Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The start of the 'new new' era

Tuesday, 26 May 2015
England's love affair with test cricket returned. Though it was just an 18-day gap between this test and the last in the West Indies, the outlook couldn't look much different. For all the drama off the pitch, the further damaged relationship between the ECB and the fans, sacked coaches and possibly players; the past five days proved that the cricket will always take centre stage. And in what a fashion.

Though after the first hour of the very first day, it looked like the misery was only set to continue. New Zealand showed straight away why they've had so much success over the past year, the fast bowling trio of Boult, Southee, and debutant Henry demolishing England's top order. There wasn't much the batsmen could do as they fell to 30/4, the top four crumbling away in the space of five overs to an excellent spell of bowling. The horror of Barbados was repeating itself. Yet rather than going into their shells, England fought back through Joe Root (98) and Ben Stokes (92). It was brilliant, counterattacking cricket - Root looking on top of the world with the bat in hand; Stokes scoring at nearly a run a ball, and a world away from the man who bagged a pair in his last test at Lord's. Both ultimately fell just short of their centuries, but they were innings that gave England hope. They could have as good as lost the match in that opening session but, along with innings from Buttler (67) and Ali (58), England recovered to a total of 389. Perhaps not an exceptional score, but certainly an exceptional recovery. And already the match had come alive, just one innings in.

But England still weren't on top, and New Zealand did even better when it was their turn with the bat. Martin Guptill scored 70 on his return to the test side after two years, Tom Latham scored 59. And dismissing those two in quick succession only brought Kane Williamson (132) and Ross Taylor (62) to the crease. If Joe Root can be listed as one of the batsmen who will surely be lighting up international cricket for the next ten years, then Kane Williamson is right there alongside him. He just looked in control from the word go, playing the ball late, finding the middle - and if there were ever any edges, he played with hands so soft it could never be a chance. Only 24 years old, it was already his tenth test century. And it was the cornerstone of the innings as New Zealand racked up 523, with further runs also coming from McCullum (a 38-ball 42) and Watling (61).

England had a 134-run deficit to overturn, and when Bell fell in the first over of the fourth day with England still 60 adrift, New Zealand looked a long way ahead. In that first hour of the day, they again bowled beautifully. It was a theme of the match - whilst the ball could do a lot, once the batsmen settled they could really take charge; and run rates throughout were close to four an over. What England needed though was a rock, and after struggling for so long, they can really say that their captain is back in business. Alastair Cook is a man that does best when he can lead from the front, and that is exactly what he did. He often played second fiddle as Root (84) and Stokes (101) were in the runs again, but really that is his job. Bat the whole day, be patient, and allow those players to express themselves whilst quietly accumulating a massive score. While Stokes rightly stole the headlines, Cook batted the whole day, an innings of 162.

But there's no denying that this match belonged to Ben Stokes. If his first innings 92 was a brilliant display of counterattacking cricket, then his century in the second innings was even better. 101 from just 92 balls. The fastest test century at Lord's. Stokes first really made his mark on the 2013/4 Ashes tour, but there had been more downs that ups since. It was here that he truly announced himself to the world, put his name down as a superstar. England have a love affair with all rounders, one that can perhaps put too much pressure on anyone who shows promise with bat and ball. Straight away they can be tagged as 'the new Botham', or 'the new Flintoff'. Stokes may be in a similar mould - able to hit it big and bowl it fast, and with a fiery personality to match - but instead he can just be 'the first Stokes'. There will still be ups and downs ahead - and chances are that he will be a player who frustrates England fans for many years to come, just as much as he pulls it out of the bag. But how England have needed that character - the one who empties the bars, the one lights up the crowd, that can turn a match around. Stokes has that bit of magic about him. And this felt like the start of something.

The match was turned on its head. New Zealand had 345 to chase - not an impossible task with their ability and firepower - or had the best part of a day to survive. But England were ascendant - both openers were soon dismissed for ducks in the first two overs, with Taylor following in the sixth for 8. Broad was back bowling near his best, Anderson was closing in on 400 test wickets. And even when New Zealand looked to be settling in again with Williamson, Stokes struck. He couldn't be kept out of the game. Williamson and McCullum were gone in consecutive deliveries, and New Zealand were 61/5; England truly on the charge now. Watling (59) and Anderson (67) did provide resistance, but England came through. A brilliant five days finished with a 124 run win for England, a result unthinkable an hour in on day one.

What a game test cricket is. This match had everything - memorable individual performances, real strong shows from both sides, the fight backs, beautiful knocks with the bat and spells with the ball, neither team ever ready to give in along the way, sell out crowds throughout, and all results possible on the final day. Both sides put their names on that famous honours board - Williamson and Boult (taking 5/85 in England's second innings, after four in their first) for New Zealand, Stokes and Cook for England; both sides had players making their debuts in a match they will never forget.

But, as an England fan, what came out of this match most of all was hope. While they've been steadily improving over this past year as a test side - the setback in the West Indies aside - this still felt like a special moment. A moment they needed, the moment to show that they can play that exciting, attacking cricket. To show that when they get put in difficult situations - as they were more than once in this match - that they can come out fighting as the best teams do, rather than meekly surrendering. A moment where they could reconnect with the fans, after all the recent drama with the ECB. And to show that they have players to capture the public's imagination, players who can become heroes. This match saw the clouds start to lift, and the future start to look bright once again.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Another fine mess

Wednesday, 13 May 2015
Oh, how the ECB love to outdo themselves. Not content with how badly the Kevin Pietersen saga has panned out over the past fifteen months, they went and made it even worse. And this happened in a week where the sacking of a coach was leaked to the media before the man himself was even told. It's the sort of thing that you can't make up - and yet at the same time it doesn't feel surprising. The ECB, with their exceptional talent for angering the fans, have managed to exceed even themselves.

So, Andrew Strauss was appointed as the new director of cricket, filling the spot recently vacated by Paul Downton. What Downton lacked, Strauss certainly had - that understanding of the modern game, the gravitas and respect that comes with playing 100 test matches and being a highly successful captain of the side. Was it a 'safe' option? Maybe. It any case it looked like another man appearing from the establishment, still with close relationships to several of the key ECB figures, staff, and players. Whilst I would call myself a fan of Strauss, as the man who led England to the top of the rankings and the Ashes wins in 2009 and 2010/11, I might have preferred someone a bit more detached from the whole set up. But that's not saying he won't do a good job, and I don't doubt that he can be the man to take England forward. Though he's already made a horrible start, helping a messier situation to become even messier.

First of all came the sacking of Peter Moores, a move perhaps suggesting Strauss may not quite be the company man first believed and a man not afraid to make the big decision. It's easy to see why he went, and I would say the right call was made - progress made in the test side last summer being masked by dismal ODI performances, the defeat in the final test against the West Indies putting the cherry on top of it all. He certainly has a talent for spotting players, something we've seen in both reigns as coach - bringing Swann and Sidebottom back from the wilderness to become key players in his first reign; giving Ballance the number three spot and bringing Buttler into the test team during his second stint. And yet there's always been this sense that he just doesn't connect with the public - all the coach speak and talk of the 'data' that comes back to haunt him, and the complaints of his coaching style seem often to resurface, even if not going as far as Pietersen's description of him as a 'human triple espresso'.

But whether or not you felt it was the right choice, the way it happened was another unedifying episode for the ECB - Moores coaching the team in Ireland whilst the press is telling the world he doesn't have a job. It's just disrespectful, a terrible way to treat someone, and this to a man just a year ago described as the 'outstanding coach of his generation'. Once again the ECB are left embarrassed - they made the decision to bring Moores back and a year later have sacked him again. The Pietersen drama in the background gave it all an eerie sense of deja vu.

Indeed, ultimately it comes back to Kevin Pietersen, as it always seems to do. The man is told to go back, score runs in the County Championship, and then he might be able to get back in contention. And he certainly did that in emphatic fashion - 355* for Surrey with a strike rate close to 90, playing like the Pietersen of old. Innings like that are what makes him such a special player - a player that people want to watch, a player that can turn matches around and strike fear into the opposition. Innings like his 158 at The Oval in 2005, like the 186 at Mumbai in 2012, like those centuries in South Africa that announced him on the world stage. Can you really blame anyone for wanting to see a player like that?

Well, it turns out that the ECB can. On the very same day, Pietersen's England career was all but ended once again. He's not explicitly 'banned', but told he won't at least be featuring this summer, so as good as. The ECB outdo themselves again. I just feel that, if they don't want to select him - then just don't select him, rather than making an announcement about it, holding a meeting to say so. He's a fan favourite, and by making this announcement the ECB are essentially sticking their middle finger up to a lot of them. Neither side has come off well in the whole saga over the past year or so, Pietersen's book certainly not doing his image any favours, but the ECB seemed determined to come off worst of all. They've shot themselves in the foot, except they've done it so many times now that there's barely any foot left to shoot.

The contradictions make it even worse. Strauss speaks of a 'massive trust issue' between the ECB and Pietersen, and then offers him an advisory role for the ODI team. Does that really make any sense? It's unsurprising, at least, that Pietersen declined the role. And lurking in the shadows remains 'textgate', the whole affair that saw relations between the two sour in 2012, something clearly still lingering when Strauss was caught on the microphone describing Pietersen as 'an absolute c***' just last year. How much of this 'trust issue' is a personal one? And is Strauss, indeed, not detached far enough from the current set up?

Regardless of whether or not Pietersen should be in the team, the way this whole thing has been managed - and that is going back to the sacking last year and beyond - has been a disgrace. Is a player ever really unmanageable, or is it just bad management? And even in choosing to move on without him, surely it could have been done so much better? Instead there's been a black cloud hovering around English cricket for over a year, not always at the forefront, but always lingering somewhere. It will only continue.

Monday, 4 May 2015

The inquest awaits

Monday, 4 May 2015
Well, if you watch this match, you could certainly never call test cricket boring. Day one saw a captain score his first century in two years, battling whilst his team struggled; day two witnessed an extraordinary 18 wickets fall across three innings; day three saw ten more fall, and what could be a tense run chase turn into a comfortable, and heartwarming, victory. There was no need for day four.

Watching day two, you might be forgiven for thinking that it might not need a big total to beat the West Indies. It was wickets galore, one coming every four and a half overs on average. England, hoping to take their overnight score of 240/7 past the 300 mark, swiftly fell to 257 all out. The West Indies were all out inside 50 overs for 189, a total that itself would have been much less if it wasn't for Jermaine Blackwood's counterattacking 85 from just 88 balls. All England could do in response was fall apart - an innings where they should have been trying to build a big lead instead crumbling away to 39/5 before the close of play. Wickets tumbled everywhere. You couldn't miss a ball.

All England could really do on day three was go for the attack. Jos Buttler (35*) and Ben Stokes (32) briefly combined to take England's score past 100 and their lead close to 200. It wasn't much, but they at least had a chance, a sniff at a win. Wickets fell in pairs for the West Indies, but there were partnerships in between, something England could only dream of in their second innings. A fifth wicket partnership of 108 between Darren Bravo (82) and Blackwood (47*) sealed the deal, turning what could easily have been a nervy chase into a comfortable victory. A rare win over England, and a series drawn. It was hard not to be happy for them, as much as it hurt for England.

As seems all too often to be the case, England finish another series with serious questions to be asked. On a pitch like this, the most glaring issue was spin. Whether it was due to a lack of bowling since coming back from injury, or the start of a second year dip, Moeen Ali seriously underperformed as a frontline spinner. He became the unexpected hero of England's summer last year, but now there is an expectation for him to do well, and on a pitch crying out for someone to spin to victory, he just couldn't find his length. Joe Root did a bit better, but he still falls under the category of 'batsmen who can chip in some overs'. And all the while, Adil Rashid was sitting on the sidelines. If England weren't going to play him on a pitch like this, would he ever get a chance?

But it wasn't the spinners' fault that West Indies were chasing a score under 200. The West Indies' bowlers won the game on day two when they took England down to 39/5. Jerome Taylor was brilliant in both innings, with Holder and Permaul also taking three each in England's second. But England's batting was certainly also sub-par. They just went into their shells too easily, and the West Indies were rampant. As England went into the series, typically it was the short ball that would cause them the most problems. Now it just looks like any ball. It's hard to see what the batting coach, Mark Ramprakash, has been doing. The New Zealand and Australia bowlers must be rubbing their hands with glee in anticipation of this summer.

I still firmly believe there is good in this side. There is definitely that 'core' of young players who I expect to see in the team for years to come, and players with the potential to offer England a lot in the future. Jos Buttler could be an England great, and really I'd like to see him higher in the order - number eight simply looks too low. I always think there's something about Chris Jordan, and his fielding has been sublime in this series - one handed slip catches are now no surprise. Ben Stokes is starting to settle again in the team, though there's still a sense that he's looking for a role - in this match he batted at number seven and only bowled seven overs.

There's definitely promise there, so what's the problem? The spotlight must fall on the management again, and not just of the team - of the whole coaching structure of English cricket. Why do fast bowlers so often get injured or lose a bit of their zip as soon as they get involved in the set up? Why are our spinners not progressing beyond 'promising', not being trusted to be given a place in the side? Why are players sent on tour with seemingly no chance of being picked to play? And the biggest focus should be on the head coach, Peter Moores. For all their faults, England are ranked third in the world, and failed to beat the team ranked eighth. There have been signs of progress, but there have also been test series defeats to Sri Lanka and the West Indies, a nightmarish display against India at Lord's, and a simply horrific World Cup campaign. Can he justify his position as coach? Jason Gillespie waits in the wings, increasingly looking like the heir apparent.

Colin Graves takes over as ECB chairman on May 15th. He's already said that there should be serious questions asked if England fail to beat a 'mediocre' West Indies team. We'll wait to see what the future holds.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Contrasting fortunes

Saturday, 2 May 2015
100 is an arbitrary landmark. The jump from 99 to 100 should mean so little, when really it means so much. The numbers that go down in a player's records don't represent the true value of the runs - a worthy 30 to help save a match not noted among a third century in an innings when the team is already well ahead. Alastair Cook was already showing signs of his return to form, with yesterday was his sixth score over fifty in his past nine test innings - another arbitrary landmark, but one showing he was getting stuck in and doing his job as opener. But it was yesterday, nearly two years to the day since his last three figure score, that the weight could finally be lifted off his back. The psychological phantom of that jump to three figures stalks him no more.

England certainly needed the runs, finding themselves falling to 38/3 within the opening session. Over the past year, when we've seen such a score, it's often been expected that Cook would be one of those to fall, but that wasn't the case today. There have been signs it has been coming, and today the reward finally came. A captain's innings, 105 runs out of an underwhelming team score of 240/7. A dismissal in the final over of the day took the gloss off a bit, not able to go on to make it a 'daddy hundred', but they were still hugely valuable runs for the team's total on what was really the West Indies' day. And a hurdle was overcome. Cook did get his support, particularly from Moeen Ali's 58 in a 98 run partnership (also a timely return to runs in this format for Ali, his first score over 50 since his century against Sri Lanka last year). Regardless, it was Cook's century that would undoubtedly make the headlines.

Both Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott made centuries on their test debuts, instantly making their marks on the international game. But while Cook's innings perhaps signalled the start of his rejuvenation, Trott's third duck in five innings seemed to mark an end. Another struggle against the short ball, something opponents will always exploit. Sometimes an innings has an air of finality about it - it was a similar feeling as Matt Prior was dismissed by Sharma at Lord's last summer. It remains to be seen who England's opener will be as they face New Zealand later this month, but there's a feeling that Trott's international career may have come to the end. As much as many of us, including myself, have been calling for Lyth's inclusion in the team - nobody wanted it to end like this for Trott.

Trott is a man who has always just got on with his job in the team, his idiosyncrasies sometimes attracting more attention than his actual runs, often attracting an undue share of criticism from the media (perhaps partly due to his South African background) whilst gaining the love of the fans with the affectionate hashtag #trottsfault. It was hoped that his comeback would see him reborn on the international stage, return to the player he was during England's rise to the top. Unfortunately, not all stories can have that happy ending, and it's a sad end for one of England's most understated heroes.

Cricket though goes on, and even Trott will have one final innings to redeem his legacy. The first day certainly belonged to the West Indies, and it could have been even better. Over half the overs were bowled by spinners, and the decision to go to spin was perhaps made too soon in the first session - at least when a side is 38-3 you wouldn't think Marlon Samuels would be the immediate option. But it's a minor criticism really on the face of a successful day. With Jos Buttler at the crease, and the more than capable Chris Jordan, England will hope to take the score at least past 300 on day two.
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