Thursday, 24 September 2015

10 Years Since Edgbaston: Part 2

Thursday, 24 September 2015
England started 2009 about as low as low could be. Pietersen and Moores had fallen out and both been sacked, confusion and rumour was rife off the pitch, and then on the field they collapsed to 51 all out in the first test in the West Indies. The humiliation looked complete.

Maybe it's because that moment was so low, when it felt like things couldn't possibly get worse, that it's seen as the start of England's journey to the top. Shortly afterwards Strauss and Flower were handed the permanent helm, the pair who would lead England with such success over the next few years. The captain's batting also seemed to flourish under the new-found responsibility – three centuries coming in the rest of the series, and also making a mark when taking the reigns on return to the ODI side. Strauss had, of course, briefly been in charge before with success – against Pakistan in 2006 – only for Flintoff to resume the mantle for the winter Ashes tour. He was probably the wiser choice as captain then, and probably the wiser choice when Pietersen took the reigns. But now, at last he had his chance.

And indeed, the only way was up. By the end of the summer, England held the Ashes once again. Statistically, they had been the weaker team: two centuries scored compared Australia's eight; none of the top three wicket takers; and only one of the top seven run scorers (though it was Strauss, with 474, who headed the list). But England came through at the right moments. In Cardiff, where Collingwood became Brigadier Block and Anderson and Panesar became unlikely heroes of the final hour. At Lord's, where the openers took England off to a flyer and Flintoff bowled and bowled, with a five wicket haul in his last test at the home of cricket. At the Oval, where Broad produced his first truly magic spell; where the debutant Trott scored a century after coming in at 39/3; and where Swann spun England to victory. Of course, there was an innings defeat inside three days as well, but England pulled through in that decider. Though Flintoff was a star, running out Ricky Ponting in his final match, this wasn't a glorious finale like 2005. This was just the start.

The rise to the top had begun. With Swann, England had found a spinner capable of far more than merely holding up an end. Anderson was becoming a fine leader of the attack, and Broad was capable of producing magic spells. Collingwood would never say die – helping England draw two tests at nine wickets down against South Africa, a series drawn 1-1 that could easily have been a 3-1 defeat. Strauss led from the front, Cook and Trott helped grind opponents down, Pietersen added a touch of flair, and Ian Bell was finally shaking his reputation for flakiness. There were an array of bowlers breaking through too, in and around the side: Onions, Finn, Shahzad, Tremlett, Bresnan.

There was even the elusive global tournament win, the World Twenty20 in 2010. It was a win I'm not sure anyone quite expected, but England had found their formula that worked. The left arm option of Sidebottom seen as key. Two spinners, Swann and Yardy, for pace off the ball. The tricks of Sidebottom, Broad, and Bresnan, bowling slower-ball bouncers batsmen just couldn't get away. Batsmen were brought in for the occasion and given freedom at the top – Lumb and Kieswetter making their debuts at the start of the tournament, and the latter picking up man of the match in the final. Pietersen at his best, picking up the player of the tournament award, and Morgan proving himself as one of the most exciting and inventive batsmen on the international stage. The wait was over, an international trophy finally in England's hands.

For the test team, the finest hour game the following winter. England won the Ashes in Australia, for the first time since 1986/7. And they dominated. The three tests they won were all by an innings, and in Brisbane they drew after amassing 517/1, a score that looked ridiculous then and looks ridiculous now. Alastair Cook was the star of the show, scoring 766 runs at an average of 126.66 – but all the batsmen were chipping in, and the bowlers had a field day too. Anderson proved he could deliver away from English conditions, with 24 wickets at 26.04. Tremlett replaced the injured Broad, his first tests since 2007, and picked up 17 wickets at 23.35 – a dangerous weapon with pace and bounce. Finn was the leading wicket-taker with 14 when replaced by Bresnan, who then picked up 11 at 19.54. On Boxing Day, Australia were bowled out for 98. It's probably one of my all time favourite cricket scores. With Swann's Ashes diaries and the sprinkler dance, there was a feel good factor about the team – winning, and enjoying themselves. At the end of the following summer, after victory over Sri Lanka and a whitewash over India, England were number one.

But just like they had after 2005, England came back to earth with a crash. The bowlers performed well, but the batsmen collectively failed on the most almighty scale. Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehmann literally put them in a spin, and they had no answer. The worst came in the second test, dismissed for 72 chasing just 145. The approach to the chase was wrong from the off – simply no attack to it, and no way to face the spinners. After the summer, the number one spot was no longer theirs as South Africa came to steal the crown. Off the field events stole the show, and it was also a farewell to Andrew Strauss, retiring after 100 tests.

Alastair Cook took the reigns, a man marked as a Future England Captain since his debut and even before. Success was immediate – a 2-1 victory in India, one of the highest achievements any team could make. Pietersen was 'reintegrated' after the summer, playing one of his great innings with 186 in Mumbai. Cook led from the front with the bat, scoring three centuries and averaging 80. A young Joe Root made his debut in Nagpur, straight away looking the part. A drawn series in New Zealand to follow was a disappointment, but the return series at home saw England as comfortable victors – an inspired bowling display with New Zealand 68 all out, after seven wickets from Broad, being the highlight. England won the Ashes 3-0 on the back of three centuries from Bell and with the bowlers at times tearing through the Australian line-up. Cracks were starting to appear, but could easily be covered up. They'd won 3-0 without playing their best cricket, what could they achieve when they really performed to their ability?

10 Years Since Edgbaston: Part 1Part 3, Part 4, Part 5
Where Are We Now?

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Building a dynasty

Sunday, 20 September 2015
Normally on this blog the focus is on the international game, but today I'm turning my attention to county cricket. As a Yorkshire supporter, naturally I've been delighted with the course of the past two seasons as they have become the standout side and have - this year especially - won the County Championship in a dominant fashion. What's more is that it feels like it could just carry on and on, the team looking to have the right blend of youth and experience, and the right mentality and hunger, to rule the county scene over the coming years.

This year's Championship victory has been even more impressive than the last. Several players that were so crucial to the win last year have only played a limited role this time round; the effect of Yorkshire's win last year being to propel several further into the England reckoning. Adam Lyth - last year's PCA Player of the Year after scoring 1489 runs - has featured in only six matches for Yorkshire this year, his form also having taken a hit when available. Adil Rashid has also featured just six times - another blow to lose someone of his all round talents. Jonny Bairstow has featured only eight times through international call-ups, whilst injuries also restricted Ryan Sidebottom to nine games and saw him absent from the early stages of the season. Form with the bat has also at times been an issue - where 2014's win was often founded on a strong opening partnership between Lyth and Lees, this year Lees hasn't always found the same form he did in the previous campaign, and in general runs at the top haven't been as easy to come by.

But there's always been a player to step up at the key time. Jonny Bairstow may have only played eight matches in this campaign so far (with one match still to come), but his form has been nothing short of sensational. 1071 runs at an average over 100, with five centuries and five fifties. His runs often came at key moments: against Middlesex at Headingley where he was the only one to pass twenty, making 125*; 219* in Durham, a record partnership with Tim Bresnan (169*) that took Yorkshire from 191/6 to 557/6 declared; and 108 out of 213 at Edgbaston, to name just a few telling contributions. Of course, he wasn't the only one to step up. Jack Leaning made most of his runs in the early stages of the season, a time when bowlers often rule and batsmen struggle. Tim Bresnan has had his best season with the bat yet, with two centuries and an average over fifty, taking extra all-round responsibility in the absence of Rashid. And at crucial moments, players would deliver. Take Maxwell and Rashid against Durham at Scarborough - a low scoring game with first innings scores of 162 and 156. Yorkshire fell to 79/5 in their second innings, but the two then shared a 248 run stand as Yorkshire won by 183 runs. From then, Yorkshire were pretty much uncatchable.

It's the bowlers, though, who deserve the most praise. You need only look at the results to see the impact they've had. Worcestershire all out for 100, Hampshire for 143, Warwickshire 69, Durham 156, Somerset 110 and 155. In the match where Yorkshire claimed the title, Middlesex were three down inside the first over (though in an extraordinary match, they did pull off a stunning win). Bowlers have run rampant throughout the summer. When talking on Sky the other day, Brooks said that whoever had the ball in his hand was the leader of the attack - and with performances like we've seen it's not hard to believe it. Sidebottom, at 37 years old, has taken 40 wickets from nine games at an average of 17.07, while Brooks leads the wicket chart with 59 scalps. Both Bresnan and Patterson have hit the 40 mark too. Yorkshire have the luxury of rotation as well - when not on international duty, Plunkett can fit in, and the 17 year old Matthew Fisher is also well trusted to do a job. Young all rounder Will Rhodes can also come on and pick up a few. With spin, when Rashid is unavailable, James Middlebrook has been called upon - coming out of near-retirement to return to the club where he began, and taking a more than useful 17 wickets at an average just under 26. There are always options.

It's a victory founded in part on the strength of the Yorkshire academy, more than ever looking like a production line of budding England players. But more than anything, it's founded in spotting talent and backing it all the way. Players have come from outside the system and flourished - like Plunkett, who has rebuilt himself and is a regular name around the England sides once more, and players like Jack Brooks and Gary Ballance further examples. Young players are given responsibility - Alex Lees filling in at times as captain, only 22 years old; and other youngsters like Leaning (21) and Rhodes (20) backed to do a job with the bat. With the international experience of regulars like Sidebottom and Bresnan; overseas stars like Pujara, Maxwell, Finch (and in the previous year, Kane Williamson); and players regularly in the England side like Root, Ballance, Bairstow (among others) - it must be a brilliant environment for a young player learning their game to be in. Jason Gillespie, Martyn Moxon, and the rest of the staff and players have created a culture of success and a winning mentality, and the players are thriving.

There's still room for improvement. The success of the Championship is yet to transfer to the shortest form, something both Yorkshire and Gillespie are desperate to make more of a statement in. Though they reached the semi-finals of the fifty overs tournament this year, they put in a disappointing performance in losing to eventual winners Gloucestershire; whilst in the Twenty20 Cup they failed to progress past the group stage. Over the winter, Gillespie shall be coaching in the Big Bash and hoping to expand his Twenty20 knowledge, whilst David Willey has already been signed for Yorkshire next year - a definite statement about Yorkshire's desire for a limited overs trophy. It looks a signing to benefit both sides - Willey surely to benefit from playing in the first division and alongside another highly successful left-armer in Sidebottom, whilst his Twenty20 knowledge and fierce competitiveness will bolster the Yorkshire line-up across all competitions. He will have to fight to feature in the Championship, but competition for places has only served Yorkshire and their players well so far.

But at the moment in the longest form, it's hard to see Yorkshire's dominance being broken. In the past two years, they have lost just two matches, both coming at Lord's: where an inspired Chris Rogers chased down a total well over 400, and when dramatically bowled out for 134 after securing the title on the first day. Since Gillespie took over in 2012, they've lost just the four games. And this year, they've been more dominant than ever before - a record total of points with a game still to go. Other teams have been left to battle it for second. Next year, Yorkshire will be hoping to be the first team to make it three titles in a row since the 1960's. They will be the favourites to do so, too. Long may the success continue.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

10 Years Since Edgbaston: Part 1

Thursday, 17 September 2015
Edgbaston, 2005. It was a match that became hailed as one of the greatest tests of all time, in a series also hailed as one of the best. It was the summer when cricket gripped the nation, capturing the public's imagination and being a topic on people's lips. Just think of the scenes on the final day of that third test at Old Trafford, crowds of people lining the streets in the hope of seeing an England win. Remember the final test at The Oval as people climbed on roofs just to get a peek at the action. Imagine the response of the public as an open-top bus parade was awarded to both the men's and women's teams, having each broken their long Ashes ducks. Players were turned into heroes, the nation giving their hearts to players like Flintoff and Pietersen.

Maybe I look back on it with rose-tinted glasses somewhat. I was just eleven at the time, lured in by the optimism and the feeling that it might become a new golden era for English cricket – Australia toppled at last, now England's turn to shine. Cricket was supposed to reach new levels of popularity, capitalising on the increased interest of the public after such a thrilling series. But ever since those golden days in the summer of 2005, any progress is best described as bumpy. This summer marked ten years since the test and the series dubbed as one of the greatest of all time; and so it's been a summer with full of nostalgia, reliving those tests that will never be forgotten. In this series I will attempt to tell the tale of what has happened since, and will start by looking at the events on the pitch.

It turned out that the Ashes win was just to be the crowning moment, as straight away England fell back down to earth with a bump. The team that had played the first four tests of the Ashes series and put England 2-1 were never to play together again. Simon Jones had already played his final match for England – a career of just 18 tests, but whose impact will not be forgotten. In Pakistan they were met with a rampant Shoaib Akhtar, bowling at his best, and England's hot streak of six consecutive series wins came to an end. Though a 1-1 draw away in India was a fantastic achievement, especially for a rather makeshift eleven, the team that had been so successful for England was fast crumbling away. The team of 2006 looked markedly different to the team of the year before: Vaughan missing throughout with a knee injury; depression sadly taking its toll on Marcus Trescothick; Giles absent; (Geraint) Jones dropped in the late summer; and the talisman Flintoff also missing through injury in the second half of the summer.

Yet by the time England arrived in Australia, the selectors appeared determined to put out the same eleven that had won the Ashes a year before; to capture the spirit of 2005 rather than face the reality of 2006. Jones returned to the team after Chris Read was given just two matches against Pakistan, only to then be replaced again after making a pair in Perth. Giles replaced Panesar despite the latter impressing during the summer, and was then dropped after the second test. Anderson was rushed into the team after missing the summer through a stress fracture, taking two wickets in two games before he too was dropped. Flintoff captained the side, often looking lost at sea. The defeat in the second test at Adelaide perhaps hurt the worst: despite scoring over 500 in their first innings, the second innings would see them collapse to a measly 129. There was no way back from that. Whitewashed. The misery continued at the World Cup later in the winter, that familiar pattern of England being behind the times in the shortened form. The infamous pedalo incident provided merely another stick to beat them with.

England then entered what was to be the first of many new eras over the past ten years. Peter Moores became coach for the first time and soon demonstrated his skill at spotting talent, recalling Ryan Sidebottom for the second test of the 2007 summer after six years in the wilderness. Later in the year Graeme Swann also received a call up, nearly eight years after being another player discarded under Fletcher, and made his test debut in India the following winter. In New Zealand, Anderson and Broad were chosen ahead of Harmison and Hoggard – the moment often seen as the 'changing of the guard' for England's pace attack. Looking back now, it appears as the time of transition - the key players under Fletcher approaching their final years, key players under Flower starting to have greater impacts.

Of course, it wasn't all positive. There were the grumblings about Moores' credentials – his lack of international experience as a player criticised – as well as his coaching style, later described in Pietersen's book as being a 'human triple espresso'. Episodes like the selection of Darren Pattinson seemed to show a lack of communication between captain and coach, Vaughan's demise indeed coming soon after.

Kevin Pietersen became England captain. It may have been because he was the only batsman who looked certain of his place in the team: Strauss just having saved his career that year; Cook seen as a future leader, but only 23; Bell always teetering around the brink; Collingwood only having saved his place in the previous game. He brought immediate success with a consolation victory in the final test and a 4-0 win in the one day series that followed, but the winter in India brought trouble. Pietersen showed his leadership off the field as England returned to India following terrorist attacks that had cut the one day series short, but on the field he struggled. Brilliant innings from Tendulkar and Sehwag helped India chase down a total of 387 with ease, whilst England were all at sea. A conflict was brewing between captain and coach.

Of course, the story has been told before. The episode went down in infamy, the first installment of a saga lasting years. Both Pietersen and Moores left their posts, their positions untenable, and Strauss and Flower became the new pair taking the reigns.

England were hitting rock bottom, but a new journey was about to begin.

10 Years Since Edgbaston: Part 2Part 3, Part 4, Part 5
Where Are We Now?

Monday, 14 September 2015

A work in progress

Monday, 14 September 2015
It was a disappointing end to the international summer for England, as they collapsed to 138 in the deciding match of the ODI series against Australia. It was perhaps a fitting end to Australia's tour: a second half of the summer where the overall scorelines have been close, but results themselves have most often been one-sided affairs dramatically flip-flopping between the teams from one game to next. But for England, after such a debacle at the World Cup earlier in the year, an overall scoreline of 3-2 against the world champions isn't really a bad result at all.

Of course, when England went 2-0 down early on in the series, there was a slight feeling that any progress made against New Zealand earlier in the summer was slipping away. England failed to take advantage when on top at the Rose Bowl, the brilliance of Wade (71*) and Marsh (40*) seeing Australia to a total of 305/6 after being more precariously placed at 193/6 with thirteen overs to go. And after starting brightly in response, as wickets fell the pressure of a large total on the scoreboard and the greater Australian pedigree proved the winner. The second match proved much the same as the first. England chased a similar score and had a decent enough start - but when the wickets fell the pressure became too much and Australia could easily press home. It was the dismissal of Stokes - given out obstructing the field - that grabbed the most headlines, but it was hard to mask how poorly England batted on their way to 245 all out.

England though showed the series was still very much alive. At Old Trafford England batted first, their own chance to put Australia under the pressure of the scoreboard, and of batting under the lights. England reached 300, and could probably have made more - only three players made it past 20, but those three players made it count. Roy (63) got England off to a flyer, making his mark in this series after struggling to have a great impact against New Zealand; while Morgan (62) followed up his runs in the previous match and the Twenty20 preceding the series. James Taylor though was the star, making his maiden international century, justice at last after missing out with 98* in the World Cup. This time England could press the advantage, and spectacular catches from Roy and Finn further showed how the pendulum had swung in their favour. A successful chase at Headingley, thanks largely again to the bat of Morgan (92) but with contributions coming across the order, levelled the series for a final decider on return to Old Trafford.

But it just wasn't to be. It all went wrong from the first over - no review taken when Roy was dubiously given out LBW - and the wickets only continued to tumble. Morgan was forced to retire hurt after being struck on the head, a nasty blow that left him with a concussion and understandably shook all those playing and watching. All England could muster was 138, a target Australia duly chased down within 25 overs. The final crushing, one-sided affair in a summer full of such contests between the two sides.

It will be terribly disappointing for England to have been beaten so badly, and it's a shame that a summer that has seen so many dazzling highs has to end on a lower note. Australia's team for the final match was vastly different from the eleven that won the World Cup in March - seven players absent for various reasons - showing that there is still a considerable gap between the two. England, have struggled for consistency in all forms of the game this summer, capable of thrilling the crowds and running rampant on their day, but on others collapsing with the bat and struggling to make an impact with the ball. They have shown this summer that they are capable of posting big scores and chasing them down, and certainly look much less inhibited in their approach with the bat, but at the same time there's still a lingering thought that a collapse might not be that far away.

Of course, it's a team in which many are still so new to international cricket. Many of this team didn't feature in the World Cup, and are still learning their games at this level just as much as the selectors are finding out more about them. It's even the same for many who did feature earlier in the year; for instance James Taylor, who returned to the side this series after missing out against New Zealand. Though he didn't always make the most of the starts he had, for me he was particularly impressive - looking busy at the crease and looking good against spin, something England could well need in the winter. He came into the side with Joe Root rested, and did enough to show that England should try and find room for them both. Jason Roy too started to make an impact and show his big-hitting potential. With two fifties he saw England off to some quick starts, though more than once he was dismissed tamely and failed to capitalise on his early efforts. Of the bowlers, I thought Plunkett showed he has a lot to offer - his pace offers a lot to the attack plus his lower order hitting can help see through the late stages of an innings. David Willey is another who has impressed me - he's not the quickest bowler but the left arm angle gives another dimension, plus he can really get that ball moving. His attitude too is great to see - he gives it his all and is a fierce competitor.

Others though haven't had the same impact. Alex Hales has struggled for runs over this series, and though his batting ability is undoubted, right now he looks desperately out of form. He's struggled so far in his ODI career to have the same impact that he's had in the Twenty20 side, though admittedly over the winter he was often played out of position at number three rather than his usual role opening up. Against New Zealand he started to show the damage he could do at the top of the order, and for me it's only a matter of time before the partnership with Roy, already showing some signs of flowering, really reaches full bloom. Chris Woakes is another who struggled this series. With Woakes I'm never sure if he's quite got the pace to succeed at international level, and though he was one of England's more effective bowlers over the winter, during this series he didn't look very threatening at all. There's a lot to play for among the bowlers with England still looking for their preferred attack, and Woakes didn't take advantage of the opportunity presented to him, going wicketless in three games played.

Even with the stumbles along the way, it does though feel like England are making a lot of progress in the shortened formats. The World Cup was the lowest of low ebbs, a time when England looked to be so far behind the times, and the players all bereft of confidence in their abilities and of any form. The consistency is still lacking, but in general England look much more competitive, much more capable of making those big scores and playing with the freedom and fun that was so lacking before. There's definitely still a lot more to be done, but they've showed they can compete with the rest again.
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