Tuesday, 3 December 2013

West Indies neglect the art of seam bowling

Shannon Gabriel: quick, but not much else
Seam bowling is an underappreciated art. More plaudits go to extravagant swing and pace, but the skill of hitting the seam and nibbling it around a bit is as useful as any in some conditions. Those conditions most definitely include New Zealand, home of the dibbly dobbly seamer, and of course, Richard Hadlee (certainly not dibbly dobbly), who gained most of his success when he slowed down a little and focused on seam and swing.

Of course, nobody expects Tino Best and Shannon Gabriel to slow down, but they have a bit to learn about seam bowling. Their captain knows more, and he has to at his pace. On the first morning of New Zealand’s Test summer, he was the most consistent of the three seamers and got a little swing and seam, presenting the seam a fair bit better than the other two. Unfortunately, 75mph is too slow at Test level, no matter how skillful you are.

Best had Ross Taylor in a bit of trouble and picked up the wicket of Redmond, but Gabriel failed to find any kind of length, and just as troubling, failed to keep the seam anything near upright. If you want a role model for seam position, it’s had to look beyond Vernon Philander. Every time the cameras zoom in on the ball leaving his hand, you see it fizzing through the air, seam bolt upright.

Adding to that you have the fingers rolled down the ball, the backswing holding the seam upright, a skill that is alien to the bang it in style of Gabriel and Best. This Dunedin pitch is not hard like those in the Caribbean, and it suits those who skid the ball across it’s surface, like skipping a stone across water. Boult, Southee and Wagner will know this, and you can’t imagine them wasting the new ball like the West Indies did.

Sammy got his reward just before tea, Fulton pushing at a short ball outside off stump. That was a stark contrast to the short balls outside off stump from the quicker men, which Fulton let go with ease. Perhaps Sammy’s lack of pace made Fulton lose concentration, but what got the wicket was a little seam movement, a leg cutter, with the fingers run down the ball. Not an upright seam, but good use of a ball over fifty overs old.

Shannon Gabriel’s scrambled seam (a great name for a band if there ever was one) came into more use after that wicket, what looked like an off cutter narrowly missing out on bowling McCullum whilst leaving. Scrambling the seam with cutters isn’t a bad tactic to use with a soft, old ball, but with a new ball it’s worse than pointless. Even long hops can be useful with a bit of movement, but wasting the protruding seam of a new ball is a cardinal sin.

After that good period just before tea, it all fell apart after the interval, 36 off four overs from the attacking Taylor and McCullum. Thereafter they settled for singles and the odd boundary, as the West Indies wilted, and waited for the new ball. That provided no more joy, the captain and ex-captain making it to well deserved centuries.

What Sammy needed desperately was a bowler for these condition. So the cry goes up: Where’s Ravi Rampaul? Seven wickets in three ODIs in India prove nothing for his worth in these conditions, but they do prove that he’s fit and ready. Perhaps he’s not five day fit yet, but perhaps he could have been had he a chance for a warm up in New Zealand. Instead he was in India playing an ODI, as were many of the actual Test team.

All is not completely lost, but West Indies will have to improve quickly to stand any chance in this Test. At least the series is three games long, giving the tourists a chance to come back. That may be the single saving grace after a bowling performance which highlighted the skill deficit in the young (and old) fast bowlers coming out of the Caribbean.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Short term thinkers

Ben Cutting: deviated from the plan
England are two warm up matches down in the build up to the first Ashes Test, and with one to go, what normally is an easing in period has become a battleground between the two teams and their boards.

England were unimpressed with their opponents in the final warm up match, which were essentially a New South Wales 2nd XI. One complaint to Cricket Australia later, and a deal was struck, a better team for England to warm up against, returned in kind by the ECB for the next series. Sorted, yes? Well, sort of. The teams may be happy, but the Australian media isn’t.

Malcolm Conn thundered in Australia’s Daily Telegraph, under an article headlined “CA crumbles and panders to pusillanimous Poms over pre-Test practice match”, “Having spent years capitulating to India, Cricket Australia has now caved in to England, giving the tourists an almighty leg-up just a week before the first Test in Brisbane later in November.”

Despite that agreement, the Australia A team for the second warm up match was woefully unbalanced, two fine opening bowlers, one decent spinner, one all rounder, and one Glenn Maxwell does not a bowling attack make

As Daniel Brettig pointed out for ESPNCricinfo, Ben Cutting departed radically from the plan to withhold quality batting practice from England, in bowling a fine spell of 2-17 off nine overs, on the fourth day. It’s the same script the BCCI played against England last year, withholding quality spin from the tourists in the three warm up matches. Not that it helped them, with England recording a famous 2-1 triumph in the Test series.

Another thing the BCCI does is ‘doctor’ pitches (not always to their advantage). Four big spinning, crumbly pitches helped them to a 4-0 win over Australia earlier this year, and the Australian cricket media were up in arms about doctoring. England ‘doctor’ pitches too - but in a subtler, more insidious way, serving up five flat, dry pitches this summer, which neutralised Australia’s pace attack and helped Graeme Swann.

In the long run pitch ‘doctoring’ isn’t a great strategy for anyone, and the same goes for warm up match doctoring. They might win you a few matches in the short term, but if you keep doing it, the opposition does too, and everyone ends up hiding in their bunker, preparing pitches to aid their strongest suit, weakening touring teams, and nobody learns how to win away.

Everyone does what they need to win, but if they’ve got a long term strategy they don’t bother with silly stuff. England have some long term strategy, but stil doctor pitches, Australia are in short term fix mode, India are in short term mode not just on the pitch but in administration - never understanding how they’re dependent on world cricket just as much as the other way round, and that a stronger, more competitive cricket world helps them just as much as everyone else.

The great teams never bothered with this sort of stuff. Australia circa 1990-2005 turned up, thrashed everyone, sent out state teams to give touring teams a bloody nose; West Indies 1975-1990 never made pitches to order, and rightly believed they could win in any conditions. It’s a pity nobody has that confidence any more.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Have Bangladesh reached a tipping point?

Bangladesh played their first Test match in November 2000, nearly thirteen years ago. They started promisingly, putting together 400 in their first innings against India. In that innings Aminul Islam scored their first Test hundred, a hard-working 145. In the second innings of the match, India took the lead with 429, but Bangladesh could dream of an impressive draw in their first Test match. Then came the collapse, bowled out for 91, allowing India to stroll home for a nine wicket win.

The next twelve years generally proceeded like that, the odd rays of hope, followed by crushing disappointment. So far, it has brought them four wins, nine draws, and 67 losses. They have not yet beaten any team other than Zimbabwe and a strike weakened West Indies. But is 2013 the tipping point into a team that can compete with everyone?

Last year they played only two Tests, losing them both, and between 2010 to 2012 they lost all but one of the fourteen Tests they played. This year however, they’ve been competitive. They managed a draw on the flattest of decks in Galle, but lost the second match of the series against Sri Lanka. An encouraging win followed a big defeat in Zimbabwe to draw the series, and now another drawn series against New Zealand, which they thoroughly deserved, rain robbing either team of the chance to push for a win on the final day of the second Test.

The New Zealand series showcased a depth of talent in the Bangladesh side that hasn’t been seen before. Tamim Iqbal may be in the middle of a century drought, but he makes consistent runs at the top of the order, and showed new-found maturity in making two diametrically opposite fifties in the second Test. Mominul Haque has been a revelation at number four, with two centuries in the series, scoring 376 runs in the two matches.

Shakib and Mushfiqur are proven run-scorers in the middle order, although fairly quiet in this series, with just a fifty each, and Shakib adds balance as their most consistently incisive spinner. Naisr Hossain at seven adds batting depth, and a useful spin option whilst Sohag Gazi at eight became the first man to score a hundred and take a hat-trick in a Test match in the first Test.

There are still areas that need work: Amanul Haque and Marshall Ayub haven’t settled into Test cricket fully yet at the top of the order and number three. Abdur Razzak may be a great ODI player for Bangladesh, but 21 wickets at 69.85 hardly shows aptitude for Tests, and the pace bowling is popgun at best.

Now is the time for Bangladesh to ramp up the number of Tests they play, and the length of their series. This year their six Tests have come in three separate two match contests, next year they are scheduled to play another three two match series. Those contests are not set in stone though. Sri Lanka are supposed to come in February, according to the Future Tours Programme (FTP) but there are no fixtures confirmed yet, and Sri Lanka have been in the habit of postponing Test series’.

Zimbabwe are due to come to Bangladesh to renew the basement rivalry, in an eminently winnable series, and Bangladesh are due to tour West Indies, where spinning pitches now abound. All three series are ones in which Bangladesh can be hopeful of some success.

The real problem is that Bangladesh have not got a series longer than two Tests scheduled in the current FTP, stretching up until 2020. Also, eight of their next nine Tests series are at home, meaning that between January 2014 and December 2016 they play just one away series. After that, their next five are away, followed by five more away, and one at home.

In anyone’s books, that’s a stupid schedule; most other countries roughly alternate one or two home series with one or two away, but Bangladesh play years at a time at home, then years away. It runs the risk of new players coming into the team and spending their first couple of years playing in the same sort of conditions, not getting much of a chance to expand their games.

The gaps between Tests further mean that players don’t get a chance to build on their success. Bangladesh may have hit a tipping point, they may have turned the corner towards competitiveness, but the ICC has stacked the odds against them. It’s going to be a struggle.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

I watched the West Indies v Bangladesh under-19 series, so you don't have to.

Thanks to the WICB's streaming online, I was able to watch an under-19 ODI series between West Indies and Bangladesh.

Out of all the players that played in a low scoring, and at times poor quality series, two stood out to me most of all. Of course, they're both spinners.

Scout Report: Rahatul Ferdous

Out of all types of spinner, left arm orthodox bowlers often have the most pleasing loop to their bowling. The classical left armer’s action seems to lend itself to that sort of virtue, think of the likes of Bishen Bedi, Phil Tufnell, Daniel Vettori, Monty Panesar, Phil Edmonds, all players who counted among their chief attributes the ability to get the ball up above the batsman’s eyeline, then down again on to a length.

Cut to a Youth ODI between the Under-19 teams of West Indies and Bangladesh and there are an array of left arm orthodox spinners in action, across the two squads, at least five. Most of them did little to stand out, bowing flat and containing, but one caught the eye. Rahatul Ferdous caught my eye, bowling with a fairly classical side on action; flighting and ripping the ball.

He looks pretty accurate too, and his figures in the series (11 wickets at 18.54) were fairly decent, even in the context of a low scoring series, showcasing his wicket-taking ability.

His run up is fairly leisurely, a couple of small, shuffling steps, before he opens up his strides, takes a couple of longer steps, a hop and a skip which turns him side on to go through an easy natural left-arm-spinner’s action.

His best performance of the series was the 5-55 he took in the second match, helping to bowl Bangladesh level in the series, the wickets coming through a stumping, one clean bowled, and three catches by his captain.

He’s only 18 of course, and hasn’t played First-class cricket, so I’ll be following his progress with interest.

Scout Report: Jubiar Hossain

It’s difficult for me to be able to comment too much on the leg-spinner Jubair’s skill, since he’s generally been bowling from the other end to the camera, meaning I haven’t had much of a view from behind his arm. He’s not much of a flighter of the ball, his action is quick and means that he gets good action on the ball and a fair amount of turn.
As far as I can tell his biggest asset is a good googly, which he seems to use regularly. In the third game of the series, he picked three cheapish tail-end wickets in a row for a hat-trick, to condemn the West Indies youngsters to a heavy defeat.

From the little viewing from behind the bowler’s arm I had of him, he seemed to bowl with little wrist action, mostly using his fingers to spin the ball. Generally I think he needs to slow the ball down at least occasionally, his bowling speed is quick for a spinner, and fairly constant. The best comparison I could make to another spinner, is Imran Tahir, he has that same hurried jumpy air about him, along with a fast arm and a good googly.

There is a problem with his action in that it goes very much in straight lines, he runs in straight, bowls fairly front on, which I would have thought would limit his ability to get round the ball with the wrist, and over his front leg. However, it didn’t seem to affect him, but it’s a factor that makes him a slightly less exciting talent than Rahatul, for me.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

South Africa’s spin problems

The current South African Test team, as well as being the best in the world, is also one of the most balanced and adaptable. In their current eleven player line-up, they have seven frontline batsmen, and five frontline bowlers. Add Robin Peterson averaging 24.61 batting at number eight, and JP Duminy’s useful off-spin, and you have a team that bats to eight (nine if you include Philander), and has six useful bowlers (seven if you include Faf du Plessis… I don’t).

The one gap though, is a quality spinner. They’ve tried a fair few, and the last genuinely attacking spinner to make an impact was the frog-in-a-blender chinaman bowler Paul Adams, who played his last Test in 2004. Since then, they’ve tried Nicky Boje, Johan Botha, Paul Harris, and Robin Peterson, without major success.

They were mostly holding spinners, trying to secure an end, whilst the seamers rotated and looked for wickets at the other end. In 2011, South Africa had identified the missing piece of the jigsaw in their quest for the number one Test ranking; Imran Tahir, the Pakistan born journeyman leg-spinner, had completed his residency period, and was selected against Australia.

Tahir had a steady start to his Test career, averaging in the high thirties in his first three series, before a worse series against England left him under a little pressure for the trip to Australia. In the end, he only played one match on that tour, bowling 37 overs, 0-260, conceding 7.02 runs an over. That was his last Test for South Africa to date.

Since then, Robin Peterson has got the nod for the spinner’s berth. He’s been reasonable but not exceptional, taking 17 wickets at 34.58, but oddly, his strike-rate and economy rate are the reverse of what you would expect from a player stereotyped as steady. He’s conceded runs at 3.48 an over, but taken wickets at a strike rate of 59.4, comparable to the cream of modern finger-spinners, such as Graeme Swann and Rangana Herath.

What this suggests to me is that he’s picked up wickets by bowling an easily playable brand of spin which allows batsmen to pick him off comfortable, but which eventually lulls them into a false sense of security from which they make a mistake.

That is the opposite to how the best current spinners operate. The likes of Swann and Ajmal portray a constant sense of danger, forcing batsmen to play tentatively, leaving them the chance to probe away, find a weakness, and strike. Neither bowler spins the ball extravagantly constantly, but there is always the threat of one spitting and turning that keeps the batsman honest. Peterson doesn’t do that.

For all his faults, Tahir has one big virtue. If he manages to land the ball consistently, the knowledge that he has a googly forces batsmen to be careful, and if he uses it sparingly it becomes a big weapon, as a ball in itself, and in the seeds of doubt it can sow in the batsman's minds.

In his Test career so far, Tahir hasn’t yet had a chance to bowl on a subcontinental pitch. South Africa would have undoubtedly thought about using two spinners on this Abu Dhabi pitch, but in the end they plumped for just Peterson, with backup from JP Duminy.

That combination found it tough on the second day of the match. After Ajmal and Babar had combined for five first innings wickets, they would have hoped for more than 38 overs, 1-118, as they were picked off with sweeps, the occasional hit down the ground and constant singles.

Duminy found little turn, but was generally accurate, and picked up the wicket of Shan Masood, LBW trying to play across the line. Peterson however dropped short way too frequently and was picked off at will. He got a little spin early on to the left hander Masood, but to the right-handers he threatened very little

It’s hard to imagine Tahir would have done much worse, Peterson seemed to be bowling to contain, but doing it badly. If Tahir had been included as well, he could have attacked at one end and given Peterson a bit more leeway at the other.

If Tahir had been given the sole spinner’s berth, he could have been used in shortish attacking burts if he was expensive, but longer spells if he was frugal, and always told to go for wickets. Duminy could have performed the holding spinner role, with Kallis and Philander holding seamer roles, leaving Morkel and Steyn for short menacing spells. That gives you a six man attack, three attacking, three defending.

Alas, South Africa tried desperately to get Peterson into a consistent spell, but spells of 2-0-11-0, 5-0-21-0, 3-1-3-0, 2-0-8-0, 4-0-18-0 and 2-0-8-0 didn’t give him that much of a chance. Those aren’t necessarily bad spells for an attacking bowler like Tahir, but for a bowler who seems to thrive on rhythm like Peterson, it left him betwixt and between, without the skill to attack in short spells, and not getting long enough spells to settle into some consistency.

Perhaps South Africa had too many bowling options. With Duminy playing a large part, and Kallis getting some overs, seven bowlers shared 84 overs. But here’s the kicker, the two best bowlers today, the consistently threatening and parsimonious Morkel and Philander, would be the most likely to be left out of the team to play a second spinner. The other option is to drop Duminy or du Plessis, but seven is a bit too high to bat Peterson. The only way to sneak Tahir into the team for the next test is to drop Peterson. That might be what’s required.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Away disadvantage more important than home advantage in the UAE

Is the UAE now Pakistan cricket’s home? Of course not, but it is their home venue for international cricket, and has been since the terrorist attacks on the Sri Lankan team prevented cricket in Pakistan. Since then, they’ve played eight matches in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah, winning four and drawing four.

Two of those draws were against South Africa, who were held to a 0-0 draw the last time they toured the country. England were beaten 3-0, and Sri Lanka 1-0 in the only other series held in the UAE (bar two in Sharjah back in 2002).

Now South Africa are back, to try to conquer the stifling heat and spinning pitches of the Emirates. In some senses it’s very much like Pakistan, but it doesn’t lend home advantage to Pakistan as much as it extends an away disadvantage to the visitors.

The visitors have to deal with the heat, a bigger factor than in almost anywhere else in the world and South Africa have come up with a plan of using ice packs on their bodies during the breaks to cool the players down. They also have to deal with the sub-continental style pitches.

The first day of the Test match saw Hashim Amla conquering the conditions to ease to a twentieth Test hundred, but other than a fifty from JP Duminy, the rest struggled, as South Africa made it to 245-8 at the end of the day.

The main factor of home advantage that Pakistan miss in the UAE is the crowd. Test matches in Pakistan used to be tough affairs for visitors, with the heat and unfamiliar pitches allying with the crowd noise and intimidating atmosphere. Hassan Cheema points out that by playing in the UAE, Pakistan miss out on the little bits of home pitch advantage that could be crucial, not just the experience playing on that type of pitch but the specific local knowledge of what a certain pitch does.

An interesting stat is that of the eight games played by Pakistan in the UAE, they won three out of three in January and February (versus England), but just one out of five in October and November (versus South Africa and Sri Lanka), now you could put that down to England’s horrific playing of Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman, but it could also be argued that the pitches took a lot more spin in the New Year.

While England struggled to make runs, scoring an average of 19.06 per wicket at 2.65 runs an over, South Africa averaged 57.11 and scored at 3.48 runs an over. That suggests there are two types of pitch in the UAE, the sort of dustbowl that England played on, or the flat tracks South Africa got.

It’s too early to tell what type of pitches South Africa have to deal with this time. Whatever happens, there’s not much there for the seamers, although perhaps a little bit of early discomfort with the conditions for South Africa may have contributed to their early loss of three wickets to the left arm stylings of Junaid Khan and Mohammad Irfan.

The spinners had less luck at first, both bowling a bit too fast. The debutant Zulfiqar Babar didn’t pose much of a threat, and got lucky with his first Test wicket, Duminy sweeping straight into the hands of a deep set square leg. Adnan Akmal would have been mightily relieved with that, his drop of the same batsman off Ajmal a few balls earlier did not prove too costly.

Ajmal probed away all day, but other than the dropped catch and his wicket, didn’t threaten too much. South Africa knew well enough to be circumspect against him though. Once Babar got Duminy, Ajmal sprung into life against du Plessis, who looked uncomfortable against him and in the end fell to Barbar.

Those two wickets spelled a collapse, as on a blameless pitch, South Africa went from 199-4 to 222-8, before Amla and Steyn managed to play out the rest of the day.

The new DRS rule got their first outing today, and already the replacement of reviews at 80 overs had an effect, allowing Pakistan to go for a speculative review at the end of the 69th over, then another slightly less speculative one after at 75 overs knowing that they would get their reviews topped up by the time the new ball was available at eighty overs. 

South Africa are an excellent away team, who haven't lose a series in foreign climes for seven years, but there is always a slight psychological disadvantage in playing away. Would South Africa have lost the early wickets to Irfan and Junaid Khan had they been at home? You'd doubt it. If a  pitch like this one in Abu Dhabi was prepared at Durban, would South Africa have played spin so badly and ended the first day at 245-8? It's unlikely.

It’s hard to say how much home advantage played for Pakistan. There was a little in the pitch for the spinners, but the crucial wickets of de Villiers and Duminy may have owed more to a brain-freeze in the stifling heat. Did the disadvantage of playing away have had a crucial effect? 

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Dilshan's retirement is another blow to Sri Lanka's Test cricket.

Tillakaratne Dilshan is nearly 37 years old, so his retirement from Test cricket shouldn’t be a surprise, but somehow it is. Maybe it’s the fact that he is one of the best fielders in the Sri Lanka team, swooping on balls in the point region with the agility and speed of one half his age. Maybe it’s the rollocking strike rate of 65 in Test cricket, and the way he gets there by slashing and slicing anything marginally off length through the off-side.

Maybe it’s the fact that, for some reason, Sachin Tendulkar is still hanging on in Tests at 40, that makes 37 seem an early retirement. Maybe it’s because that the position he made his name in, opening the batting, is one he only ascended to in 2009. While opening he averaged 42.54, and scored half of his centuries, in less than half of his matches whilst averaging 40.02 at other positions.

Maybe it’s because before he was 30, he had only scored four Test centuries, and after he was 30 he made 12. He may not have got less attacking as he got older (if anything, more) but he certainly must have matured in the elder years of his career.
Out of the golden generation of Sri Lankan batting, all aged within a couple of years of each other, Dilshan is the second to retire from Test cricket after Samaraweera earlier this year, leaving a massive hole in Sri Lanka’s batting. The opening slots will now have two inexperienced players, piling even more pressure and responsibility on Sangakkara and Jayawardene at three and four.

It seems likely that Dilshan retired from Tests in part to play on to the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. Interestingly, Dilshan has also been left out of the preliminary limited overs squad for the New Zealand home limited overs series’ in November, as has Sangakkara, presumably both being rested before the Pakistan tour.

Dilshan becomes one of a few Sri Lankan players to quit Tests and continue playing international limited overs cricket. There was Malinga who went to preserve his body, Muralitharan to extend his career and get to the World Cup, and Jayasuriya as well.

The lack of Tests for Sri Lanka makes it more tempting for players to just play the shorter formats. Sri Lanka have played just three Tests this year, and will add just one more (starting on New Years Eve. It must be hard for Dilshan to maintain the appetite and skills for Test cricket whilst playing in T20 leagues all over the world, and getting paid well for it.

It’s not like Dilshan was honing his skills at First-class level before these Tests. Perhaps the fact that he was named in the Board XI squad but not the team in the current First-class domestic triangular should have given an inkling of his plans. Since the beginning of 2009 (incidentally, the year after the IPL started) he’s played one domestic First-class game.

Dilshan’s Test retirement comes down to a mix of factors and competing formats. Lack of Tests leave him with space to fill in his schedule. Domestic T20s pay him well for a little work at something he’s good at and fill that space.

By giving up three Tests a year, Dilshan no longer has to worry about long-form batting technique, while continuing to make a fair bit of money. It’s hard to criticise him, the problems are structural and lie with the boards. If Sri Lanka decide to play ten Tests a year - two three Test series and one four Test series - and maybe these will problems decrease.

It’s also easy to see why Thilan Samaraweera gave up international cricket. As a stodgy middle-order batsman, with a poor ODI cricket, he was essentially a Test-only player at this point in his career. Then he was left out of a home series against Bangladesh earlier this year (missing out on easy runs on the deadest of Galle pitches), but told he may be needed for the away series against Pakistan in January 2014.

Naturally, after being told that he was only wanted for the harder assignments,he realised that meant little international cricket, and it was a well reasoned decision to call it quits. As he said himself, "I may not have retired so early if the Test series against West Indies and South Africa had not been postponed because as a cricketer you'd always want to play against the number one team which is South Africa at the moment.

He also said that "I never wanted a farewell match because if you're not good enough to be in the 15-man squad, there's nowhere in the world you can play in the first XI," the 36-year-old Samaraweera said. "I didn't want to be selfish and deprive a youngster of his place by requesting to play in a farewell Test."

Admirable sentiments, and ones similar to those of Rahul Dravid when he left Test cricket. Two similar batsmen in some senses, and also it seems, two similarly good men. Dravid with was clearly the greater player, but what might Samaraweera have been had he had more of a chance to play abroad, and outside the subcontinent?

Dravid played 57% of his Tests away, and averaged slightly more than at home, whereas Samaraweera played 44% of his Tests away and averaged significantly less away than home. His best away series came when he became only the third batsman from the subcontinent (after Tendulkar and Azhar Mahmood) to make two centuries in South Africa in 2011/12, including a match winning one in the Durban Test.

He also averaged over fifty in the previous two series outside the subcontinent, and if Sri Lanka had played more overseas Tests in his early years, it’s not unreasonable to assume he may have improved quicker and made more of an impact.

The same comparison can be made between Sehwag and Dilshan, two similar middle order players, turned openers. Sehwag played exactly half of his Tests abroad, but Dilshan only played 44% of his Tests overseas. However, Dilshan did better overseas than Sehwag proportionally to his overall average (although worse on raw average).

Losing both Dilshan and Samaraweera in one year to retirements from Test cricket, bodes poorly for Sri Lanka’s future. There are some good young prospects in the system, but few ready for Tests yet. The opening berth may be filled by Kaushal Silva or Upul Tharanga, along with the incumbent Dimuth Karunaratne, whilst the middle order spot should go to either Kithuruwan Vithanage or Lahiru Thirimanne.

Any of those players could make a success of themselves in time, but in the meantime, the Sri Lanka Test team is left with just three established batsmen in Sangakkara, Jayawardene and Matthews, only the senior two of whom are proven century makers in Test cricket. With few tests on the calendar, there could be a long period of rebuilding ahead.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Insular England have no time for difference

The exclusion of Nick Compton from England’s Test touring party to Australia is just one of several controversial choices, but it gives an insight into the current nature of the England ‘group’. Despite the inclusion of three uncapped players to go to Australia, it is insular and gives further credence to the theory that England likes their players identikit and robotic.

Compton’s path wasn’t the typical age group to Lions to England team one taken by the likes of Root, Bairstow and Broad etc. but a rambling journey from early talent at Middlesex, to contentment at Somerset and an amazing 2012 season which through weight of runs pushed him on to the India tour and to a Test début at Ahmedabad.

That first series in India produced a few useful contributions, but no place sealing innings, but two hundreds in New Zealand seemed to seal his place for the long term. However, after struggling for two Tests against New Zealand, he was dropped for the Ashes series, somewhat prematurely.

What happened after the dropping indicates it was the wrong decision. Root, bar one big century, struggled opening the batting, making many slow starts as England lost early wickets regularly throughout the series, and England missed him at six, Jonny Bairstow lacking the technique to counter Australia's bowlers.

Compton went back to his county and scored 889 runs at 46.78 in a misfiring Somerset team in the County Championship, with two centuries and six fifties, to add to a couple of half centuries against the touring Australians. His batting seemed to exude confidence, and he scored noticeably quicker. 

So when the Ashes party to go down under was announced, it was a surprise to see Michael Carberry get the backup opener’s slot. Carberry made 602 runs at 40.13 in Division Two of the County Championship, and had a middling ODI series, hardly battering the door down for selection. The likes of Varun Chopra, with 1063 runs at 53.15 and Sam Robson (1180 runs at 47.20) – both in the England Performance Programme squad – had better cases for inclusion, not to mention Compton.

David Hopps, on ESPNCricinfo wrote about Compton that, “England's management will not be swayed from the view that Compton's game became dangerously introverted against New Zealand - and successes for Somerset and twice against the Australian tourists have not changed that.

"He has also suffered from a perception that outside his runs he gives little to the dressing room and because of his reservations about working with England's batting coach, Graham Gooch, who he feels does not understand his game. He also expressed his disappointment at his exclusion quite forcibly and this England management prefers its players verbally malleable.” So, that’s that. Two poor Tests and if you don’t fit into the ‘group’, you’re out for good.

The exclusion of Woakes is another curious choice. Just a few weeks ago he took the number six spot and delivered an admirable performance in the last home Ashes Test. His bowling settled down after a slightly nervy start, and he was unlucky not go get more wickets, and he batted well on the final day to push England close to the target with Bell.

Despite that, he doesn't take a place in the touring party. Ben Stokes, on the basis of a few ODI performances and perceived talent has overtaken him as England's number one Test all-rounder.

The exclusion of Graham Onions as well suggests that the England selectors don’t care much for County stats. They want players they’ve been able to mould, players who’ve come through the system. Compton and Onions are seen as county players. Woakes came through the system, but has been excluded for the next off the assembly line.

The England performance programme squad contains few who could be expected to cover the main squad, and no Compton, Woakes or Onions. It’s very much a development squad, and given that it’s shadowing the main party, it's an odd approach to take.

England like their players to fit the mould, and Compton, Woakes, Onions et al don’t, so their rewards for bouncing back from being dropped, a solid first Test, and a brilliant county season respectively are a seat on the sofa with the rest of us.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Get rid of bilateral ODIs, bring back the tour match

Since the Ashes finished, we've had two largely pointless, but fun, T20Is - surprise surprise: 1-1 draw - an Ireland v England ODI which showed how far the Irish had come, and how far they have to go, and a Scotland v Austalia game which showed the gap between Ireland and the rest of the Associate nations.

All of those games had some meaning to them, or at least some fun. After them has come the long slog of a five match ODI series, so far lead by Washouts by two to one over Australia, England a distant third. Even without two rain ruined games, it's hard to see the interest or relevance for these tacked on matches.

The advent of the ODI in 1971 came about nine years after the first domestic one dayers, in an experimental Midlands Knockout Cup. The format has changed a lot since both those days. The Midlands Knockout Cup and the early days of the Gillette Cup were played over 65 overs, and the first ODI over 40 overs. Both were hastily scheduled, experimental ventures, but ended up as the future of cricket..

By contrast, the advent of t20 was a clearly thought out marketing ploy, to take the game to a new audience. The first domestic t20 came in 2003, and it became an international format within two years, when Australia and New Zealand donned throwback costumes and larked about at Eden Park.

Both formats so enlarged the international calender that another type of cricket faced being squeezed out. No, not the Test match - although you can make that argument - but the tour match. Back before the ODI of course, teams would tour a country and play two or three months of tour matches as well as the Tests.

The Australian invincibles who didn't lost a match on their 1948 tour of England, played all 17 First-class counties including Yorkshire and Surrey twice each, plus Cambridge and Oxford, MCC, Durham, Scotland twice, South of England, Gentlemen of England, HGD Leveson-Gower's XI. That amounted to 31 First-class games (including the five Tests) plus three non First-class games. They even played three warm ups in Australia before they left, more than most teams tend to while on tour these days.

England are better than most, playing at least a couple of warm ups on most tours, but these are often glorified net sessions, with players retiring, and teams declaring to try to give everyone a bat. Some teams will play just one or even none at the start of a tour. What with three formats being played at international level, if teams are thorough, tour matches are needed in each.

Abolishing bilateral ODIs could solve several problems, giving the space for more proper competitive tour matches, increasing T20I series to three matches, but also reducing the amount of international cricket, and the amount of games between two teams rotating as fast as they can. It would also free up a little time for players, especially those who don't play t20, to play domestic cricket.

You'd get more competitive Test cricket, with away teams getting a chance to adapt to conditions. You could have local Associates providing the opposition four tour matches, driving up their skills, Ireland for tours to England, Afghanistan for tours to Pakistan in the UAE, Canada for West Indies tours. Test cricket improves and the Associates have the chance to  improve too.

The only problem with this is really that the gap in skills between the two forms of the game is too much to bridge during tours, but this should be alleviated with the increase in tour matches. The end of ODIs may be a good thing for all formats, it could become just a domestic game, and the standard of Tests and t20s could only go up.

This is obviously unlikely to happen. The ODI, whilst the third choice of many hardcore fans, is still a money spinner, particularly in India, who held out on T20 cricket up until 2007 to protect the ODI cash cow.

They are also a good middle ground for Associates, giving more of a grounding of skills than t20, yet still holding hope of an upset against full members. Still, Associates could keep playing 50 over cricket amongst themselves, whilst the full members could give it up outside World Cups, and tour matches would give them a chance to  A mix of Test and t20 players and skills could convene every four years for the only ODI event many care about.

The question about ODIs is not just whether they are interesting, it's whether they are relevant, and whether they fit into any context. Frequently in bilateral series they're not. Keep them just for the World Cup. That's got context.

Monday, 9 September 2013

England's spin stocks

The incumbent

Graeme Swann
Still taking as many wickets as ever, but has Graeme Swann lost a little nip from his best? Several times over the summer, Lyon managed more spin out of the same pitch as Swann, who at times seemed to succumb to bowling too quick and flat. The tour to Australia will be a big test for him, and there are less left-handers to feast on than last time.

The immediate backups

Monty Panesar
The Brigton pisser.With all the attributes to be a top class spin bowler, bar perhaps a crucial bit of guile and variation, he's been the long time number two spinner to Graeme Swann since the latter's usurpation of him back in 2008. In that time, he's won games for England in India and had success in the UAE, but recently bombed out as lead spinner in New Zealand and after his embarrassing nightclub incident, was dropped from the Test squad. Still, if he can display any semblance of form out on loan at Essex and prove that he's sorted his mind out, he's a gimme for the Ashes squad down under.

Simon Kerrigan
Despite a disastrous Test début, Simon Kerrigan is still a long term prospect, and if Swann, Panesar and Tredwell were all concurrently injured, you'd suspect he'd  be playing in a Test match. So, from second to fourth choice in the space of five days. Still, he bounced back to take 7-145 for Lancashire, and if he keeps taking more wickets than any other English qualified spinner, he'll make it back.

James Tredwell
As England's backup ODI bowler, he's had plenty of chances through injuries and rest to Graeme Swann, and a single Test in Bangladesh. He's had a pretty poor County Championship season though, struggling for incisiveness. A steady hand, useful in ODIs, and that's about it.

Danny Briggs
Firmly ensconced as the third spinner in England's ODI reckoning, and the immediate backup to Swann in the t20i format. Briggs looks dangerously close to a career as a t20 spinner, despite having a good action and pleasing flight. He needs to have a big season at first-class level to move out of that box.

The outside chances

Scott Borthwick
The Durham man is a leg-spinner of rare promise. His action is wonderful to behold, and England have liked the look of him, giving him three international appearances in the limited overs formats. Borthwick now needs to find regular First-class bowling, maybe at another county. Durham have turned him into a number three batsman this summer, with some success, but if he's to be a test spinner he needs to bowl a lot more. Most Durham games end with him bowling few overs, only for him to be wheeled out on the fourth day and on dustbowls and expected to run through sides. It doesn't work like that.

Adil Rashid
The forgotten man. Now earning his living as a number six batsman and more than part time spinner, there's still some potential there. Sadly, it looks unlikely to be realised, and a fifty wicket season is needed for him to re-insert his name into the debate. That will only happen when he devotes himself to spin over batting.

Ollie Rayner
A tall off-spinner, who by his own admission, used to bowl flat, containing rubbish, has had a wonderful 2013 season, the highest wicket taking English spinner in the first division, and much of this has come from one astounding performance against Surrey, 15-118, the best Championship figures of the summer. For now, it's just time to see whether he can make the most of his natural bounce from a steep height, continue to turn the ball, and push himself into the Lions frame.

George Dockrell
A controversial one, not in the middle of a great season for Somerset, but England have half an eye on him. The Irish international has so far continued to commit to Ireland, but if there continues to be no pathway to test cricket for the Irish, in a few years he could be tempted to switch his allegiance.

Tom Craddock
Yes, I am biased with this one. A young man with a lot of potential, Craddock has had a mixed summer, taking three First-class wickets, six of them against England. Those were First-class wickets when he took them, but the game lost that status after England added extra players to their team. If that game had kept its status, that would give him 9 wickets at 28.89. England seem vaguely interested with him, picking him as a sub fielder for one of the Ashes Test matches. The potential is clear with him, he has the sort of control that most young leggies would die for, and a knack of taking wickets. His time with Essex has been stop-start, never cementing a place despite good performances, and personal issues have kept him out since the end of July. He may be an outside pick for an EPP squad to go Australia. (I am aware of my biases when it comes to Craddock though)

Sunday, 18 August 2013

How to be a club tailender

Insist that your proper place is at number eleven. Get into half-jokey, half-serious arguments with team-mates about getting to bat there.

Sit down and busy yourself umpiring, scoring or changing the scoreboard if you're rubbish at all those jobs too.

See a few wickets go down. Assume that they'll recover and won't need you. Have a bowl just off the outfield or wander around the pavilion.

Return to find four or five wickets down, early. Sit down and nervously flick a ball from hand to hand.

See the seventh wicket go down, know that's the cue for you to pad up. Go to your kitbag and pull out your nice new pads, gloves you've had since you were twelve, box you've had since you were twelve (maybe I should get a new one, just for self-respect)

Wander out, trying to look casual, shitting yourself inside. After one more wicket goes down, have the moment when briefly you feel like you want to have a bat.

Borrow someone else's bat, since yours was one you found in the attic, and seems to be from the 1940s. Laugh along with the toothpick jokes.

Psyche yourself up by thinking about your best innings. That two squirted through gully in a charity match where you ludicrously found yourself batting at six, since about five of the players hadn't played the game before.

Try not to think about that fact you yorked yourself and missed a straight ball soon after. Try not to think about the time you went to pad up, got out of the pavilion to find your services immediately needed, walked out to the middle, was clean bowled first ball having forgotten to take guard, and returned to the pavilion, all within about a minute. Your first foray up to the dizzy heights of number nine.

Try not to think about the time you came in after a twelve year old, and he farmed the strike off you. Although, to be fair, you were unbeaten, and he got out.

See the stumps splayed, as the number nine gets out, and wander out to the middle, trying to look calm.

Walk up to your partner, and hope he has some good advice, "Just do your best, one ball left in the over" Oh, thanks, nothing on the pitch or the bowlers mate?

Wander down to the strikers end. Try to look professional. Take a middle stump guard, because you should take a guard, not for any tactical reason. Scratch your guard out and walk away and survey the field.

Settle into your stance as the bowler thunders in. Try not to let him know you're scared. Swish and miss at the first ball outside off stump, and thank god he didn't bowl straight.

Try to take a single the next over, and see the number ten try to keep you off strike. Get down to the strikers end against a leg-spinner. Swish and miss at a couple of turning balls, defend one or two successfully and swipe at the triple bouncer bowled off the cut strip.

See out the over, see your partner cut the seamer to gully, and try to seem disappointed that the team are all out. Actually, you are disappointed, despite only getting bat on ball twice in eight balls.

Start thinking about actually practicing, maybe moving up to seven or eight. Remember how bad you are, and look forward to bowling.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Simon Jones keeps going

Simon Jones wanders out to bat at eleven in a late season YB40 match. The same time eight years ago he was playing in the Old Trafford Ashes Test match, just coming off his best Test figures of 6-53 in the first innings, and a day from perhaps his greatest wicket, bowling Michael Clarke, leaving a huge hooping inswinger, a ball bowled at his customary brisk pace that swung in from a foot outside off stump. One of the images of the summer.

So many of the greatest memories of the 2005 Ashes come from balls he bowled. Before he picked up one of so many injuries in the Fourth Test he was England’s best bowler. 18 wickets at 21, the lowest bowling average besides Shane Warne in the whole series.

His first ball here sees him do battle against the latest England fast bowling sensation. First ball, he creates a little room and slices him through the covers. I wonder whether he thought at all about the days eight years ago when he was that sensation. Finn has more Test wickets than he ever managed, yet he’s nothing like the bowler Jones was in his prime.

Jones manages five off two balls as Glamorgan bat first. Before he is brought into the attack, he chases a ball down to the boundary at fine leg, and pulls it back, in the old style, over-running the boundary. No slides for him. After what he went through in Brisbane, perhaps it’s understandable.

Seven overs in, with Middlesex at 32-3, he enters into the attack. The run up seems slower than 2005, but the jump, gather and hurl remain the same. His first ball was timed on the speed gun at 69.5 mph. It looked quicker. His second got a wicket, Morgan slugged one out to the deep cover fielder, who took a good catch diving forward.

It wasn’t that great of a ball, but his next was better, a seaming skiddy in-cutter, which rapped Adam Voges on the pads. Jones screamed, pure aggression seeping out of him, a proper fast bowler, defying the years. Hat-trick ball, raps John Simpson on the pad... the thigh pad, leg bye down to fine leg.

When he gets it full, batsmen are reluctant to come forward. The speed gun may only be registering in the low 80s, but with his skiddy action it seems faster. His first spell yields 2-7 off two overs.

He comes back for his second spell with a full toss, a grimace, and an apology. Very close to being a no ball. His third ball, a yorker is inside edge down to fine leg. Another grimace. He tries a slower ball, and it concedes two. Stick to the fast stuff he thinks, the next one is faster and fuller and over over mid off for four.

One more over, and after four he has figures of 4-0-17-2. Glamorgan close out a win comfortably enough in the end, and although it’s not the Ashes, Simon Jones is happy to still have the chance to run in fast. Will he make a comeback to First-class cricket? It’s doubtful at this stage, but given what a sight he can be at his best, one has to hope. His contract is up with Glamorgan, and he’s hopeful for another deal, but prepared to go elsewhere to keep playing cricket.

You have to hope he finds somewhere, and the spectacular sight of him bowling isn’t lost. When you’ve been through as many injuries as he has, it must be tempting to give up, do a bit of analysis work for Sky, find a new living. This fast bowler is more stubborn than that though.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

England regain intent with a new method

In the first innings, Alastair Cook played with grit, determination, and stodgy boringness. It was the right innings for the time, and it was his method, but after he got a ball from Jackson Bird with his name on it, he may have thought about missed opportunities, chances to score more than 51 off the 164 balls he played.

In the second innings, Alastair Cook stopped pushing back half-volleys. In 37 balls, he drove through extra cover, straight, flicked with confidence down to fine leg. He scored three fours, a few couples and a couple of fews. Then he slashed at one, length outside off stump and walked off, possibly thinking about the perils of positivity.

In the first innings he got out leaving one he should have played, and in the second playing one he should have left. No happy medium. It’s an obvious point, but the happy medium was leaving well outside off, then driving full and straight balls, flicking off his legs and making the bowlers bowl at him. The regular Cook method.

Joe Root got two good balls, the second innings jaffa from Harris better than good. Jonathan Trott seemed to have abandoned his method. In both innings combined, he scored at a strike-rate of 81, quicker than he tends to score in ODIs. Perhaps the relentless criticism of his slow batting in ODIs has had the effect, just to his Test batting. The old Trott waited for the bad ball and was perfectly content to play boring innings.

The new Trott is like a mini KP, constantly trying to move across his crease, trying to flick into the leg-side. In both innings, he got out mistiming flicks, one off Nathan Lyon to short leg, and one off Ryan Harris fending down the leg side. Maybe he’s not in his bubble any more? He’s certainly changed his method.

Pietersen though, got out in both innings to Nathan Lyon, not even through overly attacking, or ego driven shots. His miscues are normally powerful enough to evade fielders, but when he pushed at the ball tentatively he edged behind, then leading edged to cover. Both of those shots were not Pietersen’s method. He blocks or bashes, and that works for him.

If you could pick two players from this England team to bat together in long partnership, purely for brilliance of play, it would be Pietersen and Bell. Pietersen’s batting is all ego, a desire to dominate. Bell’s is pure aesthetic pleasure. He’s also a player who seems to have tried to change his method over the years.

At times, he’s got out through the false desire to dominate - such as in the first Test in India last year, and the first innings here - but that’s not his method. His method is to leave well, and bat beautifully when its in his hitting zones. He scores at a reasonable strike rate whenever he does that, and he corrected in the second innings, dabbing through the slips, cutting, driving off front and back foot with orgasmic beauty. Little went in the air, and it didn’t need to when he played so smoothly along the floor on his way to a third hundred of the series.

Alongside him for part of the evening session was Jonny Bairstow. In the first innings he played a knock totally alien to him, 14 off 77 balls, in an innings that did precisely nothing. It didn't build a partnership with a more free scoring partner, it didn’t take valuable time out of the game like such an innings might in a third or fourth innings.

In the second innings, Bairstow attacked intelligently, hitting Nathan Lyon over his head for four twice, and even though he went back into his shell for a while after, he was still alive enough to the attacking options to back foot drive then hook Harris for two consecutive fours, progressing to 28 off 65 balls before edging a sharply bouncing Lyon ball behind. The same number of balls in the first innings had netted him just 12.

The difference between the first and second England innings was intent. The first innings had none, and was based on the idea that batting would get significantly easier later. But Siddle, Harris, Bird and Lyon are nothing if not workhorses. They were never going to bowl lots of easily hittable stuff after England battled their way in.

So, second time out England resolved to take every opportunity for runs, and take calculated risks. That may have been out of the method of some of their batsmen but it worked perfectly for Bell and Pietersen. England were rewarded with what looks to be moving to a par third innings total, and a potentially match winning lead. They got the method right.

Monday, 5 August 2013

The dampest of squibs

The Oval 2005, Pietersen’s heroics regain the Ashes, and rain can’t dent the momentous occasion. The Oval 2009, Swann picks up the final wicket and England regain the Ashes after Broad’s heroics. Melbourne and Sydney 2010/11, England smash Australia twice to retain then win the Ashes.

Old Trafford 2013. Rain falls for two and a half hours, and the captains shake at 4:39. England retain the Ashes in a damp anti-climax. Maybe at Chester-le-Street they’ll provide a lasting winning memory in a thrashing or close thriller, but this damp squib is suitable fitting for what has been a damp squib of a contest.

However well Australia competed at certain points, it was always obvious that England had enough more, and that they were going to win the series. After Trent Bridge, the likelihood of a 2006/7 style evisceration seemed less likely, and now with that gone, the series holds about as little interest as an Ashes series can.

Maybe the rest of the series can retain some interest if England try to find the missing (and I hate this phrase) X-Factor. They need to look for the instinctive way to play, at times everything is too robotic. Now’s the time for some fun. Pietersen and Swann are about the only two players who have that sense, they need to transmit it to the rest of the team, if they’re going to go to the next level.

England will win one of the next two Tests at least, and in the very worst case the final score will be 3-1, the same as down under two and a half years ago. That series however was against a slightly more balanced Australian side, and England - Perth aside - brutally eviscerated them, Three innings victories, all sealed by bowling first, batting big, then bowling Australia out cheaply for a second time.

Even the draw in that series was more of a victory, as England batted Australia into submission in their second innings 517 for one. Go back to 2009 and a poor series is made interesting by two closely matched mercurial teams, Here, a solid but flawed team so far has comprehensively beaten as poor an Australian outfit has there has been in a long time by less of a margin than expected in a series marred by poor umpiring


Sunday, 4 August 2013

Swann wickets paper over cracks whilst Lyon gets less than he deserves

Not much spat, little tantalising the batsman, there were no grenades wrapped in candy floss. Little fizz, any turn was slow turn. Despite a five for in the first innings of an Ashes Test, it seems that Swann’s a bit under his own high standards. That seems strange to say of a bowler with 18 wickets in two and a bit Tests, at 24.77, but with general Australian ineptitude against spin and some fairly helpful surfaces, he could have more, or cheaper wickets.

On the other hand, Nathan Lyon bowled 26 probing overs, searching with subtlety, spin and bounce, yet came away with no wickets. He kept the batsmen honest mostly, bar a brief assault from Pietersen which kept him mostly out of the attack until Pietersen was out.

Lyon, whilst lacking the wickets that Swann picked up - for now at least - bowled with considerably more zip than his opposite number, and it showed in his economy rate. Lyon attacked the England batsmen and was unlucky not to get a single wicket, whilst Swann was forced too quickly on to the back foot and by bowling defensively left easy runs on the plate.

On the first day of this second Test Swann had some success, taking the wicket of Khawaja with a perfect off-break. Granted, the ball passed by the bat and shouldn’t have been given caught behind, but that doesn’t diminish the quality of the ball.

After his fifth over, Swann’s figures read 5-1-12-2 as he trapped Chris Rogers leg-before, and although his figures slipped a bit through the rest of the day, he came back on the second morning with the wicket of Steven Smith, caught off a skier then a nicely turning ball to ensnare Warner.

At that point, his figures read 27.4-2-89-4, perfectly reasonable for a first innings effort, but after that point he bowled 15.2-0-70-1, leaking runs to anyone and everyone, to finish with 43-2-159-5, somewhat Krejza-like figures, lots of wickets, but lots of runs (although not as many wickets or as quite a bad economy rate as his ridiculous Test debut)

The fact that he only bowled two maidens in the whole innings perfectly illustrates how he had difficulty tying the Australian batsmen down. He also seemed to revert to the round-the-wicket angle to the right handers too often, as did Lyon.

That angle may be an attacking one on a raging bunsen, but on a first day pitch in England, few bowlers are going to turn it miles off the centre of the pitch, and for a defensive option it was surprisingly easy to hit. The cardinal sin of spin bowling is going for runs whilst bowling defensively.

Ashley Mallett, in a fine piece for ESPNCricinfo just before the Test wrote that “The good spinners take risks. They are prepared to give a bit to get a bit.” Swann seemed to give a bit, but with little threat of taking a bit at times. At other times he preferred to give nothing, and mostly got nothing, between his two double wicket bursts he bowled twenty overs with little threat of a breakthrough.

During the mammoth - by recent standards - partnership between Clarke and Smith, Swann looked fatigued, and struggled in the field, twice gingerly fielding balls in the mid-wicket region, not looking his characteristic bubbly self.

It seems churlish to complain about a five-for, but take out a couple of cheap wickets from awful slogs by Smith and Siddle, and the Khawaja travesty and Swann got hammered for 2-159.

This may be a simplistic analysis, but also the fact that when the two were bowling in tandem, even Root induced more false shots from the slogging tailenders seems to indicate he was making the batsmen work more than Swann.

Swann will get better of course, and if he continues taking wickets at the same rate he may end up in with a shot at man of the series. Like Shane Warne he has that little bit of nerve that means he occasionally gets wickets that he doesn’t deserve. If he starts working batsmen over again, and getting the ones he deserves too, there aren’t many more irresistible bowlers in the world.

Nathan Lyon however, looks like an unlucky man. If he was to bowl the perfect off-break, it seems more likely to give away four byes than rip out the off-stump. That’s the difference between the two men. Batsmen say they play the ball not the man, but that’s not the whole truth. Shane Warne made batsmen play his reputation, Swann does the same thing to a lesser extent. Nathan Lyon doesn’t have that reputation.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Ashton Agar is a symbol of panicked thinking

Ashton Agar might be a decent spinner. In fact, I’m pretty sure he’s a decent spinner. If he hadn’t played today, he would still have made it into the Australian team in the fullness of time, but once he was put in as a 19 year old in the first Ashes Test, he was set up to fail.

Australia are still looking for magic solutions with their spinners. They tried many different of those solutions, and finally settled on Nathan Lyon for a while. Once he was biffed all around India by MS Dhoni, he was dropped for one Test, came back then took nine wickets in the last of that tour.

All the selection dilemmas ahead of the Ashes for Australia seemed to centre around their batting. The bowling seemed set in stone. Nobody seriously thought Agar would be a surprise pick, even if nobody was completely convinced by Lyon.

Agar didn’t have a bad day as it goes, his first three overs contained some flight, drift and dip, with just a hint of spin. There were a few shocking balls, and his second spell was worse. There’s definite potential there, but potential shouldn’t be enough to get you into an Ashes series.`

Darren Lehmann told ESPNCricinfo that "The main reason for the selection is taking the ball away from all their right-handers and we think this is a really important weapon in particular for this Test match on that particular wicket." To me, that smacks of wanting to pick any left-arm-spinner (or leg-spinner) and Agar being the closest to hand.

To put his inexperience in perspective, Agar has played six fewer First-class matches than Essex leg-spinner (and favourite of mine) Tom Craddock. They both average 29 in FC cricket, with virtually the same strike-rate and economy rate. Both of them have one five-fer, but Craddock has an additional 5 four wicket hauls. Craddock is a couple of years older, but in spinning terms, they are both similarly experienced.

Craddock had a great couple of days for Essex against England. If he’d done that in similar circumstances as an Australian against Australia, who’s to say he wouldn’t have made it into their team. The measure of the strength of England - and in particular their spinning stocks - is that they don’t have to make absurd gambles like that.

What happens if Agar doesn’t get any wickets in this match, as the seamers dominate the bowling? If Australia win he’ll keep his place, but what if he gets dominated by Pietersen at some point, like Lyon was by Dhoni? How many Tests before they discard him, and can they bring Nathan Lyon back again? It’s very much a huge gamble, and one that didn’t need to be made.

Agar's been compared to a young Daniel Vettori, in terms of his natural action and athleticism, his State coach Justin Langer telling ESPNCricinfo that "Besides his infectious personality and energy for the game, Ashton's strength comes in his natural and free style of play. Whether with the bat or ball his movements are reminiscent of the great athletes. Many young players today look very tense and mechanical in their movements. They often look 'over-coached' and are unable to move with freedom, power and speed. When you observe the great athletes there are few who look like this. While Ashton has much to learn ... his free movements give him the chance to fulfil his undoubted promise."

Again, this is all about potential. The comparisons to Daniel Vettori are valid in a sense. Vettori had only played two First-class games before he made his Test début, and was also picked on potential. The difference is in the men they replaced. Vettori came in for the veteran Dipak Patel, who was 38 at the time and reaching the end of his career, whilst Agar is in for 25 year old Nathan Lyon.

Vettori was a gamble with only upside, they could always bring back the veteran Patel, but by dropping Lyon for the second time in a couple of months they may have fatally undermined his confidence. Is that a price they can afford to pay for the potential of Agar?

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Captain Tredwell

Young cricketers generally dream that that one day they will captain their country. Few of them ever get that chances, but very occasionally someone who thought they never would gets a chance.

If you asked James Tredwell a year ago if he would captain England, he would have quietly chuckled. He may have still hoped he might. Maybe he would have pictured a few great years of County Championship bowling, then a Test career to replace Graeme Swann.

Perhaps he would have idly dreamed of a few good years for England in his late career, possibly a promotion to vice-captain, then stepping in at the last minute as Alastair Cook breaks a finger in some far-flung corner of the world. He may have dreamed of a match winning captaincy début in a Test match, but he sure as hell wouldn't have dreamed of captaining in a lone, washed out t20.

A year ago he hadn’t played a t20 for England, wasn’t yet captain of Kent, or the regular performer in ODIs that he’s become.

Yet, tonight, Eoin Morgan’s injury handed him - no pun intended - the chance to skipper England’s t20 team against New Zealand. The irony is that whilst for most cricket fans, this was to be a most inconsequential match, save for the return of Kevin Pietersen, yet for Tredwell it was one of the biggest of his life.

It’s perfectly possible to be pleased for Tredwell, whilst also worrying that the captaincy has been somewhat devalued. In recent years almost everybody has captained England. In the last year alone, Strauss, Cook, Broad, Morgan, and now Tredwell have captained their county. Add that to Pietersen and Swann, and England could field six captains in a team if they wished to.

To add to this, Tredwell becomes England’s eighth t20 captain, in eight years of t20 cricket; Vaughan, Strauss, Cook, Collingwood, Broad, Swann and Morgan the other seven. Collingwood and Broad have captained 47 out of 59 England t20 matches, whilst the other six have shared twelve matches between them. Out of those eight, only three have captained England in Tests.

This proliferation of captains makes those who’ve missed out especially interesting. Of the long term players in England’s squads, Ian Bell seems the likeliest captain who’s never had a chance - other than Matt Prior, who as vice-captain is second in line to the Test captaincy should something happen to Cook.

Perhaps Bell is not seen as either a viable long term option to test out, or a calm hand at the tiller to take temporary charge. For the second option, both "Iceman" Morgan and "Never let England down" Tredwell seem solid options, and Tredwell, as captain of Kent this season, has some experience under his belt.

After the rain came however, he was left with perhaps the shortest England captaincy career of any player. He had one coin toss - that he lost - he sent his batsmen out to face two balls, a two and a wicket, and they all sheltered from the rain as the match was eventually cancelled.

Still, since the game got underway, the record books will show that James Tredwell captained England. Like Frederick J. Hyland, who Wisden records as having “played as a professional in one match for Hampshire in 1924,” he achieved a somewhat hollow achievement. Hyland played in one match which went for two overs before being rained off. He neither batted nor bowled as a First-class cricketer, just as Tredwell has neither batted nor bowled as an England captain.

Sometimes, the achievement, whether it is playing First-class cricket, or captaining your country is enough to set you apart, even though in the end, it didn’t entail doing much. So ends James Tredwell’s England captaincy career, not in the glorious victory he may have dreamt, but in a lost toss and a washout. In one sense, that won't matter a jot. He can say, "I've captained England," and nobody can contradict him.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Anatomy of a choke

As England extend South Africa's run of tournament disappointment, the question all and sundry are asking is, was this a choke? Maybe, maybe not.

Define choke

Good question. The most common definition is when a team is in a dominant position, then lets the pressure make them do utterly stupid things and slip to an unlikely defeat. The definitive South Africa choke was of course the 1999 World Cup semi-final and that run out. Since then, there's been the 2003 World Cup where they comically misread the Duckworth-Lewis par score and ended one short, the 2007 World Cup saw a similar scenario to today, as Australia strangled them to an under par score then chased down with ease. Their last big choke was the 2011 World Cup, where New Zealand strangled and intimidated them through aggressive fielding.

Oh, it was a choke alright

Some people will say that the pressure got to them. Certainly, some of the shots were particularly brainless. AB de Villiers played a horrific swipe at Broad, JP Duminy tried to cut a ball zeroing in on his off-stump, and various straight balls from James Tredwell were flapped and poked at. They may not have choked from a position of strength in this match, but maybe they let the semi-final get to them.

Panic, not choke

Early on South Africa were 4-2, with two wickets down to good balls, What was needed was calm accumulation. They did that for a while, then panicked and got themselves out again. At no point were they in control. You can't choke if you're never in charge.

Does it matter?

Yes, and no. Of course it's always fun to laugh at another South Africa choke, but this time round they never had a good enough side to beat England on home turf. They were missing Smith, Kallis, Steyn and Morkel, and crucial players like Amla were never good enough. The ghost of tournament failure will continue to haunt over them.


Panic, not choke, but tell them it's a choke and it will keep happening.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Could football style sackings become commonplace in the county game?

Whilst football managers live with their job on the line almost constantly, county coaches generally have an easier go of things. Sure, there's the occasionally grumbling from the members and calls on the internet for them to go, but generally the world of county cricket is more long-term oriented and less prone to hyperbole.

Chris Adams then joins a short list of coaches to have been sacked mid-season. The fact that he left doesn't seem surprising, rather the timing is. Surrey had just managed a creditable draw against a good Sussex team, and they are just outside the relegation zone. Things haven't been good for a while at Surrey though and Alec Stewart will take over temporary charge.

Maybe the move will pay immediate dividends. The last county to sack their coach mid-season was Derbyshire. John Morris' contract was up at the end of the season in 2011, so he was released from his duties in May of that year, with Karl Krikken taking over.

Krikken lead the club in an upturn of fortunes, with promotion coming in 2012 from a core of young players developing together and a few choice imports. Even though it seems likely that Derbyshire will drop straight back down again

Maybe the difference between cricket and football that makes this kind of thing so rare is that cricket is far more likely to promote from within the club. There are generally very few out of work county head coaches around, so unless you pluck someone off another club's staff, the most likely person to replace a sacked county coach is his assistant. That makes waiting to the end of the season, when people are more likely to be out of contract, to find a permanent replacement seems wise.

It also seems odd to sack Chris Adams so soon into another cycle of rebuilding. His first strategy, of young and exciting players was abandoned after Tom Maynard's death, and players such as Hamilton-Brown, Jordan and Spriegel left the club. Now the club regularly field teams with six or seven players over thirty. In the final game of Adams' stint at the club the average age of the team was 29, whilst in a game against Essex in the YB40 it was an astounding 31.54, with six players in the team over 37.

Another coach who could be forgiven for feeling a bit nervous is Essex's Paul Grayson. Coaches don't pick up the sack for just doing badly, otherwise Leicestershire would go through several a year, they get it for underachieving. Grayson's Essex have been underachieving for several years, culminating in their abysmal 20 all out against Lancashire.

The team has occasional moments of brilliance, a 7-for for Graham Napier in a one day game, Masters' 8-10 in 2011, the odd brilliant Ravi Bopara century, but they don't seem to hold together as a team on a regular basis. The selection often seems muddled as well, and it's well time for a fresh start.

So will county cricket get more knee-jerk? Probably not. The mideseason sackings of both Morris and Adams were prompted by persistent underachieving, and if Grayson goes soon few would argue against the decision

With some exceptions, county cricket is generally a calmer, more measured game than Premier League football, and coupled with the lack of money to pay-off coaches in the middle of contracts, expect the mid-season sacking to remain a rare thing.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Hard work is rewarded - what the feckless three didn't get.

Ajit Chandila, Ankeet Chavan and Sreesanth. Another spot-fixing three, to add to the three Pakistani players Amir, Asif and Butt. Most of the attention has been on Sreesanth, the former India player, and the most high profile of the three, but the two spinners are just as interesting.

Spinners have to work hard for their wickets, they have chosen to do things the hard way in cricket. Not for them the life of a new ball bowler, but the testing, challenging role of a twirlyman. Yet, these two spinners took the easy way out, the easy buck, rather than the long challenging apprenticeship of a proper spinner.

As Sidvee put it...

"Sreesanth and Chandila had a golden chance to accept the baton. Here was their chance to inspire cricketers from the boondocks to the limelight. Here was their chance to get young boys and girls to dream – “not by fantasy but aspiration”.

But no. That’s too hard. To slog your backside off conscientiously is too passé. It’s too old-school. Instead they chose the easier route. And, sure as hell, blew it."

In perhaps the greatest irony of this case, the only person who will stand to gain from this is a man who's had to slog his way to the top, the hard way. Pravin Tambe, the 41 year old leg-spinner, has just Harmeet Singh as competition for his place in the Rajasthan Royals team now they are lacking two other Indian spinners, one of whom has generally been ahead of him in the pecking order.

I don't know anything about Pravin Tambe as a person. All I know, is that he didn't take the easy route. Being a leg-spinner isn't the easy route, continuing at the age of 41 depsite always having been overlooked for top level cricket isn't easy either. Taking contracts playing club cricket, out of his comfort zome, in England isn't the easy route

Pravin Tambe didn't take the easy route. A place in the Rajasthan team in place of these feckless fools is his bitter-sweet reward,

Thursday, 4 April 2013

The feeling of a perfect leg-break

It's the feeling that someone like myself might get a few times in a lifetime, but Shane Warne might get several times a spell. The moment that your wrist flicks, the ball flicks off four fingers perfectly in sync, and both fizzes and floats towards the batsman, a grenade wrapped in candy-floss.

Because, of course, the batsman never knows what a great ball it is until he's beaten by it. One leggie – possibly that incorrigible rouge Cec Pepper – once shouted his glee at the ball he'd just released, before it had even hit the pitch. When it's a good 'un, you just know.

Like I said, I've bowled very few of these. One is notable for being the best ball of mine that's ever been hit for six. It came out as perfectly as anything, landed on middle and leg, and was swatted over mid-wicket, on to the pavilion roof. Such is life.

When you're having a bad day, any reasonable leg-break feels like a great one. After toiling for three games without a single wicket for my new club, I felt like an imposter, a waste of oxygen in the dressing room. Then, in the penultimate over of my allowable eight, I release a leg-break that just has a little less flight than the donkey drops I'd been bowling for an hour. When a leggie is out of form, he starts to toss the ball higher and higher in the vague hope that he might regain his loop. That hadn't worked, but eventually I bowled one that felt perfect.

That ball pitched on leg, drew the batsman forward, took the edge and went straight into the keepers gloves. Then out on to his chest, back into his gloves, and by the time he took it I was almost under him to take the catch myself. He must have juggled it seven or eight times before it stuck properly.

I'm under no (some) illusions over my skill as a leggie, but with a couple of months to go before the start of my season I'm just hoping to bowl one or two of those balls. A great leg-break doesn't always get the rewards it deserves, I'll likely get more wickets off filthy long hops, but when everything comes together, feet, legs, hips, shoulders, wrist and fingers all align, there's no more perfect feeling.  

Friday, 22 March 2013

West Indies still have issues to deal with, but who'd be Zimbabwe?

A 2-0 series win, one by an innings and the other by nine wickets, can cover a multitude of sins. West Indies don't have that many to cover, but there remain problems. But Zimbabwe can take few positives from a poor tour, and look nothing like a Test team.

The main problem for the visitors was their batting, in four Test innings they put up totals of 211, 107, 175 and 141. Only Tino Mawoyo made it to 50 in the series, and he could go no further, departing for just that. Brendan Taylor had a poor tour overall, and scored 72 runs at 18 in the Tests. Other than him, the biggest disappointment in the batting was Vusi Sibanda who hit some crisp strokes, made a start in all four innings, but failed to get past fifty once. His talent is such that he's worth persisting with for Zimbabwe, but he's got to start scoring big runs soon.

The visitors bowling was the reverse of the West Indians, with the seamers bowling well and the spinners struggling. Kyle Jarvis took a five-for in the first Test and generally looked threatening, whilst Tendai Chatara showed enough to work with. On the spin front, Ray Price was as reliable as ever and strangely dropped for the anaemic Prosper Utseya for the second Test. Leg-spinner Graeme Cremer took some punishment across the two Tests, and failed to get the help from the surfaces that was there, never spinning the ball hard enough.

Zimbabwe will never improve until the facilities are better back at home, and they get to play more Test matches. At the moment, they are barely good enough to be a Test nation, and unlike the likes of Bangladesh they don't have many big weapons in the one day game. The batting is weak, Brendan Taylor is no Andy Flower, and while the opening partnership has potential, the lower middle order looks poor. Kyle Jarvis needs a partner, and if Glen Querl wants to play for Zimbabwe that gives them another good swing bowler. Add a tall quick bowler from somewhere and there is the makings of something there, but the question on who's going to replace Ray Price in the long run is no closer to being answered.

On the bowling side of things for the West Indies, Shane Shillingford dominated, taking 19 of the 40 Zimbabwe wickets to fall in the series. Marlon Samuels picked up some 10 cheap wickets with his javelin balls, Sunil Narine must be kicking himself. Best and Roach were below par but Shannon Gabriel seems to have cemented his place in the team with some disciplined bowling at a sharp pace, and was unlucky not to have taken the new ball at any point.

Batting wise, they put up good totals first up in both Tests, and only Bravo and Powell missed out on significant scores in either Tests. Darren Sammy and Dinesh Ramdin turned the First Test with their partnership, but both may be batting a place to high when it gets to playing against better quality opposition.

That's the main problem the West Indies will have to deal with: team balance. Darren Sammy shouldn't get in the team as a player alone, his bowling has gone downhill, and his batting hasn't improved enough to make him a genuine all-rounder to bat at number seven. He's been an inspirational captain, but he's no Brearley, and against better opposition he will either negatively affect the bowling or the balance of the side. There's no easy answer, but the selectors will have to come up with one before the Pakistan series at home.

Zimbabwe's next assignment is a home series against Bangladesh, where they should compete more. Their comeback Test, back in 2011, was against the same team, and they fought out a convincing win. Bangladesh have improved since then, and Zimbabwe have gone backwards. It will be a tough test for both teams, and it's a shame it's only two Tests. In series between two evenly matched teams like these, there should be at least three, ideally four Tests. Neither team plays enough Test cricket, this should be their chance to change that. Unfortunately, money talks, and the series isn't a big enough draw to merit more matches.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Hometown glory for Shillingford

Shane Shillingford is not a glamorous spinner. He's never been picked in the IPL auction, he's never had overwhelming success at any level, but slowly and surely he's establishing himself as West Indies' premier spinner. He could have considered himself unlucky to have been dropped for the effervescent Sunil Narine, not long after taking the first 10 wicket match haul by a West Indian spinner since Lance Gibbs, but he looks set for a long spell in the side now after picking up 5/59 on the first day of the Test against Zimbabwe.

Shillingford teased the Zimbabwean batsmen with turn and bounce along with just enough flight. He had them playing back to full balls, bowling spitting cobras jumping off a length which weren't even the wicket-taking balls. His first and last came from doosras, bowling Masakadza and trapping Chatara LBW. In between he got rid of Brendan Taylor reverse-sweeping and playing on, Waller slogging one up in the air and Utseya LBW to an off-break.

It can be argued that West Indies erred by not picking a second spinner. Veerasammy Permaul was the other option in the squad and can generally be relied on to provide an accurate spell of left arm spin, albeit from a remarkably fussy action akin to Phil Tufnell on speed.

Perhaps a better option would have been Sunil Narine, who would have provided some of the same qualities as Shillingford, but would not have duplicated him. Most selectors are reluctant to play two spinners of the same ilk, but Shillingford and Narine are hardly the same bowler. Shillingford is more of a wristy off-spinner, whilst Narine bowls more of a finger-spin, and whilst both have doosras, Shillingford's is the back of the hand version, whilst Narine bowls the knuckle/carrom ball.

The depth in West Indian spin bowling is better than it has perhaps ever been. Even in the days of Ramadhin and Valentine, or of Lance Gibbs, there was little below that level. Now Shillingford, Permaul and Narine compete for the Test spots, whilst Nikita Miller takes bucketloads at First-class level, and Devendra Bishoo seems forgotten. Add the likes of Yannic Cariah, Odeon Brown and Ashley Nurse amongst others and the spin warehouse is well stocked.

This abundance of spinners makes it all the more impressive that Shillingford is on top – for the time being – and his experience has won out over the more green Narine. Shillingford is over 30, and after his first five Tests in 2010 brought him 14 wickets at 56.79, he came back in 2012, and in his last five (including the ongoing one) he's picked up 29 at 23.10. Now he's got to continue this success, West Indies' next Tests assignment should be Pakistan in June, and he's a certain pick for that series. After that his long term future is in his own hands.