Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Highlights of 2014

Wednesday, 31 December 2014
I didn't think I'd write another post this year, but here I am with a little thing to round the year off. These are my personal highlights in English cricket this year - generally the ones I've found the most entertaining, exciting, or have just made me happiest.

5. Joe Root & James Anderson's last wicket stand

This won't be remembered as a particularly special match, as on the face of it, it was just a very dull draw and even finished with Alastair Cook bringing himself on to bowl. But it had its moments: India in their first innings putting on a century stand with batsmen number nine and eleven before England went even better, racking up a world record 198-run stand for the final wicket. It probably said a lot more about the pitch than anything else, but even so this was just so fun at the time - the sense of disbelief as Anderson first made it to his highest first class score, then his first fifty, coming so close to an improbable test century before eventually falling for 81. Joe Root's unbeaten 154* wasn't bad either.

4. Jos Buttler's ODI century

There aren't really any words that can describe this innings other than brilliant. Though ultimately in a losing cause as Sri Lanka came out as winners by seven runs, it took England a lot closer than they would have come otherwise. Buttler took England to the brink with a phenomenal 121 from 74 balls batting at number seven, and some of the shots he hit were just unbelievable. I was listening on radio at the time whilst cooking my dinner, and this was an innings that nearly made me burn it: I just couldn't drag myself away. Moreover, after such a miserable winter, this innings gave a glimmer of hope for the future; and by the end of the summer Buttler was no longer a limited overs specialist for England.

3. A new king of spin emerges

At the start of the year, the future looked bleak in many ways for England, and the problem of replacing a spinner as successful as Graeme Swann was a major concern. When Moeen Ali was called up to the test side, it was mainly as a batsman and a part time bowler - not all that trusted by the captain. That wasn't the case by the end of the summer, Ali taking 19 wickets at 23 against the team perhaps most known for playing spin - India. When he bowled India out in the third test at Southampton, taking 6/67 as they fell for just 178, his name was on everyone's lips. More than that, his attitude impressed - his composure, determination to better himself, and how unfazed he was by all the attention; qualities that should stand him in good stead for the future.

2. 8/4

There are moments you have to see to believe, and there are moments you struggle to believe even as you see them. This was the latter. In what was barely the blink of an eye, India's score of 8/0 became 8/4. The series stood at 1-1 at this point with two to go but England were finding their feet again, and from this moment the series seemed as good as theirs. Broad (6/25) and Anderson (3/46) ran riot on the first morning in near perfect conditions, dismissing India for 152 on the way to an innings victory. And English cricket really had a smile on its face again.

1. Yorkshire win the County Championship

I generally stick to the international game on this blog, but for me this was the cricket highlight of the year. I was seven years old when Yorkshire last won the competition, only just starting to become aware of the game and certainly not knowing much about county cricket. Since then there have been ups and downs, relegations, promotions and near misses, but 2014 was the year where Yorkshire put themselves firmly on top of the pile again. Across all areas they excelled, having the strength in depth to cope with the absences of players like Root, Ballance, and Plunkett on international duty, and with several others pushing for further places in the national side. I'm always hopelessly biased towards my county, but this was the moment that put the biggest smile on my face for days on end - so it has to be my personal highlight of 2014.

Monday, 22 December 2014

The Rise and Fall of Ben Stokes

Monday, 22 December 2014
At the start of the year, it seemed like the only way was up for Ben Stokes. England's Ashes tour had been an absolute disaster and the team was crumbling further every day, but Stokes had at least managed to come away with credit - scoring England's only century of the series and managing a five wicket haul in the final match of the series. Seeing a genuine all rounder, many were already making the comparisons with Andrew Flintoff, even with Ian Botham. For a side with a daunting rebuilding process ahead of them, Stokes seemed to have put his name down as a big part of the future.

And then he punched a locker. Some were sympathetic, seeing the frustration as a result of such a workload and expectations suddenly being placed on a young lad. Others were less so, seeing it as part of a greater disciplinary problem after being sent home from a Lions tour the previous year. As ever with English all rounders, it looked like the talent was there but so was the baggage to go along with it. Either way, it put him out of England's World Twenty20 campaign and in a battle to find his fitness for the first test of the summer - ultimately being deemed to not have played enough first class cricket beforehand and missing out. And in many ways, it saw him get left behind. The number six spot all rounders make their home went to Moeen Ali, securing his place with a century that so nearly saved England's series. His return to the side saw him batting at number eight, but by then it looked too high. He didn't bowl badly - and if he was batting at eight, really he was in the side for his bowling - but batting wise, his form was starting to resemble a telephone number: 0, 0, 0. A terribly misjudged shot in England's disaster at Lord's and he was gone again - whether it was a drop or a 'rest', the bubble had burst.

For a year that promised so much, it's been such a shame that it just hasn't got going for Stokes. Part of the problem is the lack of consistency with selection, Stokes not really being given a clear, well defined role at any point. In tests he's gone from having the clear position as an all rounder at six to batting number eight, a place between being an all rounder and a bowler. In ODIs he's gone up and down the order - making his way up to number three around the start of the year before falling back to number seven or eight. His performances has gone up and down just as much; he's only played 24 matches so far but as yet there have only been glimpses of the promise we know is there - the odd innings with the bat, the odd show with the ball, but not yet consistent. Sometimes you just have to make the best of what you're given, and really he hasn't seized the opportunities he's had. And in Sri Lanka it just all went wrong, and he lost the captain's trust with the ball in his hand and couldn't make a mark with the bat. For all that excitement as the year begun, it appears that now is just not yet the time for Stokes.

He will of course come back, and I really hope we can see some of those big performances he put in for Durham in the back end of the season replicated on the international stage - his century in the semi-final of the 50 over competition was something special indeed. For now though, with the World Cup imminent, the performances were just not good enough. With the fit again Broad and Anderson both coming back, something had to give, and it was Stokes. While Woakes and Jordan put their names forward, Stokes couldn't take the chance he was given. Hopefully he will take the next.

Extra thoughts on the squad:

  • Naturally I'm very happy to see Gary Ballance return to the squad; obviously I'm hopelessly biased as a Yorkshire supporter and just a massive fan of his, but his one day record is brilliant and I think he can do a good job.
  • As a whole I have few complaints with the squad, but the general lack of experience does say a lot about England in the past year or so - simply searching for their best team. Overall there's a decent mix with a few who have been on the scene for a while, but we shouldn't pin too much pressure on a bunch of players who've barely played 100 matches between them.
  • Still there is the core of a promising team there, and they could cause a few upsets on a good day. Plus, if enough of them stay together for a home World Cup in 2019 then we might have a good chance...or as ever we could be in the same position.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Where do we go from here?

Friday, 19 December 2014
Another ODI series has been and gone, and now England are left with just one more series to finally find their feet before the World Cup begins. I must say, the seven matches in Sri Lanka did go better than expected (honestly I wasn't entirely expecting them to keep it alive for six games, as bad as that may sound), but as ever there were times where it felt like one step forwards, two steps back.

Let's start with the good points, because despite the 5-2 series scoreline, they were there. England did put in some good performances: despite losing the first match, they put up a good fight and fell only 25 runs short; there were impressive run chases in the rain affected third and fifth games - the fifth also seeing what was probably their best bowling performance of the series. And batting wise, there were certainly a few players who put themselves forwards. Moeen Ali, although fading as the series went on, had some good performances in his new role as opener - his century in the first match being especially memorable and just so enjoyable to watch. He didn't perform with the bat so well in the later games, but his attacking attitude certainly impressed and he was also one of the team's most economical with the ball in hand. James Taylor was finally given a chance in the side and instantly showed why with innings of 90 and 68 in his first two matches (and suddenly the talk changed from him being too short to play international cricket to 'why are short batsmen so successful?'). Joe Root cemented his position further, finishing as England's leading scorer and proving an important cog in the middle order. I also thought Bopara did a decent job, though once again he found himself out of the side by the last match - forever seen as a useful player, never quite finding the luck to make himself essential.

But even so, the problems are still there in the batting. Morgan's form continues to be a concern, though interestingly 62 of his 90 runs across the seven match series came in his one innings as captain. Cook's woes with the bat continued, Bell disappeared from the side, Hales couldn't make an impact in his very limited chances. The collapses in the middle overs against spin continued. And though there were some good run chases, there were also totals of 202 and 215 in response to targets of around 300 to go with a first innings score of 185 in the second match of the series. As ever, when they fired, they looked very good - but you could never knew when they would fire or when they would crumble away.

Bowling wise, there were probably more downs than ups. Woakes and Jordan were probably the picks of the bunch; Stokes went backwards with 8 overs disappearing for 85 runs; Gurney wasn't quite the left-armer England are desperate to find;  Finn wasn't at his worst, but still wasn't at his best. Tredwell's place can be doubted now too - though he has been pretty solid whenever he's played, he's less likely to be needed with Ali (and a few overs from Root) in the team and there being less need for spin in Australia. Wides were a problem throughout, simply gifting too many free runs to Sri Lanka. And it was at the death when they often really struggled - even when they got themselves in a good position, those last 5/10/15 overs could often see that final score get away from them. Hopefully with Broad and Anderson back, with their added experience and nous, this will improve. Or maybe it is just a reflection of the game as it is - teams are geared towards a final assault at this point in the innings, encouraged with a powerplay to use as a platform. But you'd still think short and wide isn't the best way to bowl at that stage. It was just frustrating to see decent positions let slip too often.

As I've been writing, Cook has been replaced by Morgan as captain. It's a good move - Cook can focus on the longer format and (hopefully) get back to his best in what will be a massive 18 months or so for England in test matches. And hopefully Morgan can get back to his best too - maybe the added responsibility can be a spark for him as it has hinted to be. But the confusion is still clear to see. With just a series to go, England are still trying to find their best side, have a squad filled with many still trying to prove their worth at this level and lacking in experience. There may be the odd signs of progress, but there is still a long way to go and it feels like the World Cup is just coming too soon. England are still trying to find their winning formula.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Another ODI Rant

Thursday, 4 December 2014
The first three ODIs have been a mixed bag for England: a respectable performance in the first, where a middle order collapse saw a 25-run loss; a shocker in the second, mustering only 185 runs; overcoming another collapse to win in a rain-affected third game. There have been some very good individual performances along the way - Moeen Ali's innings as opener have been especially impressive - and the ingredients of a decent ODI team are definitely there to see. But once again, it feels like with every match a new set of questions can be raised about their competitiveness.

And it always seems to come back to Alastair Cook. I know I probably sound like a broken record, questioning his place in the side again and again and again, but I just don't see him as one of the best one day players in the country and so deserving of a place in the side. He is without a doubt a brilliant test player, probably one of the best England have ever produced - certainly in terms of the stats - and though I was calling for his head earlier in the year, his captaincy is coming along in that format. I would call myself a fan, but there's always a but. I don't think he has the right mentality for the modern ODI game, in batting or captaincy, and it's been highlighted by watching Moeen Ali's sparkling performances as his opening partner at the other end. I'd much rather see an opening pair of Ali and Hales, rather than Hales coming in at number three as he did in the most recent game. Leave Cook to the test side, let him focus on the longest format; without the pressure of leading the ODI side as well his form could well and truly come back and fully flourish there as it has before. The next match, with Cook banned for a slow over rate, will be an interesting one to see: Morgan will be leading the side, James Taylor could even get a chance in the team, and Ali and Hales will in all probability be the openers. It's a brilliant opportunity for both of them, but most of all Hales: if they can put on an impressive opening stand, it will create quite the headache for the selectors and the shouts for Cook to go will grow ever louder.

Form in general seems to be an issue. Morgan will be captain for the next match, but his innings so far this series have been very brief: 1, 17, 1. He is a proven performer and a match winner for England in the both the limited overs formats, but he really hasn't been at his best over the past year or two, and it is starting to be a big concern. When he's at his best, he can score runs all around the ground, hit the ball in places you don't expect - just be a very difficult man to set a field to. But at the moment with the bat he's not adding much to the team. Maybe the added responsibility of being captain for a game will give him the boost he needs - it certainly seemed to help during the Twenty20 against India at the end of the summer. And hopefully he will find those runs very soon, because with an on form Morgan England would already look much for threatening. Ben Stokes is another whose form has been especially frustrating. We've seen in domestic one day competitions how dangerous a player is, and hints of it internationally, but in this series his form has looked a long way off. He's been expensive with the ball and has so only bowled six overs across the two matches he's played, and being in and out of the side can't have helped either - dropped the second game, he returned for the third though how he would have had time to find form in between, I don't know. I wrote at the start of the series about how with Broad and Anderson both missing, there was a big opportunity for the fast bowlers to step up, but so far none have really put themselves far ahead. Wides have been a problem, and often the bowling simply hasn't been good enough. Woakes and Finn are probably slightly ahead but even so there is still a lot of room for improvement.

I know I'm repeating myself, constantly ranting about England's one day team, but it's only because I believe that they can be so much better, and that there is the basis for a good, effective team there. Moeen Ali has been a star at the top of the order, his century in the first game being one of the best ODI innings I can remember seeing by an England batsman. Bopara's come back into the side and done well, if not quite getting England over the line in that first match - though he wasn't helped by the players around him. Both also give England extra options with the ball. Root and Buttler have also done a good job, especially taking the team over the line in the third game. Even with my complaints about Cook, he too batted well in the last game. There is a promising young core of the side there, that should only get better with more maturity and experience. Generally it is a team that always has a chance of winning, it's just that they seem to have a greater chance of self-imploding. Hopefully it can turn the other way around.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

63 Not Out

Sunday, 30 November 2014
I don't want to have to be writing a post like this, to be talking in the past tense about a gifted cricketer and a person, but I want to write something. I am a cricket fan and a human being and so, like so many others across the world, I was absolutely shocked and saddened to hear such devastating news about Phillip Hughes.

You think of sportsmen and women as being invincible. They are the ones with that extra talent and ability that takes them beyond the realm of us mere mortals and into this higher arena of professional, international sport. They have that privilege of being able to play the sports that so many of us love as their job, and we watch them with adoration. In many ways we aspire to be like them, especially as we grow up and watch our heroes on the television screen, and if we're lucky enough we can see them in the flesh. You don't think that it's going to be the same thing that we love, that they love, that could possibly take their life away. It's not supposed to be the thing that could kill you. But it does happen, very rarely.

When Phil Hughes burst onto the international scene in 2009 there was such a buzz. Only twenty years old, scoring twin centuries against South Africa and playing in such a manner - there was no fear, he just took the bowlers on and won. Over here in England we certainly sat up and took notice with an Ashes series coming up in the summer - so much of the buzz was about how to bowl to Australia's newest star. Of course, it didn't quite work out - his unorthodox technique that had brought him so many runs then being exploited to England's gain. He was in and out of the international side for the next few years but continued to put his name in the history books - after already being the youngest player to score a century in both innings of a test match, he then became the first Australian to score a century on ODI debut, and was also part of that partnership with Ashton Agar in the first test of the 2013 Ashes. And even though he wasn't always in the team, he was always that player you saw as having time on his side, who would certainly be a major part of Australia's future.

That's part of what makes it so horrifying. His final score of 63 not out is so poignant - it represents both an innings and a life that had made a start, but that could become so much more. But more than that, it's a human life cut short. As just a fan of the game, it has shaken me, so god only knows what his family, friends, teammates and all players of the game must be going to. And I can't imagine what Sean Abbott, the bowler, must be going through right now. He was doing his job, bowling a bouncer as every pace bowler does; just like Hughes went to attack it as batsmen do. Of course he wouldn't imagine that such a thing could happen. It has been heartening the way the cricket world has gathered around him and given him the support he needs right now.

There have been so many touching tributes to Phillip Hughes over the past few days that it's impossible to list. Around the world, in countries you wouldn't typically associate with the sport as well as the test playing nations, people have been taking part in the #putoutyourbats tag on Twitter - a mark of respect that is simple but beautiful; international teams following the trend as matches have resumed, and similar tributes being seen in many other sports. Cricket Australia posted a moving video and have amended the scorecard of his final match: 63 not out, rather than retired hurt as it had originally stated. The whole world has gathered to pay their respects.

Right now my thoughts are with his family and friends, his teammates and all those who played with or against him, and with Sean Abbott too.

RIP Phillip Hughes

Friday, 21 November 2014

The Winter Begins

Friday, 21 November 2014
The England team is back in action once more, and so my blog will be springing back into life again too. It's a big winter for all teams on the ODI front with the World Cup coming up in February, and about three months out it still looks like England have a lot of work to do. It's one of the many frustrations with following the England team: it feels very rare that they head into an international tournament looking well prepared and in with a shot at victory. The scheduling has been a problem in the past; one of the reasons why we faced an Ashes double header last year being to give us a better shot in World Cups - though instead England are beginning the winter tours still unsure of their best eleven. It's hard to be optimistic about their chances.

For a World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, Sri Lanka isn't really the ideal place to tour in preparation. The best eleven for these conditions won't be the best eleven for later in the winter, but still it offers a chance for several players on the fringe to show why they deserve a place in the side. In bowling there is a particular opportunity for players to come through and shine - even though the extra spinner will be played, with the attack leaders of Stuart Broad and James Anderson missing from this tour players like Finn, Woakes, Jordan, Stokes, and Gurney will be wanting to seize the chance such an opening has provided. I've said it before on this blog how much I rate Finn as a bowler and I will say it again - he's the sort of bowler that can always offer a threat, and especially on Australian pitches likely to suit his style. With Woakes and Stokes it's the battle for the all-rounder spot, Stokes possibly having the edge batting-wise. As a player, Woakes has grown on me over the summer, but Stokes seems to be one of those players with an 'X factor', that something about him that could make him a match-winner. 

The batting though looks like the key area England need to improve on - in the series against India it was found lacking again and again. While other teams look capable of making and chasing scores of 300 plus with ease, it's an area where England have been found wanting. There's that mindset - 'If I bat 50 overs, I will score a hundred' where now it has to be upwards of 150 at least - Rohit Sharma's just made it all the way to 264, more than England usually seem to score in their whole innings. Cook won't be replaced now before the World Cup, but it's good to see players like Alex Hales and James Taylor in the squad, Taylor particularly after such strong performances in the 50 over format towards the end of the season. Some will say he is too short to succeed at international level, but that doesn't mean he shouldn't be given a chance (and being rather vertically challenged myself, I will always back the short ones). Moeen Ali opened ahead of Hales in the first warm-up match and got England off to a flyer, just the sort of attacking attitude that England need. I'd rather that than all three of Cook, Bell, and Root - even if I am generally a fan of all three, I'm just not sure if the team can accommodate the lot of them.

I do desperately want to be proved wrong in my World Cup prediction, because, after all, it's no fun seeing them lose. I think that somewhere in there are the ingredients for a good team - it's just a matter of it all coming together. Mostly, I think it's a matter of mentality - not playing with the fear and conservatism that they too often do. For the most part, England have it in the lower order - players like Morgan and Buttler able to come in and turn innings around when they pull it off. But it shouldn't all be left up to them. It's higher in the order where they've stalled too often, and players like Hales, Ali, and Taylor could be a big help here - if only they're given the chance. England won't win the World Cup, and will probably follow their usual pattern of just narrowly qualifying for the knockout rounds before being easily beaten in the quarter finals. But I'd like to at least see some progress, using the coming series as a chance to gain some momentum and some signs to give me at least a bit of hope. 

Monday, 13 October 2014

The saga rolls on and on

Monday, 13 October 2014
I got bored of the Kevin Pietersen 'saga' earlier in the year. Nothing was happening, just the odd annoying snipe coming from people on either side. Really, it was tedious. Really, some may still find it that way. But I've been a sucker for all the new drama as the gagging order has ended and the autobiography has been published, a sort of morbid fascination drawing me to the whole thing.

It's not hard to see why the book has been hitting the headlines, particularly with no English cricket to serve as a distraction. In short, the book is a bloodbath. The central attacks focus on the team's bullying culture, led by the keeper Matt Prior; and on the role of the coach, Andy Flower, described as a dictator. And it's not always difficult to believe. Watching the England team over the past few years, you can see the signs of such a bullying culture. Fielders have been chastised when they drop a catch, misfield, or are just seen as not putting in enough effort; often just written off as the bowlers being their typically grumpy selves. And there have been a number of players who have come into the team, only to find themselves out of it without perhaps a fair chance - Nick Compton one to spring to mind, the rumours being that his face simply didn't fit. Chris Tremlett has also spoken out in support of Pietersen's claims, while players from other countries have said it was something they picked up on. How much of Pietersen's words are truth and how much is exaggeration is impossible to know as just a fan, but it's enough to make you think about what you've seen and what really goes on behind closed doors.

Pietersen is far from innocent though in the whole affair. He's always been a brilliant, though frustrating, cricketer, and has played some of the best and most entertaining innings I've witnessed. The three centuries in the ODI series against South Africa in 2004/5 that announced him to the world; the 158 at The Oval in that Ashes series made his name; the invention of the switch-hit; and in the past couple of years centuries against Sri Lanka, South Africa, and India just giving more evidence of his match winning talents. But there's always been the ego to go alongside it, self-belief that is essential to play in the way he does, but that also rubs people up the wrong way and can be his downfall - going for the big shot when the match situation doesn't call for it, then using the old excuse 'it's just the way I play'. His ego is present in the book too; I think it has now just been hammered into my brain how he is England's leading run scorer of all time - I mean, it's true, but still. He just doesn't always endear himself. And this is ignoring the various scandals that have plagued the last years of his career - from losing the captaincy, to textgate, to whatever really happened in Australia. I doubt we'll ever know the full story about any of these, and though the ECB are at fault too, there must have been some sort of issue for them all to explode in the way they did. 

The overwhelming feeling I get from the book is one of sadness. England had a truly brilliant player on their hands, but neither the ECB or Pietersen could work together to achieve what they might have done. Everyone failed in Australia and several international careers ended on a sour note, players who should have been celebrated for their achievements - England rose to number one in the world, won three Ashes series and their first in Australia for 24 years, their first series win in India for 27 years. And Pietersen was a part of it. But now he may be remembered just as much for the fall outs and the in-fights as he is for the cricket, the great innings he has played, and the great wins he has been a part of. 

I don't want to defend the ECB, I have absolutely no desire of that. There's a lot of food for thought for them - how can they let their relationship with a star player get to such a stage where a book like this is even written and published? If there was such a culture of bullying, why was this not fully investigated? How was Flower coaching and was he having an adverse effect, as Pietersen has said? And really, what did go so wrong in Australia? But instead the ECB always seem intent on covering their tracks, the latest being a 'dossier' (however legitimate or not it was, and whatever purpose it was intended for) covering Pietersen's misdemeanors in Australia, including checking his watch and looking out his window. There were parts of the dossier showing Pietersen shouting and swearing at his teammates, but the petty things are what attracts the attention, adding to the belief of the ECB's conspiracy against Pietersen. Simply, the ECB's relationship with the fans is broken, and this feeling is repeating time and time again. I don't think either side has come out of this well, but I feel that Pietersen has won the PR war - it's definitely much easier to sympathise with him and feel his career's been taken away from him. Just as much though, it's felt like a case of airing dirty laundry in public. 

That said, it's been a entertaining distraction while the cricket's been off. 

Saturday, 30 August 2014

England's recurring nightmare

Saturday, 30 August 2014
Yes, it really is that bad. The World Cup is the next major event on England's horizon, and it's still hard to see them being competitive when they get there. And what might be the worst thing is that it isn't even surprising. England were bowled out for 161 on Wednesday chasing 295, bowled out for 227 today setting a total. It's just not good enough, they don't look able to set or chase the totals of 300-plus that are needed now to win games. It could well be another miserable winter coming up.

It's partly a matter of personnel and partly a matter of mindset. The bowling is more or less there - providing Broad is back fit and firing by the time of the tournament and Finn really settles back into the team, England do have a strong attack - yet the batting continues to come up short. The selectors have finally given into the Hales hype, good to see after such strong performances in the Twenty20 side, yet still the team is short of those power players who really have the ability to change a game. Hales can be one, Buttler is another, Pietersen was one (though really his one-day record over the past few years could have been much better) - but who else? Morgan has been, but has struggled to find the runs this summer. Cook is a player who really innings should be built around, Bell and Root similar though with more natural flair and invention; but the question seems to always be repeating - how many of this type of player can England accommodate? In the mean time, calls for players such as Taylor, Vince, and Roy are growing ever louder as they rack up the runs in county cricket -  how long can England ignore them? Bopara is another who I'd want back in the team, and was rather harshly dropped from the side after arguably being England's best ODI performer last year. Even though he has struggled so far this year, it still seems a bit unfair.

Again, England found themselves in trouble against spin in the middle overs. Only one boundary was hit between the 18th and 44th overs, going from 82/0 to 182/7 in this time. When the more part-time bowling pair of Raina and Rayudu came on, England failed to take advantage when if anything they were the pair England should have been trying to take the game to. But it was the same old story - the spinners strangled them once again. India's spinners were great at really getting through the overs quickly; the batsmen had to go from playing themselves in to needing to hit out in what felt like no time. And as the wickets kept falling and the run rate kept stagnating, more and more pressure was placed on the lower order to rescue England from a situation they should never have really been made to face. When it took James Tredwell - with 30 from 18 - to take England close to 230, it's obvious that something's not going right.

The plus point, if there is one, is that it was a slow pitch quite unlike the ones that England are likely to face when they travel to Australia and New Zealand for the World Cup. On the downside, after making it through this series they travel to Sri Lanka first where they are likely to face more of the same - in itself a slightly odd place to go in preparation. Ideally, they would know their best eleven for the World Cup by now, but if not - as the case does well seem to be - then that tour and these last two games will be the last chance if there are any changes to be made. Myself, I'd like to see Taylor and Bopara back in the side - Taylor has been putting in some great innings for Nottinghamshire over these past through months and has never really been given a proper chance, whilst I do feel Bopara's drop was slightly unfair, plus his bowling is enough to be an extra option and relieve a few overs. Ballance and Ali, currently in the ODI squad as it stands, also have strong List A records and strike rates and would also be worth a shout, though Ballance hasn't really got going in the ODIs he's played so far. Instead, as usually seems to be the case, a bowler will probably be held responsible after the batsmen have failed again. It's been the same old story from the players, and the same old nightmare for everyone else.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

England's progress report

Wednesday, 20 August 2014
So, we have come to the end of the test summer and while it's been a bumpy ride, progress has definitely been made. Once again England have provided a rollercoaster of emotions - going from the tension and disappointment of the tests against Sri Lanka; close to rock bottom after defeat to India at Lord's; to emphatic victories in the last three tests. England have shown progress throughout the summer - but the task is not over yet and there are still plenty of areas for improvement. Here is my take on England's summer and what still needs to be done.

First of all, the captaincy. I was among those who believed Cook should go after Lord's, though still not knowing who the best man was to replace him. Thankfully, it has got better since then. The thing with Cook is that while he does have his moments where he is inventive and makes good decisions, he sometimes has long periods when he has no answers - and particularly when England are put under pressure. This was something particularly visible in the second game against Sri Lanka, when Angelo Mathews' brilliant performance took the game beyond England's reach and set up his team's eventual victory. Credit must be given to Cook though for England's recovery - he does look to have helped create a team spirit with everyone behind him, and he must have said something right for them to come bouncing back in the fashion they have after such a low ebb. He does truly have a team to lead now, not like the fracturing side of the Ashes. Yet England were barely put under any real pressure in the last three tests, so he should not rest easy yet. He still needs to have more back up plans for when England are really under pressure, as they will undoubtedly be when they come to play teams such as Australia, South Africa, and Pakistan in the coming year. But he has shown enough to stay in his job, when at times this summer it really looked like he wouldn't.

The question of the opener is still one that has gone unsolved since the retirement of Andrew Strauss in 2012. Unfortunately, the search may still continue with Robson still not having nailed down his place in the side. He did show his potential with a century and a fifty but too many times he was nervous around his off stump, that famous corridor of uncertainty where batsmen can be exposed in test cricket. He is young enough and has enough promise to come back, and I do hope he gets another chance, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him replaced in the side when England return to test cricket in the Caribbean in April. A strong showing in the one day side could help Alex Hales find his way into the test team, a move that would be popular among many; or perhaps one of the Yorkshire pair of Adam Lyth and Alex Lees could work their way in (Lyth the more likely - Lees just a bit too young). There are options for England, but the man chosen for the spot in the tour of West Indies will in all likelihood be the man they go for in the Ashes - so it will time to stick or twist.

The middle order though does look close to being solved. Gary Ballance looked at home batting at number three despite his lack of experience that high, making three fifties and three centuries and impressing in the calm way he seemed to handle it all. Bell remains a class act, and though he didn't perform to his best he is always a great player to have in the side. Joe Root put his troubled winter behind him and continued to show why he is one of the most promising young players in world cricket. Jos Buttler also showed no nerves stepping up to the test arena, and though his glovework is still a work in progress, his batting brought excitement and youthful energy; he really looks a player who can take a match away from the opposition. The only question mark so far would be over Moeen Ali, though his spin bowling has made up for his lack of runs. He showed great character against Sri Lanka, coming so close to saving the game with his century in the second innings at Headingley, but since then the runs have dried up and a concerning problem against the short ball become evident. England will have to hope he learns fast, because he will certainly be targeted next year by bowlers like Johnson and Harris, Steyn and Morkel. There's also the question of finding the right spot for Ben Stokes - despite his horrible form, number eight is still too low for him really and the right balance has to be found.

The bowling is still a work in progress - though Broad and Anderson are nailed on for England's strongest eleven, the question is about who their support should be. Steven Finn remains around the side, and if he does get back to his best then he has to be a definite pick - his pace and height are just such valuable assets and he has proven ability at international level. Of those we have seen this summer, they have all had their moments. I was pleased to see Plunkett back in the side and finding success with his nine wickets at Headingley before injury put him out of action, and looks a good option to have in the pack. Stokes is an exciting player, a genuine all rounder, and though his batting fell apart I was surprised to see him dropped after doing well in the two tests he played against India - particularly after batting at number eight anyway. Jordan is a player who looks to have something about him and a knack of picking up wickets, though he is still a work in progress with consistency an issue. Woakes is the one I'm least sure about - I'm just not sure he has that extra quality to take wickets at international level (or at least tests - he could fit into the ODI team). But I must say he has seemed to improve with every test, and also didn't always have the luck he deserved. I think generally they have a good crop of young bowlers who it is worth sticking with, and it's good to see that there are several in their plans because with 17 tests in twelve months coming up, rotation will be important.

With spin bowling it does look like England have found an answer as to who should replace Graeme Swann. Moeen Ali has improved as the summer has gone on, going from someone only seen as a part timer at the start of the summer to now being viewed as a genuine front line bowler. The way he has adapted to this level has been impressive; he has taken on advice from other players and people in the game to find what works best, and the results have been visible. Filling the boots of Graeme Swann, one of England's most successful spinners ever, was always going to be a difficult task but he has done a good job of it so far and played a large role in England's victories. He is no world beater yet, but has done away with the doom and gloom foreseen when looking at England's apparently bare spin cupboard at the start of the summer.

The bigger challenges are yet to come for England, and it won't be surprising to see many more bumps along the way with next year's Ashes and tours to South Africa and Pakistan to come within a twelve month period. But there is certainly hope - there are a good young bunch of players who have really started to perform, and that much sought after team spirit looks to have returned. The misery of the start of the year, and of points during the summer, is starting to be dispelled and as fans we have something to cheer about once again. England's jigsaw isn't yet complete - one series win does not make them world beaters - but maybe, just maybe, the pieces are starting to fall into place.

Monday, 18 August 2014

What went wrong for India?

Monday, 18 August 2014
Yesterday, the same story repeated itself - once again India put in a dismal batting display, worse than the previous innings. This time, 94 runs were all that could be managed. They also conceded 101 runs in barely twelve overs at the very start of the day's play. It was the show of a team that had given up, and a long way from the side that had made England suffer with a strong batting display at Trent Bridge and humiliated them at Lord's. Though many had expected England to be the eventual winners of the series - home advantage and better bowlers to be the key - nobody had expected it to end quite this way, with India giving such abject batting displays. It left the simple question: what went wrong?

The batting is the obvious reason for the series loss, given that in their last five innings they failed to pass the 200 mark once. Players such as Kohli, Pujara, and Dhawan failed to live up to the hype surrounding them; simply, the new breed of Indian batsmen post-Tendulkar did not deliver. This would partly be due to a lack of experience in English conditions - and having to face a master of swing like James Anderson in them - with any technical flaws being exposed by the swinging and seaming ball. Some batsmen did perform - though Vijay never topped his century in the first innings at Trent Bridge, he showed sticking power on several occasions; Rahane also impressed at times, making a century at Lord's; Dhoni became his team's only form of resistance at times in the past two tests; and there were a few good knocks from the lower order batsmen, particularly at the start of the series. But it wasn't enough. Though the conditions weren't always suited for batting - and England definitely had the better time with the weather in the last two tests - India still didn't put up enough of a fight, and when England really did bowl well they surrendered all too meekly. After seeing the last two tests, just imagine what England could have done if they had bowled to their potential on that first morning at Lord's.

In terms of bowling it went better for India, often being let down by poor fielding or poor umpiring. Kumar looked a bowler well suited to English conditions - though he doesn't bowl at express pace he bowls a good line and length and swings the ball, often enough to make players struggle and especially when they are out of form. Sharma also bowled well - his height and extra pace offering another dimension to the attack. Even if that haul at Lord's was just as much about England's poor technique against the short ball as Sharma's bowling, India's attack looked much better with him a part of it. Beyond those two it was less simple - many were tried but did not do enough; luck was a factor (poor Pankaj Singh), as was being overworked like Aaron. The spinners also didn't make the impact hoped for, even though conditions weren't always helpful. The bowlers should not be criticised too much though - they certainly can't be faulted for trying. The fielding did let them down several times - catches being dropped in the slips more than once; Jadeja's drop of Cook in Southampton perhaps being the most notable. It wasn't good enough, especially from a young team in an age where fielding standards are ever improving.

In fairness to India, they weren't helped at all by the scheduling. Who thought it was a great idea to put five tests in the space of six weeks, I will never know. There were no opportunities for batsmen to have a knock away from the test arena within the series, not enough time for bowlers to rest up in between games. How was Gambhir supposed to come in and make runs straight away when he replaced Dhawan, if he hadn't had any cricket beforehand? It's also a wider issue, with this being a five test series - something England are used to (albeit not necessarily with this group of players), and India are not. Five match series do need more stamina and strength, mentally and physically; something that Indian players were perhaps not fully prepared for without having such experience. Whilst England got stronger, India faded. Perhaps they should play more of the longer format and have less emphasis on the shorter games - but do we really expect that to happen?

Another issue seemed to be team selection - India just couldn't seem to find the right team. The four bowlers or five bowlers conundrum was one that affected them, and sometimes when players were picked it was difficult to see what role they were there for. Binny is an example - picked for the first test, he batted at eight but then bowled only ten overs in England's innings (out of 144.5 total), before then scoring 78 in India's second innings. Again, at Lord's, he bowled only ten in England's 105.5 over innings, and then didn't even get a go in their second; at The Oval he bowled twelve of 116.3. Though he was expensive, that he was used so little begs the question - what was he there for, what was his role? It was similar with Jadeja, looking not quite like a front line spinner, not quite like a front line batsman. Ashwin was probably a better all round player, yet was only picked for the last two matches. I don't know what the best line up is for India - or which one of four or five bowlers is a better route for them - but it didn't look like they did either.

Finally, the whole 'incident' between Anderson and Jadeja. At first, it seemed like India had come off better from the whole affair (whatever exactly happened), with their victory in the second test. But then the saga dragged on and on, instead firing up Anderson and the England team and perhaps taking India's focus away from what really mattered on the pitch. We might never know the true tale of events, but given the results of the hearing it sounds like far too much was made out of an event where it was always going to be difficult to prove that anything really happened - so was it something really worth pushing for?

As an England supporter, it's difficult for me to complain about a series win and the emphatic manner of the three victories. But still, it was disappointing to see India succumb so easily and give up without a fight towards the end. It's hard to tell if this was worse than the whitewash in 2011, though then they did at least make England work for their victories more. India will come back from this - and players like Kohli and Dhawan will in all probability now go and dominate the ODI series to follow - but it was a dismal defeat, and it looks like much will need to be done in order to improve.

Friday, 15 August 2014

England surge; India crumble

Friday, 15 August 2014
Today, India's batting collapsed again. It has now been four innings in a row with a score under 200, and today's was the worst of the lot as they could only muster 148 - and that was including a counter-attacking innings of 82 from Dhoni, containing 15 fours and a six. The next highest score was Murali Vijay's 18. This time round it only took four balls for the first wicket to fall, four balls for the misery to set in. Vijay was the only one of the top five to make double figures - even Rahane falling for a duck this time - and again India were five wickets down before lunch with the prospects of a series-levelling win disappearing before them. Some small slices of luck came their way to prevent being dismissed for under three figures - an edge behind by Dhoni so slight that even the fielders didn't pick it up, and Bell dropping a regulation slip catch from Sharma. Dhoni's answer was to come out swinging, and he did find success, but even then it was not enough to save the innings. A last wicket partnership of 58 may have taken some of the sheen off for England, but it will be difficult for them to complain with India's total of 148.

Where it could be argued that at Old Trafford, England's supporting pair of bowlers in Jordan and Woakes eased the pressure on India, being more expensive with the ball and not offering the same wicket threat, here came more of a team effort among the bowlers. Jordan's first two overs saw two wicket maidens - a sequence of four wickets in 14 balls when added to his two in two to finish off the last test - and then picking up the wicket of Kumar after lunch. Woakes was also in the wickets either side of the break, finally finding himself with some luck and removing Vijay, Ashwin, and Aaron. The pair took six wickets between them, and also both bowled seven maidens out of the fourteen they each bowled, maintaining the pressure after the opening spells of Broad and Anderson. It was a long time before India's run rate made its way above two an over, only Dhoni's attack able to lift it there. Though Jordan was at times inconsistent (though mostly unpunished), England will nevertheless be pleased with the pair's display - after looking like the weak links in the attack at Old Trafford and Southampton, here they took the main spoils in another strong bowling display.

England's batsmen didn't necessarily find it easy going either, but found luck more on their side. Cook survived a couple of close LBW appeals, and should really have been out with one going on to hit the middle stump. Robson also had the odd streaky shot, one going through where fourth slip might have been. It was good to see a solid opening stand from England, something that has been missing this summer with the pair struggling for form. It will also have done a world of good for Sam Robson, who has been the latest player under scrutiny after his struggles with the bat - particularly around the off stump. To have made a start and survived over night will give him an opportunity to build an innings on what looks to be a sunnier day tomorrow, in what could be make-or-break time ahead of the next test tour to the West Indies and the Ashes series in the summer beyond. Likewise, Alastair Cook will be hoping to take his opportunity and end that ever-growing run without a century. The pair were not bogged down in the way India had been, Robson in particular often finding the boundary, and made their way to the close of play at 62/0.

It leaves England once again in a thoroughly dominant position, well and truly favourites to take this final test and wrap up the first series win of this 'new age'. For India, it continues a horrible turn of events since their victory at Lord's; in many ways it feels like completely different sides are now playing. What could have been an exciting series between two young sides with much to prove on a world stage has since turned one-sided, India's struggles as bad as they were in 2011. Problems can be found in several areas - the batting has been frail, players like Kohli and Pujara not filling their boots; team selection a revolving door - the question of whether to go for five bowlers or four looking a constant issue; Dhoni's captaincy at times questionable - for example his insistence on leg slips. For now, it is advantage to England once again.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

A dominant display

Sunday, 10 August 2014
Like London buses, after waiting nearly a year for a test win, two came along at once for England. And if the previous win could be described as emphatic, then this was even more so with India beaten inside only three days. Though just making it to the end of the day could have been enough for India - the weather forecast really looking that bad - they seemed to lose all fight in their second innings, falling apart on the way to an innings defeat.

On the second morning, India were actually the better team - winning what was arguably their first session since Lord's. The wickets of the nightwatchman Jordan and Bell fell in quick succession to Kumar, whilst Varun Aaron also troubled the batsman in his first match of the series, being rewarded with the wicket of Moeen Ali. England fell to 170/6, and with their lead only being 18 it looked like India might be able to get back into the match. Yet the pair of Root and Buttler managed to rebuild before the rain started to fall and brought a premature end to the day's play, England at 237/6. India weren't yet out of it, but the lead was edging closer to 100 and a platform was being set. The pair continued to build upon this progress the following morning, Buttler showing he is just as capable of building an innings as he is outright attacking, and both made it into their seventies before falling to Pankaj Singh. Pankaj had a luckless time on debut with dropped catches and dubious umpiring decisions denying him of his first test wicket, instead seeing him record the worst bowling figures by a debutant. His poor luck was continuing here as he repeatedly beat the outside edge with no reward, but when it did finally come - a glove by Root down leg, of all the ways to get it - it was warmly received by both sets of fans. Unfortunately for India, England now had plenty of runs on the board and after brief attacks from Woakes and Broad (Broad's innings cut short by a horrible blow to the face, leaving him with a fractured nose), England were all out for 367, a 215 run lead. On a pitch where the bowlers would always have a chance, it was a strong total and meant that only the weather was now likely to beat them.

In the second innings, India crumbled away just as easily as they did in the first. There was no 8/4 this time - and by the end of the innings there had been only one duck - but the end result was much the same, and this was without the man who had taken six wickets in the first innings. All the bowlers contributed - Woakes also finally taking a wicket after faring similarly to Pankaj in the previous match - with Moeen Ali this time being the leading light. With every passing match Moeen is looking more suited to test level, changing his pace to suit the conditions and getting a good amount of revolutions on the ball. The six in Southampton was followed up with four here, and helped 53/1 turn into 66/6 - leaving the game virtually over for India. Anderson also chipped in with a couple of wickets - once more removing Kohli for a low score, his disappointing run of form continuing with a series average of only 13.50. What was perhaps the worst shot came from Dhoni - a slog to midwicket only finding the flying Ballance. In many ways it typified India's failure, seeming to show they had just given up. More resistance came in another counterattacking innings from Ashwin, but India couldn't overcome their deficit before the last two wickets fell in two balls to Jordan. India all out for 161; an innings victory for England giving them a 2-1 lead in the series.

Can India come back from this? With the series still alive with a game left, it is not over yet and England came back from a similarly devastating defeat only last week. But now England's morale seems ever rising, as they look to continue their promising form. They are still a work in progress and questions do remain over some players - mainly Robson as opener and the pair of Woakes and Jordan as support to Broad and Anderson, who have looked a class apart in these past two games. Personally, I would like to see Finn return to the team as when he does get it right he is a bowler who can post a constant threat with his pace and steep bounce, and he has bounced back well in county cricket this winter after becoming 'unselectable' over the winter. For India though, the problems are mounting. The new generation of batsmen, barring Rahane and Vijay, have for the most part not lived up to their reputations, and the bowling has been mixed - Kumar successful but not able to do it all by himself, Sharma injured, others such as Binny and Shami tried and then dropped. The team selection has at times been questionable - Ashwin and Aaron not playing until this fourth test; Binny played but barely used; Rohit Sharma in and out for only one game. In all the off field drama regarding Anderson and Jadeja, India seem to have come off worst, perhaps letting it become too much of a distraction from the real action. England will be favourites to take the series at The Oval after two dominant victories, but it is still not time for India to give up yet.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

One wild half hour

Thursday, 7 August 2014
There's a common thought in cricket that while you can't win a match on the first morning, you can certainly lose it. It's something that England arguably did in the second test at Lord's. Now, at Old Trafford, it was India's turn - a bizarre first half hour seeing the top order fall away, leaving them at 8/4 within just six overs. The match is certainly a long way from over - and you might feel that if anyone can mess a position like this up, it is England - but after being routed for 152 in the first two sessions, India are left facing an almost impossible task to save this match.

It felt like a moment that you have to see to actually believe. It all started normally enough; Dhoni chose to bat looking at the pitch rather than the weather, but after Australia racked up 500 in the last test here (and the only one since the pitch was rotated), a precedent was set for a good batting wicket. Alastair Cook even said that if he had won the toss, he too would have chosen to bat. Instead 'a good toss to lose' became the phrase of the day as the clouds loomed and the ball swung and seamed. Where Anderson and Broad had been so wasteful at Lord's, here their lengths were spot on and time after time the ball found itself on its way to the slip cordon. In the space of only thirteen balls, what felt like a blink of an eye, 8/0 became 8/4. England were on fire and, after all the past week's fuss about sledging, the ball was finally doing their talking. Resistance of course duly came - Rahane holding out until falling to Jordan on the brink of lunch for 23; a well fought innings by Dhoni for 71, advancing down the pitch to combat the swing and finding his rewards; a counterattacking 40 from Ashwin, finally given a place in the side. When the sun found its way out, and Woakes and Jordan came on to bowl, it did become relatively easier for India to bat and they did find their way past the 100 mark they had risked not reaching. Yet still they could only muster 152, with only the three batsmen passing double figures and six making ducks. Advantage England.

Still, it wasn't easy going for England's batsmen either, both openers being dismissed cheaply once more. The questions over Cook's place in the side have died down after his performance in the last test, but unfortunately for Robson that has meant the focus has turned to him. Whilst I do believe that he deserves a decent run in the side - six tests not really enough to see if someone can make it at this level - he has so far shown a worrying tendency to lose his off stump, frequently out edging behind or bowled. If his century and his fifty are taken out of his stats, his batting average falls from 29.90 to 14.13 - enough to put his place in the side in jeopardy. That there is only one more test this summer could work in his favour though - would it really be the right time to make a change, given that the next test would be in April? Whether the selectors will show Robson the same faith they have shown Cook this summer (albeit a man with a proven test record), or if they discard him like they have their other openers since Strauss's retirement remains to be seen, but it still appears that the opening pair is a box not yet ticked off.

Nevertheless, in terms of the match situation it is only a minor gripe. Despite three wickets falling, being only 39 runs behind, and with Ian Bell established on 45* overnight, England are firmly in control overnight. Despite the morning's troubles, the surface does look a good one to bat on and especially when the sun is shining - though as ever in tests at Old Trafford, the weather forecast looks set to play its part. After finding themselves in such a good position though at the close of day one, England will be determined to press their advantage.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

A Gentleman's Game?

Tuesday, 5 August 2014
It feels like at least once a summer an incident happens that brings up debates over the fabled 'Spirit of Cricket'. This year we've already had a mankading incident in the ODI series against Sri Lanka, and against India the incident between Anderson and Jadeja has raised questions over the role and the nature of sledging in the game. Over the winter we had Michael Clarke's 'broken arm' comment, and in 2008 an altercation leading to a race row between Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds. There are more positive examples too: on India's previous tour of England there was the incident involving Ian Bell, allowed back after being run out when strolling off for tea. One of the most famous events in recent history was of course that moment with Flintoff and Lee at the end of the 2005 Edgbaston test. Yet more and more it seems that when this 'spirit of the game' is discussed, it's been because something has happened against it.

The whole Anderson/Jadeja affair reached its conclusion this week (for now at least) with both players given not guilty verdicts on their respective charges, insufficient evidence available to conclusively prove either side of the story. The whole saga has left a sour taste; where attention should be on what is an intriguing full length test series, too often has the focus been on a series of events at Trent Bridge that are sounding ever more sound a playground spat. Whether or not Anderson did push Jadeja unprovoked, as is the Indian side of the story, or if it was a matter of self defence as the England camp are saying; the underlying matter of it all seems to be Anderson's use of sledging. I'm not against sledging and I like to see a bit of banter between sides in the heat of the game, just sometimes it gets overdone and a bit ridiculous really. It's best when humorous - Flintoff's infamous 'mind the windows' comment to Tino Best, and Sangakkara to Shaun Pollock are examples that come to my mind, both getting into a batsman's head whilst still being relatively light hearted. At the moment it seems like the fun and wit has gone and sledging has descended to downright abuse, just shouting and swearing. And Anderson is one of the worst culprits really, always having a word with the batsman - even in the most recent match he was warned by the umpires for his words to Rahane. Whether it's a way for him to get himself psyched up, or to give him an image of a no-nonsense fast bowler to the opposition, recently it has just all got a bit excessive. He should let his bowling do most of the talking, he's certainly good enough.

But whose responsibility should it be to keep the players in line? In the 'Spirit of Cricket' preamble to the laws, the responsibility for fair play is put on the shoulders of the captain. And largely, it is - in cases of a controversial dismissal, the umpires often ask the captains if they want their appeals upheld. It's seen when there are mankad incidents (though now the law has been changed so the batsman is just out), and at other times - the previously mentioned run out of Ian Bell an example of sportsmanship, and in 2008 against New Zealand Paul Collingwood upheld a controversial run out appeal after a bowler/batsman collision, a less positive example. More generally, as the leader of the team, captains are responsible for the behavior of their players on the pitch. But sometimes the captain himself sets a bad example - like Clarke's 'broken arm' comment in the winter and Ponting in the 2010/11 series arguing with the umpire following a review, both fined for their actions. Should it be the umpires, taking a firmer line and not letting it get as far as it has tended to do recently? Or is it down to the individual - playing on the highest international stage, setting an example for other players of all ages? In an age of stump microphones, what they say is more often than not picked up. Really it has to be a combination of all three - umpires should snuff such confrontations out before they reach such a stage as Anderson and Jadeja's did, but the captains and players should take more responsibility as well and leave a lot of the lip behind.

Maybe it's a reflection of the modern game - exhausting touring schedules see players competing against each other again and again in shorter periods of time, with back to back tests and back to back series meaning tempers are bound to flare somewhere down the line. Or maybe the past is being looked at with rose tinted glasses, cricket littered with controversies like WG Grace's gamesmanship, Bodyline, and the row between Mike Gatting and Shakoor Rana. Is the spirit of the game real, or is it just a myth? Batsmen not walking, catches being claimed or contested, sledging - all are parts of the game, for better or for worse. Regardless, there has to be a line drawn at some point in regards to sledging and abuse or spats like these could become ever more common, and that fabled spirit of the game become harder to find.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

That winning feeling

Thursday, 31 July 2014
On August 12th, 2013, England wrapped up a 74-run victory over Australia in Durham to take a 3-0 lead in the Ashes series with a match to play. England were flying high; they had easily beaten Australia without even reaching their best in the series, what could they inflict over the winter when they really found their form? Yet nearly a year on, after ten test matches of near misses, a bore draw, and ever-more dismal defeats, England finally have recorded their next victory in this longest format, and in emphatic fashion.

It was a dramatic turnaround. Seeing England just over a week ago it was difficult to see a way up and out of such a mess. The senior players had again failed to deliver, Cook as captain looked close to breaking point, and the batting had collapsed on the final day in a procession of failed hook shots. In short, in ideal conditions, they were beaten at their own game. At Southampton it was almost like seeing a different team, one that followed the script they would have hoped to at the start of this 'new era' - the experienced players leading the way whilst the new boys also made their mark. From the first day, even the first session, England put themselves ahead in the game and - unlike so many times in the past ten matches - they were not going to let their hold slip. After amassing a grand total in their first innings with the aid of Bell and Cook, England's senior bowlers then proved their worth with the ball. India's batsmen made starts but the wickets fell regularly - seven batsmen passed 20 but none passed 60, and eight of the wickets were shared by Anderson and Broad, Anderson topping it off with a five-wicket haul on his 32nd birthday. After Plunkett and Stokes missed out on this test, support came from Woakes, who bowled well but unluckily went wicketless; Jordan, looking off colour on his return; and Ali, used in a more attacking role and finding his reward with two wickets. India were all out for 330 - no dramatic last wicket stands here - and with a lead of 239, England could start to dream of victory. After a quick hit with the bat - adding 205 from 40.4 overs thanks to fifties from Cook and Root - England set India 445 to win the game, or rather themselves four sessions to bowl India out.

They only needed two. Anderson, Broad, and Woakes bowled tightly with the new ball, but the early breakthrough they needed came with the run out of Vijay - so often a thorn in England's side so far this series. Then came the spinners, and they delivered. Moeen Ali was further backed by Cook and was brought on earlier, finding his reward with the wickets of Pujara and Kohli, whilst Joe Root's occasional spin did for Dhawan. India were four down by the close of play. England struck early again when the morning came, both Sharma and Dhoni being caught behind off Anderson for 6. Rahane, unbeaten on 52, proved the only man to resist on the final morning as Ali shone for England, wiping out India's lower order and finishing with his maiden test five wicket haul - a total of six for 67. India were dismissed before lunch for 178; finally England were victorious, and for many in the team it was their first taste of a test match win.

The contrast in Alastair Cook's post match interviews from the past two test matches couldn't have been any more different; an almost broken man a week ago was happier in every respect after contributions with the bat and captaining the side well across the five days. Cook has always been a 'lead from the front' style captain, England doing best when he gets runs, but there were also several points that could be noted as signs of better leadership. One of these was less reliance upon the pair of Anderson and Broad: Woakes was given the ball ahead of Broad at the start of the third day, rewarding Woakes for his efforts whilst also geeing up Broad to do more. He utilised Moeen Ali much more effectively, having previously been rather hesitant to turn to him but here giving him the backing to perform as a frontline spinner in good conditions, and reaping the rewards. The spinning question has been one of the hot topics of debate in English cricket this summer; it was good to see someone starting to provide an answer. Ali had suffered from being seen merely as an occasional bowler, someone to pick up the odd wicket here and there, but in this match proved himself much more than that. Though its not time to get hopes up too far, bowling out one of the best teams at playing spin is no mean feat and shows he does have a role to play at international level.

Progress, then, for Cook and England, hopefully showing a corner turned. The next match comes a week today at Old Trafford, where Plunkett could return to the side for a ground known for his pace and bounce; Anderson could be the man out depending on the outcome of his disciplinary hearing after the incident with Jadeja at Trent Bridge. England are on the up and with the series level at 1-1 and two matches to go, all is left to play for once again. 

Monday, 28 July 2014

Finding form at last

Monday, 28 July 2014
It was sure a long time coming, but finally in this fifth test match of the summer England's two most experienced batsmen - Alastair Cook and Ian Bell - scored meaningful innings for the team's cause. It had been a feature of the summer so far that while the newer members of the team were making their mark - Robson, Ballance, Root, and Ali all making centuries - the two most expected to be leading the batting line up were consistently falling short, but with innings of 95 and 167 respectively the pair gave fans (and the coaching staff) more reasons to look up.

Although Cook did not make it to the three figures he will be desperately craving - having not passed the milestone since May last year - his 95 will go a long way to silence the questions over his form. Though nobody doubted his class - scoring 25 test centuries is certainly no fluke - the dreadful run of form he had endured, for the most part not even making starts, led many (and I include myself in this) to believe that a rest from the side and from test cricket would be the perfect remedy. It was great to be proved wrong. The effort he had put in was clear; tricks such as standing further forward against Kumar were used to combat the swing, and in general he tried to player straighter. He had a slice of luck too - the story could all have been so different when, having scored just 15, a chance was dropped by Jadeja. Sometimes that is just the case - when a batsman is out of form the bad luck keeps on coming; eventually the tide has to turn. By no means was it a pretty innings - Cook's innings rarely are in any case - but it was the innings of a man determined to fight, and the crowd responded as such - a standing ovation when he brought up his fifty and another after his unfortunate dismissal just five short of the elusive century. The runs aren't the only thing that matters for Cook and questions over his leadership of the side will, quite rightly, remain, but it was good to see him put this trouble aside.

Bell was the hero of the last Ashes summer, but hadn't made a century since the fourth test of that series. This summer he was expected to be the leading light of England's batting line up after the departure of Pietersen, yet apart from a couple of pretty fifties against Sri Lanka he has struggled just as much as the captain. A match at Southampton, a ground he appears to favour as a player, turned out to be just what he needed. The pressure coming off to an extent may also have helped - the captain being back in the runs, plus another century from the ever-consistent Ballance (which could easily be forgotten amongst the return to form of the senior pair) would have eased the situation when he came to the crease somewhat, England being at 213/2 at the time. After Bell settled in he looked at ease, playing as he does so well when on song, and found no trouble going through the nervous nineties as he moved from 94 to 100 with a single hit, one of three sixes in his innings. With Ballance he set a perfect platform for England to accelerate in the final session, looking to head past 500 and towards a declaration.

Jos Buttler was the new face in the side after Matt Prior's withdrawal from the rest of the summer through injury, and the inclusion of such an exciting young player would have been a welcome distraction in some respects away from the inquest into the last match. The real focus will of course be upon his keeping and whether he can become test quality with the gloves, but the buzz will come over his batting after his sparkling limited-overs performances. He was another to be fortunate in gaining a life - though he appeared to have been caught on 0, and started to walk, the umpires judged it (rightly or wrongly) to have gone to ground first. What was unlucky for India was to the benefit of England and the entertainment of the crowd, Buttler playing with the freedom and adventure we have witnessed in ODIs in the evening session and scoring 85 from only 82 deliveries. It was the perfect situation for an attacking young wicketkeeper-batsman to come to the crease, already having 400 on the board and looking to set up the declaration, and Buttler certainly took advantage. Though he will of course find himself in tougher situations, he does look to be the player that can provide an injection of life to England's middle order that can at times find itself rather subdued. After tea England added 117 runs in only 18 overs, declaring on 569/7 after Buttler's dismissal and putting themselves firmly in control of the match. The day was then capped off with Anderson's wicket of Dhawan for 6, leaving India at 25/1 at the close of play on day two.

Though the success of the past two days haven't solved all England's problems, it does mean certain worries can at last be laid to rest. It certainly makes a change: England have been dominant over the first two days; haven't surrendered a strong position like they have all too often recently; and now all the top seven have made notable contributions this summer. Now it's time for Cook's captaincy to shine, and for the bowlers to also show their worth.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

The 'Enforcer' Trap

Thursday, 24 July 2014
A thought that has been on my mind for a while now is about why it is that England's bowlers consistently bowl short when it doesn't appear the best option nor suited to conditions; about why they like to have someone labelled as their 'enforcer' when in reality by bowling at their natural length they would be able to do much better and 'enforce' an advantage further.

It seemed to begin with Stuart Broad, around 2011. He's tall with natural pace and bounce, plus a combative attitude, so on they slapped that 'enforcer' label and made him the aggressor. The idea was that with teams such as Sri Lanka and India touring that summer, he would be the one to expose their shortcomings against the short-pitched delivery. In the process they seemed to forget what is usually the secret to success with such a tactic - make it the shock ball, not the stock ball; put the threat of the bouncer into the batsman's mind to make him hesitant to come forward, rather than knowing what to expect and so able to stay back and attack, duck or sway. England won the series, but Broad averaged 48.75 with the ball and by the final innings of the series had lost his position as new ball bowler to Chris Tremlett. Also tellingly, when England lined up with three beanpole fast bowlers in the second test - Broad, Tremlett, and Finn - Sri Lanka racked up 479 with the bat, further showing how variety is often the key. Heading into the India series, on the verge of being dropped, Broad then went back to his more natural, fuller length and it paid off - topping the bowling averages with 25 wickets at 13.84 as England recorded one of their most emphatic series wins and duly went to the top of the test rankings. Quite a contrast.

The role of the enforcer hasn't been seen as much since - though England are still keen on using bouncers and targeting certain players, there hasn't been the talk of one player with that out and out role. But once more with Sri Lanka and India touring - teams from the subcontinent after all not well known for their strengths against the short ball - England seem to be falling into the trap again. This time Liam Plunkett seems to have been picked as the man - he has the natural pace and showed against Sri Lanka how well directed his bouncers can be, and it did bring him some success as he took nine at Headingley. But the secret here was again that it wasn't overused - he threatened with his pace and some close fielders, but his most memorable wickets were when he was threatening (and demolishing) the stumps. The worry is that England are using him in a way where he is repeatedly bowling bouncers even when the pitch doesn't suit - be it a slow low deck like Trent Bridge or a green one like at Lord's - rather than letting him do what got him back in the side. His pace also seems to have dropped, nullifying the threat of the 'enforcer' to some degree anyway, be it from the amount of the workload or other reasons. He hasn't stopped picking up wickets for the team, but there is a feeling that he is being wasted to an extent, his talents not utilised in the right way. Given that he's already on his second spell in the side, it would be a shame to see him not given the chance to reach his best.

But why is it that England seem to persist with this tactic? Is it part of the plans of the bowling coach, David Saker? There was a moment in a recent interview with Steven Finn where he described him as being more of a tactical than a technical coach, something that - though we have always known it - didn't make him look good in a summer where the bowlers have struggled to dismiss the batsmen on several occasions and often looked without answers, the team's tactics often blamed. There have been several changes in the coaching staff recently, with Saker one of the few to remain from the old Flower regime, and with the bowlers' struggles this year there have been suggestions that he should go too. But part of it must be the captain and the bowlers as well - surely they aren't just trained robots without a say in the game they are playing and no ideas of their own. Why not back the bowlers' strengths and just use the short ball as a shock delivery, as an alternative tactic perhaps like used by Sharma on day five? It's something that looks like common sense to those of us watching the game, pundits and fans alike, yet those in and around the England team see it differently.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Where did it all go so wrong?

Monday, 21 July 2014
I am writing this in a state of despair, immediately after seeing England bounced out by Ishant Sharma with an old ball. This isn't even the worst performance or defeat England have had in the past couple of years or so since they lost the number one spot, but it's the manner of the defeat - losing in conditions that would appear tailor made for England against a team from the subcontinent - that makes it a whole new low and obvious that something has to change.

First of all, credit cannot be taken away from India. Both sides have had chances to put themselves on top in this match, and both sides have squandered their opportunities to really put themselves ahead in the game. India fought back from 143/7, Rahane making a brilliant century and showing again that he has a very promising career ahead of him. Bhuvneshwar Kumar put in another strong display with both bat and ball, six wickets in England's first innings and important runs down the order in both India's innings. Jadeja was up for the fight throughout, definitely coming off better in the psychological battle with Anderson, responsible for his dismissals in both of England's innings and his 68 from 57 in the second helping put India in control. Their seamers did better than England's in general - finding that fuller length and being more restrictive throughout. Finally, Sharma's spell of well directed short bowling finished the game off for India, as England's batsmen had no answer and simply followed each other back to the pavilion after making the same bad shot choice.

For England though, questions will have to be asked and changes will have to be made. The ongoing theme of the summer - or even of the whole past year - has been the questions over the form and captaincy of Alastair Cook. With every defeat and every innings, even every day the calls for Cook's head have grown stronger and stronger, and it's difficult to deny that the burden is weighing him down. I have no doubt that he will come back with the bat - he's proved himself too good a player not to - but ever more it looks like the captaincy's just not for him and he needs a break away from the team. Will England miss him if they drop him for the Rose Bowl? Well he's not making a difference with the bat and seeing as his team couldn't do the job on the first day on a green top, it seems his captaincy isn't doing much either. County cricket isn't short of openers who could stake a claim to a place in the team.

In general, the senior players have been letting England down. The newer members aren't without fault of course, but players with such experience should be able to lead the way when a lot of the time - particularly in the batting department - it has felt like the other way round. The writing now looks on the wall for Matt Prior - he hasn't been the safe pair of hands that he had grown to become, conceding byes and putting down chances. At the start of the summer I thought it was a good call to put him back in the test side, adding experience to England's middle order. But aside from the first innings against Sri Lanka (and a couple of dubious umpiring decisions) his batting hasn't been up to scratch, both sides exposing a weakness to the short ball, and though he has had some difficult pitches to keep on, the standard of glovework is falling too. When he was dismissed for 12 in the second innings, there was a feeling of finality about it all. It could very well be a disappointing end to a sparkling career, it looking ever likely that Jos Buttler will come in. Bell's form has been somewhat overshadowed by Cook's struggles, but has been nearly as poor. Broad still looks to be struggling with fitness, and is another of England's bowlers falling into the trap of bowling too short. The same goes with Anderson, bowling too short even though he is a swing bowler who should know better. Is that a matter of poor captaincy or just poor bowling? Both, particularly Anderson, seem to bear the brunt of the workload, Cook seemingly reluctant to turn to the less experienced Stokes and Plunkett even when they were the ones picking up the wickets. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Anderson rested for the next match, one of Woakes, Jordan, or Kerrigan coming in to replace him. 

The way England succumbed so meekly to the short ball in the final innings - and moreover the whole summer so far - has also been especially worrying. Is it a hangover from facing Mitchell Johnson in the Ashes in the winter? Or, with a crop of new players in the team, does it reflect a larger weakness among English players? They've hardly faced anyone of 'express pace' so far, but next year will be facing Australia once more and South Africa - teams with faster bowlers who will expose any weaknesses they see. Ferocious spells of short pitched bowling and regular bouncers are less often found in the county game so players often do have to 'learn on the job' as it may be when they make the step up to international level. Moeen Ali has been exposed more than once this summer; Root didn't look at ease as soon as the tactic was employed and fell to a poor stroke; Stokes was caught without making a run, his disastrous run with the bat continuing. They're going to need to learn fast, because it will only continue.

England have a lot to think about if they are to make their way back into the series. Older players are looking jaded, mentally and physically, and changes will have to be made. When England were at their best, reaching the number one spot in the world, one of their key qualities was that 'never say die' attitude - always coming back when backed into a corner, being able to fight back when under pressure. England have, at times, shown signs of that quality this summer - making it to the last over in the second match against Sri Lanka, Root and Anderson's tenth wicket partnership, Root and Ali's partnership here giving England some hope of winning the match. But too often it's been the other team that's been able to make the fight back, and too often England have succumbed. Something has to give.

Friday, 18 July 2014

The cricket takes stage again

Friday, 18 July 2014
And so the matches have come thick and fast, and we are already two days into this second test. With a particularly green looking pitch, plus an alleged pushing incident between Anderson and Jadeja causing friction between the two sides, this match promises more spice than the first in more ways than one. But after midweek talk of pitches, pushes, and drunken incidents the cricket has again been able to take centre stage.

Unsurprisingly after England won the toss, India were inserted in to bat. Day one saw mixed fortunes for England - poor in the first session, brilliant in the second, and then at their poorest in the evening. Though India's score of 295 all out looks on paper like a decent result for the bowling side, on such a pitch England should have done better. Time and time again they failed to do that most obvious of tactics - pitch the ball up and aim for the stumps or the famous 'corridor of uncertainty'. Once more it was often a case of too short too often. It is all well and good asking for a better pitch, but when you do have a surface that appears tailor made for bowling on it has to be utilised, and from players as experienced as Anderson and Broad you would expect better. India were only one wicket down after the first hour, and only two by the end of the first session - ideally when inserting a team you would have them at least four down by lunch. England were firing after lunch, reducing India to 145/7 shortly after tea and looking like they could knock them over for under 200. But once again England struggled with the lower order and let the innings get away from them, a brilliant century from Rahane helping take India to near 300 - at least ninety runs too many ideally for England.

It was also a mixed bag for England's batsmen. Gary Ballance hit his second test century and was supported in a partnership of 98 by Moeen Ali, but was the only batsman in the top five to pass twenty. England's batsmen were often becalmed by the Indian bowling - their run rate being 2.54 in 86 overs compared to India's 3.21 in 91.4; India's bowlers generally more disciplined and fuller than England and so helping to put pressure upon the batsmen. Ballance though played a top innings, England not being in the easiest of positions early on after losing both openers and seeing the top five crumble away. It's too early to say that England have found their long term replacement at number three for Jonathan Trott who was such a rock for the team, but if Ballance continues the consistency he has shown so far this season - scoring two centuries and two fifties so far and not always in the easiest of circumstances - he could go a long way to filling that role. He looks to be a player unflustered by difficult situations and is able to go through the gears if needs be, as he has shown glimpses of for England but particularly in his county career. More challenges will come of course - providing he is present, next year offers many difficult-looking prospects with series against Australia, Pakistan and South Africa - but for now he looks to be establishing a place in the side and will be pleased to have made the headlines for cricketing reasons after his off-field antics found the headlines more in midweek.

Another concern for England - as if there aren't enough already - will be the form of Ian Bell. With the loss of Trott and Pietersen from the team and many young faces now making up the batting line up, it was hoped that he would be the player to provide the big innings and the impetus in the middle order. Unfortunately so far, it has just not been the case. After being England's star of the home Ashes series last year, his form has just slipped away, averaging under thirty since. Against Sri Lanka he looked in decent touch and scored a couple of quick fifties, but in a sense it was more like the 'old' Ian Bell who made pretty runs but not the defining contribution for the team. It must be said that I am a massive fan of Bell - there are fewer players that I would rather watch make runs - but so often is he frustrating. At 32 he should be in his prime and in an inexperienced lineup should be able to take on that leading role and play the key innings for the team. He's also an ideal player for England's supposed new attacking philosophy, having the natural flair and ability to play attacking innings and put the pressure back on the bowlers when the situation dictates. Yet so far this summer, it's seemed to be the case that the new recruits have been the ones putting in the noteworthy performances without the support of the more experienced members of the batting lineup.

On a more positive note, this match does seem to offer the prospect of a result as opposed to the lifeless nature of the match last week. England closed the day on 219/6 and though they ought to be in a better position in this match in terms of their performances with bat and ball, with a strong late order the chance is there to create a decent first innings lead and put pressure upon India heading towards the end of the match. After taking two late wickets and escaping with the bat in their own innings, India still remain very much in the hunt and the match could be set for an interesting conclusion over the next few days.

Monday, 14 July 2014

The pitch wins out

Monday, 14 July 2014

It was, quite frankly, a bizarre game of cricket. We saw two tenth wicket partnerships worth over a hundred runs, batting collapses and fine centuries on either sides, and finally a wicket for England's captain. There were stages when it all got just a bit surreal.

The one constant was the pitch, which offered next to nothing for the bowlers. There were some brief periods where the ball swung and it offered some turn, but for the most part it was just slow and low. Whether this was a decision from above, a 'chief executive's pitch' that we often hear about, or whether it was due to the drainage systems installed in English pitches in recent years as others suggested; it just wasn't a good pitch for a game of cricket at the highest level. You want to see pitches that offer carry, chances that go to the keeper and the slips rather than always seeing the ball bouncing before them. Matt Prior had to stand much further forward just for the ball to reach him - eventually even standing up to the stumps –  but at the same time it shortened his reaction times and made chances more difficult to take. Really what makes a good match is a contest between bat and ball, a pitch that offers something for both batsmen and bowlers. And especially for England, so far this summer playing four seamers, they need pitches that offer their bowlers some spice.

Another factor that's going to come into play this summer, and especially if pitches like these ones continue, is rotation. In India's first innings all the seamers bowled over thirty overs, in the second innings twenty more. With the whole five test series taking place within the space of a mere 42 days (the next match on Thursday), there will be tired bodies along the way and  to prevent injuries changes to the side will be a must. It's particularly a problem for England now without a front-line spinner to absorb many of the day's overs as well as taking regular wickets. Moeen Ali is decent but far from the finished product - in any case batting being his stronger suit – and was expensive and so unable to build pressure. Simon Kerrigan has been added to the squad for the match at Lord's and so could feature – he had a debut to forget at the end of last summer but the selectors remain keen and Peter Moores, his previous coach at Lancashire, will remain in his corner. The balance of the side is another point to consider when it comes to rotation – would Kerrigan come in for Ali despite his battling century against Sri Lanka, seeing Stokes return to number six; would he give Plunkett a rest to save him for a (traditionally, at least) more bouncy pitch at Old Trafford; or replace Broad, currently managing a knee injury? With test centurions down to number nine in this game, there is room for adjustment if needed.

Though the match was a draw, and with only three innings quite a dull one at that, it did provide its share of enjoyable moments. I wrote about England's problems against tailenders in my last post, and it was a problem shared by India. Joe Root and James Anderson scored a world record tenth wicket partnership of 198, after a swashbuckling innings of 47 by Broad, which really saved the game for England and meant that by the fifth day they were the only team that could realistically have some hope of winning. Anderson's score of 81 was one of the most popular moments of the match, first helping Root reach his century, then giving England the first innings lead, then breaking national and eventual world records; both him and everyone else in a mix of joy and disbelief. It also showed to England that it's a lot easier to enjoy these things when it's not the opposition causing the damage. Then as the match drew to its close, time running down until the sides could shake hands and call it a draw, we saw a rather extraordinary sight. Cook and Ballance got their chance to have a bowl; Ballance walking up like a young Shane Warne and Cook bowling all sorts, even taking a wicket with a bowling impression of Bob Willis. It could even be optimistically described as a moment of captaincy genius, certainly putting smiles on his team's faces after a tough day in the field and doing its bit for team morale.

Both sides got themselves in good positions in this match but I think as a whole England got the better of it, able to put India under pressure on the final day after having looked down the barrel, 159 runs behind at 298/8, when batting. To give credit to Cook, I don't think he had a bad game in terms of captaincy, even if his batting continues to put him under pressure. There were some aspects that he could have done better – putting a third man in would have saved a lot of runs – but he did experiment with the field to some success and couldn't have done much more in the conditions. Both Dhoni and Cook looked powerless as the tenth wickets made hay. But it has to be said that, in this first match of the five test series, the only winner was the pitch.

Two Short Legs © 2014