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Grandstand

<em>Picture: Tessa Carroll</em>

Picture: Tessa Carroll

While the eyes of the sport-spectating world these past couple of days have mostly been on events at Augusta, or on Sebastian Vettel’s win in the Malaysian grand prix, or – inevitably – on various football matches, there has also been some unusual and entertaining cricket action.

In an odd coincidence, the small section of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack that provides details of six-hitting records has seen two candidates for inclusion within the space of 24 hours.

First – in the opening round of domestic county championship matches – the 19-year-old Durham all-rounder Ben Stokes came within one mighty swish of being only the third person ever to hit all six balls of a first-class over for six. En route to an unbeaten 135, Stokes dumped the first five balls of an over from Hampshire’s left-arm spinner Liam Dawson beyond the boundary – before Dawson obtained a modicum of revenge when the last ball was merely edged down to fine leg for a single.

“We are really, really chuffed for him,” said Stokes’ mother Deb, when the News & Star asked what she made of her son’s big-hitting exploits.

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Had that last ball flown for six, Stokes would have joined an extremely elite club. The first – and still the most celebrated – instance of “all six” was by Garry Sobers, playing for Nottinghamshire at Swansea in 1968, an occasion immortalised by one of the most fortuitous pieces of forward-thinking in the televised history of any sport.

Although BBC Wales had been broadcasting live coverage for Grandstand, it was off-air when the great over came. But producer John Norman had told the cameraman to keep filming, and so the Sobers assault – with its over-the-boundary “catch” from the fifth ball and its monumental, away-down-the-street, “that’s not a six, that’s a 12” finale – has been preserved for YouTube posterity.

Sobers plundered the respected Glamorgan bowler Malcolm Nash – who, like Dawson, was bowling left-arm spin, although his normal trade was as a medium-paced seamer. Nash also suffered being smashed for 34 in an over by Frank Hayes of Lancashire nine years later, but it’s those few minutes trying and failing to tame the great Sobers that will forever define his cricketing career.

There was a second instance, untelevised this time, by Ravi Shastri. The Indian was another very fine all-rounder – it’s odd that the two successful efforts and Sunday’s near-miss have all been by all-rounders rather than pure batsmen, although Sobers would be a candidate for an all-time World XI on batting alone. Playing in what was then Bombay, now Mumbai, Shastri smashed Tilak Raj of Baroda (another left-arm spinner) for six consecutive sixes in a Ranji Trophy match in 1985.

There have been two further instances in one-day cricket – where the format makes such feats more likely than in the first-class multi-day game. Both came in 2007: first by Herschelle Gibbs of South Africa, in the 50-over world cup, against Dutch bowler Daan van Bunge in St Kitts. Then India’s Yuvraj Singh tonked England’s Stuart Broad for six in a row – including two over the off-side – in Durban in the Twenty20 world cup. For this, in the manner of a golfer gaining a prize for a hole-in-one, Yuvraj received a Porsche 911.

Having said all that, because Stokes “only” ended up with 31 from Sunday’s over in Southampton, he remains a long way short of the top of the list, given that other batsmen have scored 34 or 32 off an over at various times. These include a couple of to-be-expected names – Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff – but also some batsmen not renowned as rustic hitters. Ian Redpath, who went 666644 in Bloemfontein in 1970, was “an opener so obdurate that he did not strike a six until his 66th Test”, according to Cricinfo, while Paul Parker (466664 at Edgbaston in 1982) was “an entertaining and correct middle-order batsman”.

Then, as if that wasn’t enough excitement, just a few hours after Stokes had earned himself a couple of pints, Australian opening batsman Shane Watson did something equally impressive in a one-day international against Bangladesh at Mirpur. Bangladesh made 229 in their 50 overs, which was never likely to prove a troublesome target given the gulf in class between the teams. But Australia – and Watson in particular – didn’t mess about. The match was won off the last ball of the 26th over, by which stage Watson – a brute with a bat when his eye is in – had made an unbeaten 185 off just 96 balls, including 150 in boundaries: 15 fours, 15 sixes.

Watson only managed four sixes in succession – off the middle four balls of an over bowled by Suhrawadi Shuvo (inevitably a slow left-armer). But he beat the previous highest tally of sixes in a single limited-overs innings, which had stood at 12, by New Zealander Xavier Marshall. The first-class record remains the higher of the two – 16 in an innings of 254 by Birmingham-born Aussie muscleman Andrew Symonds, in 1995 (coincidentally at Abergavenny, birthplace of Malcolm Nash).

Both Stokes and Watson – who sound like they should set up in business together – must have entertained their respective in-the-ground crowds tremendously. Do their efforts tell us anything new about the game, however? Probably not – especially the Watson innings, given that it only reinforces how substandard Bangladesh remain in top-table international terms (something that will further rile Ireland’s cricketers, in light of the news that they will not be allowed to try and qualify for the next world cup, whereas Bangladesh, arguably a poorer team, will be automatic entrants).

In a way, it’s a good thing that Bangladesh didn’t score more than 229 – or that Australia didn’t bat first. With Watson in that kind of form against that standard of bowling, he could well have scored 300-odd including 25 sixes, which would surely have crossed the boundary of what counts as fair or fun.

We live in a batsman-favoured time, however, and while such feats will remain infrequent, there are likely to be more of them than in ages past. Heavier bats, shorter boundaries – even in first-class matches – and various bowling restrictions mean that the six-hit doesn’t count for quite as much as it used to, the simple scoreboard statistic aside.

That said, there has always been a fascination with the sixer – and as far back as 1960 the cricket historian Gerald Brodribb was able to write a learned and lengthy book on the subject, Hit for Six.

Brodribb clearly loved the subject (another of his books was The Croucher, a biography of the great Edwardian strokemaker Gilbert Jessop), and it was with evident relish that he gave his chapters titles such as “Some Great Hits and Their Makers”, “Danger and Damage” and “A Spree of Sixes”. The book is worth seeking out for the pictures alone: a great ones of Frank Woolley hooking Alf Gover “out of the ground” at the Oval – a very big ground – in 1934, and of Errol Holmes, Percy Fender, Charles Oakes and the like.

The game has moved on greatly in the half-century since Brodribb’s book, but the basic joys remain the same. Just as there is scarcely any better sight than a genuine pace bowler in full flow, so nothing prompts cricketing awe and amusement quite like a batsman hoicking the ball high over deep square leg – or, even better, the clean straight hit, back over the bowler’s head and on to the roof of the stand or beyond.

Messrs Stokes and Watson will have brought a lot of smiles to faces – apart from those of beleaguered bowlers and fielders – with their recent efforts in belligerence.

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Sportacus – or Francesco Totti? <em>Picture: Daniel C Griliopoulos</em>

Sportacus – or Francesco Totti? Picture: Daniel C Griliopoulos

By Stewart Weir

Saturday
And the Six Nations draws to a close with the usual amount of cheers and tears. Scotland beat Italy to avoid the wooden spoon – or, given the close relationship between the two nations, maybe it should have been the ice cream scoop.

But the big event saw England fall at the final hurdle to the Irish, so missing out on a Grand Slam. I mean, they only had to turn up to win, such was the 1990-like pre-match hype. That result meant that Wales had a chance of taking the championship, if they beat France by 28 points.

Who the hell started heaping such expectation on Wales in advance of the match in Paris?

Regardless, it was ill-founded, with the French running out easy winners – so handing, if you have been following things, the title to England. They received the series trophy, not in front of 70,000 spectators at the Aviva Stadium, but witnessed by just a few cameras and photographers in a Dublin Hotel.

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An anti-climax, or what? England had few complaints, despite their rally after the break, soundly beaten 24–8 by an Irish side which had led 17–3 at half-time.

“We won the first half, but England won the second half,” said Irish captain Brian O’Driscoll.

Wait a minute. 17–3 at the turnaround, 24–8 at no-side. Surely Ireland won the second half 7–5?

Poor arithmetic, Brian. Or do you have ambitions to be a future Irish finance minister?

Sunday
Rangers beat Celtic 2–1 to take the Scottish League Cup. But that’s not the football highlight of the weekend.

Fiorentina and Roma playing out a 2–2 draw is hardly a scoreline to set pulses racing. But in scoring two goals for Roma, Francesco Totti (who has more than a passing resemblance to Sportacus from Lazy Town, minus the moustache) reached the landmark tally of 200 goals in Serie A.

To put that in to context, Serie A is more than a century old. But Totti is only the sixth player to reach that elusive mark. Giuseppe Meazza and Silvio Piola from the 1930s, and Gunnar Nordahl and José Altafini from the 50s and 60s, had their double-hundred before Roberto Baggio (the unthinking man’s Stevie Fulton) arrived, some 33 years after Altafini.

A decade on, and Totti has emulated their feat. But at the age of 34, he might not add too many more to his collection and certainly doesn’t have a hope of catching Piola’s all-time high of 274.

Of those still playing in Italy’s top flight, only Alessandro Del Piero is close to becoming the seventh member of this exclusive club.

Indeed, it’s not so much a case of marvelling at who has netted 200 goals in Serie A, as recognising the famous names who didn’t even come close: Gabriel Batistuta on 184, Luigi Riva and Roberto Mancini each with 156, while on 142 is Christian Vieri, who does not make tellies for Panasonic…

But returning to the League Cup, do you realise petrol was only 88p a litre when Celtic last won a trophy? Yes, that long…

Monday
It would have been easy to miss it. But the draw for the Betfred World Snooker Championship took place on Monday, where 16 seeds were matched with 16 qualifiers to decide the first round proper at the Crucible.

There was a bit more razzmatazz about the draw, as there is with most things concerning Barry Hearn. No more the draw being held on the radio (which ended in a cock-up when the same player was drawn against two different opponents), or in secret, as it was a few years ago, the outcome held over for a day before being announced. Did I hear the word “fix”?

But even Monday’s event was a pale and poor imitation of what was once the norm, when the draw took place at peak-viewing time on a Saturday afternoon as a main feature on Grandstand. Snooker may still be as popular, but it just doesn’t feature as near the front of the Beeb’s sportfolio…

Tuesday
No sooner had Rangers placed the Co-operative Insurance Cup in their trophy cabinet, than they heard they would be defending the Scottish Communities League Cup next season.

There probably has never been such an extreme switch in where sponsorship cash has been sourced. From the Co-op – mutual, benevolent, social and community based – to the £1 million promised by Scottish government from pimping, fraud and drugs.

Sorry. It doesn’t come directly from the Scottish government’s activities in pimping, money laundering and the likes. The investment actually comes from cash seized from criminals, through the Proceeds of Crime Act.

The Proceeds of Crime Cup? Now that would get you recognised. I hear the Colombian authorities are looking at having a Cocaine Bowl next season.

And just a thought. After all the brouhaha of the Old Firm game at Parkhead a few weeks ago, could there be a chance in the future where troublesome managers and players – already threatened by authorities and polis alike – might end up as unsuspecting sponsors of a cup competition their teams are entered in?

Wednesday
And Elizabeth Taylor dies. Many mourn her passing. I just reflect on the small fortune she probably cost me over the years.

See, because of her, I fell for the likes of Charlotte Brew, Jenny Hembrow, Linda Sheedy, Geraldine Rees, Joy Carrier, Valerie Alder, Jacqui Oliver, Gee Armytage, Venetia Williams, Penny Ffitch-Heyes, Tarnya Davies and Rosemary Henderson. Not in the way you would “fall” for a movie star.

No. I thought that at least one of them would follow Liz and win the Grand National, just as she did on Pie, by Two Get One Free out of The Local Bakery (that’s not an offer to look out for on your next shopping trip, but the sire and dam), in the 1944 film National Velvet.

So muggins here always thought that the dream world of the big screen might just become reality. Much to the delight of my local bookie.

Ach, he’s not bad really. If I stick twenty quid on them, he does give me 500/1 every year on Kilnockie winning the Scottish Cup.

Thursday
Talking about Hollywood, that thingy called YouTube (or YouYaTube, as the rival Glesca derivative is known) makes stars out of ordinary folk. Just film it, edit and stick it up, and before very long there you are, entertaining people you have never been formally introduced to, who are laughing at your expense.

This blockbuster was sent to me the other day. No animals were harmed in the making of this video. However, the same cannot be said for pies and pints.

Judge for yourself, and please tell me a) if Voiceover Man from The X Factor has anything to worry about, b) if this is not the best hand-off you’ve ever seen and c) do people’s arses look bigger on screen?

PS – Should anyone take exception to this offering, my name is Roddy fae Selkirk…

Friday
I suspect like a great many, I get confused over who can play for who at international level. It’s now become the norm that you can play for anyone, even if you have represented a different country at an under-age level.

Take Victor Moses, sold to Wigan a few years ago as cash-strapped Crystal Palace hawked off any talent they had. Despite playing for England at under-17, under-19 and under-21 level, Moses might play for Nigeria against Ethiopia in the Africa Cup of Nations – which, apart from the word “of”, is ostensibly the same as the old African Nations Cup.

Moses was born in Kaduna, Nigeria, but has dual nationality. He may, quite possibly, have triple nationality. But Ireland are not sure whether they have a claim because of the similarity between national flags.

Anyway, the FIFA police are not happy because protocols and paperwork haven’t been completed, making Moses ineligible, or at least until someone finds a pen.

But hang on. Could Scotland have a claim? I mean, we had Jordan. And Moses would have been nothing without Joe…

Surely Moses is a British or UK passport holder. I’m sure someone at Wigan could have a word with him. Maybe James McCarthy for instance. Oh, maybe not the best choice there.

Of course, Nigeria have bigger problems. Goalkeeper Victor Enyeama has been ruled out of the game because of an ankle injury, and sadly not because he’d accidentally been stuck up someone’s arse…

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