Thursday, 26 May 2016

Opportunity awaits

Thursday, 26 May 2016
Every injury brings an opportunity for somebody else. This week, that opportunity will fall for Chris Woakes, after Ben Stokes was ruled out of the rest of the series against Sri Lanka with a knee injury. Whist Stokes will certainly regain his place in the team upon return from injury - such has been his impact and talismanic effect over the past year - it will give Chris Woakes a chance to dispel the many doubters of his ability at test level.

I must admit, I count myself among those doubters. But though I might have picked Jake Ball ahead of him for the rest of the series, I would love to be proven wrong. Woakes always seems to be a nice guy, and his county record is certainly worthy of him being given this opportunity at international level. Both batting and bowling averages are superior to his fellow all rounder Stokes, and just this week he recorded the exceptional figures of 9/36 against Durham. He is a man in form with the ball, which can make all the difference when coming in to the team. And though he is set to bat at number eight, with both Bairstow and Moeen Ali being promoted a place in the order, as a man with nine first class centuries - who batted at number six on test debut - he can certainly be considered as a genuine all rounder.

So why then are there still doubts? Maybe it's because the man he gets compared to the most, Ben Stokes, is such an explosive player, one who never does anything by halves. Stokes, whilst being far from the finished article, showed almost straight away that he has that 'X factor' - the ability to win matches by himself, that makes people want to sit down and watch. It's a harsh judgement to make on Woakes, as it's not really a quality that can be taught, but it's one that England hold dear in their love affair with all rounders: Ian Botham, Andrew Flintoff, Ben Stokes. Woakes isn't from the same mould. But it's hardly fair to judge him on what he's not, instead he should be judged on what he is.

Bowlers have a much tougher time of it than batsmen, and when you're on the fringes of the team it's hard to settle without instant success. Woakes' test career has been stilted, in and out of the team without having a proper chance to nail down that place. One match at the end of the 2013 Ashes series, two tests filling in for injuries in South Africa last winter. Even now his chances beyond this series may be more about what form Steven Finn can discover, than his own. It's hardly a chance to really nail down a place in the side.

For bowlers, it can often be a matter of luck. And that's something Chris Woakes often seems to lack. It's like he's still waiting for that breakthrough, the moment where it all comes together, a spell where one wicket turns to two and so on. So far things just haven't gone his way. Dropped catches haven't helped, and neither have pitches flatter than he'd be used to in the county game. But a lot of the time, he hasn't looked particularly threatening, and batsmen have just settled in against him. He has been yet to show that extra 'something' needed at test level.

Perhaps this match could be the moment that he needs. An early season pitch at Durham is sure to offer a lot for bowlers, and with Woakes in form, bowling quickly and swinging it both ways, this could be his best opportunity yet. Certainly we are yet to see the best of him at this level. Maybe this will be the time for him to make his mark.

Monday, 23 May 2016

All aboard the Bairstow bandwagon

Monday, 23 May 2016
Sometimes in cricket - or indeed any team sport - there are those certain players you feel just a bit more protective over. Maybe they're from your county, or there's something else about them that endears them to you, but you root for them just that little bit more and get more annoyed about any perceived injustices from selectors. For myself, Jonny Bairstow is one of those players. And naturally his success in the first test against Sri Lanka, and more generally over the past year, has been absolutely delightful for me.

Bairstow is one of those players who has been in and out of the England side more than most, across all formats of the game. Whilst he's clearly had the ability to pull off something special - his 41* from 21 balls on ODI debut showed that straight away - there have been plenty of stops and starts along the way. There have been the moments where he's looked every bit the international cricketer, but often too, he has struggled. His technique makes it difficult to dispel the doubters, with all that bottom hand and holding the bat in a way that looks more baseball than cricket; and the glovework still has plenty of room for improvement.

But there were still the reasons to feel he was treated a bit unfairly. Though success could be followed by setback, it wasn't always of his own making. Carrying the gloves in the Champions Trophy wasn't the ideal preparation for the Ashes series to come, and being chucked the gloves in the winter with Australia already 3-0 and ascendant was hardly an enviable task, to name some examples. Sometimes a player doesn't always help themselves, but it doesn't feel like the selectors help them too much either.

Over the last year or so though, Bairstow has been in the kind of form that makes him impossible to ignore. And now he is truly starting to deliver on his potential on the international stage. Certainly he has one of those most important qualities: the man is a fighter. Bairstow seems to specialise in those quick, counter-punchy innings when things aren't entirely going to plan, not letting the opposition settle. He also seems to specialise in mammoth partnerships: his maiden century in South Africa with Stokes hitting the ball everywhere at the other end; last year against Durham with Tim Bresnan; just a few weeks ago with Joe Root against Surrey. A position of weakness can soon be transformed into a position of strength. 140 from Bairstow here, alongside an impressive 86 from Alex Hales, certainly put the match in England's favour. Nine catches behind the stumps added extra gloss. On his home ground, Bairstow showed himself to be a Headingley hero.

While Bairstow might love playing at Headingley, that isn't always true of England's bowlers. Surprisingly for a ground with such a reputation for swing, it's always been tough going for James Anderson. Just two years ago, though with the bat, it was the scene of heartbreak against the same opposition, with the series lost as Anderson was dismissed on the penultimate ball of the match. Finally though, everything fell into place. A switch of ends was all it took, and England were on fire. Anderson took ten wickets in the match, with five in each innings, previously not having taken more than three in an innings at the ground. Broad also took four wickets in the first innings, and Finn three in the second, whilst Stokes saw some vicious swing before his match was ended by injury. It was a harsh lesson for the Sri Lankan batsman unfamiliar in such conditions.

And so, a fine win by an innings and 88 runs to begin the international summer for England. Sri Lanka bowled well, having England struggling at 83/5 before Bairstow joined Hales at the crease, but after that they barely got a sniff. England's batting remains a puzzle to be solved, though the innings by Alex Hales will offer encouragement, showing more of the discipline he needs in the test arena. The main selection dilemma will be who to replace Ben Stokes - the genuine all round option of Chris Woakes, despite a difficult time in South Africa; or a shuffle to the lower order to bring in Jake Ball, the twelfth man in the squad here who has been in fine form for Nottinghamshire this season. The second test begins in Durham on Friday, and may once again promise much for England's seamers.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Charlotte Edwards

Wednesday, 11 May 2016
Today England captain Charlotte Edwards retired from international cricket, after 20 years as a player and 10 years as captain. Maybe it is the right time, and maybe it isn't so much of a surprise after coach Mark Robinson's comments about player fitness after the recent World Twenty20. Still, it represents the end of an era for the England women's team, and a moment to reflect on the impact she has had in the game.

I haven't met many cricketers, but I have met Charlotte Edwards. When I was fourteen, she came to my club to run a few of the weekly coaching sessions. At the time, the women's team didn't have so much media coverage and exposure, so really I knew relatively little about them compared to the men. But Charlotte Edwards was one of the players I had heard of, and there was a huge buzz about having the England captain coming to run these sessions. Memories of the sessions are bit more blurry now, though I do remember a conversation we shared almost word-for-word. But it had a huge impact, and as a young girl playing cricket I came away with a new hero and inspiration.

Then the following winter, Edwards led England to victory in the World Cup. The following summer they won the first women's World Twenty20, and that summer's Ashes series as well. Women's cricket was firmly on the rise, and Charlotte Edwards was at the forefront. In the following years of increasing coverage and professionalism of the women's game, Edwards was in many ways more than just the captain of the team. She was the leading figure, the go-to person to talk on these events and issues, an icon of women's cricket.

And of course, she was a leader on the pitch, as captain and with the bat. The figures speak for themselves. Four Ashes series wins, victories in global tournaments, captaining England over 200 times in all formats. 2605 runs in Twenty20 internationals, more than anyone playing the game, man or woman. 309 appearances across all formats over a career spanning twenty years. A Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 2014 and awarded a CBE by the Queen. A 20-year international career - when she started playing, the women's team would wear skirts - is the kind of longevity almost unheard of in the modern game.

The World Cup at home in 2017 had promised to be her swansong, but in sport you rarely get the chance to write your own scripts. With a new coach looking to build with a group of younger players, the decision was made to move on without her. Certainly she remains one of England's finest and most consistent batsmen - still the team's leading runscorer at the recent World Twenty20 - but with an increasing emphasis on fitness she was falling behind.

It is a moment that represents the end of an era for this England team, and like many I am intrigued by what the future holds. But still I will be sad to see her go. She is simply an icon of the sport, and for women's sport as a whole, and on a personal level she was my cricketing hero. Thank you, Charlotte Edwards, for all you have brought to the game.
Two Short Legs © 2014