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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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New memories and a familiar feeling

by Sam Blackledge

The cry echoed around the Nursery End toilets, bouncing off porcelain urinals. “Warwickshire, la la la. Warwickshire, la la la.”

Trott carried on, oblivious to the merriment. Scratch. Fiddle. Grimace. Flick to leg.

Returning to my seat in the lower Edrich stand, I realised I could relax. The job was nearly done.

 

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I can’t write about September 4, 1993 any more. Nostalgia is all well and good, but if you keep looking back you might trip over your own feet. A generation has passed; it’s time for new memories to be made.

Journalist Emma John tells of the “coming of age moment” when she crossed over into adulthood.

After years of being taken to cricket matches by her mum, one day she bought their tickets and made the arrangements herself.

Twenty-three years had passed since my first Lord’s final; 11 years since my last. Marriages, divorces, house moves and babies peppered the intervening period, but cricket carried on in the background like a familiar song at a tense family wedding.

 

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Surrey got off to a flyer, pinging long-hops and half-volleys to the boundary at will. Please not today, I thought. This isn’t how it’s supposed to go. We need a win.

With the score on 45, Jason Roy took a couple of steps down the pitch and creamed a short-armed pull. Laurie Evans dived full length to his right and plucked the ball from the air.

We jumped up, cheese sandwiches and Country Slices flying in all directions.

A few minutes later Steven Davies was stumped down the leg side. Sangakkara appeared to be booking in for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but then he edged behind off Hannon-Dalby, sparking the sort of collapse usually only seen on eroding Cornish clifftops.

I’d packed a couple of beers, having carefully checked the Home of Cricket‘s strict alcohol allowance, and produced them when the fifth wicket fell.

I’d even remembered a bottle opener, the sort of detail which would have eluded me in years gone by when I was pretending to be a grown-up.

 

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Days like this always hit a natural peak. I went out after the match and had a few too many drinks which, mixed with exhaustion and adrenaline, took their toll in a mediocre curry house near Vauxhall.

The high point was probably during the second innings, Trott and Bell strolling towards their modest target, victory all but assured.

I laughed as a familiar feeling returned, like catching a whiff of a long-lost memory. Childhood Christmases; chalk on classroom blackboards; sunny days at the beach.

Later on, picking over how the final was won and lost, a journalist friend told me there had been rumours of disharmony within the Warwickshire camp.

“I reckon you needed that,” he said. I smiled to myself and nodded back. “I think you’re right. We did.”

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Ronald and me

CRICKET England 9THE obituaries, whenever they come, may begin in similar fashion. Born in the West Midlands in the 1980s and brought up in Birmingham, he developed a love of cricket at a young age. A determined individual with a baby-faced complexion, his worst enemy was his own self-doubt. It turns out Ian Bell and I have a few things in common. Unfortunately that’s where the comparisons end. Bell is now the 12th man to play 100 Test Matches for England. At the time of writing, I haven’t even played one.

Every cricket lover has a few heroes, but die-hard fans develop much deeper and more complex relationships with the men in the middle. Bell made his first class debut at the age of 17, three years older than me, as Warwickshire began to emerge from an almighty hangover following the champagne-drenched success of the mid-90s. It was clear that Bell had all the talent, but in a narrative that would become familiar to England fans a decade later, it was a frustrating beginning. I would sit in the members’ stand at Edgbaston watching him compile the most technically correct 20-odd before nicking a length ball outside off stump to the keeper. It became a bit of a running joke, almost as if he was embarrassed to possess so much talent and didn’t quite know how to use it.

As Bell became established the inevitable England calls came, but he never seemed to rack up a huge weight of championship runs, relying more on his potential. Praise offered to youngsters early in their career can often end up as an albatross – in a quote so often cited that it may not even be accurate, the one and only Dayle Hadlee said Bell was “the best 16-year-old I’ve ever seen.” If Dayle has not dined out enough on tales of backyard cricket with younger brother Richard, the bars of Christchurch will surely echo to the tune of ‘I told you so’ long after Bell finally hangs up his pads.

Our man shuffled nervously on to the international stage in 2004 and endured a well-documented struggle in the following summer’s Ashes, a timid new boy in the playground, out-thought and out-fought by the big bad Australian bullies. Many things would have been different if England had lost that series, not least that Bell may have disappeared back into the Edgbaston shadows like so many before him. Jim Troughton, anyone?

Over the next few years I grew up, morphing from a timid teen into a slightly less timid 20-something. University, the clichéd move to London, the first office job, the burgeoning relationship. I followed Bell’s progress from afar as he went through his own growing pains, glad that I didn’t have an army of angry fans venting their spleen online every time I slipped up.

So much of what I saw in the development of Ian Bell, I saw in myself. The puffed-out chest, the ill-conceived attempt to grow a little beard; transparent attempts to become a man, to impose himself on a world which was scary but which he so badly wanted to conquer. He couldn’t rid himself of the Brummie accent or the shy interview demeanour, but he knew he had the talent and backed himself to reach his goal.

Cricket - Second Test - Day Three - Bangladesh v England - Shere Bangla National StadiumSlowly but surely, almost unnoticed amid the management hokey-cokey and Pietersen histrionics, he became a senior player. He even won the fans round, shedding the ‘Sherminator’ tag and gaining the much more glorious moniker ‘The Sledgehammer of Eternal Justice’. My friends and I still refer to him simply as ‘Ronald’ (as in ‘sounds familiar’: ‘it rings a Ronald’), his middle name and a strangely fitting epithet for a man who, despite the fact that he will be remembered as one of the most gifted sportsmen of his generation, is still just a kid from Coventry made good.

Last summer, as he took a break between the Champions Trophy final and a career-defining Ashes series, I saw Bell visiting his teammates at a Warwickshire second XI match. He arrived in a pricey-looking 4×4, accompanied by his wife and young son and exuding a palpable aura. His mere presence prompted awed whispers and impressive glances from the sparse crowd.

There was no denying it – the young Bear had become a superstar.

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Warwickshire fans launch name change campaign

by Sam Blackledge

FANS of Warwickshire County Cricket Club have launched an online campaign and threatened to boycott matches following the decision to re-name the team for next year’s domestic Twenty20 competition.

Yesterday chief executive Colin Povey revealed that the club will drop their county name for the NatWest T20 Blast tournament, and will be known instead as the Birmingham Bears.

But within hours of the announcement, an online petition had been set up by fans claiming Edgbaston bosses have “sold out”.

The campaign was started by 32-year-old catering manager Adam Veysey from Shrewsbury, who says he is “deeply offended and disgusted” by the decision.

He said: “As members we were not consulted in any way on the name change of our cricket club. I come from outside of Birmingham to watch my county cricket club play, outside of Warwickshire in fact, and I don’t feel it’s right that I and other members outside of Birmingham should pay to watch their team play under a different name. I also have friends and fellow members that live in Birmingham and they feel exactly the same.

“As a club they should be contacting fans’ organizations and members about changes such as these. In general myself and fellow members feel that our county cricket club has sold out, and I’m doing this so other counties don’t go the same way, and hopefully we can get this changed.

“Warwickshire have try to justify that they think it will bring in a younger crowd, but how? I take my five-year-old son, who lets face it is the future of cricket and he should be able to watch the history of our great county at Edgbaston and become the future of county cricket.

“If I wanted to support a city or town club I have many closer venues I could choose from, but I don’t. Warwickshire is my county and long may it continue.”

By 9am today the petition had attracted more than 200 signatures, with 168 people joining a group on Facebook.

A statement on the page says: “This is our club, and I for one will not be attending any game (or) purchasing any merchandise that has the Birmingham Bears on or in it.”

Defending the decision, Colin Povey said: “Birmingham and Edgbaston has been the club’s home since 1886 and we believe that adopting the Birmingham Bears name for the NatWest t20 Blast presents a great opportunity for us to engage even more closely with fans living and working at the heart of the city.

“Asian families, business men and women working in the city’s commercial districts and local cricket clubs are three particular audiences the club is seeking to work with more next season.

“However, despite our T20 name change, we will continue to maintain the proud history of the club and play under the Warwickshire banner in the other two more traditional formats.”

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The Ashes: Media management and biting the hand that feeds you

WHEN Joe Root takes a wicket, he wheels around like a giddy schoolboy who has just scored the winning goal in a playground recreation of the FA Cup final. When Ian Bell reaches a century he removes his helmet and leaps into the air, throwing a wild punch in a violent release of nervous energy. There is such a lot at stake for these players and their teammates, who have dedicated their entire lives to succeeding at the highest level. It’s no wonder they get a bit excited.

Yet when they come off the field and line up to fulfil their ever-growing list of media requirements – TV, radio, print, even a soundbite for the ECB’s YouTube channel – they sound like they’re rehearsing for their village am dram performance of the dullest show on earth.
The old cliches roll off the tongue in defeat – ‘Take the positives’, ‘Move on’, ‘Keep working hard’ and the much-hated ‘We’re a young side and we’ll learn from this’. Nobody expects a defeated captain to call his team an absolute shower or break down in tears a la Kim Hughes. But you would hope for a bit more when basking in the glory of another thumping victory.

Root’s interview demeanour could not be more at odds with his on-field antics. Chirpy and hyper one side of the whitewash, he seems to stare off into space when confronted with a microphone, delivering the same old rehearsed lines. His breathtaking debut Ashes century, converted into a matchwinning 180, was “nice”. It was “good to contribute” to the win. He paused slightly when asked about how the team would enjoy the victory, at which point a speeded-up montage of pedalos, dentist’s chairs and dwarf-throwing parties may have scrolled across his vision. But showing the maker’s name, he straight-batted the spitting cobra down the track. “I’m sure we will enjoy it.”
Root’s doe-eyed innocence is endearing, and he will have to grow more comfortable in the limelight if, as many are predicting, he is to occupy the top of the order for many years to come. He may even be next in line as captain. But let’s hope he has a bit more charisma than his current boss.
Alastair Cook is clearly a very driven, determined cricketer. His powers of concentration are remarkable, and he has already shown a quiet authority and ruthless streak as skipper. But like Root, his post-match briefings leave a lot to be desired. He ends every monotone sentence with pursed lips and a cocked head, as if to say “Next question, let’s get this over with”.

If all this is seen as a criticism of the players, it is not meant that way. They are professional sportsmen, paid to do a job on the field and doing it pretty well right now. They are not necessarily natural speakers. But over the last 20 years or so, since the advent of Sky TV and the growth of media power in sport, the public want to hear what their heroes have to say. And left to their own devices, they are liable to say something that might get them, or their colleagues, in trouble. Ian Botham was rarely off the back pages in the 1980s as he boasted of his sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle. The late Tony Greig is probably best remembered for threatening to make the West Indies “grovel” before his England side succumbed to a 5-0 drubbing. And more recently Kevin “It’s not easy being me” Pietersen became a high-profile liability who threatened to destabilise the entire English setup.

The ECB has become much more professional since the turn of the century, and this approach – along with consistency of selection and central contracts – has transformed the national side. But like all good risk managers, they take a cautious approach towards anything that can be seen as a potential banana skin.

Players at the highest level these days are media trained to within an inch of their lives. They are coached in what to say and how to say it, how to deal with journalists and how to survive in the public eye. This often means that all their character, passion and personality is left at the crease, and we end up watching and listening to a bunch of corporate suits dressed in cricketing whites. Occasionally a player will resist the training – or maybe he will be encouraged to “be himself” to appease the press pack. Graeme Swann is a case in point. Reporters breathe a sigh of relief when Swanny is wheeled out for a press conference. He is funny, witty, self-deprecating and doesn’t take himself too seriously.

Just as the players’ dead-eyed responses are a result of media training, they are also a sign of their distrust of the fourth estate. Not too long ago pro cricketers in England would be on friendly terms with all the regular journalists on the circuit, and would think nothing of a quick interview for tomorrow’s paper or a soundbite for Test Match Special. Not so nowadays, it would appear. Last week the Sun’s John Etheridge said: “It is almost impossible to speak to anybody in the England team away from press conferences without paying money or plugging a sponsor.” This is partly due to the fact that the game is increasingly controlled by cash. But it could also be because the tabloid media – and sometimes the broadcasters too – don’t help themselves.

When Stuart Broad edged a ball to slip in the first Test and was given not out, he didn’t walk. This ‘incident’, of which there are dozens every day in every form of the game, from international to village, was blown out of all proportion. The headline on the back page of the following day’s Daily Mirror was ‘BAN STU’, a reference to comments made by Sky’s Michael Holding. The wheel comes full circle. The media appears to be undermining the interests of the national side in the pursuit of a sexy story, quoting itself. The players see the headline and retreat further into themselves and their group. And the next time that reporter approaches a player for a quote? “Very pleasing. Put them under pressure. One game at a time.”

The whole ludicrous situation was neatly demonstrated by Broad himself this week. After James Anderson was sent out to bat at number eight on day one, apparently protecting the more competent Broad and Swann, the vultures began to ask questions. Responding to Simon Hughes on Twitter, Broad quipped: “Wasn’t a nightwatchman. Swanny and I banged heads while making a brew and were dazed so Jimmy took it on”.

Hyped up on Ashes fever, many journos fell for it hook, line and sinker. An amusing and telling moral victory for the embattled all-rounder. No doubt he will take the positives and move on.

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The Ashes: First Test Day 3 – Bell stands firm

A FEW years ago, during a one-day international following England’s 5-0 Ashes drubbing in Australia, Ian Bell played a shot that got me thinking. Brett Lee was the bowler. Bell took a couple of steps down the pitch and offered a firm forward defensive. Nothing, in the words of Henry Blofeld, was done. But Bell just looked so calm, so cool, so totally in control. He appeared to have all the time in the world, like he could have hit the ball anywhere he chose.

Why then, I wondered, couldn’t he play like this every time? It’s a question that has puzzled greater cricketing minds than mine throughout Bell’s career. For every sublime innings, there’s a tame chip to cover. Every time he looks like he’s broken through, he will frustrate and infuriate with a sloppy dismissal.

But recently it seems like Bell is making the step up from very good to world class. He still has all the silky strokes he had when he broke into the Warwickshire side at the age of 19. But now he’s grown up and learnt how to fight.

His match-saving innings in the final test in New Zealand earlier this year was a brilliant example, and today’s unbeaten 95 – surely to progress to the first century of the series tomorrow – was another. Bell has had more than his fair share of critics over the years, and he seems to have been trying to prove them wrong ever since he made his debut.

Bell is now 31 years old, he has played 88 Test matches and scored almost 6,000 runs. The “Sherminator” jibes are a thing of the past, and yet there were still comments in the build-up to The Ashes – some of them from journalists who should know better – questioning his place in the team.

Bell is one of the best English batsmen of his generation. He may go on to be one of its best batsmen full stop. But something tells me he won’t be remembered as such. The enduring English Test players of my youth – Atherton, Stewart, Thorpe, Hussain, Vaughan – were all good players who had exceptional periods. Bell is more talented than all of them. He has benefited from the selectors’ faith – what the likes of Ramprakash and Hick would have given for the same. Now he is adding the steel, determination and grit to make him a world beater.

England fans love a moan. But they have short memories. In Pietersen, Cook and Bell we have three of the greatest batsmen this country has ever seen. They know when they’re in a scrap, and later in this series they will get the chance to really make hay.

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