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?