Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The thrill of the fight

Wednesday, 20 July 2016
How test cricket is a wonderful, wonderful thing. The runs might have dried up, and wickets too had come to a halt; on the face of it, not much might have been happening at all. And yet it was gripping, utterly absorbing stuff. A target to chase that was a tall ask, but not entirely out of reach, meant that every ball survived and every run scored could give England just a fraction more hope, but that everything could change with just a wicket. Pakistan ran out deserved winners in the end, after a contest that was utterly enthralling.

Pakistan were the victors, winning not just the match but also the hearts of many watching. Their previous tour to England of course ended in acrimony, overshadowed by the spot-fixing scandal that saw Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif, and Mohammad Amir banned and also imprisoned as a result. Amir made his return to the test team at the scene where it all happened before, but - barring the odd grumblings of discontent - the reception from the stands was generally positive. The final wicket was his, fitting with the script. The past is behind this Pakistan team, and now here is a side crafted in Misbah's image: Misbah, 40 years old and still every bit a test player, and celebrating a century at Lord's with press-ups. When the game reached its conclusion, the team followed; first standing to attention before taking orders from Younis Khan, a reference to a recent army camp before the tour began.

But the match belonged to two men more than most - to Chris Woakes, and to Yasir Shah. I was one of those unconvinced by Chris Woakes before the summer began, but I definitely no longer feel that way, and I am glad for that. He was England's most threatening, most dangerous bowler - and eleven wickets in the match can attest to that. And he held out with the bat too, in that long partnership with Jonny Bairstow that looked like it could edge things back in England's favour. But they had to face Yasir Shah. Yasir, who left England's batsmen utterly flummoxed - and sometimes before they'd even come out to bat. The ball to dismiss Gary Ballance in the second innings brought comparisons with Shane Warne's other 'ball of the century', the one to dismiss Andrew Strauss at Edgbaston in 2005. Sometimes it was just the straight one that did the job too, like the key breakthrough to dismiss Bairstow after he'd held out for so long. Ten wickets in the match were for Yasir, and it was a warning for the rest of the summer for England.

England went on the attack for the second innings, chasing a target of 283. It was a smart way to go after the new ball, perhaps the best time to face this Pakistani attack - just before it really starts swinging or reversing, and before Yasir comes on with his spin. But it was certainly a bold move, and like so many of England's bold moves, flirted dangerously on that line between positivity and recklessness. It will always look brilliant and attract praise when it succeeds, but easily looks foolish when it fails. Hales was gone early, cutting the ball. Root was out pulling straight to the fielder. Vince made his highest score for the test team with 42, but gave chances all the way - and his eventual dismissal wasn't a huge surprise. Moeen's was the worst of the lot - charging at the spinner at the start of his innings, when it just wasn't needed. Ballance (43) was more secure, but the need to dig in soon took over when England fell to 139/6.

England find themselves again with selection dilemmas ahead of the next test, reflected in the 14 men in the squad. Anderson and Stokes return after injury, whilst Adil Rashid is also present - giving the option to play a second spinner, or to replace Moeen Ali as the first choice. Whilst Anderson and Stokes look likely to replace Jake Ball and Steven Finn, Stokes's ability with the bat could lead him to replace James Vince, still struggling to make his mark in the team. If so, it may be an interesting call with the bowlers: to go for a second spinner, so rare in England; to stick with Ball, after a decent show on his debut; or to carry on with Finn, who often looked out of his rhythm, then suffered two dropped catches when he found it.

What is sure though, is that we look in for an absolute treat of a series. The fourth day was the kind that sets the pulse racing, the true test of determination and wills, the character that makes the sport as much as the physical action of bat on ball. And it could well continue with two sides looking very evenly matched, with individuals capable of brilliance, and with the bowlers edging the battle between bat and ball. After this game, I can't wait for the rest of the series.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Springing the surprises

Friday, 8 July 2016
One sure way to create a talking point is to announce a new test squad, or at least it seems to be one subject I spend a lot of time talking about on here. The international summer as ever moves along at a rapid rate, with there barely time to pause for breath before the tricky challenge of a test series against Pakistan begins next week. And with Compton dropped, Anderson injured, and Stokes still absent through his injury, the selectors had some interesting decisions to make.

And interesting decisions they were. I have long been something of a cheerleader for Gary Ballance - when he was breaking into the England team, when he was in it, and when he was out of it. But am I surprised he's been recalled? Yes, definitely. And would I have recalled him at this point? It's unlikely. Whilst I firmly believe he still has a test future ahead of him, like most I wasn't expecting this to be the time he would return. There's still the feeling that he hasn't done enough to remedy the issues with his technique - that big movement back in his crease that got him into trouble against the full, swinging ball. An average of 33.64 in the Championship this season has hardly set the world alight either, especially compared to other rivals for England places. But timing is everything, and this week Ballance made a century against a strong Middlesex attack; whilst Scott Borthwick's last three first class innings have been single figure scores.

It will be a challenge for his technique against a Pakistan bowling attack well able to expose any flaws, particularly with the recent return of Mohammad Amir. But Ballance does seem to have the mental character and the appetite for the battle in test cricket, and maybe a move from three to the middle order will serve him well. Certainly it was a surprise when he took the number three spot in the first place, never having been his position for Yorkshire and really having a technique more suited to batting at four or five. Root will be the man moving up to number three, with Bayliss keen on having the best player in the position. Root is adaptable, and certainly has the ability to rise to the challenge - but there's also the argument that if he's doing so well at four, why should you change it? The make up of England's middle order remains uncertain.

An option that was considered, and was looking likely with remarks made by Bayliss in the ODI series, was for Jos Buttler to return to the test team as a specialist batsman. It would have been quite the attacking move, and one definitely in keeping with the philosophy England are trying to employ in all formats. At the end of the day though, the safer option was taken. Buttler may be able to transform himself into a test player in the future, but I'd feel he needs more time batting with the red ball to do so, and with IPL and England commitments hasn't yet played a first class game this season.

The new face in the squad belongs to a bowler, Toby Roland-Jones. Jake Ball may be the front runner to fill James Anderson's spot, but Roland-Jones will provide strong competition and it will be a close contest for the test place. The call up might have been slightly unexpected, not having featured in an England squad before and with little hype before his inclusion. But he has been consistent in county cricket for a number of years, has a first class average of 25.17, and was involved in the Lions setup during the winter - certainly enough to put him on anyone's radar. He's shown his form this week as well, playing a key part with bat and ball as Middlesex defeated Yorkshire by an innings. His selection also gives me the chance to tell anyone who will listen that he belted a brilliant century from number 10 - also against Yorkshire - when I saw him play last year.

Pakistan of course beat England in the winter tests, and England will be wanting to set the record straight in home conditions - though Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz will provide a big test for a batting line up still not yet fully firing. Series against Pakistan can often be an interesting and tense affair, and the potential is there for a close contest between the two sides.

Monday, 4 July 2016

The one-day revolution

Monday, 4 July 2016
About fifteen months ago, England were being knocked out of the ODI World Cup. Another international tournament had come around, and once again England were left chasing the big boys, playing in slow motion as the game had whizzed on ahead of them. The cricket was bland and unexciting, even though the players had the talent to be anything but. Talk of the numbers and par scores seemed to take precedence over the the team's own freedom to attack and express themselves.

Watching England now still almost feels difficult to believe, like if you pinch yourself you might wake up from the dream. There has never been a huge change in personnel - though of course some new faces came in - but the change in attitude has been dramatic. Getting to 300 with the bat no longer feels like a rarity, more like a minimum. England made 324 in the last match and it still felt like they hadn't fully hit their stride. Gone are that team that looked so far behind the times at the 2015 World Cup, with no freedom, joy, or attack. That team lives in the past. The new England are here to stay.

And sure, it's not all been plain sailing. Series losses to Australia in South Africa show that it's still a learning curve, the latter especially an example when they let the series slip from their grasp after taking a 2-0 lead. The first ODI of this series too, showed that the threat of the traditional English batting collapse hasn't disappeared - though a brilliant game of cricket with a thrilling finale, it was still a match where England snatched a tie from the jaws of defeat of a match they should have won. At times it can be that there's just that extra maturity lacking - knowing when to hold back a little and not be gung-ho all the time, or with what approach to take when bowling. But maturity comes with experience, and experience comes with time, and a young team should have plenty of time on its side.

Perhaps Sri Lanka weren't the strongest side, and they have certainly endured a torrid tour. Injuries haven't helped them, and neither has a lack of match practice in English conditions. It was always going to be difficult post-Sangakkara and post-Jayawardene, but there are still shoots of hope. Mathews and Chandimal shared several partnerships worth over fifty, scoring three and four fifties apiece. Kusal Mendis also looked very promising early on in his international career. But the wickets would often come at the wrong times, and just at the moment when Sri Lanka wanted to be gearing up for the back end of the innings, they had to play themselves in again and England could apply the pressure.

After the first match, England just made batting look easy. In the second game, Sri Lanka saw their total of 254 chased down in only 34 overs, Roy and Hales both making centuries without losing their wickets. After a washout, game four brought another century for Jason Roy - 162 runs, just five short of England's record held by Robin Smith. Roy was brilliant, and if he didn't quite find his fluency during his first year in the England team, he's certainly found it now. Smith's record might not be lasting for very much longer. There were fifties too for Root, his typical way of getting runs before anyone notices; Buttler - a 93 that held the innings together in the first match, then a thrilling 70 in the last; and one for Woakes, the key man in the opening tie with 95* before Plunkett's six off the last ball stole the headlines. James Vince also chipped in with a fifty in the final match after coming in for Hales, a first international fifty that will surely give a confidence boost after a difficult test series.

England were on top with the ball, too. Bowling in ODIs is never an easy - or enviable - task, but England did enough to impress. Plunkett and Willey topped the wicket taking charts with ten each, whilst Rashid and Woakes had economies under five for the whole series. England might not know their best bowling attack, and in any case, rotation will always be a factor with others such as Stokes, Finn, Wood, and Topley absent in this series. Here though they struck a good balance - the left arm swing of Willey, the aggression of Plunkett, the pace and consistency of Woakes, and the legspin of Rashid.

Certainly, this England team is more exciting than ever before. And maybe even better than ever before as well, or at least the best England ODI team there's been in recent years. They've made it fun to watch their one day cricket again, something they didn't particularly do before - instead it was more often with a resigned sigh. It was hard to get excited about England's chances when they never valued the game in the way of other countries, but since Strauss took the job at the top every format is a priority, and there has been a focus on one day cricket that was never there before. And it's paying off. England's ODI revolution is going strong. 
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