Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Ashes to Ashes...

It doesn't really feel like seven years since I last wrote about England getting a hammering Down Under. England then were a poorly selected team, indifferently led, blown away by the world's greatest side's last hurrah. Annihilation seemed not only inevitable, but fitting. This time round, only a few weeks after a comprehensive stuffing had gone the other way, is if anything more depressing. Are there any lessons that can be drawn from it? Well, as it happens yes there are.

The first is that no-one should, on any account, listen to Peter Oborne. His recommendations are that England should drop Kevin Pietersen and fire Alistair Cook (and replace him with Paul Collingwood! Paul Collingwood! The retired, 37 year old Paul Collingwood, who was only ever a journeyman Test match cricketer, and who was well past his best 3 years ago). Having got that out of the way, what can we learn?

The first thing to note is that although England have been stuffed, the difference between the sides is not so dramatic as the scorelines suggest. The difference has been that when England have had Australia in trouble in the first innings (132-6 at Brisbane, 174-4 at Adelaide, 143-5 at Perth) Brad Haddin and somebody else have dug them out of it. As the ball goes soft and the strike bowlers tire, Australia's lower middle order have cashed in. In contrast, England have collapsed from not disastrously worse positions (82-2 at Brisbane, 110-4 at Adelaide, 190-4 at Perth). Why is that? England, after all, have what ought to be a strong lower middle order.

Well, Prior is in a form slump (and has been all year), and Broad and Swann, who are not mugs with the bat (or even chickens against quick bowling) have been blown away by pace. Because that is the crucial difference between the sides. England have one bowler (Broad) who can get it up to about 90 on a good day, and two others who bowl at 82-85. Australia have Mitchell Johnson up at 95, and Ryan Harris up at 91. On very hard bouncy wickets, that's tough for a lower order batsman.

What to do? Well, firstly not panic. England are still a good side. People are questioning Kevin Pietersen's desire to play Test cricket in his 100th match, in which he scored his 8000th run. People are shaking their heads over Anderson's career a few months after he took his 300th wicket. Sure, there are players in this England side a good deal closer to the end of their careers than the beginning, but this cuts both ways. Take a look over the way: of Australia's side at Perth 7 are over 30. In the 2015 Ashes, Rogers, Haddin and Harris (all 35+) will have retired. Clarke's knackered back and Watson's myriad injuries make them old at 32, and Mitchell Johnson will either have imploded or slowed down (the number of men bowling 95mph at 34 is pretty small). This series really is not a historic watershed of a diminishing old side being overtaken by a thrusting young one.

Secondly, England entered this series with three big question marks over their side: who should open with Cook, who should bat six, and who should be third seamer. The first has been a problem since Strauss retired, the second since Collingwood retired and the third is a hardy perennial. We do at least seem to have an answer to one of these now. A player who can score fourth-innings hundreds at six, and bowl at 87-88 mph is something of a discovery.

Thirdly, England need to think what their game strategy actually is. As Alex points out, before Trott's decline in form and subsequent departure, the plan was to bat long and slow for the first and second wicket to blunt the opposition's attack, step it up through Bell and Pietersen, and then let Prior and the tail slog easy runs against demoralised opposition. Without the first element of this, the whole plan falls through. Is Trott coming back? let's hope so. But if he doesn't, England need either to form a replacement (and Root may be the man) or adjust their plan.

Finally, England need to remember that they aren't playing Lillee and Thomson on a corrugated pitch - Australia are vulnerable (it was enlightening to see how much worse Australia started bowling when Bell, Pietersen and Stokes started taking the attack to them), and England should play with some of the self-belief that they showed in the summer. Whatever Oborne says, the final tests are not meaningless, and some proper cricket from England would be appreciated. There's no disgrace in losing in Australia (and this series shows, if nothing else, what an achievement 2010/11 was), but there is disgrace in capitulation. The final innings at Perth showed signs of some proper fight. Let's hope there's more to come.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Boris fails IQ test!

Give me strength. 'Gotcha' quizzes of politicians are rubbish at the best of times (disclosure: I have no fucking clue what the price of a pint of milk is, because I never buy a pint of milk, and I never buy milk on its own), but this one that Boris 'failed' rather takes the cake:
Q.1 How many apples would you have if you took two apples from three apples?
Boris answered one, on the basis that if you subtract two from three you get one. But, aha! In this case 'take' just means take, so Boris is a stupid head.

Q.2 A man builds a house with four sides of rectangular construction, each side having a southern exposure. A big bear comes along. What colour is the bear?
The correct answer here is white, because the only place that all four walls could have a southern exposure is the North Pole. Where polar bears live. Except that they don't, because they are on the seaboard where the food is. So it's just as likely to be a fucking polka dotted maroon bear from Hamleys as a polar bear.

Q.3 I went to bed at eight o'clock in the evening and wound up my clock and set the alarm to sound at nine o'clock in the morning. How many hours sleep would I get?

I don't think Boris answered this one at all, but the 'correct' answer is one hour, "because wind up clocks aren't 24 hour". Which is bollocks.

If these are actual legitimate IQ-test style questions then the entire concept is flawed. But they look nothing like the sort of thing I used to plough through (library is to book as book is to page, or the next number in the sequence). They're just wanky point-scoring rubbish that don't even make sense on their own terms, but get a nice lot of schadenfreude-y headlines about how Boris failed an IQ test.

Monday, December 02, 2013

The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate

I suspect that a large part of Boris's appeal is entirely independent of the views of left-wing commentators - in fact, given the gallons of vitriol ineffectively poured over him in 2008 by the left, it may actually be reinforced by their disapproval. Even so, the reactions to Boris's speech to the CPS have been more than disappointing - they've been deeply depressing.

Here's Andrew Rawnsley:
The speech was highly illuminating – not about what really makes society tick, but about what goes on inside the whirling head of mayor Johnson. It is his contention that "greed" and "the spirit of envy" are not vices to be regretted, but virtues to be lauded because they are "a valuable spur to economic activity".  
And Jenni Russell:
Greed is good. Inequality is essential. Envy is a valuable spur to economic activity. On Tuesday evening Boris Johnson laid out his political beliefs, in a speech in memory of Margaret Thatcher — and what a cold, hard, brutal vision it was... He thinks attempts to redress inequality are futile. He says some people are born stupid — “16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85” — and that in a globalised world they will inevitably suffer as a result. He had nothing more to say about them or their lives.
John McTernan (who, for a Labour apparatchik, I have always rated fairly highly) called it "the most disturbing speech I've heard in years". So, what was the terrible thing that Boris said? Well, there are apparently two terrible things: the first that greed is good, a virtue to be lauded; and the second that the poor are poor because they are stupid, and any effort to alleviate this is pointless - "The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate: He made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate." There's a third accusation too - that Boris is a simpleton, who doesn't understand basic mathematics.

So, greed first. Here's what Boris said:
I hope that in many ways it is NOT like the 1980s all over again... But I also hope that there is no return to that spirit of Loadsamoney heartlessness – figuratively riffling banknotes under the noses of the homeless; and I hope that this time the Gordon Gekkos of London are conspicuous not just for their greed – valid motivator though greed may be for economic progress – as for what they give and do for the rest of the population, many of whom have experienced real falls in their incomes over the last five years.
This really doesn't read to me like a full-throated defence of the virtues of greed. It is, instead, another riff on the virtues of philanthropism - something Boris has repeatedly called for during his time as Mayor. In his article, Andrew Rawnsley cites Warren Buffett as a counter-example - of greed not being a motive for, um great accumulation of wealth.
His great wealth, a lot of which he has given away, is a marker of his status as the world's shrewdest investor, not a desire for material goods.
I'd note not only that this sort of philanthropy is exactly what Boris is asking for, but also that it's far from impossible that Buffett's aim really is the accumulation of great wealth - that it is the accumulation that is the aim, and not the wealth itself. And that is as 'greedy' a motive as any. Anyway, if I was hoping for a great champion of my values, I'd expect a bit more of a defence than that they were 'valid'.

As to the Keith Joseph-esque comments on inequality, here is what Boris said:
Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130.

In other words, variation in innate ability are relevant in a discussion about economic inequality. I'm not sure that this point is refuted by the fact that IQ is a fixed scale - there will always be 16% below 85, and 2% above 130. Equally, the rest of the speech really would seem to refute the charge that Boris sees this inequality as divinely ordained and a jolly good thing:
 After five years of recession people are feeling this inequality –much greater, after all, than it was in the 1980s – and rightly or wrongly they care about it. 
It seems to me therefore that though it would be wrong to persecute the rich, and madness to try and stifle wealth creation, and futile to try to stamp out inequality, that we should only tolerate this wealth gap on two conditions: one, that we help those who genuinely cannot compete; and, two, that we provide opportunity for those who can.
He then goes on to discuss education, and housing, and infrastructure, and Europe and so on and so on. All the coverage of the speech, naturally, has been focused on the two sentences above: that greed is a "valid motivator" for economic progress (or, to put it another way, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest"); and that complete equality is made complicated by mankind's innate inequalities, which is about as uncontroversial a restatement of basic conservative belief as you are likely to see. Apply the old test of controversy and reverse the sentiment: it is entirely irrelevant to any question of equality that some people have much higher IQs than others. This may even be true, but it's a lot more controversial a statement.

Christ, politics is depressing at the moment.