December 25, 2012

Salute the messenger

In a year of great performances, let's not forget the brave efforts of Tony Palladino in outing fixing in county cricket

Ever hear the one about the year that saw West Indies stick it to the obituarists, South Africa stick it to Australia, England's spinners stick it to India, Tony Greig stick it to the BCCI, and Cheteshwar Pujara stick it to those who deemed Rahul Dravid irreplaceable? Ad nauseam, right? And the one about the Pom, the Cobber, the African, the two Jamaicans and the Anglo-Italian? The one with a world-record number of happy endings? Well, so long as you're sitting comfortably and you don't have anything better to do, I'll begin.

Cricket's moment of 2012? Take your pick. Not quite all mine occurred during last month's Perth Test, or even the past month: Cookie chef-ing, Monty jigging, KP reintegrating, Faf stonewalling, Abul Hasan entering, Ricky, Straussy and VVS farewelling, Tino masterblasting, DJ Sammy boogieing. Then there were those fantastical splurge sessions in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth: 202 in 35.5 overs and 178 in 26, both by Australia, yet trumped, when it mattered most, as Graeme, Hashim and Jacques thrashed 206 in 32 on that aptest of stages, the WACA: dying hard can seldom have been more vengeful. That's why South Africa are the mace holders, and promise to be for, ooh, at least six months.

Ultimately, nonetheless, I can't quite get past the moment, on the opening day of the Kolkata Test, when my broken-down TV was returned, fixed if not yet match-fit. As he left, one of the two blokes who had humped it up three flights, noting the blur of white and green on-screen and seeing that photo of Botham and the one of me and Viv, and having learned from the horse's mouth that I write about cricket, pulled back his hood. "You like Monty?" he wanted to know. Of course, I replied - who doesn't? No cricketer conveys more joy. "I love Monty," he stressed, pulling the hood back a bit further, revealing a black turban. "We love Monty."

So, to each their own. Still, when it comes to the Cricketer of 2012, for all the credible counter-claims of Sammy, Saeed Ajmal, Rangana Herath, Vernon Philander, and Kumar Sangakkara, I seriously doubt many disinterested observers would look further, in what has largely been a batsman's year, than the Fab Five: Cook, Amla, Michael Clarke, Chris Gayle and Marlon Samuels. Permission to disagree, sir.

What about Cook's former Essex compadre Tony Palladino? Come now, don't tell me you've forgotten already. East Londoner of Italian stock. The chap whose evidence helped secure a jail sentence for Mervyn Westfield, the pitiable young fast bowler naively trapped in a spot-fixing web from which there was no escape. Just a few weeks earlier Paul Nixon had claimed he had turned down "millions" to fix a Twenty20 Cup match, and Ed Hawkins' new book cites scores of (unnamed) offenders, but it was also Palladino who, at the turn of the year, began highlighting county cricketers as the bookies' latest recruitment targets for cricket's version of micro-management.

"You'd be a fool to think [it] wasn't happening at Essex before, and at other counties. It must have been," he told the Sun. "They've chosen county cricket because it's not as high profile as international cricket. What worries me is, there might be other cases that have been swept under the carpet. I've spoken to international players who've been approached several times in Asia. It's rife out there." He also said he "strongly" believed another county player had teamed up with the spot-fixers: "He knows who he is."

As a consequence of his integrity, it bears reminding ourselves, Palladino had found his position at Essex untenable; loaned out to Kent in 2010, he left the club towards the end of the year. The whispers had been unavoidable: he had falsely accused a fellow pace bowler in order to secure his own job. "It's not been the easiest time," he reflected after Westfield was released, having served half his four-month sentence. "I've had mostly positive stuff come back but quite a bit of negative stuff as well - not so much within the game but from supporters. Sometimes people didn't 100% believe me and it was a very tough two years."

I don't know Palladino. I am taking it on trust that his motives were entirely honourable. I have no cause to believe otherwise. Nor, therefore, do I doubt that being him in that Essex dressing room was, at times, awful. Nor that the trickiest bits still lay ahead. Could he resurrect his own career?

Joining Derbyshire, he defied the odds, prospering from the off. His first season, 2011, brought 52 first-class scalps and renewed belief. Then came Extra-Tricky Bit No. 2: the next trial. The one in court.

Palladino obeyed his conscience and disdained the easy get-out. The temptation - to back-track, to continue concealing what he knew - must have been immense. To resist took conviction, yes, but also a hell of a lot of balls

WATCHING SPORT IS NEVER BETTER than when it astounds: whether through quality, drama or surprise. Clarke, Amla, Gayle and Samuels have all astounded us in the first category, which is what really turns on us truth-and-beauty junkies. All three attained the very peak of performance, repeatedly: a marriage of productivity and panache. Gayle, most refreshingly, did so after beginning the year in exile, an exile that should never have been imposed, on player, team or audience. Amla, most encouragingly, did so while wearing his religion so firmly on his face. Samuels, most life-affirmingly, did so having seemingly squandered his talent; Clarke, most astonishingly, did so having begun the year nursing nightmares about Australia's first home loss to New Zealand in decades and easing himself into the toughest job in sport - captaining an international cricket team.

Cook, who began the year with a brace of single-figure scores and a ten-wicket defeat by Pakistan, has astounded us in a different way, if only with substance. But what substance. Hard substance. Deep substance. Keep-on-trucking substance. The sort of substance that new captains commonly take years to build, a substance he appears to have acquired in weeks. Three tons in consecutive Tests in India; a team led by example from spin-freaked dolts to spin-happy dynamos. Unlike Clarke, moreover, his heroics were not in vain.

Coming from behind to bury India in their own backyard? It wasn't always pretty, least of all on that Test-killing track in Nagpur, but it was pretty astounding, more so than the Ashes triumph of 2010-11, even with the old guard on the wane and the new guard finding its feet. Unfortunately timed - 2012, after all, will probably be cited for ever more as the best year British sport ever enjoyed - it will still resound in this memory as a greater feat than Bradley's or Andy's or Jessica's or Mo's.

Exemplar par excellence but maybe an enabler too, Cook was not just the man but the calmest of men. The New Hutton? Let's not get too carried away, but the evidence so far is mightily persuasive. "Sir Alastair" has a ring of inevitability; about time it wasn't most commonly associated with a newsreader.

Yet Palladino achieved something even more heartening. He did so by demonstrating two virtues; two priceless, unfashionable, impractical virtues. He obeyed his conscience and disdained the easy get-out. The temptation - to back-track, to continue concealing what he knew - must have been immense. To resist took conviction, yes, but also a hell of a lot of balls.

Like Samuels, he also possesses another handy virtue: bouncebackability. Having lived this double life, as informer and cricketer, the end of the trial left him able, finally, to re-focus on the day job in the summer of 2012. Distractions were immeasurably fewer. But there were still mountains to climb. He still had to rediscover the wherewithal to impose himself; on opponents, yes, but also on all those hungry young guns eyeing his dressing-room peg. He still needed reassurance his team-mates didn't resent him, still had to persuade himself he was worthy, still had to convince himself that it - all this - was worth it.

That his relaunch pad should be Derbyshire makes the story all the more compelling. The Peakites are a church mouse of a club, first on the block whenever a cull is contemplated; a club to whom success, never more than an exceedingly selective visitor, had long kept a dismissive distance. The upshot was the most delightful tale of the unexpected to emerge from this or most other cricketing years (the only reason bets are being hedged begins with "A", ends in "n" and is largely unmentionable in polite American circles).

Not only did Derbyshire win promotion to the First Division; they did so as champions - their first first-class trophy since 1936. And their most prolific wicket-taker? Palladino. Having made his maiden first-class ton against Australia A earlier in the campaign, he also put in a nightwatchman's stint worth 58 against Hampshire that effectively sealed the title. The only way the ending could be happier would be for Westfield to forgive himself and live a fruitful life from here on in. Sympathy for the devil? No - just compassion for a lost soul.

Sport is at its very worst when those who play it give less than their utmost and those who watch them, who trust they are always trying their damnedest, are cheated. It still took balls, balls and ever more balls for Palladino to keep going. In every possible sense. The message was plain: to ignore is to condone. Shooting the messenger never made any sense. Let's salute this one.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton