Friday, 15 April 2016

A lot to play for

Friday, 15 April 2016
April always comes with showers, and of course the start of the county season, and then probably some more showers. For any team and player there is always a lot to play for, titles to be chased across all three formats, and promotion and relegation perhaps even more significant with the move away from the 16-game championship after this season. And for some, there may be an added incentive: the prospect of a place in England's test side.

As has often been the case over these past few years, England's test eleven is far from settled at the beginning of an English summer. Though the past year may have seen an Ashes victory and success in South Africa during the winter, there are still several spots in the side yet to be truly sewn up, particularly so with the batting. Perhaps the most obvious among those would be the opening spot. It's the place surely everyone is tired of talking about, but the talk will only continue until someone comes in and truly makes it his own.

Alex Hales has not done that yet, but after just four tests, does probably deserve more of a chance before time is called on him too. Yet whilst Hales is resting, others will be looking to lay down a marker. Ben Duckett has already hit the ground running with 282* in the opening match of the season, and other young batsmen like Tom Abell, Daniel Bell-Drummond, and Alex Lees will be hoping to make an impression too. It may yet be too soon for those four, but a good season would certainly put them in the selectors' thoughts. Adam Lyth and Sam Robson are men who will be hungry for a second chance, and it's not out of the question for Nick Compton to return to the opening position either - one of the county game's most consistent batsmen and one of the more successful men to have taken on the position since Strauss's retirement. It's not a done deal just yet.

Compton though is still yet to secure his own place in the team. He had a mixed time with the bat in South Africa: a strong start, with 85 in the first test and two more scores in the forties; before somewhat fading in the latter half. The familiar issue around his scoring rate seemed to come up again on his return, and might easily have affected his performance - even the coach Bayliss was reported to say he would prefer a more attacking player in the role. Compton is well capable of steadying the ship when needed, but he might need to find that extra gear in his innings to keep his place in this attacking new England side. Either way, batsmen like Gary Ballance and Ian Bell already look to be pressing hard for a return to the team, and others like James Vince are hoping to break through.

Sadly, there is one place we already know that needs filling. James Taylor might not quite have nailed down his spot in the order, but with tours to India and Bangladesh coming the following winter, would certainly have been a big part of England's plans with his ability against spin bowling. This year might have been his breakthrough year in the test side, but now we're just left to wonder what if. It's a desperately sad situation, but at the same time we're lucky it wasn't even sadder.

Looking at the bowlers, it looks like a matter of fitness as much as anything. Mark Wood and Steven Finn were the definite leaders for the third bowler slot, but both had to miss chunks of the winter through injury. Finn though should be making a full appearance in these early championship games, and providing he returns to the sort of form he showed in South Africa, has to be the favourite for that spot in the team. But April is hunting time for pace bowlers, and brings a chance for the chasing pack to stake their claims too. Chris Jordan and Liam Plunkett featured heavily in the recent World Twenty20, whilst Chris Woakes was the man who replaced James Anderson when injured in South Africa. Mark Footitt has also been around the England setup for a while now without making the jump to the team, and by moving to Surrey hopes to further his international ambitions. Depending on conditions, fitness, and form, there's always a chance.

There's a lot for many to fight for, with those battling to keep their places being chased by a pack battling to take their spots. I always love the start of the county season, the reassuring feel that cricket has returned, and also the anticipation of what lies ahead both internationally and domestically. Even if the rain starts to fall as soon as that first ball is bowled.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

James Taylor

Tuesday, 12 April 2016
Today came with the shocking and sad news that James Taylor has been forced to retire from cricket after being diagnosed with ARVC (Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyopathy), a serious heart condition. Whilst there is a relief at the condition being caught now, often presenting itself when already too late, it still brings a sad end to a career of a man who - just 26 years old - still had a lot more to deliver.

Taylor had a bright career from its very beginning, being awarded the Young Wisden Schools Cricketer of the Year in 2008 and the following year being the PCA Young Player of the Year after scoring 1,207 first class runs for Leicestershire, only 19 years old. Call ups to the England Lions team soon followed and in 2012 he also captained the team, a recognition of his leadership qualities as well as talent with the bat. The weight of runs continued at his county - 1,602 first class runs in 17 matches in 2011 - and it was only a matter of when that full England cap would come.

That moment came in 2011, an ODI in Ireland as part of a largely inexperienced side. His first test cap came a year later, that match famously overshadowed by the drama surrounding Kevin Pietersen. Taylor hit an almost unnoticed, yet important, 34 runs in partnership with Pietersen, yet by the end of the summer seemed forgotten again and was passed over for England's tour of India. Two tests against South Africa and two ODIS against Ireland - two years also between those matches - hardly seemed to represent a fair chance, yet other batsmen moved ahead of Taylor in the pecking order.

But Taylor took his next chance. Coming in for Alastair Cook in an ODI in Sri Lanka, Taylor scored 90 and followed it up with 68 in the next game. Whilst England crumbled in the first match of the World Cup, Taylor showed his fighting spirit with 98* - harshly missing out on a century when Anderson was incorrectly run out at the other end. That maiden century came later in the year, against the same opposition, with Taylor scoring 246 runs across the five match series. His return to the test team in Pakistan came with a maiden test fifty, and as he showed himself to be one of England's most effective players of spin, many were left wondering why he hadn't been picked sooner.

Against South Africa again, Taylor's 70 on Boxing Day was one of the most important, if underrated, innings of the series. A partnership of 125 was shared with Nick Compton, taking England from their precarious position at 49/3 to 174/4, and helping pave the way for an opening victory. Though runs were harder to come by after that first test, Taylor's fielding at short leg during the series was also important to the team success - including two spectacular catches as England tore through South Africa at the Wanderers.

With his recent ODI successes, it seemed a harsh call when Taylor was dropped for the one-dayers that followed, even if one eye was on preparations for the upcoming World Twenty20 competition. It was another harsh call to add to a list of harsh calls that seemed to follow Taylor throughout his England career - dropped after hardly having a chance to impress, dropped after having a chance and impressing. Though a significant career looked surely to come, the one he had might have been something more. Questions - somewhat tiresomely - always came around his height, but Taylor was a fighter, always working hard and showing the mental qualities to succeed; something you can control, unlike your size.

That's what Taylor is, a fighter, who now faces his toughest fight of all. In times like these you see how strong and supportive the cricket family is. Social media has been flooded with messages of support and sympathy for Taylor at such a life changing moment, to which I can only add my own. Tonight Two Short Legs raises a glass to one excellent short leg.

Friday, 8 April 2016

World Twenty20 reflections

Friday, 8 April 2016
Four balls, four sixes. The final was over, just like that. A final full of twists and turns; ups, downs, and ups again; forty overs filled with drama. England found themselves in a strong position with the West Indies needing 19 runs from the last six balls, but Carlos Brathwaite only needed four of those to pull off a spectacular win. It was one of those brilliant, freakish innings that you can't count on to happen, and yet happen they do. England, and especially the bowler Ben Stokes, were left heartbroken. For the West Indies, it was time to celebrate.

But as painful as that final turned out to be, to finish the tournament as runners up is still a great achievement for this very young England side. It was a team that had made tonnes of progress over the past year, but over which there were still plenty of questions to be answered, plenty of new tests to be had. It was a team with minimal experience of playing in India, and a side that still seemed to be searching for its best eleven. It was a team filled with the optimism of youth and promising results over the past year, but whose confidence might easily have been dented by a Twenty20 series defeat in South Africa, with many also involved as a 2-0 lead was surrendered in the ODI series. It was a team that had the potential to do something, but just as much potential to crash out in dramatic fashion.

And after a game and a half, it was the latter that seemed the most likely outcome. An opening loss to a Chris Gayle-inspired West Indies, and the tall task of chasing down 230 against South Africa. The tournament had barely begun and England were already facing an uphill task to make it through to the next stage.

But there was Joe Root, and Jason Roy, and Jos Buttler. The total was, unbelievably, chased down. That mantra of no fear, to always play with confidence and aggression, didn't look quite so foolish as it sometimes could. This was a team that backed themselves, a team on the up. They stumbled against Afghanistan but they still came on through, then delivered two of their best and most complete performances in matches against Sri Lanka and New Zealand - the first an effective knock out game, the second being the semi final.

The players were coming through, making their mark on the big stage. The ones you'd expect - Joe Root and Jos Buttler making key innings with the bat, Ben Stokes taking on key overs at the death. And then those perhaps less heralded faces. Chris Jordan, often maligned, but who has turned into England's main man with the ball at the death of an innings. Liam Plunkett, in and out of the side, but becoming England's most economical bowler once he found his way back in. David Willey, England's leading wicket taker who earned a spot in the team of the tournament. Jason Roy was another rising England star who made that team (Root and Buttler being the other England men), his innings of 78 against New Zealand being a particular highlight.

The final, well, it was a bit of a rollercoaster. 23/3 down in the powerplay, a recovery led by Root and Buttler, then further stumbles, comebacks, and stumbles. 155/9 was a total that didn't quite look enough, but at the same time a decent total considering the start they made. And it looked a better total after Joe Root - of all people - opened the bowling and dismissed both openers Johnson Charles and Chris Gayle. England were taking wickets and keeping things tight, but they couldn't budge Marlon Samuels, his 85* keeping West Indies in the game. But still, with 19 required from the last six balls, England had to be the favourites. Then there was Carlos Brathwaite.

Ben Stokes will be hurting after that final, after that over. But it's what sport is about: those amazing moments for one team that are so heartbreaking for the other side; those setbacks and how the person responds. Stokes has already had his share of setbacks in his brief career, and still has come back to do brilliant things. And I would back him again, he will learn from this experience and come back stronger.

Yet still, England can be proud of their performance in this tournament. For an unfancied, unproven team to get to the final - and come so close to winning the thing - is still an achievement, and bodes well for the future. There might still be some maturity to learn, but already they are showing the potential to beat anyone and challenge at the top. And if you compare the team now to how they were after the 50 over World Cup, things are almost unrecognisable. What a difference a year makes. Hopefully the upward curve will only continue.
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