A nasty sense of humour


THE least desirable of all cricket influences are those sporting gods who will not allow cricket to control its own destiny. They have such a nasty sense of humour.

These incredible fellows - I visualise them as ugly imps, crouching at the highest point of a floodlight tower, hiding under the big roller, secreted behind the sightscreens - have been particularly active in the last few weeks.

They must have been hiding under the table in whichever committee room David Graveney, chairman of selectors, met his men used to pick the team for the one-day international tri-tournament.

The imps were giggling because Graveney, Nasser Hussain, the captain, Duncan Fletcher, the coach, and the unsung worker Geoff Miller, who spends his days scouting round the counties and his nights earning a small fortune with witty after-dinner speeches, believed they were picking the 15. Ha!

After hours of discussion the four wise men decided that they would prefer Paul Collingwood of Durham to Alistair Brown of Surrey.

The sporting gods promptly had hysterics. "We'll show 'em," said their leader, a crooked little devil as he rolled round the floor clutching his stomach with sheer merriment. "Won't we just prove they can't mess with us."

The next day the team was announced just as the eight fourth round matches in the Cheltenham and Gloucester Trophy began. Before anyone in the country had a chance to say: "Good Lord, the selectors have omitted A. D. Brown, the hard-hitting batsman from Surrey." The same batsman smote a century off 80 balls.

By the time we had downed our lunch he had rushed to 268 off 160 balls, thanks in part to a boundary line that was only 55 yards from the pitch on the extreme side of the Oval square. This unusual position was taken so that work could continue on the two wickets needed for the NatWest games.

There were too many records to name them all but it was the highest individual score breaking the 222 by Graeme Pollock for Eastern Province in 1974-5 and Surrey's 438 was the highest team score in a 50-overs match.

One writer called the innings of 12 sixes and 30 fours "a Bradmanesque mixture of poetry and murder." And the best laugh for the little evil ones hiding in the scoreboard came when two scorers developed repetitive strain injuries.

By this time the imps were kicking their legs in the air with delight and Messrs Graveney, Fletcher, Hussain and Miller were nowhere to be seen. Just to add to the fun Robert Croft, whose off breaks had been rejected in favour of Jeremy Snape's rather less threatening spin, hit fifty in 22 balls and a century in 56.

(Snape can no longer command a place in the Gloucestershire first team but England value continuity above all things and, after all, Croft did decline to tour India).

Some think that Darren Thomas ought to be in the England side and he hit an undefeated 71 - but only after he had taken three for 108 in nine overs.

Surrey won the match by nine runs after 867 runs had been scored. Great day's cricket, particularly for the crazy imps who were delighted. And right around the world, coaches, captains, players and pundits began to wonder: "What strength must there be in this England team that they can afford to leave out Brown and Croft."

I have no doubt that it was the sporting gods who whispered in the ear of the Surrey groundsman that he must shift the pitch. They also, so it is whispered, left notes in the handwriting of Lord MacLaurin, chairman of the ECB, telling the selectors that Brown and Croft should not be in the one-day squad under any circumstances.

It must have been the same devious brain that sent telepathic messages to the Sky television executives explaining that Essex v Lancashire was much more likely to produce the cricket the fans wanted to watch. By that time the elves could no long type in a straight line for laughing.

One day last summer one of these busy little men, heavily disguised as a cricket writer, walked up to Alec Stewart and asked him if he was going to India for the Test series. It was a question widely debated at the time.

"Thinking about it," said Alec. "Don't know. Lot to consider."

The imp-turned-lap-top-carrier grinned. "Might be a bad idea, Alec. Suppose some wicked photographer took your picture next to a bookmaker and splashed it all over the papers. Might make you look very guilty. Right?"

Hardly noticing that the creature had disappeared in a cloud of betting slips, Alec decided shortly afterwards that he would spend the next few months having operations on his elbows, watching Chelsea play football and spending Christmas with his family.

The selectors were not amused. They decided not pick him for India or New Zealand and convinced themselves that James Foster, 21, still in the middle of his courses at university and wet behind the pads as a wicket-keeper, was their first choice for the rest of his life.

When the tour sides came back Foster was given a contract for this summer and Stewart's name was totally ignored if not forgotten.

It was at this point that the sporting gods sprang their trap.

Foster was not allowed to play much for Essex at the start of the season so that he could rest up after his exertions during the winter but, like a good professional, he took himself off to the nets.

He thought it was an Essex player who was bowling to him and failed to recognise the sudden change of action when an imp took over with a ball that sprang off the pitch and broke his wrist.

Stewart was the obvious choice as replacement and, with words of encouragement from the little imps, kept wicket brilliantly. In the third Test against Sri Lanka he made a century that ensures he will be in the side for as long as most of us can see.

Unless the grinning imps have another cunning plan.

Lord Condon has let it be known that right up to last April there was match-fixing - or player-fixing as I prefer to think of the worst excesses of the bribery scandal - but that there has been none since.

M'Lord kids himself. There will always be such happenings so long as the fiends from the Department Of Sporting Evil are doing their worst.

They seem to have control of every part of the sporting world. I see their hand in the penalty missed and the goal scored by the South Korean Ahn Jung Hwan and his subsequent sacking by his Italian club. He puts his country in the quarter-finals of the World Cup and is fired.

Where's the justice in that?

Only men with such twisted minds as the sporting gods could possibly tempt Luciano Gaucci, the boss of Perugia to say: "That gentleman will never set foot in Perugia again. This behaviour" - that is to say scoring a goal for his team! - "is an offence against my country. I regard such behaviour as an affront to Italian pride."

Lighten up, old man, before the sports gods have "this gentleman" transferred to Roma, or Napoli or AC or Inter Milan so that he can score a golden goal against Perugia too.

They had their best laugh this week on the Arnos Vale ground in St. Vincent where West Indies won because these little imps distracted the umpires who miscounted the number of overs bowled by Paul Hitchcock. One scorer writes down ten overs for that bowler and the other nine. Not an accident, I promise, but intervention by the little people.

When Hitchcock came up for the final over of the West Indies innings he was told he had had his ration. The 50th over was blitzed for 15 and the New Zealand captain Stephen Fleming was so annoyed he reported the umpiring to the match referee.

Somewhere at Arnos Vale, over on the airdrome runway, perhaps a couple of miles out to sea, perhaps in the rich vegetation on the hillsides round the ground, there was the cackle of fiendish laughter. The naughty hobgoblins had struck again.

Their greatest glee comes from reminding the cricket authorities that they must be more vigilant; or the sporting gods will continue to wreck the best laid plans of our lords and masters.