos' are rotten and, despite them being in this state for a number of years, have never been fixed. Some seats in the ground are covered in dirt and cobwebs - we've often joked about cleaning for our memberships - and the place where Tendo smashed a six into the media hut is still visible due to the fact the polyfilla has never been painted over.

And there's something deeply comforting about all these things. You can visit a Test ground on a county day and you will be greeted by swathes of empty seats and, in the case of some international grounds (coughhampshirecough), some fairly soulless surroundings. Walking into the ECG via the steep path and past the street art of the underpass of the River Gate, you're greeted by a shed. No fancy turnstiles, just a shed. Here, you scan your membership card/ticket, something that only came in at Chelmsford a couple of years ago. And it's as you walk past this shed that you get a sense of 'home'.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Ipswich Town: A Tragic Romance

"You can actually pinpoint the second when his heart rips in half."

There are many excellent things out there about Ipswich Town's current plight but I guess I'm writing this in answer to a question that my brother asked me about my midweek expedition to Lincoln City. "Why did you go?"

The answer? I don't really know. As I said in a message to my friend after I got home, "I knew it'd happen. I could've stayed at home, had a decent night's sleep but no, I went. And watched that shower of utter shite." At least I can be comforted by the fact the rest of the nation witnessed, and had to suffer 90 minutes of, my pain as well.

As soon as Lincoln's winner went in, that was it. The crowd, who'd already been pretty glum from before kick-off at the mere mention of the dreaded Skuglas partnership, turned. Anger and heartbreak was directed at anyone on the pitch wearing the blue shirt, the source of pride to all in that away end. I've only ever cried once over a football match. Once, in the nearly seventeen years of supporting this bloody football club.

Let me paint the scene - it's a Wednesday. Wednesday 18th May 2005. Ipswich Town are in a play-off semi-final second leg at Portman Road. The opposition is West Ham. After finishing third in the league, coming cancelling out a two goal deficit at Upton Park to make it 2-2 on aggregate... Well, you know, or can at least figure out, the rest of what happened on that Wednesday night in May. 

It's a date I think about a lot in relation to the current state of Town. Another is when Marcus Evans took over. Another is when Jim Magilton was sacked and the family club I grew up supporting suddenly became something I didn't recognise anymore. We appointed Roy Keane, clearly in the hope of getting some publicity rather than promotion. He took us to a League Cup semi-final and then was gone, to be replaced by Paul Jewell. 

I, rather luckily I guess, experienced most of these years from afar, cast off at university in the wilderness of the north west. But those years have blurred into one long grim package, rather like this current season. We lunge, clumsily, from one game to another: one week playing like a team of strangers, the next stringing some passes together, the next remembering what a shot on target is and treating everyone to a couple of them. But most of the time we look like we are dial up in a world of fibre optics.

Last night, my football club, the one I have 'passionately' supported since I was 8 years old, died a death on national television. My beloved football club became a laughing stock (well, even more so) as we lost to a side 59 places below us in the football ladder. My beloved football club showed, on national primetime television, that it has stagnated and may as well be that rotting piece of apple you find stuck to the base of your bin. It's dying a slow death in the Championship and, if things don't change, will continue on a downward decline. The Championship's not going to remain 'Ipswich and Friends' forever, and that's definitely not because we're getting promoted.

Anyway, as I said, there are excellent pieces out there about Ipswich Town's current state, and this post isn't really to address those issues. I'm not really sure what this piece is, but I'll go back to another earlier point, I've only ever cried once at football. But last night, after that final whistle went and I walked away from the Sincil Bank, I felt like crying over this sport again. The result at Portman Road, and manner of it, against Lincoln had left me with a thundercloud over my head for much of that weekend. Last night at the replay, it left me broken.

I have spent seventeen years of my life pouring my heart and soul into following this football club. I have missed rehearsals, birthday parties and god knows what else, all to follow Ipswich Town across the country. Football, to me, sadly, is a way of life. In fact, given that I don't have much else going for me, it is my life. And to have something so beloved to me not try and not look like they even care, is utterly heartbreaking.

I want to watch an Ipswich Town side giving youngsters a chance. I want an Ipswich Town side passing freely, having some attacking intent. I want Ipswich Town to be a part of the community again, being the affordable family club that so many of us fell in love with. 

I want the joy, happiness and pride to come back.

I want my Ipswich back.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Ashes: Cardiff Test, Day Four

Day four of this intriguing contest sees England chasing 10 wickets to take a 1-0 lead in this Ashes series. Australia being Australia will do their best to make an effort in chasing down the mammoth target of 412, but on a wearing pitch and with the Welsh weather set surprisingly fair, there's only one likely outcome.

Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad open with the new ball for England. Here's the action from day four down in the Welsh capital.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Ashes: Cardiff Test, Day Three

This Test continues to canter along at quite a pace. England have arguably had the better the opening two days - could they grab the initiative on day three? Australia begin the day on 264-5 with Shane Watson and night watchman Nathan Lyon at the crease. Mark Wood and Stuart Broad open the bowling for England. Here's all the action from day three at Cardiff.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Ashes: Cardiff Test, Day Two

And so, to day two. A fairly even opening day to the Ashes (feels like a long time since that's been said), would anyone grab the initiative on day two? After the wicket of Jos Buttler the previous evening, England begin the day on 343-7, looking to get as close to 400 as possible. Australia, meanwhile, search for some bowling consistency. Here's the action from another enthralling day down in the Welsh capital.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Ashes: Cardiff Test, Day One

Here they are, the duck England squad. Front row (L-R): Finn, Anderson, Root, Cook (C), Broad, Bell. Back row (L-R): Lyth, Ali, Wood, Stokes, Buttler, Ballance, Rashid. Unfortunately I couldn't find a team photo to mock up for Australia, so you'll have to bear with me for them. 

Crikey, I didn't expect to be doing this again, but here we are. The reason for bringing back duck cricket is, as you would expect, quite odd. But that's duck cricket for you. Anyway, having spent the past three years gathering dust on my various bookshelves, the ducks have been dusted off and are ready for a summer of representing the Ashes action.

And so, to the action. Like six years ago, the first Test is taking place in the rain sunshine of the SWALEC Stadium in Cardiff. Six years ago, the Test finished in a pulsating draw as the last wicket pair of Monty Panesar and Jimmy Anderson held out for 11.3 overs. What will this Test bring? Here's day one...

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

KP: The Autobiography

There's a scene in The Simspons episode 'Homer at the Bat' where Bart and Lisa continually bait the baseball player Darryl Strawberry from the stands. Marge, their mother, chastises the children but Bart and Lisa respond with reasoning: that he's a professional athlete, that he's used to it and the taunting "rolls right off their backs". It then cuts to an image of Darryl Strawberry, sniffing and with a tear rolling down his cheek, reminding us that this mega-star of baseball is, in fact, a human being with feelings.

Throughout reading Pietersen's book I found myself thinking of this Simpsons scene. We, the spectators, sometimes all too easily forget that the people we are watching on the field in front of us are human beings, who can hear our criticisms, our insults and our praise. And then there were other times whilst reading it that I found myself expecting someone to be hit by a bus, like Regina George in the film Mean Girls.

It is, perhaps, one of the most frustrating books I have ever read. There were times when I would shout at it, throw it in a corner and refuse to pick it up again for an hour or so. But curiosity always got the better of me and I would find myself picking it up again and devouring it.

I admit to being a fan of Pietersen and someone who has always sympathised with him. It might be because I only started following cricket in 2004 and am not used to the conventional English cricketer, but there was something about him back then that I liked. I remember reading a quote in 2005 from Michael Vaughan stating something along the lines of all Pietersen wanted was a hug, some reassurance and suddenly I found myself sympathising with this larger than life character with the big, bold hair and wondered if there was something more to him than this 'ego' on show.

Pietersen himself admits something along those lines throughout the book. It is, as you would expect, an incredibly open and frank account of himself. We gain background knowledge of his childhood in South Africa, of his family life (with an account of his father that would probably be of great interest to many psychologists). His South African childhood and his battle with his national identity are always underlying, always a tension within himself and within the book. He states, on page 134, that "I'm not as cocky as my image suggests. I'm as insecure as the next bloke, and when I first played for England I was desperate to be accepted."

This desire for acceptance, this wanting to be seen as someone who he eventually realises he is not, is something that Pietersen regrets. He admits that "off the field, I'm a much quieter more solitary person than people imagine" (p225). It is clear that throughout Pietersen's career that he feels there has been this great misunderstanding around him. His need for constant reassurance is not met, admitting that he needs "someone to come along and tell me that I'm playing like a million dollars" as he describes himself as "very shallow" (p129). He is frustrated by the image created of him early in his career and is annoyed by how these early conceptions of him have not been disregarded with the more matches he has played.

Of course, he hasn't helped himself. The sagas in 2009 and 2012 are incredibly difficult to forget, soap operas that were embarrassing for all involved. But they are something, especially in the case of 2012, that he is apologetic about. However, he is a man who is frustrated and hurting. A man who looks at the conduct of some of his other professionals and wonders why they're not being punished like him for similar misdemeanours. A man who looks at his coach stepping down from ODI cricket and wonders why they are allowed to pick and choose their formats whereas he, a player in a similar position, is not. "It was one rule for one player and another rule for me" (p198) he says.

When he talks about the skills involved in playing cricket, it is an incredibly fascinating read. He talks about the technical side of the game, the adjustments that must be made when playing spin. At times, it does read like a love letter to the IPL but at others, you realise that maybe this is knowledge and experience that a lot of young English cricketers would benefit from. When he talks about the mental side of the game, it is again another interesting read. It gives an insight into the mind of and the pressures on the professional cricketer, especially a batsman. Pietersen says, on his seeming arrogance at the crease that "conveying arrogance at the wicket has always been about using my body language as a defence mechanism. Never let them [the opposition] see a weakness. Never let them know there is a war going on in your head" (p143). His insistence that he has helped to coach younger cricketers, his passion and commitment to practice (although, interestingly, mostly alone and on his own cricketing terms) and his knowledge and enthusiasm for the game all come through in these passages, which is what makes these parts, in a book filled with high school-esque drama, worth reading.

It would be easy to dismiss the claims in Pietersen's book as those of a bitter ex. Too easy. Because if you can wade through the endless 'buddies' and continual sniping and elements of his flashy life, then you come to realise that, at the heart of it, he may just have a point. One of the most interesting parts of the book comes in one of the early chapters, 'I Am Like a Hurricane. Not.' He states, "I don't do comfort zones, and if I feel like you are the kind of person who enjoys the comfort zone way of life, I tell you [...] I think me confronting mediocrity throughout my career has earned me this reputation of being destructive." (p117). This book is Pietersen's very public attempt at confronting the mediocrity that appears to be endemic in English cricket.

Yes, he's big, brash and not everyone's cup of tea, but rather than ignore or dismiss this autobiography, perhaps it should be used as a wake up call that English cricket is far too in its own comfort zone. Cricket, especially English cricket, needs big characters, who stand up for their beliefs, otherwise cricket will decline in this country. The English may well have invented this game, but it is the other nations that are rising up and making the game what it is today. And the longer it is that the powers that be in English cricket keep their heads in the sand, the worse off cricket, both in this nation and abroad, will be for it.

(All quotes come from Kevin Pietersen, KP: The Autobiography (St Ives: Sphere, 2014)