Sunday, 22 November 2015

The Bell tolls

Sunday, 22 November 2015
Yes, I know you're groaning as you read that title; I just couldn't resist. This week, England announced their squad for the upcoming tour of South Africa, and there was one name noticeably missing: Ian Bell. A veteran of over 100 tests, a senior figure in the team, and yet one that has struggled so much for runs over the past two years. The door has been left open for a future return to the side - and the way England's middle order has been, there is always a chance - yet at 33 years old, it's often hard for a player to come back after a drop like this.

Ian Bell has certainly been one of my favourite players for England over the past decade. There's that effortless sense of beauty about his batting, a player you could just sit and watch for hours. Just watch him play a late cut and you'll see that ease of timing, technique, and perfect placement that the rest of us can only dream of. There are those golden periods: the 2013 Ashes where his three centuries were key in the series win; average over a hundred in the summer of 2011, hitting four centuries (one a double) along the way. When he was on song, everything just looked too easy. But there as well was always the frustration. All the talent in the world, but not always the mentality to go with it. His early centuries always came once a teammate already had one on the board, and if there was a collapse he'd rarely be the man to stand up and fight. Of course, he improved with time - his resistance in Cape Town at the start of 2010 showing a different side to him - but it was a reputation that seemed always to follow him around. 118 tests show a fine career, but an average of 42.69 shows he could perhaps have made more of his talents.

And the past two years haven't been so fun to watch. The glorious summer of 2013 gave way to the whitewash of the winter, where Bell wasn't alone in struggling against the Australian bowlers. And since then it has been a mixed bag: odd centuries, odd fifties, but even more scores of nought or one. Mistakes in the field haven't helped either, with more than one dropped catch that has proved costly to the team cause. And so, a drop from the side doesn't come as a huge shock, but seeing him absent from the whole squad was a surprise. There's still the chance for him to knuckle down, make a ton of runs for Warwickshire, and force his way back into the side; but if this does turn out to be the end of his international career, it's a sad one indeed.

Of course, Bell's absence is not the only noteworthy selection or non-selection. Whilst Hales looks likely to be the next man opening alongside Cook, the inclusion of Compton shows the selectors aren't yet closing the door on anyone. With hindsight, they might be wishing they hadn't dropped him in the first place, so long has the search for an opening batsman gone on. It's a good decision: Compton has been one of the most consistent batsmen in county cricket over the past few years, and there's potential for a return at the top or at number three, his position for Middlesex. Gary Ballance also returns, and it will be interesting to see if he has adapted his game during his stint away. Bowling wise, with Wood and Finn both absent through injury, Woakes, Jordan, and Footitt come in. The omission of Plunkett is one that surprises me: after carrying the drinks in the UAE, South Africa is a place that looked made for him, and yet he has been leapfrogged by others. I am though, looking forward to seeing Mark Footitt potentially making his debut - a left-arm option and someone who has had a lot of success in the county game. Rashid also misses out with England very unlikely to need a second spinner, looking set to join up with Jason Gillespie in the Big Bash in Australia.

In the meantime, England's ODI team is on the rise. Whilst the first match saw the collapses of old, coming at both the start and the end of the innings, the next three have brought convincing victories and many impressive performances with them. There was the bowling of Topley in game one, with three wickets in the opening ten overs; Alex Hales's maiden century in the second match; the bowling of Chris Woakes at the death, with four wickets in both the second and third game; the way Taylor (67*) and Buttler (49*) chased down Pakistan's total in the third game, not the highest total to chase but coming to the crease in a far-from-easy situation; and Jason Roy making his maiden century as well in the final match, both openers really starting to flourish. And then there was Buttler.

Jos Buttler played the kind of innings that's still hard to believe, no matter how many times you watch it. He has now twice broken his own record for England's fastest ODI century, coming this time off a mere 46 deliveries. He scored in 360 degrees around the ground - giant sixes down the ground one minute, a four over the keeper's head the next. How can you set a field to that? How are mere mortals supposed to compete with that at all? This is a man who looked so bereft of any form, any confidence during the test series that he didn't play the final match. He could be a different person right now. It's his world, and we're just living in it.

If Buttler looks unrecognisable from just a few weeks ago, England's ODI cricket is looking unrecognisable from the start of the year, too. They're far from the finished article yet, but there's a lot more to be hopeful about than there ever was before. Even if ODI cricket is Pakistan's weaker format - being ranked eighth in the world - for a young England side, an away win in very unfamiliar conditions is a very good achievement. Now they will be hoping this form can extend to the Twenty20 side, with a three match series to come before the World Cup at the end of the winter.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

10 Years Since Edgbaston: Part 4

Thursday, 12 November 2015
The journey on the field over the past ten years has been bumpy, to say the least. England have been through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, through ends of eras and as many fresh beginnings. Now though, I turn my attention away from events on the pitch, and look to how the longer term issues away from the field have evolved over the past decade.

2005 saw the last time live test cricket was shown on terrestrial television in Britain. And undoubtedly it helped that series capture the public imagination in such a way. Sure, we look back on it and we tend to forget the problems with the Channel 4 coverage: large chunks of play making way for the racing, meaning to see a full days play some form of digital television would often be needed; and start and finish times being earlier to allow for showings of Hollyoaks. Sky have done a lot of good things, too. They bring a lot of excellent analysis, help fund the latest high-tech gear, the money has helped the sport at a grassroots level, and boosted the women's game. But how many people are there watching it? What can be a substitute for inspiring a new wealth of fans, even a new generation of players, who can watch their heroes so easily on the television?

Of course there's no easy solution, there never is. There aren't any free-to-air broadcasters willing to stump up the money for one. Cricket is time-consuming, and when it's not an Ashes series, there's never the same level of general interest. It's not on the 'crown jewels' of sporting events which have to be shown free-to-air, and so it's difficult to justify making a substantial bid. Money matters, and Sky have it. It's no criticism of them, and I do thoroughly enjoy their coverage. But maybe there could be a small amount that's not locked behind a paywall. Maybe Sky's Pick channel, available to a much wider audience on Freeview, could be used to show the odd slice of live action, international and domestic. And then people might be more likely to just chance upon it, and suddenly find themselves hooked. I don't know what the answer is, but I feel like there must be at least some way to make television coverage a bit more accessible.

One of the bigger issues over the past ten years has been the rise of Twenty20. England's Twenty20 competition debuted in 2003, whilst England played their first international match in the summer of 2005 - beating Australia by 100 runs. But they've never capitalised on the success of a format they pioneered. India had been somewhat wary of the format to begin with, but then saw its huge potential and the IPL was born. England missed the boat, and instead got into bed with Allen Stanford, his helicopters and crates of cash. We all know how that turned out. England have never quite figured out the format for their Twenty20 league, and are still yet to do so. What's the balance between franchises and regional identities, between counties with test grounds and those without, but who are more likely to sell out from the games? When should it be played: does a once-weekly competition affect the standard, but does too much in a condensed period affect the crowds? How to attract the biggest stars?

Meanwhile, there's often been a subtle and at times not-so-subtle hostility to the players who choose to head to the IPL. Like many test cricket is my favoured format, the pinnacle, and I'm not keen on players skipping tests to play Twenty20. But whilst I only have a passing interest in the IPL – mainly due to not having a strong attachment to any one team – it has a place, and it has a value, and that needs to be recognised. Why frown upon players who want to go and learn from the best in the world, in new conditions, in front of massive crowds? It's not just a payday, it can be a great learning experience. How much of the sneering comes from bitterness and jealousy? It does though look to be changing, as under Andrew Strauss the limited-overs forms are becoming more of a priority than they were before.

These aren't issues with simple answers. What is the balance between the game's accessibility for fans, and having the money to improve the game at a grassroots level? What is the balance between letting players join big Twenty20 leagues, and their preparations for the longer forms of the game? The questions come up again and again, and it's a difficult path for the ECB to navigate.

At the same time though, the board's relationship with the fans seems most often on a downward spiral.

10 Years Since Edgbaston: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 5
Where Are We Now?

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Disappointments and what ifs

Thursday, 5 November 2015
I have mixed feelings about this series, and the 2-0 scoreline. There is, of course, disappointment: the missed opportunities, the what ifs, and the general frustration that the same old problems seem always to be repeating themselves. And yet there's also a part of me who has kept up the optimism, the ‘look for the positives' spiel so often churned out to the media even when, on the face of it, things look pretty bad. This has been a series which I expected England to lose, and which they duly did, yet it wasn't a loss that felt quite as bad as those that have come before.

Of course, the overriding sense is one of disappointment. England were outplayed in all departments; Pakistan with a batting lineup where you felt someone would always get the runs, and a bowling attack always capable of causing England great difficulty. Mohammad Hafeez, Misbah-ul-Haq, Asad Shafiq, and Younis Khan all hit centuries and scored over 300 runs; whilst Shoaib Malik scored 245 in the first game. Malik also took eleven wickets and topped the bowling averages; Yasir Shah was the leading wicket taker in the series with 15, despite missing the first match; Wahab Riaz could be destructive; Imran Khan somewhat unsung, but effective; and Zulfiqar Babar helping build the pressure by bowling maiden, after maiden, after maiden. In contrast, for England it was tough to see where the runs were coming from beyond Cook and Root, and when they bowled the spinners rarely threatened on the same level as the pacemen - far from ideal in conditions like these. Spin proved a lethal weapon so often for Pakistan, but England's spinners could never let the pressure build. Admittedly the Pakistan batsmen are much superior players of both spin bowling and the conditions, and targeted the spinners, but England struggled for consistency and accuracy. The fast bowlers were excellent, but were left with too much work to do.

It's frustrating, because a lot of the time it seems to be the same old problems coming up again. Whilst I am a fan of both Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, it's clear that they are still a work in progress. England should stick with them, but this series showed that they really will have to learn fast. It's clear that both can be very dangerous on their day: just think of Rashid on the last day of the first test, or Moeen Ali against India last year. But those days have come too far apart, and in between them they haven't been able to at least contain. There's also the batting line up, and that middle order that hasn't really fired all year. Ian Bell has shown some fight this series, but he can't have many more chances left. His duck in the second innings was his ninth score of 0 or 1 this year. Together in that innings numbers 3 to 7 scored just eight runs, three making ducks, and all falling to spin. Several times the batsmen have made a start, got to about forty runs, and then got out. Even Root made three fifties and no centuries. They're just not capitalising. And still England are no closer to deciding who should open the batting.

But still somewhere in there, are the good things. Like how they came so close to winning in Abu Dhabi, denied by the fading light. How England batted long in that game to ground Pakistan down, and to even put themselves in with a chance of winning through a brilliant spell of bowling from Adil Rashid. And how they nearly pulled off the impossible to save the second test, Rashid again showing great character with the bat, him and Mark Wood laying down the anchor. It proved merely to delay the inevitable, but it was still an effort to be proud of. There were the performances of the pace bowlers throughout: Anderson having a sensational record of 13 wickets at 15.61; Mark Wood having his best match yet in Dubai; Stokes taking wickets in Abu Dhabi; and Broad finally coming to the party in Sharjah. There was nothing easy about the conditions they bowled in, but they did the task admirably.

More than anything, it's a series that leaves England with a lot of what ifs. What if Cook had managed to win a toss, and England had the chance to bat first? What if the sun had set just a few overs later in Abu Dhabi, and they weren't left just 25 runs short? What if Finn didn't have to go home injured, and there was an opportunity to rotate with Wood? Instead Wood, too, now finds himself on a plane home, missing the limited overs matches with injury. What if Stokes hadn't been injured during the final test? England would have been able to better manage the workloads of Anderson and Broad, and perhaps he might have helped the lead extend beyond 72. What if the fielders had clung on to their catches, like Ian Bell dropping both Mohammad Hafeez and Asad Shafiq in Abu Dhabi? What if Broad hadn't overstepped when he got Shoaib Malik in the same innings? What if Bairstow had taken that stumping of Hafeez in Sharjah?

But that was the difference. Pakistan took their chances when they came; England were left with a bunch of missed opportunities and what ifs. Pakistan stepped up when it mattered, like when Wahab Riaz brought England's downfall on the third morning in Dubai, or how the spinners struck them down on the third morning in Sharjah. There would always be a batsmen to stand up and do the job for Pakistan, barring that dramatic final day of the first match. At times it felt like one of that middle order of Younis Khan, Misbah, and Asad Shafiq would always be batting, not giving anything to the English bowlers. In the final test it was Mohammad Hafeez, scoring 151 to take Pakistan clear of the danger, and with Azhar Ali sharing their only century stand for the first wicket. The runs were on the board, and then the spinners could have their fun.

England are left with a lot to do to improve. Next they head to South Africa, only the team ranked number one in the world. It's a place that should suit them better - and especially the pace bowlers - but where the batsmen will face a stern test from the opposition quicks, particularly Dale Steyn. It will be a tough ask for a batting lineup that is still not firing, and who have been shown to struggle against genuine pace before; and it will be a tough place to try and bed in the next opening partner for Alastair Cook (likely to be Alex Hales). The winter rolls on.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Making a mark

Monday, 2 November 2015
Three years came between James Taylor gaining his first two test caps, and winning his third this week. After today's performance, you have to wonder why it took so long. The selectors might pat themselves on the back for bringing in a man who has straight away performed in a crunch test match, but instead they should probably also ask themselves why they didn't do it sooner. Ask why it was that there were times when it felt like the only people in English cricket who weren't calling for his inclusion in this series were the ones actually making the decisions.

Admittedly, it would have been a tough ask to find a place for him in the side at the start of the series. Consistency is so often the theme for the test team, and though not all the batsmen were in stellar form, to drop someone like Buttler, Bell, or Bairstow could easily have been seen as a bit premature. But with the form Taylor has shown in the warm-ups, over the back end of the county season, in the ODI series against Australia, and now on his return to the test team - it does feel somewhat like a missed opportunity. Plus with all the talk from the England camp about Taylor being up there with Root as one of England's best players of spin, considering the conditions, it's a bit like there's been a gap in the selectors' logic somewhere along the way (I'll leave it to you to decide how big that gap is, and how often it appears). Oh, how hindsight can be a wonderful friend.

Regardless, judging by his performance with the bat today, it does seem bizarre that it's taken three years for him to finally make his third test appearance. He wasn't the complete player when he made his debut (after all, who ever is?), but he did nothing to disgrace himself before being discarded for the winter tour to India and beyond. Were the misgivings of Kevin Pietersen, saying that he was too short to play test cricket, shared by those at the ECB (a rare moment of agreement)? Whilst in the seasons that followed, Taylor was scoring more than he did in the year of his debut, he was still absent when the new era came, leapfrogged by others just as deserving. It's easy to point to his innings today and say he should have been featuring long beforehand, but it's also difficult to say when he should have been in the side, and who would have been left out instead.

But now his chance has come again, and already he's started to take it. His job is of course only partially done with 74* overnight, and how England will hope that he will really can on in the morning and make it a big score. Runs from the top order are especially crucial with Stokes a doubt to bat after hurting his shoulder in the field, though the inclusion of Samit Patel (in place of the rested Wood) does further lengthen that long, long lower order. There have been others, of course: Ian Bell, still scratchy, making a start with 40; Cook, with 49; Bairstow, 37* at the close and sharing an energetic unbeaten 83 run partnership with Taylor.

With a score of 222/4 at the close of play, just 12 runs behind Pakistan, England have a great chance to capitalise on the hard work of the bowlers on the opening day. Again it was James Anderson who led the way with four wickets, whilst Stuart Broad also picked up two - and together the pair conceded just 30 runs from 28.1 overs. It has become a common sight in this series to see the Pakistan batsmen attempt to see off the pace bowlers, before going on the attack when the spinners come on. It was the same case here, but perhaps this time they stalled just that bit too far and lost that instinct to score. Spin again proved more expensive, but they did take wickets (two each for Moeen and Patel) even when not always bowling well. Already, on the first day, the pitch was turning, and there was a lot to excite Pakistan and particularly Yasir Shah.

Certainly, tomorrow morning will be crucial for the outcome of the match. Come through unscathed, or at least with minimal loss of wickets, and England have a great chance to get something out of the series. If they can put Pakistan under the pressure of the scoreboard, and on a turning pitch, who knows what might happen. A third morning like they had in the previous test, however, and the match could easily swing back in Pakistan's favour, and the loss of the third seamer could prove crucial. Two days in, and the match looks interestingly poised.

Today though, was Taylor's day, and a happy day for all who like to see a player looking to make the most of a second chance. There will still be those who will reserve judgment until seeing him play on faster, bouncier pitches such as those in South Africa where England head next; but in a crucial test it's great to see someone come into the side and step up to the job straight away. But the job isn't over yet.
Two Short Legs © 2014