Monday, 21 December 2015

Highlights of 2015

Monday, 21 December 2015
Before the series against South Africa begins on Boxing Day, here's a moment to look back over the highs of the past year. Of course there have been many downs for England as well, perhaps even more than their ups, but still there are plenty of fond memories to look back on from the past twelve months. Last year in writing my highlights of 2014, Yorkshire's County Championship victory was my personal favourite. They did it again this year and it remains an obvious highlight - so to make this slightly easier on myself I've restricted my selections to the international game only. Here then are my favourite moments of English cricket in 2015:

5. Ben Stokes is reborn

Ben Stokes had a difficult 2014. After being the ray of hope to come out of England's Ashes gloom, he broke a hand punching a locker, was dropped from the test side, and then missed out on the World Cup squad too. What a joy then it was to see a return to form in 2015. There were signs during the tour to West Indies that his mojo was coming back - but it was the first test of the summer at Lord's where he truly made his mark. Back at number six, but coming in to bat when only 30 runs were on the board, he made 92 from 94 in the first innings; then in the second innings he went and made the fastest ever test century at Lord's. Six wickets in the second innings at Trent Bridge, as England secured their Ashes victory, further demonstrated his abilities as a genuine and exciting match winner. Consistency remained an issue, but Stokes ensured that England's love affair with all-rounders would live on.

4. England's ODI revival

The World Cup was a disaster for England. Knocked out against forever-unfancied Bangladesh, bowled out for 123 against New Zealand, their only victories coming against associate teams; really it couldn’t be much worse. It was the same old story repeating itself. What a surprise it was then to see such a dramatic turnaround. The first ODI against New Zealand saw England rack up an astonishing total of 408/9, and the runs didn't stop coming for the rest of the series. Victory over the World Cup runners-up, a close 3-2 loss against the champions Australia, and then victory over Pakistan showed not just a rebirth, but a complete transformation. New players were coming in and making their mark, whilst others were playing with the freedom and expressiveness that seemed absent at the start of the year - think Buttler twice breaking his record for fastest ODI century for England. ODI cricket had suddenly become something for English fans to really get excited about.

3. New Zealand's tour of England

The Ashes may have been the centrepiece for the English summer, but New Zealand were there to do far more than just whet the appetite. There came a test series of two thrilling matches, finishing one apiece and really begging for a deciding third. Five ODIs where the pendulum swung each way, the perfect tonic for English fans after a disappointing World Cup. It was the style of cricket played: full of positivity, always ready to go on the attack. It seemed to inspire England as well. It was the atmosphere throughout - it may be a stereotype to label New Zealand as the nice team of international cricket, but it was a series played in good spirits throughout. And it was the players: Kane Williamson, Brendon McCullum, Trent Boult, Tim Southee, Ross Taylor, and countless others. The only disappointment was that they couldn't stay for longer.

2. 60 all out

Did this really happen? It was a moment that was hard to believe, but it was the morning that well and truly won England the Ashes. England were without Anderson, but that was soon forgotten when Stuart Broad took 8-15. His five-for came in only 19 deliveries. It felt like you couldn't breathe for another wicket falling. Normally there's at least someone to stand up, rescue the situation somewhat to avoid a complete embarrassment, but this time that person never came for Australia. Batsman after batsman succumbed, often falling in reckless ways that could have been avoided. And there was that catch by Ben Stokes, that even those on the field could barely believe. There was no way back for Australia from there.

1. England regain the Ashes

It's hard to choose another moment as number one in an Ashes winning year. The series wasn't a classic - a 3-2 scoreline disguises just how one-sided the matches truly were. But it was a triumph indeed. Before the series, almost nobody had given England a chance. I thought myself optimistic in thinking that England could sneak a draw. England weren't necessarily that good either, but they pulled through at the right times. Like when Joe Root made the most of being given a second chance at Cardiff, making a century after Haddin spilled at the very start of his innings. How there was always someone to step up with the ball: Edgbaston and Trent Bridge seeing Anderson, Finn, Broad, and Stokes taking hauls of six wickets or more. Even the smaller innings, less remembered but no less important - Ballance's 61 at Cardiff and Moeen Ali's 59 at Edgbaston being examples. England were unfancied, still on the road to recovery after being whitewashed the previous time round. Yet the underdogs came out victorious, and that has to be my highlight of 2015.

Friday, 18 December 2015

10 Years Since Edgbaston: Where Are We Now?

Friday, 18 December 2015
Over the past few months I've looked back at the past ten years of English cricket, since those glorious days in the summer of 2005 that captured the nation, and the Edgbaston test hailed as one of the best of all time. It's been a period with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows on the field, and with many bumps coming off the field as well. Now I turn to the present, asking simply: where are we now?

England's journey on the field over the past decade has never been plain sailing. The glory of the summer of 2005 soon came to a juddering halt against Pakistan in the winter, and the cycle of brilliant highs and crushing lows has only repeated itself over the past ten years. England have had some of their finest achievements on the face of it: five Ashes wins, including one away from home; topping the world rankings; beating India in India. But so too have there been some of their most abject of failures, particularly the two Ashes whitewashes and the 3-0 loss to Pakistan in 2012, just months after topping the world rankings. In the shortened forms it's most often been a story of misery, apart from the odd exception – the World Twenty20 in 2010 being the most memorable. More often, world cups have been repeats of themselves, with England simply never looking up to the task.

Right now England seem to be on the beginning of their journey. An Ashes win is already under their belts, but they've still lost more tests this year than they've won. They're a work in progress, and certainly there is a lot of talent around. There's even hope that they might have sorted out their one day game too, playing with a freedom and expressiveness unheard of for an England ODI side. And maybe there is that trace of 2005 in them – players capable of winning the match with bat or ball, an all rounder who could do it with both. Players who are likeable, showing their personality and expressing themselves on the field. Still there are pieces of the puzzle to fill in – in the test side especially, the batting line-up is shaky to say the least. They look capable of racking up a big score if the players come off, or being bundled out for not-very-many when they don't. There are still question marks over spin, too. There's definitely something to be excited about there, but only time will tell how good they are. And if they are good enough, the challenge will be to make their success last – something they haven't managed to do in these past ten years.

Off the field, the outlook is less bright. In many ways, it's hard to see how the fan's view of the ECB could be any worse right now. A lot of damage has been done, and especially so in the more recent years. And there are many issues that still need to be solved; difficult issues where there is no clear answer. How to resolve the domestic structure, in a way that will keep the players, the fans, and the administrators happy and actually work? What would the best Twenty20 competition be, and how can we make the County Championship best serve the test team? Right now it doesn't seem like any group is winning. What is the way forward at grass roots level – the best way to inspire new players and have more people playing the game regularly? Coaching has improved, but numbers have fallen. What about cricket on television – is there a way that even a small amount of live action can make it on a free channel? And what about the 'Big Three' and the future of the international game as a whole?

Cricket is vastly different to where it was ten years ago, and will surely be vastly different in ten years' time as well. Who could have known how big Twenty20 would become, the leagues it would spawn, the effect it would have on the way cricket is played in other formats? 2015 has seen its own beginning: the first day-night test match, played with a pink ball. And though the ball has had a mixed reception, the stadium was packed, paving the way for more. It may not reach England, but could have a great impact in other parts of the world and help fill the seats once again. Where will England be in another ten years? If the next decade turns out anything like these past ten years, then it will be impossible to predict. But I'll be in it for the whole ride.

10 Years Since Edgbaston: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

Thursday, 3 December 2015

10 Years Since Edgbaston: Part 5

Thursday, 3 December 2015
Over the past ten years, it's often felt like the ECB's relationship with the fans has been on a downward spiral. And it's not necessarily over one consistent issue: instead there are just a lot of little things that can just stack up, giving an overriding sense of separation between those running the game and the rest.

The issue that perhaps best shows the troubled relationship between the ECB and the fans though, is over a player: yes, Kevin Pietersen. I've written on the issue several times before, as it just seems to repeat itself too often, so I'll try not to go into too much depth and repeat myself too. It's just the way the whole thing has been handled so horribly. Ten years ago, Pietersen made his test entrance, a key figure of that Ashes win. Who can forget his 158 at The Oval, fifteen fours and seven sixes, coming in at a time when the result was still in the balance? It was the kind of innings that built his image, showed how he was always capable of the extraordinary even if it was always equally likely to end in frustration. A player who would empty the bars, inspire batsmen around the country, a player people would sit up and watch. Yes, there were always many who didn't like him – his arrogance and attitude could just as easily turn people off, whilst others grumbled about his South African origins – but in those first years in the team, the world was at his feet.

But it was a downward slide after taking the captaincy, and then losing the captaincy. The relationship between player and board was never the same, and the fallout from the second Ashes whitewash became too much. It's not an issue of whether or not he should be in the team; or at least, it stopped being about that a long time ago. It's about the way the matter has been managed. Announcements without proper explanations, vague wars of words that do nothing to clear the matter up, declaring that he has no England future on the same day he scores an unbeaten triple century for his county – as bad timing as you could possibly get. The matter does, at last, seem resolved despite the occasional snipe, and we can finally breathe a sigh of relief. Pietersen's been no angel throughout – the comments on twitter are tiring, and the book doesn't leave him in a good light either. But a lot of the time the ECB seem to have made it their mission to come off worse, and have made themselves the villains in the eyes of many who still want to see him play. And there have been those subtly-messaged comments: about the people 'outside cricket', those with the 'right sort of family'. What does it make the rest of us?

And there's the self-interest matter too. The development of the 'Big Three' at the ICC, a move that appears to ensure England remain as one of the powerhouses of the game off the pitch, even as they're often struggling on it. A move to help England's sense of self-importance, in a sense creating a new division alongside India and Australia, whilst diminishing 'smaller' nations. Is it a move of a nation who cares for the health of an international game, or a nation that puts its own survival first, even if it then only has two friends left to play with? Well, at least they wouldn't have to play teams like Pakistan, South Africa, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, West Indies; all teams they've failed to beat in test series over the past three years. The treatment of associates can be even worse: just look at the scheduling for matches against Ireland and Scotland, and look at the team selections, too. Look at matches against Hong Kong and the UAE on England's current tour: matches where there's no good reason why they couldn't really have been full internationals, but that instead became mere knockabouts between 'elevens'.

Sometimes cricket just doesn't feel accessible. Ticket prices rise to new levels whilst there's no live action on free television, which can push the game to be more abstract than a reality for many. Good things do happen: programmes like Chance To Shine, launched in 2005, helping to bring regular coaching and competitive cricket into state schools; and involving many high profile cricketers from the men's and women's games. It's a programme that has done a great job, showing the educational value of cricket and succeeding in its initial ten-year aim to get cricket back into a third of state schools.

But elsewhere it can look gloomy. The ECB's National Cricket Playing Survey found in 2014 that significantly less people were playing the game regularly than the year before. The weather was a factor, yes, but there was also a notable proportion dissatisfied with the options on offer; particularly the case in the southern Asian community. Look at the England team, and it doesn't always seem representative. There's the 'posh boy' image of the game that is difficult to shake off, with many players coming from a private school background or else having close family members very involved in the game. It's nothing against them at all, and in sport you cheer for your players regardless of where they've come from. But you do wonder if there are others out there being lost through lesser opportunity.

There's just often a feeling of disconnect between those running the game and those watching it, between the desires of the board and the desires of the supporters and even the players. It's something that's always been there to an extent, but it feels like it's a relationship that has deteriorated further over the past ten years; or maybe I'm simply more aware of this as I've grown older, past the optimistic eleven year old on the high of 2005. As I've said before, there are no issues here with easy answers, and they're not ones I'd like to have the responsibility to solve either. Surely though, there must be some room for improvement.

10 Years Since Edgbaston: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4
Where Are We Now?

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

A team on the rise

Tuesday, 1 December 2015
It was difficult to know what to expect going into the Twenty20 series, the final leg of England's tour to the UAE. England were in an experimental mode, trying out many different faces and resting the more familiar as they search for their best eleven for the World Twenty20 in March next year. Their record since the last tournament might be a good one, but before this series, it was a record based upon four matches. With many new names around the squad - as well as a rather new coach - it was a chance for many to prove themselves worthy of making the trip to India in the spring.

Match one certainly showed their intent to mix it up. Despite being in the squad, players like Root and Buttler were absent from the side, with Sam Billings taking on the keeper's gloves and James Vince making his long-awaited debut. Both made their impact, too - Billings was the top scorer with 53 from just 25 balls, whilst Vince scored 41 and helped England recover from early setbacks that left them 19/3. Partnerships were key - the recovery between Vince and Morgan (45*); the later assault with Morgan and Billings, as 65 runs came from the last six overs to bring England's total to 160.

The bowlers did their job too, another attack with different faces. Topley continued to impress early in his international career, taking 3/24; whilst Stephen Parry took two wickets in his first match since England's defeat to the Netherlands at the previous World Twenty20. Parry has long been an important part of Lancashire's Twenty20 success, and showed he has something to offer England in India where spin will be important. The pick of the bowlers though was Liam Plunkett, something of a forgotten man on this tour and playing only his second international Twenty20 after making his debut back in 2006. Plunkett took 3/21, constantly looking a threat as his pace troubled the batsmen. What perhaps hurt Pakistan most though was the run out of Umar Akmal - as both he and Sohaib Maqsood were left sliding their bat in at the same end. It was comedy cricket at its finest, and the first of three wickets to tumble in the space of six deliveries. The lower order took Pakistan close, but they had been left with an uphill struggle. England took the first match by 14 runs.

England continued to mix things up in the second match. Morgan was out of the team as Buttler captained the side for the first time, with Moeen Ali was also missing out. No one player stood out with the bat for England as several made starts, Vince top scoring with a 24-ball 38 in England's total of 172/8. With Plunkett again taking three wickets, and Rashid taking 2/18 from his four overs, England looked to be heading for a comfortable victory. The run rate was getting out of hand for Pakistan, but Pakistan had Shahid Afridi. You never know when Afridi will go full Afridi, but it happened in match two. Pakistan needed 47 to win from 18 balls; Afridi faced eight and scored 24. But Woakes held his nerve. He had taken the brunt of Afridi's attack, but took his wicket with the last ball of the 18th over, and in the final over came out on top. England secured a narrow 3-run victory, and with a match still to play, the series was theirs.

When they fell to 86/6 in the last match, they'll have been glad the series was already secure, too. Both Roy and Moeen Ali had been dismissed for golden ducks, and both Buttler and Billings were out for single figures. This time Woakes starred with the bat, hitting 37 from 24 to help England's score to a competitive 154/8, and Vince again top scored with 46 in something of an anchor role as the wickets tumbled around him. Pakistan had a rather chaotic start to their reply: Willey's first over having a boundary, four wide balls down the legside, a wicket (bowled), and then a run out after another mix up that left both batsmen at the same end. But the game was never over - Shoaib Malik making 75 from 54 and Afridi starring again with 29. Pakistan needed ten from the final over, and after Tanvir hit a six on the second ball, victory looked like theirs. But it wasn't. A dot, a single, and finally the wicket of Malik, before a bye on the last ball that left scores tied.

A super over was called for. Pakistan would bat - unsurprisingly, Afridi was their man; surprisingly, Akmal was chosen over Malik. England chose Chris Jordan as their bowler, another surprise - in the main match he hadn't taken a wicket, and was their most expensive. But his super over was bang on. The fifth ball especially was spot on, a yorker that could only be hit back to him. Pakistan could muster only three runs, and Akmal was bowled on the last ball. Afridi took the ball for Pakistan, and though it wasn't easy for England either, Morgan and Buttler saw the job through. The matches got closer and closer, but England had come away with a 3-0 win.

And so, England have cause to be optimistic for the World Twenty20. An inexperienced group of players have impressed in both the Twenty20 and ODI games in new conditions for many, and though England still might not know their best eleven yet, they'll know more about what their players can do on this stage. It might be too soon to think that they have a chance come March, but the signs are there that this is a team on the rise, and there's certainly something to look forward to in the future.
Two Short Legs © 2014