Saturday, 28 June 2014

English cricket's problem with its fans

Saturday, 28 June 2014
It's been a struggle being a follower of English cricket over the past year. Not just because of what's happened on the pitch either, in fact quite often it's been because of events off the pitch. English cricket, and moreover, the ECB, has not always had the easiest relationship with its fans but it could be glossed over while the team did well. But more often than not in recent times as the team has struggled on the pitch, what's gone on off it has served to distract further – multiple sagas involving Kevin Pietersen, debates over England's supposed cricketing 'philosophy', and now the responses and debates over Cook as captain.

I don't want to weigh in on whether Pietersen should be playing for England – quite frankly, I'm bored of the whole issue and to me what's done is done – we're not going to see him in the side again. But questions must be asked over the ECB's – and specifically the new managing director Paul Downton's – handling of the whole issue. It's obviously an emotive issue for those involved in the game – he was one of England's biggest stars for nearly ten years, certainly the one who attracted the most attention from the media, and played a style of cricket that people loved to see. Though he was frustrating in equal measure and his ego did often get in the way, ditching him was always going to provoke a reaction. Whether or not it was the right decision to make though, the way it has unfolded has been a shambles. Rather than drawing a line under the issue and moving on, we've been treated to dribbles of information coming from either sides (Pietersen far from innocent as well with his comments – subtle and unsubtle – on the issue) – Downton saying one thing, Pietersen refuting it, even at one stage bizarre kind of proxy-war between Matt Prior and Piers Morgan. It's just not the sort of thing you want coming from a national board, and it's not done it any favours with the supporters, many disappointed that Pietersen is gone in the first place. I just find the whole thing tiresome.

It's not just been the Pietersen saga either. The style of play hasn't been inspiring, even at those points when England have been winning – against New Zealand and the home Ashes series. It was far from exciting cricket, the run rate coming at points to a standstill and grinding out the results. It can be odd criticising a team when they're winning, but to many England became unlikeable both in the style of play and in their attitude. It just became worse when the winter came and the results disappeared. When Moores took over he made a point of saying England would adopt a more positive philosophy, an indication that the criticism was being listened to. Was it in evidence in the Sri Lankan series? Well at times, yes, but at times no. The captaincy was a part of it, questions continuing over Cook's position. It would be unfair to judge the new side on just one series, which in any case was thoroughly enjoyable as both games went down to the final over. But if England are to start playing attractive cricket, they'll be wanting fewer days like day four where they gave no answer to Sri Lanka's dominance, losing all sense of attack.

And on to Cook, though I don't want to be going on and on over whether or not he should be captain. It's just that he's not doing himself any favours, and nor are the ECB. Giles Clarke's comments about Cook and his family being right to lead England, and Downton's unquestioning support – especially given where he stands on Pietersen – just haven't sat well as more and more the leader on the field has come under fire. Cook's response hasn't come off well either – saying 'something needs to be done' in relation to Warne's comments. Now, I do find Warne's comments repetitive, excessive and rather annoying, but it's just not really how an international captain should be responding to criticism. It would be much better to see his response on the pitch, or else it's just going to continue. When it came to the end of the match, England agonisingly being defeated on the penultimate ball, Anderson was in tears, while with Cook once more it seemed like a bit too much media speak and not enough soul.

Really, I just want to see my team doing well again at the game I love, I want to see them enjoying their cricket, I want to see signs of progress rather than having to sigh from disappointment whenever I watch them. I'm still going to stay optimistic over their future because there are reasons to look up even with their most recent defeat – they came so close to saving the match after one of the great innings from Mathews and a top order collapse that really left them with too much to do; you can't really blame Anderson because really he shouldn't have been in that position. But I do think that English cricket does have to work on its relationship with its fans, because, after all, they are the ones spending money and their emotion on the team.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

A Tale of Two Captains

Tuesday, 24 June 2014
And so on the fourth day of the second test, English cricket returned to normal. After coming so close to victory in the first test and then looking ahead after the first two innings (though not taking full advantage of their superior position – the lower order crumbled too swiftly to amass a huge lead they had the potential to do), day four saw England fall apart, showing their troubled winter is far from behind them.

The second test has been a tale of two captains – Angelo Mathews' has continued to lead Sri Lanka from the front, starring with bat and ball; whilst Alastair Cook's run of poor form looks to go on and on, his captaincy once again looking uninspired. Mathews played one of the great captains' innings, reaching 160 and building a considerable lead for his team, surely preventing defeat and turning the match on its head - turning a 108 run first innings deficit into a lead of 349. It's certainly been an impressive series for Mathews – first getting his name on the famous honours board at Lord's and his 18 from 90 in the second innings going a long way to saving the test; whilst at Headingley he has made his contributions with both bat and ball – his bowling perfectly suiting the surface and taking four first innings wickets. Mathews has certainly been one of those players for whom captaincy has brought the best out of, at least so far in his career, averaging 78.83 with the bat as captain compared to 39.71 when not leading his side. His wicket has become one of the most prized of the opposition, up there with Sangakkara and Jayawardene.

For Alastair Cook, however, the misery has continued. Cook's form with the bat has completely fallen away after leading from the front when he first took over. From averaging 80.28 in his first permanent series as captain (the series win in India), in his most recent three series he has averaged under thirty, the captaincy taking its toll. And the results on the pitch have not been able to shield him. Not all the criticism he has received for his captaincy has been deserved, but it must be said that a brilliant tactician he is not. A problem with English cricket under the central contract system, although an overwhelmingly positive development, is that once a player becomes a fixture in the team they have little chance to gain experience captaining a side. This is particularly true for those who come into the team at a very young age, touted with the 'future England captain' tag from the start of their international career – players such as Cook and now also said of Joe Root. What experience can be gained is often through the Lions side – but not the intensive, long term involvement that can be gained with a county. But counties need their captains to be around and playing regularly for them – creating a vicious circle that just makes it difficult for obvious captains to emerge within the England set-up. Previous captains such as Strauss did have experience, but came into the team at a slightly older age and so at least had some chance to captain their county sides first. I don't believe that Cook is suited to the job, but I struggle to see anyone really putting himself out there, secure enough of his place in the side, to replace him. Bell has had brief experiences captaining Warwickshire but doesn't seem to be considered internationally, and now in his thirties doesn't have time on his side; Prior was vice-captain but has since been dropped and must now re-establish himself in the side; Broad has captained the Twenty20 side but is unlikely to take the role for tests; Morgan also captaining in Twenty20 but remaining outside the test team. It's difficult to see an obvious solution.

Cook's captaincy has certainly been lacking. I don't think he did badly in the first test - the timing of his declaration has been criticised but to me it suited the match situation. But it has shown before and was shown again – when the team is under the cosh they often seem to have no answer, no 'plan B', an alternative strategy for when the first one fails. He is too often too defensive and hesitant. On day four he persisted with his pace quartet, not turning (no pun intended) to the spin option of Moeen Ali until many overs were bowled with the 'new' ball. He may not be Graeme Swann, but he does at least offer a change of pace, and an option you would think to go to when not much seems to be happening. The bowlers should also take some blame; those with the experience of Anderson and Broad should be able to make more of a contribution in such matters. The team as a whole fell flat. And then the batting fell apart under pressure. Reckless shots – nightwatchman Plunkett's the first to come to mind, a shot completely unsuited to the match situation – and good balls seeing England's top order crumble to 57/5. With just Root, Ali, and Prior the recognised batsmen left for England – Broad and Jordan hard to predict – England face an Everest to save the match. The questions will continue to come.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

On Liam Plunkett and second chances

Saturday, 21 June 2014
When Liam Plunkett played his first match for England in late 2005 the circumstances weren't ideal, particularly for a twenty year old seam bowler. The third test against Pakistan in Lahore saw England in the midst of their post-Ashes hangover and up against players such as Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Yousuf at their brilliant bests. Plunkett didn't do especially badly, picking up two wickets, but Pakistan racked up over 600 and won by an innings and 100 runs.

Plunkett showed promise in his first spell in the England side, but without ever doing enough to hold down a regular place. His best period perhaps came in the one day side, in England's surprise win in the ODI triangular in 2007 after an Ashes whitewash where he was England's joint highest wicket taker in the series along with Flintoff - taking 12 wickets at 23.00 but playing four less matches. But overall in this first phase he just faded away. Like many players in the Fletcher era, Plunkett seemed to be put in the 'one for the future' box, picked young to be forgotten about later. His action too seemed a bit mechanical, constantly practicing it between deliveries. Over the next few years Plunkett slipped back into the pack as others emerged - young players such as Broad, Finn, and Bresnan as well as the re-emergence of the more experienced Sidebottom.

Something that was notable in Peter Moores' first stint as England coach was how he seemed willing to give second chances to players either forgotten about or who had burnt bridges under Fletcher - the most obvious examples being that of Sidebottom and Graeme Swann. Players who, like Plunkett, had probably been selected at first when too young and didn't know their own games or lacked the maturity for international cricket at the time. What can also be seen with these players is how a change of scene also helped to revitalise them - both Swann and Sidebottom finding new challenges and a new environment at Nottinghamshire - a fresh start also helping to give them the push they needed. The same thing happened with Plunkett. After slipping down the pecking order at Durham, hampered also by injuries and problems with his action while also picking up a couple of driving bans, a move away was also to be what he needed. Yorkshire took a risk in signing him but it paid off - under the coaching of Jason Gillespie he has returned to doing what he does best - bowling fast and taking wickets. There is competition for places at Yorkshire but Plunkett has managed to break through and this season 24 wickets at 24.83 has seen him make his way into an England side looking for fresh blood.

And so it has been a delight to see Plunkett back in the side; I do always appreciate it when a player is given another chance and starts to deliver. At Lord's, though he didn't necessarily pick up the wickets, he did a good job, bowling the fast and nasty into the ribs of the batsmen as England used the short ball to good effect. Sometimes I feel England overdo it with bouncers - sometimes getting distracted from the main way to take wickets - bowling at the stumps. But in general I think they did better at Lord's - doing enough to make batsmen hesitant about going forward and exploiting the often uncertain techniques against the short stuff. At Headingley so far Plunkett has found his rewards: his first five wicket haul in test matches, joining in as wickets clattered after tea to dismiss Sri Lanka for 257. Broad's hat-trick must also be mentioned - only the fourth man to take two in test cricket, and probably one of the only ones not to realise he had done so after it was split across two overs. But it was great to see Plunkett in the wickets - especially in front of his new home crowd - and hopefully more success can follow. He has the kit to succeed at international level and does offer that bit of extra pace to England's attack, and now with more experience and more knowledge of his own game - he can start to deliver on the potential England first found nearly ten years ago.

Monday, 16 June 2014

And the new age begins...

Monday, 16 June 2014
Okay, so I know that we've already had the ODI series, and though I don't have a problem with it coming first - if anything I'm in favour of it - the first test still for me marks the beginning of the international summer.

The announcement of the test squad came with a whole host of new faces - only six players remaining from the last test on English soil, three debutants, and another whose last test came in 2007. On the whole I was quite happy with the squad - though some had called for Buttler or various others to join the side I thought it was a good mix of the old and the new. With a batting line up featuring Robson, Ballance, and Ali - a grand total of one cap between them - plus Joe Root with just over eighteen months' experience, to keep Prior in made sense and was a good move. Though he has struggled over the past year with bat and gloves - leading to being dropped in the winter - it was a good idea to have a man of his experience and known class in a very young side. Safe maybe, but in my eyes the right call. To see Jordan and Plunkett in the side also made me particularly excited. I've been impressed by Jordan in the recent ODI series and he looks like a player that can make things happen, whilst Plunkett has really improved since moving to Yorkshire, looking to become the player England always hoped he would after his career stalled in Durham.

And then came the match. Sri Lanka chose to bowl first which did seem a bit odd - though the pitch did have a greenish tinge on the first morning in general Lord's is a ground that suits the batsmen best. And so it came to be. Early wickets fell and though the Sri Lankan bowlers didn't bowl badly, initially they came more through poor shot selection from the English batsmen. But there was a change from the recent months in their approach which looked a lot more positive. Ian Bell once more looked at ease, showing that when he's in form not many look better. Moeen Ali also looked comfortable on his test debut, showing promise in his innings of 48, whilst in the tail Jordan, Broad and Plunkett all put in positive, attacking innings. In the mean time, Joe Root seemed to pass under the radar for much of the innings, especially on the first day, but put his troubles of the past year behind him in a brilliant innings of 200*, his highest test score following his 180 at the same ground the previous year. England declared on 575/9, the first time they had passed 400 since March 2013 and first score over 500 since December 2012. Perhaps they weren't facing the best bowling attack, but it was nice to see them in the runs once more.

Sri Lanka also looked comfortable with the bat as the pitch continued to offer little for the bowler. Chris Jordan's first test wicket came with only his third delivery, as he continued to look like a player that just tends to make things happen. But it only meant that Kumar Sangakkara came to the crease. In his three previous matches at Lord's he was yet to make a century, something that on his probable last tour of England he would have been determined to correct. I mentioned that Bell is one of the best looking players when in form - well he's up there with Sangakkara. It was a century popular among all cricket lovers, and the celebration was also a treat - a hug from his best friend Jayawardene. Sangakkara looked so comfortable that it came as a surprise when he got out - in many ways it looked like he was set to bat the match. Angelo Mathews' innings must also not be forgotten - it is always an honour for any visiting player to get their name on that honours board, and especially as the captain leading from the front. Sri Lanka were all out for 453, a perfectly respectable total but still 122 behind.

Another fine innings came from Gary Ballance. Surprisingly moved up to bat at number three for his second test - a position he hadn't even batted at for Yorkshire - Ballance found himself in a pressured situation as England slipped to 102/5 and 121/6 but coped admirably. He has put in similar performances for Yorkshire in difficult situations over the past few years and so to see him doing it on the international stage was great to see, and will hopefully be the first of many centuries for England. England declared on 267/8, 389 runs ahead. Perhaps they would have liked a few overs before the close of play on day four but after having to rebuild earlier in the day, it was safety first for the captain.

So it all came down to the final day. Sri Lanka needed a nominal 390 to win or to bat out 90 overs for a draw, England needed ten wickets. It was slow progress for England as Sangakkara and Silva bedded in again, only one wicket down by lunch, only three down by tea. But then England struck. A bizarre field was in place - and who knows whether it got into the batsmen's heads - but Anderson struck twice in the overs immediately after the break and getting the especially important wicket of Sangakkara. The result suddenly looked possible once more. England were back bowling aggressively - a good mix of fast and nasty deliveries directed at the body with those aimed at the stumps - and the new ball was on its way. They struck with the new ball, crucially dismissing Mathews who had been digging in to save the game with 18 from 90. But still two wickets were needed from the last over. Down came the first ball and Herath gloved it to Prior - replays showed that his hand was not on the bat when it hit him but it didn't matter as he walked anyway. England thought they'd won when on the penultimate ball the umpire gave Pradeep out LBW, but his referral showed a clear edge. The final ball was edged but didn't quite carry to slip and that was it. A draw.

This match showcased nearly everything I love about test cricket - the drama and tension, a good contest between both sides, and fine batting performances and spells of bowling. That it can take five days of cricket and still all go down to the final delivery for me just shows how great a sport this is. The two sides meet again at Headingley on Friday, with England looking the favourites and hoping to secure the first series win of this new era.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Mankad-ing - masking England's greater problems?

Thursday, 5 June 2014
So as we can see I very rarely update this blog so I can't expect anyone to be reading this but there we are. I can try. Occasionally.

It's a new era for England, something that seems to be talked about everywhere in the press - new coaching staff, an influx of new players, a general feeling of out with the old and in with the new. It is something already visible in this ODI side - players such as Harry Gurney being given a chance for the first time, plus more game time for those we started to see in the winter like Chris Jordan and Gary Ballance. However, in many ways the same old story looks to be continuing.

The one day series against Sri Lanka has seen its fare share of heroics and controversies for England: Chris Jordan with bat and ball and Jos Buttler's brilliant century in a losing cause being weighed against the great Mankad-ing incident of 2014 by Senanayake, a man already down in popularity after being called for an illegal action. For me the issue has been blown completely out of proportion - of course it is controversial as it is rarely seen in the game, but it is within the rules. The 'Spirit of Cricket' is a much talked about element of the game - yet still batsmen don't walk after giving edges, catches are claimed when they may have gone to ground - or challenged if a batsman isn't sure. To me, if a batsman is trying to gain an unfair advantage by backing up too far - and is warned about it by the bowler - then why not? If you don't want it to happen in the game, then don't have it in the rules. In any case, the whole Buttler/Senanayke incident seems to have served to distract from the real issue in relation to England - once more the batting hasn't looked up to scratch for a modern ODI team.

I am a very big fan of both Joe Root and Gary Ballance - being a Yorkshire fan I am unashamedly biased after seeing them do so well for the county in previous seasons. I do believe they have great futures in the England side, but in this series though they have got runs, it hasn't necessarily been fast enough. It's a great debate that always seems to follow this England team - players such as Cook and Trott regularly accused of scoring the runs but at a pace that only serves to put pressure on the rest of the team - and these two appear to be continuing in this tradition - in this series at least. Often the strategy is one that works in England, but around the world they can particularly struggle. I would love to see Hales come into the side as he would seem to be a player capable of rising to the challenge and has certainly contributed exciting innings in the Twenty20 side. He looks like the man to give the team the impetus at the top of the order that they need. Players like Buttler and Morgan can do it further down the order, but can be left with too much to do too late - as was the case in the fourth game. It is an issue though that seems to crop up time and time again with this England side - you have to wonder if it is something that will ever be addressed.

But onwards we go, and with the prospect of several more new faces in a test side with much to prove after one of the worst winters for English cricket in recent memory. I do find rebuilding stages fairly exciting - players out to prove themselves, the new coach looking to mould a side, and just the matter of who will play - I can't remember a time when so many places in the test team looked up for grabs. With the added spice from the ODI controversies to throw into the mix, it certainly promises to be an interesting summer.
Two Short Legs © 2014