Sunday, 31 December 2017

Highlights of 2017

Sunday, 31 December 2017
The title of this post is rather misleading. Really, there was only ever going to be one highlight. I was lucky enough to see England win a World Cup this year, lucky enough to be there at Lord's, to roar with every wicket, every run, and with 26,000 other people there for a game of women's cricket. When it came to choosing highlights for the year, there was never any contest.

But to get to that moment, there were other highlights. Sarah Taylor's century, a moment to bring happy tears to many eyes. Nat Sciver playing the 'Natmeg' as she made centuries of her own. Tammy Beaumont leading the way with the bat, the tournament's leading run scorer. Victory over Australia, and Alex Hartley dismissing Meg Lanning along the way. That semi-final against South Africa, one of the most tense games of cricket I've watched. Jenny Gunn's cool head under pressure, Anya Shrubsole coming out and hitting the boundary that sent England to the final. And those were just the moments with England, not even mentioning all the other brilliant performances throughout the tournament - centuries by Chamari Atapattu and Harmanpreet Kaur being ones that really stick in my memory.

Yet it was that one day, the 23rd July 2017, that still has to be the highlight. Queuing round the block just to get into Lord's, the tribute to Rachael Heyhoe-Flint before the start of play, Eileen Ash ringing the five-minute bell, Enid Bakewell presenting the trophy at the end. From the start it felt like a celebration, not just of the tournament, but of women's cricket and women's sport as a whole.

I won't do a full play-by-play of the match here, just those final moments. England had scored 228/7 - a total that would need India to pull off the highest-ever run chase in a World Cup final, yet one that looked well within reach in a high scoring tournament. India were well on their way, and though England's players might not have given up, victory certainly seemed a long way off. And then came Shrubsole, then Hartley in the next over, then Shrubsole again and again and again. A run out, of course with Shrubsole behind it. She was unstoppable, a force of nature. Out of almost nowhere, from the jaws of defeat, England were going to win.

But there was a stumping, that wasn't. A dropped catch, a roar swiftly silenced. Even as the match had swung dramatically in England's favour, India were still there, close to that total, close to their first World Cup title. The Indian fans were out in force, just as loud if not louder than the English support, willing their team past the line. But none of it mattered when Shrubsole had the ball in her hand. A dropped catch the ball before? No problem, she'd hit the stumps instead. Shrubsole had done it, England had done it. England had won the World Cup.

For me, no question, the highlight of 2017. The highlight, really, of all my cricket watching. Being there, being in the stadium when England won the World Cup. 23rd July, 2017. A day I'll remember forever.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Backyard Heroes

Tuesday, 4 July 2017
I haven't had the urge to write much lately, so this blog has fallen by the wayside a bit this year. Instead here's a change of pace - something I wrote a while ago and thought I may as well share, a story about growing up and falling in love with the game.

The month is May. The days are getting warmer, the showers of April are in the past (mostly – we do live in England, after all), and the evenings are stretching out. The first test of the summer will soon be upon us. But, maybe more importantly, the cricket season has begun in our tiny back garden.

The grass has barely grown back to cover the brown patches left from the previous summer - where two marks formed at either end of the garden, showing where we stood to bat or ran in to bowl. The slope is greater than Lord's, the surface as uneven as they come – rather more so, in fact. The length of the pitch is barely 10 yards, and brings a lot of tennis ball bounce. That is to say, tennis balls are what we have to use. A daunting environment for a batsman, perhaps, but an arena where heroes could be made.

And it's not to say the bowler has it easy, anyway. The boundaries are tiny, and a shot hit square of the wicket would easily be worth four. The ball easily bounces off the bat, so it doesn't take too much of a hit. If you miss the ball, and if it doesn't go on to hit the stumps, with no keeper there byes are for the taking. Playing your shots though always comes with a risk – not necessarily from being caught, but of the ball going into the neighbours' gardens. When that started to happen a bit too much, it was time we graduated from that small patch at the back.

The weather didn't have to stop the fun; the games could still carry on inside. There was indoor cricket, best played when parents were out the room, or the table top cricket game. Hours could be spent on that game, a little plastic ball and little plastic figures, with teams invented with gloriously named players such as 'B.A. Slogger' and 'I.M.A. Bowler'. Perhaps it was even a precursor of the inventive batsmen of today, the most unusual angles being needed to score a six.

The game was packed up and taken on holidays, filling many evenings and rainy days. The backyard game would travel with us too; moving to our grandparents' gardens, or to the beach. Cricket on the beach came with new challenges – a pitch crumbling in on itself from sand and the tides; a ball that could return from the boundary soaked from the sea; extra-competitive family members making you chase the ball further and further. But it came with its own glory, too. The satisfaction of dismissing one of the grown ups, or making them have to chase the ball when you found the sweet spot of the bat.

We might have left the backyard now, but the spirit still lives on. It's the place I learnt to bat and bowl, and you might even say that it's where I learnt my love of the game as well.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Can England win the Champions Trophy?

Wednesday, 31 May 2017
So that's the question: can England win the Champions Trophy? Well the simple answer to that is yes, they can, so I guess we go to the next question: will they? Now that one is harder to answer.

The series against South Africa served at first to raise expectations, and then to dampen them. They won a series against the top ranked team, starting with a strong opening victory, coming through at the death in match two, before then collapsing in a heap at Lord's. Even allowing for the way they inevitably dip in dead rubbers, England crumbling to 20/6 in the first five overs of the game made the pantheon of great collapses. Despite all that, they are among the favourites for a reason, having drastically improved in the format over the past couple of years and benefiting from home advantage. With a relatively settled side and a batting line up that - despite Monday's debacle - packs a punch, there's no reason why they shouldn't go all the way.

What England might lack is a winning pedigree. Less heralded England teams have come close before when the tournament has been at home, but both 2004 and 2013 saw them fail to seal the deal from positions of strength in the final. England's ODI cricket was defined by failure, by hapless performances at international tournaments, by missed moments along the way, by conservatism that held them back while other teams strode forward. This is their chance to show none of that matters any more, and to start that pedigree themselves. A chance to learn from the mistakes of before, and to make a clean break from them. And even more, with a home world cup in two years' time, it's a chance to lay down a marker for the future as well.

For once, England find themselves with a settled team, breaking a tradition of making changes on the eve of a tournament that has only served to hinder them in the past. This time round they know their strongest team, they know their top order, and they know the bowling attack they want when all are fit. What could stop them?

Of course, there are a couple of problems, because it could never go that smoothly. For one, collapsing to 20/6 on the eve of a tournament isn't a move to often instil confidence, even if it is more of a one-off than a consistent problem. An injury to Ben Stokes, limiting the amount he will bowl, isn't ideal either for the balance of the side. And for all the talk of having a settled team, this could be the one time when making a last minute change might be a good thing. Whilst Jason Roy has struggled for form at the top of the order, with four single figure scores in his last five innings, Jonny Bairstow has flourished and played the way that makes it difficult to leave him out. I will freely admit that I'm hopelessly biased, but it feels like a missed opportunity to me. Of course, Jason Roy could go out tomorrow, get a century, and close that door.

All in all, this surely has to be one of England's best chances yet to win a global ODI tournament. Whether they will or not is a different question, but we know they have the ability to do so. The same is true of several other teams though, with Australia and India two I have my eye on in particular. I feel this is the best prepared I've seen England going into a tournament, it's just a matter of delivering on the day and with the pressure of knock out matches. We'll see.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

A good problem to have?

Tuesday, 9 May 2017
As England's international summer got underway with a series of two ODIs against Ireland, one of the most eye-catching performances came from Jonny Bairstow, whose innings of 72* from 44 balls helped to set up a victory of Lord's. It was an innings that could in essence be seen as a statement of intent, a potent reminder to the England selectors of his ability against the white ball from a man whose recent chances in the side have come more often down to injuries or withdrawals from others.

In a career spanning almost six years, Bairstow has played just the 25 ODI matches. After his dramatic entrance into the team in 2011 - a match-winning innings of 41* at the end of the English summer - like many young batsmen he struggled on a first trip to India. After the year ended, he had to get used to carrying the drinks - still making squads, but just adding one cap to his first six until after the 2015 World Cup. And with carrying the drinks comes the problem, a sense of limbo in a way - being part of the international set up but not in the team, not playing cricket, not getting the match practice needed to build form.

Over the past year, we've seen Bairstow finally reach the heights he is capable of at international level, in the test arena being one of England's best and most reliable batsmen. That level of form has stretched into the start of the summer too, his 72* against Ireland following 174 opening the batting for Yorkshire just days before. It's the sort of form that makes someone too good to leave out the side. Perhaps he hasn't made the most of all his chances in the ODI side - but it's a format where batsmen are always needing to take risks, and an average of 37.25 points the right way. And he's shown he can deliver the kind of performances that will win matches for his team.

The thing is though, that batting wise England have a lot of talent to fit into a simple eleven. It's hardly a bad problem to have, and a suggestion that would have been laughed at just a few years ago. The big names of Stokes and Buttler will come straight back into the side, with Woakes and Moeen Ali also set to slot in to the lower order. Bairstow and Billings have to fight to even get a look in, whilst Ben Duckett can't make it into England's tournament squad. Others on the county scene, like Lancashire's Liam Livingstone, are also rising fast. Somebody always has to miss out.

So what team could he fit into? The most obvious answer I can think of would be:

But still this team has its own issues. With all three of Bairstow, Buttler, and Stokes playing, the team would essentially have three number fives. Whichever order they went in, someone would likely be wasted - perhaps even more so with Buttler floating up the order when the situation allows. The bowling would also leave little room for error even with Root being able to chip in with the odd over, with Willey rarely one to complete his ten overs. With the strength in depth England have in their batting, it's hard to find room for another specialist there beyond the first four and Buttler.

And so, the case will be that Bairstow carries the drinks again. It feels a shame that one of England's best batsmen can be left out of the team, but at the same time a sign of their strength. They will know that if injury strikes they have a ready-made replacement who can slot straight in. And Bairstow will again be left to fight hard and be ready to offer selectors another reminder of this sort when the time comes.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Yorkshire 2017 season preview

Saturday, 1 April 2017
It’s the most wonderful time of the year, spring has sprung, blossom is on the trees, and of course the start of April means the county season is about to begin. Now I’ve just about recovered from last season’s thrilling championship finale, it’s time to look ahead to what 2017 may hold for my beloved Yorkshire.

First of all, it will be a new start, with a new captain in Gary Ballance and an old captain as the new coach in Andrew Gale. It’ll be a big job for Gale in his first role as coach, but there are few people more passionate about Yorkshire than he is, and he’s had the opportunity to learn from one of the very best in the past few years whilst alongside Jason Gillespie. Ballance, meanwhile, will be looking for the kind of form that brought him into the England setup for the first time in 2013/14. He’s endured a difficult winter, even when compared to his international teammates, and will return to Yorkshire with a lot to prove. Despite the problems he’s had over the past couple of years, I’m still a big fan and would love to see him churning out the runs again for Yorkshire and showing the sort of form that saw him called up to the England teams in the first place. Often for England he became rather bogged down, somewhat pigeonholed as a defensive number three – a role he had never really played for Yorkshire - so I wonder if we might see a touch more aggression come into his game along the way.

Yorkshire will be eager to get back to the top of the table after being ousted last year, and have a squad definitely capable of challenging for the title. Tim Bresnan will be a key player and something of a talismanic figure after a strong 2016, where he proved a key performer with the bat as well as lending his weight of international experience with the ball. Peter Handscomb will be joining as the overseas player after a successful start to his test career, and there will be several batsmen looking to improve on their returns from 2016, too. The bowling line-up looks strong as ever – though injury will be a concern after the pre-season: both Sidebottom and Plunkett carrying niggles, and Jack Brooks set to miss the start of the season. With this trio, Bresnan, and Patterson all over thirty, there will be chances for the younger pace bowlers to step up – and it’ll be important that they do. 19-year-old Matthew Fisher is one held in particularly high regard, and despite an injury plagued twelve months will certainly be a player to keep an eye on when he returns to the side. In the meantime it will be the final season for the ever-dependable Ryan Sidebottom, and the team will want to give him a fitting swansong.

The matter of international selections will be an issue, and Yorkshire can count on losing several players to England through the course of the season. Appearances from Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow will likely be a collector’s item, and with Plunkett, Rashid, and Willey all regulars in T20s and ODIs they too will be in and out of the team. Though it’s something they’ll be used to by now, having to prove capable themselves without them on many occasions in recent years, it will as ever be an important factor when managing the team throughout the season.

2016 saw a dramatic improvement in the T20 arena, where the team reached finals day before running into an inspired performance from Durham and Mark Wood in the semi-final. It’s a format where Yorkshire have tended to underperform in over the years despite a good group of players, and they will want to continue their progress. David Willey will be a key figure with both bat and ball, whilst Travis Head has also re-signed as a T20 specialist. In the 50 over competition Yorkshire have been losing semi-finalists for two successive years, and will hope to be making those extra steps forward.

In short, Yorkshire remain a strong side and can again be considered contenders to win back the championship title in 2017 – though they do have more of a transitional element than in previous years. They will certainly be itching to get back the title that they came so close to winning for a third successive year in 2016, and may relish returning to the role of the hunter again, rather than being the hunted. Much as I do every year, I’d love to see them with the trophy in their hands come September – but not least as it would be a fine and fitting send off for Ryan Sidebottom, the icing on the cake for such a fine player and stalwart of the game.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

The unstoppable force of franchise T20

Tuesday, 28 March 2017
So the time has come. After months, years even, of deliberation and talk, the ECB’s proposed new T20 tournament is set to get its green light. The day was always coming, the ECB determined to push through their plan – and the promise/bribe of £1.3 million a year to each county that said yes was always too much to say no to. The ECB hype machine has been out in full force, but no amount of buzz can hide that so many – much like myself – have significant reservations about a new competition that takes a big gamble with the game’s future. This is by no means a comprehensive list of the questions that need to be answered, but they are some that spring immediately to mind:

What about the existing fans?

Of course I’m all for the game reaching out and finding new fans, I love this sport and want always want there to be more people watching it, playing it, enjoying it in the way that I do. But whilst they’re gambling on a new competition to attract a new audience, they still need to make sure not to alienate the existing one they have. County cricket might not have the biggest crowds, might not have the 'glamour' the ECB are after, but there are still lots and lots of dedicated fans of the game – can they get behind these new teams without that same sense of identity, that emotional attachment that they have for their county? Will the teams be named after cities, already an alienating idea for many? Will people care in the same way? And will the competition be enough to attract a new audience anyway?

What does this mean for the other competitions?

The cricket calendar is already packed, and this competition is taking place in addition to the existing three tournaments – most notably the T20 Blast, a competition unloved by the ECB but where attendances have grown year on year. The 50 over cup is likely to be running at the same time, as are test matches (also meaning a lack of red-ball practice for any players called up to the test team). It’s all a lot to fit in. And what does it mean for the county structure, more generally? Though the franchises will be ECB owned, if the bigger grounds host more matches surely they then stand to gain more if the competition is a success. Will ‘smaller’ counties just be pushed to the side again?

What about television?

The question of free-to-air television is one of the most frequent debates to pop up in English cricket ever since it went behind a paywall at the end of 2005. The T20 Blast hasn’t been well suited to television coverage, with the pot luck element that comes with choosing a single match to broadcast on a night when many games are played. The plan is for all games to be televised, with 8 of 36 to appear on free-to-air television – which is a must if it really is to reach a broader audience than before. But 8 out of 36 isn’t a lot, and will make it difficult to provide context to the few games they do show. And of course there’s no guarantee that putting it there will actually make people watch it, a reason in itself that broadcasters are reluctant to put up the cash – though it will definitely make for a greater potential audience than before.

The oversaturation of T20 cricket

You’ll have this one, the T20 Blast, a myriad of franchise T20 competitions around the world…it’s all a lot to absorb. Is the demand really there for another competition, or for two in the same country? How are the counties going to market the T20 Blast alongside the new competition, especially those whose grounds will be playing host for more than one team? Would it not have been easier to adjust the T20 Blast, a competition that has already proved popular, provides good cricket, and has an existing fanbase? The T20 Blast isn’t flawless, so maybe they could have looked at how to make it better and more palatable for spectators rather than going straight ahead with a new tournament outright – maybe divisions with promotion and relegation, or some way to streamline it so there aren’t so many ‘dead’ games once a team can’t qualify for the knockouts.

In England the effects of saturated periods of T20 cricket have been seen before, and was one of the reasons why the Blast became a weekly, Friday night competition. It’s part of that balance between the cricketing side and the marketing side – playing T20 in a bloc, rather than the constant switching between formats, makes better sense from a cricketing standpoint; but has also been harder to sell, with the saturation of all these games coming close together. There is a demand for a domestic T20 competition, but I’m not sure how much demand there is for two.

And so...

Who knows if the competition will be a success: even the ECB, it would appear, can’t be sure. Certainly it seems like a big gamble to take, one where it feels the consequences haven’t been well considered, but still the ECB are determined to plough on and remove any obstacles in their way. It feels more like the ECB missed the boat for these competitions a long time ago, and are just frantically paddling to catch up, staring enviously at the BBL and the IPL as they do. Even this competition is a long way off, not set to start until 2020 – by this point the IPL will have been going for well over 10 years, the BBL nearly 10. I’m not rooting for it to fail, I want to watch a good competition and I always want cricket to be a success – but at the moment I’m not seeing how these issues are being resolved. With three years to go before the tournament begins, hopefully we will see some answers.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Quick thoughts: West Indies v England ODIs

Saturday, 4 March 2017
This is a series that seemed to creep up on me unexpectedly, sneaking in when I was just starting to turn my attention to the county season ahead. But that's not to say it has no significance. With England's focus being on ODIs until after the Champions Trophy, as they seek to end their eternal wait for a 50 over tournament win, the series offers more opportunities for players to seal their spot in the team, or to throw their name into the reckoning. As such, here's a quick look at the series after England's win in the opening game.

With Alex Hales missing through injury, Sam Billings got another chance at the top of the order. Whilst he still falls into the category of makeshift opener at this point, he has shown his promise with two fifties in three innings at the top - without quite sealing the deal by making that big score. Despite Hales scoring a record 171 only five innings ago, after missing the tour of Bangladesh and having a quiet tour of India before injury his place may not be so secure. There is an opportunity to take, but it'll have to be soon, with Hales hoping to make his return before the tour ends.

Eoin Morgan's 2016 was, well, quiet - averaging 29.81 with just the two fifties across his thirteen innings. So far, 2017 has served him better, with a century in the first ODI following another in India. It wasn't an innings that started fluently, but it was an innings England needed - coming in at 29/2 and helping them to the brink of 300. In partnership with Stokes (55) and Moeen Ali (a 22-ball 31 at the death), it might not have been the big-hitting bravado we've come to expect from England, but it was a clever innings that suited the situation and conditions.

With a spate of injuries to the fast bowlers, Steven Finn returned to the ODI side for the first time since September 2015. Such a long absence has always surprised me somewhat, given his decent record in the format, and that height, pace, and bounce that will always make him a threat. But as many times as he steps up, he steps back, and this winter has seen him drift from the side. There were no wickets in the first match, but with England short on resources, it's another chance to claim a spot. Another exciting name to have received a call up is Surrey's Tom Curran, and it's surely only a matter of time before we see him in the team. And after flying him in from the other side of the world, hopefully that time will be on this tour.

It was a good day for both Chris Woakes and Liam Plunkett who finished with four wickets apiece in what was, all in all, a good performance by England's seam bowlers. The fourth option, Ben Stokes, wasn't even used. Adil Rashid also returned to England's ODI side after being dropped in India, and it will be interesting to see how both him and Moeen Ali perform in the series ahead. England might not need two spinners once they return home, and though Rashid might be more of the wicket taking option he has perhaps slipped behind Moeen in recent months after his mauling at the hands of India's batsmen in that sole ODI. But in the meantime, Moeen has been wicketless in the format. It'll be as much a question of what England want from their spinner as who is the most effective.
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