Sunday, 22 March 2015

In defence of the associates

Sunday, 22 March 2015
We're at the business end of the World Cup now, with only the semi finals and the final left to be played. So this post might seem a little late - the associates are out and only four teams left, after all. But it's still something I want to say. The associate teams have helped to light up this tournament, with their matches, their players, and their stories. It's disgraceful that their presence should be limited in the future.

I'm not sure if it was even a surprise when the ICC announced the plan for a ten team cup, giving some nonsense about making it more competitive. There's so many holes you can pick in that it's ridiculous. You can point to the example of Ireland, who beat test nations more regularly than England do in World Cups (four wins for England across 2007, 2011, and 2015; five for Ireland). You can point to the example of other sports - look at football, with 32 teams and just a handful with a serious chance of winning. You can point to the massive victory margins in games between test sides here: a lot of the games England have played; West Indies/Pakistan; India/South Africa; South Africa/West Indies being examples.

It's a flawed argument, one that just looks like an excuse. Does the ICC care about the growth of the game, or about protecting the interests of the 'big three' who provide it with the money? But then, what do we expect? I don't know, it just seems obvious to me - we have a great sport, one that's loved by millions and millions across the globe - why would you not want to expand? To have more people playing the sport, watching and enjoying it. What can be so bad about that?

But that's not how the ICC works. India were knocked out of the 2007 World Cup in the group stages, and rather than the achievement of Bangladesh being celebrated, there was the disappointment that India's exit would mean less spectators, less television viewers. Rather than the upset being applauded, the commercial impact was commiserated. And the format duly changed - bigger groups so you can pump more money out of the big guns, try and guarantee the top eight a knockout space (which also, obviously, hasn't worked out well for them).

And even if they still haven't found a format that works for the competition, it doesn't mean it should be restricted further to just ten teams. The associates have provided some of the best thrills of this tournament. Look at Ireland, beating West Indies fairly comfortably in their first game, then Zimbabwe in a thriller before ultimately falling short of a knockout place. UAE vs Ireland, one of the best matches of the cup, and the cult status of UAE's 43 year old captain Khurram Khan. The story of Afghanistan - who would have thought fifteen years ago that they'd be playing in a global tournament, making a name for themselves on a world stage? And their fast bowlers - Hamid Hassan's warpaint and celebrations, Shapoor Zadran's run up, long enough to probably make a cup of tea before he reaches you; and both just bowling fast. Kyle Coetzer's 156 for Scotland, the highest individual score from a current non-test nation in the World Cup. Yes, there have been bad shows in between - there have been from all nations really - but who couldn't be charmed by these moments?

I meant to write this to celebrate the part of the associates in the cup, it looks like my rage at the ICC took over. But then again it's justified. The full members - the 'big three' and 'top eight' especially - are being protected at all costs, whilst the others are barely being given a chance. Even though in theory teams like Ireland and Afghanistan could qualify directly if they had a really good four years in between - would they ever be given the chance to play regular ODI cricket against the full members? So much more can be done to raise the associate game - more ODI or Twenty20 cricket against full members; first class 'test' matches against 'A' teams; more international tours to experience new conditions - pitches in Asia being a world away from those in Ireland and Scotland, Australia a world away from the experiences of Afghanistan and UAE, for example.

But how likely is that to happen? The response at the top to associate success seems to be to do everything to stop any more, to stop it from happening again. Through no fault of their own, their chances are being taken away. This is not a good thing for the game.

Friday, 13 March 2015

A World Cup Disaster

Friday, 13 March 2015
England won their second game of the World Cup today, but their only reward was a plane ride home. Their World Cup campaign has been nothing short of a disaster, and once again we're left having to pick up the pieces at the end of a series. With every tournament comes the same story, repeating itself again and again.

So much went wrong that it's difficult to know where to begin. In the media there are some blaming the players, some blaming the coaching staff. Really, they're all to blame. The players haven't put in the performances that they have the ability to do. And the management have been far from inspiring. So here's me trying to put into some words the many areas where this tournament went wrong for England.

The signs were there from the start. Confusion, panic. England played their warm up series against India with their full World Cup squad, playing Bopara in the side and Taylor up at number three, and Chris Woakes opening the bowling rather than Stuart Broad. For the first match this suddenly changed. Sure, Bopara's performances weren't really justifying his place in the side, but all it did was give an image of confusion and fear to their first opponents, Australia. England had months of preparation, playing nothing but ODI cricket in the build up to the cup, and still managed to go into their first match not knowing their best eleven. Was this in part a legacy of their demolition at the hands of Mitchell Johnson the previous winter? Well this time it was a different group of players and mostly a different Mitchell, but Australia still inflicted the damage. One match down and England were already battered and bruised, the tone of the cup was set. It was only going to get worse when they faced New Zealand in the next match.

I feel like I've written a lot on this blog about the experienced players letting England down. It happened again here, with the bat and with the ball. Ian Bell continued with his cardinal sin of never going on and making the big score after making a start. His stats don't look bad on the face of it: an average of 52.40, England's top scorer with 262 runs from six innings. But it doesn't tell the full story: three fifties, no centuries; a strike rate of 77; England team totals of 231, 123, 260 - and even on the two occasions they made it to 300 they should have got far more. And, with Bell getting himself in, he should have got the big score that could have made that difference. Instead he took up time at the crease with not enough end result. Though at least he got runs: Morgan made 90 runs across five innings, and half of those came in one innings. Both now have uncertain futures in the England side: Bell may well not play ODIs again, whilst Morgan's form over the past year and even further back as not been good enough to deserve a place. I thought captaincy might spur him back to his best, but after a century in the first game of the tri-series, he's been as bad as ever.

And it's a similar story with the bowlers. James Anderson averaged 49, Stuart Broad 63.50. Those two bowlers with the most experience, supposed to be leading the attack, could only take nine wickets between them. It was, admittedly, a struggle all round for the bowlers - and perhaps the biggest casualty of all was Steven Finn. Finn is another whose stats don't look bad on the surface - England's leading wicket taker with an average of 25, and a hat trick to boot - but these just don't tell the real story. He's been in and out of the side more times than you'd think possible, and it looks like another spell out of the team is going to come again. He's just not the bowler he could be, and who knows when he will.

But it's just as much a matter of mentality. The modern game has left England behind. Players full of creativity at their counties look stunted on the international stage, thinking too much about the numbers and 'par scores' rather than focusing on the game in front of them. There is no such thing as a 'par score' any more, and this World Cup has shown that as scores well in excess of 300, 350 have been scored like never before. But from England and Peter Moores we get statements like 'we’ll have to look at the data' when they fail to chase down 275. Stop playing to the numbers and let the players express themselves and enjoy their cricket, then they might score the runs they're capable of. Stop thinking of 300 as being a good score, why not dream big and go for at least fifty more?

Somehow we went into this tournament with a fraction of hope. But it should have been more than a fraction. The Ashes were moved, we got a solid, ODI-only schedule in the months leading up to the tournament - and then this happened. Our aim became just to reach the quarter finals. And we didn't even do that. George Dobell has put this into better words than I can, writing after the defeat to Sri Lanka:
The Ashes were moved for that? England have built for four years for that? They have played six months of nothing but ODI cricket for that? Players and coaches were sacked in the hope of reaching a quarter-final? Never in the history of England cricket has the bar been set so low.
It sums up a lot of my thoughts really. We have a home World Cup in 2019, and we have to give ourselves a chance. Does this mean a change in management? Quite possibly. Certainly there'll be a change in personnel for the team, questionable futures lying ahead for many and with others waiting in the wings for their chance in the side. There is a core of good young players in the team, who with four years extra experience, should be able to pose a threat. What we don't want is a repeat of this time round - a year out and a large chunk of the team disappears, for many reasons, and a change in captain on the eve of the tournament. The rebuilding stage starts again. It. Must. Be. Better.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Crashing out again

Monday, 9 March 2015
There was a sad inevitability about England's loss to Bangladesh today. It was the pressure match, the one they needed to win to progress to the quarter finals, and instead they find themselves already knocked out with a match still to play, against Afghanistan. They have lost all their matches against test nations, their sole victory being against Scotland, and really it's obvious to see that they don't deserve to be in the next round.

And who couldn't be happy for Bangladesh? It was a well deserved victory, a performance with both bat and ball. Mahmudullah scored Bangladesh's first ever world cup century, coming in with the team under pressure at 10/2. Mushfiqur Rahim nearly scored the country's second, scoring 89 before falling in the closing overs. And the bowling was even better - Rubel Hossain took four wickets and was the fastest bowler of the match; Mortaza and Taskin Ahmed took two apiece; the spinners held England back. And the celebrations were brilliant for what became one of Bangladesh's biggest and best days of international cricket.

But it was yet another tale of woe for England. Their bowling was better - incision at the start with two wickets, and more at the end to restrict Bangladesh in the last five overs. The result was a total of 276 runs to be chasing down - certainly gettable (and especially by the standards of this tournament), but also enough for the nerves to kick in if the wickets were to fall. Which, of course, they did. But at least they mixed it up - rather than collapsing in the middle overs to spin, they did it to pace instead for this match. What a treat. Several batsmen made starts but didn't go on, some just didn't get in at all - Morgan, again. Bell made it to 63, once again getting a start but not going on - an all too common theme in his career, and an especially bad problem for a senior player in a struggling team.

It was another case where the batsmen in the lower order were left with too much to do. Buttler is one of the leading lights of the team but he can't do the whole job by himself - and really, for him to have the full impact he could have, he should be higher up the order. He made 65 from 52, and Woakes was left stranded on 42*. They did a good job, but the top order let them down, left too much to do with too few overs and too few wickets. Like a bad dream, happening again and again and again and again.

England have simply been substandard throughout the whole tournament. With the bat there have been too many collapses, and the general mentality has been so far behind the other teams. With the ball, they've let themselves down as well: the big names of Broad and Anderson not living up to their reputations; Finn took wickets but more backward steps; bowlers generally just averaging around fifty or more. In the field, they've not been at their best. And the captaincy has turned out as conservative and disappointing as it was before.

And to think, we went in to the World Cup with a slither of optimism. They'd given us some hope, some signs of promise in the tri-series beforehand that gave us some cause for belief that they might, might just surprise us. But then it was more of the same. Another World Cup, another failure. Better luck next time.
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