Monday, 20 June 2016

That never-ending question

Monday, 20 June 2016
It's not the first time recently that England have emerged from a series victorious, yet still find themselves with several questions still to answer about the side. And yes, it quite often seems to be the very same question that rears its head - after every series, after every match. It's a batting line up that still never fires consistently, still finds itself three or four wickets down for not-very-many, and though the personnel may change, the problem still stays the same.

In any team, there's normally one man under pressure. It's not often that a top six will contain six players all in fine form at the same time. Even in great successes, there's always somebody who has found it that little bit tougher. For England over the last couple of years though, it's rarely just been one batsman. It's happened so many times that it can feel like the phrase 'England's top order failings' is just whirring on repeat in the background. During this series alone England found themselves at 83/5, 84/4, and 50/3 at various times. The lower-middle order, numbers six to eight, bailed them out this time (Bairstow in particular continuing his purple patch), but still - there's only so long England will be able to manage with half the batting line up functioning.

Compton was the man under the spotlight this series, and sadly his international career will surely now be at an end. Though certainly a fine player at county level, we only ever saw glimpses of this in an England shirt - two centuries in New Zealand and the 85 he scored on his return in South Africa, one of the most important innings of the series. But generally at test level, it's never stuck for him. Maybe it's the mental side, or maybe it's about finding his way to score, with comments about his strike rate following him wherever he went. Sport moves on quickly, and chances are hard enough to come by at any age. Almost 33, a third go won't come around.

Times were hard too for James Vince, though just at the beginning of his international career. He is unquestionably a lovely player to watch and easy to appreciate, one who can make it all look easy on a good day. But test cricket is a learning curve, and just looking good doesn't compare to actually making runs. Some also pointed to the fact that his batting average in the second division of the County Championship far exceeds his average in the first (averaging over 60 in both 2013 and 2014 in division two but just 32.70 last year in division one). He's a player who has been on England's radar for a long time and will certainly stay in the side for the series against Pakistan in the second half of the summer. But Pakistan's bowlers should provide more of a threat than Sri Lanka's, and Vince will need to learn fast.

It's not all doom and gloom, of course not. England won the series, and with Cook and Root not providing their usual weight of runs, others stood up. It's still too early to tick off the opener's spot, but Alex Hales certainly stated his case, though ultimately falling just short of a test century in three innings. Maybe he hasn't provided the swashbuckling innings that might have been hoped for when first selected - but more importantly he's shown the key qualities of a test batsman, like patience and control around his off stump. It wasn't easy in South Africa, but he looks to have learnt from the experience. The lower-middle order delivered as well, with a century for Moeen Ali, two for Jonny Bairstow, and Chris Woakes also chipping in with some runs. Whether or not Bairstow should take the gloves will be a debate sure to continue throughout the summer, but he's shown his star quality with the bat on the international stage and has truly been a joy to watch.

What next? Scott Borthwick looks to be the next man in line, a chance to add to his only test cap from the end of the 2013/14 Ashes. He was chosen as a spinner then, but over the past few years his batting has made him stand out more - hitting three centuries this season already. As ever with England, it's a matter of finding the last pieces to complete the puzzle. There's undoubted talent there and they've come out with the result, but they're still something of a work in progress, never quite fully functioning. As it is, the questions continue.

Friday, 3 June 2016

Batting on the brink

Friday, 3 June 2016
Form is a fickle thing in cricket. There might be no reason for it coming and going, yet that's what it does. That effort to find form again might feel like the longest wait in the world, but sometimes all it can take is one good innings, or a couple of lucky wickets. In form, and it feels like everything will just go right; out of form, and everything just goes wrong.

And there can come a point where a player reaches the brink. The last chance when their place in the side, even their career, is on the line. It's the brink where Nick Compton finds himself now. Trevor Bayliss has said he prefers to give players one test too many rather than one test too few; others say he's already been given his test too many. Certainly it looks like his moment of judgement has arrived, after gradually diminishing returns in South Africa and then a poor start to the English summer on both domestic and international fronts. With England's batting lineup still not finding its stride, there's always going to be one man looking like the obvious fall guy, and right now Compton is the next in line.

It can be a defining moment, that last match whilst the axe is sharpened in the background. Think Andrew Strauss - 2008 against New Zealand. A duck in the first innings and his head ready for the chop. 177 in the second innings, a career saved, and the next year he was England's captain. Paul Collingwood against South Africa the same year, coming back fighting in the second innings with 135 at a moment when his career was on the line. Alastair Cook at the end of the summer of 2010, a moment when he might have been on the brink of being dropped ahead of that winter's Ashes series, making 110 in the second innings against Pakistan. We all know what happened after that. Though still young enough to make a comeback, the story still might have been so different.

But the do-or-die moment doesn't work out so well for everybody. For every Cook or Strauss there are many more who can't avoid the chop. Think of all the openers England have gone through in the past few years, and many other batsmen too. Think of Ian Bell, a man with the history and the reputation, but who couldn't turn around his form when that time came. Sometimes the rut is too deep to claw a way out of.

That moment is now for Compton. His place in the side has never been cemented - and it would take more than just runs in the next test at Lord's to stake a claim for a long term future in the team. But fail here, and his international career would surely be at an end. Nearly 33, international chances don't often come round again, and certainly not for a fledgling career such as his.

Will he succeed? We will have to wait and see. And with Compton, it's not just the runs that matter; it's the manner in which they are made, too. It's a question that has followed him around since his first spell in the team - the balance between being cautious in approach and simply not scoring, which often swings too far towards the latter. There's certainly still a place for the grafting innings, but you still need to have that way of letting off the pressure, that release which Compton doesn't always seem to have. Cook and Trott, and Ballance too, though cautious in approach, still did enough to keep the scoreboard ticking, as strike rates in the upper forties show. Compton's strike rate of 35.88 leaves him trailing behind. Test cricket of course is not and should not just be about strike rates, but as everyone else runs ahead, Compton too often stands still.

How might his career have been different had England decided not to chop and change in the first place. After all the struggles England have had with their opening batsmen in the past three years (though Hales has impressed so far this summer), with hindsight it might have been best to keep the faith in the first man chosen as Strauss's replacement. Just like finding form, international sport can be fickle and cruel, and hindsight can give no comfort.

With the knives being sharpened, a game at his home ground of Lord's will give Compton his most important test yet. Here stands a man on the brink, his international career on the line. It's now or never.
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