Friday, 16 March 2012

Sunil Narine, Xavier Doherty and the difference between float and flight

The first ODI between West Indies and Australia was a tale of two spinners. One is more experienced in domestic and international cricket, but the other is a player of huge promise. When Xavier Doherty came on to bowl during the 15th over of Australia's innings, my mind was cast back to two test matches last Australian summer when Doherty wheeled away for hours on end fruitlessly as England piled up two huge totals. 

Since then he hasn't played another Test match, but he's emerged as an important part of Australia's limited overs plans. Today was an odd day for him, but one in which he hopefully learnt some important lessons about international bowling. The first of these is the difference between float and flight.

One of the most important things for a spin bowler, maybe second behind spin, is flight. It's an often misunderstood concept; a lot of cricket fans think of flight as a bowler floating the ball up in the air slowly. They think of it as the sort of rubbish a club bowler sees get clobbered into the next county. 

That perception is wrong though, bowlers with good flight are among the best spin bowlers, in all forms of cricket. Think of Dan Vettori, think of Graeme Swann and going back a few years, think of Shane Warne. None of them got wickets by bowling fast and flat, they got their wickets through flight and spin. 

What Xavier Doherty did in his first over of bowling wasn't flight, it was float. He bowled slow, he tossed it up without any real work on the ball, and it disappeared three times into the stands in that over. He worked it out though and started to rip the ball a bit more, flighted it, floated the odd one up rather than all of them and varied his pace better. He got wickets like that, one caught at slip off a sharply spinning delivery, one LBW off a straighter one, one stumped off a sharply spinning delivery, then a tail-ender caught down at long off. These dismissals proved something important for Doherty: flight doesn't work unless you give the ball a bit of a rip.  

Doherty's innings figures of 8-2-49-4 encapsulate his performance. There were good overs and bad overs, wicket taking balls and some absolute rubbish. He was inconsistent overall, but once he stopped floating the ball and started spinning it he was always threatening. 

Sunil Narine is the next 'big thing' in West Indies cricket, and unusually since the days of Ramadhin and Valentine, he's a spinner. The pitches in the Caribbean have been undergoing a remarkable transformation in the last few years, they've got slower, lower, dustier and spinners have started to prosper. Evidence of this is in the fact that all five of the top wicket takers in the West Indies first class competition are all spinners. They've all taken their wickets at an average of under 20, and chief among them is Sunil Narine who has 31 at the scarcely believable average of 9.61.

The reasons for his success seem to be many and varied. He has been helped by the pitches, but he turns the ball, has control over line and length, and gives it a little bit of flight. While he doesn't flight the ball much, he doesn't fire it in quick and flat and hope to contain the batsmen. He contains the batsmen by attacking them, varying between his off break and some kind of doosra. 

He took 1-24 off his ten overs, and just went for one boundary, that in his second over. His one wicket was a classic off-spinner's wicket, pitching on the left-hander's off stump from around the wicket, turning and catching the edge through to Dwayne Bravo at slip. 

After a performance like this, his performances in the the domestic competition and the fact that the Test match pitches are likely to spin, he looks in contention for a place in the team for the first Test. Unfortunately, whether he will be available is another thing. The Indian Premier League kicks off on 4th April and clashes with both the Australia and England Test series for West Indies. Given that Narine was brought for $700,000 in the recent auction, it seems inevitable that he'll be in India trying to prevent 'DLF maximums' rather than putting Australian batsmen in a spin in the greatest form of the game. More's the pity. 

Friday, 9 March 2012

I couldn't say it any better than them.

When I heard that there was a press conference, that Rahul Dravid was going to announce his retirement, part of me didn't want to believe it. That part of me wanted to see him play on for a lot longer, I haven't seen enough Dravid innings to speak about him that eloquently, but I knew his importance, as did anyone who loved Test cricket. So I thought I'd let those who knew him, who saw him bat, who appreciated him the most do the talking.

One place to start is the man who batted a place below him in the Indian batting order for over a decade, and in that time often overshadowed him. Sachin Tendulkar said of him:
There was and is only one Rahul Dravid. There can be no other.
From a bowlers point of view, Jacques Kallis said:
He had one of the best techniques in the game and was always a prize wicket to get. The game will be a little poorer without him but I wish him well in his retirement
Dravid was an integral part of an Indian team who shed the tag of poor travellers under Sourav Ganguly who said of him:
"He was a perfectionist. His determination, technique and commitment towards the game was something special. It's really tough to become another Rahul Dravid. It will not happen overnight. It has taken him long to get here; one has to go through a lot of hardships and commitment."
King Cricket praises his adaptability, he's been there and done it all:
It’s hard to imagine there’s a situation in cricket that he hasn’t faced. 120 to win, three wickets in hand, cloudy conditions, fifth day pitch, left-arm quick round the wicket? Yep, been there. 15-overs to go, run-rate eight-an-over, flat pitch, 40 degrees, finger-spinner, field spread? Yep, been there too. Been everywhere. Seen everything. Know what to do.
Jason Gillespie was one of many bowlers to bounce back off 'The Wall', but he thinks that Dravid was much  more than just a wall.
Many might call him a defensive batsman in the mould of a Jacques Kallis or a Michael Atherton, but Dravid ranks up there with the great batsmen of the game. To simply refer to him as a defensive player is selling him short as a batsman. He was a wonderfully gifted player and we all enjoyed the way he played the game.

Sambit Bal talked about Dravid the man, not just the batsman, the well rounded individual that not all cricketers are.
It's almost as if he leaves that part of his world behind him when he leaves the cricket field. And perhaps that's why he can see the cricket world from the outside, reflect on it objectively, and see the ironies and futilities of stardom. It's a rare and remarkable quality. It has helped him engage in relationships in the outside world without baggage.
Rob Smyth in the Guardian talked of a player ever learning:
Dravid was never too proud to seek advice. "Greatness was not handed to him; he pursued it diligently, single-mindedly," Dravid wrote of Waugh in that foreword. It's a compliment that works both ways. Waugh recognised Dravid as a rare species, and so should we: as somebody who achieved greatness as both a cricketer and as a human being.
Sidvee talks about him as an all-rounder, a constantly adapting and versatile cricketer.
I find it hard to think of a more versatile cricketer. You were one of our finest short leg fielders. You were, for the most part, a remarkable slip catcher. You have opened the innings, batted at No.3, batted at No.6 (from where you conjured up that 180 in Kolkata). I’m sure you have batted everywhere else. 
You have kept wicket, offering an added dimension to the one-day side in two World Cups. You even scored 145 in one of those games. You captained both the Test and one-day teams. Sure, things didn’t go according to plan but you were a superb on-field captain. More importantly you were India’s finest vice-captain, an aspect that is often conveniently forgotten. Jeez, you even took some wickets.
Harsha Bogle compares the man and the batsman, and finds them very similar.
Rahul Dravid batted exactly like the person he is: stately and upright, dignity and poise his two shoulders, standing up to everything coming at him with minimum fuss. He picked his shots carefully, almost like he was weighing the risk for fear of letting himself and his side down. There was little about him that was flamboyant - there isn't with an oak - and patiently, brick by brick, he built giant edifices. He is a good man and he batted like a good man.
The last word, I'm going to leave to Dravid himself.
Finally I would like to thank the Indian cricket fan, both here and across the world. The game is lucky to have you and I have been lucky to play before you. To represent India, and thus to represent you, has been a privilege and one which I have always taken seriously. My approach to cricket has been reasonably simple: it was about giving everything to the team, it was about playing with dignity and it was about upholding the spirit of the game. I hope I have done some of that. I have failed at times, but I have never stopped trying. It is why I leave with sadness but also with pride.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Famous last words

Before Sri Lanka played the first CB series final against Australia, Mahela Jayawardene wrote a piece for Cricinfo looking back at the defeat to India, win over Australia and their chances in the CB series finals. Towards the end of the piece he wrote:

We've managed to keep Australia's openers quiet so far and hopefully we can do that in the finals as well.

Ah. How did that go Mahela? One opener made 163, the other made 64 and the opening partnership was 136.

Maybe you should avoid tempting the fates in future.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

The men fighting for Eoin Morgan's place

Now Eoin Morgan has been dropped from the England test squad for Sri Lanka, a precious spot has opened up in the XI. Spots like this don't open up very often in the continuity based Strauss/Flower regime so there is plenty of competition for this one spot.

Ravi Bopara seems to be the preferred candidate of the England management. Whilst there are still doubts over his class at Test level, he is very much the next man in line, and this England team loath line-jumping. Bopara will almost certainly get his chance, even though there are many reasons why perhaps he shouldn't. 

One of those reasons is the balance that Tim Bresnan can bring to the team as an all-rounder. He'll never be as destructive a bowler or batter as Flintoff was on his best days, but other than that he could well end his career a better player. He's a technically correct and powerful batsman and chronically under-rated bowler who's won every Test match he's played for England. Slot Bresnan into the team and Prior has the chance to move up to No.6 and England can play five bowlers, with Panesar/Finn rotated in and out depending on conditions.

The other option for a batsman at No.6 in this tour at least is Samit Patel. In most series his selection would make a lot of sense, a powerful batsman for the lower order, and a second spinner. However after Monty Panesar's form in Pakistan it seems very unlikely he'll be omitted, and a third spinner would start to feel like overkill, even on Sri Lankan wickets.

In the long term the best prospects may not even be any of the ones in this squad. Since England use the No.6 position to blood their young players, if Bopara doesn't cement his place soon there will be a host of players creeping up on him with James Taylor the most likely to take over.

Whatever does happen, it's to be hoped that England don't pick a line-up in Sri Lanka and set it in stone. They've got to No.1 in the world by having continuity in selection, but now the way to stay there (or get back if South Africa win in New Zealand) is to have some kind of flexibility to conditions and different teams. England have used the squad system for their bowlers already, it may be time for them to use it for their batsmen.