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. 
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