Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Tom Latham shows the value of simplicity

It was Bill Shankly who said “Football is a simple game complicated by idiots.” Like all truisms, there’s more to it than that, and if you substituted football for cricket you’d get blank stares from some. Surely cricket is complicated in and of itself, they’d say.
Perhaps if you reverse the polarity of the phrase (to butcher a reference), it makes more sense for cricket. Cricket is a complicated game, made simple by geniuses. Tom Latham is hardly a genius, but other than David Warner, he’s the only batsman from outside the subcontinent to score a hundred in the UAE this year.

The method looked simple. Rahat Ali threatened, but mostly just created pressure, which Latham resisted. It was the three spinners, Zulfiqar Babar, Yasir Shah, and Mohammad Hafeez who looked to be the danger. But Latham had a plan. If it was full and straight, he’d stretch forward and defend. If it was off the stumps, he’d sweep, and if it was a bad ball he’d put it away. Apart from the occasional drive down the ground, that was it.

Shah went round the wicket, but found that pitching every ball outside off stump invited the sweep. Zulfiqar found Latham immune to his variations, and Hafeez tried to lure him into indiscretion, as he did Neesham, but found the opener steadfast.

He brought up his century with a shimmy down the wicket and punch of the ball down the ground for four. It took a fantastic ball to get rid of him, Rahat Ali reverse swinging a yorker into him to trap him LBW. Rahat set it up fantastically, swinging a couple away before a third darted back in to catch him plumb on the foot.

Rahat Ali was the other big performer on the day. 4-22 off 17 overs might just be the maximum he could have possibly squeezed out of the day. Like Latham, he kept it simple, that setup to get rid of the day’s centurion was the archetypal three-card trick. Southee succeeded in the most bit of incompetent bit of batting, edging a swinging ball once to be dropped, then in almost identical fashion the next ball to be caught.

When the ball wasn’t reverse swinging, all he had to do against them was to create pressure, forcing the lapses the like of which saw off both Williamson and Anderson, both chopping on to their stumps. Remarkably, before lunch he hadn’t conceded a run off the bat, the only blot on his figures a no ball from the previous evening.

With Latham and Rahat simplicity won the day. But for the rest of the New Zealand batsmen that simplicity was hard to come by. Turns out making something look simple can be quite complicated.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Papua New Guinea enter the ‘big time’

It doesn’t look like the big time. Tony Ireland Stadium in Townsville is an out-ground for Queensland, and used for the occasional international A game. It’s a sparse ground, and the matchup between Papua New Guinea and Hong Kong hasn’t attracted many spectators sitting on the grass banks, and only a few in the single stand.

But this is ODI cricket. That may be the only difference between it and many other games PNG have played against opposition like Hong Kong or other similar sized associates, but it is the biggest status most associates can aspire to, Test cricket being the closed club that it is. Whilst the whole system of different levels of international cricket is inherently ridiculous, it’s not going away anytime soon, so ODI status doesn’t just bring a new level of statistics, it brings greater opportunities to play the top associates and full members, and crucially, more money from various sources.

Their opening bowlers certainly proved up to it. Bowling their first ODI ball was Pipi Raho, small and off a short run-up, he didn’t  generate much pace, but some outswing. Like his partner at the other end, his action centres around a leap into the air before he hurls the ball down, something common to several of their seamers actions.

At the other end, Willie Gavera has a bit more pace. Another short-ish run, leap and a sling, but this time from a taller, rangier bowler. He was the one to take PNG’s first ODI wicket, with a length ball edged through to the keeper, and with his extra pace he tested out the back of a length area at times, something not many associate bowlers can do.

Aside from the players, the PNG kit is quite something. Black, with red and yellow trim, and an fantastic black cap with red and yellow hoops on the top. The effect, with their energetic fielding is of a swarm, buzzing around the batsmen, hurling in returns to the keeper, throwing the ball around amongst themselves.

It’s that fielding that got them their third and fourth wickets, a pull shot well held at mid-wicket, and a great slip catch, both off the off-spinner Assad Vala. His off-spin, added to that of Maharu Dai, and the leggies of Charles Amini give PNG a varied spin attack which picked up x wickets in the first ODI.

Despite that, they are still associates, so there’s some inconsistency. Maharu Dai caught well in the first game, but dropped one in the second. In the same over Norman Manua very nearly took a screamer down at fine leg.

The two teams made an intriguing matchup. PNG are small and tenacious, enthusiastic in the field, whilst Hong Kong’s batsmen stand tall with wide stances designed to belt the ball away. It was the Barramundis who had the edge. In years to come, PNG will be the answer to a trivia question: Which was the only country to win their first two ODIs?

The matches starting at midnight GMT meant that with PNG bowling first twice, I can only comment on them in the field. But with the bat three things stand out on the scorecards. Two successful chases, and a first ODI century, by Lega Siaka. Not bad for a first go.

Just like many club teams, but unlike most international teams, PNG cricket is a family affair. Only maybe the Pollocks can match the Amini’s. Chris Amini, batsman and medium pace bowler plays alongside his brother Charles, a leg-spinner. Their father Chris, and grandfather Brian both captained PNG and their mother Kune captained the women’s team.

Their first ODI may have been played in Australia, but PNG cricket are hopeful they can bring a ground up to ODI standards back home. What's this national stadium called? Amini Park of course.

Friday, 10 October 2014

The cricket ground and the ballpark

Oriole Park at Camden Yards: a great venue for baseball
Like most from the cricket watching world, my initial view of baseball was of a game that was so far removed from cricket, an Americanisation of the bat and ball game that doesn’t come close to the complexity of the greatest sport in the world. The 2014 MLB season is the first of mine as a baseball fan. My views have changed… to an extent.

First and foremost, I am still a cricket fan. But after watching a significant number of baseball games across the long season of America’s summer game, I started to appreciate the similarities and the differences that make two games.

One similarity is the way that both games are among the few sports to resist the trend towards identikit, out of town stadia. Sure, there are a few behemoths amongst both sports, most Test grounds in Australia, the Oakland Coliseum and Tropicana Field in baseball (incidentally a common factor in some bad grounds is sharing with another sport, be it AFL or NFL).

Yet, most grounds in both sports have some kind of identity and sense of difference. I’ve found myself supporting the surprisingly successful Baltimore Orioles this season, and watching them play on the TV at Camden Yards has been fantastic, for all the little eccentricities in the ballpark, remarkable for a just twenty year old stadium. 

There’s the huge long brick building - the former B&O Warehouse, incorporated into the design rather than demolished - out in right field. You’ve got the little enclaves of seats in centre and right field, the standing area on Eutaw Street, between the stadium and the warehouse and used when the seats have sold out, and I’m sure many other foibles and charms, nooks and crannies, known to those who’ve actually been to games in the ballpark, unlike me.

There are other architecturally interesting ballparks in the league, many built in the retro-modern movement of the last twenty years. One key factor that the identikit, built to the sky stadiums of other sports miss is the sense of context. Looking to cricket, the county game has grounds which offer this context, from the cathedral at Worcester, to the sense of being enclosed by people’s homes at Hove. 

Even in the Test grounds, where they are big enough that you miss that context, you see the context of continued development. Lord’s has the spaceship of a media centre, peering over the Compton and Edrich stands, as if sneaking a glimpse of the Victorian pavillion opposite. 

If you add to this the sense of differing playing surfaces and dimensions, cricket and baseball seem ever more alike in where they conduct their games. Every cricket stadium has a different pitch and outfield, a different boundary length and shape. Ever baseball diamond has a different distance to centre field, to left and right, and amount of foul territory. 

Two games, separated by much, but also together in the fight against the featureless monolith sports stadium. 

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Fletcher's idea comes to fruition, and Cooks protégé upstages him

Just after Duncan Fletcher took over as England coach in 1999, England’s tail reached its nadir. Caddick, Mullally, Tufnell, and Giddens. A tail with Tufnell at number ten is something poor indeed.

That stung Fletcher into action. England’s tail got slowly better, not least with use of the buddy system in which throughout Fletcher’s tenure as coach, top order batsmen were paired with tail-enders, to give them throwdowns, coach them, and eke every little bit of batting talent out them.

Paul Collingwood nudged Monty Panesar to a couple of match saving innings. Marcus Trescothick coached Matthew Hoggard into a man who, with Ashley Giles, saw England through to an Ashes Test win.

Who was Jimmy Anderson’s batting buddy? For a while it was a man who, if you squint, looks remarkably similar as a batsman, and a man who hasn’t scored as many as Anderson did at Trent Bridge since 24th May last year against New Zealand. If you hadn’t guessed yet, it’s Alastair Cook.

It must be a little bittersweet for Cook to look on. All those years of coaching Anderson and he would have some pride in his protégé, but even if he wouldn’t admit it to himself, there would jealousy that a man with not even half the batting talent of himself could show up his shortcomings even more.

Still, the two ‘broke up’ as batting buddies nearly four years ago, so this recent success can’t be credited much to Cook.

Duncan Fletcher, in his guise as tail-ender coaxer, would have a rueful grin that his system, and his emphasis on tail-end batting, while it helped India, it also benefited England even more. But, if he was watching as a neutral, he would have been proud to see that he had been part of the game that set a whole host of records for tail-end batting, including the most runs ever by 10th wicket partnerships in a match.

Anderson eventually departed nineteen short of his hundred, caught driving at Kumar, by Shikhar Dhawan at first slip. That made it two innings in a row ending in disappointment. The disappointment of departing for a 55-ball duck to lose a match with a ball to go, and missing out on becoming the first number eleven to score a Test century aren’t exactly comparable though.

Jimmy Anderson might have had a pang of disappointment on missing out, but unlike last time, there were no tears.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

McCullum wasn’t brave by anyone except Alastair Cook’s standards

As an England fan - despite how it seemed in my last piece - it’s tempting to cast an envious glance at other countries players. In days gone by, we'd stare longingly at Shane Warne - when not cowering in fear - thinking, "Why can't we have one of those?" When we did, he was called Ian Salisbury.

Now, as I watch West Indies play New Zealand, it could be tempting wish for Trent Boult, or Tim Southee, but most of all, I'd like to scoop out Brendon McCullum's brain, liquidise it, then inject the resulting cricketing goo into Alastair Cook.

Zombification aside, McCullum gets a lot of credit, and deserves most of it.  When he declared, setting a West Indies team with a long tail  308 in at most 98 overs, but likely a lot less given the weather forecast, he got more credit than he deserved. It was the only reasonable option, of course he took it.

That decision is only brave in comparison to timid, defensive modern captaincy. What would Alastair Cook do is unlikely to become a phrase on wristbands. What would BB McCullum do may not abbreviate well (WWBBMCD), but it's a far more exciting way to live.

The only dangerous factor was Chris Gayle, but his only real attacking zeal in the series came in a calculated blast at a run chase less than half the length. Could he have tried it for a bigger target? If he had, it could have been over in one ball or after a fifty ball double century.  Still, that would have been brave.

Rewind just over a year and think back to England's Second Test win over New Zealand. That was the last time Alastair Cook got a century, but it was also the first time his captaincy was seriously questioned. Up to that point, few were enthused by his style, but 2-1 in India shut up the doubters, and captaincy wasn't the problem when all three Tests were drawn in New Zealand on deathly dull pitches.

Then he deferred a declaration for about two hours more than most judges recommended. Still, England won the match, so wasn't he 'vindicated'? Well, by being ultra-conservative England gambled with time, just as capricious an enemy as their actual opponents. They may have beaten New Zealand soundly, but with that sound beating, they shouldn't have run it so fine against time.

Until Cook grasps that setting a target isn't just about batting the opponent out of contention then declaring, nothing will change. Until he understands that sometimes a carrot must be dangled, sometimes losing may have to be risked to ensure there is enough time to win, England won't progress.

If England aren't progressing, at their current rate New Zealand may soon overtake them. As of the end of England's last Test, New Zealand were eight points behind, and that gap will close with this win over the West Indies. Brendon McCullum hasn't accumulated as many runs as Alastair Cook, but he has accumulated plaudits for his captaincy.

McCullum is a livewire in the field. Cook vegetates at first slip. McCullum makes changes often and decisively. Cook lets the game drift. McCullum has no truck with convention unless it wins him games. Cook at his most inventive is a leg-slip or a short cover.

Contrary to what I wrote earlier, I'm not sure that McCullum is a brilliant strategist a la Richie Benaud or Mike Brearley, but he is inventive and ever-changing. He reminds me of a different Essex player and England captain: Nasser Hussain.

That was a man who was brave. That was a man who led from the front. Perhaps Cook could find a mentor?

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Sri Lanka’s annus mirabilis, and my confession

Win in Bangladesh? Sure. Win the Asia Cup? Well done! Win the World T20? FANTASTIC. Win all three series in England, including a first ever Test series win in England, off the penultimate ball of the series. Annus mirabilis beckoning.

Late June may be an early time to pass verdict on a year, but if it continues as it has gone so far, Sri Lanka’s own new era may be dawning into view. They’ve dealt with the loss of some big players in the last few years, going back to Muttiah Muralitharan. Since then, they’ve lost Dilshan at the top, Samaraweera at five, Chaminda Vaas, and Lasith Malinga. Those are all players England would love to have.

A mix of new and old pushes forward for Sri Lanka. Shaminda Eranga is a unassumingly effective seam bowler, outswing with the new ball, seam and cutters later on, and accurate to the end. Rangana Herath is both new and old, 36 years old, but enjoying his second life as a Test bowler, out from under Murali’s shadow.

Then you have Sanga and Mahela. Kumar in the form of his career; Mahela as cheeky and inventive as ever. They won’t be around for longer, but they will surely see out this fine year. They will be the hardest to replace, but there are signs that others could handle the burden.

Angelo Matthews had a fine series at number six, capped with the finest of second innings hundreds, and when Sangakkara retires, that number three position could he his. He hasn’t the technical perfection of the great man, but determination, savvy, and weight of stroke could prove an able replacement.

But enough of future changes, this fine team should remain essentially unchanged through the rest of their year. Perhaps Dimuth Karunaratne’s lack of conversion will concern, and maybe the second spinner isn’t a nailed on certainty for when they return home, but with three series to go this year, their position is strong.

The first will be another humdinger. South Africa may be recently deposed as numero uno, but they still haven’t lost an away Test series since 2006 in, guess where…. Sri Lanka. Home advantage should set up an evenly matched series.

Eight days after that series ends, Pakistan become the next challange, two Tests, Galle and Colombo, the usual drill. They’ll be just as tough as South Africa, not as good a team overall, but better suited to the conditions. But at home, with this confidence, it’s winnable.

Then there’s a wait, ten ODIs intervene, until the Test team travels again. This could be the capper to the year. New Zealand are Test cricket’s coming team, perhaps the hardest of the three series will be taking on the Black Caps. The second Test starts just into the new year, and as it concludes we shall know. Good year? Or annus mirabilis?

As I write this, a nagging thought gnaws away at my brain. All through this tour, I, an Englishman, have been supporting Sri Lanka. When Jimmy Anderson fended to Herath, I cheered and clapped and toasted the “little Sri Lankans” as Tony Greig - who if he was still with us would I’m sure too would have been secretly delighted - used to say.

It’s easy to seem condescending if I say it was simply a case of supporting the underdog, and indeed, that wouldn’t be true. It’s a mix of that, dislike for an out of touch  England cricket establishment - ECB England as Yates puts it - along with genuine love and respect for some fantastic Sri Lankan cricketers.

 Sri Lanka will retain my support for the rest of this year, as they take on South Africa, Pakistan and New Zealand. Three series wins will do for me…. no pressure.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Kraigg Brathwaite looks wrong

Every shot looks a bit off. The straight drive isn’t often played with a straight bat. The cover drive is played rarely, and with a lot of bottom hand. Balls are defended in varying ways. He flicks through the leg-side with a curtain-railing bat, bottom hand pulling it around. He doesn’t look like a Test match batsman.

What Brathwaite is good at however; is not getting out. That means that if he hangs around for long enough he scores runs.

At one point today, he had 9 runs off 47 balls, each one a painstakingly compiled single. Then he showed something he hadn’t previously managed to muster as a Test batsman, and rarely as a First-class one: Acceleration.

It started with a push for three down the ground, somehow managing to play it wristily through mid-off. That was off Trent Boult, but it was Mark Craig’s introduction to the attack that paid dividends for the young Bajan batsman. The off-spin of Craig, turning onto the bat of the leg-side preferring bottom hand dominant opener, was just what he needed, and a few drag downs helped even more, as 41 of his runs came off him.

You see more awkward looking shots watching Brathwaite that any other batsman outside Chanderpaul. That man is a good comparison for Brathwaite. Both are slender men who rely on touch more than anything else. Neither are beholden to the textbook, Chanderpaul in a more obvious way.

His previous innings was against Bangladesh A, and it exhibited quicker scoring than Brathwaite had ever managed before, a tally of 164 made at an impressive strike rate of 69.19. The Bangladesh bowling attack was not a threatening one, but beyond Boult and Southee, neither is New Zealand’s. Brathwaite’s new dimension is punishing the mediocre.

He identified the good, the bad and the mediocre and treated them accordingly. Boult offered the most threat, so he was neutralised for 15 runs in 49 balls, and no boundaries. Craig was dominated, and when the ball stopped swinging, Southee was attacked. Sodhi was afforded some respect, but Neesham milked like the medium pacer he is.

Brathwaite is known for his concentration, but he had a little lapse of that on 89, going into the 90s with a nick over the slips, then next ball inside-edging an expansive drive into his pads. All talk is of his mental balance, but this nervousness speaks of something else, as does a low conversion rate of 21 fifties to 7 hundreds. Does Brathwaite have a problem with the nervous nineties? Wouldn’t you if your first Test century was at hand?

Kraigg Brathwaite now had 93. A ball outside off stump guided through the slips for four… 97.

Short of a length ball from Neesham nudged down to square leg for a single. Looks composed enough... 98

Bouncer from Neesham, ducked under. Could I have had a go at that? Brathwaite refocuses… 98

Length ball pushed at, a thick edge goes through the covers. Brathwaite retains the strike. One away… 99

An impending milestone forces a change of bowler. Kane Williamson gets his first over of the day. Easy runs? That’s what McCullum wants him to think. First one… defended. Second one… defended, half a step down the track, no run there. Chat between captain and bowler, time slows down. Third one… guides one down to point, it’s there… NO! Fourth one… same shot, it is there, the tension releases as Brathwaite charges down the tack a bit quicker than he needed to. That is a Test century. Even as he should be celebrating he touched his bat in and waited for the throw, on the prospect of an unlikely second run.

He celebrated it in a low key way. Raised bat and helmet, a grin which said, “Good for a start” then back on with the game. He managed another 29 before getting caught and bowled by Trent Boult.

Kraigg Brathwaite is low key, his batting is ugly, but he has a thirst for runs, and a hunger for time at the crease. The next Shiv? Very possibly.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Lasith Malinga’s wide brimmed sun-hat

Slinging it at Lord's
The new T20 captain of Sri Lanka patrols the field, with a look of slight bemusement on his face and a wide-brimmed sunhat on his head. There’s an incongruity about it, a white sun-hat complimenting his blue pyjamas whilst all his charges are in blue caps.

You think of Shane Warne and his refusal to venerate the baggy green, wearing that wide-brimmed sun-hat at all times. It’s a sign of the individual, the maverick.

It also signifies a lost future for Malinga, the Test match hat worn in the limited overs game, by one of the great limited overs bowlers. But what could he have been in Tests? Thirty of them, the last in 2010, showed potential beyond most Sri Lankan seamers.

A knee injury put paid to that, and now the man with the biggest hair in cricket is over thirty, the t20 and ODI grind is the limit of his cricket.

After five overs, the sun-hat comes over, and is passed to the umpire, and Malinga starts his spell with a 65mph slower ball. Two balls later, he swings one away, Bell pokes and Thirimanne drops the dolly. It’s almost a Test match dismissal, to a Test match batsman, but not on the highest stage of all.

Another two balls later and Bell skies one to Kusal Perera, a much more limited overs dismissal, a spiralling ball caught at cover.

For anyone else, the little kiss Malinga gives the ball at the top of his mark would seem gauche and deliberately eccentric. If Dernbach did it, you’d assume he was kissing it goodbye before it sailed into the stands. But Malinga comes across as so uncomplicated, you just peg it as a good luck charm.

It didn’t bring him much luck early on, as he bamboozled England players over and again with his slower balls, only for their baffled lobs into the air to land nowhere near fielders. As an stone cold LBW appeal is turned down, he smiles at the umpire and shakes his head ruefully.

It all comes down as it often does, to his two overs at the death. A slower ball deceives Hales, then Bopara waits for one to run down to third m
an, and Hales belts one for four. Three slower balls in a row, the third going for four. What does Malinga do? He bowls a fourth, and Hales swings past it. Clean bowled.

Two more, and Malinga has bowled an entire over of slower balls. Is a slower ball a slower ball if he doesn’t bowl anything faster? Has Malinga just bowled an over of medium pace? Is that the most gutsy over of death bowling ever? Perhaps.

The next over starts with, predictably or not, another slower ball. All Malinga needs then is a two card trick against Chris Jordan, a rare quicker one then a slower cutter for the lower order basher to inside edge into his stumps.

Chris Woakes, never having faced a ball against Malinga, gets two pads in front of the stumps and somehow manages to chip a slower full-toss to mid-wicket for one, and after four singles off the nineteenth over of a T20 game, the captain rests.

Sri Lanka win. Of course they do. But 4-0-28-3 doesn’t even begin to tell the story of Lasith Malinga, his wide-brimmed sun-hat, and his over of slower balls.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Scout Report: John Campbell

The former West Indies U-19 opening batsman John Campbell is generally rated for his left-handed strokeplay. Indeed, he’s had a breakthrough season with the bat in the Regional 4-Day Competition for Jamaica this year, a maiden First-class fifty in his first match of the season, and a hundred in the next the highlights.

I’m not that interested in that though. His ESPNCricinfo profile talks of him as being “an aggressive left-handed batsman who likens his style of play to Chris Gayle.” That is presumably about his batting, because despite the fact that he is an off-spinner like Gayle, his off-spin is nothing like Gayle’s.

Perhaps one day he could be a genuine all-rounder, or go the Todd Astle route of transitioning from top-order batsman who bowls a bit to spinner who bats in the lower-middle order, because John Campbell’s off-spin is exciting.

His action reminds me of Graeme Swann in his early years before it tightened into the well oiled machine it became. Campbell begins his approach to the crease wide of the return crease and walks his first few steps before almost jumping across the crease to the mid-point from which he delivers.

Add that to the fact he gets close to side on and pivots well on his front foot, and there’s a legitimately good off-spin action going on. That’s not the exciting part though. The exciting part is the flight, turn and bounce he can get. Admirably for a part timer, who could be expected to dry up an end, Campbell puts plenty of flight on the ball, something which comes naturally from his orthodox action.

Add to that the most exciting part: turn and bounce. When he lands the ball on a line and length, Campbell can get the ball to grip off the surface, turn and bounce. When bowling in tandem with Jamaica’s front line spinners, Nikita Miller and Damion Jacobs, he spins the ball more than either, off the same surfaces.

All this potential has reaped some rewards. So far, in eight innings of bowling, mostly short spells, he has eight wickets, all of which came in two four-fers, one against the Leeward Islands, and the other against Combined Colleges and Campuses. Those figures of 4-17 and 4-15, to run through the middle order of the students and the tail of the Leewards, show the potential of Campbell to become a genuinely threatening front-line off-spinner.

I hope he will work on his spin bowling and try to develop into an all-rounder. There are a lot of off-spinners in the Caribbean, but few have the sort of gifts he do, and most play a patience game with impatient batsmen.

Campbell’s nowhere near the finished article yet though. As a young part-timer (for the moment) his flight and turn come with the downside of one or two bad balls an over, and opening spells with an entire over of dreck before he gets his bearings. Those aren’t big problems though. Continued practice will hone his action and leave less to go wrong. At that point the batsmen of the Caribbean can start to be worried.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Can Pollard play Test cricket?

If Viv Richards emerged from Antigua today, flaying boundaries all round the ground with insouciant ease, and chomping on his gum, would he be pigeonholed as a t20 player? It’s an interesting question to ask, and one that doesn’t have an easy answer.

Kieron Pollard is no Viv Richards, but he’s something. He has a little of the insouciance, a lot of the power (albeit with bigger bats and smaller boundaries) and perhaps even greater fielding ability. Add in some useful medium pace somewhere in the Angelo Mathews category that looks like it should be faster than it is, and you’ve got yourself a potent short form cricketer.

The next question though, is can he play Test cricket? That’s debatable. Look at his First-class stats and you say there’s no reason he can’t. In 24 games spread over six years, the last a year ago, he averages a respectable 38.40 in a West Indies regional setup where few average over forty.

What may end up being the problem is Pollard’s attitude towards getting into the Test team. If you read an interview with him from a couple of weeks ago he says that “I'm highly unlikely to play a full season of first-class cricket, so my only way of playing is by performing well in the ODIs.”

If you look at it from one angle, it makes sense, Pollard’s an international player, and the ODIs and T20s versus Ireland and England, along with the World T20 made it “highly unlikely” for him to play a full season of First-class cricket. It doesn’t mean he can’t play some though.

Some means more than two. That’s all he’s managed in the current Regional 4-Day Competition season. In those two, he managed scores of 4, 111, and 0. A fourth First-class hundred adds fuel to the fire, and adds to his case of playing Test cricket. But the IPL beckons, so he’s off, and won’t play First-class cricket for another year.

Why can’t he forgo the IPL for a year to play some county cricket? If he put feelers out there, I’m sure he could find a county to play for during at least part of the English summer. The point is, if he wants to play First-class cricket, he’s a good enough player, and well known enough to make it happen.

Twenty four First-class matches isn’t enough to play Test cricket. If he plays some regional cricket, a couple of months of the county season, that number could go up a fair bit. The weakness of the West Indies’ batting reserves is such that three or four more hundreds could secure him the number six spot with some haste.

He just needs to play those matches, and prove he can be a First-class cricketer. To make the Viv comparison again, the great man had played 44 First-class matches before he became a Test cricketer. At that point he had more runs at 2285, but at a lower average of 32.18, and one less hundred that Pollard has at this point.

Nobody’s suggesting Pollard could become anything near the great Viv, but a couple of thousand Test runs averaging around 35 to 40 batting at number six seems well within his grasp. If you add a bit of bowling, and great fielding to that, he doesn’t look a bad package to have coming in at six. If you compare him the current number six, from West Indies’ last Test in New Zealand, Narsingh Deonarine, he represents a significant potential increase. If only he’d make the effort.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Brathwaite and Chanderpaul

If you think of Caribbean batting, your mind goes to IVA Richards, to Gordon Greenidge and into the present day, to the likes of Kieron Pollard, and Darren Bravo. Power players, stylists, never dull. Maybe dull is what the West Indies need in their Test cricket.

Look forward four or five years, and it would not be too much of a stretch to see Tagenarine Chanderpaul and Kraigg Brathwaite opening together in Test matches. Both are players who many would find dull. Scratch that, their batting is dull. So far this season Brathwaite has a strike-rate in First-class cricket of 29.52, and Chanderpaul has 22.05.

“Don’t run before you can walk” goes the cliche. Other sayings make the same point, “Don’t put the horse before the cart”, for example. They may have been used beyond all useful purpose, but the meaning remains somewhere. Build things in the proper order.

For these two young batsmen it means that a solid defensive technique comes first. Brathwaite has faced 718 balls, more than any other batsman in the competition, in six innings so far this season, facing an average of 119.66 balls per innings. Chanderpaul has been similarly good in terms of crease occupation, facing 645 balls, in six innings, an average of 107.5 balls an innings.

Those are occupation rates comparable to the best in Test cricket. The two youngsters have taken a strange approach in the modern game: they’re First-class specialists. At the age of 21, Brathwaite’s already played 49 First-class games. That includes ten Test matches, and is accompanied by 12 List A games, but strikingly, not a single T20. Chanderpaul junior has six First-class games under his belt at the age of 17, and nothing else at the senior level.

What both need to do now is add extra dimensions to their games. Brathwaite may be Chris Gayle’s opening partner when next the West Indies are in whites, and a better player to open with if you struggle to move the score along could not be found. Still, if both are to open together when Gayle is gone, they’re going to have to add more shots.

Perhaps it’s time for both of them, especially Brathwaite, on the verge of Test cricket, to play more one day cricket, and maybe even some T20, to give them a way to develop shots. Both need to drill into themselves the balls that they need to put away, the short wide ones, the half-volleys on leg stump.

If they take the bad balls they’re give and put them away that should help both players convert their scores. It’s less of a problem for Brathwaite, he has five First-class centuries, and 19 fifties, but that conversion rate could do with being higher, and that will only happen if Brathwaite can start cashing in properly once he’s fully in, something he doesn’t really do so far in his career.

So far this season he has two fifties, but they both should have been converted into hundreds, rather than ending at 82 against Windward Islands and 91 against Combined Colleges and Campuses.

Chanderpaul has had a similar problem, but more acute. So far, in each match so far this season he’s made it to forty, but he hasn’t converted one of those into his maiden First-class fifty.

They’ve been hampered by the sort of pitches, and bowling they’ve received. The pitches don’t encourage bowlers to pitch the ball up, and the slowness means when they do, driving is hazardous. You’re more likely to see runs coming from full blooded cuts and pulls, shots natural to neither player.

Both need to find a couple of attacking shots to depend on. Alastair Cook makes a good role model for this method. For five or six years in Test cricket, Cook barely drove. Instead, he waited for the bowlers to err in line or length, to cut, pull and nudge them into exasperation.

If these two can find two or three shots to depend on, they can maintain a strike rate of forty or fifty, enough to keep the pressure off them and keep the scoreboard ticking. That’s all you need to be a Test opener of the old school. That’s what the West Indies need.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Steve O’Keefe story

O'Keefe: more than meets the eye
Still waters run deep, the old proverb goes. It might be a cliche but that’s what comes to mind when watching Steve O’Keefe bowl in the Sheffield Shield final.

A while ago, before the Ashes series in England, I wrote a piece (never actually posted) asking who could get in the Australian team ahead of O’Keefe, with various serious options eventually devolving into Clarrie Grimmett’s ghost and various other fatuous suggestions. The point being that O’Keefe had several seasons of being the best spinner in the Sheffield Shield, but fell short of a Test place as Australia tried almost everyone else conceivable.

Maybe he’s just too still. Most of my arguments towards O’Keefe being near the Test team have been down to statistics, but watch him live, and he’s a fairly unfashionable sort of player. He ambles up to the crease, and rolls through it, hurling the ball at the batsman’s pads.

Watch him for a spell though, and those still waters start to deepen. Some balls get tossed up, some get fired in, but he’s relentless and accurate. The position on the crease changes, the pace, line and length all change, over and over again, so the batsman can never get into a rhythm against him. O’Keefe is like Rangana Herath, not much cop on first glance, but relentless and inventive.

If you watch the bowling of a left-arm spinner on the other side, playing for the Alcohol. Think Again Western Warriors (Western Australia to you and me), faster waters run shallower. Ashton Agar has a wonderful action, the sort of action that prompts Australian selectors to give him a Test match debut at 19. But what does that action harvest for him? 55 wickets at 41.03 so far.

When Agar gets into a rhythm, so does the batsman, blocking him away over and over, pausing only to put away the odd bad ball. When O’Keefe does, he dances to his own drumbeat, faster or slower, almost imperceptibly to the batsman; kept constantly alert. Neither players get big turn, but O’Keefe uses what he gets more intelligently.

His continued non-selection for Australia could tell you many things about the mindset of their selectors, if you were that way inclined. You could use it to paint a picture of distrust of statistics, a commitment to instinct, and a love of aesthetic quality. You could make that argument again if you looked at the relative treatment of Shaun Marsh and Phillip Hughes.

But it’s not confined to them. There have always been unfashionable players. In England, the likes of David Masters and Alan Richardson have piled up County Championship wickets, without the sniff of an England place. A lack of pace, actions not pleasing to the eye, and age counting against the tangible achievements.

The charge levelled against these sort of players is that they haven’t got what’s necessary to play at a higher level. That argument seems to suggest that there’s a cookie-cutter set of skills needed for Test cricket, ignoring the wide variety of different players who've made the step up.

O’Keefe’s moment, if it ever came, has probably passed now. When Nathan Lyon made his Test debut, O’Keefe was the obvious choice, but was passed over. He’ll just have to be satisfied with seven T20 internationals for his country, a superficial selection because he looked like a T20 spinner. Those waters ran deeper than the selectors knew; he should have been a Test spinner.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Will there ever be another great leg-spinner?

Bryce McGain, Steve Smith, Cameron White, Scott Borthwick, Amit Mishra, Todd Astle, Ish Sodhi, Imran Tahir, Devendra Bishoo.

Can you see where I’m going with this? That’s the complete list of front-line leg-spinners to have debuted in Test cricket since Shane Warne retired at the beginning of 2007. Add all their figures together and they have 149 wickets at 44.82. It’s fair to say we’re going through a leg-spin drought at the moment.

You can write off Warne as a complete one off. But how would that explain Stuart MacGill, or Anil Kumble. They both held their own, hell, in any other era they each would have been the best leg-spinner in the world.

What Warne and MacGill (and to an extent Kumble, though he had other gifts) did which pushed them above other leg-spinners of the era was rip the ball finger-chafing hard, in Warne’s case with astounding control. Do any of the leg-spinners mentioned above rip the ball that hard? Perhaps only Steve Smith, himself just a part timer these days can match that level of spin, but without the control, he can never be a front-liner.

Big spin is more important than ever before. With bats as big as they are, and boundaries pulled in to postage stamp dimensions, spinners have a harder job than they ever have before. In the last five years or so, three spinners - none of whom are leg-spinners - have dominated the scene.

Graeme Swann did it by ripping the ball harder than the vast majority of finger-spinners, using an unorthodox tight grip, ball pushed back into the second joints in his fingers. He also preyed on a historical preponderance of left-handers, ripping the ball past their outside edge, before drifting it into their pads.

Saeed Ajmal did it with his doosra. Just enough turn to beat the outside and inside edges was allied to a keen mind, using his doosra sparingly or extravagantly, teasing the batsman with the possibility of it, or dumbfounding them with the reality.

Rangana Herath did it with guile, enough spin on helpful pitches and the willingness and accuracy to wait over after over, stalking the victim, probing away for a weakness, striking when he found it. Given a superlative straighter ball, and the occasional carrom ball; small variations added up to a lot.

So what does that tell the young leg-spinner? Well for one, right arm leg-spinners can combine taking the ball away from right handers with big turn that should make them indispensable in this modern age. Why isn’t it?

The ever present one bad ball an over may be two or three with young leg-spinners, and if you’re going to nurture them you have to accept that. But in days gone by, those balls may have gone for four, even one if a sweeper is posted. Now with railway sleepers in their hands, batsmen can pummel the smallest error in length all the way over the mid-wicket fence. Bowlers need to spin it harder to survive, but make less errors than ever before. That’s a tough mix.

If you look at the list at the beginning of this article, the future looks fairly grim. None of the three Australians have a chance in hell of being picked as a front-line spinner again, and in the case of Cameron White, should never have been in the first place.

Amit Mishra and Imran Tahir are two leggies whose main weapons are their googlies. They’ve also both been tried and discarded at Test level, with little chance of a sustained run in the team in the future.

Todd Astle has been replaced by another leggie in Ish Sodhi, and it’s Sodhi, Scott Borthwick and Devendra Bishoo who have the best chance of these players to cement a place in their respective countries teams.

New Zealand have shown patience with Sodhi after a less than stellar start, and as long as Vettori is unavailable, his place in the team looks secure for the moment. Borthwick is the man in possession in the England team, but when they come up against Sri Lanka in June, that may matter for little.

It can’t help him that he plays as a number three bat for his county side Durham, but England’s lack of many other options may help him retain his place. Bishoo has a few men to fight past, and isn’t putting up the outstanding numbers in the domestic competition which would demand his recall.

Only Sodhi gives the hope of being one of the great spinners of his era. If not him, the next great leg-spinner, the next Warne, might be the next Qadir instead, keeping a dying art alive. Maybe he might be a Qadir, Abdul’s son Usman having shown some promise at the art.

We’ll just have to wait. We don’t know what he looks like yet. He may be tall and bespectacled like Anil Kumble. He might be small and gnomish like Clarrie Grimmett. Whoever he is, to paraphrase How I Met Your Mother: “He’s getting here as fast as he can.”

Thursday, 13 March 2014

England play whack-a-mole

Trying to cover all bases with England’s T20 team is like playing a game of whack-a-mole. Hales and Lumb blast their way to 64 in the Powerplay to bring temporary reassurance about the top order batting. Then from 96-0 after ten overs, comes 139-6 after nineteen. The middle order batting, which dragged England out of holes in the first two games, now dug themselves into one.

Still, another mole was whacked with the superlative last over blasting of Chris Jordan. Death hitting? Check. Death bowling? Yuck. It was lucky for England that West Indies gave themselves a little too much to do at the death, or a whitewash may have been on the cards. If Darren Sammy hadn’t reached at what would have been a wide, last ball, West Indies could have won.

The downside of all this unpredictability is that England’s plans are lying in tatters. Ashley Giles has been seen constantly scribbling in a notebook. Perhaps it’s just the word ‘improvise’, over and over again. It might be England’s best chance.

Nobody’s performed to expectation on this tour. Some have been good in unlikely roles. Bresnan and Jordan emerging as lower order hitters of note, Bopara as a frontline bowler to add to his batting.

Others have surprised in actually doing the job expected of them. Jade Dernbach has dispensed with much of his slower ball frippery and landed yorkers more consistently than ever before. His figures do not reflect the improvement he’s made. That’s sometimes the lot of a death bowler.

England’s plans and team selections are flawed, but despite that, they have good ball strikers against poor bowling, and they feasted on West Indies seamers at times, bar Santokie. That won’t win you a World T20 though. England may have played Narine much better today, but they had the advantage of starting their innings against seamers. They won’t get that luxury much in Bangladesh.

Both teams wanted to win their T20 series. But perhaps more important than that was to get their combinations for the World T20 sorted. West Indies have done both, England have done neither. They’re taking fifteen players to Bangladesh, and only six or seven are inked into the team. The rest is still up for grabs.

While the West Indies are little like England as a T20 outfit, they’ve shown some similarities to England’s triumphant team in the Caribbean back in 2011. They’ve unearthed a left arm swing bowler to bowl in the Powerplay and at the death; Krishmar Santokie in contention to play the Ryan Sidebottom role.

They’ve got a genuine spinner, Sunil Narine tying things down and taking wickets even better than Graeme Swann did. They’ve got Badree and Samuels darting things in like Michael Yardy. But they’ve got even more. Smith can smash away first up, whilst Gayle can play himself in then accelerate alarmingly.

Marlon Samuels is classy and powerful, and they’ve got Russell, Bravo, and Sammy to tonk it down the order. Not to mention the fact that Dwayne Bravo’s a better death bowler than anything England have.

West Indies still look unlikely to retain their title. No team has done so to this point, and T20 remains too unpredictable for the same thing to happen twice in a row. They started today’s game poorly, and are a flawed team, but despite losing today, they are just better.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Biff moves on

Smith, in a contemplative moment
The first day of Test cricket I remember watching was on a Thursday in England back in 2003. That was the first day of Graeme Smith’s third Test as captain, and his first big test. He scored his second Test double century. It was ugly, ugly batting, but you couldn’t help but respect him. That series contained the first of three England captains he scalped in his time in charge of the Proteas. 

That day, even though I only watched the second half of it after coming home from school, was a tough one for an England fan, as this seemingly limited, grip choking, bottom handed biffer bunted and boshed his way to 178 not out at the end of that day.

Smith was an international captain at the age of 22. That’s a huge amount of responsibility to put on young shoulders. But Smith has always seemed prematurely old. Watching him in 2003 make his highest Test score, he looked like a grizzled veteran to an impressionable 11 year old. 

Back then, he told Mike Brearley he wanted, in an ideal world, to captain South Africa for 14 years. At the time that seemed like a ridiculous bit of optimism, but now it’s almost prescient, with Smith dropping just three years short. 

How will South Africa replace Graeme Smith? With great difficulty. It’s just as hard a transition for world cricket. In the last two years or so, an extraordinary number of world-class players have retired. We’ve lost Dravid, Tendulkar, Kallis, Ponting, Lara a few years earlier, and the likes of Strauss and Hussey just below that category. 

Some will be missed more than others. Pujara and Kohli have filled the shoes of the two Indian greats as well as anyone thought they could. Ponting left an Australia team on the slide, which is now on an upward curve, but the loss of Smith leaves world cricket without his like.

Who else, bar maybe Chanderpaul epitomises the same things he does. Nobody has captained for as long, battled as hard, opened the batting with such distinction. As young players come through with smoothed techniques and gung-ho attitudes, which prematurely old hackers will score the ugly runs? That remains to be seen. 

A year ago, South Africa looked like they were in for a long haul at the top. That supremacy looks shaky as Smith leaves for the old fashioned type of international retirement. It’ll be a moment of deja vu for him. Back in 2003, he was appointed to lead a talented but directionless team. When he arrives at The Oval in April, that’ll be his job again. 

That first innings of his that I saw ended at 277 off 373 balls, at a strike rate of 77. It was easy at times to write him off as a limited player who blocked and nudged, but if he was served rubbish he would hammer it through the leg side all day. He once made 121 off 107 balls in a Test match against Zimbabwe. He wasn’t one paced, he was ruthless. 

He’s one of those batsmen who you think you’ve spent forever watching, even though you probably haven’t. I’ve probably watched less than five long Graeme Smith innings, but it feels like a thousand. 

One that I saw every ball of was this last one. It’s not quite a last chance to see; there’s every chance I might come across him on the county circuit, and watch on, annoyed that this old dinosaur is still scratching away. Despite the years he may play on yet for Surrey, this is the big goodbye.

Unfortunately seeing every ball meant watching three. They contained three runs, all in one shot, his trademark angled push through square leg. He stood at the non-strikers end for a while. Then he got back on strike, Mitchell Johnson flicked his inside edge, the ball ballooned off his hip and settled in Steven Smith’s hands at short leg. That’s it.

As he walked off, there was a kiss to the helmet, a raise of the bat, and as the eyes narrowed, I could swear I could see a small tear. Maybe I imagined it, but the once brash Biff has mellowed. If he didn’t shed a tear, you can bet he felt like he was about to. 

Dean Elgar came in at three, the man who looks like the most likely replacement for Smith as an opener. A much more orthodox player, but one who looks most like the sort of tough, hard character Smith is; he had no more success facing Mitchell Johnson, castled for a duck. There might be some hard time coming.  

Elgar might be as close to him as they can get, but he’s not the same man. In the sitcom NewsRadio, the character Matthew, after having been fired, comes back to the office to find a new face among the crowd and says, “Is this my replacement? Because he doesn’t look anything like me.” Smith’s replacement as a batsman may resemble him, the same square jawed, Afrikaner alpha male look. but it doesn’t mean he can be like him, and it doesn’t make it any easier a transition. 

Friday, 21 February 2014

St. George’s Park pitch can’t stop enthralling cricket

Morne Morkel: bent his back with little reward
There are flat pitches, and there are slow pitches. Then there is the pitch which the groundsman has served up in Port Elizabeth. In South Africa’s first innings, there wasn’t a single edge which has carried to the men waiting in the slip cordon, and the seamers didn’t manage a single wicket past the sixth over. That’s low, slow and flat. 

There’s a small window for dismissals there. The bounce is low, so if you can swing one into the pads, it will most likely hit the stumps. The ball stops swinging early on though, and the wind doesn’t help consistent swing by blowing the seam off its axis. After that ten overs with the new ball it’s a patience game.

So that makes it easy for the batsmen right? Surely they’d enjoy a pitch where even Mitchell Johnson is mostly neutralised? Wrong. It’s too slow for batsmen to time the ball consistently , and once it goes soft, even AB de Villiers, in the form of his life, couldn’t bat fluently. 

Nothing for bowlers bar restricting the batsman, no opportunity to drive with confidence for the batsman. It’s like a sub-continental pitch, bar for the fact there’s precious little spin. Lyon turned a few, mostly out of the footmarks, but the pitch is holding together, there’s no turn or seam of the straight, and batsmen have to work very hard for their runs.

The only thing to get the batsmen out is themselves most of the time, but despite that the only batsman to had any kind of measure of the pitch was David Warner, a man more used to ill-judged dismissals than most. He drove imperiously early, even then with risk, Vernon Philander getting fingertips to a caught and bowled chance in his follow through, and one flick narrowly evading the catching mid-wicket.

Australia had just lost Chris Rogers, to an early LBW while the ball was still swinging. Then Wayne Parnell happened. Into the attack, and in his first three balls he managed what no seam bowler had in the previous 589 balls in the Test match. He got a nick to carry, through to the keeper, then another one. 

Whatever the pitch is doing, cricket can throw up weird stuff. Marsh pushed at one of the few swinging balls shortly after Doolan had done the same thing to one that had moved marginally away from him. Still, that was only the tenth over. Clarke and Warner were now in, and if they could survive five overs and get themselves in as the ball went soft, staying in would become easy, although scoring runs less so.

With such a lifeless pitch most of the time, the odd times when something does fly through surprise everyone. When Morkel got one to jump at the splice, Warner fenced, nicked and de Villiers couldn’t get his hands up quickly enough to hang on to it. 

Australia had been driving well, but this wasn’t the pitch to be doing that once the ball had softened. It may have been only the 18th over, but the ball had stopped moving, and as Philander got one to stop on Clarke, he would have realised halfway through the drive that it was a bad idea. Dean Elgar snaffled the catch, and it was night-watchman time. 81-4.

Thanks to those two fantastic balls from Parnell, and Morkel cranking it up like never before, Australia’s charge was interrupted, and the match held some interest. No thanks to the pitch though. No thanks to South Africa’s fielding either, two catches grassed, plus one review declined when Lyon nicked through to de Villiers. Warner and Lyon were both there at the close, but both could have been removed.  

South Africa’s first innings go slow starting to be proved right. Sure, Australia crashed a few boundaries, but playing strokes was always fraught with risk. At stumps on 65 off 67 balls, with ten fours, Warner had played well, but also with a great deal of luck.

Australia’s constant desire for attacking cricket has got them unstuck before, their top order departing carelessly more times than not in Ashes first innings. But now, on a pitch slower than any in that series, can Warner, Smith and Haddin mount another counter-attacking rescue job? If they do, they'll need more luck and poor catching. 

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Johnson breaks the pattern

It's no surprise to see South Africa start poorly on the first day of a series. They did that on their number one sealing tour of England, and here again. Then they ended the first day with England on 267-3. In this Test they had Australia on 297-4. Back in 2012 they picked up 7-114 on the second day to pull themselves back in to it. This time they did just as well to pick up 6-66. A familiar pattern, continuing.

All through the morning session on the second day, South Africa fought back steadily, getting the two overnight batsmen out before they could fully bed in again, running through the tail quickly enough to keep Australia under 400. It wasn’t an incredible fightback, but a quietly confident one.

Then Ryan Harris’ first over was milked for ten runs by Graeme Smith. The first ball went for four, imperiously pulled through mid-wicket, another went through the slips for the same again, then he managed a comfortable two. The familiar pattern being stitched; South Africa playing below par on the first day of the series, then upping it on the second.

At that point, South Africa would have been anticipating putting together a partnership pushing towards towards first innings parity. In England in 2012, Smith and Hashim Amla put on 259, before Amla and Kallis put on 377. There’s one big difference between England’s bowling attack of 2012, and Australia’s one now: Mitchell Johnson. He changed the whole direction of the game with his fourth ball. Slung into the pitch at 89.2 mph, it took off and flew up at Smith’s forehead. The only thing stopping it hitting the badge on his helmet was his bat handle, off which it looped to Shaun Marsh running backwards in the slips. Pure pace; a different game.

The bouncer was great, but just as great was the setup, reminiscent of Andy Roberts’ two bouncer trick. Firstly the slower one, barely slower, at 87 mph, but fended uncomfortably as it rose into Smith’s chest. Then the quicker one, detonated a foot shorter, bouncing a two feet higher, 2 mph quicker and much more deadly.

Then came the lull, South Africa in the eye of the storm as Amla and Petersen tried to rebuild. It didn’t last long, Johnson’s pace and a few back of a length balls got Petersen leaning back, and he nicked a slash outside off stump through to the keeper. He wouldn’t have played that shot to Harris or Siddle. Extreme pace scrambles the brain. That ball was 93.5 mph.

Next into to the abattoir was Faf du Plessis. He edged his first ball short of slip, then next Johnson over a vicious ball angling across him caught the edge at armpit height, and looped to Clarke at second slip. That first four over spell brought Johnson 3-10. South Africa could relax for a while as he was withdrawn.

In nine more overs spread over two more spells, Johnson only picked up one more wicket, McLaren, an all-rounder perhaps batting a place too high at seven, not really good enough for a quick full ball, nipping in a touch, clean bowled.

It remains to be seen whether South Africa react like England to Johnson. Whether he scrambles their brains into mush, or whether they realise that if you get through his initial four over spell with the new ball, it does get marginally easier later on, Mitchell Johnson has four wickets and a chance to come back next morning to terrorise the tail. South Africa’s pattern is gone, can they stitch it back together?

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Shaun Marsh’s moment

Shaun Marsh, in One Day colours
Nobody thought he should be there. He almost wasn’t. Shaun Marsh has had the peculiar distinction of being picked for this tour twice. Once he was called up to the initial tour party, before having to pull out through injury, then about a week later called up as an injury replacement for Shane Watson.

Marsh was first replaced by Phillip Hughes, but on his return to the squad he immediately leapfrogged him, and given that, as Daniel Brettig put it, “The tour selectors Darren Lehmann and Inverarity have been unable to resist Marsh's flowing form in the nets,” he was a shoo in for the first Test.

After both of the openers were dismissed early, Marsh had to settle in against the world’s best bowling attack with a fresh new ball, as his captain hid below him, again reluctant to bat at four.

Early on he looked good, as he always does. An inside edge down to fine leg for four to take him to six caused brief concern, but otherwise, he seemed to be getting in. One cover drive against Morkel looked particularly classy, but a scorching cut was dropped by Hashim Amla at gully. At that point he had 12 to his name.

Going from 16 to 20 with another fine cut shot, Marsh managed more runs than in an entire series when he last wore the baggy green two years ago. He wasn’t scoring particularly quickly; the flowing cover drives and cuts always look good, but turning the strike over can a problem.

The short ball caused a few problems, especially from Morkel. several pulls inside edged down into a painful area. But Marsh kept fighting. This was the opposite of the fluent, but flighty player Marsh has been stereotyped as being. Throughout the day, he kept leaving the ball, a few fours, some nuggety singles; Marsh was building an innings.

Around the 40th over, a couple of pinched singles off the last balls of overs kept Smith on strike for three consecutive overs. Marsh responded to 18 balls without any strike by demonstrating the IPL Marsh, skipping down the wicket and easing the unthreatening Robin Peterson over the top for a one bounce four. He followed that with a calm single, tucked into the leg side. Colour me impressed. Marsh was in.

At that point, with the big guns out of the attack, he calmly and quickly accumulated. A beautifully timed and placed clip through the leg side took him to 46, though his fifty came up with a gloved pull down the leg side, he fully deserved it. At that point his strike rate was up above 50, despite at one point having been well below forty. He eased into the game, but by that point he was chugging along nicely.

After tea, he continued the accumulation, a single came off the first ball of the session, and the singles continued to flow, with the occasional silky-smooth drive or cut for four. A couple of half-chances went begging, to Morkel at fine leg, nearly run out going for a third on his dodgy calf, then an edge short of slip on 96. Good running for a two, plus a single to square leg later, and Son of Swampy was on 99. Duminy was rolling his arm over at the other end, Marsh must have been licking his lips. It only took a couple of balls into the next over for Marsh to seize the chance and tuck a single down to long leg for his second Test hundred.

All this despite seeming to be struggling with an injury to his calf, Marsh celebrated then settled down to extend his innings to the end of the day and 122 not out.

Before we get too high on Marsh, it’s time to remind ourselves that he’s done this before. On Test debut against Sri Lanka, he hit a brilliant 141, before adding 81 in the next Test. In his first four Test innings he had 284 runs at 71, in the next seven he scored 17 at 2.43.

All the talk about Marsh before the series began was about injuries, and the inexplicable faith the selectors have in him. The question is now, can he build on this? Will he be a Marcus Trescothick, someone picked on a hunch, who turned out to take well to Test cricket? Or will he do what he’s done the rest of his career: start with style, then fail to score the consistent runs his talent suggests he can.

SB Tang has written well on Australian cricket’s fixation on Marsh as the batsman has underachieved over the years, and he’s right in his assertion that Marsh shouldn’t have been picked for this series; that his selection sends the wrong message to young cricketers. Marsh didn’t deserve a place on this tour, but he may well have been the right man for the moment.

If Marsh can he can add consistency to his other talents, it was an inspired pick. Judge Shaun Marsh after the end of the series, and after the end of the next one, and the one after that. Then we will see.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Despite wickets, Ishant Sharma still doesn’t know what he’s doing

Ishant Sharma: lacking adaptability
If you look at raw physical skills to be a great fast bowler, Ishant Sharma has a lot going for him. Height and genuine pace, those are the attributes which roughed up Ricky Ponting back in 2008, and made him into the man who looked likely to take over from Zaheer Khan in the long term.

A couple of years of reasonable success followed, but with a lack of big hauls. Then after a brief purple patch which brought him 31 wickets in five Tests against West Indies and England, he embarked on a dry spell. In 15 consecutive matches he failed to get more than three wickets in a match once. That spell brought him 23 wickets at 64.26.

Since then, he’s been marginally better, with 11 wickets at 40.63. Even with a six wicket haul today and yesterday, it still seems he doesn’t quite know what his plan is. His struggle is similar to Steven Finn’s, but whereas Finn has had tinkering with his action, the problems with Sharma look to come down to a loss of pace and confusion about his role in the attack.

At times, when bowling to Southee in particular, he attempted the enforcer role, but in one incredible over, he not only managed to discomfort Southee three times with short balls, but see two more of them travel over fine leg for six.

At other times he tried to settle into a line and length, but any chance of movement was lost by a seam so scrambled you could serve it with bacon and call it breakfast. It’s difficult to see how this would be deliberate. Occasionally he gets some lateral movement with these cutters, but more often he would be well advised to land the ball on the seam.

If he’s going to be the weapon, he needs short spells, and not too many of them, but he also needs to push his pace up. When he emerged as an international bowler he was genuinely quick, but as with a lot of most Indian bowlers, he’s lost pace since he burst on the scene.

Now the option opens up to him of being a Glenn McGrath style metronome. To do that, he’d have to straighten his seam. McGrath didn’t get 500 Test wickets by bowling cutters, he did it mainly by landing the ball on the seam, and letting the pitch do its work.

Despite all the issues, this Test brought his first five-for since 2011, an extraordinarily long gap for a bowler who has kept his place in the side throughout

Compare all this to Tim Southee. He had a more difficult to start to his Test career with the ball, but in the last year or two he’s been sensational. His first spell was a masterclass in bowling to a plan. Five balls out of six were on or outside off stump and an in between length. A few subtle variations among those lines and lengths, and crease position, a surprise bouncer or inswinger for the sixth ball, and the Indian batsmen were having to work very hard. Boult served up a few more loose balls, but also created chances and took two wickets himself .

Ishant may have had a good day today, but as any bowler will know, in one innings, the number of wickets doesn’t always correlate with the skill of the bowling. Ishant got two caught in the slips off half-decent balls, but one slashed to point, one driven to short mid off, one fortunate LBW and one brilliantly caught at long on.

While it’s churlish to deny him those wickets, as most wickets will come down to some sort of batsman error, in the long term Ishant hasn’t bowled well enough for these type of hauls to come more regularly than four times in 54 matches.

It’s all very well to blame his struggles on unresponsive Indian pitches, but that’s not borne out by the facts. In Asia he has 85 wickets at 35.05, not great, but not too poor considering some of the pitches he’s had to bowl on. Outside Asia where the pitches should help him more he has 70 wickets at 40.97. If you take out his wickets in the West Indies, he has 48 wickets at 53.47 in conditions which should favour seamers.

It all adds up to an odd sense that Ishant is bad at adapting to new conditions. In Asia he’s worked out his job and does it reasonably well, and on the bouncier pitches of the West Indies against a poor batting line-up, he makes hay. Then he is given conditions he should exploit, but against good batsmen, and he struggles to find a threatening line and length.

Compared to the master of angles and swing Zaheer, Ishant seems to be a remarkably unthinking and poorly skilled bowler. How much longer can he rely on his natural talent? Not much.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

There is no number one ODI team

India and Australia: contenders, but not top dogs
Look at the ODI rankings. At the moment, Australia are at the top, two points clear of India, and seven in front of South Africa. They’ve got there by smashing a demoralised England side and thanks to New Zealand dethroning the previous numero uno, India, who until their 4-0 defeat in New Zealand, looked like a genuine limited overs dynasty in the making.

That poses a problem. Australia are a good ODI team, but they haven’t smashed their way to the top, they’ve got there via, as Homer Simpson put it, “The two sweetest words in the English language, DE-fault.” Now being top by default doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to be there, but the constant shilly-shallying of the top spot, passing itself around three or four teams, means that it’s hard to take seriously whoever has their turn with the baton this week.

There’s no era-defining one day team around at the moment, and that’s alright. When Australia won three world cups in a row they held the top spot in the ODI rankings for the best part of ten years, but as we go into the next event, despite it being held in the current number one’s backyard, it’s as open as it gets.

Australia could win it, sure, and if it were to be held tomorrow they would be installed as favourites, but anyone in the top eight of the rankings would feel they have a chance. South Africa are a great Test team, and if they ever get a coherent strategy for the one day group, they’ll be formidable. India have two great batsmen, as part of a batting unit that can make up for their mediocre to poor bowling.

England may be humiliated at the moment, but they were number one in this format not too long ago, and made the final of the Champions Trophy. You’d be a fool to count them out. New Zealand will be playing some of their matches at home and always seem to punch above their weight, Pakistan have a potentially brilliant bowling attack, Sri Lanka have classy batsmen and Lasith Malinga, and the West Indies have firepower and quick bowling.

Any of the top four have a good chance, and the other four are decent outside shots. It looks set to be a great World Cup, maybe only then, when one side comes out on top, we will have a number one ODI team… even if that isn’t then reflected in their ranking.

This disconnect also applies to the T20 rankings, Sri Lanka, losing World T20 finalists are top, India are second, and the last two World T20 winners are down in fifth and eighth respectively. Maybe too few games have been played to reach firm conclusions. India have played the least of the top eight with 19 in the rankings period, whilst Pakistan’s 40 is the most, but also fewer than the number of ODIs played by any top eight nation in the same period.

Does all this uncertainty call into question the worth of the ODI and T20 rankings? Without a World Test Championship anytime soon, the Test rankings are the best way to ascertain the relative strengths of the teams in that format, but in ODIs and T20s the best teams for any one time can be said to be the World Cup or World T20 holders.

Those tournaments are the only time in which the best available team is selected by every team. Whilst India value their ODI team highly, meaning full strength teams for all but the weakest of opponents, Australia and England have been duking it out in eight limited overs games with players rested hither and thither, and South Africa’s best ODI team is known only to those with a crystal ball. Constant weakened teams don’t make for meaningful contests, and by extension, rankings.

So, why do we keep the ODI and T20 rankings? Consistency. There are Test rankings, so there must be ODI and T20 ones. But are they needed? Perhaps only to make up groups for the World Cup.

South Africa are the best Test team in the world. That is a fact. You can deny it, but it doesn’t make it less true. It might change soon, but for the moment, it is true as it can be. But who are the best ODI or T20 team in the world? Nobody knows.

Friday, 24 January 2014

ICC Position Paper: How do the votes stack up?

The day is getting closer, it’s likely that the draft ‘Position Paper’ on the future of cricket will be voted on at the ICC board meeting on January 29th. If not then the saga will need to be resolved before media rights for the next round of ICC events need to be put out to tender in April. So, who’s voting which way? Either seven or eight votes are needed to pass the resolution, according to the ICC constitution, depending on whether it is designated an ‘ordinary’ or ‘special’ resolution. A bit of fact, a bit of speculation and the votes fall this way...

India, Australia, England
The architects of the scheme, they are the only guaranteed votes for it. To get the remaining five they need to persuade five other boards to vote with them. The BCCI has already started this ‘persuasion’, with a threat not to participate in ICC events if this is not passed..

The ZCU is known to often align with the BCCI, and it’s possible that the promise of an occasional tour by India would surely be enough to buy their vote. Zimbabwe cricket has desperate financial problems, and the ODI tour from India earlier this season with two extra ODIs were added on from the three in the FTP was vital for their bottom line. South Africa are trying to organise a Test match against Zimbabwe plus a couple of t20s, but Haroon Lorgat has denied the suggestion that is an attempt to curry favour ahead of the vote. Meanwhile, perhaps understating the gravity of the situation, ZCU head Peter Chingoka has said “It’s just a proposal.”

New Zealand
Initially, NZC director Martin Snedden told the New Zealand Herald that the proposal might not be a bad thing, and that they would support it if five assurances including ones about schedules and revenue are given to them. Since then, it’s been slammed for kowtowing to the big boys, but hasn’t changed its position in public, whilst meeting on the 22nd to prepare its response

West Indies
WICB president Dave Cameron sits on the Finance and Commercial affairs committee which the working group that drew up the proposal was drawn from. It’s not clear whether Cameron was involved in drafting it, but it’s possible he wasn’t, since another member of the committee (Neil Speight, associate/affiliate representative) claims not to have had any knowledge of it. WICB director Baldath Mahabir has come out against the proposals, the board have discussed them via teleconference, and come to a position privately that some expect to be against the proposal.. If they align with India, they could be rewarded with the fourth seat in the new Executive Committee, or more tours like the Sachin farewell extravaganza.

The PCB are said to have “made their opposition privately known”, whilst in public they have taken guidance from the Prime Minister describing the proposal as “important matters of national interest.” A sweetener to the deal may be offered; the BCCI is reported to have dropped its opposition to series’ in neutral venues and is willing to discuss a series in the UAE or even in Pakistan.

South Africa
CSA were the first board to come out fully against the proposals, and after calling for the draft proposal to be withdrawn, they are certain to vote against it. Until recently, part of the ruling elite of cricket, but their choice of Haroon Lorgat as chief executive angered the BCCI, and they’ve been eased out of the frame in favour of the ECB. The only country among the ‘other seven’ to be excluded from the Test cricket fund, they look set to be marginalised at the ICC.

Sri Lanka
SLC hasn’t gone as far as South Africa, but have asked for the discussion on the position paper to be postponed, so the boards can consider their options. ESPNCricinfo reports that they are opposed to the measure, “as it would result in a significant loss of the board's influence on the global governance of the game.” It remains to be seen if they can be placated or persuaded by the BCCI though.

The BCB has been cautious on the issue, but ESPNCricinfo reports that most of the board favours aligning with India. Board president Nazmul Hassan has said that Bangladesh cannot stand against this on their own, but even with several countries seemingly planning to vote against, it’d be an unlikely move for them to vote against it, as the prevailing opinion within the board seems to be that it may help their chances of moving up the Test rankings by dropping into the Intercontinental Cup briefly.

UPDATE: Bangladesh captain Mushfiqur Rahim has become the first player to speak out against the proposals specifically the two tier system, which the BCB has also said it will oppose.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

The object of power is power

I rarely get angry at cricket. As Australia slammed England on to the canvas for five torturous Test matches, I got annoyed, depressed, and even laughed at the ineptitude. It didn’t make me angry though. Cricket administration though? That’s making me angry.

In 1984 O’Brien tells the protagonist Winston Smith that “No one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it.” Unfortunately, that’s true for the cricketing power brokers. That’s why nobody should be surprised at the ICC reforms being proposed, to cede even more power to the three richest full members, making formal the system that was already in place, in the most brazen way.

The last few days have brought with them a flurry of stories about the future of Test cricket, as the World Test Championship looks set to be binned, after having been delayed once, and the ICC plans a look at two tier test cricket.

Those are both maddening developments, but under the surface lurks even more, as the ICC plans to create a new Executive Committee, above the various current committees, with three permanent members, Cricket Australia, the BCCI, and ECB, and a rotating chairmanship between the three. Those three counties, coincidentally, would be protected against relegation from the first tier of Test cricket, perhaps the most appalling suggestion of all.

Add to this the fact that the new distribution model aligns the ICC and national boards even more along the lines of being businesses, using cricket to make money, of which the big three create more, and therefore deserve more, and you have the perfect corrupt, corporatist oligarchy. To any reasonable cricket fan, the money should be there to sustain cricket

As if that wasn’t enough, the ICC look to abdicate - pushed off with a little help from the BCCI, ECB, CA etc. - from any role in scheduling Test series. Of course, this is a return to the genesis of Test cricket, ad hoc agreements between individual nations, the sort of thing that meant Australia played New Zealand just once between the latter’s elevation to Test cricket in 1930 and the first full series between the two in 1973/4.

It’s a clusterfuck of awful, corrupt administration. Have we reached the breaking point yet? There is no way now for cricket to be democratised, as little as there was any more. If any other nation wants to break into the threeway circle-jerk running world cricket they will have to become as powerful as them. Cricket South Africa’s ongoing tiff with the BCCI has pushed them out of the power circle, and allowed England to sidle closer to India, which of course is where the money is.

As an English cricket fan writing this, it’s easy for those in India to read this as whining for power lost. But it’s not. England are as powerful as ever, India have just jumped to a tier above that, and will allow England and Australia to siphon off from them, like the pilot fish swimming alongside them nibbling at their fins. It’s the other seven full members and 96 associates and affiliates that are being screwed.

What if though, instead of breaking in, the others broke away? The lack of the big three would hinder them, but that could be a chance to integrate Afghanistan and Ireland and form their own ecosystem, because if they keep swimming in the shark’s tank, they’ll slowly be starved to death.

That’s why, in cricket, as in every sphere of life, power needs to be seized from the hands of those who misuse it, but also why we should be wary of those who promise they wield their their power for the good of the rest. Until the ICC is fully democratic among its 106 members, it will never serve them all. We need a revolution.

Those beyond the Test world need something to aim for in long form cricket. In ODI and T20 cricket they have their chances to get to the World Cup, but still miss out on the regular bilateral series’ which bring cricket boards income. Still, that is changing a little; in the next six months, Ireland have short series with West Indies and Sri Lanka, along with the World T20.

Even a play off between the lowest ranked full member and the winner of the Intercontinental Cup would be an improvement. Even a minimum win percentage over 20 years to stay a full member, with an associate replacing the ones who fail to reach that, would be something.

Perhaps an even more radical suggestion is needed. Maybe the Test match needs to be a open to any nation that plays four or five day cricket? So far, the teams that have threatened the full members have done that through one day and t20 successes, World Cup shocks and the like.

If those nations could play Test cricket in ten team divisions stretching down through all the associates and affiliates, a clear promotion and relegation structure would add a clear goal, and the Test match name would give some prestige to the games, which the Intercontinental cup lacks. It would be, to misquote a well known saying, “Test cricket all the way down.”
International cricket isn’t a game which has been meritocratic over the years. The Test match is a private members club, only available to the very best - and those who have India’s ear after a strong World Cup campaign. This should change though, and in 100 years time, who's to say who the top tier would be made up of.

Maybe roughly the same make-up would persist, the countries with a long developed cricket culture would continue to dominate. But at least the rest could say they’d been given the chance to break in.

Some of the most successful sports leagues in the world have a somewhat socialist character. Major American leagues like the NFL or the NBA have a draft and salary capping, and sell their TV rights collectively. It’ll probably never happen, but if the ICC took over tv rights worldwide and split the money equally between teams in each division, a major hurdle towards equality would be jumped. Of course the big three would never allow that.

Lower divisions would get less, according to the basic needs of their level, but therein lies another motivation to get promoted through the divisions. Success from your team gets you more money to develop the sport at grassroots level and sustain that success.

Every time a new team becomes a competitive cricketing nation, that adds to the value of the whole game. The nation boards at the moment are content with taking the money they can get now, not realising that they can make even more by expanding the game to new horizons. 

The sticking point will be that, in the short term the BCCI and other cricket boards at the top of the pile will lose some money. If those boards were committed to cricket as a growing, global game, they would take that hit. They won’t, as yesterdays news has showed. And I’m still angry.
For more reading about the ICC power grab, Osman Samiuddin, Jarrod Kimber, and Gideon Haigh have written perceptively about it, and the original stories from ESPNCricinfo are linked to in the text.