Monday, 23 February 2015

Caution is the winner

Monday, 23 February 2015
So England's first win of the World Cup came at last, a win by 119 runs over Scotland. It was what was expected, in spite of everyone's (justified) extreme pessimism over England's prospects and Scotland's hopes (rightly) being raised. It was the win that England desperately needed: runs for the openers and a few for the captain after the traumatic collapses of the past two games, and the wickets being spread among the bowlers after the battering they received at the hands of Brendon McCullum. Yet it was not a fluent, emphatic display despite what the margin of victory may tell you; it was more a case of caution and conservatism winning the day.

Moeen Ali's innings was brilliant to watch. 128 runs from 107 balls with twelve fours and five sixes, he gave England a fantastic start - and exactly the confidence boost they needed after such dismal displays against Australia and New Zealand. Ian Bell's was the other kind of innings. He got a good run out, a good chance to get some runs under his belt...but it was all too cautious really, too careful. I totally understand why he played like he did, yet against Scotland it really should have been something more attacking - aim for 350+ rather than 300. Bell however, with 54 from 85 deliveries, seemed to be stuck in that classic English mentality of 'if I bat the fifty overs, I will have 100 runs'. England needed to restore confidence, sure. Just maybe with a bit more adventure.

And as it does with England, a collapse did duly come. It wasn't so disastrous after an opening stand of 172 and compared to previous matches, this was a mild, miniature version; but it's still an example of England not taking advantage of a strong position they put themselves in. After Bell and Ali were dismissed, cameos from Morgan (46 from 42) and Buttler (24 from 14) helped carry England through to 300, and eight wickets fell in the last twenty overs. Ballance went for 10 (his fourth score of 10 in five ODIs, the sort of consistency you only dream of, if the score wasn't 10), Root for 1, Taylor 17 before being stumped. The batting powerplay hurt England again, and it had you wondering - why not take it when Bell and Ali were well established at the crease?

I don't know. On paper, it was a good win. They got 300 - the standard for ODI cricket these days, and what has been the standard for this World Cup in particular. And the bowlers finished off the job, and after the battering they've received, it was what they needed - especially for Steven Finn, the pick with figures of 3/26 from nine. The match was just what the doctor ordered. And yet we still wanted more. A bit of attack, a bit more invention. When you're 172 without loss, why not throw someone like Morgan, Buttler, Taylor up to number three, get creative and go on the attack? It's the kind of conservatism and caution we're used to seeing from England. The score was 303/8 - a good total, but it felt like it should have been greater.

Scotland put up a good fight, despite the constant focus on England's failings (myself included). The bowlers must take credit for putting the pressure back on England, and some of the fielding and catching was brilliant. The stumping of Taylor by Cross was a standout, his feet and hands so quick to get the ball to a stumps after a wide. Who knows how things might have been different had an early chance from Moeen Ali been taken, if the fielder had been a yard closer.

The associates have done a good job in this tournament, in spite of the best efforts of the ICC to push them out. Really, that's probably why they want them out - not because they're 'uncompetitive', but because they challenge the cosy club of teams like England. But I see it this way - it's a sport so many of us love, so why would you not want your flagship tournament to promote the game and encourage its spread? And there has to be a fight to keep them in. A petition has been set up, asking the ICC to reverse the decision to limit the next World Cup to ten teams, and I would encourage you to sign. Just click here.

Friday, 20 February 2015

A New Low

Friday, 20 February 2015
Today, England plunged to their greatest depth yet. I feel like I've said it before, that surely they can't get any worse, but today they proved me wrong again. All out for 123. Target chased down in 12.2 overs. As a student, I'm used to the odd match being just over by he time I wake up at around eight; I'm not used to waking up at half six and finding the match already long, long over. It seems like every time they give me some hope - and despite everything, the tri-series did give me some hope - they then produce something to knock it right out of me again, just to prove I'm being silly. It's like going in for a hug and getting a punch in the face. And today's show was the worst of the lot. 

I don't like having to write about England's losses, having to write criticising the team in one way or another, but what else is there for me to do? The first two matches of this World Cup have been nothing short of a disaster. They lost the first match by 111 runs, and even that was a lot less than it might have been. Today, in a day night match, they didn't even make it to the floodlights coming on. There are fifty overs a side in an ODI, this match lasted 45. The batsmen fell from 104/3 to 123 all out, destroyed by the excellent swing bowling of Tim Southee. There was little that the bowlers could do, but enough time to be destroyed by Brendon McCullum - a 25 ball innings piling on 77 runs, strike rate 308, 8 fours and 7 sixes. Finn suffered most of all: two overs, 49 runs conceded. In the meantime, the ICC are cutting back the next World Cup, taking away associates for not being 'competitive'. Well, what about the full members? You look at the results, and England have been the least competitive team of them all...

Normally in a defeat, and especially in England defeats, there's a post match quest to take 'the positives'. This time, they'll have one hell of a search. Post match, Eoin Morgan said, 'Collectively we are going to have to get tighter as a group and produce the collective performances we have been searching for'. What exactly does that mean? But then again, what can he say?  

Chances are though, England will still reach the quarter finals, fulfilling their minimum target for the tournament. On paper, at least, they should, but then, on paper they shouldn't be losing *quite* so badly to Australia and New Zealand. Even if these were matches they might not have expected to win, they should at least have been competitive, have done at least something to worry the other side. Taylor was the one to put up a fight last time, today there was no one at all, bar perhaps Joe Root (who looked close to crying, much like us all). Abysmal has never been a better description. 

Saturday, 14 February 2015

New cup, same story

Saturday, 14 February 2015
So it began, with a 111-run defeat on the very first day. A lot of things went wrong for England, right from the very beginning where Finch was dropped on zero, to the end where dubious umpiring denied James Taylor of a maiden international century. All in all, it was far from the start to the tournament they would have hoped for.

Aaron Finch was dropped for nought in the very first over. 36 overs and 135 runs later, it was a mistake England were sorely regretting. It wasn't just Finch causing the damage either, Bailey playing second fiddle in the pair's 146 run partnership with an innings of 55; Maxwell hurting England once again with 66 from 40 balls; Haddin as ever popping up to inflict further pain with 31 from 14. As ever, much of the damage came at the death for England, but really, they'd been damaged long before. At the end of the innings, Finn found himself with five wickets and a hat trick to boot; but it was a hat trick full of slogs, not really one to cherish. England were left with 343 runs to chase.

Then a batting collapse cost England, as it always seems to do. Too many wickets in the middle order falling too cheaply, I'm tired of saying it. Today 66/2 became 92/6; in recent matches we've also seen 135/2 become 184/6, 40/1 become 66/5, 253/2 become 303/8, as well as tragic positions such as 136/6, 126/6, 123/6, etc. after failures from the very start. There's a pattern, and it's eternally frustrating. Like an episode of Eastenders, the Mitchells caused the problems for England today, a trio of Starc, Johnson, and Marsh. It was the most unlikely of the three who did the best, Mitch Marsh picking up his first five wicket haul in ODIs, doing the damage by taking out Ballance, then Bell, then Root, then Morgan, then Buttler to leave England's innings in tatters. Mitchells Starc and Johnson picked up two wickets apiece, and with a run out as well, the job was done for Australia.

But along the way, Australia let it slip for a while. Though the result was never really in doubt after England fell to 92/6, too many wickets down and too high a run rate to keep up with (although the worms weren't ever that far apart), Australia didn't seal the deal in the way you might have expected. Taylor was dropped by Finch on 20, the fielding wasn't as sharp as it should have been, and at last the runs were coming along for England. Woakes and Taylor shared a partnership of 92, the only trouble was that it was ultimately too late. But Taylor's innings in particular was a ray of sunshine in an otherwise bleak match for England. His 98* was full of invention, and though he had a somewhat scratchy start, he showed fight and played some lovely attacking cricket. He's had a long time waiting on the sidelines, waiting for a chance in the side, and I am so happy that he's seizing the opportunity in the way he is.

Taylor should have had a century. He deserved it. But the first day of the World Cup was already the time for the first umpiring farce of the tournament. An LBW appeal was given out, and slightly afterwards the stumps were broken and Anderson was run out - though by this time it had become a dead ball. Taylor's LBW dismissal was overturned by DRS, but the run out decision was given. It wasn't right, even though the LBW was ultimately rightly deemed incorrect, it should have remained a dead ball. The ICC have admitted as much, but as it was, the umpires got it wrong. Even if ultimately, it meant very little, it was a great shame to see Taylor denied a century. And who knows if net run rate will later come back to haunt England.

But umpiring woes shouldn't disguise the fact that England had a shocker. Though this may not have been a match they would have expected to win in the grand scheme of things, such a heavy defeat really was the worst possible way to start a World Cup. And the focus is finding its way back to the captain once again - Morgan's last four innings have read 0, 2, 0, 0. The failings can't be masked for too much longer. England's next match comes on Friday against the other team with home advantage, New Zealand. It'll be far from easy, but they have to improve. Win or not, it has to be better next time.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Here comes the World Cup

Friday, 13 February 2015
The World Cup is finally upon us! The first matches come tonight/today/tomorrow (delete as appropriate), the first games of a six-week long competition, concluding on 29th March. For all the ICC's attempts after the last tournament to 'slim down' the 2015 edition, the format has stayed the same as in 2011: fourteen teams - the ten full members and four associates. It's the last time out for this format before the new, 'streamlined' format for 2019: ten teams only, giving less chance for associate teams on the big stage. Personally, and like many others, I'm not a fan of such a change: even if the tournament is rather long, and associates don't have a great chance of winning the whole thing, why would you not want the sport's flagship tournament to help expand the game further and give a chance to some more teams? And associates have provided some fantastic moments in recent tournaments - the performances of Ireland, winning against teams like England and Pakistan, come straight to mind - as well as some of the great stories, like Afghanistan's first appearance at the Cup now in 2015. I'm no cricket administrator, but it just seems a shame to me.

But on to the present, and it's a tournament that looks close to call. South Africa to me look like the best team, particularly after that stunning century of AB De Villiers just a few weeks ago, but memories of previous tournaments would tell you otherwise. I'm not saying they'll choke again, but you never know what will happen to them once they're in the knockout stages. It's always something that you have to watch. The co-hosts, Australia and New Zealand, look to be the other immediate front runners for the tournament. New Zealand's knockout record may be largely similar to that of South Africa's, but they seem to have got away with it by having the underdog label at previous tournaments. Now though, they've found form at a good time and, with a good line up and a home advantage, should be well in the mix at the end.

Then there are the teams that you just don't know what to expect to happen. Pakistan always look like they could do anything; England always get my hopes up with one brilliant match, a few tense finishes, and then a middle order collapse for a total under 200; Sri Lanka and India certainly have the talent but not necessarily the form or the conditions. If they can get some form together, they should all be in with a chance. Drama looks to have doomed West Indies again and it didn't look good for them in the warm ups - a terrible batting display against England and a very close victory over Scotland - but even so, Chris Gayle always has the potential to destroy a team on any given day.

I don't want to get my hopes up too much over England, for they always have such a great potential to disappoint. But I have noticed a new sense of optimism in the past few weeks, even in the media. They didn't perform terribly in the tri-series beforehand, though they did have a pretty horrible defeat in the final. But they are improving. The batting lineup has been settled which is always a boost, the batsmen now having their roles and not the constant pressure that comes with being in and out of the team - though Bopara will be under a lot of pressure to get some runs in the opening group stages with Ballance waiting in the wings. Their strength though looks like the new ball bowling, something that should be helped by the conditions, and especially what they'll find in New Zealand. Two new balls is a bonus in this respect, meaning there should be swing for longer. They should be able to make it past the group stages at least, then who knows what could happen in the knockout rounds. Or they could be knocked out in their last group match against Afghanistan, they're that kind of team. I'll stay optimistic.

Really, we are just entering a prelude. There are 42 matches before the knockouts begin, a month of cricket ahead, which - whilst by no means unimportant - makes it easy to see why casual observers and even cricket fans would see the whole thing as rather bloated. It's a constant battle for the best format that will go on for a long time. And in any case it's going to be tough to watch as much as I want to anyway, the battle against timezones being the eternal struggle of any cricket fan. But I'll do my best. I'll stay in it for the long haul, because there should be an interesting tournament along the way.
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