Thursday, 25 June 2015

A tribute to New Zealand

Thursday, 25 June 2015
Now that the first half of the summer is over and the Australians have landed, it's easy to look forward and turn all attention to the Ashes series looming on the horizon. Instead though, I'm going to take a moment to look back. New Zealand's tour of England has been one of the most enjoyable series in recent memory, with brilliant games of cricket being played across all three formats. 

When New Zealand arrived, English cricket seemed at a crossroads again. A series lost in the West Indies and a shambles at the World Cup had seen Peter Moores depart for a second time, and with the Pietersen saga rumbling on the relationship with the fans had grown even weaker. The progress made at the end of last summer seemed forgotten, enthusiasm among the public almost disappeared. It turned out that New Zealand were the perfect remedy for England's ills, doing more to heal the relationship with the fans than the ECB could dream of doing themselves. Two thrilling test matches, finishing one apiece, that left everyone crying out for a third. An ODI series that went right down to the wire, both teams playing aggressive, attacking cricket and lifting run rates to new heights. A Twenty20 not so one-sided as the scorecard may actually suggest. Everywhere they went, New Zealand lit up the grounds and filled the seats. 

And the players, how the players were brilliant. Brendon McCullum and his captaincy, going on the attack from the very beginning. How refreshing it is to see a captain, always looking for the wickets and not letting up, really making things happen. And with the bat the team would follow his example - in the second test their run rate was up around five throughout. McCullum may have not had the most prolific tour run-wise, but his influence was clear all around. It may not have been the traditional way of playing test cricket, but it sure made an impact. There were the bowlers, Trent Boult and Tim Southee, often attacking as a pair that swung the ball either way. Ross Taylor, a constant nemesis for England in the ODI series. Luke Ronchi, always taking the attack to England straight away, be it an ODI or his test debut. Even Mitchell Santner, just 19 years old and in his first series, made his impact felt, taking a Rashid over for 28 to transform New Zealand's innings in the fourth ODI; taking 3/31 in the last match to nearly bring his team the series. There were so many individual performances that I can't list them all.  

Most of all though, there was Kane Williamson. I feel like he's all I'm writing about at the moment, such has been his impact on this tour. He was just a machine, like a perfect batting robot had been invented to grind England down. Everything just looked so effortless, playing all the shots with such ease, especially in the ODI series where he scored at over a run a ball and would just rack up the runs before anyone could notice. There were no flaws, no obvious ways to get him out - when he was dismissed for a fifty it felt like a surprise. Still only 24 years old, Williamson already has 17 international centuries. We will be watching him score countless more for many, many more years yet. 

The 'spirit of cricket' is often just a myth, but New Zealand made it a reality. There was no sledging, none of the mouthing off that followed the series against India last summer. I'm not against all the aggression and at times I think it's great, but I also just feel that it can detract from the game, be too much of a distraction - as was indeed the case with the whole Anderson/Jadeja saga that stole far too much attention last summer. New Zealand showed there's no need for all of that, playing their cricket with maximum intent but always being the first to applaud their opposition. There's no right or wrong way to play the game, but it was refreshing to see and so endearing, the sort of attitude that gives them their reputation as being everybody's second-favourite international side. 

Simply put, it was a brilliant tour all around. For all that had gone on in England beforehand, all the off-field drama, New Zealand came around and helped put the cricket back on centre stage. They made it the main event, the one that people want to see. The tour may be over, but their impact will still be felt.

Oh New Zealand, please come back soon. 

Monday, 22 June 2015

A forgotten figure?

Monday, 22 June 2015
For all this talk of a 'new era' (and really, it's hard not to write about it that way), there is one man who seems to have been left behind. Despite being part of the squad for the recent ODI series James Taylor failed to get a game, leapfrogged by the new kids on the block. It's not the first time it has happened to him, often being one of those players who seems to come into the side for a few games, before disappearing again and being lost in a sea of change.

For me, James Taylor was one of the few to come out of England's ODI winter in any credit. When finally given a game in Sri Lanka after Alastair Cook's over-rate suspension, he quickly made his mark with two half centuries at number three. Two more followed as England played the tri-series against Australia and India in preparation for the World Cup, and it looked as if he had that number three spot nailed down for the tournament. It was then a surprise, and another indicator of England's cautious and muddled thinking, when come the first match Gary Ballance filled the spot at three and Taylor was pushed down the order. England duly fell to 92/6, and all Taylor could do was make a doomed situation look slightly more respectable with an innings of 98*. Maybe it would have made all the difference for him if he had completed that century, instead denied in a most farcical manner (something I will complain about for as long as anyone will listen). Despite being a lost cause, Taylor's innings offered invention and excitement, a touch of flair, and also showed he wasn't a player to give in easily. Sure, the runs dried up afterwards - but that was really the case of the whole team. From a 25 year old batsman, there was enough to show that he had a lot to offer England in the future.

So it was a surprise come the first ODI against New Zealand to see Sam Billings get the nod ahead of Taylor. The move was understandable, given the new batting order: Root taking the number three spot and Morgan at four, allowing Stokes to slot back in at five and Buttler to move up to six where they could have more of an impact. Seven would be too low for someone like Taylor, and Billings had after all been another of the outstanding batsmen in 50 over cricket last year. But then it was even more surprising when a spot opened up with Buttler's injury - and instead of Billings taking on the gloves, Bairstow was called upon from outside the squad. Of course, Bairstow went on to win the match for England (and I'm always glad to see him in the side), and Billings did the job with him. It all paid off for England, but Taylor would have some right to feel frustrated, left on the sidelines again. Yet there's no obvious solution, no player obviously deserving to be dropped in his favour.

Taylor though often seems to be the forgotten man, a player toyed with by England and then swiftly put back on the shelf. His first two ODI appearances came two years apart, featuring in experimental sides against Ireland as an option for the future. He may not have made the runs, but it was hardly a real chance to state his case. When his test debut came in 2012 it was overshadowed by one of the many installments in the Kevin Pietersen drama, the match of the famous 'it's tough being me' press conference. Taylor's score of 34 - not enough to set the world alight, but a valuable contribution nonetheless - was almost forgotten in all that followed. After playing the next test, he was gone again, not even in the squad for the winter tours and missing from the longest form ever since. It was a tiny window of opportunity, one he might have made more of - but not enough to write him off.

When Taylor's name comes up in discussion, question marks around his height inevitably follow. But that shouldn't be a reason not to pick him in the side. Maybe I'm biased, being a rather tiny person myself, but simply being short shouldn't be enough to stop someone being an international cricketer. You need only look at Sachin Tendulkar for that - obviously Taylor is no Tendulkar, but there is the proof that it's not impossible. A lot of cricket, and especially test cricket, is about character, a player's mental strength as well as their skill and technique. And for me, Taylor's shown the signs that he can succeed in that respect - already he has played the sort of innings where he has to knuckle down and fight for England in difficult situations. Should he pile on the runs in the County Championship (not really at his best in 2014 or so far this year), there's no reason why he shouldn't be given another go in the longer format should a spot in the middle order open up. They won't know unless they try him.

But it's not like it's the end of his career. He is still, of course, included in the ODI squad and clearly still present in the minds of the selectors. With the teams for all formats still in their early stages, it's not like there won't be opportunities for anyone who can state their case. And after all, it was just a few matches ago that Taylor was leading England in Ireland, his leadership potential long recognised through matches with the Lions as well. It may just be the simple matter that his form hasn't quite picked up so far this year, players picked on what they're doing now rather than what has come before. While he may be forgotten for now, he's far from in the wilderness. There's a lot more to come, a lot Taylor can be a part of.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Turning the corner

Sunday, 21 June 2015
Based on their previous ODI displays this year, the thought of England winning a series over the World Cup finalists would have seemed laughable. Someone saying England would be playing a style of aggressive, no-fear cricket, capable of scoring 400 or chasing down 350, might be thought to come from some strange parallel universe. And yet it was real. More sudden transformations are hard to come by.

The whole series has been an absolute joy from both sides, a glorious festival of one day cricket right from the word go. While the scores were enough to make bowlers weep - batting records broken all around - it was hard to complain about an even contest between bat and ball when there were innings like these. England had Joe Root, scoring two centuries only to be overshadowed by flashier innings from his teammates; Jos Buttler, whose extraordinary abilities can barely be described; Eoin Morgan, back to his best after his own horror year; and Jonny Bairstow, only in for one game but practically winning that by himself. New Zealand had probably had the best of them all in Kane Williamson, a man who seems to have no weakness, a robot who dismissing for just 50 felt like a great achievement. There too was Ross Taylor, scoring his own two centuries and with the two forming a partnership it seemed impossible to break, both just making it all look so easy. McCullum may have had a quiet series, but it didn't stop a mountain of runs being racked up by either side. The run rate for the entire series reached a massive 7.15, a total of 3151 runs scored across the five games. 

Of course, it all had to come down to the final game; the festival had to have a grand finale. And it was finally a moment where the bowlers fared somewhat better - after four matches where first innings scores exceeded 300 every time, New Zealand could only reach 283/9 (and that helped by some lusty blows from the lower order). The rain came, reducing England's total to 192 from 26. While the run rate had risen, the total still looked very gettable, especially considering the standards of the series. But for all the talk of a 'new England', a sign of the old remained - a good, old fashioned collapse. They are a team on a learning curve, and here the balance between 'positive' and 'reckless' veered too far towards the latter. Yet rather than going into their shells, they came back fighting. With Buttler absent through injury two other young wicketkeepers took the spotlight, Bairstow (83*) and Billings (41) getting the recovery underway in a partnership of 80. And then Bairstow carried England home. He may not have been in the original squad, but he stole the show and with it the series for England. 

It's been a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for England, even in defeat still putting in the kind of performances everyone had been craving. The public, too, responded - after the first match the grounds were practically sellouts. The fresh mindset has been clear to see - long gone is that team that looked so afraid at the World Cup, inhibited and wary; now they are going and enjoying themselves, going for their shots and just attacking. It got them into trouble at times, this final match and the third particularly - 288/6 becoming 302 all out with five overs remaining - but at the same time it was good to see them really going for it, showing that self belief and not settling for a lesser score. Sure, it won't always come off, but they're a young team and will learn from experience. Obviously they haven't turned into world beaters overnight and we mustn't forget that, but even when there are times when they do frustrate us (and no doubt, there will be many), with this new approach it will always be worth watching.

Personally, I can't remember the last time I so looked forward to seeing England playing ODI cricket. It had felt like other teams were sprinting forwards, and England were standing still. Always the same outdated tactics, and players making waves on the domestic scene who offered that something different always being left on the sides. But this series has been a joy to watch with both teams. New Zealand have continued to play that attacking cricket that has brought them so much recent success, and it seemed to spur England on to greater heights too, bringing them into the modern age. It feels a shame that there's now only one match left to play on this tour after what we've been treated to over the past month. Every single game has left us wanting more. Long may this new age continue. 

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

A brighter future

Tuesday, 9 June 2015
It is perhaps the greatest compliment of all to say that watching England in this ODI wasn't like watching England play an ODI. The team that looked so scared, so cautious at the World Cup, miles behind the rest of the pack, were almost unrecognisable today. The country that was humiliated by New Zealand in February, bowled out for a measly 123, racked up a mammoth 408 for a 210 run victory. The general consensus was that it must all be a dream, that none of this could possibly be real, or that at least something had to go wrong when the time came to bowl. But instead the 'new era' got off to a better start than could ever be hoped.

It's fair to say that England came into this match as massive underdogs. Whilst New Zealand reached the World Cup final, and have spent the past year setting the world alight with positive, attacking cricket and successes across all formats; England seem to have been lurching from ODI disaster to the next, failing to even reach the knockout stages of the World Cup after defeat to Bangladesh. A significant change in personnel has duly followed, with only four names remaining from the team who lost that early group game against New Zealand. Some have been rested (the Ashes looming on the horizon), some are injured, some may even be gone for good. And the call for a more positive mentality and more attacking cricket certainly looked to be answered. Finally a chance to see Jason Roy and Alex Hales opening the batting (Moeen Ali sent back to Worcestershire to find bowling form); Buttler up to six and Stokes up to five; Sam Billings on debut after a hugely impressive 2014; Adil Rashid returning to the side after six years, the abandoned game in Ireland aside. Already a statement was being made, conservatism not ruling the day.

The very first ball though still set the alarm bells ringing, Jason Roy dismissed for a duck, more of the same. But England were on top from then on. England were just scoring quickly, putting on the runs on the powerplay - and then not letting up afterwards, just waiting for the last 15 overs. Root (104) made it to a century - his fifth now in ODIs - before the halfway mark had even come. Coming from 71 balls, his hundred was England's third fastest in the format; but by the end of the match he'd slid down to third as Buttler (129) made his in just 66 - second only to himself on the list. Both were simply just brilliant innings - but just as important were the partnerships they formed. Morgan (50) found his form in a 121-run stand with Root, a partnership that then seemed tame in comparison to the 177 shared by Buttler and Rashid (69) in a mere 17.3 overs. England had found themselves in a potentially difficult position when the two came together, 202/6 with 20 overs still left, and it might have been expected for them to play safely and make it to the 300 mark. Instead they took the challenge on, from the top to the bottom of the batting order - even Liam Plunkett came out and hit two sixes in a three-ball innings at the end. England passed 400 for the first time, and records were tumbling all around.

Still there was a feeling that if any team would fail to defend this total, England would. With a batting lineup spearheaded by Brendon McCullum, New Zealand often look capable of just about anything, and only four months ago he took Steven Finn to the cleaners in that match at Wellington. But this time, Finn got his man, bowling him for just 10 to win that psychological battle. Steven Finn has gone through more ups and downs than most in the England set up, his obvious potential battling with those periods he becomes 'unselectable'. Today was certainly another up, taking four wickets and being the most economical bowler of the match in going at five an over - even bowling the only maiden of the game. At 26, he clearly still has a lot to offer the side, and England obviously see that too. It would have been easy to drop him, send him away after the World Cup, but instead he's been given a show of confidence, another chance to become a leader of the attack.

But the performance that might have made me happiest was that of Adil Rashid. After contributing to England's heroics with the bat, Rashid also delivered in his primary job with the ball. A lot of the time I've spent following Rashid's career has been in frustration at his handling by England - when younger taken on tours without playing when he really would have been better served bowling regularly, and with a similar pattern following on the recent tour of the West Indies when even more deserving of a place in the side. Legspinners can always go for runs, but they have that element of mystery - something Rashid delivered today, his googly utilised to good effect in taking four wickets. Over the past six years since his last involvement in the ODI side, he's matured a lot as a player and a person, and he really does have a lot to offer this team. His batting in the lower order will be more than handy, and with the ball in hand he can always provide a genuine wicket threat.

Of course, we shouldn't yet get ahead of ourselves - as exciting as this win was, it doesn't mean all problems are instantly solved. Right now, England are playing catch up, reaching the standard the rest of the world showed they can deliver. But it was definitely very, very exciting. It was the mentality that we've needed to see, the one they so badly lacked in the World Cup - there was just no let up, no sitting back with the bat, pushing on all the way through. The biggest performers were two who were part of the World Cup campaign - just going to show that the talent was to be found, it was the mindset that needed to change. England are starting to come out of their shells. If it's anything like this, it will sure be fun to watch.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Alastair Cook - 9000

Thursday, 4 June 2015
Just a few weeks ago I was writing about the achievements of James Anderson, taking his 384th wicket to become England's leading test wicket taker (he has since moved on past the 400 mark). But now he is not the only one in the team topping an all-time list: the second test against New Zealand saw the captain Alastair Cook move on to 9000 test runs, and in doing so surpassing Graham Gooch's 8900 to become England's leading test run scorer.

From the moment Alastair Cook made his test debut aged 21, the talk was always about when - not if - he would break Gooch's record. Straight away he made his impact in the team with scores of 60 and 104* on debut in Nagpur, and that despite having flown half way around the world just days before after being involved with the academy team in the West Indies. He was soon a fixture in the side, the new golden boy already touted as a future captain and with great hopes pinned for his future. Of course, like every player Cook has faced his ups and downs along the way, but every time he has come back fighting. Cook was a main star of England's golden year in 2010/11, scoring 766 runs at 126.66 in the Ashes, 390 runs in four innings against Sri Lanka, and his highest test score of 294 against India - but in the summer of 2010 he was fighting to keep his place in the side. And the past two years have seen him struggle with the bat most of all, scoring just enough to get by but not much more, but this year he's started to look as strong as ever - with that never ending patience that grinds opponents down.

Cook has never been a pretty player to watch. When he's at his best, you don't even notice him that much - normally someone else is doing something more exciting at the other end. But that's what makes him such a brilliant test player - he brings the glue, others can bring the flair. We've seen it in this series alone - Stokes ran rampant in the second innings at Lord's and stole all the headlines, scoring 101 in the pair's 132 run partnership; but Cook was still the rock, batting over a day to score 162. Cook is happy to leave and not to be tempted, forcing the bowler to bowl to him - and then punish him for it. And if there's a bad ball, Cook will put it away, cutting and pulling being his major strengths. When he's in form, rarely will his concentration break, and if he passes 100, he'll simply try to score 100 more and make it a 'daddy' hundred. When England go big, a lot of the time Cook will have gone big too, so often the cornerstone of a large score.

Though Cook may never be the greatest of tacticians, what he does do is lead from the front. He is one of the few whose batting average as captain is higher than when not, and that is even including his troubles of the past two years. In what could be described as his greatest achievement as captain - the series win away in India - he was certainly at the forefront, providing that leadership with the bat and scoring three centuries. His captaincy will always attract its critics, but when he is scoring runs and leading that batting line up, he goes a long way to making them quieter.

Records have always tumbled around Cook, and they will only continue to do so. Still only 30 years old, with 9000 runs and 114 tests under his belt, he will easily become England's first man to pass 10,000 test runs, and could even join Tendulkar up in the 15,000 club. Already he has 27 test centuries, another list he heads in the English record book, and many more will surely come. A landmark may have been passed for now, but as ever with Cook, he will still be there patiently adding many more.
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