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.