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.
Two Short Legs © 2014