Monday, 20 October 2014

Top Hat

Fantasy Bob has observed before that there is no human misery that could not be made passably better by a spot of tap-dancing.

Generally he sticks by that philosophy: while current political debate might not acknowledge the argument's merits, FB is confident that the coming UK election will see the major parties make serious commitments to tap dancing as they draw up their manifestos.

Be that as it may, FB and Mrs FB recently enjoyed a performance of Top Hat - a stage presentation of the 1930s musical which has enough tap dancing to soothe most anxieties these troubled times give rise to.

FB has never had the chance to tap dance.  Mrs FB suggests that his possession of two left feet would be a significant hindrance to any attempt.  Of course Mrs FB has never seen his nimble dancing down the wicket to dispatch the ball to the boundary, far less his floating rhythmic run up the hill against the wind.  Had she done so, she would know that her anatomical aspersion is inaccurate.  FB has two right feet.

FB has therefore always admired tap dancing in others and no one tops Fred Astaire who shone like the brightest of diamonds in the film version of Top Hat which contains several magical dance numbers with Ginger Rogers.  Not even FB's world famous in-swinger can match the perfection of their presentation of Cheek to Cheek. Test Match Quality.

Regrettably, cricketers find little to interest them in the careers of Astaire nor Rogers - any interest stimulated by the knowledge that Astaire's very first film appearance was in a 1915 silent film with the encouraging title of Fanchon the Cricket is soon dispelled when they find the action revolves around a young wild girl Fanchon (played by Mary Pickford) who lives in a forest with her eccentric grandmother who is suspected of being a witch.  Being a witch of course could be a cipher for bowling leg spin, but there is no cricketing action to verify this reading.

The score of Top Hat was written by Irving Berlin, generally believed to be another non-cricketer.   Berlin can be considered the greatest of all song writers - he wrote over 1500 many of which are as popular and fresh today as when he wrote them - despite the shocking absence of cricket references in his lyrics.  But then it has to be recalled that Berlin was writing for an American audience whose interest in cricket was limited. For commercial reasons, he had to suppress his better instincts and write cricket out of his songs.

This seems a reasonable hypothesis for FB has unearthed this early version of the lyric of one of Berlin's more enduring numbers, which could almost have been written about FB:

There may be googlies ahead
But while it's milit'ry medium
You won't look a prat
Let's face the bowling and bat

Before the seamers have fled
Before they ask us to play leg spin
And while the wicket’s still flat
Let's face the bowling and bat

(This great tune  - with its better known words - was included in the stage version of Top Hat where it sat very nicely - but it was written for another Astaire-Rogers film Follow the Fleet.)
Cheek to Cheek - perfection


Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Singer Sargent's Trick

It has taken Fantasy Bob too long to visit the summer exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art on the American Impressionists, now in its last week.

  Of course, previous experience of such exhibitions had given him little cause to expect much of cricketing interest. And the presence of American in the title also reinforced his lack of expectation - American impressions of cricket are generally less than illuminating.

So he had not set his hopes high and was duly not disappointed by them being dashed.   He can report to his faithful readership that there is nothing of cricketing interest in the wide array of pictures which are full of charm, colour and sunlight and depict people and landscapes at the turn of the 20th Century.   It is a most enjoyable show.

But as he came away from the show something nagged in FB's brain.  Had he been too cavalier in dismissing the cricketing content.   John Singer Sargent's picture of his fellow painter Dennis Miller Bunker Painting at Calcot kept coming back into mind.


Dennis Miller Bunker Painting at Calcot
by John Singer Sargent
Now,  FB's worldwide readership will be familiar with Singer Sargent as a great society portrait painter and creator of what FB considers his favourite painting in the National Galleries of Scotland. Despite a long residence in England, Singer Sargent did not see fit to include cricketing subjects in his work. A grievous failure.
 
But in this charming picture cricket seems to have slipped in. For although the title suggests that the subject, standing to the left, is painting, his atire - his whites his blazer and his white cap - are far more appropriate for cricket.
 
FB is not aware of anyu other picture claiming to show painters at work when they are dressed in cricket gear.  So there can be no mistake.  Sargent's title is deliberately misleading.
 
The so called painter depicted is taking a few moments before donning his pads to bat in the game proceeding behind him out of the picture's frame? If so, it might be a dull game for the young lady seems to be taking no interest in proceedings. It could therefore be the tea interval.
 
If Bunker was painting there is no clyue as to what his painting depicted.  The game in progress may well be the subject of Bunker's painting but it has been lost from his surviving work.  (Bunker himself was an artist of some note but sadly died at the age of 29 in 1890).

There is further mystery in the painting. The location is given in the title - Calcot is a suburb of Reading. But there is no record to suggest that there was a cricket club there at the time of the painting being made - 1887. Of course there are other cricket clubs in the vicinity, but not at Calcot. The painting therefore must be painted there and not at Calcot - so why should Sargent mislead?    What was he up to?

1887 might have been an inspiring year for any cricket painter for it was the driest summer for nearly 20 years and this fact and the developmento f the heavy roller in pitch preparation meant that it was a good year for batting. Arthur Shrewsbury averaged 78.71 for twenty-three innings, beating W.G. Grace’s 1871 record of 78.25. This itself was not beaten until Robert Poore averaged 91.23 in 1899. Shrewsbury’s innings of 267 against Middlesex, at 615 minutes remains the longest innings ever played in a county match. W.G. Grace for the third time reached 2,000 runs for the season.

So there was lots to depict if only Sargent had looked.  Instead he played clever tricks pretending to show painters in action in a place where there was probably no cricket.  It's this kind of thing that gets art a bad name.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Balls

Fantasy Bob enjoyed - and he uses the world loosely, rather in the sense that a heretic in 15th Century Spain might have been said to have enjoyed the services provided by the Spanish Inquisition - his now annual visit to the golf links this week.

Bunkers left lying around
Time was when FB's visits to the links were twice weekly.  On occasion those visits to the links would even involve a visit to the fairway.

No holiday in Scotland was complete unless FB energetically visited a course close by and undertook a charitable redistribution of golf balls by leaving them in the bushes where the local poor could find them.

It took many years until he finally concluded that hope was not going to triumph over experience, and FB became well and truly scunnered with golf.

So this week his expectations were low as he set off with playing partners.  No Ryder Cup  inspired excitement excited his walk to the place of execution.  Even that pessimistic assessment proved to be optimistic.

His first drive found a fairway bunker, so the tone was set early on.  Indeed bunkers seem to have been left lying around this course in a most careless fashion - the designer evidently benefitted from an end of season sale of bunkers at his local IKEA and just left his burgeoning stock any old where.  FB's visits to the sand were therefore more frequent than on many of his beach holidays.

Scunnered became too polite a word to describe his condition as he attempted yet another excavation from the sand.

However his round (if such a shapeless and ill formed experience can be so described) was remarkable for one factor.  He kept his ball from the first tee to the 18th green.  This is a fact worthy of headline news.  It may never have happened before.

FB's treasure trove - useless
But FB found himself wondering if it this achievement was worth the effort.  Did it have any point?

For deep in FB's hall cupboard is a collection of golf balls that would excite the envy of millions. Two full show boxes and more - garnered from FB's many visits to the rough during his years of obsession.  Occasionally thery overflow and roll into the shoes and boots that also inhabit the cupboard, but not in such great numbers.

This is to the irritation of Mrs FB, who does not enjoy stubbing her toe on a Titleist NXT Tour.  FB's assurance that its soft balata cover gives maximum feel does not impress her.  Through gritted teeth she remarks,

'You should do something with your balls. Before I do it for you'


Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Variations

Wasim Akram - master of variation
Fantasy Bob has spent some of the recently completed cricket season worrying about his variations. For he has noticed in reports of top flight matches much is made of the desirability of a bowler delivering variations. Line and length is out, variations are in. Coaches look for nothing else. Commentators obsess with noticing and defining variations.

This obsession has become all pervasive.  Even the fresh faced junior members joining FB in his All Star Carlton Fourth XI have got the bug. On being invited to bowl at a critical stage in a match, the freshest faced and juniorest of them will now inform FB, 'Going to try my new variations, Bob.'

FB sighs and sets the field deeper.

 For FB finds variations are over rated.  Perhaps the intense environment of lower league cricket is not a fertile ground for them.  But even in elite cricket he sees that batsmen now expect the change up - or change down (whatever that piece of coaching speak may mean) after 2 balls of the over.  They are therefore set up for the slower one - and off it duly goes over the boundary rope.  Or the bowler's control over the delivery is so fragile that a set of increasingly embarrassing wides follows.  Some variations.  The only surprise variation these days is no variation at all.

Variations might seem a new craze, but great bowlers have always been able to keep the batsman guessing.  Shane Warne or Wasim Akram, for example, may well have had 5 or 6 different deliveries which they could bowl at will.
Anton Diabelli

But 5 or 6 variations pales into insignificance when the true greats come into view.  And the greatest of them all was incomparable.

In 1819 Anton Diabelli, who was a music publisher and minor composer in Vienna, invited a number of Austrian composers to offer a variation on a waltz theme of his own composition.  His worthy objective was to raise funds for widows and orphans of the Napoleonic Wars.

Legend has it that Beethoven, then at the height of his Test career, at first scorned the invitation thinking the theme was too banal for one of is talents.

Beethoven's slower one
However, whether in response to a financial inducement or just because Beethoven was that kind of guy, he eventually got stuck in and a few years later presented the world not with one variation but with 33 Variations.   Five and a half overs and not a single duplicate delivery.

No simple change-up or change-down for Beethoven - his piece is endlessly inventive and ground breaking.  The ball comes from the back of the hand, the front of the hand, across the seam, down the seam, top spin, side spin, over spin - and then some more. With good reason it has been described as Beethoven's greatest piano work and the greatest set of variations ever created.  FB is bound to agree - it certainly tops his own efforts to master the slower one.

33 Variations - that would keep any batsman guessing. 

Beethoven - greater even than Akram
This link will take you to FB's favourite pianist Alfred Brendel playing this masterpiece.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Ajmal

Fantasy Bob reads with interest that the ICC has banned Pakistan’s Saeed Ajmal following investigation of his bowling action. Analysis showed that his arm extended beyond the legal 15 degrees in all his deliveries.  The ICC have deemed him a chucker and no greater slur is known to the cricketer.
Ajmal - bent elbow

The ICC seem to have ramped up their approach on this aspect of the game this year. A number of bowlers have been reported, banned, investigated or are undergoing remedial action including Kane Williamson, and Sachithra Senanayake.

But as far as FB knows, no bowler in the lower leagues of the East of Scotland Cricket Association has been given this treatment, although speculation about unique bowling actions is a regular part of the Saturday afternoon discourse during many games.

FB’s own action is beyond question, if only because he is unable to bend any part of his body more than 15 degrees.

FB has suffered as much as any other lower league batter from the bottom feeding chuckers, but Ajmal is something different. A truly great bowler whose reputation is now probably slurred irretrievably. There are suggestions that the attention on him is a reflection of a long standing campaign by some to outlaw the doosra altogether.  It is unfair to batters, so they say.  FB has never encountered a doosra from the business end - for which he is truly thankful - but on these grounds he thinks the straight ball should be banned too.  It is unfair to batters - well to FB at least.

Some say that it is impossible to bowl the doosra without an illegal arm bend.  Illegal or unnatural? FB's attempt to bowl a doosra in the nets rendered his shoulder and wrist out of action for weeks. FB's investigations suggest that it may be something only to be attempted by the double jointed. And there’s the rub.

Akhtar - bent elbow
Murali was investigated time after time because of contentions that his action, and his doosra in particular, was illegal. Time and again he passed the assessment and revealed startling flexibility in his wrist and fingers being able to lay his thumb along his forearm. Shoab Ahktar had a similar hyper extension of his elbow adding to his already fearsome pace.   (See this slo-mo of him throwing).

So, is there no place for the double jointed in cricket?

Which brings FB naturally on to Sergei Rachmaninov, known to all cricketers as the composer of lushly romantic piano concertos, the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, Vocalise and other sundry delights. The music that swells up all through the uber-romance Brief Encounter is his, and he is Classic FM's favourite composer. 

But, despite all this, was Rachmaninov a chucker?

To FB’s knowledge Sergei Rachmaninov was never seen on the cricket field.  No one has therefore seen his doosra.  But on the evidence of the complexity of his piano writing, many critics contend that Rachmaninov must have been double jointed.  His joints may therefore have flexed illegally during his Paganini Variations, not to mention his doosra.  This is something that the ICC, or Classic FM, need to consider with some urgency.

It is surely time it was established beyond doubt whether Rachmaninov's doosra laden Paganini Variations was a legal delivery.

Rachmaninov - bent elbow

Until that day dawns, cricketers will wish to approach his music, and his doosra, with caution.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Flapjacks

Fantasy Bob's longstanding membership of the League of Empire Biscuit Loyalists is not to be tampered with.  It is firm and unyielding.

Members of the League are clear in their conviction that the empire biscuit is the piece of choice in all circumstances, including imminent torture by leg spin bowling.

However FB's loyalty has recently been put under severe strain during a recent visit to the National Galleries of Scotland.

FB will spare his world wide handful of readers the fairly obvious observation that cricket is poorly served in the NGS collection of pictures.  Nor is there any representations of the empire biscuit - surely a fitting subject for artists.

Cricketers may therefore feel weary treading through its galleries, as did FB.  They may repair to the coffee bar, as did FB.

They will overcome their sense of disappointment that amongst the array of cakes presented there, the empire biscuit is noticeable only by its absence.

It was at this low point that FB found himself with a flapjack on his plate.  FB has always tolerated the flapjack as a workaday player; a journeyman county player; unlikely ever to merit Test selection. All too often it is a solid lump of  oatmeal and vegetable fat .

Not on this occasion.  This was straight into the Test squad -  a moist fruit laden masterpiece.  It was full of apricot, prune, pumpkin seed and glace cherry.  A masterpiece.

FB has therefore formed a new organisation - the League of NGS Flapjack Loy
alists.  Joint Membership with the League of Empire Biscuit Loyalists is available now.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Maurice Ravel

Maurice Ravel
Cricketers whose expectations are raised by noticing that the works of the great French composer Maurice Ravel include a song entitled Cricket have to be let down slowly. For they may open their ears for a melody celebrating line and length but instead will find an account of a day in the life of an insect.

They will feel désolé, affligé, inconsolé, désespéré, misérable, triste, affligeant, abandonné, désert, malheureux.  All a bit French in fact.  Is it this Frenchness which is a factor behind the lack of cricketing material in the works of Ravel?

Putting this apparent limitation behind him, Fantasy Bob found himself in the Usher Hall earlier this week enjoying Ravel's ravishing music played superbly by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under five-star conductor Mariss Jansons. Test Match Quality.

Mariss Jansons
On the programme was Suite No 2 from the ballet score Daphnis and Chloe. This work opens with as fine a musical depiction of dawn and early morning as has ever been written.  It will evoke the feeling in any cricketer of arriving early at the ground with a hint of dew on the grass and the golden sunlight slowly streaming over the wicket as the Doughty Groundsman (depicted by the lower strings) puts his finishing touches to the surface.

So evocative is it that FB began to wonder whether Ravel have gained his inspiration from this piece by exposure to just such a cricket ground?

Ravel made several visits to Britain during his career. His first visit was a the end of April 1909, the same year that he began work on Daphnis and Chloe and may well have caught the opening matches of the season.  Coincidence?  FB doesn't think so. (Sadly FB notes that while Ravel visited Edinburgh several times he did so only during the winter months, so it is unlikely that he took his inspiration from a morning visit to Carlton's prestigious Grange Loan HQ.)

It is less easy to track the cricketing inspiration in his later works although some of his visits to Britain coincided with significant cricketing events which may well have stuck in his mind. In 1922 he was in England shortly after Warwickshire and Hampshire took part in one of the most remarkable of all County Championship matches. After making 223 Warwickshire dismissed Hampshire for only 15, Following on, Hampshire did better, but were still struggling when a 9th wicket partnership of 180 lifted them to 521. Warwickshire needed 314 to win but were bowled out for 158 to give Hampshire a remarkable win in one of the greatest comebacks in cricket - and the inspiration behind Ravel's blues influenced violin sonata finished the year after.

Iftikhar Ali Khan Pataudi -
known to his pals as Nawab
In July 1931 Ravel conducted at Covent Garden at the same time as the annual University match between Oxford and Cambridge was underway at Lords.  Might he have spent the day there watching the Nawab of Pataudi stroke the Cambridge bowlers to all parts of the ground to make 238*?  His subsequent work suggests as much.   

For in 1931 Ravel completed his Piano Concerto, also part of the concert programme attended by FB. There seems little argument that the languid, elegant and beautiful second movement is a fitting tribute to this fine innings. 

The Nawab was subsequently selected for the Ashes tour in what became the bodyline series.  He scored a century in his first Test innings but struggled subsequently - both with his form, the bodyline tactic and, personally, with the skipper Jardine of whom he said,  'I am told he has his good points. In three months I have yet to see them.'  Ravel did no meet Jardine, but his music suggests he may have had similar reservations about the tactic.

Pataudi subsequently skippered India on their tour of England in 1946.  Tragically, Ravel could gather no further inspiration from the Nawab for he died in 1937, without adding to the cricket references in his work.