31 December 2006

Ashes 2006/2007: Fourth Test

Dismal. Rather like after the second Test I don't feel I can adequately describe the abject failures that made up this match. Australia outplayed England from ball one - as they have all series - aided and abetted by the frankly bizarre decision to bat first in wet gloomy conditions. But English failures aside, Warne used his final Test on his home ground to show what Australia will be missing very shortly, picking up the man of the match award. There are grumblings that award could - and perhaps should - have gone to either Mathew Hayden or Andrew Symonds for their knocks in the game's one mammoth partnership that was every bit as much part of the deciding factor as Warne's all round performance, but sentiment demands that the 7 wickets and 40 runs Warne contributed be recognised.

That and he passed 700 Test wickets - with or without the "super Test" wickets, a stunning achievement, regardless of how much test wickets have been cheapened by Zimbabwe and Bangladesh of late, and made more accessible by the increased volume of cricket being played.

From an England point of view I think the only positive thing to come out of the Melbourne match was Chris Read - he was assured behind the stumps and was gritty when batting against the odds in the second innings. Not a world-beating performance but one that did more than enough to show why he should have been in the team from the off.

A side-note to the rest: in between Warne announcing his retirement and the match Glenn McGrath - as expected - formally announced the fifth Ashes Test to be his last. Two champion bowlers will bow out, in all likelihood, with a performance that helps ensure a whitewash. For all the talk coming from the England camp I just cannot see how on earth they will be able to raise their game by enough to close the cavernous class gap which has been exposed on this tour. It is also expected to be Justin Langer's final match; though this has not yet been confirmed it is expected to be his New Year's Day revelation. Good riddance to all three: wonderful players who've given England fans like me many headaches over the years, and fans of other sides too for that matter.

24 December 2006

Five Random Hooks

A week or so ago I posted a thread over on RPGnet asking for people to give me topics to write about - arising indirectly from the conversation that led me to write my post on what I think of Massive Attack.

Well one of the topics suggested were plot hooks or seeds for a modern RPG session for a GM plus single player. nWoD was mentioned and supernatural or conspiracy angles highlighted; I figured I'd put together a selection of hooks. I'm not too good at pre-prepping entire plot lines, at least as far as doing them for others is concerned since I am more inclined to provide the freedom of multiple resolutions that I would use in a hook. As a result I have compiled five different modern horror plot seeds, all of which have multiple interpretations.

Some are better than others, and some more suitable for certain types of play, but each could provide an interesting jump point for an investigation, a fight for survival, or other avenue of gameplay.

Here they are (I wish I knew how to attach files, if indeed it's possible; the help pages didn't help):

The Market

There’s this market on the east-side of town – only runs once a week, but it has been running for a few years now and has a good following. It takes shape around noon on Sundays so it manages to attract a varied crowd and people from all ages, not that you ever notice half of them. The market caters to all sorts with stalls – fresh foods, clothing, knock-offs and just about anything under the sun, seemingly arranged by some bureaucratic organiser’s own personal whim, much like any other. On the fringes there are some Fair Trade stalls: coffee and clothing mostly, but there’re a couple of stallholders trading in imported knick-knacks and jewellery. It is a prime hangout for some of the regulars; hell, it has spawned its own community, of which you like to consider yourself part, even if only peripherally. Why? Because the coffee stall is damn good (and if you’re real lucky the guys who man it might sell you a little something else under the counter; they only serve friends this way, but you’re sorted since you’ve stopped at their stall so many times over the last couple of years).

Today is Sunday. You wandered by the stall earlier to grab a brew to gulp down on your way to a meeting with friends over that way. On your way back, you decided to stop by the stall again for a snack since they do a selection of good cakes. It’s wintertime and it was just after dark when you returned to find the stall is gone, an empty lot in its place. The staff had not mentioned they were closing, and their custom was going up, not down. Questioning those milling about revealed nothing – no-one knew anything about it; in fact no-one had a clue about the stall at all, even that it had ever been there. It seemed to have vanished from the collective consciousness of the market-goers – even from those you’d seen hanging at the stall as regulars in the last couple of months; what’s more is that there was none of the usual paper and plastic junk – plates, lids, coffee grounds and the like – in any of the bins or scattered over the lot.

The only clue that the stall was ever even there was the paper cup the old tramp with the dog rattled when begging for change. And his dog looked different somehow; scared stiff, perhaps? Maybe the man and his ratty old hound saw something that others did – or could – not.

Maybe the stallholders got busted for dealing, but the cops had no record of the bust. And besides, that wouldn’t explain everyone’s blank memories…

Maybe the stall was dealing more than a little pot under the counter and got the wrong “people” annoyed/interested.

Maybe the stall-holders (or certain customers) are Mages (or otherwise supernatural) and it was all an illusion: the stall was still there but invisible whilst secret deals were carried out inside and those nearby blinded to it. Somehow the PC is immune to the mind blank.

Was there something in the coffee bought earlier?

This is probably my favourite, it's also the first one I wrote; I just love the idea of markets as points of interest in RPGs - the random milling of people of all different creeds and the organic nature of markets themselves lead to all manner of possibilities. OK, so the hook itself is probably more Unknown Armies than nWoD but still... to me it reinforces the PC as different from the average person (they notice it when everyone else is oblivious), whilst playing on the organic nature of markets - stalls come and go and get forgotten on a whim. Just not normally all within the span of an afternoon!

Street Frightener

His route home took him through the local Red Light District; it was late and the last thing he wanted was for his car to fail. Strangely it just cut out, dead, smack bang in the middle of the street. This stretch was not busy though – not a single hooker in sight – perhaps they were all busy or put off by the cold and fog.

No-one else seems to be having this problem as other cars zipped by infrequently. Worse, his phone had no signal – strange, it normally did, as he often made calls as he drove home and this was his usual route. He did not know whether to stay with the vehicle or start looking for a callbox – a quick fiddle with the engine had achieved nothing, for as far as he could tell the car was in working order – it just would not actually work.

The he heard it – guttural sounds from a nearby alleyway and a tearing sound he could not place. Cautiously he approached the alley and peeked around the corner…

The sight involves a dead body being feasted on by something. This could be supernatural (werewolf, vampire, other) or some carnivorous urban mammal – dog, fox etc.

The conspiracy angle could be introduced through the body, or if he presses down the alley to investigate further have the following happen behind him (this would also potentially combine with scaring off a supernatural threat):

He heard a gunning engine from behind him, the scream of a seriously powerful motor. Then the vehicle, black, sleek and official-looking, rushed into view, slamming into the corner of a building at the mouth of the alleyway. The collision left the driver’s door open, hanging limply on its hinges. He could see the driver, sprawled in his seat: he was clearly hurt, but alive. Suddenly a light appeared from the far side of the car – another man, suited and sporting a goatee casually walked up to the stricken automobile, opened the passenger door and executed the helpless driver with a silenced pistol. The man then glanced up and noticed his witness(es).

Have the car crash and the arrival of armed people scare off whatever was tearing flesh from the corpse (if the PC’s appearance didn’t spook it). The executioner fires once or twice into the alley (or otherwise make it clear the PC has been noticed) but then curses and is forced to flee by the sound of approaching sirens.

For a longer game: the PC can investigate what the supernatural critter was, who the killer was (both killer and victim being power players of some kind) or both.

For a shorter game: can the PC get to a truly safe place before one killer or the other tracks him down?

This riffs off a situation I used in Dogtown Life (the crash/kill witness mechanic), but that could be completely by the by as far as handling the situation goes. The crash is an option, nothing more. Probably the best set up for variant styles of game: survival, investigation or shootout are all possibilities. Conspiracy and supernatural elements could both be weaved in, or both left out. I favour the kill being some kind of government minister, civil servant or spook and for the player to find ID, and some sort of faux-incriminatory information on him: enough to kick start a conspiracy investigation, at least.


“A friend of mine, Jimmy, is really sick. I mean really fucking sick, but the crazy thing is the doctors can’t find a damn thing wrong with him.

“But you can see it, right? Dude is wasting away in there – can’t eat, can’t sleep. Only the bloody Coke is keeping him alive, man. We’ve been mates forever now… is there nothing you can do to help me help him?

“There’s gotta be some clue, right? I mean – people don’t fake this shit, and it can’t just happen, right? If it did the docs would surely know something.”

It turns out Jimmy has somehow contracted a disease usually only carried by which is somehow undetectable to the medical profession; he is being kept in hospital, but they haven’t got a clue what ails him.

Turns out a recent date of his was with a who seems to have a lust after humanity. It spreads through fluid contact – including both kissing and sex (or blood-drinking/biting etc). The hospital is filling up and no-one can determine cause, infectious agent or cure.

Or maybe the government are looking for a way to kill vampires by infecting their prey – they identify targeted humans and slip them something; but it turns out the cocktail isn’t only fatal to bloodsuckers.

Coke is a clue – caffeine and sugar in combination protect, but it is not enough to cure.

Can Jimmy and the others be saved? Or is it a question of stopping any others becoming infected by dealing with the origins?

Probably the weakest, but still open-ended enough to put to good use, especially if the PC is a hospital worker of some kind and has even more of a compelling reason to investigate.

The Knockout

You wake up feeling a little groggy and look around – you’re in your own living room. Strange; you don’t remember getting home last night. In fact you barely remember anything of last night.

Your temples are throbbing, and reaching up you feel a bruise over your right eye: did you get into a fight? A quick look at your hands suggests it is a possibility – your knuckles are bruised and dirty and there’re scratches on the back of your hands. Moreover, your shirt is ripped – damn, it was an expensive one, too. You force yourself up and head to the bathroom to wash and try and remember how the evening had gone – you had had a date, but it did not work out and you’d left to… That’s where the memory died. Surely you hadn’t drunk that much? Shaking your head and resolving that it will come back to you in time you wash off your hands then head to the mirror to clean and examine your wound. That’s when you see it – the strange mark on your neck. It looks like a couple of puncture wounds, but there’s also something between them, under your skin (which looks raw, scarred; it shouldn’t be like that!).

Then the phone goes – it’s Dani, the mate you were going to meet after the date crashed and burnt; (s)he’s wondering why you didn’t show last night and if you’re OK. What the fuck happened, then? How did you get home, and where did that mark on your neck come from?

Conspiracies abound! The government are installing chips under the skin of a few people, why?

Or perhaps a vampire’s tooth snapped when they were surprised whilst feeding?

Immediate avenues of investigation include:

Þ Returning to the location of the date – anyone see anything?

Þ Questioning Dani on where you were supposed to meet and when, and walking between the two – where was the “attack”?

Þ Digging the “object” out by himself – what is it?

Þ Getting the wounds – puncture and bruise – checked out in hospital: what do the professionals make of it?

Either way, play on a feeling of paranoia and being watched as life goes on.

One night, late, he sees a scuffle – same thing is happening to someone else.

Þ Men bundling a guy into the back of a truck – government kidnap & chip scheme would explain getting home?

Þ A “kissing” couple who are doing anything but – after effects of the “bite” killing memory.

There's just something appealing to me, game-wise, about the idea about waking up in one's own house with no idea of how you got home and trying to piece together what the hell happened. It plays on an experience that many people have experienced to some degree by virtue of alcohol (or other such substances). Not everyone's cup of tea though, and the suggestions above might be a bit strong or unsupported for some.

Spirit Breath

The bar was rocking. This place didn’t serve beer but their selection of spirits was second to none, and the rowdy crew that passed as patrons had all been deeply imbibing that night. The music was the key though – just upbeat enough to keep people rocking but tempered enough to not send them over the edge.

He was sure that there were pills going around; one or two looked far too out there for drink alone but he’d not pegged the dealer(s) yet. Besides, it was a night off so it didn’t matter either way, and the whiskies slipped down one after another soon meaning he could do nothing about it either way.

As it tends to on these occasions, sooner or later nature called. It was there it wend all weird. There were only a couple of stalls in the loos, and one of the cubicles was taken, locked. The other was open and visible in the mirror as he entered; all he could hear was a hushed argument from the closed stall. Figuring it was a drug deal going bad he hung back from the stall a moment, eying proceedings in the washing mirror. As it did he noticed that the taps were running and the mirror was fogging up from the vapour. Strange – the taps hadn’t been on before had they? Certainly he hadn’t heard them. As he watched his view become more and more obscured by the condensation, but something was happening behind the screen of steam. He could just make it out as a figure “appeared” in the formerly empty stall, seeming to coalesce from the vapour in the air. A second later and the steam and fog on the mirror got to thick to see through – washroom taps aren’t that hot, are they? – and barely a moment after his sight of the stall was taken, he heard a crash: the sound of breaking glass.

Was it real or just an artefact of the whisky on his breath?

Who, or what, was the figure? Was it real? And who turned on the taps?

The crash was the window breaking; the figure is nowhere to be seen but the window is a second story one. Broken glass can be seen on the street below.

The “closed” stall contained just one person; investigating finds him either dead and pale, or collapsed over the toilet in a drug and alcohol-induced stupor. He is ice cold to the touch. Perhaps someone else then finds Him standing over the dead/passed out guy.

“He” (in the paragraphs above) can refer to the PC or a friend of the PC’s with whom he is on a night out.

This was the last one I wrote, the fifth and my second-favourite after The Market. I had a glass of whiskey in my hand last night whilst just wasting time online when the idea came to me. Definitely more supernatural than conspiracy but the exact nature of the events is left entirely up to the reader, and the status of the guy in the closed stall is based on the GM's whim and what might make a better game for him. I would probably lead with alive but off his face, and have the club's bouncers be very interested in "his" version of events, but that's just me - and my penchant for starting games with PCs in a bad place!

23 December 2006

I just realised...

That the title of this blog is the title of a track on Badly Drawn Boy's Mercury prize-winning album The Hour of the Bewilderbeast.

This was a side effect of playing the album for the first time in years yesterday. Another side effect was getting another track - Once Around the Block - take hold as the ultimate earworm. This tune, or rather simply the hook and scat vocal section, has been running in my head non-stop all day. And now I'd just like to go to sleep and turn it offf... But I cannot!

Still, it's not all bad. I like finding albums I shelved years ago, revisiting them and discovering anew why I bought them in the first place, but not being a prisoner in my own head at the mercy of incomplete tunes!

21 December 2006

Ashes 2006/2007: Warne out for 700+

Today saw Shane Warne - the most successful bowler in Test history - announce his retirement from international cricket as of the end of the current Ashes series. He will almost certainly end with more than 700 Test wickets, a simply staggering amount; his current tally of 699 means that unless he goes wicketless for 4 innings and 2 whole matches he will reach the landmark - with all likelihood he'll get there on Boxing Day if England bat first in Melbourne, or the day after if Australia open with the bat. He will retire as Test cricket's greatest bowler, but his wicket haul will, in all likelihood, soon be passed by his close rival Muttiah Muralitharan of Sri Lanka, who has never been far from Warne's shoulder and has (relative) youth on his side.

His announcement today was foreshadowed. Rumour it was coming had circulated for the last day or two - it is clear that winning back the Ashes was his goal, and he said that had Australia won the last Ashes series he would have retired in 2005. That they didn't win that series was, on one hand, no fault of Warne's: he took 40 wickets in the 5 match series. On the other hand he was famously said to have "dropped the Ashes" when he shelled a chance of Kevin Pietersen in the fifth Test at the Oval (KP went on to make 158 and bat Australia out of a chance at a victory that would have tied the series an retained the urn).

Warne's retirement will bring to an end 13 years of torment for English batsmen that began with his first Ashes delivery - the "Ball of the Century" that knocked over Mike Gatting at Old Trafford in 1993 - and was typified by both England's disastrous collapse at Adealaide and, to a lesser degree, the fourth innings at the WACA when Australia captured back the prize they lost last year. Warne will honour his county cricket contract with Hampshire, but will no longer take part in internationals or Australian domestic cricket. His decision begins to usher in a new era in Australian cricket, however much many Aussie fans might with to disagree; this goes double if Glenn McGrath follows in Warne's footsteps as expected. Together these two talismanic bowlers, both genuinely deserving of the "world class" label, have led Australia's attack for more than a decade; and they have beaten all comers.

Without them Australia will not be toothless, but anyone who denies the uniqueness of a situation which allowed the team to have two genuine world-beaters in tandem for a decade is kidding themselves. Statistics do not always lie: Warne is Test cricket's all-time leading wicket taker, and McGrath is third on that list - the highest placed fast bowler, and unlikely to be caught any time soon; Shaun Pollock is the next highest pace bowler still playing and he has a measly 402 wickets compared to McGrath's 555. This is a true mark of their quality; Murali may pass Warne soon but he virtually carries the Sri Lankan bowling attack on his own, and has done all his career (though I'm sure Chaminda Vaas would beg to differ). Warne carried the Australian attack in the 2005 series, and it showed: one man does not make a team, and the Ashes were lost. This shows in equal measure why Australia will be weaker without him, and why it is not going to decimate their side. One man does not make the team, but when that one man is as skilled as Warne he makes the difference between a "good" side and "great" one. The same is true of McGrath. With both fit Australia were nearly unstoppable; without one, and possibly even both, the team will look mortal again - at least on paper.

The future is now, and Warne's decision marks not just the end of a great career but the end of an era. It does not mean that future series will see Australia wilt or fail to knock England (or other nations) over, but it is the beginning of the end of a golden age for Australian cricket. With McGrath's days looking numbered and with Langer, Hayden and Gilchrist all over 35 it is likely that the team they send to fight the 2009 Ashes will look very different to the one that won the 2006/7 series and I'm sure that however strong the replacements are many in England will be very glad of that. The game is losing a great servant but perhaps gaining a new era of competitiveness that the power of Australian cricket, with Warne and McGrath in tandem, has simply not allowed for 10 years and more. That, in my view, can only be good for the game, even as Warne's retirement from it is the loss of a special talent.

"So what do you think of Massive Attack?"

This question was posed to me recently after a forum waffle by a friend of mine was briefly diverted by his mentioning of this blog. The context was that of Blue Lines being an important precursor for Portishead's album Dummy. It stemmed from a third party who, after reading my recent music-themed posts here, had commented that he "didn't figure [me for] the trip-hop type" and my response: that Dummy has been, and remains, a cornerstone of my musical tastes. I did not feel I could answer the question properly at the time in the sort of throwaway response that typifies forum threads, so I'll answer it here instead.

In its simplest form the answer is plain: I love Massive Attack dearly, one of my favourite groups without a doubt. Despite Dummy being the album that kicked off my interest in the Bristol sound (it must be noted here that members of both Massive Attack and Portishead, and Tricky, have all previously expressed dislike for the term "trip-hop", and my own inclination is to avoid genre-typing; I do use the term on occasion as it has a more defined meaning in common parlance), it is Massive Attack that became my staple choice of listening material when revisiting the sound. However it took the release of Mezzanine for them to really register with me. Sure, I'd heard Blue Lines and Protection and liked them but they did not initially tap into my psyche in the way Mezzanine did on its release. April 20, 1998 - I was 17, coming up to my A level exams, and moving to university in Bristol in autumn assuming I didn't fuck up (never a realistic possibility).

Since Mezzanine I can only think of Thea Gilmore's Rules For Jokers that has had similar impact on me and my musical appreciation, but before it? Nothing. Dummy, Radiohead's The Bends and Whatever and Ever, Amen by Ben Folds Five had all made an indelible mark that continues to provide inspiration for my musical tastes, but none of them hit me like Mezzanine did or sparked an immediate rush of purchases. Mezzanine swept into my consciousness like nothing before: I remember brooding with Angel, being blown away by the gorgeous sound of Teardrop, fiercely disliking Inertia Creeps (these days I love that tune), and generally loving the sinister sounds that dominated the album. I played the CD constantly. I picked up both earlier albums - though I may have owned one or both beforehand - and listened to them in excess, too. Then, just after I moved to Bristol, the tour dates were announced; they included 5 nights at Bristol Student's Union in December - in the week after term ended. Those tickets sold damn fast, but I got my hands on one for Friday December 18, 1998 (if I recall the date correctly).

I went with a then housemate, and we timed our arrival so as to miss most of the warm up. What followed was 2 hours or more of bliss that cemented my opinions on Mezzanine and compelled me to re-examine the earlier discs: hearing Unfinished Sympathy played live was simply mind blowing. There are so many things I dimly recall from that night, and not much I vividly recall. It was 8 years ago now; it was also the first live gig I ever attended in a closed venue (I had been to a local festival before but no actual gigs for some reason). I can picture the scene and I can recall many of the tunes played by name; but not by performance. Worse, my search-fu is bad and I haven't been able to uncover any details of the gig, like who performed what vocals when. Reason suggests that Horace Andy appeared to vocalise Angel et al. himself: no-one has a voice like him and I really cannot imagine that tracks on which he appears could be performed without him. However, who sung Unfinished Sympathy and Safe From Harm that night I couldn't say: Shara Nelson's Wikipedia entry suggests she stopped working with them after Blue Lines (obviously she did not appear as a vocalist on further recordings) and it seems unlikely she teamed up again for live dates several years on. If anyone does know who performed as a vocalist on that tour, I would love to know. As I said - my search-fu is weak!

I've always considered Protection to be the weakest of the Massive Attack albums, but their weakest is way above the strongest of most. The title track, Karmacoma and the two instrumentals are all sublime, as is Spying Glass, and the rest are simply very good (Better Things aside; I still feel that track is far too similar to Protection itself to appear on the same album). In fact, in many ways it is more consistent than Blue Lines being, as it is, without anything to match the sublime high of Unfinished Sympathy. Perhaps crucially to my perception of it Protection also lacks the rawness I sense in their debut and the sheer dark innovation of Mezzanine. To my ears it sits between the two musically every bit as much as it does chronologically.

Massive Attack is a name that has applied, at least in part, to many different people. Indeed it is even a name that was (temporarily) changed under political and media pressure before they had even established themselves when the violent connotations of the "Attack" were perceived as unwelcome during the Gulf War. But whichever people have been behind "Massive Attack" at any given stage, one thing is as constant as the name which it is produced under: the quality music. For some that stops with Mezzanine, after which one of the original members decided the sound was heading away from what he was wanted. The fourth album, 100th Window was recorded with only one of the original core trio, but whilst I found it disappointing on first listening I have since come round to its charms and foibles and the continuation of the sinister sound aired so wonderfully on Mezzanine.

I have had my finger far from the pulse, musically speaking, since then. I did not know until this week that the incarnation of Massive Attack that applies to Robert Del Naja (3D) and Neil Davidge (who worked on Mezzanine with the original trio) have produced two film soundtracks since they released 100th Window. I bought Collected for the track Live With Me before I realised there was a second, 2-disc, version with a second unreleased track, some of the tracks from the soundtracks and a DVD layer with all their videos (I have the previous DVD release of their videos). I found out only yesterday that there is a fifth studio album due for release early next year, on which it appears Grant Marshall (aka Daddy G) will once again be working - even if at distance from 3D.

All of this makes me very happy, even though I cannot actually afford to make all the purchases it leaves me wanting to make!

I'll end on the note that, even 15 years on, the sound that shot Massive Attack into recognition is a sound that remains relevant and current. The edgier undertones that spin images of social deprivation and inequalities are still audible in the tracks and the darker side of life this portrays is every bit as real in 2006 as it was in 1991 - if not more so. Massive Attack captured the zeitgeist with Blue Lines but made it last.

They remain, in whatever guise you take the name to represent, one of the most important groups recording in modern Britain; they remain amongst my favourites. I suspect that future work will not hit the heights of the past - but for me any artist would struggle to live up to their back catalogue. I have every confidence that wherever and however my life goes from here, the music of Massive Attack will continue to figure in my list of enjoyments as highly and as deservedly as it has to date.

As an addendum this article I found today is a good one. I might disagree with the author on Future Proof (and even then, my keenness for it might be something to do with my geekier side and my use of it on a soundtrack for a roleplaying campaign I ran), but otherwise I think he covers salient points, and well.

20 December 2006

... And Then the Dragon Exploded

We played the second session of the Savage Worlds game last night.

Again we were just 3 of the four players plus the GM, but on this occasion the one new PC was present and so his character - the sky pirate Captain Col (whose surname I can neither remember nor feel the need to use). Again the session felt like an introductory filler - appropriately since in addition to being a player light we now break until the New Year - yet again it managed to be fun and just a little unexpected.

We began where we had left off the week before: having just earned the ability to free a group of slaves that were to be traded between the Sky Cities. The two of us present who had been part of the rescue were left with a frankly ungracious chain of 20-odd dependents and nowhere to take them.

After much agonising and the improvising of torches (it was dark by this time), it was deigned that they should, at the very least, be escorted to the nearest village, Skyhaven: a commonly used docking or resupply point for sky ships of all creeds. Zeff and Kelvin were, in principle, taking charge of the freed slaves - top and tail of the column. Adenaar (and the NPC who had accompanied us last session) had returned to the Free Brigades in Surtur's Throne to report on the night's activity. As the column neared Skyhaven, a good three miles walk from the site of their skirmish, it was clear something was wrong: no lights were on in the village - not the inn nor the landing tower. With nowhere else to go, Zeff marched the group into the village square, when someone noticed the silhouette of a skyship hovering over the village. Panic set in amongst the freed slaves, and whilst Kelvin and the villagers broke into various buildings to find cover, Zeff swiftly put out the one torch he had to hand and hid in a doorway watching the tower. The skyship had tethered, and a figure called down to no answer before disembarking and lighting the lantern atop the Landing Tower, then slowly climbing down. Kelvin, being Kelvin, had identified the inn and broken in; someone had left a chair behind the door to block it, yet the building itself was empty. The figure was heading towards the now-lighted inn when Zeff snuck up behind him, whipped his blade to the man's throat and ordered him to disarm.

The new arrival was ordered into the inn, where the assembled all tucked into food. The village had been empty, deserted and it was setting some of the freed slaves on edge: they really were ungrateful for their freedom! Col introduced himself, for it was he who had descended from the tethered ship - his own - and the group were beginning to ask questions of each other with respect to the odd status of the village when Kelvin and Col heard the hum of arrows. A glance out of the window confirmed the worst: the building was under attack from several hunched figures, and its wooden frame was sprouting more burning arrows every moment. Whilst Kelvin and Col tried to keep the former slaves calm and controlled, and signal to Col's ship for a pick-up, Zeff became a blur of motion - beginning his rhythmic dance before diving out of the window and closing with the nearest attacker. It appeared these things were ape-like creatures with arrows that ignited themselves when pulled from their quivers. None could shoot straight though, and Zeff was able to close.

By now Col and Kelvin had the hapless former slaves on the roof of the inn, kicking burning thatch aside to clear the way for a ladder dropped from Col's ship (there were three crew still aboard). Col, however, took an arrow as he marshalled people to the ladder, but shrugged it off. Kelvin took it upon himself to cover with his crossbow from the roof of the inn as Col descended again and, along with the bravest of the freed villagers (who had been trusted with one of the blades recovered from the slavers earlier in the evening) charged out to meet the foe (there turned out to be 7 of the creatures). The skirmish was brief - without the range and massive target of a wooden building to get the best use of their bows the ape-things were far from trained fighters - even the unarmoured villager held his own whilst Zeff and Col made quick work of the rest. Col took a nasty cut from one of the creatures but it was not enough to put him down, or out.

The skirmish ended with Zeff chasing down the last fleeing foe and Kelvin and Col coming to some alarming conclusions: the rags the creatures had been wearing marking them out as the original villagers of Skyhaven, somehow "transformed"; Kelvin also found a crystal shard in the middle of the square - on ground that looked scarred and burnt in the light provided by the burning inn. Perturbed by the attack the group collectively sheltered on Col's vessel overnight, and briefly stopped down again in the morning to stock up with food and water from the deserted (but still vaguely standing; the flame had burnt out overnight) inn. Col had agreed to help Zeff and Kelvin do what they could by the former slaves by flying them back to their village, and the ship set off for the 50 mile journey.

An hour or two later a shape was spotted aft of the vessel, flying at speed towards Col's ship. A quick examination through a telescope by both Col and Kelvin suggested the unthinkable: it was a dragon. Dragons had been created by man and magic as terrifying sentient weapons of war, and were now few and legendary. In order to avoid a panicking cargo-hold of villagers spilling out onto the decks, as knowledge of the dragon would surely cause, Zeff frantically sought to block the doors, trapping them inside, whilst Col brought the ship around and readied the ballista. The beast was flying right at the ship, and a few ineffective shots later it screeched by overhead, launching a breath of flame that roasted the crow's nest and panicked young Zeff - who had never even heard of dragons before. The beast flew by, banking to come in again. This time it was on a full attack run. Col had the crew drop altitude and then attempted to slide the ship out of the path of the onrushing wyrm. He managed it, insofar as no-one was snatched in the beast's claws, but the dragon itself tangled in the masts and rigging, destroying any control over the ship, which began to fall.

The enraged wyrm was unable to free itself but not entirely helpless, as it managed to swipe at one of Col's crew, flicking him up in the air before swallowing him whole; it seemed just a matter of moments before everyone on board would be similarly deceased. Col and Kelvin - who knew something of the sentience of dragons - had other ideas. Fiercely protective of his ship, and in the knowledge that inaction was certain death, so he may as well act, Col swung out on a loose line of rigging, generating some momentum. Kelvin, meanwhile, was staring the beast in the face, yet somehow managed to keep his wits about him and hold the beast's sentient attention. Zeff was just coming to grips with his fear and recovering himself as Col swung in and buried his blade through the creature's neck whilst it was fixated on the portly alchemist, loosing acidic blood over the deck. Hanging on to the blade with one hand, Col found the dragon's eye with his boat-hook, bursting it and spraying watery fluid. Zeff was moving by now, dancing across the deck and up onto the dragon's back with a deft leap. It was then that the boat hit the tree-line, rocking massively and plowing through the forest as it sunk towards the ground.

The shower of wood and earth in the collision was enough to free the dragon, but not to throw Zeff from its back (or his feet). As the wyrm beat frantically to lift off he ran up the beast's spine and jumped off to one side of its head, plunging his blade into its one good eye to the hilt. The dragon faltered, and was falling; Zeff was able to kick off the side of it's face, pulling the blade free (but dropping it) and catch a branch as he fell. All and sundry then watched as the ailing beast flapped once, then twice, then fell, dying, into the forest...

... And then the dragon exploded, showering the forest in scales, flesh and tooth alike.

Amazingly the encounter left no-one scathed, except the poor crew member who was eaten and the villagers locked in the hold who suffered bumps, breaks and bruises as the ship careered into the trees. They were, characteristically, ungrateful for their lives, and equally so for their fortune - that they were not far from their village; after Kelvin had patched them up they quickly set off, leaving Col, his crew, Zeff and Kelvin to make repairs to the skyship (and collect potentially valuable dragon parts - teeth, claws and scales). Thankfully only the masts and rigging had sustained any real damage and makeshift repairs could be made from the bountiful wood of the forest. A few days later they were aloft again, heading back to Surtur's Throne; none of them quite believing what had happened or what they had done.


It was one of those games where the dice work for the players I guess! I don't think any of us figured we'd kill the dragon (I was more interested initially in how the GM would use it as a plot device) but it rolled very poorly and the PCs aced all the important rolls - Col's first attack exploded several times, and combined with situational modifiers to give 5 extra damage dice, and then I aced the attack roll on the fleeing dragon (on a d12) to obliterate its other eye. It all worked to give the game a cinematic action flair, continuing the trend established in the opening ambush last time out. I hope that, once we have the full group together in the New Year, we'll have more opportunity for roleplayed set pieces amongst the action, but similarly I long since came to the conclusion that whatever my preferences for my ideal game, the best way to enjoy any given game is to adapt to the flow of the group.

I'll have a chance, perhaps, to do more direct character drama when I run a game again. For the moment, I shall look forward to that and enjoy the current game for whatever it turns out to be - whether the action-packed nature continues, or whether another tack is taken once the game gets properly underway next year.

Ashes 2006/2007: Things Must Change

Let me say up front and openly: I do not think personnel changes would have made a difference to which side won the urn this year. Nor do I think, realistically, that if Vaughan, Trescothick and Simon Jones had been fit, England would have magically been a different side and won the Ashes for a second series running. On the other hand, I do believe that the issues surrounding the England team on this tour have meant the team has not given true account of themselves, and that had some unnecessary changes not been made (to the playing staff) and had a different captain been chosen for this tour the matches would have been much more competitive. I'll go so far as to say that I think the series would have still been alive, if only technically, after Perth had things been right.

My list of concerns, to be tackled in order, is primarily:

  1. The wicketkeeper
  2. Andrew Flintoff's judgement as captain
  3. Duncan Fletcher's position as coach

1. The Wicketkeeper

Why are like Test ducks like local buses? You wait 51 innings for one, and then two come along at once.

Whatever else happens, or does not happen, in Geraint Jones' career he does, for the moment at least, hold one desirable batting record. He is the proud holder of the world record for number of innings before a first Test batting duck. He had completed 51 innings for England without ever being dismissed for 0 before the third Test and the WACA. Then in Perth he bagged a pair - the second of which was farcical; though it took both very quick thinking and sharp work in the field from Ponting, Jones' error to be run out was inexcusable for someone representing their country at the highest level. Actually it was inexcusable at any level. The pathetic showing from Jones embodies everything that was wrong with the England touring party for this series - a poor selection who should never have been in the side, picked because he was Fletcher's boy, and Freddie's mate, and because he played in 2005. Picked despite being woefully out of form all year and after being dropped for the last two matches of the summer (when his replacement came in and did well) and despite not being as good at the 'keeper's primary job as his rival.

Jones' selection was negative, backward looking and ill-conceived; his poor performances bear this out. Picked ostensibly because he is "the better batsman" of the two wicketkeepers in the squad, yet he had one score above 20 in 2006 (52 at Chandigarh in March) before he was dropped. He has made one more score above 20 in 6 innings since - 33 in the second innings at Brisbane. This is most certainly not form enough to pick a shoddy glove-man, who drops far too many catches, for his batting over a rival who is both better with the gloves and who has shown graft and turned himself into a respectable batsman over two years in the Test wilderness. Worse still, Read had possession of the shirt at the end of the English summer: in two matches and 3 innings he scored 38, 55 and 33. Read's return of 126 runs in 3 innings compares very favourably to 220 runs in 18 innings, which is what Geraint Jones has managed in 2006 (including the first three Ashes Tests; without them Jones has 157 runs in 12 innings), and his glove-work is much tidier - fewer chances spilled and fewer extras conceded, as befits a man considered by most to be the best 'keeper in the country. What's more, when the pressure has been on in this series and a good, or at least determined batting performance has been needed, Jones has bombed out - in Adelaide he both failed in England's first innings 551/6 declared and then flashed at a wide one for a soft dismissal in the second innings when all it needed was some discipline to stop the rot and the game could have been saved. A similarly sloppy dismissal in the first innings at Perth was followed by the worst dismissal he'll ever suffer at any level of cricket in the second to complete his pair. Jones just has not had fight to give - again symptomatic of England in this series.

Thus I think Geraint Jones needs to be dropped. He needs to be given clear instructions to find some batting form, improve his keeping, and develop a backbone. What's more he needs to know that he will not magically get into the side again regardless because his mates are picking the team: he should be dropped on merit and he should have to earn reselection on merit, or not at all. Chris Read should come in with the knowledge that barring injury he has the last two Ashes Tests, the World Cup, and the first home Series of the 2007 season (against the West Indies) for certain to re-establish himself. Ideally he will apply himself and make the job his, then he will get the India series too. Otherwise the best candidate - based on form, ability and availability - will take over for the whole India series, whether that is a reformed Geraint Jones or one of the other young 'keepers plying their trade in county cricket.

2. Flintoff's Captaincy

I have a great deal of respect for Flintoff as a player. With bat and ball he has shown himself to be a great servant for England in the past - albeit after a few dodgy years at the start of his career where he was out of shape and, frankly, not good enough. The inspirational side of Flintoff's play was the defining factor in the 2005 Ashes, where the bowler had Gilchrist in his pocket all series and the batsman made runs in both of England's wins.

Whilst his decision making on the field has not been all that bad in the current series there are a couple of things that point to Flintoff having somewhat questionable judgement as a captain. Leaving aside all the issues about him having too much of a workload (I think his poor form is more a result of his less than healthy ankle and a lack of match practice than it is down to him being captain) it is his decision making that is worth querying. Why, for example, in a side playing 5 frontline bowlers, does one of the attack get left to graze in the outfield, contributing only 10 of 112 overs, when the rest of the attack are not only failing, but are getting flayed around the place. And that is before you consider the extreme conditions - 40 degree heat is incredibly sapping for bowlers, going double for us poor poms who are just not used to those temperatures!

The inevitable rumour is that Flintoff under bowled Mahmood so much because he did not want him in the side. Regardless of the truth of this nugget, Mahmood should have been bowled more (or failing that, the part-timers Bell and Collingwood) in order to keep the others fresher. One of Flintoff's undeniable flaws, in certain situations, is his firm belief in himself and his eagerness to take the burden himself. Normally this shouldering of responsibility is a positive thing, but when he is captain this tend to result in him over bowling himself, regardless of his success or fitness. Given his ankle is clearly hurting him - his pace has been slower and his bowling less threatening since Brisbane - this overburdening of himself is a negative in both the immediate term and the longer term.

But where I see the biggest problem with Flintoff as captain is with his input into selection. When the team is overseas, so it is rumoured, the selection of the team is down to a combination of coach (Fletcher) and captain (Flintoff). There is also rumoured to be input from "senior players" somewhere along the line. After Adelaide there was all kind of talk that Fletcher had wanted Monty Panesar in the side, but that Flintoff had resisted and ended up getting his way (and Ashley Giles played; Giles has since left the tour to be with his ill wife). Flintoff is also friendly with both Geraint Jones and James Anderson whilst he seemed not to trust Sajid Mahmood at all. The impression all this gives is very much one of "my friends first and foremost"; loyalty is a wonderful quality in a friend, but it should not extend to picking your mate to play for your country when there are better options. Fletcher managed to give the impression in the aftermath of the Adelaide collapse that the reason the team had been unchanged after Brisbane was because Flintoff did not want changes made. This judgement astounds me - the team had been routed at the Gabba and even on paper never looked like getting a top class Australian side out twice. Add in Freddie's ankle trouble and that likelihood dropped further. A ring-rusty Anderson and Giles (who on top of rustiness was remodelling his action) were simply not going to threaten at all.

It is not abundantly clear that Freddie standing by his mates has been a problem, but that would be my interpretation of what we have seen and heard from the England camp on this tour. At least once Monty was selected at Perth he got overs (and just rewards in terms of wickets), but I can't help wondering how things might have looked different in this series had it been Strauss giving the captain's input into selection and not Flintoff. However all that said, one constant remains: Duncan Fletcher.

3. Fletcher's Position

Duncan Fletcher's position is apparently being looked at by the ECB, and by Fletcher himself, after the World Cup. One thing can be said for certain about Fletcher: despite all the flack he is taking now he is going to go down in history as a very successful coach of the England cricket team. And rightly so. However, all good things must come to an end, and Fletcher's reign has started a prominent downturn. The man who dragged England from the mire of the 1990s is now overseeing a mismanaged tour, an underperforming team and a one-day record that means only Bangladesh and Zimbabwe are realistically below England in the pecking order. He has also twice mishandled England's finest wicketkeeping technician; the first was touch and go, but the second has been disastrous.

Graham Gooch said this week that the situation on tour needs to be looked at, and the bizarre way selection has been handled on this tour really bears that out. Fletcher is just one of three England selectors for home Tests and when picking a tour party. However, he and the captain have sole input into team selection once on tour. It is this dichotomy that lead to Chris Read being inexplicably dumped for an out of form Jones in Brisbane. Jones is Fletcher's man, and the coach's stubborn streak will not let him back down for a second over that selection in 2004; despite plenty of evidence since then that Jones is not a mini Adam Gilchrist, Fletcher has stood firm with his man. Read's selection for the final two Tests against Pakistan owe everything to Graveny and Miller - the two selectors who have no say in picking touring teams. Consequently when their input was removed, their decision was overturned. The move was not just a middle finger raised to the other selectors (and to Read himself), it was a signal flare to the Australians that England were there for the taking. Giles' inclusion over Monty Panesar was the same. Yes, it seems likely that Flintoff had some influence here, but Fletcher carries the can in the end - at least for Brisbane.

Geoffrey Boycott - never one to mince his words - said in the run up to this series that Fletcher had "reached his sell-by date" as England coach, and that call looks spot on. There is no way Fletcher can improve on the heights of winning the Ashes in 2005 and the team spirit of the side is suffering more; I would be surprised if Read honestly feels he could give his all for a Fletcher-led side after how he has been treated. Fletcher's time in charge was characterised by the team progressing from one game to the next without making unforced or unnecessary changes, but on arrival in Australia the team picked showed 4 changes from that took the field against Pakistan at the Oval (or, more meaningfully in the third Test at Headingly). One of those was inevitable - Flintoff coming back when fit (and in this context replacing Trescothick, who was not). The other three were unforced: Mahmood replaced by Anderson, Panesar replaced by Giles and Read swapped for Jones. 3 Unforced changes to a team that had been performing well in the absence of their talisman. 3 unforced changes that failed to pay off in any way shape or form. 3 unforced changes that set the tone for the tour, and confirmed Fletcher's stubbornness and his old boys’ network. 3 unforced changes that confirm Boycott was right - Fletcher's time is up.

Replacing him mid series, or even before the World Cup in the New Year, would be impractical and a mistake. It would also be a mistake to have Duncan Fletcher still leading the team come May. I really hope that one of two things happen - that either the ECB act in light of the obvious mismanagement of this Ashes tour, or that Fletcher himself is big enough to accept he is no longer the positive force he was and stands aside.

Duncan: thank you for a good 7 years, but the time is right to make changes to the setup; I hope that you have enough good sense, even if you cannot or will not admit your stubbornness and mistakes, to step aside on your own rather than forcing the ECB's hand. You have been a great servant to England and deserve the dignity of going on your terms.

19 December 2006

Ashes 2006/2007: The Third Test

So that's it. 463 days after earning the rights to the Ashes, England surrendered them to a rampant Australian side motivated to new and ruthless heights by the injustice of last year's defeat. Defeat at the WACA put England 3-0 down with 2 to play; on the 15th day of the series Ricky Ponting raised his fist, and the urn (well, OK, a replica) aloft in triumph after a thumping 206 run win. A 5-0 whitewash is a very real possibility for the series now, such is the dismal showing from the visitors. For England to take much of positive note from this tour they must show, in the two dead matches to come, the willingness to work at what was ailing them, and the vision to build for the future.

Now is the perfect time to make changes to the team and give people a chance: Ed Joyce, called up as cover when Trescothick left the tour before the first Test, must play. 5-0 or 3-2 makes not a whit of difference any more - the Ashes are gone for at least another 2 years - and it should now be about the future benefit of the team; this means blooding players who have very real prospects in the series to come in 2007, 2008 and, perhaps most crucially, 2009.

There are two key changes to be made: Joyce should play and Chris Read should keep wicket. These changes would also mandate a change to the balance of the side. Mahmood was so obscenely underbowled that he may as well not have been playing. Had a sixth specialist batsman (Joyce) been playing instead of a fifth bowler the extra batting may have meant the series was still alive heading into Melbourne, even if only theoretically.

The 5+5+ keeper formula held up as a holy grail by England of late has, in this series, been a contributing factor to their undoing. Jones, the 'keeper supposedly picked for batting prowess (but actually picked because he's "in" with Fletcher and Freddie) has been woeful with the bat, and poor with the gloves thus not supporting the top 6 as required by the model. Flintoff has underperformed with bat and ball this series, burdened as he has been by the captaincy and a heel that is clearly not fully-healed. Not only has he not merited a top 6 batting slot, but his bowling has been a far cry from the deadly variety unleashed in 2005. Worse, the other bowlers have not performed well and the fifth bowler has not helped either ease the workload (Mahmood in Perth) or capture wickets (Giles and/or Anderson at Brisbane and Adelaide).

All of this, to my mind, calls for a change of approach. The batting line-up England picked for this Ashes tour is not short of part-time bowling talent and if, as at the WACA this week, the fifth bowler is not going to be used to attack or to rotate colleagues and keep them fresh with a regular workload (Mahmood bowled just 10 overs of 112 in Australia's second innings, whilst his teammates were being carted all around the park under extreme temperature conditions) then the bits and pieces provided by Collingwood and Bell (both very serviceable medium pacers) and Pietersen (underrated finger-spin) would be plenty to give the four main bowlers a little rest here and there. If one considers that the batting addition to the line up would - in ideal conditions - be Michael Vaughan, who is himself a decent off-spinner when called upon, then England have four credible options from which to make up the fifth, under-used, bowler.

Certainly in dry or dusty conditions having the extra spin options is a fine thing, and in English conditions a medium pacer with control of the swinging ball can be troublesome: consider that Bell has a First Class bowling average of less than 32 (from 47 wickets) in county cricket. Collingwood has regularly been employed by England in one-day cricket, and whilst (I believe, my search-fu is failing me) he holds the unenviable record of most Test deliveries before picking up a wicket and his First Class average with the ball is the wrong side of 40 he is perfectly capable of sending down a few controlled overs here or there to allow the big guns a break. Pietersen started his cricketing life as an off-spinner, and it would really pay England to help him further re-develop this side of his game as an extra weapon.

A fifth specialist bowler is all well and good as an attacking option if that bowler is getting his share of overs in and doing the job - just look at Simon Jones' performance in 2005 if there were any doubt - but if they are not bowling and not taking wickets then the side would be better served with the extra batsman and the runs they provide. The other benefit that a sixth specialist batsman would bring would be the end to the ludicrous notion that England should pick a 'keeper who cannot keep because they might score a few more runs. Specifically, it would allow Flintoff to drop to 7, which is a much more natural batting position for him, and allow Chris Read to come into the side at 8, where worries that he is not a top-level batsman have no founding.

I've stated before that I feel that Read should be the England 'keeper. I felt this in 2004 when he was dropped and, despite his replacement's good form that summer, have felt it ever since. It goes double now: Jones must go.

It can be said no clearer than that. He has been woeful all year, was rightfully dropped during the Pakistan series, then bizarrely reinstated before Brisbane. Actually, his reinstatement was not all that bizarre if one thinks about it, and one of the reasons my hate-on for Jones is so strong is that he embodies everything that is wrong with the current England set-up. But that is for another post. For the purpose of the above it is enough to say that the best 'keeper could be picked, regardless of batting potential, if the team select 6 specialist batters. Flintoff, when fit, merits a place in the side on his bowling alone, and that is why he should be played as part of a four man attack, or not played at all if unfit to bowl that much.

It is ironic then that as England having used 5 bowlers as a model for the last few years display the reasons why 4 are plenty, the Australian team are going the other way (as the inclusion of Symonds over Voges - which I called - demonstrated). But Australia have been lucky to have two of the all-time great bowlers operating in tandem for the past decade: McGrath and Warne will both go down in the annals of history as legends, their newer options arriving on the scene now are not possessed of such class, and there will undoubtedly be a period of change for Australia as their older heads make way for the next generation. That is not to say their future side won't be as complete or as able to compete with, or dominate, their opposition. It is not a slight on the likes of Shaun Tait or Mitchell Johnson. It is a sign of the class of Warne and McGrath. But again, that is deviating away from the game itself.

As for the game? It, too, summed up all that was wrong with England on this tour: able to control individual days or sessions, but not matches. At Adelaide one never had the feeling England were in complete control, even when they declared, and their lack of control was shown up, and exploited, in expert fashion by Ponting's baggy green army. In Perth, England fired on day one; Monty Panesar showed why he should have been picked from the off, and the Steve Harmison we all know lurks somewhere in that languid body showed itself for the first time on the tour. At the end of the first day, on a decent pitch, England were on top. The second day shaped the match - had England made 350 or more they would have fancied themselves to win. When Australia restricted them to a miserly 214, ensuring a lead where there should not have been one, the game was as good as over. England knew they would face Warne in the fourth innings, and knew in that moment that without the comfort of extra runs in the bank they were on the back foot. England have shown in this series that when they are back there, they crumble. It happened going into the first Test at the Gabba (through the 3 unforced, unnecessary and most of all negative changes); it happened at Adelaide too and sure enough it was repeated in Perth.

Langer's duck aside, England never looked like restricting Australia's second innings and Gilchrist's ferocious hitting was the icing on the cake for the hosts. Communications mix-up or no, the performance of the Aussies' veteran 'keeper on that third evening was something else. and doubly impressive given England's relative hold over him not only in the 2005 series but thus far in this one too. So what went wrong? Well it appears the pitch got slower and easier, but that doesn't tell the whole story. As mentioned above the captaincy was poor - at least insofar as the fifth bowler was (not) employed - but largely the game was won by a solid batting display by Australia, with the entire top order, Langer aside, contributing heavily and leaving England with a thoroughly unenviable task.

The declaration with 2 days to go was telling: despite the magnitude of the chase I do not believe that Ponting would have handed England the opportunity to collect 550 has the teams been playing on a similar level. In two days and more 550 is eminently get-able after all (as England showed in Adelaide and Australia had in Brisbane). Yes it was a fourth innings and yes it would have been a world record chase, but the pitch was getting better not worse, and had there been any doubt in Ponting's mind that England could buck their ideas up then it left plenty of time for the visitors to prod and push their way to the mammoth target. It might sound odd, but following Ponting's declaration an England win was more likely than a draw, simply because there was so much time available. Had England offered a real threat to Australia all series, I do not believe the charity of a sniff at victory - however remote - would have been offered. As it was, England were a beaten side before Gilchrist's onslaught and a truly broken one after it; the chances of them winning were bigger than the draw, but much, much smaller than the Australian win that would clinch the series and the urn. Strauss - unlucky in this series with umpiring decisions - was lost before the close and it looked like it would end on day 4.

Indeed I woke up on Sunday morning and turned on the radio. I was immensely surprised that the game was still live: at that point Cook and Pietersen were together, and it was looking like there was an outside chance of the most remarkable fightback in Test history.

No, I didn't believe that then either. Cook was out shortly after I woke up and Hoggard followed, failing in his role as night watchman. Flintoff came in and survived to the close with KP but it was all over the second Cook fell - his dead bat prowess to sure-up one end was the only real hope England had. Cook, and Bell, deserve great credit though. Both prospered in a situation where it would have been easier, and forgivable, for them to fail; in this, at least, not all hope is drained. Two young players batted for hour upon hour in a manner that confirms that they will form the spine of an England team for a long time, and both will have learnt a lot from this tour.

Flintoff had a welcome knock on Monday morning and KP showed he can be more restrained when it is called for, but there was always an air of inevitability about the result. Flintoff went, and then it was all over. Jones failed, and KP resigned himself - declining to farm the bowling has been cited as a sign of resignation. Perhaps it was, but it was also realistic and pragmatic; I cannot bring myself to criticise Pietersen for his handling of the tail in a situation as hopeless as that: if they couldn't stand up to the bowling the game was over anyway, and Australia thoroughly deserved their win.

As for the rest of the series... whereas previous Australian sides have been known to ease up in dead rubbers, I suspect this one will not. Winning back the Ashes was only one goal: 2005 hurt so much that the only way to really erase the memory is to inflict that most embarrassing of ignominies, the whitewash. Of course, the hosts' efforts are aided by the incompetence and inconsistency their guests have displayed as well as the very rife off-the-field issues that radiate from the England camp, but laying the blame for the prospective clean sweep entirely at the foot of England's mismanagement is belying a truth: Australia have proved their greatness, yet again. Their team has been more driven and more cohesive as well as more talented and ruthless. There are signs that the older gears are creaking, and time will soon split this team of champions - realistically 2009 will see a very different Australian team take the field - but the old stagers have done everything asked of them, everything that was needed to regain the urn. The task was surely easier than any dared believe or many fans anticipated, but they stuck to their guns and shot them true.

It is only proper, then, that I sign off this post with a tribute and deserved congratulations to the team that recaptured cricket's biggest prize (the World Cup be damned!): Well done - you earned it (and yes, it does hurt to type that so soon).

15 December 2006

Music of 2006: an Addendum

A final addendum to thoughts about the musical year.

There I end 2006 with a fairly sizable list of music I wish to buy. Part of this is down to the reconsideration of The Richest Man in Babylon, as Thievery Corporation have 2 albums out since then, the most recent (2006 release) being an album of remixes which includes a version of In Love - a track from Ben Folds' Fear of Pop project - plus a disc of selected tunes from others that looks very interesting. This year also saw the release of Tom Waits' Orphans box set which I'll be looking to pick up when I have the chance. It was also the year I first heard Duke Special on Later... and I resolved then to pick up an album or two for further consideration. Together with The Good, the Bad and the Queen and the album from Zero 7 that I missed in May that's a sizable list for a man with no money!

On top of that I saw this review of a blues album recently, not when the original review was posted, and I must admit to being utterly intrigued with the "low blues" concept the reviewer mentions. I also made a promise to a friend that I would pick up the most recent Wedding Present release when I had the spare cash, and have long bemoaned my lack of Bob Dylan recordings in the "I keep meaning to rectify that..." kind of way. In fact, I should just stop looking. Poking around on Amazon (UK) whilst writing this I've also noticed a 2006 release from Bonobo which interests me greatly, a fifth album from Gomez and a 2005 album from Lemon Jelly - all of which confirms I've been seriously off the pulse for a long while. This is getting seriously depressing now. I have to go away and cry at my lack of funds!

The Music of 2006: Part 2 - Uncovering Old Gems

As mentioned here 2006 was rather sparse for me in terms of new releases. However what saved this year is that the relative dearth of new discoveries allowed to uncovering of some older gems. This includes both albums I already owned which jumped into my consciousness anew in the last 12 months and things that I picked up for the first time along the way.

Notable artists on this list of uncovered or rediscovered gems include:

  • Horace Andy
  • Martina Topley-Bird
  • Thievery Corporation
  • Sneaker Pimps
  • Red Snapper
2006 was the year that I went from liking Red Snapper to listening to virtually nothing else for long periods. I never travel without them and I perk up when I hear them. Yes, there are poorer tunes and weaker albums but as a rule Snapper means snappy, up-beat and energizing and downright funky. What comes across most of all, more than most artists manage, is a sense that they enjoyed the recording; whether this is true or not, I find it is rare that I, as the listener, get this sense from studio albums no matter how clear it is in a given group or artist's live performances. This sense of genuine enjoyment and digging what they're doing permeates into me as I listen and all is right with the world while the tracks spin. Pity that isn't universal.

In a similar vein, 2006 was the year that I grokked the Sneaker Pimps - I decided to buy up Splinter and Bloodsport in January, having owned Becoming X for a fair while. But like so many purchases they arrived, were listened to once or twice then disappeared onto the shelf for a month or more. But at some point they came off again, and from that point they have both been catapulted into my list of favourites; they make the debut look positively weak (and Becoming X is not particularly weak - just a different type of work and with a few tracks that really stand out quality-wise rather than a consistently high-quality disc). Splinter, particularly, is a masterwork in a way I find rare these days: its an album that feels like an album. By that I mean it works best listened to in order in its entirety in a manner that seemed to go out of style with prog rock. The tunes on Splinter are great, and do stand up in a shuffled playlist but there is just that extra little something when you put the disc in and just hit play. Bloodsport, on the other hand, is more what most albums are these days: a collection of tunes. Where this album stands out for me is in the quality of those individual tunes - they all, with the possible exception of M'aidez, have something that really grabs me, whether it is the cynicism of the title track, the beats of The Fuel or Think Harder or the wind-down of Grazes. The two discs are similar in tone but subtly different in expression and are both now etched permanently into my musical landscape.

Thievery Corporation burst into my consciousness with The Mirror Conspiracy some 5 years ago now, when I was commuting from Oxford to London during my Masters, and their layers of laid back tunes, infectious beats and thoughtful application of vocals caught my imagination right away. TMC has remained a firm favourite ever since, but I stopped following their releases after The Richest Man in Babylon which seriously underwhelmed me on first listening and had sat in the CD rack for a couple of years or more without re-visitation. Boy, was that a mistake! I listened to it again the other day after seeing it mentioned elsewhere and couldn't believe I'd shelved it for that long: its a phenomenal album carrying on where TMC left off just with a slightly different flavour. I still prefer TMC but TRMiB is certainly going to get regular airings now and I am very interested once more in hearing their later releases just as soon as I have some liquid cash to spend.

Another overdue find was when I got around to picking up Quixotic by Martina Topley-Bird. This album was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize in 2003 but somehow escaped my attention. This is doubly surprising since I should have been aware of her through her work with Tricky and the fact the album is very much placed in the trip-hop genre (however much I think genre-typing in music is largely of no benefit) with groups like Massive Attack, whom I have had a long-standing interest in. Well I'm thoroughly glad I found it in the end, 3 years late, after I happened to swing by to see who this year's Mercury nominees were (A poor list: Thom Yorke aside I'd no interest though Garry assures me I should give Hot Chip a serious listen). Quixotic is excellent and, with hindsight born of seeing the other lisings, thoroughly deserved its nomination. Need One and I Still Feel are right up there with the best things I've heard all year, and I'm still kicking myself that I missed out on 3 years of listening time!

Horace Andy is an artist I knew about. He's done vocal work on every Massive Attack album to date, and his distinctive voice is one I rate higher than just about every other male singer I have heard. But this year, for the first time, I made the decision that I was actually going to get hold of some of his stuff. On the one hand this makes him the "token reggae artist" in my collection (as I've no others, rather than because I dislike reggae per se); on the other it has led to a couple of genuinely great purchases and the realisation of the roots of many MA tunes: more than I had been aware are based on, sample, cover or borrow from Horace Andy classics (Angel and One Love to name two, plus Spying Glass which I knew about already). Besides opening my eyes to this information (which increases my appreciation), songs like Johnny Too Bad (from the 1999 release Living in the Flood) just ooze with class - but it's hard not to with a voice as distinctive and as musical as Horace Andy does.