Facing up to a dangerous obsession

By Sam Blackledge


I need help. I think cricket is taking over my life.

It has become so bad that I’m seeing everything that happens to me through the prism of the game.

I wake up ready to face a new day and peer through the curtains. Ominous clouds suggest a patchy session; bright sunshine could mean a chance to make hay.

I commute from dressing room to crease. Deep breaths, getting my head right, picturing the first delivery from my boss, angled across my desk and shaping in a fraction.

In the office, I am Nasser Hussain at Lord’s in 2004. A self-centred, driven senior player, too wrapped up in his own career crisis to enjoy being part of a young and exciting team.

I keep my head down, focus on grinding out another ugly win and occasionally let slip a grumpy expletive when something – or someone – malfunctions.

Sometimes I know it’s not my day before I even take guard. My confidence is shot, my technique is in tatters. I can’t get moving. Maybe I want it too much. Think late period Ramprakash, or poor old James Vince and his recurring cover drive.

The phone rings. I leave it alone and hope I can get off strike.

Occasionally it clicks. I’m invincible Vaughan in ’02, fearless Freddie in ’05. Pitching ideas to management, zinging one-liners to colleagues and hitting my deadlines right between the eyes. Everything is coming off the middle of the bat – I never realised the game could be this easy.

Back home I am Graeme Hick. A real trier, essentially a good guy, but prone to silly mistakes which provoke howls of exasperation in those around me.

I can almost hear the commentators now. “He’s put the washing machine on the wrong setting again.” “What a waste. So much talent.”

See what I mean? It’s getting worse.

When I was a kid I would spend hours in the back garden bowling to imaginary opponents. Walking down the street, I would turn my arm over with a Warne-esque cock of the wrist, follow through and glare at the lamppost which wasn’t good enough to edge my invisible zooter.

I thought it was just a childhood phase. I would grow out if it. Real life is more important than silly old cricket.

Anyway, must dash. My wife wants me to mow the lawn, take out the bins and hoover the staircase.

I wonder if I can claim the extra half hour?

This piece was first published at The Full Toss.

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Journo Talk 3: ‘Some might say I’m bolshy – I call it passionate’

By Sam Blackledge


“I wish we didn’t have to do the woman thing.”

Lizzie Ammon, speaking to her 29,000 Twitter followers, has pre-empted my question.

A freelance writer and broadcaster for The Times, the BBC and The Guardian among many others, Ammon is far from your typical cricket journalist.

The “woman thing” is impossible to escape, so let’s get it out of the way.

“I guess while women are the minority in sports journalism it’s going to be a thing if you are one,” she says.

“I’m a single mum and I won’t pretend doing this job and trying to look after a small child is easy, it isn’t.

“It requires having a very understanding childminder, being completely organised in terms of logistics and being able to cope with the guilt of not seeing your child much.

“But I am quite passionate about demonstrating that you can be a mum and a sports journalist, even though the hours are a bit erratic and sometimes long, particularly in cricket.”

Ammon says she “fell into” the job, having followed the game from a young age as scorer, junior coach and county member.

She blogged and got the occasional gig with a newspaper “more by luck than judgement”, but says being in the right place at the right time is just the start.

“There are hundreds and hundreds of people who want to write about sport for a living,” she says.

“You can’t expect a sports editor to employ you to just sit all day watching cricket in the sunshine and filing 500 words on what happened.

“You have to give them something they can’t get from Press Association reports or from any other writer.”


We move on to the subject of social media.

My own day job requires me to follow a stream of chattering political types, clogging up my feed with endless squabbles over Brexit, Corbyn, Trident and the rest.

With 230,000 tweets and counting, ‘LegSideLizzy’ gives them all a run for their money.

Her messages appear as a stream-of-consciousness: one minute she’s sniping at ECB bosses and the lunacy of international schedules, the next she’s gleefully tweeting along with Cold Feet and posting pictures of her sausage casserole.

“I know a lot of my colleagues hate it,” she says. “I have a love-hate relationship with it but I am very active.

“It’s a useful tool for spotting trends, opinions and news; it’s also a great way of engaging with everyone, from county chairman to county members or a player’s best mate.

“I try to use it to both impart what I know and give my opinions. I’m afraid I have had some horrible experiences on Twitter – everything from rape threats to personal abuse about my looks.

“It kind of goes with the territory, and on balance I think it’s far better to be on social media than not, particularly if you are trying to build an audience and get noticed.

“Sometimes I get told I am too much of a self-publicist, but I figure if you want to try to pursue a career sometimes you have to self-publicise.”


Does her online identity reflect who she is in real life?

“I’m probably not the best judge of that,” she says.

“I am outspoken, perhaps far too outspoken at times. Some might call it bolshy and opinionated; some might call it passionate.

“I am certainly passionate about cricket, particularly the less than glamorous world of county cricket.

“Some of that is because you form genuine affinities with the players, coaches and supporters in county cricket.

“It’s not like football, it’s a small enough to really feel like it’s something worth fighting for.”

Ammon has built an enviable portfolio of scoops, including digging into the fallout from the ECB’s decision to relegate Durham from division one of the County Championship.

She says newsgathering is “the only thing I am any good at”.

“I am self-aware enough to know that I am no Michael Atherton or Gideon Haigh.

“I don’t write pretty words or have a nice turn of phrase and I’m not a technical expert. Inherently I am a massive gossip, which isn’t a bad trait for a journalist.

“I like finding things out, pursuing things to their end. I believe one of the most important roles of a journalist is to hold authority to account for every decision they make, to uncover things, and most importantly to tell your reader something they didn’t already know and couldn’t find out somewhere else.”


Given she has not come from within the game, like many cricket writers, does she feel more able to challenge those at the top?

“I am not scared of authority, although of course if you annoy powerful men they can make life very uncomfortable for you,” she says.

“I guess in a sense I don’t have anything to lose by challenging authority, but at the risk of sounding pious, it isn’t solely about that.

“I try to find out the truth and write about it, and if some of those truths make life uncomfortable for those in power then that is not really my problem.

“The current ECB administration often verges close to bullying territory and that gets my back up, so I will continue to stay across what some see as the minutiae of county cricket and continue to try to hold the ECB to account for the decisions they are taking.

“I do try to give credit where it is due too, although perhaps not as often as I should.

“But no-one wants to read ‘Isn’t everything great and didn’t they all do well’. That doesn’t sell newspapers.”

Are you a proper cricket journalist? Would you like to feature in Journo Talk? E-mail samblackledge@yahoo.com or tweet @samblackledge.


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Review: ‘Unguarded’ by Jonathan Trott

By Sam Blackledge

My shelves are groaning under the weight of cricket autobiographies.

The best – among them ‘Coming Back To Me’ by Marcus Trescothick and Nasser Hussain’s ‘Playing With Fire’ – are well-thumbed. 

The others tend to blur together. Tales of pushy parents, age group potential, Test debuts and tearful retirements can almost be written by numbers.

If you’re feeling particularly masochistic, give Michael Vaughan’s ‘A Year In The Sun’ a whirl. Bet you won’t make it to the end without chewing your own face off. 

When Jonathan Trott’s new effort appeared on my doormat, I raised a sceptical eyebrow. Would this tell me anything I didn’t already know?

I needn’t have worried. ‘Unguarded’ is a wonderfully honest, brutally painful account of how one of England’s most reliable batsmen decided he could bear the pressure no longer.

As a long-time Warwickshire fan, I have followed Trott’s progress since his county debut but never entirely warmed to him.

Regular readers will know all about my obsession with Trott’s middle order colleague, a chap named Ian Bell.

While Bell flashed, dashed, posed and perished, Trott was the guy at the other end. A solid plodder, quietly getting on with the job.

Needless to say, as the years went by he became a firm favourite. He proved you don’t have to be a show-pony to win the hearts of England fans; you just need to score runs. Lots and lots of runs.

Most sportsmen and women sit in press conferences and burp out platitudes about how their chosen discipline has come to define their very existence. 

“It means the world to me,” they gush. “I’ve worked so hard to get here.”

This is the story of a man who became so consumed by cricket that it swallowed him whole.

Alex Bowden at King Cricket once wrote an amusing piece of fiction in which Trott plays his kids at table-tennis for two whole weeks, relentlessly refuses to let them win a game and “feels immense satisfaction with his performance.”

Reading that again now, it takes on a whole new perspective. Living every second for cricket is all very well when you’re churning out the hundreds. When things started to go wrong, there was nowhere else to turn. 

The book is structured in an odd way – it might have made more sense to tell the story chronologically rather than jumping around – but there is no disputing its power.

Wisely, he decides not to spend too much time on his childhood and dives straight into the beginnings of what was later diagnosed as situational anxiety. 

Unusually for such a self-centered genre, each chapter features contributions from Alastair Cook, Kevin Pietersen, Ashley Giles, Andy Flower, and Trott’s wife Abi. 

The other voices only serve to reinforce Trott’s fundamental character traits: decency, modesty, determination and a hard-won sense of self-awareness which was perhaps lacking during his international career. 

This piece first appeared at King Cricket. 

Journo Talk 2: There’s life in the old Selve yet

By Sam Blackledge

A 16-year first class playing career, followed by 32 more as broadcaster and writer, makes Mike Selvey one of the most respected voices in the cricketing world and well qualified to offer advice to newcomers.

But right now all that experience seems to be weighing heavy on the former fast bowler’s shoulders.

“I’ll be really honest,” he says. “I’m not sure I would want to be starting out now.

“There are plenty of people, brilliant young writers some of them, wanting to write about cricket, but traditional outlets are shrinking and the openings are just not there.

“The way forward for aspiring writers has to be digital, and within that to find a niche, either in style or in areas that others do not cover.

“For example, there are some who have made a speciality out of women’s cricket, which I think will expand massively during the next decade.

“The same applies to T20, in which I believe lies the game’s future.

“But also remember the adage: ‘It has never been easier to get published and never harder to get paid for it.’ Aspiring writers or journalists will find it a tough market place.”

Selvey, who moved into the Test Match Special commentary box after hanging up his bowling boots in 1984, says the job of a cricket journalist has changed “beyond all recognition.”

“When I started there was of course no internet,” he says.

“The newspaper industry was in a state of flux with new outlets starting. The business was still hot metal: typewriters, copy takers, finding phones to get copy through, using telex when abroad.

“Match reporting is still important but, sadly, largely around international cricket.

“Beyond that, there is an increasing emphasis on hard news stories (often not real news in an accepted sense, but self-generated ‘issues’); quotes stories (I have generally shied away from these, believing I was paid to give my opinion rather than parrot that of others); and clickbait, where internet traffic is now seen by some managements as a measure of journalistic worth.

“Writers in all outlets have to be mindful of what will attract this traffic and how it will be presented.”

He laments the fact that financial resources have not kept pace with the 24/7 nature of the job, saying the competition with football in particular is overwhelming.

What happens off the pitch has become just as important as events out in the middle, but I sense Selvey feels the balance sometimes tips too far towards breaking news.

“There have always been hard news stories – World Series Cricket, the D’Oliveira affair, match fixing – and it is important that the game is held to account when necessary, as long as it is done in an informed rather than simply emotive way, he says.

“Cricket, indeed sport, has always been about strong debate and opinions.”

Selvey left his job as The Guardian’s chief cricket correspondent last month.

He is not willing or able to discuss his feelings about this on the record, beyond saying he is “saddened” at an “undignified end” to a distinguished career.

Asked what the future holds, he says he has no intention of disappearing into the shadows.

“I’m 68 years young and have three 19 year olds, two of whom are at university and one who is applying for acting school, so I’m not ready for pipe and slippers yet,” he says.

“I suppose the freedom I have now might send me in directions I had never considered before.

“The one thing that has astounded me in recent weeks is the regard in which I seem to be held by colleagues, administrators and players.

“I have received overwhelming support, surprise dinners, unexpected awards. It has all been very humbling but at the same time a nice confidence boost for someone who has lacked that all too often.”

Are you a proper cricket journalist? Would you like to be featured on Journo Talk? Email samblackledge@yahoo.com or tweet @samblackledge

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Plymouth star Steph named in Western Storm development squad

by Sam Blackledge


A Plymouth cricketer has made it on to a list of 12 young talents chosen to train with Western Storm.

All-rounder Steph Hutchins, aged 18, plays for Yelverton Bohemians and Devon Women.

Taunton-based Western Storm, captained by England skipper Heather Knight, have chosen Steph in their development squad, along with her Devon teammates Daisy Meadowcroft and Evie Pitman.

Western Storm general manager Lisa Pagett said: “There are 12 girls on the programme and they have been selected from all across the region.

“There are players from Somerset, Devon, Cornwall, Gloucestershire and Wales in the squad and they have all been nominated by their respective counties as players of genuine potential.

“30 players were nominated from within the South West to attend a talent observation day where they were put through their paces by the Western Storm Coaches, under the watchful eye of ECB scouts.

“We consider the 12 players who have been selected on this programme to have real potential and moving forward could well develop in to cricketers who will play for the Western Storm or be involved in ECB programmes in the future.”

The year-long programme is not solely about cricket, Lisa says.

“As well numerous training days, which will be spread across the region to include the Cooper Associates County Ground, the Brightside County Ground and the University of Exeter, there are various other elements to the initiative in place in order to help these players to develop in the best way that they can,” she added.

“There will be strength and conditioning support, nutritional advice, plus work in to the psychology of the sport.

“It’s not just about them developing as cricketers, it’s about helping them to develop as people.

“There is much more to the programme than just playing cricket, it’s about helping to educate the players as well.”

This piece was first published in the Plymouth Herald.

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Plymouth paceman Ben says signing Notts contract is ‘best feeling’

by Sam Blackledge


A hotly-tipped Plymouth cricketer says signing his first professional contract with Nottinghamshire is the best feeling ever.

Ben Kitt, aged 21, took 101 wickets in 2nd XI and academy games for his adopted county this summer, and has been rewarded with a two-year deal.

The fast bowler started playing for Tideford under-11s when he was just five, progressing to first team men’s cricket with St Austell and then Cornwall.

The former Saltash.net pupil moved to Nottingham at the age of 16 and has impressed the Trent Bridge coaching team ever since.

Speaking to The Herald from New Zealand, where he is spending the winter playing for Auckland University, Ben said he was delighted to put pen to paper.

“From the age of five when I first started playing cricket it’s all I have wanted, so I can’t imagine there is any better feeling than signing for two years at a club I love,” he said.

 Ben Kitt played for Cornwall as a teenager

Ben was named young player of the season last month – but says making the transition from academy to second team cricket was a steep learning curve.

“It was a big step up,” he said.

“Obviously the margin for error I’d had through all of my age group cricket disappeared because of the standard of batting, and also the bowling was a lot faster and shot selection became a lot more important.

“But the more second team cricket you play you learn players’ weaknesses and learn to bowl to your strengths.

“Also a lot of technical work in those first couple of years helped with my accuracy a lot and added a bit of pace.”

He makes no secret of his ambitions, having already set his sights on international honours.

“Obviously to start with I would like to cement a first team spot,” he said.

“That has to come first, but like any cricketer in the country I want to represent England in all forms if I can.

“Again that’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was very young and I still want to do it now.”

As a youngster Ben looked up to former England all-rounder Andrew Flintoff – and it wasn’t just Freddie’s on-field exploits which caught his eye.

“I loved everything about the way he played cricket, he was aggressive and skilled,” he said.

“He also enjoyed himself off the pitch which may have given him a bad reputation, but I feel that was undeserved.”

 Ben was named Nottinghamshire’s young player of the year last month

There is no shortage of fast bowling heroes for Ben to emulate at Trent Bridge, from Clive Rice and Richard Hadlee to Harry Gurney and Stuart Broad.

The recent rise of Jake Ball, who made his Test bow this summer and took five wickets on ODI debut earlier this month, has inspired Ben even further.

“I love to watch Jake bowl,” he said.

“I think I am similar to him in the way I bowl and to see how far he has come in a couple of years is amazing. I’d love to do the same thing.”

A devoted Plymouth Argyle fan who grew up on the banks of the Tamar in Saltash, Ben says the South West will always have a special place in his heart.

“The support us Cornish lads get from the people in the two counties is amazing,” he said.

“Speak to Jake Libby and Liam Norwell and they will tell you the same thing.

“All of my family are down in Cornwall still, it’s the place where I learned to play cricket, starting with my grandad in the back garden.

“It means a lot to me and I love being down to visit.”

This piece was first published in the Plymouth Herald.

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Journo Talk 1: Jarrod Kimber tells me to get real

I am hoping this might turn into a semi-regular feature, in which proper cricket journalists talk about their jobs while I grow increasingly jealous and bitter.

First up, it’s ESPN Cricinfo’s Jarrod Kimber. 


By Sam Blackledge

When Jarrod Kimber replies to my e-mail, I feel a twinge of excitement.

This could be it, I think. My ticket to the inner sanctum. Another step closer to the dream.

Then I read his answer to my first question: ‘What advice would you give to a budding cricket journalist?

“Find a niche,” he says.

“Just being a cricket writer isn’t going to get you anywhere unless you are lucky enough to pick up a gig with a newspaper, and even then you probably need to be known for something to get a foot in the door anywhere.

“You need to specialise in something and be known for that, because cricket is so big, so vast, that trying to make it without something you are known for would be very hard.

“So your best bet is to find something that no one is covering or focusing on, and do that.”

Translation: good luck, kid.



In the space of a few years Jarrod has gone from the enfant terrible of cricket blogging, littering the web with snarls of ‘fucken’ this and ‘Christ’s sake’ that, to an established – if not quite establishment – journalist.

He insists the potty-mouthed voice of Cricket With Balls, the anarchic site where it all started, was just a character.

“It was never really going to cross over to the mainstream,” he says.

“The way I write now is probably more like how I wrote before I wrote about cricket: long form pieces, telling stories.

“If anything it just took me a long time to come back to that in cricket, partly because I created this other identity.

“But also things change. I’m a father now, I’m almost ten years older than when I started.

“I also learnt too much about how the cricket administration sausage was made, which meant I stopped being comfortable making the players into villains.

“I still have the character of Cricket With Balls, and am working on a novel in his voice, but for now am happy with how I am writing.”

The contents of the sausage were revealed in Death of a Gentleman, the 2015 documentary Jarrod made with fellow reporter Sam Collins.

They set out to explore the future of Test cricket, but stumbled into a murky world of secret ICC meetings, questionable financial governance and intimidation.

I ask Jarrod whether, given the growing awareness of corruption, drug abuse and dodgy dealing, sports journalists are now required to think more like news reporters.

“One of the things I love about writing on sport is that you always get the chance to write about other things within it,” he says.

“Business, power, race, politics, all of it is right there.

“The problem with many sports writers is that they started working when their job was turning up at a ground or a press conference and reporting what happened.

“You would hope the future involves more sports writers breaking stories and not fearing retribution (which does happen), that more people look into the bigger picture, not just the day-in day-out nature of it. But you could say the same of pretty much all of society.

“Sport is corrupt. It is poorly run. The best interests of the sport are not being looked after and there are tonnes of stories out there.

“Sport has never been this corrupt, and there are more sports journalists than ever before.

“Instead of just regurgitating content they should be questioning people and organisations.”

I became slightly obsessed with Jarrod and Sam when they teamed up as ‘Two pricks at the Ashes’ and later ‘The Chuck Fleetwood-Smiths’, trying not to corpse their way through a series of video blogs from Test grounds around the world.

Their mock homo-erotic relationship, and the simple fact that they appeared to be having the most tremendous fun, brightened up many a dark winter night.

These days Jarrod is still hovering around the boundary edge, soaking up the atmosphere and putting the cricket into perspective with typical panache for readers of Cricinfo and listeners to his TalkSport podcast.

I’m interested to know whether, like many news reporters, the cricketing press pack are worried about the way the industry is heading.

“I think clickbait is dying a natural death at the moment,” he says.

“It will be replaced by something else, perhaps worse. The listicle is the thing now, but even that is not as full-on as it was a year or two ago.

“Long form has actually had something of a comeback, and I would say now there are more long articles written about cricket than at any time in history.

“I think what will go from cricket writing is match reports being the major form of writing.

“We can see the highlights now easier than ever before. What we need is the analysis, the context and the story.

“The best match reports often did this, but there is no need to give the entire story of a day’s play anymore, just take out what matters.”

Twenty20 has revolutionised the modern game, but it’s not just players and coaches who have had to adapt their approach.

Jarrod says a T20 match report is “about as important as a fart in a mooncup”, and believes journalists must keep pace as the game continues to evolve.

“The sport will dictate the changes and the writers and editors will follow,” he says.

“There won’t be many in the media leading the way, just like the administrators don’t lead the way.

“The sport leads, the rest follow.”

Follow Jarrod on Twitter here.

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Cats, cynicism and ankylosing spondylitis: All hail the reign of King Cricket

By Sam Blackledge

Every day I step inside a room which not many people know about.

Most days I offer a comment or a quip. Sometimes I stay quiet and watch.

It is said that if you use the internet in the right way, it will reward you.

Follow the right people, bookmark the right sites, type the right combination of characters and eventually you will find your niche.

The other people in the room are among the most intelligent, witty, kind and self-deprecating folk I’ve come across.

I have never met any of them face-to-face.

Welcome to the world of King Cricket.

At first glance – basic design, topical posts, stock images – it looks like just another cricket blog. But peer behind the curtain and you will find so much more.

Established by Alex Bowden in 2006, King Cricket has evolved into a self-sufficient online community, removed from the gibbering indignation and pitchfork-wielding ignorance of social media.

Allow me to introduce you to the gang.

There’s Bert, the wise old guru who sets impenetrable crosswords and is always ready with a rambling anecdote or scathing grammatical critique.

There’s Ged, the die-hard Middlesex fan who provides comprehensive reports of his global travels, accompanied by Benjy the Baritone Ukulele, Ivan the Smart Phone, Charley the Gent and Escamillo Escapillo.

Then there’s Ceci, Balladeer, Daneel, Mike, Bradders, Howe, Miriam, and of course Uncle J-Rod, who despite ascending to global media stardom still pops back occasionally to rub shoulders with the peasants.

I realise this probably isn’t making much sense. I sound like a wide-eyed fresher on his first trip home from uni, ranting to his parents about the zany antics of his new-found chums. Indulge me a little longer.

The rules of the room are fairly loose, but here are a few principles you must follow in order to become a full member:

An undying devotion to former Kent captain Robert Key.

Mild indifference to Warwickshire batsman Ian Bell.

A fundamental belief in the primacy and romance of Test cricket.

Deep loathing of ex-ECB chairman Giles Clarke.

A healthy dose of misanthropy and scepticism.

An appreciation of a rudimental Venn diagram.

A passion for the art of pedantry.

A penchant for a tortured pun.

Once a post entitled ‘West Indian cricketer name generator’ – take your mother’s maiden name and the town of your birth – attracted 120 comments. That was a good day.

Regular features include ‘Lord Megachief of Gold’, ‘Cricket bats pictured in unusual places’, ‘Matthew Hayden watch’ and many more.

We share jokes about grammar, science, mathematics, fallacies of logic, arthouse cinema, and everything in between.

Just last week, there was a thread about the precise definition of the word ‘amortise’, which sparked an in-joke about Just for Men hair dye, which led to Ged referencing Chico Marx.

The following day I found a group swapping puns based around the Italian bread Focaccia.

The chaos is all expertly orchestrated by Alex, the eponymous King Cricket. (He is at pains to point out that he never gave himself the title, but it has stuck nonetheless.)

His pithy posts are perfectly pitched, mixing anger, cynicism and on-the-nose analysis with baffling surrealism and jokes about ankylosing spondylitis.

He is not afraid to make a hard-hitting point about politics, governance or corruption, but will happily follow up with a picture of a cat looking conspicuously indifferent to a cricket book.

Above all he has an uncanny ability to say what we’re all thinking, without appearing to ever be trying very hard. He writes as both serious cricket journalist and ordinary fan.

If there were any justice in the world, he would be writing for a broadsheet newspaper or running the ICC.

But I doubt he would last very long, due to his tendency to describe himself as “largely unarsed”.

Although I was massive geek in my youth, I never quite embraced my geekiness until now.

Discovering King Cricket was like finding the friendship group I never had.

We tease, but it’s never spiteful. We listen to each other’s stories and share a genuine passion for our chosen sport and, more importantly, everything surrounding it.

Three years ago, Alex wrote a post asking why we keep coming back and whether the site is worthwhile.

The replies – all 199 of them – were heartfelt and largely free from the usual wisecracking irony.

The final word must go to veteran commenter Bert, posting in that same thread.

“Some of the funniest things I have ever read are on here,” he said.

“There is always that sense of sitting at the match, mid-afternoon, slightly pissed, talking drivel with friends.

“Sometimes you laugh, sometimes they laugh, sometimes they just stare at you and cough gently before changing the subject. It’s hard to explain, but the cricket is central to this, without being dominant.

“That’s what makes this website different from Twitter. The article sets the scene; everything else hangs from it, even if the link seems occasionally tenuous.

“It doesn’t have to be long, or insightful, or even right. But it does have to be there.

“The cats know this. They’re not merely indifferent – they’re indifferent to cricket, which is not the same.”

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Mark Nicholas’ cunning plan to save cricket from itself

by Sam Blackledge

Mark Nicholas is worried about cricket’s future – but has a cunning plan for how his beloved sport can survive and inspire the next generation.

The former Hampshire captain, now known to fans worldwide as a respected TV commentator, believes the longer form of the game is in danger amid the rising popularity of Twenty20.

Speaking ahead of his appearance at the Guildford Book Festival on October 14, Nicholas says he fears cricket is “losing its magic”.

“T20 is a fantastic game for what it has been able to do for cricket,” he says. “Talk about being in the right place at the right time.

“But the beauty of cricket comes from its orthodoxy more than its unorthodoxy. The great skills of the game – from a perfectly executed cover drive to a leg break – are threatened by the lowest common denominator of T20.”

Nicholas’ natural enthusiasm shines through in his new book, A Beautiful Game, which is more than just another sporting autobiography.

He rattles through his own playing career, from the highs of winning four domestic one-day trophies to the lows of injuries and dressing room bust-ups, before delving into the quirks and characters which bring the game to life. 

“When I was at Hampshire, I was 101 per cent at Hampshire,” he says.

“I threw everything into every moment of my life there. You search for a place in the world and an identity in various ways, and that was mine.

“The book was a chance to get some stuff out that been going around in my head for a long time. The idea was to celebrate cricket and my involvement in it.

“With the benefit of hindsight you look back and realise that you got things wrong or you got things right. You are able to look at them dispassionately and objectively. At the time you’re so subjective that it’s sometimes hard.”

Anyone who has heard Nicholas on commentary duties will recognise the passion and joy he has for the game.

It is hard to imagine him losing interest in a passage of play, no matter how dull or inconsequential, or ever allowing himself to become bitter and cynical. At heart he is a fan, like everybody else.

During our brief conversation he waxes lyrical about the “unbelievable” climax to the county season, and enthuses about the recent Test series between England and Pakistan which had “everything on show”.

But he still frets about the future – and here is his three-point plan for what should happen next.

“A Test championship is absolutely imperative, so everybody plays towards something,” he says.

“It should be a festival of the game for maybe three weeks in a major city. The top four teams play two semi-finals and a final. The cricket world would come together. Seminars would be held, parties would be held, demonstrations would be held.

“The game would be able to talk as one, to discuss all areas of cricket.”

Point two – he wants Test cricket to take centre stage.

“All the marketing is about Twenty20 when that’s the one that sells naturally anyway,” he says.

“It’s the one that is not selling, the long form of the game, which needs more intelligent marketing.”

Point three – youngsters should be given free access to matches in order to spark their interest.

“If you are under 16 you should not have to pay to watch the longer form of the game,” he says.

“We should do everything we can to get people in through the gates: encouraging young people to come for the day, making ticket prices cheaper for adults so they will come with their children.

“Test cricket has to become much more important. People have to be inspired by the idea of Test cricket. At the moment I’m not sure they are.”

As far as Nicholas’ own part in turning this vision into reality, he is happy to simply be an ambassador for the game.

“I will continue to try to sell cricket, as simple as that,” he says.

“I do the best I can through my TV work and the words I write. In the book I have tried to make cricket interesting by telling people about all the great players.

“Hopefully my enthusiasm for the game is something other people can catch. I just want to share cricket with everybody.”

‘A Beautiful Game’ is out now. This piece was first published on getsurrey.co.uk

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Single-minded Steph has eyes fixed on England honours

by Sam Blackledge

A talented young cricketer is hoping to take a giant step towards the ultimate dream of representing her country.

Steph Hutchins, who turns 18 later this week, has long been touted as an exciting prospect with bat and ball, having progressed through the youth section of Yelverton Bohemians.

Now the sports-mad teenager, who has played football for Plympton and Tavistock and is also a qualified referee, is hoping to be added to the Western Storm development squad.

Taking a break from studying for a double diploma in sport at Tavistock College, Stephanie tells The Herald her passion for cricket started early.

“In Year 5 we had a new head teacher,” she says.

“There was a Kwik Cricket competition and he entered a girls’ team and a boys’ team.

“My brother started playing at Yelverton, I watched him and thought ‘I really want to start playing’, so I joined the school team.

“One night at my brother’s training session the coach’s wife said ‘She should go for county trials, she’s got real potential.’

“The first time I played hard ball cricket was at the trials, and it went from there.”

Steph Hutchins (picture by John Allen for the Plymouth Herald)

Steph, who lives in Horrabridge, says the game came naturally to her at first but she was more interested in football.

She had junior trials with Devon at the age of 11 and immediately volunteered to keep wicket – an early sign of her go-getting approach to life.

“I really wanted to drive and be better, that’s how I’ve always been, whereas my brother was quite happy playing where he was,” she says.

At an age when most teenagers are pinning posters of pop stars to their bedroom walls and fretting over homework, Steph was busy setting herself targets.

“Back then it was to play in the age group squad,” she says.

“Then it was to play with (Devon captain) Jodie Dibble; then to play with Devon women in the full squad; and now it’s Western Storm, the England development programme and then England.”

Steph discovered she had a knack with the ball when she graduated to the Yelverton men’s team three years ago.

“I was in the nets with my brother doing a training session with James Carr at Tavistock,” she says.

“My brother was batting, I was bowling. James said: ‘You should bowl spin more often, you’re good at it’.

“He told his brother, who at the time was my county coach.

“Since then they’ve really worked hard on my bowling, making sure I had the right posture and everything, and it’s just become natural. I’m a bowler now.”

That was the moment everything started to click.

Her idol was Plympton’s Cait O’Keefe, who is just a year older but was part of the Western Storm side which made it to the final of this summer’s Kia Super League, and has also represented England Under-19s.

Steph Hutchins (picture by John Allen for the Plymouth Herald)

Steph’s journey has not been all plain sailing, however.

She fractured her left shoulder during her first year playing for Devon and is wary of injuring it again.

But it will take more than the odd niggle to stop what feels like an inevitable progression to the highest level.

She is awaiting news of the next England development programme – does she think about wearing the Three Lions on her cap one day?

“I’ve always had it in my mind,” she says.

“I went for trials in my first year of bowling but I just didn’t quite feel ready. I had probably only been bowling for a month or two.

“Now I feel more ready, I feel like a have a shot at getting in, I just need to keep developing and training hard.”

The professionalisation of the women’s game, and its increasing popularity, has been a huge boost for the sport.

But Steph admits it makes the competition much fiercer than ever before.

“With the England development programme, because there are so many girls at a good standard of cricket it’s getting harder to break your way in,” she says.

“You’ve got more quality coaches coming into it, the training is better. It’s a lot harder now than what it was, but you’ve just got to keep working.”

Chris Cottrell, senior player and coach at Yelverton Bohemians, says Steph is one of the most gifted young cricketers he has seen.

“She is dedicated and passionate about the game,” he says. I can see huge talent there.

“She wants to know everything and she is a lovely person.

“She is not a girly girl, she is quite unassuming but single-minded, she just gets on with the job.”

This piece was first published in the Plymouth Herald.

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