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.