Thursday, 30 April 2015

Safety first?

Thursday, 30 April 2015
It isn't exactly news to say that English cricket is, on the whole, very conservative. We saw it at the World Cup, we've seen it in test matches; we often see it in the way they play, and in the team selections. There's generally that fear of something different, the reason why we could never see someone with the technique of a Malinga come through the system; or why when we get an exciting young player, an instinct usually prevails that they are 'not quite ready' to step up to that next level.

We've seen this instinct in full force during this series against the West Indies. I will try my best not to keep harping on about it and repeating myself, but it was another instance where England had the chance to try something new and inject some fresh blood, and went for the safe option instead. I have nothing against Trott being back in the team, I am a big fan - but this series could have been an opportunity to go for something different and look to the future with Adam Lyth, have a look at him ahead of the Ashes later this year. And it would have provided something a bit different, a contrast of tempo to Alastair Cook. It's a similar story with Rashid and Tredwell - the steady, reliable option winning the battle rather than that extra touch of adventure, though Rashid is still said to be in contention as a second spinner for the final test. The safe option is understandable given that neither Cook or Moores' jobs have never been entirely secure and they won't want to risk too much, but why not just give it a go and throw them in?

On the field the safest approach usually wins out too - we rarely see an attacking declaration, going that extra mile to secure a draw before thinking of the win; the batting can lack aggression, or at least opportunities are taken as late as possible; when they're in the field, there's often too much hesitation, not enough initiative. Even as England won the Ashes 3-0 in 2013, it just wasn't the most inspiring cricket - a strategy more of grinding the opponent down rather than necessarily exciting the fans. Of course they shouldn't be completely gung ho and completely forget about defence, it just might be nice to see a bit more edge, a bit more fun. It's finding that balance between being entertaining and achieving the results they should. The problem though hasn't been exclusive to Cook's captaincy, more a legacy of conservatism following the team as they go.

The problem isn't just in test cricket. Of the many complaints whilst England struggled through the World Cup, this was one we heard again and again. Part of the problem is the traditionalism of the English game, test cricket always remaining the priority. Whilst test cricket is my favourite format, and probably is too for the large majority of English supporters, it doesn't mean that the others should just fall by the wayside. Tests - and most particularly the Ashes - remain our number one, whilst Australia prove themselves more than capable of managing all three. In the short forms, England just haven't kept up. The thought is still to build a platform, have that solid base to begin with. It can help in England, where the ball does more early on - but it's not always the way forward when they're travelling, or even all the time they're home. Plus there's that constant focus on statistics and the par score, playing to a plan rather than adapting to what's in front of them. It's a conservative way of play, a safe option in formats where there isn't room for one.

England do have young, exciting players, but when they're a bit different from the established norm it seems to strike fear into the hearts of management. Alex Hales scores a brilliant Twenty20 century, puts himself firmly up there with the best in the world and surely becomes a shoo-in for the ODI team, but a new series comes around and the opening pair is Cook and Bell. By the time Hales' chance came round, he was being played out of his preferred spot in the order and the confidence wasn't quite there. Jos Buttler scored an incredible ODI century, one of the best there's been for England - but straight away he's told he's not 'quite ready yet' to be given a go in the test side. Now he's in there, playing well, you wonder why we had to wait.

It's part of the reason why the squad announced for England's trip to Ireland looks so exciting. Hales, Vince, Roy - all have been the names everyone's been talking about over the last year, the new generation to get the fans going. I do have slightly mixed feelings about the squad as a whole - Ireland have a right to feel aggrieved, it being very much a second string side and another marker of England's lack of respect - but it will be interesting to see how some of these players go on their first taste of international cricket. Maybe it's a sign of things to come. But it's a culture problem as much as anything, so it will still be a long - but safe - road ahead.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

James Anderson - 384

Sunday, 19 April 2015
There have been a million and one richly deserved tributes to James Anderson over the past few days, and I wanted to add a few words of my own. After 100 tests - an incredible achievement for any cricketer - and now 384 wickets, the boy from Burnley with the highlights in his hair has now become England's leading test wicket taker, the man at the top of the list.

He's had a bumpy ride. He burst onto the scene at the end of 2002, breaking into the test team the following summer in style with a five wicket haul at Lord's on debut. Far from the finished product by this time, the promise was clearly there and he was ever present in a changing bowling attack. The wickets were harder to come by against South Africa after a flying start against Zimbabwe, and despite another five wicket haul burnout soon struck. Over the winter and the next few years he was in and out the side, never really getting another good run. And whilst the England bowling attack was ascendant during the 2005 Ashes win, Anderson had become the missing man. Most had prospered under the coaching of Troy Cooley, but for Anderson the story was different. Adjustments to his natural action - where his head was pointed at his feet at the time of delivery - mostly seemed to lead to injuries. A low came on the 2006/7 Ashes tour when he was one of several players lacking full fitness to be selected at the start of the series; five wickets at 82.60 in three matches was the result. Whilst there was the odd good display, he was never getting a run in the team and his talent was in danger of falling by the wayside. After playing seven straight tests in his debut summer, only thirteen more had come by the end of 2007.

Things changed as 2008 begun. After defeat in the first test against New Zealand, it was all change for England: Harmison and Hoggard out of the team; Anderson and Broad in - faith being put in the new generation. And the return was immediate - a five wicket haul with the new ball as New Zealand were dismissed for 198, and from thereon he was a mainstay of the side. The following summer saw 34 wickets come at 25.76. He was starting to become the player he could be, staying fit and becoming a generally more skillful bowler - controlling his swing, developing new deliveries, and not always going for that wonder delivery. His economy has steadily fallen too, and even on pitches that aren't ideal for swing bowlers, he's still found ways to succeed - in India he averages just under 30; while England struggled in the UAE, Anderson came away with an average of 27.66; and in the 2010/11 Ashes he picked up 24 wickets at 26.04. His record remains considerably better at home than away, but he is more than a one trick pony.

In this time Anderson has become England's talisman, the one who inspires the team and they rally around, the one to go to when a breakthrough is needed. And he's a fan favourite too - how many times do we hear the chants of 'Oh Jimmy Jimmy' when he comes on to bowl? There's that endearing shyness, but he's a warrior on the field - even if that on-field persona can be a bit much, as in the summer during the spat with Jadeja (he was best when the bowling did the talking - and swiftly revived England's fortunes too). There's more to him than just his talent with the ball as well - his fielding is among the best in the side, and he's no rabbit with the bat - 54 innings without a duck from debut to 2009, not often batting above ten. And who can forget that test in Cardiff in 2009, England's unlikely hero for saving the match; or a maiden first class fifty just last year, his nickname going from the 'Burnley Express' to the 'Burnely Lara'.

Playing 100 tests is a fantastic achievement for any test player, especially so for a bowler. It's a testament to the player he's become. And at 32 and relatively injury free - the problems that dogged him in earlier years being put long behind him and his action solid - there's still plenty more to come. 400 wickets is certainly in site, and he should be able to go a way beyond. But for now, it's just a fantastic achievement, and his name will be forever up there with England's finest.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Frustration and elation

Saturday, 18 April 2015
This was one of those matches that showed to me just why I love test cricket. Either side had sessions they won and sessions they lost; both teams were put under pressure and fought their way out from it; there were unplayable deliveries, sensational catches, brilliant batting displays; unexpected stars with both the bat and the ball; and after five days it still all came down to the very last session, England desperately seeking the wickets they needed to win. Frustration for me as an England fan, but certainly a well earned draw for the West Indies.

The hero of the hour was Jason Holder. A man batting at number eight with a previous first class best of 52, Holder made an unbeaten 103 to save the game. When the sixth wicket fell in the eightieth over, England looked to be heading towards victory, but just one more was to be dismissed over the next fifty. It wasn't all Holder's work - Devon Smith stuck it out at the start of the innings with 65 from 175 deliveries; Ramdin scored 57 in a 105 run partnership with Holder; whilst Kemar Roach was immovable with 15* from 55, forever frustrating England. A flat pitch offered very little for the England bowlers, but that should not take away from the achievement of the West Indies. England gave it their all, but the 'mediocre' opposition proved too big a task.

Apart from Holder, the story of the day was of James Anderson's 384th test wicket, taking him past Ian Botham as England's leading test wicket taker. It was his hundredth test, and in front of his parents too - like the script was written for the moment. And the moment was certainly special, celebrations on and off the pitch, tributes abundant (which I myself will probably be adding to in the next few days). But more than anything, it brought the hope back for England - breaking the partnership of Ramdin and Holder, leaving about twenty overs for the last three wickets. The game was still far from over. It was just not quite to be for England this time.

The match will have raised concerns for England. First of all, they will be hoping their opening partnership can come to fruition soon, both Trott and Cook failing in this match. Of course, it's early days for the new pair, and they are both proven test players you would back to come good. I just hope that it will be soon. Bowling wise, England will be wary after seeing this five man attack (or six if you add Joe Root, bowling a good share in this match and taking two wickets as a reward) toil for 130 overs on a flat pitch. It's a lot of overs in the bowlers' legs ahead of a tough summer - and they'll be hoping the pitches offer more over the next few matches. Injuries or burnout for someone like Anderson or Broad will not be what England need, and rotation - Plunkett and Wood are in the West Indies too - will likely come into play at some point over the year. Tredwell filled in capably in Ali's absence with four first innings wickets and did his job in holding up an end, dependable as ever - though ultimately he lacked penetration in the final innings.

But there are plenty of good signs too. Ballance is back in the runs after a tough World Cup, truly cementing his place at number three with 122 in the second innings. Really, numbers three, four, and five are right now looking solid for England, the middle order core of Ballance, Bell, and Root all finding the runs in this match. It's been great to see Ben Stokes back in the side and scoring well again too - really he had a horror show last year, going from the ray of hope in the Ashes whitewash to not looking able to even buy a run. With Stokes back in the runs, Moeen Ali set to return to the team - perhaps in time for the next match, and Buttler ever promising, England arguably now have three number sixes in their side and it will be interesting to see how they line up when they all play. And I can't leave this piece without mentioning the sublime slip fielding of Chris Jordan. With two incredible one handed slip catches off the spinners, he is fast becoming one of England's safest pairs of hands in the field.

England's winless run overseas continues, not having won a test abroad since the tour of India in 2012. Hopefully they are just warming up, rather than this being a sign of things to come. But either way, I can't complain too much - this match was frustrating, but enjoyable in equal measure and showed all the qualities of the game I love.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

England ahead, but opportunities missed

Wednesday, 15 April 2015
It's been a lovely few days - the sun is shining, the county season has begun, and test cricket is back as well. As much as I will lap up all forms of the game, test cricket will always be my number one. And it always feels that way for England too - this may well be part of the reason why we lag so far behind in the short forms, though this is not the time for me to delve down that road again.

That said, the conservatism found in the one day format was still present in selection as England returned to the test arena. Being a Yorkshire fan, I will freely admit that I am heavily biased in this respect, and seeing four out of six Yorkshire players in the squad wearing bibs did not make me happy. Where this tour could have been an opportunity to look at players like Lyth and Rashid, the old guard was maintained with Trott and Tredwell preferred. The arguments were of course made - Rashid having a poor Lions tour and Tredwell outshining him in the warm-up 'matches'; but it was also a man who helped bowl his side to victory in the county championship last year, and one who had to leave his county to be able to even play first class cricket. It can always be a risk selecting a legspinner - they will go for runs and they do have to be captained well - but, it just would have felt more exciting, offering that element of mystery to the side. But then I am also scarred by memories of Rashid carrying the drinks around for England for months, before returning to Yorkshire with his form lost somewhere along the way. In any case, it now looks like Moeen Ali will soon be fit and back in the side for the next match, effectively nullifying the whole issue. 

With Trott and Lyth, the situation is a bit different. Trott is an experienced and proven test performer, and like the majority of fans I was very happy to see him back in an England shirt. Still, it was a great chance to have a look at Lyth at this international level, and he is a player who would inject a bit more life into a top three often seen as rather stilted. I see the reasoning in selection, but also feel an opportunity may have been missed. Really for me, it was just tough to see Yorkshire's leading batsman of the previous year left off the teamsheet whilst they stuttered in their first innings against Worcestershire. But in any squad, there are always players who will miss out - it's just the way it has to work. It was just unfortunate that it was so many from one club, and that the tour has been crammed in and clashes with the start of the county season. The few matches of the season where all counties can have their international stars turning out have all but disappeared.  

As it was, England struggled after being sent to bat on day one. The top three all fell cheaply, and soon the score was 34/3. In stepped Ian Bell. Of course it's not so surprising these days to see such innings, but you always remember the batsman he used to be - scoring runs when the team does well, crumbling when they are in trouble; not stepping up to the occasion as he did here. Two century stands were shared - first with Joe Root (83) and then Ben Stokes, playing a fine attacking innings of 79 on his return to the side. And England had dug themselves out of a hole, from a first session where the West Indies dominated to afternoon and evening sessions where the run rate reached four and at times five an over. When Bell was dismissed by an absolute jaffa from Kemar Roach with just an over left on the first day, the score was 341/5. The recovery had been made, and as ever with Bell it was simply lovely to watch.  

Naturally, England didn't make the most of this position. The decision to send in a nightwatchman was, quite frankly, bizarre - Stokes played out the last over, and rather than having Jos Buttler starting the second day, it was James Tredwell. He may have three first class centuries to his name (and I must add that, as I may be being quite harsh on him in this post!), but I certainly know who I would rather be watching. As it ended up, Buttler was dismissed for a 22-ball duck and England were all out for 399 - a good score, but another missed opportunity.

After two days though, England can count themselves as ahead in this match. West Indies find themselves at 155/4 at the close of play, lucky not to be five down - Jermaine Blackwood (30*) saved by Stokes' foot overstepping the umpire's line. The fightback has been underway though, a partnership developing with Chanderpaul (29*) after falling to 99/4 - and even at 40 years old, he remains a most prized wicket, always a challenge to dismiss. England fans and players will be eagerly hoping for more wickets for James Anderson - now only three away from passing Botham's record 383 for England, and all the while playing in his 100th test.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Another new beginning

Tuesday, 7 April 2015
As seems to have been the norm with England in recent times, they find themselves starting another series with a lot to prove. Whilst the end of last summer found the test side in relatively good health - bouncing back well despite the horrors of the Ashes fallout and a stuttering start against Sri Lanka and India - a disastrous World Cup campaign has done a lot to undo that image, leaving England in disarray once again. And it's certainly a tough year ahead - a schedule challenging enough for a more established side, let alone one filled with players only starting to make their name in international cricket. The coming twelve months see series against New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and Pakistan; first of all kicking things off with a tour of the West Indies.

On the face of it, a visit to the Caribbean might seem like a good place to start. A side weakened by battles with the board and absences to the IPL, West Indies don't appear to be the most challenging prospect at this time; certainly the view of new ECB head Colin Graves, describing them to be just 'mediocre' opposition. But even so, victory shouldn't be taken for granted - it was, after all, just their last visit that saw the infamous 51 all out and England unable to wrap up a single victory to avoid series defeat. And West Indies are the sort of side - much like England themselves - that can appear equally capable of springing an upset or pressing the self destruct button. England should be favourites to come away with a series win, but even so, their opposition should not be underestimated and England will always make you feel nervous.

There are still many questions about this England team that are yet to be answered, and the World Cup served to raise even more. A lot of them again seem to be revolving around the captain, Alastair Cook. He went a way to answering his critics at the back end of the summer, recovering to victory over India and getting some runs under his belt as well, but the struggles aren't over for him yet. A test century still eluded him, his highest score being 94 - six runs that mean so little, and yet make all the difference. And then he was sacked from the ODI captaincy - rightfully so, but a blow to his image and one he is still smarting from. The sacking may well, in a strange way, have saved him - lessening his association with a tragic tournament that could have ruined him - but he will still have a lot to prove. With big opposition coming up, England need a fully firing Alastair Cook, the one we know to be up there with the world's best batsmen and who leads by example. But if his struggles continue, his captaincy and even his place in the side will be questioned again. And he'll have an awful lot of left armers to face. 

The Kevin Pietersen drama has again reared its ugly head. I have swung between being drawn to the whole thing, lapping it up like a hungry gossip, and being tired of the constant fuss. The door has been opened for Pietersen to return - whether he will or not is another question, but there is a chance at least. Should he come back? Who knows. For me, the test team has moved on, and he'll be unlikely age-wise to play in the next ODI World Cup, but maybe with another World Twenty20 next year he could fit in for a final swansong. But - even though it means agreeing with Peter Moores - I find it a shame that the focus is still on a batsman who won't be featuring on the tour when there are a bunch of players breaking into the side, and who will be a much bigger presence in the team's future. The issue seems to be forever there, lingering and lurking and following England wherever they go.

There are still many spots to be filled in this side. Since the retirement of Andrew Strauss, nobody has really stepped up and made that second opening spot their own. I'm torn over who it should be - I would love to see Jonathan Trott back in the team but, and especially as a Yorkshire fan, I also think Adam Lyth has earned his chance and I want to see him have a go as well. Though Ballance had a troubled time in the World Cup, his performances last summer make it unlikely that Trott will return to that number three berth, but chances are Trott will be filling that spot at the top of the order. Bowling wise it will also be interesting to see the line up, with Moeen Ali being missing at the start of the tour and Woakes gone throughout due to injuries. It may mean Stokes returning to number six in the batting lineup, and I for one would love to see Adil Rashid playing as the spinner. It's great to see him back in the England set up, and I really hope it won't be just to carry the drinks. The last bowling spot will then be between Jordan, Plunkett and the new name in the squad, Mark Wood. Despite such poor showings at the World Cup, I would imagine Anderson and Broad will remain, though Broad in particular should be under a lot of pressure. The senior players need to step up too.

England should be a lot more comfortable returning to test matches, and hopefully this series will provide an immediate opportunity to put their World Cup woes behind them. Winning back the Ashes looks a tall, tall task from here, but it shouldn't be completely out of the question back on home soil. We're at the start of a crucial twelve months for English test cricket, and we'll see perhaps the first serious challenges for the new faces from the past year. It will be a chance to prove just how good they are, but it could well be a bumpy ride.
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