Angus Fraser: Why I'm back in the game
The IPL, World Twenty20, an Ashes tour – the County Championship has fierce competition this year. But for Angus Fraser, as he takes charge of Middlesex, it's still the life and soul of cricket
Tuesday 14 April 2009
The hyperbole, glitz, cheerleaders, Bollywood stars and lucre of the moneybags Indian Premier League (IPL) may be absent from tomorrow's opening round of the County Championship, as will the finest cricketers in the world, but there will be no shortage of ambition, determination, pride and hope among the 110 players who line up against each other at Taunton, the Rose Bowl, The Oval, Chelmsford or Grace Road.
The IPL, which begins in South Africa on Saturday, is the tournament where the vast majority of England's professional cricketers would like to be performing right now, but the road to such riches and celebrity has to start somewhere, and there is no better place in the world for a cricketer to learn and ultimately perfect his trade than within these shores. County cricket has its faults, with the volume of cricket played during a season being the biggest, but a congested fixture list does bring opportunity and over the next five months superstars of the future will find innumerable chances to hone their skills.
And it was the desire to try to develop future cricketers and produce a successful team, to deliver a good game rather than simply to talk one, that encouraged me to stand down as the cricket correspondent of this newspaper to take up the role of managing director of cricket at Middlesex. Writing for The Independent remains an honour (and you'll still see plenty of thoughts from me on these pages), but without giving this new challenge a go my involvement with cricket would have seemed incomplete. Correspondents have spent the winter covering the remarkable journey of the England cricket team; a voyage which has seen them report on Allen Stanford's multimillion-dollar match, the terrorist attacks in Mumbai and England's return home, the abandoned inaugural Champions League, Sachin Tendulkar's sensational and emotional match-winning hundred in Chennai, the Kevin Pietersen/Peter Moores impasse, Andrew Strauss's England being bowled out for 51, the abandoned 10-ball Test in Antigua, Stanford's arrest, the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team and England's unexpected Test series defeat to the West Indies. Compared to all this, the start of the domestic season will be greeted with muted enthusiasm. Rest, rather than more cricket, is what writers are currently looking for.
However, for those who wish to be part of the international scene the sentiment is far different. Excitement, energy and hope are the emotions that fill county dressing rooms, because the new season heralds the start of another challenging but potentially life-changing chapter in their lives. No player can be sure how the coming season will unfold – it is hard to believe Essex's Graham Napier would have contemplated being awarded an IPL contract 12 months ago – and it is such uncertainty that brings about these emotions. Working in such a positive environment is proving to be extremely satisfying.
At this stage of the season, Middlesex's aspirations will be no different to those at other counties. Each of the 18 sides will believe that, with a modicum of good fortune and with players remaining fit and performing to their full potential, they will challenge for at least one piece of silverware before the end of September. Alas, most will finish the season disappointed.
The supporters are full of expectation too, believing their team's pre-season preparations are complete. They will assume the batting order and bowling attack have been settled on and the tactics to be used against each opponent are in place.
Attention has been paid to all these issues but, even now, plans will be changing on a daily basis. Indoor cricket schools, with their true run-ups, even surfaces and extra bounce, serve a purpose, but it is not until a player gets outside that a true idea of how they are performing can be assessed. Only in a practice match does the contest between bat and ball begin to count. In indoor schools most bowlers look world-beaters. When a team-mate smashes the ball into the netting, there is always a fielder there. An edge is always caught and the odd bad ball doesn't really matter. All that changes when the netting disappears. Suddenly, the ball goes flashing to the boundary, a no-ball costs two extra runs and fielders, especially on cold April days, make mistakes. Playing a poor shot and spending the next three hours thinking about it focuses a batsman's mind too.
It hurts me to say it, but fast bowlers cause the greatest amount of anxiety to those responsible for preparing and managing a team. I know that running in to bowl on uneven surfaces, pushing your body that little bit harder, and having to deliver a second spell when your lower back feels as brittle as a dry twig is hard work, but why, oh why, do they have to be so injury-prone?
At Middlesex, the bowling attack for our opening match – on 22 April against Glamorgan – seems to change every other day. At the start of each week you believe you will have a tough decision to make on the eve of the first match. Omitting players is never easy. But by Thursday that has all changed. Niggles, tweaks, strains and general soreness force you to reconsider your options. Contingency plans containing a couple of non-contracted bowlers begin to appear. Then, after a couple of days' physiotherapy and rest, the process begins again.
At this time of the year batsmen, amazingly, tend to be low maintenance. It is only after a couple of low scores that they begin to get a touch precious. The English season is a wonderful thing for a batter because it offers them so many chances to do the thing they love most – bat.
For bowlers it is different. The physical demands of the job mean that injury and fatigue are rarely more than an over away. Nasser Hussain, the former England captain, recently said that county cricket is a graveyard for fast bowlers, but getting the balance right between rest and play is a huge challenge.
It is true that too much bowling is detrimental to performance, but there are many who seem to feel that a Glenn McGrath, Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, Andrew Flintoff or Zaheer Khan can be produced by the press of a switch. Indeed, it was a season of county cricket in 2006, a summer in which he bowled more than 700 overs, that transformed Zaheer from a journeyman into a superstar.
In previous generations, many England bowlers have bowled too much but, like batsmen, the only way to improve is by practising or playing. The ECB suggestion that a fast bowler should bowl fewer than 200 balls per week is nonsense.
It is always dangerous for a side to suggest they are prioritising a particular tournament, although the presence of three limited-over competitions can encourage some counties to lean towards that form of the game. The reward for winning the Twenty20 Trophy – entrance to the Champions League and a crack at the $2.5m (£1.7m) first prize – has caught the eye of many players too. In an attempt to ensure the County Championship remains the No 1 prize, the ECB has reacted positively, raising the prize-money for winning from £100,000 to £500,000. It is a good move because, in many ways, the prize is more tangible than that of its sexier competitor.
And so it should be. There are some who believe highly skilled and disciplined performers can be created on a laptop and in a gym, but it is the first-class game that produces great cricketers. It is only here that a batsman can bat for 10 hours, face 400 balls and score 245 runs. During this time at the crease he will try new things and modify his game, developing the confidence and skill to move to another level and adapt to other forms. An hour of hacking and slogging against a bowling machine provides only limited benefit.
For Middlesex, the season cannot start soon enough. We have a young and extremely gifted squad who showed what they are capable of achieving by winning last season's Twenty20 Trophy. The challenge for the county is to defend our title sternly, compete hard in the Friends Provident Trophy and push for promotion to the First Division of the County Championship. It is where a club of Middlesex's standing and resources should be.
What the ECB has done with the Pro40 competition – surely two leagues, semi-finals and a final, not two divisions, was the way to go in its final year – is difficult to comprehend. Several of the club's home limited-over matches will be played under the new Lord's retractable floodlights, which look spectacular. There can be few better experiences than playing under lights at the home of cricket on a warm summer night.
Much has been made of Middlesex's signing of Phillip Hughes, because it gives Australia's latest batting sensation the chance to acclimatise prior to the Ashes. The jingoistic and rather unambitious criticism was expected but, as the person who signed Hughes, I still don't accept it. The job of a county is twofold – to entertain its members and compete for domestic honours, and to produce England cricketers. Middlesex will continue in their endeavours to achieve both.
Fraser's picks: Five to watch
Surrey. Age 20.
Eligible for both England and the West Indies. If this all-rounder fulfils his potential, he will soon have to make a huge decision.
Middlesex. Age 21.
The hundred in last year's Twenty20 quarter-final against Lancashire highlighted his potential. Has been excellent in pre-season.
Warwickshire. Age 20.
Topped his county's bowling averages in 2008, a performance that led to promotion to the First Division.
Middlesex. Age 21.
Strong seamer with ability to move the ball around at pace. Has worked on his fitness and bowled well in pre-season.
Hampshire. Age 19.
Struck maiden first-class hundred in final game of last season, but is most highly rated as a left-arm spinner.
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