Monday, 21 December 2015

Highlights of 2015

Monday, 21 December 2015
Before the series against South Africa begins on Boxing Day, here's a moment to look back over the highs of the past year. Of course there have been many downs for England as well, perhaps even more than their ups, but still there are plenty of fond memories to look back on from the past twelve months. Last year in writing my highlights of 2014, Yorkshire's County Championship victory was my personal favourite. They did it again this year and it remains an obvious highlight - so to make this slightly easier on myself I've restricted my selections to the international game only. Here then are my favourite moments of English cricket in 2015:

5. Ben Stokes is reborn

Ben Stokes had a difficult 2014. After being the ray of hope to come out of England's Ashes gloom, he broke a hand punching a locker, was dropped from the test side, and then missed out on the World Cup squad too. What a joy then it was to see a return to form in 2015. There were signs during the tour to West Indies that his mojo was coming back - but it was the first test of the summer at Lord's where he truly made his mark. Back at number six, but coming in to bat when only 30 runs were on the board, he made 92 from 94 in the first innings; then in the second innings he went and made the fastest ever test century at Lord's. Six wickets in the second innings at Trent Bridge, as England secured their Ashes victory, further demonstrated his abilities as a genuine and exciting match winner. Consistency remained an issue, but Stokes ensured that England's love affair with all-rounders would live on.

4. England's ODI revival

The World Cup was a disaster for England. Knocked out against forever-unfancied Bangladesh, bowled out for 123 against New Zealand, their only victories coming against associate teams; really it couldn’t be much worse. It was the same old story repeating itself. What a surprise it was then to see such a dramatic turnaround. The first ODI against New Zealand saw England rack up an astonishing total of 408/9, and the runs didn't stop coming for the rest of the series. Victory over the World Cup runners-up, a close 3-2 loss against the champions Australia, and then victory over Pakistan showed not just a rebirth, but a complete transformation. New players were coming in and making their mark, whilst others were playing with the freedom and expressiveness that seemed absent at the start of the year - think Buttler twice breaking his record for fastest ODI century for England. ODI cricket had suddenly become something for English fans to really get excited about.

3. New Zealand's tour of England

The Ashes may have been the centrepiece for the English summer, but New Zealand were there to do far more than just whet the appetite. There came a test series of two thrilling matches, finishing one apiece and really begging for a deciding third. Five ODIs where the pendulum swung each way, the perfect tonic for English fans after a disappointing World Cup. It was the style of cricket played: full of positivity, always ready to go on the attack. It seemed to inspire England as well. It was the atmosphere throughout - it may be a stereotype to label New Zealand as the nice team of international cricket, but it was a series played in good spirits throughout. And it was the players: Kane Williamson, Brendon McCullum, Trent Boult, Tim Southee, Ross Taylor, and countless others. The only disappointment was that they couldn't stay for longer.

2. 60 all out

Did this really happen? It was a moment that was hard to believe, but it was the morning that well and truly won England the Ashes. England were without Anderson, but that was soon forgotten when Stuart Broad took 8-15. His five-for came in only 19 deliveries. It felt like you couldn't breathe for another wicket falling. Normally there's at least someone to stand up, rescue the situation somewhat to avoid a complete embarrassment, but this time that person never came for Australia. Batsman after batsman succumbed, often falling in reckless ways that could have been avoided. And there was that catch by Ben Stokes, that even those on the field could barely believe. There was no way back for Australia from there.

1. England regain the Ashes

It's hard to choose another moment as number one in an Ashes winning year. The series wasn't a classic - a 3-2 scoreline disguises just how one-sided the matches truly were. But it was a triumph indeed. Before the series, almost nobody had given England a chance. I thought myself optimistic in thinking that England could sneak a draw. England weren't necessarily that good either, but they pulled through at the right times. Like when Joe Root made the most of being given a second chance at Cardiff, making a century after Haddin spilled at the very start of his innings. How there was always someone to step up with the ball: Edgbaston and Trent Bridge seeing Anderson, Finn, Broad, and Stokes taking hauls of six wickets or more. Even the smaller innings, less remembered but no less important - Ballance's 61 at Cardiff and Moeen Ali's 59 at Edgbaston being examples. England were unfancied, still on the road to recovery after being whitewashed the previous time round. Yet the underdogs came out victorious, and that has to be my highlight of 2015.

Friday, 18 December 2015

10 Years Since Edgbaston: Where Are We Now?

Friday, 18 December 2015
Over the past few months I've looked back at the past ten years of English cricket, since those glorious days in the summer of 2005 that captured the nation, and the Edgbaston test hailed as one of the best of all time. It's been a period with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows on the field, and with many bumps coming off the field as well. Now I turn to the present, asking simply: where are we now?

England's journey on the field over the past decade has never been plain sailing. The glory of the summer of 2005 soon came to a juddering halt against Pakistan in the winter, and the cycle of brilliant highs and crushing lows has only repeated itself over the past ten years. England have had some of their finest achievements on the face of it: five Ashes wins, including one away from home; topping the world rankings; beating India in India. But so too have there been some of their most abject of failures, particularly the two Ashes whitewashes and the 3-0 loss to Pakistan in 2012, just months after topping the world rankings. In the shortened forms it's most often been a story of misery, apart from the odd exception – the World Twenty20 in 2010 being the most memorable. More often, world cups have been repeats of themselves, with England simply never looking up to the task.

Right now England seem to be on the beginning of their journey. An Ashes win is already under their belts, but they've still lost more tests this year than they've won. They're a work in progress, and certainly there is a lot of talent around. There's even hope that they might have sorted out their one day game too, playing with a freedom and expressiveness unheard of for an England ODI side. And maybe there is that trace of 2005 in them – players capable of winning the match with bat or ball, an all rounder who could do it with both. Players who are likeable, showing their personality and expressing themselves on the field. Still there are pieces of the puzzle to fill in – in the test side especially, the batting line-up is shaky to say the least. They look capable of racking up a big score if the players come off, or being bundled out for not-very-many when they don't. There are still question marks over spin, too. There's definitely something to be excited about there, but only time will tell how good they are. And if they are good enough, the challenge will be to make their success last – something they haven't managed to do in these past ten years.

Off the field, the outlook is less bright. In many ways, it's hard to see how the fan's view of the ECB could be any worse right now. A lot of damage has been done, and especially so in the more recent years. And there are many issues that still need to be solved; difficult issues where there is no clear answer. How to resolve the domestic structure, in a way that will keep the players, the fans, and the administrators happy and actually work? What would the best Twenty20 competition be, and how can we make the County Championship best serve the test team? Right now it doesn't seem like any group is winning. What is the way forward at grass roots level – the best way to inspire new players and have more people playing the game regularly? Coaching has improved, but numbers have fallen. What about cricket on television – is there a way that even a small amount of live action can make it on a free channel? And what about the 'Big Three' and the future of the international game as a whole?

Cricket is vastly different to where it was ten years ago, and will surely be vastly different in ten years' time as well. Who could have known how big Twenty20 would become, the leagues it would spawn, the effect it would have on the way cricket is played in other formats? 2015 has seen its own beginning: the first day-night test match, played with a pink ball. And though the ball has had a mixed reception, the stadium was packed, paving the way for more. It may not reach England, but could have a great impact in other parts of the world and help fill the seats once again. Where will England be in another ten years? If the next decade turns out anything like these past ten years, then it will be impossible to predict. But I'll be in it for the whole ride.

10 Years Since Edgbaston: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

Thursday, 3 December 2015

10 Years Since Edgbaston: Part 5

Thursday, 3 December 2015
Over the past ten years, it's often felt like the ECB's relationship with the fans has been on a downward spiral. And it's not necessarily over one consistent issue: instead there are just a lot of little things that can just stack up, giving an overriding sense of separation between those running the game and the rest.

The issue that perhaps best shows the troubled relationship between the ECB and the fans though, is over a player: yes, Kevin Pietersen. I've written on the issue several times before, as it just seems to repeat itself too often, so I'll try not to go into too much depth and repeat myself too. It's just the way the whole thing has been handled so horribly. Ten years ago, Pietersen made his test entrance, a key figure of that Ashes win. Who can forget his 158 at The Oval, fifteen fours and seven sixes, coming in at a time when the result was still in the balance? It was the kind of innings that built his image, showed how he was always capable of the extraordinary even if it was always equally likely to end in frustration. A player who would empty the bars, inspire batsmen around the country, a player people would sit up and watch. Yes, there were always many who didn't like him – his arrogance and attitude could just as easily turn people off, whilst others grumbled about his South African origins – but in those first years in the team, the world was at his feet.

But it was a downward slide after taking the captaincy, and then losing the captaincy. The relationship between player and board was never the same, and the fallout from the second Ashes whitewash became too much. It's not an issue of whether or not he should be in the team; or at least, it stopped being about that a long time ago. It's about the way the matter has been managed. Announcements without proper explanations, vague wars of words that do nothing to clear the matter up, declaring that he has no England future on the same day he scores an unbeaten triple century for his county – as bad timing as you could possibly get. The matter does, at last, seem resolved despite the occasional snipe, and we can finally breathe a sigh of relief. Pietersen's been no angel throughout – the comments on twitter are tiring, and the book doesn't leave him in a good light either. But a lot of the time the ECB seem to have made it their mission to come off worse, and have made themselves the villains in the eyes of many who still want to see him play. And there have been those subtly-messaged comments: about the people 'outside cricket', those with the 'right sort of family'. What does it make the rest of us?

And there's the self-interest matter too. The development of the 'Big Three' at the ICC, a move that appears to ensure England remain as one of the powerhouses of the game off the pitch, even as they're often struggling on it. A move to help England's sense of self-importance, in a sense creating a new division alongside India and Australia, whilst diminishing 'smaller' nations. Is it a move of a nation who cares for the health of an international game, or a nation that puts its own survival first, even if it then only has two friends left to play with? Well, at least they wouldn't have to play teams like Pakistan, South Africa, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, West Indies; all teams they've failed to beat in test series over the past three years. The treatment of associates can be even worse: just look at the scheduling for matches against Ireland and Scotland, and look at the team selections, too. Look at matches against Hong Kong and the UAE on England's current tour: matches where there's no good reason why they couldn't really have been full internationals, but that instead became mere knockabouts between 'elevens'.

Sometimes cricket just doesn't feel accessible. Ticket prices rise to new levels whilst there's no live action on free television, which can push the game to be more abstract than a reality for many. Good things do happen: programmes like Chance To Shine, launched in 2005, helping to bring regular coaching and competitive cricket into state schools; and involving many high profile cricketers from the men's and women's games. It's a programme that has done a great job, showing the educational value of cricket and succeeding in its initial ten-year aim to get cricket back into a third of state schools.

But elsewhere it can look gloomy. The ECB's National Cricket Playing Survey found in 2014 that significantly less people were playing the game regularly than the year before. The weather was a factor, yes, but there was also a notable proportion dissatisfied with the options on offer; particularly the case in the southern Asian community. Look at the England team, and it doesn't always seem representative. There's the 'posh boy' image of the game that is difficult to shake off, with many players coming from a private school background or else having close family members very involved in the game. It's nothing against them at all, and in sport you cheer for your players regardless of where they've come from. But you do wonder if there are others out there being lost through lesser opportunity.

There's just often a feeling of disconnect between those running the game and those watching it, between the desires of the board and the desires of the supporters and even the players. It's something that's always been there to an extent, but it feels like it's a relationship that has deteriorated further over the past ten years; or maybe I'm simply more aware of this as I've grown older, past the optimistic eleven year old on the high of 2005. As I've said before, there are no issues here with easy answers, and they're not ones I'd like to have the responsibility to solve either. Surely though, there must be some room for improvement.

10 Years Since Edgbaston: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4
Where Are We Now?

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

A team on the rise

Tuesday, 1 December 2015
It was difficult to know what to expect going into the Twenty20 series, the final leg of England's tour to the UAE. England were in an experimental mode, trying out many different faces and resting the more familiar as they search for their best eleven for the World Twenty20 in March next year. Their record since the last tournament might be a good one, but before this series, it was a record based upon four matches. With many new names around the squad - as well as a rather new coach - it was a chance for many to prove themselves worthy of making the trip to India in the spring.

Match one certainly showed their intent to mix it up. Despite being in the squad, players like Root and Buttler were absent from the side, with Sam Billings taking on the keeper's gloves and James Vince making his long-awaited debut. Both made their impact, too - Billings was the top scorer with 53 from just 25 balls, whilst Vince scored 41 and helped England recover from early setbacks that left them 19/3. Partnerships were key - the recovery between Vince and Morgan (45*); the later assault with Morgan and Billings, as 65 runs came from the last six overs to bring England's total to 160.

The bowlers did their job too, another attack with different faces. Topley continued to impress early in his international career, taking 3/24; whilst Stephen Parry took two wickets in his first match since England's defeat to the Netherlands at the previous World Twenty20. Parry has long been an important part of Lancashire's Twenty20 success, and showed he has something to offer England in India where spin will be important. The pick of the bowlers though was Liam Plunkett, something of a forgotten man on this tour and playing only his second international Twenty20 after making his debut back in 2006. Plunkett took 3/21, constantly looking a threat as his pace troubled the batsmen. What perhaps hurt Pakistan most though was the run out of Umar Akmal - as both he and Sohaib Maqsood were left sliding their bat in at the same end. It was comedy cricket at its finest, and the first of three wickets to tumble in the space of six deliveries. The lower order took Pakistan close, but they had been left with an uphill struggle. England took the first match by 14 runs.

England continued to mix things up in the second match. Morgan was out of the team as Buttler captained the side for the first time, with Moeen Ali was also missing out. No one player stood out with the bat for England as several made starts, Vince top scoring with a 24-ball 38 in England's total of 172/8. With Plunkett again taking three wickets, and Rashid taking 2/18 from his four overs, England looked to be heading for a comfortable victory. The run rate was getting out of hand for Pakistan, but Pakistan had Shahid Afridi. You never know when Afridi will go full Afridi, but it happened in match two. Pakistan needed 47 to win from 18 balls; Afridi faced eight and scored 24. But Woakes held his nerve. He had taken the brunt of Afridi's attack, but took his wicket with the last ball of the 18th over, and in the final over came out on top. England secured a narrow 3-run victory, and with a match still to play, the series was theirs.

When they fell to 86/6 in the last match, they'll have been glad the series was already secure, too. Both Roy and Moeen Ali had been dismissed for golden ducks, and both Buttler and Billings were out for single figures. This time Woakes starred with the bat, hitting 37 from 24 to help England's score to a competitive 154/8, and Vince again top scored with 46 in something of an anchor role as the wickets tumbled around him. Pakistan had a rather chaotic start to their reply: Willey's first over having a boundary, four wide balls down the legside, a wicket (bowled), and then a run out after another mix up that left both batsmen at the same end. But the game was never over - Shoaib Malik making 75 from 54 and Afridi starring again with 29. Pakistan needed ten from the final over, and after Tanvir hit a six on the second ball, victory looked like theirs. But it wasn't. A dot, a single, and finally the wicket of Malik, before a bye on the last ball that left scores tied.

A super over was called for. Pakistan would bat - unsurprisingly, Afridi was their man; surprisingly, Akmal was chosen over Malik. England chose Chris Jordan as their bowler, another surprise - in the main match he hadn't taken a wicket, and was their most expensive. But his super over was bang on. The fifth ball especially was spot on, a yorker that could only be hit back to him. Pakistan could muster only three runs, and Akmal was bowled on the last ball. Afridi took the ball for Pakistan, and though it wasn't easy for England either, Morgan and Buttler saw the job through. The matches got closer and closer, but England had come away with a 3-0 win.

And so, England have cause to be optimistic for the World Twenty20. An inexperienced group of players have impressed in both the Twenty20 and ODI games in new conditions for many, and though England still might not know their best eleven yet, they'll know more about what their players can do on this stage. It might be too soon to think that they have a chance come March, but the signs are there that this is a team on the rise, and there's certainly something to look forward to in the future.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

The Bell tolls

Sunday, 22 November 2015
Yes, I know you're groaning as you read that title; I just couldn't resist. This week, England announced their squad for the upcoming tour of South Africa, and there was one name noticeably missing: Ian Bell. A veteran of over 100 tests, a senior figure in the team, and yet one that has struggled so much for runs over the past two years. The door has been left open for a future return to the side - and the way England's middle order has been, there is always a chance - yet at 33 years old, it's often hard for a player to come back after a drop like this.

Ian Bell has certainly been one of my favourite players for England over the past decade. There's that effortless sense of beauty about his batting, a player you could just sit and watch for hours. Just watch him play a late cut and you'll see that ease of timing, technique, and perfect placement that the rest of us can only dream of. There are those golden periods: the 2013 Ashes where his three centuries were key in the series win; average over a hundred in the summer of 2011, hitting four centuries (one a double) along the way. When he was on song, everything just looked too easy. But there as well was always the frustration. All the talent in the world, but not always the mentality to go with it. His early centuries always came once a teammate already had one on the board, and if there was a collapse he'd rarely be the man to stand up and fight. Of course, he improved with time - his resistance in Cape Town at the start of 2010 showing a different side to him - but it was a reputation that seemed always to follow him around. 118 tests show a fine career, but an average of 42.69 shows he could perhaps have made more of his talents.

And the past two years haven't been so fun to watch. The glorious summer of 2013 gave way to the whitewash of the winter, where Bell wasn't alone in struggling against the Australian bowlers. And since then it has been a mixed bag: odd centuries, odd fifties, but even more scores of nought or one. Mistakes in the field haven't helped either, with more than one dropped catch that has proved costly to the team cause. And so, a drop from the side doesn't come as a huge shock, but seeing him absent from the whole squad was a surprise. There's still the chance for him to knuckle down, make a ton of runs for Warwickshire, and force his way back into the side; but if this does turn out to be the end of his international career, it's a sad one indeed.

Of course, Bell's absence is not the only noteworthy selection or non-selection. Whilst Hales looks likely to be the next man opening alongside Cook, the inclusion of Compton shows the selectors aren't yet closing the door on anyone. With hindsight, they might be wishing they hadn't dropped him in the first place, so long has the search for an opening batsman gone on. It's a good decision: Compton has been one of the most consistent batsmen in county cricket over the past few years, and there's potential for a return at the top or at number three, his position for Middlesex. Gary Ballance also returns, and it will be interesting to see if he has adapted his game during his stint away. Bowling wise, with Wood and Finn both absent through injury, Woakes, Jordan, and Footitt come in. The omission of Plunkett is one that surprises me: after carrying the drinks in the UAE, South Africa is a place that looked made for him, and yet he has been leapfrogged by others. I am though, looking forward to seeing Mark Footitt potentially making his debut - a left-arm option and someone who has had a lot of success in the county game. Rashid also misses out with England very unlikely to need a second spinner, looking set to join up with Jason Gillespie in the Big Bash in Australia.

In the meantime, England's ODI team is on the rise. Whilst the first match saw the collapses of old, coming at both the start and the end of the innings, the next three have brought convincing victories and many impressive performances with them. There was the bowling of Topley in game one, with three wickets in the opening ten overs; Alex Hales's maiden century in the second match; the bowling of Chris Woakes at the death, with four wickets in both the second and third game; the way Taylor (67*) and Buttler (49*) chased down Pakistan's total in the third game, not the highest total to chase but coming to the crease in a far-from-easy situation; and Jason Roy making his maiden century as well in the final match, both openers really starting to flourish. And then there was Buttler.

Jos Buttler played the kind of innings that's still hard to believe, no matter how many times you watch it. He has now twice broken his own record for England's fastest ODI century, coming this time off a mere 46 deliveries. He scored in 360 degrees around the ground - giant sixes down the ground one minute, a four over the keeper's head the next. How can you set a field to that? How are mere mortals supposed to compete with that at all? This is a man who looked so bereft of any form, any confidence during the test series that he didn't play the final match. He could be a different person right now. It's his world, and we're just living in it.

If Buttler looks unrecognisable from just a few weeks ago, England's ODI cricket is looking unrecognisable from the start of the year, too. They're far from the finished article yet, but there's a lot more to be hopeful about than there ever was before. Even if ODI cricket is Pakistan's weaker format - being ranked eighth in the world - for a young England side, an away win in very unfamiliar conditions is a very good achievement. Now they will be hoping this form can extend to the Twenty20 side, with a three match series to come before the World Cup at the end of the winter.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

10 Years Since Edgbaston: Part 4

Thursday, 12 November 2015
The journey on the field over the past ten years has been bumpy, to say the least. England have been through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, through ends of eras and as many fresh beginnings. Now though, I turn my attention away from events on the pitch, and look to how the longer term issues away from the field have evolved over the past decade.

2005 saw the last time live test cricket was shown on terrestrial television in Britain. And undoubtedly it helped that series capture the public imagination in such a way. Sure, we look back on it and we tend to forget the problems with the Channel 4 coverage: large chunks of play making way for the racing, meaning to see a full days play some form of digital television would often be needed; and start and finish times being earlier to allow for showings of Hollyoaks. Sky have done a lot of good things, too. They bring a lot of excellent analysis, help fund the latest high-tech gear, the money has helped the sport at a grassroots level, and boosted the women's game. But how many people are there watching it? What can be a substitute for inspiring a new wealth of fans, even a new generation of players, who can watch their heroes so easily on the television?

Of course there's no easy solution, there never is. There aren't any free-to-air broadcasters willing to stump up the money for one. Cricket is time-consuming, and when it's not an Ashes series, there's never the same level of general interest. It's not on the 'crown jewels' of sporting events which have to be shown free-to-air, and so it's difficult to justify making a substantial bid. Money matters, and Sky have it. It's no criticism of them, and I do thoroughly enjoy their coverage. But maybe there could be a small amount that's not locked behind a paywall. Maybe Sky's Pick channel, available to a much wider audience on Freeview, could be used to show the odd slice of live action, international and domestic. And then people might be more likely to just chance upon it, and suddenly find themselves hooked. I don't know what the answer is, but I feel like there must be at least some way to make television coverage a bit more accessible.

One of the bigger issues over the past ten years has been the rise of Twenty20. England's Twenty20 competition debuted in 2003, whilst England played their first international match in the summer of 2005 - beating Australia by 100 runs. But they've never capitalised on the success of a format they pioneered. India had been somewhat wary of the format to begin with, but then saw its huge potential and the IPL was born. England missed the boat, and instead got into bed with Allen Stanford, his helicopters and crates of cash. We all know how that turned out. England have never quite figured out the format for their Twenty20 league, and are still yet to do so. What's the balance between franchises and regional identities, between counties with test grounds and those without, but who are more likely to sell out from the games? When should it be played: does a once-weekly competition affect the standard, but does too much in a condensed period affect the crowds? How to attract the biggest stars?

Meanwhile, there's often been a subtle and at times not-so-subtle hostility to the players who choose to head to the IPL. Like many test cricket is my favoured format, the pinnacle, and I'm not keen on players skipping tests to play Twenty20. But whilst I only have a passing interest in the IPL – mainly due to not having a strong attachment to any one team – it has a place, and it has a value, and that needs to be recognised. Why frown upon players who want to go and learn from the best in the world, in new conditions, in front of massive crowds? It's not just a payday, it can be a great learning experience. How much of the sneering comes from bitterness and jealousy? It does though look to be changing, as under Andrew Strauss the limited-overs forms are becoming more of a priority than they were before.

These aren't issues with simple answers. What is the balance between the game's accessibility for fans, and having the money to improve the game at a grassroots level? What is the balance between letting players join big Twenty20 leagues, and their preparations for the longer forms of the game? The questions come up again and again, and it's a difficult path for the ECB to navigate.

At the same time though, the board's relationship with the fans seems most often on a downward spiral.

10 Years Since Edgbaston: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 5
Where Are We Now?

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Disappointments and what ifs

Thursday, 5 November 2015
I have mixed feelings about this series, and the 2-0 scoreline. There is, of course, disappointment: the missed opportunities, the what ifs, and the general frustration that the same old problems seem always to be repeating themselves. And yet there's also a part of me who has kept up the optimism, the ‘look for the positives' spiel so often churned out to the media even when, on the face of it, things look pretty bad. This has been a series which I expected England to lose, and which they duly did, yet it wasn't a loss that felt quite as bad as those that have come before.

Of course, the overriding sense is one of disappointment. England were outplayed in all departments; Pakistan with a batting lineup where you felt someone would always get the runs, and a bowling attack always capable of causing England great difficulty. Mohammad Hafeez, Misbah-ul-Haq, Asad Shafiq, and Younis Khan all hit centuries and scored over 300 runs; whilst Shoaib Malik scored 245 in the first game. Malik also took eleven wickets and topped the bowling averages; Yasir Shah was the leading wicket taker in the series with 15, despite missing the first match; Wahab Riaz could be destructive; Imran Khan somewhat unsung, but effective; and Zulfiqar Babar helping build the pressure by bowling maiden, after maiden, after maiden. In contrast, for England it was tough to see where the runs were coming from beyond Cook and Root, and when they bowled the spinners rarely threatened on the same level as the pacemen - far from ideal in conditions like these. Spin proved a lethal weapon so often for Pakistan, but England's spinners could never let the pressure build. Admittedly the Pakistan batsmen are much superior players of both spin bowling and the conditions, and targeted the spinners, but England struggled for consistency and accuracy. The fast bowlers were excellent, but were left with too much work to do.

It's frustrating, because a lot of the time it seems to be the same old problems coming up again. Whilst I am a fan of both Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, it's clear that they are still a work in progress. England should stick with them, but this series showed that they really will have to learn fast. It's clear that both can be very dangerous on their day: just think of Rashid on the last day of the first test, or Moeen Ali against India last year. But those days have come too far apart, and in between them they haven't been able to at least contain. There's also the batting line up, and that middle order that hasn't really fired all year. Ian Bell has shown some fight this series, but he can't have many more chances left. His duck in the second innings was his ninth score of 0 or 1 this year. Together in that innings numbers 3 to 7 scored just eight runs, three making ducks, and all falling to spin. Several times the batsmen have made a start, got to about forty runs, and then got out. Even Root made three fifties and no centuries. They're just not capitalising. And still England are no closer to deciding who should open the batting.

But still somewhere in there, are the good things. Like how they came so close to winning in Abu Dhabi, denied by the fading light. How England batted long in that game to ground Pakistan down, and to even put themselves in with a chance of winning through a brilliant spell of bowling from Adil Rashid. And how they nearly pulled off the impossible to save the second test, Rashid again showing great character with the bat, him and Mark Wood laying down the anchor. It proved merely to delay the inevitable, but it was still an effort to be proud of. There were the performances of the pace bowlers throughout: Anderson having a sensational record of 13 wickets at 15.61; Mark Wood having his best match yet in Dubai; Stokes taking wickets in Abu Dhabi; and Broad finally coming to the party in Sharjah. There was nothing easy about the conditions they bowled in, but they did the task admirably.

More than anything, it's a series that leaves England with a lot of what ifs. What if Cook had managed to win a toss, and England had the chance to bat first? What if the sun had set just a few overs later in Abu Dhabi, and they weren't left just 25 runs short? What if Finn didn't have to go home injured, and there was an opportunity to rotate with Wood? Instead Wood, too, now finds himself on a plane home, missing the limited overs matches with injury. What if Stokes hadn't been injured during the final test? England would have been able to better manage the workloads of Anderson and Broad, and perhaps he might have helped the lead extend beyond 72. What if the fielders had clung on to their catches, like Ian Bell dropping both Mohammad Hafeez and Asad Shafiq in Abu Dhabi? What if Broad hadn't overstepped when he got Shoaib Malik in the same innings? What if Bairstow had taken that stumping of Hafeez in Sharjah?

But that was the difference. Pakistan took their chances when they came; England were left with a bunch of missed opportunities and what ifs. Pakistan stepped up when it mattered, like when Wahab Riaz brought England's downfall on the third morning in Dubai, or how the spinners struck them down on the third morning in Sharjah. There would always be a batsmen to stand up and do the job for Pakistan, barring that dramatic final day of the first match. At times it felt like one of that middle order of Younis Khan, Misbah, and Asad Shafiq would always be batting, not giving anything to the English bowlers. In the final test it was Mohammad Hafeez, scoring 151 to take Pakistan clear of the danger, and with Azhar Ali sharing their only century stand for the first wicket. The runs were on the board, and then the spinners could have their fun.

England are left with a lot to do to improve. Next they head to South Africa, only the team ranked number one in the world. It's a place that should suit them better - and especially the pace bowlers - but where the batsmen will face a stern test from the opposition quicks, particularly Dale Steyn. It will be a tough ask for a batting lineup that is still not firing, and who have been shown to struggle against genuine pace before; and it will be a tough place to try and bed in the next opening partner for Alastair Cook (likely to be Alex Hales). The winter rolls on.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Making a mark

Monday, 2 November 2015
Three years came between James Taylor gaining his first two test caps, and winning his third this week. After today's performance, you have to wonder why it took so long. The selectors might pat themselves on the back for bringing in a man who has straight away performed in a crunch test match, but instead they should probably also ask themselves why they didn't do it sooner. Ask why it was that there were times when it felt like the only people in English cricket who weren't calling for his inclusion in this series were the ones actually making the decisions.

Admittedly, it would have been a tough ask to find a place for him in the side at the start of the series. Consistency is so often the theme for the test team, and though not all the batsmen were in stellar form, to drop someone like Buttler, Bell, or Bairstow could easily have been seen as a bit premature. But with the form Taylor has shown in the warm-ups, over the back end of the county season, in the ODI series against Australia, and now on his return to the test team - it does feel somewhat like a missed opportunity. Plus with all the talk from the England camp about Taylor being up there with Root as one of England's best players of spin, considering the conditions, it's a bit like there's been a gap in the selectors' logic somewhere along the way (I'll leave it to you to decide how big that gap is, and how often it appears). Oh, how hindsight can be a wonderful friend.

Regardless, judging by his performance with the bat today, it does seem bizarre that it's taken three years for him to finally make his third test appearance. He wasn't the complete player when he made his debut (after all, who ever is?), but he did nothing to disgrace himself before being discarded for the winter tour to India and beyond. Were the misgivings of Kevin Pietersen, saying that he was too short to play test cricket, shared by those at the ECB (a rare moment of agreement)? Whilst in the seasons that followed, Taylor was scoring more than he did in the year of his debut, he was still absent when the new era came, leapfrogged by others just as deserving. It's easy to point to his innings today and say he should have been featuring long beforehand, but it's also difficult to say when he should have been in the side, and who would have been left out instead.

But now his chance has come again, and already he's started to take it. His job is of course only partially done with 74* overnight, and how England will hope that he will really can on in the morning and make it a big score. Runs from the top order are especially crucial with Stokes a doubt to bat after hurting his shoulder in the field, though the inclusion of Samit Patel (in place of the rested Wood) does further lengthen that long, long lower order. There have been others, of course: Ian Bell, still scratchy, making a start with 40; Cook, with 49; Bairstow, 37* at the close and sharing an energetic unbeaten 83 run partnership with Taylor.

With a score of 222/4 at the close of play, just 12 runs behind Pakistan, England have a great chance to capitalise on the hard work of the bowlers on the opening day. Again it was James Anderson who led the way with four wickets, whilst Stuart Broad also picked up two - and together the pair conceded just 30 runs from 28.1 overs. It has become a common sight in this series to see the Pakistan batsmen attempt to see off the pace bowlers, before going on the attack when the spinners come on. It was the same case here, but perhaps this time they stalled just that bit too far and lost that instinct to score. Spin again proved more expensive, but they did take wickets (two each for Moeen and Patel) even when not always bowling well. Already, on the first day, the pitch was turning, and there was a lot to excite Pakistan and particularly Yasir Shah.

Certainly, tomorrow morning will be crucial for the outcome of the match. Come through unscathed, or at least with minimal loss of wickets, and England have a great chance to get something out of the series. If they can put Pakistan under the pressure of the scoreboard, and on a turning pitch, who knows what might happen. A third morning like they had in the previous test, however, and the match could easily swing back in Pakistan's favour, and the loss of the third seamer could prove crucial. Two days in, and the match looks interestingly poised.

Today though, was Taylor's day, and a happy day for all who like to see a player looking to make the most of a second chance. There will still be those who will reserve judgment until seeing him play on faster, bouncier pitches such as those in South Africa where England head next; but in a crucial test it's great to see someone come into the side and step up to the job straight away. But the job isn't over yet.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

What next?

Wednesday, 28 October 2015
It wasn't quite the great escape England had dreamed of. Though Root, Bairstow, and Buttler had all fallen before lunch, and Stokes shortly afterwards, England were still battling it out with seven overs to go. The lower order became heroes - Rashid (61 from 172) and Wood (29 from 95) facing the most balls by a ninth wicket pair in the fourth innings of a test match, before Wood fell with 11.2 overs still to go. But after all that hard work, one late mistake from Rashid saw it all come to nothing. The shot will haunt him, but you can't criticise the man in his second test who batted the longest of England's batsman. It goes down as a heavy defeat, but it wasn't a surrender.

Now, with one match left to be played, England will be considering their options. England's batsmen are struggling to convince, and it was the collapse on the third morning that really cost them the match. They dug in on the final day, but even so it was numbers eight and ten who shone the most. The most likely change, one looking close to certain, would be for Taylor to come in for Buttler, with Bairstow taking on the gloves. There's no doubt of Buttler's talent and that he'll be important for years to come, but he's struggled so much since the second half of the summer. His confidence seems lost, and his natural game has disappeared. And the problem with wicketkeepers is that when the form disappears so much with the bat, mistakes can creep in with the gloves as well and it soon becomes difficult to justify a place. I do feel for him, but it will be hard to argue if this is the outcome. And with his immense importance to the limited overs teams, I feel that maybe the World Twenty20 should be looked upon as the priority.

Another option would be to bring Hales into the side, potentially making a second change and leaving out Ian Bell, the other man under huge pressure. Moeen Ali was always going to be a makeshift option as opener, and though he did a decent job in the first test, here he just wasn't looking the part. His second innings dismissal, going after the ball when there's a match to be saved, did not reflect well on him. I don't though want to be too critical of Moeen - he's being given such a difficult role when having no prior first class experience of the position. Really England are still struggling to work out where he fits best into the batting line up. At the moment, they might look stronger with a genuine opener there in Hales; the problem is that Hales has done very little recently to set the world alight. But if he's on the tour, then he has to be in contention - because otherwise why is he there? I would though expect England to stick with Moeen Ali for the next test, but his temporary role looks unlikely to be made permanent.

England will also be hoping for that slice of luck at the very beginning of the match. These are the kind of pitches you want to be batting first on - and not be batting last - but so far Misbah has won both of the tosses for Pakistan. It's the tiny moment you can do nothing about, but yet it can make a world of difference: all going to plan, the spinners would have the benefit of bowling with runs on the board - and a better chance to capitalise on the early strides the seamers have often made. Containment is not the natural game of Moeen or Rashid, and it's something they haven't been successful at - both having economy rates comfortably above four runs per over. But when the pressure of the scoreboard has been in play, the wickets have come more freely - just think of that final day in Abu Dhabi. The opportunity to bowl on a final day pitch - all going well, of course - would be such a boost for a spin twins, giving them a stage to shine and a license to attack.

England aren't quite out of this series yet. Pakistan will be favourites for the final match, sure, and absolutely deserved to take the series lead after that second test. They have the better bowling attack and better batting lineup for success in these conditions, and their whole team has contributed in a way that England's hasn't. With the bat it feels like there's always someone to score the runs - Asad Shafiq, Shoaib Malik, Younis Khan, and Misbah having all made centuries, and Mohammad Hafeez coming within a whisker with 98. And with the ball there's Wahab Riaz, who made the second test Pakistan's with some devastating bowling on day three; and Yasir Shah, causing havoc on his return from injury. Somewhat unsung too, are the opening bowler Imran Khan and the spinner Zulfiqar Babar, who has bowled far more overs than anyone else, including the small matter of 42 maidens.

But still it shouldn't be all doom and gloom for England. There's still a match to go, a match to get something out of this series, and there are some good points to pull strength from. There's the way the first test burst into life on the final day, thanks to the monumental innings of Alastair Cook and the debutant Rashid showing just how dangerous he could be. There's the way they came so close to getting something from this second test, the lower order showing a lot of character in refusing to roll over and die. Against Australia at Lord's, the end came much, much sooner. There's the way the pace bowlers have contributed: Wood being more of a hit in the second test; Stokes having a four wicket haul in the first; and Anderson having great figures for someone considered most effective in the swing-friendly conditions of home (Broad though has been a blip, with just two wickets). With the bat Joe Root's golden run is going on and on, and Cook looks in the mood to play those long, long innings just like his first (injury permitting). If they had a bit more support, then who knows, things might start falling magically into place.

As ever, it would be a tall ask, but I still don't think it's completely out of the question. England's flaws are clear to see, but even so I've seen enough glimmers to give me some hope that maybe they could get something out of this tour - though Pakistan will be the clear favourites. Both matches have gone the distance with more than one result possible in those final overs, two thrilling finales to show the series is full of life. Here's hoping for a third.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

The battle is on

Sunday, 25 October 2015
England enter the fifth day of the second test facing a battle to survive. Seven wickets stand between Pakistan and victory, with England set a nominal target of 491 runs. Already the captain has been dismissed, troubled by injury. Gone too is his opening partner, Moeen Ali, and the man at first drop, Ian Bell. It's a tough final day ahead.

It will be a tough challenge, but maybe they could do it and survive. Joe Root has already dug in with an overnight score of 59*, and maybe he could continue his one-man mission for England well into the final day. His hot streak from the summer doesn't seem to be ending just yet, and he's shown an ability to shape matches by himself before. Jonny Bairstow is coming off the summer of his life, and though he's still yet to really deliver at test level, he's shown some signs of form on this tour so far. Ben Stokes is a fighter. Jos Buttler must be due a score soon. Adil Rashid is a good player of spin, and having a man with ten first class centuries batting at number eight can only be a good thing in a situation like this. Broad and Wood too are far from being mugs with the bat in hand, and James Anderson is after all a test saving hero - Cardiff, 2009, will be clung on to for as long as possible. England saved a match with six wickets to spare on the final day in New Zealand in 2013, and came so close to doing so with five to spare against Sri Lanka last year.

But probably the more likely scenario is the other one. Pakistan have the bowling attack to cause problems. Wahab Riaz, the left armer, bowling quickly and constantly looking a threat. Yasir Shah bowling legspin on a fifth day pitch. Both coming off the back of four wickets in the first innings. Root can't score runs every innings, and left arm quicks have often been his undoing. Bairstow remains unproven in test matches, his bottom hand is too often taking over, and he's not looked at ease against spin. Stokes had a fifty in the last match, but otherwise has struggled for runs; while Buttler's place in the side is on the line. Rashid is in only his second test match, and Broad, Wood, and Anderson aren't batsmen to rely upon.

The first innings though was the one that got them into trouble. It was another dramatic collapse, from 206/3 to 242 all out. Seven wickets, 36 runs. Root got out, and the whole team seemed to follow - too many falling with rash shots. It's been a problem throughout the year - who gets the runs when Cook and Root are out? Others have had their moments - and Stokes especially has played some brilliant innings this year - but there's not anyone else at the moment who fills you with the confidence that they will deliver on a consistent basis.

Meanwhile, the pressure mounts on those who aren't delivering. I'm a massive fan of Ian Bell, and will always maintain that he is one of my absolute favourite players to watch when on song, but at times in this series he has been a struggle to watch. Off the back of a poor summer, the calls for his drop and the whispers surrounding his future have got louder and louder. He has, at least, been grinding out runs on this tour - a score of 63 in the first innings that wasn't fluent, but that he scored nonetheless, and here he made 46 before a late dismissal. It might just be enough to save him, as consistency in selection so often wins out.

But with Buttler it may be a different story. Changing a wicketkeeper is always a big call, and especially when Bairstow hasn't made the mountains of runs that would really push for the decision to be made. But waiting in the wings is James Taylor, a man up there with Root as one of England's best players of spin bowling, who made the runs in the ODIs against Australia and showed his form in the warm up matches. Last year, everything Buttler touched seemed to turn to gold - that fantastic ODI century against Sri Lanka followed by immediate success in the test team. This year his form has dipped, and since hitting a century in the ODIs against New Zealand he's barely had a significant innings and looks bereft of confidence. A dropped catch and a chance going between him and first slip haven't helped his cause either. Being an ever-present in all three formats for England, I personally would have rested him from the ODI series against Australia from the start - a proper period of rest ahead of a tough winter schedule, having a chance to recharge. Perhaps he could then have finished off the season with Lancashire to get his eye in again before going on tour. Instead it seemed a bit of a half-measure, an afterthought, and one that made it just look like he was dropped from the side.

Of course, we shouldn't be getting ahead of ourselves with this England team, heaping the expectations on when many of them are still newcomers to cricket in this part of the world. Before the tour, I was expecting defeat - and just hoping the response wouldn't be too harsh on them when it happened. It's not that I'm excessively pessimistic, just that away wins at the moment are like gold dust, and Pakistan have made the UAE their fortress. Many teams have travelled to the UAE and come back with nothing, and many England teams have faced Pakistan away and come back with nothing. England's final day performance in the first test just really got the hopes up. And it's the frustration that a batting collapse cost them so badly again.

Pakistan have of course been excellent. Misbah with a century in the first innings and a fifty in the second, Younis Khan with a fifty in the first and a century in the second (passing 9000 test runs in the process); several others chipping in with fifties along the way. They've put the pressure of the scoreboard on England, batted them out of the game, whilst the bowlers have delivered too.

Now the challenge for England is to survive. It's not an impossible task, but it's one they will really have to fight for.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

A burst of life

Sunday, 18 October 2015
Test cricket can, at times, be rather ridiculous. Suddenly, as the sun set in Abu Dhabi, England were on the charge, seeking a dramatic win almost out of nowhere. Adil Rashid had become a star with a five wicket haul in his first game, after in the first innings recording the worst bowling figures by a debutant. England were chasing down a total of 99 runs, their opponent not overs, but the light and the time. Four days of cricket petering out into a draw, and suddenly a finish that left all England supporters wishing there had just been that little bit more.

Really, it hadn't been a great match up until those final sessions. It's not taking anything away from the performances of the players, it's just that it was hard to play any thrilling cricket on a surface like that. There were some brilliant individual performances, innings of patience and endurance from Shoaib Malik (245) and Alastair Cook (263), bedrocks of two giant team scores. The bowlers did all they could, but there was very little they could really do. Spinners bowled and bowled with so little reward - Zulfiqar Babar bowling 72 overs in England's first innings for just one wicket, coming in his 69th; while Malik was the first spinner to take a wicket in the match, in the 185th over of England's innings. 

But on the fifth day, the pitch had started to spin. Anderson took two wickets in the third over of Pakistan's second innings, and then there was an outside chance that England could snatch victory. They had got themselves into the game the only way they could: grind out another huge score with the bat to take the lead, and then take a couple of early wickets to put the pressure on the opposition. Hafeez was run out, taking a single to Ben Stokes. And then Adil Rashid took his first test wicket, and they kept coming after that. He was getting drift in the air, and turn on the pitch. His final three wickets were almost carbon copies: edges to James Anderson at first slip, the first of the three an excellent low, one-handed take. Moeen Ali was taking wickets at the other end too, and perhaps the most important - the captain Misbah, bowled when foolishly trying to hit him down the ground. England's spin twins were doing their job, bowling out the opposition on a fifth day pitch.

It's hard to describe just how delighted I am for Adil Rashid. I've often been disappointed by the way England have handled him, from his first steps around the set-up to even this year. Often he went on tours as part of a learning experience, not expected to play, when he would perhaps have been better served just playing somewhere, learning his game by bowling and bowling. There was this year in the Caribbean, when he should have played whilst Moeen Ali was struggling for fitness, just not trusted by coach or captain. Things have changed with Trevor Bayliss, someone who has been an advocate of Rashid straight away. And Cook, too, made a statement with his actions - Rashid was brought on ahead of Moeen Ali, a show of confidence and faith in Rashid that he seemed to lack before. Rashid has improved as well: where before his mentality has often been a concern, in this match he showed a lot of character to come back with such results after having a horrible first outing. So often he's been teetering on the edge of the England team, not quite convincing enough to stake a full claim, but now he has shown he can really compete at this level. 

England had 99 runs to chase in around twenty overs, but with the light the issue most pressing. The batting order was reshuffled, in coming Jos Buttler to open with Moeen Ali, Root up to three, Stokes up to four. The pinch hitters though couldn't quite come off. Misbah made the right move of opening with spin - taking all the pace off the ball and making it difficult to get it away to the boundary. With no fielding restrictions, the boundaries could be covered with ease; only those perfectly timed and perfectly placed could make it there. Despite 33* from Joe Root, and a partnership with Jonny Bairstow that included a 17-run over off Wahab Riaz and a lot of very hard running, England just couldn't quite get there in time. 

A draw felt frustrating, an end with an if only. But after Pakistan racked up 500 in their first innings, it would have been the best result I could have hoped for. After England responded with their own total, it was the only result I could have seen coming. And at the start of the match, it was a result I would certainly have been happy with. They might not have snatched that win in the end, but to get themselves in with that chance was an achievement in itself. The next match rolls around quickly, starting on Thursday in Dubai. England can go with their heads held high. 

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Test and toil

Thursday, 15 October 2015
It would be fair to say that this match hasn't been the most thrilling example of test cricket. It has been a grind: a test of players' perseverance in the heat, of bowlers who toil away on a pitch with so little in it for both pace bowlers and spinners. Already, Pakistan have amassed a giant total: 523/8, spearheaded by 245 from Shoaib Malik, playing his first test for five years. Only cramp and fatigue could beat him, the hours at the crease finally taking their toll. Alongside Asad Shafiq (107) and Mohammad Hafeez (95) the damage was done, the batsmen in for the long haul while the opposition were left to be punished in the sun.

England though are setting themselves up for a similar response. So often the pressure of the scoreboard can see a side instantly crumble when they get their turn with the bat, the psychological effect of a large total and fatigue from so many overs in the field taking their effect. So far, at least, it has not been the case. England's new opening pair were successful on their first outing, making a rare century stand on the first attempt. Moeen might not have been as fluent as he can be - but bowling thirty overs will do that for you. The captain though led the way, playing a typical, calm, Alastair Cook innings - and just like Shoaib Malik, looking in it for the long haul. Rarely was he in any trouble, making his way to 168* at the end of day three. On the way, he passed 1000 runs for the calendar year as well. The troubles of the previous two years look firmly in the past.

For Ian Bell though, it felt like his problems were only continuing. Already on the first day he had dropped two catches - drops that proved highly costly, being of Hafeez and Shafiq. Somewhere in the background, the questions and rumours about his future in the side were getting louder. Lingering as well were the memories of the 2012 tour, where Bell made just 51 runs in six innings. The innings was a battle. The scoring rate was slow as he struggled to find his method of scoring runs against the spinner. Against Zulfiqar Babar, his strike rate was just eleven. But gradually things did improve. He found a way to rotate the strike, and in one innings managed to beat his total from 2012 - 63 runs, before falling to Wahab Riaz at the end of the day. His best form might still be far away, but this innings should have provided an important psychological boost.

For England's bowlers though, it was nothing but hard work. Ben Stokes did eventually end up with the very respectable figures of 4/57, though they mostly fell towards the end of the innings as a declaration approached (and the less said about his over of off-spin, the better). All the wickets fell to pace, as well as the two dropped catches and another almost-wicket, denied as Broad's foot overstepped the line. It's not the first time England have been denied by a no-ball this year, and it's a frustrating issue: firstly, as the umpires aren't calling many of the no-balls being bowled - often just checking when the wicket falls; but mostly because England are overstepping that line too often. The umpires should definitely do more, but it's an issue the bowlers need to resolve the most - because they are the ones who get punished.

But for the spinners, there was no reward at all. Adil Rashid finally made his test debut, a debut I have long been shouting for, but it hasn't been one to remember at all. With 0/163, Rashid is now the holder of a very unwanted record - the worst bowling figures by a test debutant. Bryce McGain, the fellow legspinner Rashid 'beat' on the list, never played another test - though Rashid will surely play the remainder of the series, and hopefully on pitches more receptive to any sort of bowling. When it all goes right, he provides a real threat - a valuable asset to a bowling attack, adding that element of mystery. As it was, Pakistan were comfortable. Rashid went at 4.79 an over, with no maidens, and Moeen Ali went at 4.03 with just two; Pakistan could not be contained. Maybe it might have gone better for Rashid had he been given that opportunity in the Caribbean at the start of the year; certainly it still looks like a missed chance, with him now making his debut on a pitch where any bowler would suffer. For now his debut is another chapter in the book of England's struggles with legspinners.

Really though, no bowler would be able to find much success on a pitch like this. While I still wouldn't rule out a dramatic England collapse (it is something they excel at, after all), the most likely result in two days time looks to be a draw. The bowlers are doing an admirable job keeping up the hard work - a special mention must also go to Wahab Riaz, who looked capable of making something happen if sometimes erratic. But right now there's little more they can do than keep up the hard work.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

10 Years Since Edgbaston: Part 3

Thursday, 8 October 2015
Rarely has a tour been as much of a disaster as the 2013/14 Ashes whitewash. Rarely has a team crumbled so quickly and so completely, and especially after being convincing victors mere months before. But that's what happened. England were in the game after the first day of the first test. By the end of day two they were out of it, and would never get back in the series again.

Mitchell Johnson, the object of ridicule when England last visited, was unstoppable. 37 wickets at 13.97. England had no answer, no solution to his short sharp bursts of pure pace. Ryan Harris was just as important - 22 wickets at 19.31. The batsmen were dominant too: Haddin causing chaos in the lower order; Warner and Rogers doing the damage at the top; Clarke, Smith, and Watson all making centuries too.

England, meanwhile, were in complete and utter disarray. The team that had brought so much success in the previous four years was crumbling around them. Trott sadly went home after a single match with a stress related illness. Swann retired after three matches after averaging 80 with the ball. Prior was dropped after three matches, Bresnan played two, Tremlett one. There were echoes of the whitewash seven years earlier, where players so successful before now appeared as shadows of themselves. Conflict was brewing off the field too: grumblings about Swann abandoning the team halfway through, as well as never ending issues around Pietersen. About the only ray of hope to come out of the series was the emergence of Ben Stokes, a player who seemed to relish a fight, and showed his all round ability with a five wicket haul and England's only century of the series.

England entered a rebuilding stage again, and again with Peter Moores at the helm. The summer, though a mixed bag to begin with, ended brightly. Gary Ballance had been a surprise choice to fill the number three spot after Trott, with limited prior experience of the position, but looked the part with three centuries. Joe Root had put his winter behind him and led the way with the bat. Jos Buttler looked to be settling into test cricket straight away, and Liam Plunkett found success on his return to the international scene. In Moeen Ali England had found both a classy batsman and their first choice spinner. India had fallen away dramatically in the second half of the series, but at last for England, things were looking up.

But a return to form for the test side couldn't hide the problems facing the one day team. Part of the reason the Ashes had been moved a year earlier was to help England's preparation for the World Cup, rather than having it come at the end of a gruelling test tour – a bid to give England the best chance possible. But by the time of the World Cup it had come to nothing. Alastair Cook was sacked as captain with just weeks to go, and really shouldn't have been given the job in the first place – a much better player when the test team is his sole focus. England never knew their best side, preparing for the tournament one way and changing it up as soon as they got there. The talent was certainly in the team, but for whatever reason they were playing within themselves. It was the same old story, the plot England have followed at World Cups for years. They failed to make it past the group, not beating a single test nation along the way, looking outdated and left behind as other nations charged ahead. After a drawn test series against a West Indies side described as 'mediocre' by new ECB chairman Colin Graves, Peter Moores was out of the England job again.

Yet this summer, from the most unfancied of positions, England won the Ashes. With the help of Trevor Bayliss, Paul Farbrace, and even Brendon McCullum, England look like they're enjoying their cricket again. Results have been up and down – when they lose, they can lose very badly – but there's a sense of hope that prevails for the future. In all formats, players are given the freedom to express themselves in a way they seemed unable to before. In an age where players can appear too media-trained, the players' personalities are really starting to come through; gone is the often insular regime of Flower. And there have been the results on the pitch. A draw against New Zealand with a fantastic performance at Lord's, and then an ODI series victory where England reached new heights with the bat in hand. The Ashes victory topping it all off, an unexpected triumph as bowlers ran wild and skittled Australian batsmen. The following ODI series was lost, but taking the world champions to a deciding match was still an achievement after the horrors of the winter. Importantly, it felt like England were enjoying their cricket again, and it seemed that the public were enjoying it again too.

And so, ten years have passed since Edgbaston, and where are we now? Victors of a close Ashes series on the eve of one of cricket's toughest tests, playing Pakistan away from home – just as they were ten years before. But where last time it might have been and end of the story, this time it feels like the beginning. Players are at the early stages of their test careers, tasting the first fruits of their successes, and blending well with an experienced spine of the side. And there are the type of players who can capture people's imagination, just like 2005. An inspiring all rounder, capable of being a match winner with bat or ball. Batsmen with flair, who look like they can make things happen when they come to the crease. Bowlers capable of producing magic spells, of getting on top of the opposition and running away with the match. Could this team inspire a nation again, and come near the heights of the previous ten years? There is a lot still to be done. Time will have to be the judge.

But on the field right now, the future would appear bright. Off the field though, there can be just as many obstacles.

10 Years Since Edgbaston: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, Part 5

Friday, 2 October 2015

Trouble at the top

Friday, 2 October 2015
I'm sure that thousands upon thousands of words have been devoted to the problem of England's partner for Alastair Cook at the top the innings. It's been one of the most consistent issues in the England test team since the retirement of Andrew Strauss - and even before, if you consider his poor form in his final year in the side. Three years later, and England are still trying to solve it.

The latest man to fall is Adam Lyth. It's completely expected: despite hitting a century in his second test against New Zealand, in the Ashes he managed just 115 runs at 12.77. But he's just another to add to the list of players given a go in the role, and then taken out of it shortly after. The first was Nick Compton, and with some success. He had did a decent job on the tour to India, a tough place for any player to make their debut, and then hit two centuries in New Zealand. But a lack of runs on return to England, a low strike rate (34.68), and the ascendancy of Joe Root counted against him. Since it's just looked like his face didn't fit in a dressing room where cliques had taken hold. Looking back now with the openers' merry-go-round in full flow, maybe England should have stuck with him. His stats aren't amazing, but it was a decent enough start, and heading into an Ashes series consistency would be no bad thing.

At the time though, I was all for Joe Root. He opened for his county, he's an exciting player, and at only 22 he could be the long term option. Of all the openers tested, he has the highest average. In his second match in the job he scored 180, helping set up a massive victory at Lord's. Problem solved? Well in ten innings, he only passed twenty on two other occasions. When Michael Carberry hit form in the warm-ups ahead of the return Ashes in Australia, a switch was made again. He became the third man to partner Cook in 2013. Carberry made several starts, and was the second highest run scorer for England on their doomed tour - numbers wise, not a most impressive feat, but he did more than the others. His dropping had echoes of Compton's as talk of trouble in the dressing room became louder. He featured briefly in the one day side in the summer that followed, but when the line was drawn under the Ashes and a 'new era' begun under Peter Moores, Carberry was on the other side of the line.

Sam Robson came in - a young player hotly tipped over the previous few years, his England qualification keenly anticipated. He too started strongly with a century in his second test and a fifty in his third, but the runs had dried up by the end of the summer. Again and again he was exposed around his off stump; again England found themselves wanting a new opener. Jonathan Trott returned to the side, but it sadly wasn't to be and at the end of the tour he retired from international cricket. And so the job came to Lyth - another batsman who had made plenty of runs for his county, just like those before him - but still not able to fill the role on the international stage.

So why has the spot not been filled? There's no easy answer. Consistency and confidence in selection is one issue: though all have been given some sort of run in the side, they've still had the pressure of playing for their place - knowing that England can still quickly turn to the next man if they don't do well. It's the sort of pressure that mounts higher every time someone new is brought in - can this man be the one to stick? You might argue that pressure is simply part of being a test cricketer, but it's still not a great environment to be starting out in. There's also the situation players have been faced with: Root, Carberry and Lyth all given their chances on the eve of an Ashes series, the series with the most hype, attention, and pressure English players are likely to face. Many players have struggled in their first forays in Ashes cricket - Cook, Bell, and Anderson may be Ashes heroes now but all found it tough in their first efforts. Might it have been different for Lyth if he had been given more of a chance to bed in, being given the series against the West Indies rather than just two tests against New Zealand? We'll never know. The dressing room environment hasn't always been the best either - it certainly seemed so with Compton and Carberry, though with a new era and influx of new players, that doesn't appear the case so much now.

Maybe the answer is for England to pick one player, and stick with them for an extended period of time. Not just one summer - give them at least a year, see how they go against various attacks and conditions, on different surfaces, and in different match situations. Then make the decision to stick or twist. The trouble is, when the top order is repeatedly failing it's easy to make a change in personnel to bring a change in results. And often the first man in can be the first man out - literally, in this case. At least, for some, the door is not yet closed - while the position isn't sewn up, enough runs can get someone like Lyth or Robson back into contention, and it gives those on the county circuit plenty to fight for.

And so, it will be Alex Hales or Moeen Ali to take on the opener's role in the UAE. With Moeen, it could well be a temporary fix, a move to allow Adil Rashid in to the side as second spinner before Hales takes the role in South Africa; though if successful in the role initially, he might be given the opportunity to really make it his own. Certainly number eight is low in the order for a player of his class, simply caught in a time when England are blessed with all rounders, but without first class experience of the role he would be more of a makeshift option. Hales, meanwhile, has certainly made the weight of first class runs for Nottinghamshire this year and the last, and has proven himself a performer on the international stage. His century against Sri Lanka in the World Twenty20 showed his ability against spin too, something crucial if given the opportunity in the UAE. However, in the recent ODI series against Australia he looked a different player - bereft of confidence and a means to make runs, which might count against him as the series quickly approaches. It'll be an interesting call.
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