Why English and Welsh cricket stands at a crossroads

English referee Martin Atkinson (3L) celebrates with teammates after taking the wicket of New Zealand's Tim Southee during the second T20 international cricket match between England and New Zealand at Old Trafford, in Manchester, north-west England, on September 1, 2023. (AFP)
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Updated 16 May 2024
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Why English and Welsh cricket stands at a crossroads

  • Since its inception in 2021, The Hundred format has been divisive on several levels, but ECB could implement changes to how it is run

On May 11, the second of a four-day county championship match unfolded in front of my eyes at the Utilita Bowl, Southampton. This is the home of Hampshire County Cricket Club. On a rare sunny day, there seemed to be around 600 other people watching, a majority in the members’ area.

Hampshire CCC is unusual in that it is one of three out of the 18 county cricket clubs in England and Wales that are not subject to member votes. It is owned by Hampshire Sport & Leisure Holdings, a private limited company which oversees sporting and leisure activities on the site. Its former chair, who was instrumental in saving the county from insolvency in 2001, owns 60 percent of the shares.

By coincidence, Hampshire’s opponents were Durham County Cricket Club, another county not subject to member votes. It is constituted as a Community Interest Company, a form of social enterprise. Northamptonshire County Cricket Club is the third one not to be subject to member votes, being constituted as a private company limited by guarantee.

The scene at Southampton would have been replicated at the other five county championship matches taking place on May 11. At the same time in Kolkata, the Knight Riders and the Mumbai Indians were preparing to play the 60th match of the 2024 Indian Premier League franchise competition. Average spectator attendance in the IPL is estimated to be 30,000. These two different models of promoting cricket may be about to coalesce, if proposed changes to the landscape in England and Wales come to fruition.

The changes center on The Hundred, a format of cricket introduced by the England and Wales Cricket Board in 2021. The two teams each play a single innings of 100 deliveries, divided into 20 overs of five deliveries, with two overs bowled from each end alternately. Each match is scheduled to last for two-and-a-half hours. Eight men’s teams and eight women’s teams comprise separate competitions with all matches played back-to-back on the same day at the same venue. The whole of August is allocated to The Hundred to the exclusion of other formats.

Ever since its inception, the tournament has been divisive on several levels. First, it has segregated the 18 counties into those who host The Hundred and those who do not. The eight participating counties are Glamorgan, Hampshire, Lancashire, Middlesex, Nottinghamshire, Surrey, Warwickshire and Yorkshire. However, the teams do not carry the county names, since the concept was to create city-based teams using existing county facilities. Agreement to progress with the tournament depended upon the support of excluded counties. This was achieved by the ECB’s offer to pay each county £1.3 million ($1.6 million) for their backing.

At a second level, there are differing opinions about the opportunity cost of this funding. The ECB receives around 75 percent of its income from the sale of broadcasting rights, a substantial part of which relates to Test-match cricket. Critics argue that using this money to support and develop a format which represents an existential threat to Test cricket is willful. They argue that the funds should be deployed in producing players for the longer rather than shorter formats.

On a third level, it is argued that the focus on eight counties, instead of 18, will hasten the demise of some of the latter, several of whom are in parlous financial circumstances. It is understood that, in the last two years, five counties have received financial help from the ECB. Overall debt levels in county cricket may be in the order of £200 million, some of this being incurred in stadium development designed to host international matches. In addition, operational costs have increased sharply in recent years.

It is in this context that the ECB’s current proposal to sell off 49 percent of equity in The Hundred has great attraction. The balance of 51 percent would be owned by the host county, which can decide to retain it all or sell part or all of it. The proceeds of the 49 percent are to be distributed to counties according to an undisclosed formula. The ECB requested that counties agreed to a “direction of travel” by May 10.

A divergence of opinion has emerged amongst the counties about the proposed model for distributing the spoils, split broadly between those who host The Hundred and those who do not. Needless to say, both sides appear to want more. In terms of numbers, some reports assert that the ECB’s sale of 49 percent equity might raise some $507 million (£400 million) for distribution, enough to salve the cash problems of a few counties. It is understandable that the non-hosting counties fear that they could get sold down the river.

There is already a fear that they are becoming marginalized by not being a host of The Hundred format. If the money raised by the ECB falls well short of the $507 million, then their financial problems may not be solved and their marginalization exacerbated. There are also legitimate concerns over governance and scheduling issues once private owners become involved. At this stage, the nature of private investors is unknown. It would be no surprise if Indian franchise owners show interest. However, it is reasonable to assume that they would not be content with either a minority stake or minority voice.

Cricket in England and Wales is at a watershed moment, caught in a maze of alternative possibilities, each one of which has unknown consequences. The ECB, under previous management, was the architect of this moment, through its introduction of The Hundred, which is contracted to run until 2028. In a twist of fate, it is now regarded as a medium for escape from impecunity. The alternative to equity sale is to do nothing and watch the system crumble. Equity sale will be tantamount to privatizing a part of that system. It was difficult to escape the feeling at Southampton that I was watching one part of that system which is heading for trauma.


Ambitious expansion of T20 World Cup throws up playing and logistical challenges

Updated 59 min 30 sec ago
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Ambitious expansion of T20 World Cup throws up playing and logistical challenges

  • In modern cricket, an established statistical mechanism recalculates scores in rain-affected matches, with pitch and ground covering materials and more powerful equipment to disperse rainwater

Last week’s consideration of the pressures in professional cricket was followed by some real-time examples in the International Cricket Council Men’s T20 World Cup.

In Kingstown, St Vincent, South Africa scored only 115 against Nepal, who responded positively, cruising to 85 for two midway through the 14th over. Then four wickets fell quickly, leaving eight runs required from the final over, whittled down to two from the final two balls.

Those runs proved to be unattainable, a last ball run out sealing Nepal’s heartbreaking defeat by one run. Both batters, bowler and several fielders were under pressure to make crucial decisions in split seconds.

In St Lucia, Scotland scored a highly creditable 180 for five against Australia, aided by six dropped catches. This target challenged Australia’s batters as they slipped to sixty for three. A victory for Scotland would have elevated the team to the Super 8s stage; as it was, the pressure proved to be too great, as Australia’s extra experience took them to 186 for five with two deliveries remaining. The result meant that England, instead of Scotland, progressed. 

In Antigua, a few hours earlier, this had been very much in doubt. There it seemed the rain would not stop in sufficient time prior to the cut-off of 4.46 p.m. local time to allow mopping-up operations to be completed. One may wonder why the cut-off time should be so early in the day.

This relates to the ICC’s playing conditions for T20I men’s cricket, which stipulate that there should be two sessions of 1 hour 25 minutes, separated by a 20-minute interval between innings. Allowances also need to be made for one drink break per innings, umpire and player reviews, and any treatment of injuries. All of this equates to around 3.5 hours. There seems to be no flexibility on this and it would not be practical with matches that start at, say, 8 p.m. 

It is also pertinent to ask why a team — any team, let alone defending champions — should be at risk of being knocked out at the group stage by virtue of playing only two of its four group matches, courtesy of adverse weather conditions. England’s captain was pictured looking very mournful in the team area as rain continued to fall. Later, he admitted to it being a stressful day with real fears no play would be possible.

In the event, the match was only 46 minutes from abandonment. Ground staff worked incessantly to clear the outfield of water and the umpires were finally satisfied that play could start in a shortened match of 11 overs per team. This was reduced to 10 overs following a shower during England’s innings, which totaled 122 for five. Namibia fell 41 runs short to soothe England’s anxieties and relieve the pressure on its leadership. 

Although only four of the 40 group stage matches were washed out, three of them were in Florida. June is the start of the rainy season in the Caribbean and the Florida peninsula, so it is hardly a surprise the weather has affected matches. The ICC has been criticized for its decision to stage the 2024 T20 World Cup at this time of year in the knowledge of climatic conditions. In its defense, it would no doubt argue that the crowded cricket schedule allows no alternative.

The most favorable conditions for cricket in the Caribbean are between December and April. These months are when five T20 franchise leagues are played. The decision to include the USA as joint hosts in 2024 limits the options. Although Florida is sub-tropical, New York is not. The next T20 World Cups will be hosted by India and Sri Lanka in February 2026, followed by Australia and New Zealand in 2028. In all cases, except for northern India, weather issues should not be of concern. Given the capricious nature of the world’s climate patterns, it seems we are asked to accept that rain will interfere randomly with cricket, as it always has done.

In modern cricket, an established statistical mechanism is now deployed to recalculate scores in rain affected matches, while enhanced pitch and ground covering materials are used and more powerful equipment is available to disperse rainwater. What is needed to make best use of these is sufficient staff on hand. There have been several occasions at this World Cup when that did not appear to be the case.

Another area of discussion has surrounded the absence of reserve days in the group and Super 8 stages, apparently for logistical reasons. Reserve days are available for the semi-finals and final if the team batting second is unable to face ten overs. If the reserve day is invoked in the second semi-final, then the final is scheduled for the next day. This is high risk planning. 

What appears to be lower risk planning is the timing of matches. These are weighted heavily in favor of Indian audiences. All matches involving India in the group and Super 8 stages start at 8 p.m. IST. Additionally, this is the scheduled start time for all but seven of the other 47 matches, ensuring that Indians can watch most matches in the evening. In contrast, the local time for viewing Australia’s matches is either 3 a.m. or 10.30 a.m. Furthermore, India’s semi-final venue is pre-planned. 

This T20 World Cup is the first to comprise 20 teams. It was bound to create logistical challenges for the ICC. On top of these, the performances of the expanded number of associate members will be scrutinized by those who disagree with their inclusion. In that sense the biggest disappointment for many about the tournament — the sub-standard quality of pitches — may have helped the associate teams.

Many batters in the Full member teams have struggled to adapt to the pitches, creating unexpected opportunities for associates to achieve shock results. Under pressure, they failed to do so on most occasions. Only by playing more regularly against Full members can associates learn to maximize these chances.


South Africa works hard to beat United States in Super Eight at T20 World Cup

Updated 20 June 2024
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South Africa works hard to beat United States in Super Eight at T20 World Cup

  • Fast bowler Kagiso Rabada claimed 3-18 and spinner Keshav Maharaj got the prized wicket of US captain Aaron Jones for a duck — no runs — to finish with 1-24

NORTH SOUND, Antigua: South Africa had to work hard to earn an 18-run win over the fast-improving United States in the opening game of the Super Eight at the Twenty20 World Cup on Wednesday.
Andries Gous made an unbeaten 80 off 47 balls for the US — against country of his birth — to move atop the batting chart at the World Cup before South Africa restricted the Americans at 176-6.
Fast bowler Kagiso Rabada claimed 3-18 and spinner Keshav Maharaj got the prized wicket of US captain Aaron Jones for a duck — no runs — to finish with 1-24.
Quinton de Kock had earlier made a rampant 74 off 40 balls and Heinrich Klaasen provided the perfect finish with 36 not out in the South African total of 194-4 after Jones won the toss and elected to field.
“Pretty happy with the performance as a whole,” South Africa captain Aiden Markram said. “A couple of overs here and there we need to tidy up … but the wicket definitely changes and gets a bit slower, and they were a lot less sloppy.”
Despite four straight wins during the group stage, South Africa had been struggling in the power play throughout the tournament with its top score of 38 in the first six overs against Nepal.
But de Kock opened in friendlier conditions for batters in the West Indies than in the US as he smacked fast bowler Jaspeep Singh for three straight sixes in a 28-run over during the power play that provided South Africa momentum for a big total.
De Kock and Markram (46 off 32 balls) dominated both spinners and the pacers as they raised a solid 110-run stand after Saurabh Netravalkar (2-21) had provided the early breakthrough by getting the wicket of Reeza Hendricks in his second over.
Left-arm spinner Harmeet Singh (2-24) got plenty of grip off the slow wicket and squeezed the runs when he had de Kock caught in the deep and then David Miller offered a tame return catch to the spinner off the first ball he faced.
De Kock’s first half-century in the tournament featured five sixes and seven boundaries as he utilized the short boundaries on one side of the wicket with his perfect pull shots before he missed out on Singh’s full toss.
“We’ve had some tricky wickets so it was nice to spend sometime in the middle today,” de Kock said. “The USA put us under pressure toward the end. It was a great game.”
Netravalkar, who bowled a sensational Super Over in the United States’ historic win over heavyweights Pakistan in the group stage, struck immediately in his return spell when Markram was brilliantly caught by diving Ali Khan at deep backward point off a full pitched ball.
But Klaasen used all his T20 experience in the last five overs and struck three sixes while Tristan Stubbs also hit two fours in his 16-ball unbeaten 20 which lifted South Africa total.
Steven Taylor provided the US a confident start with four boundaries and a six in his quickfire knock of 24 off 14 balls before he ballooned a catch at mid-on as Rabada struck twice off his first two overs in the power play.
South Africa pulled back nicely through Maharaj, who had Jones caught behind for a five-ball zero, and when Corey Anderson’s stumps were knocked back by Anrich Nortje in the 10th over, the US still needed 124 for victory.
But Gous and Singh (38) revived US hopes as they came down hard on wrist spinner Tabraiz Shamsi (1-50) and added 91 runs for the sixth-wicket stand. Gous completed his half-century with two successive big sixes against Nortje as the batting pair brought down the target to 28 off the final two overs.
However, Rabada bowled a brilliant penultimate over for just two runs and also had Singh caught at mid-wicket that fizzled out the US hopes of another upset.
“Hard to take a defeat after coming so close,” Jones said. “We did lack discipline in the bowling at times, (but) once we play good cricket we can beat any team in the world. We need to be a lot more disciplined.”
Co-host West Indies and England are the other teams in Super Eights Group 2 and will meet in St. Lucia later Wednesday.


Shaqiri scores stunning goal in Switzerland’s 1-1 draw with Scotland at Euro 2024

Updated 20 June 2024
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Shaqiri scores stunning goal in Switzerland’s 1-1 draw with Scotland at Euro 2024

  • It is the sixth-straight major international tournament in which Shaqiri has scored, dating back to the World Cup in 2014

COLOGNE, Germany: “Shaq” did it again.
At the age of 32 and having left top-flight European soccer behind to play in MLS, Xherdan Shaqiri is back on the international stage and back scoring again.
His stunning first-half strike secured a 1-1 draw for Switzerland against Scotland at Euro 2024 on Wednesday.
It is the sixth-straight major international tournament in which Shaqiri has scored, dating back to the World Cup in 2014.
That’s three World Cups in a row and now three European Championships for the Chicago Fire forward.
“He proved tonight that he lives and breathes for moments like these,” Switzerland coach Murat Yakin said.
Shaqiri rolled back the years with a first-time curling effort from about 20 meters out at Cologne Stadium.
Scotland had led from the 13th minute when Scott McTominay’s shot took a wicked deflection off Fabian Schar to beat Switzerland goalkeeper Yann Sommer.
But Shaqiri pounced on Anthony Ralston’s loose pass in the 26th to even the match with a left-footed shot into the top corner and past Scotland keeper Angus Gunn.
“If that chance falls to any other player in the Swiss team, it’s not a goal,” Scotland manager Steve Clarke said. “You knew when it was rolling toward Shaqiri it was destined for the back of the net. He’s a top, top player, so you don’t give top, top players that kind of chance.”
Shaqiri’s career has seen him play for some of Europe’s most iconic teams, including Bayern Munich, Inter Milan and Liverpool. He joined Chicago Fire two years ago, but in that time has continued to produce for his country on the biggest stage.
“Shaq always gives everything in training,” Switzerland defender Manuel Akanji said. “I don’t know how many other players are able to score that goal.”
The draw leaves Switzerland on four points, second in Group A behind Germany and likely to advance to the round of 16.
Germany became the first nation to advance to the round of 16 after 2-0 win over Hungary.
Scotland’s hopes of making the knockout round depend on its final game against Hungary on Sunday and results elsewhere. No team has failed to advance from the group stage with four points.
Both teams had chances to win the game.
The Swiss should have taken the lead just before the hour mark when Dan Ndoye turned Kieran Tierney on the edge of the box. With just goalkeeper Angus Gunn to beat, Ndoye fired wide of goal.
Grant Hanley then headed against the post from a Scotland free kick and Switzerland’s Zeki Amdouni headed wide at the far post late on.
Scotland has never advanced beyond the group stage of a World Cup or Euros on 11 previous attempts.
But repeated disappointment doesn’t seem to dampen optimism among its fans, who filled Cologne’s square before the game.
Swiss fans were out in numbers, too, creating a raucous atmosphere in the stadium.
It was certainly a more enjoyable evening for Scotland’s fans than the opening game of the Euros — a 5-1 loss to Germany.
“It was what we expected. It was a good reaction to a disappointing night. We’re still alive in the tournament,” Clarke said.
Goals from Jamal Musiala and İlkay Gündoğan made it two wins from two for host Germany after victory against Hungary and ensured there would be no repeat of its group stage exit from the 2022 World Cup.
Albania substitute Klaus Gjasula scored in the fifth minute of stoppage time to hold World Cup semifinalist Croatia to a 2-2 draw in Group B. Gjasula’s own goal, just four minutes after entering the game in the second half, had looked like handing Croatia the win until his late strike.


Lionel Messi could be playing in his final tournament with Argentina at Copa America

Updated 20 June 2024
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Lionel Messi could be playing in his final tournament with Argentina at Copa America

  • “The moment I feel that I am not going to help my team, I will retire,” Messi said in March in an interview with Saudi broadcaster Riyadh Season
  • He spends time with his three children, starts new businesses and lives as if soccer is slowly becoming a smaller part of his life

BUENOS AIRES: It’s sad but true, Copa America could mark Lionel Messi’s final chapter with Argentina’s national soccer team.

The World Cup winner will turn 37 during the tournament in the US, which kicks off Thursday. He’s clearly past his peak at Inter Miami after two decades of playing at the highest level in Europe.

Messi has not set a date for his retirement and has kept the door open to playing in a sixth World Cup in 2026 to defend his title from Qatar. But he already recognizes his shortcomings.

“I don’t think about that yet. The moment I feel that I am not going to help my team, I will retire,” Messi said in March in an interview with Saudi broadcaster Riyadh Season. “I always ate well, trained. But as I grew I became aware that the physical effort we make is getting harder. As you grow old, things become more difficult.”

Last year, the eight-time Ballon d’Or winner struggled with muscular injuries while playing in MLS and for Argentina. That didn’t change much in 2024.

Messi has shown he enjoys going out at night with his wife, Antonella, and his friends in Miami. He spends time with his three children, starts new businesses and lives as if soccer is slowly becoming a smaller part of his life.

Still, he has 12 goals and 13 assists for Inter Miami this season.

“I have a good time at the club. I am lucky to have teammates and friends (Luis Suarez, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, all former Barcelona players) by my side,” Messi told ESPN. ”I have a good time in the national team, where I have teammates and friends, too. And I enjoy the little details that I know that when I don’t play anymore, I’m going to miss.”

Angel di Maria, a 36-year-old winger who has played alongside Messi for years with the national team, is sure to bid farewell to international soccer after the Copa America. That has also brought more questions about whether the team’s biggest star will remain on the squad.

“As long as I feel like I’m fine and I can continue contributing, I’m going to do it. Today, the only thing I think about is getting to the Copa America well and being able to compete in it,” Messi told the Star Plus platform in December. “Fighting for it again, as we always did, trying to be champions.”

Argentina’s all-time top scorer and the national team’s leader with 26 World Cup appearances is also seeking records in the continental competition.

Messi, who won the South American championship in 2021, wants to become the Copa America’s leading scorer. He has 13 goals in six editions, four behind Norberto Méndez of Argentina and Zizinho of Brazil with 17.

He also wants to be the player with most appearances in the Copa America, a record he currently shares with former Chile goalkeeper Sergio Livingston, both with 34 games.

Messi’s teammates don’t want to see him go.

“We’ll see how long, but while he’s here we’re going to enjoy it to the fullest,” Argentina defender Cristian Romero said. “We grew up watching him. We are part of those tournaments.”


Tributes to Willie Mays pour in as mural is unveiled in Alabama

Updated 20 June 2024
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Tributes to Willie Mays pour in as mural is unveiled in Alabama

  • The artwork was created by artist Chuck Styles, who said he wanted to capture Mays’ humanity
  • Other tributes to Mays, born in Westfield, Alabama, near Birmingham, poured in all over the country on Wednesday, including from President Joe Biden

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama: Willie Mays gave a message to his longtime friend Dusty Baker just a day before he died.

Mays, who died Tuesday afternoon at 93 years old, knew that he wouldn’t be able to make the trip to Birmingham, Alabama, for a week of festivities honoring the contributions that he and other Negro Leaguers have made to baseball. But he wanted Baker to share a message to the city he long called home.

“Birmingham, I wish I could be with you all today,” said Mays’ good friend and adviser Jeff Bleich, reading the statement at a ceremony Wednesday honoring Mays’ life and career. “This is where I’m from. I had my first pro hit here at Rickwood as a Black Baron. And now this year, some 76 years later, that hit finally got counted in the record books. I guess some things take time. But I always think better late than never.”

Mays also sent an antique clock with his picture on it to the city of Birmingham. Baker was not feeling well, Bleich said, so he was not at the ceremony.

“Time changes things,” Mays continued in his note. “Time heals wounds. And that’s a good thing. I had some of the best times of my life in Birmingham. So I want you to have this clock to remember those times with me, and to remember all the other players who were lucky enough to play here together.”

The ceremony took place in downtown Birmingham just miles from Rickwood Field, where Mays’ unforgettable career began. Bleich joined Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin and San Francisco Giants CEO Larry Baer in giving speeches in Mays’ honor, standing in front of a grand mural display of the former Giants center fielder.

It’s an enchanting depiction of the electrifying “Say Hey Kid,” showing Mays beaming with his hands resting on his knees, his bevy of athletic accomplishments painted around him.

The artwork was created by artist Chuck Styles, who said he wanted to capture Mays’ humanity.

“I knew I wanted to showcase him in a way that everybody knew him for,” Styles said, “and that was his smile.”

Other tributes to Mays, born in Westfield, Alabama, near Birmingham, poured in all over the country on Wednesday, including from President Joe Biden.

“Like so many others in my neighborhood and around the country, when I played Little League, I wanted to play center field because of Willie Mays,” Biden said in a statement. “It was a rite of passage to practice his basket catches, daring steals, and command at the plate — only to be told by coaches to cut it out because no one can do what Willie Mays could do.”

Mays, who began his professional career with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues in 1948, had been baseball’s oldest living Hall of Famer and was considered the sport’s greatest living player.

He died two days before a game between the Giants and St. Louis Cardinals to honor the Negro Leagues at Rickwood Field in Birmingham.

“It’s actually even heavier today,” said Giants manager Bob Melvin, wearing a Mays T-shirt. “When you read all the articles and you read what everybody has to say about him, it kind of comes full circle in what he’s meant to our country. Even if you don’t know baseball, you know who Willie Mays is.”

Melvin said the Giants would wear patches with Mays’ No. 24 on their chest for Wednesday’s game against the Chicago Cubs.

When the team travels to Birmingham for the commemorative game at Rickwood Field on Thursday, the Giants will open Oracle Park for fans to watch the game on the scoreboard, the team announced.

Images of Mays will appear on the scoreboard before and after the event, and a sculpture of his jersey number will be placed in center field to honor him.

Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said Thursday’s game becomes even more poignant after Mays’ death.

“Being there with everything that is going on will be definitely meaningful. You have an icon of the sport in the city where it all started, so I think bringing light to all of it will be a pretty cool moment down there,” Marmol said.

The 37-year-old manager said he never met Mays, but it was interesting to hear stories from former Giants like Brandon Crawford about him.

“I will do more of that today. It will be fun to hear people’s stories,” Marmol said. “I am curious to ask around to those who have.”

Cardinals assistant coach Willie McGee said he had several conversations with Mays when he played for the Giants from 1991-94.

“Willie was the best, man, the greatest I have ever seen,” McGee said. “He had all six tools. His aggressiveness, his baserunning. That is what separated him, for me, his aggressiveness and his instincts from other five-tool guys.”

When asked if Mays ever gave him any advice, McGee chuckled.

“All the time — but I don’t remember none of it,” he said.