Friday, August 13, 2010

Friday the thirteenth and all that

Cricket is littered with superstitions – from the late umpire David Shepherd’s refusal to keep both feet on the ground when the score reached a multiple of 111 to the Australian fear of the number 87. In honour of this inauspicious date, here are some superstitious cricketers and how they feared in the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings.

Jack Russell was England’s first-choice wicket-keeper for the best part of a decade and was a nuggety left-handed batsman who frequently dug England out of deep holes when they had lost a number of early wickets. However, he also made his name from his refusal to wear anything other than his tatty Gloucestershire hat on his head and his penchant for baked beans and English tea when on tour. Having made 94 on his Test debut against Sri Lanka, he peaked at 39th place and 433 points soon after helping Mike Atherton save the 1995 Johannesburg Test.

South Africa’s Neil McKenzie had a habit of taping his bat to the ceiling before each innings and insisted that every toilet seat in the dressing room was down when he went out to bat. It certainly didn’t do him too much harm, as he returned from a four year wilderness period to reach 24th in the batting charts. However, his form soon declined and he now plays as a Kolpak for Hampshire.

Mark Ramprakash became a national name with his victory in ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ but he had a strange cricketing superstition too. He would always chew the same piece of gum throughout an innings, and stick it to the top of his bat if he was not out overnight. His longest Test innings – 154 against the West Indies at Bridgetown lasted 9 hours which must have left him with a pretty tired jaw. However, these peaks were few and far between in his Test career and he endured many spells in and out of the side. Like McKenzie, he also peaked at number 24 in the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings for Test batsmen.

Players from the subcontinent have also experimented with various superstitions. Kris Srikkanth – perhaps the forerunner to the exciting openers we see today - used to look at the sun, put his left pad on first and always walked to the right of his partner while going to bat. He managed to reach the top twenty Test batsmen in 1988 and performed even better in the shorter form of the game – reaching number 12 and sneaking through the 700 point barrier.

A man with tremendous respect for his father Lala, Jimmy Amarnath always carried a red handkerchief in his pocket, just like his father did. Possibly best remembered for his man-of-the match performance in the ICC World Cup 1983 when his Indian side upset the all-conquering West Indies, he also achieved great things in Test cricket. His superb series against the same West Indies side earlier in 1983 carried him to 8th in the world with 720 points. He never achieved such heights in ODI cricket, but was a good enough all-rounder to break into the top thirty with both bat and ball.

Red handkerchiefs also occupy a permanent place in the pockets of two other modern players. Steve Waugh played 168 Tests for Australia and blossomed from a useful all-rounder to one of the greatest batsmen the world has ever seen. Only four men have had more than his 94 Tests at number 1 and he peaked at 895 points. He was no slouch in ODI cricket either, as his memorable century against South Africa in ICC World Cup 1999 and he reached the top ten in that form too, not to mention number 11 with the ball.

Virender Sehwag is another who carries a red handkerchief with him. After a century on his Test debut, his next couple of years were relatively quiet, but then he burst onto the world scene with a number of eye-catching high scores, passing 300 on two occasions and scoring at a rate no opener in Test history has approached. This culminated in his reaching the number one spot in early 2010 after an innings of 165 against South Africa at Kolkata. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, he has never been the top rated ODI batsman, peaking at number 2 way back in 2003.

However, superstitions are not merely the preserve of modern-day cricketers. England’s first professional captain, Len Hutton always use to carry a five shilling coin given to him by a friend of his grandfather with the advice never to part with it. It certainly helped him on his way to becoming one of the greatest batsmen of all time and his highest Rating of 945 which he achieved in 1954 is second only to Don Bradman’s 961 in the all-time list.

His team-mate in the England team for 62 matches Denis Compton also had a peculiar habit of his own. He always used to carry a silver four-leaf clover with him. Another of England’s greatest batsmen and the man who played the stroke which regained the Ashes in 1953 after a 19-year absence, he peaked at 917 points and was the number 1 rated batsman in the world for 13 matches in 1948 and 1949.

There are plenty of others too. Yuvraj Singh believes that the bandana that he now wears has worked wonders for his game. Mark Waugh always used to raise his collar as he walked onto the field, and Sanath Jayasuriya goes through his elaborate ritual of touching all his cricket equipment before taking guard.

Alan Knott had the habit of touching the bails before taking strike. Apparently, in the Oval test in 1971, Indian wicket-keeper Farokh Engineer kept guard over the bails not allowing Knott to touch them and subsequently he was dismissed cheaply.

No doubt there are plenty more, but it is interesting to note that for Australians, the score of 87 is actually the least likely score in the 80s for them to be dismissed. Make of that what you will!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

When Irish eyes are smiling

Eoin Morgan’s maiden Test century was one of the highlights of England’s first Test victory over Pakistan at Trent Bridge. His innings of 130 helped lift England from 118-4 to a total of 354 and an eventual 354-run triumph.

Morgan first made his name for Ireland and reached a career best of 390 points in the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings for ODI batsmen in April 2009, shortly before switching allegiances to England. Since then, he has gone from strength to strength, peaking at number 13 in June this year and making his Test debut against Bangladesh at Lord’s the same month. However, Morgan is not the first Irish-born cricketer to play Test cricket. In fact he is the tenth. So – who are the others, and how did they perform in the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings?

The first Irish-born cricketer played in the very first Test Match of all – at Melbourne in March 1877. Tom Horan was bon in Midleton, near Cork and emigrated to Australia with his parents as a small child. His highest Test score of 124 came in his third Test – the 1882 New Year’s Test in Melbourne and his highest rating was 319 points achieved in his penultimate Test in 1885. Bowling-wise, he managed to reach 375 points the same year, the highest by any Irish-born player. He then turned his hand to journalism, contributing a weekly column to the ‘Australasian” under the pseudonym ‘Felix’.

Close behind Horan was Thomas Kelly who debuted for Australia in the second Test in 1877 scoring 19 and 35 (of which 32 came in boundaries). His career extended to just two Test Matches but he was widely acknowledged as being one of the finest point fielders of his generation.

1879 saw the sole Test appearance of Leland Hone who represented England despite having been born in Dublin and having no first-class experience. Educated at Rugby School, he was drafted into the side captained by Lord Harris as wicket-keeper but only managed scores of 7 and 6 to reach the not-so-giddy heights of 45 Rating points.

Sir Tim O’Brien was a colourful character who was an Irish Baronet, born in Dublin and fathering ten children. He won a Blue at Oxford University, despite making a ‘pair’ in the University match and played regularly for Middlesex throughout the 1880s and 1890s. His Test career spanned twelve years although he failed to pass 20 in any of his eight innings at the top level, and therefore never achieved more than his 139 points or 24th position early in his career.

Joe McMaster was unique among these Irishmen as he played a solitary Test but failed to record either a batting or bowling point as he was dismissed for a duck to the only delivery he faced. He was not called upon to bowl and that was the extent of his first-class career. As the match was only designated a Test some time later, for the two days he participated, he was unaware he had become an international cricketer.

Robert Poore was an army man who was stationed in South Africa in 1896 when he was called up to play three Tests for the home side against the England tourists. Like O’Brien, he too failed to pass 20 in his six innings in the series as George Lohmann routed them to the tune of 35 wickets at the miniscule average of 5.80. The highlight of his career came for Hampshire in 1899 when he scored 304 against Somerset at Taunton, adding 411 for the sixth wicket with fellow Army man Teddy Wynyard. He peaked at 197 points after the third of his Tests.

For the second of those ill-fated Tests in early 1896, Poore was joined in the South African team by Clement Johnson, who only managed to score 3 and 7; dismissed by Lohmann in his first innings and run out second time around. He was born in County Kildare but left Ireland for South Africa in 1893 due to ill health. He toured England as part of the first South African team the following year with some success, but that Johannesburg match was his only taste of the big time.

The owner of the highest Test score by an Irish-born player, Frederick Fane played 14 Tests for England between 1906 and 1910, captaining them in five of those. His innings of 143 at Johannesburg in March 1906 was in just his third Test, but was unable to prevent England falling to a heavy defeat. His other claim to fame is that he was Jack Hobbs’s first opening partner for England – against the Aussies at Melbourne in January 1908 – outscoring the ‘Master’ in the second innings. His peak of 457 points was good enough for 11th place and it that points tally remained an Irish-born record until Eoin Morgan sneaked past it after his recent century.

After more than eighty years, another Irish-born player took the field. Martin McCague was born in Larne and grew up in Australia but represented England in three Tests in the mid 1990s, taking 4-121 on his debut against Australia in 1993 at Trent Bridge. However, his undoubted pace couldn’t be backed up by consistent control and so he only managed to reach 86 bowling points, despite performing admirably for Kent for the best part of a decade.