Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Unhappy endings

Tuesday, 23 February 2016
The tour of South Africa came to a crushing finish, the happy high of the test series disappearing as five straight defeats saw a 2-0 lead in the ODI series surrendered and both Twenty20 matches lost. After six straight Twenty20 wins, hopes had - albeit somewhat cautiously - started to rise ahead of the World Twenty20 in a few weeks time. Right now it feels like they have as much work to do as ever. Maybe it's their own way of managing expectations - a few reassuring collapses just so we don't get too far ahead of ourselves.

Of course, a great thing about Twenty20 is its unpredictability. Each World Cup has seen a different winner emerge at the end, and within the space of a few balls the match situation can feel drastically different. Batsmen can so suddenly find themselves on a hot streak, but wickets can fall quickly and then they're under pressure once again. And England can be just as unpredictable. They have players of immense talent and with pedigree in the format, and the six game streak shows how they can deliver - putting on big scores and coming through in pressure situations. But at the same time, there's always a collapse around the corner that can lose them the match. I can't predict their chances in India because I honestly don't know what to expect. But it will be tough.

Reece Topley will be hurting after the first match, but really it was the batsmen who let England down. There are always those tiny moments that have the final impact on the match - the last wicket to fall as a team desperately battles for a draw, the dropped catch, the missed run-out chance that was the case for Topley. But it was a great effort from the bowlers to get into the position where they should have won the match in the last over - Chris Jordan particularly impressing with figures of 3/23 from four. 15 runs were needed in the final over, but Chris Morris was there again - just like he had been in the ODI series. Two full tosses proved costly, dispatched for ten runs. Two were needed from the last delivery, and two were scored as Topley fumbled the throw from Root. It was a cruel way for things to end.

But it should have been better from England. They started strongly - 50 runs from the powerplay and 36 of those in the first three overs. But then they stuttered, and stuttered, and stuttered. Wickets fell in clusters, and batsmen couldn't get away. Buttler was left with a repairs job rather than being able to express himself in the way he can do so well. In the end, they might not have needed that many more, but a total of 134 never looked like being enough. The four wickets of Imran Tahir left a sense of foreboding ahead of a World Cup on the turning pitches of India.

It could have been different in the second match, too. There are few ways to stop AB de Villiers when he gets in the sort of mood he was in when South Africa went out to bat, but there must be ways to stop the kind of collapse that sees a team 171 all out after being 157/3. The scorecard makes horrible reading, progressing from the scores of Root (34 from 17), Morgan (38 from 23), and Buttler (54 from 28) onto something that looks more like a phone number: 1, 5, 1, 1, 2, 1. And then came de Villiers. 71 from 29 balls, six fours, six sixes, strike rate 244.82. Amla's 69* from 38 almost looks slow in comparison. The innings didn't last long, the total chased down within 15 overs with only one wicket to fall.

So once again, England are left with a lot to think about on the eve of a major tournament. It wouldn't be a major tournament otherwise. I don't want to get too pessimistic, because they're a talented bunch of players who have had success in the format over the past year - but it's also fair to say that results in South Africa have dampened expectations a fair bit. Part of it seems to be that they don't quite know their best eleven, or their best batting line-up. There are many all rounders there to work out the order for - David Willey comes in all the way down at number ten, for example. They haven't been able to play Steven Finn in the past few months due to injury, there's the question of James Vince or Jason Roy, and whether or not they want to play the third spinner once they reach India. England can be so full of surprises, good or bad, that it's hard to know what to expect. But it's usually worth watching to find out.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Lessons to be learned

Monday, 15 February 2016
This ODI series has proved that, as exciting as this England side can be, they still have a lot left to learn. A 2-0 series lead slipped to a 3-2 series loss, as despite having the chances to wrap up a historic double series win in South Africa, England were left to rue mistakes and misjudgments and fall to a series defeat. It was an excellent comeback from South Africa, no doubt about it, but there too is the feeling that England let themselves down.

Patience is the key with this young England side; patience for those watching them, and something for the players to learn themselves. The first match saw them score 399, not even the first time they've been around the 400 mark in the past nine months; but it's not something that's going to happen every time. Of course I'm fond of this self belief, this mentality where there's no limit when they go out to bat. But there is a line between positivity and stupidity, between aggression and recklessness, and England can swerve too much over to the latter side. Take the final match as the most glaring example - crying out for someone to build a partnership with Alex Hales as he made a century. It wasn't a 400 pitch, but one where if a batsman settled, he could be rewarded. But nobody stayed there long enough, and despite an early struggle, it became a fairly comfortable win for South Africa. They made partnerships - de Villiers (101*) with Amla (59), and then with Wiese (41*) - and they reaped the rewards.

Mistakes in the field were also costly for England. They put down three catches at the Wanderers, where they had their best chance to secure the series win. Rashid's drop of Morris on 14 was the most costly - he then made 62 from 38 before finally being dismissed with the scores level. South Africa won by a single wicket. How it could have been so different. They are tiny, tiny moments, but it a format like this it doesn't take long for a batsman to get away and the damage to be dealt.

There are still a few questions over the bowling, though in a batsman's world it will always be a tough task. Reece Topley continued to make a good impression, finishing as the leading wicket taker on either side, but others struggled. Broad, Woakes, Willey, and Jordan took only one wicket apiece, and Topley was the only bowler to average below 40. Jordan suffered the most, conceding over eight runs an over throughout the series. Maybe it was the lack of a truly quick bowler, with Finn, Plunkett, and Wood all on the injury list. It was a hard series for the bowlers in any case with batsmen like de Kock in full flow, and further fine centuries from Amla and de Villiers. But there was still the feeling that something was slightly missing.

There are still the positives, of course. Alex Hales and Joe Root were the leading runscorers of the series, and adapted the best to the situations and conditions. Hales passed fifty in every innings, finally rewarded with a century in the final game after being out for 99 in the second. It was a marked difference to the man who was ill at ease in the test series, looking much more assured in both attack and defence against the white ball. The first match showed exactly why it's so easy to get excited about this team - an opening partnership to get off to a flyer; a middle order with the freedom to express themselves; and a flexibility too, with Buttler moving up to number four and scoring his century. Coming from 73 balls, it was his slowest one yet for England.

A lot of it is a matter of maturity, and this team should get better the more they play. Batsmen will make low scores, they will make bad decisions, chase after one that's not meant to be hit. It's just disappointing when they all do it one after the other when there's time for them to just settle in a bit. Even in the most electrifying innings batsmen still have time to play themselves in before the real battering comes along, just think of how many times you watch a batsman suddenly get on a roll and just hit it everywhere. Unfortunately the captain led by example. Morgan can be brilliant at times, and at other times so poor. He struggled to make a mark in this series, and at Cape Town his was perhaps the worst shot of the lot.

And so, the learning curve continues. Bumps in the road are to be expected, and it's still worth remembering how far they have come, nearly a year to the day since being dismissed for 123 against New Zealand at the World Cup. It was hard to see a way out of the mire at that point, and now we have a team playing with the freedom and self belief we had always hoped for. Maybe the trick now is learning the right time to reign things in a bit.
Two Short Legs © 2014