Thursday, 27 October 2016

How do you solve a problem like the spinners?

Thursday, 27 October 2016
Spin. It's the word of the winter. England will be facing plenty, and England will be bowling plenty of it. The trouble is, these are both areas where they have often struggled.

England's famous victory in India in 2012 was a triumph in many areas, and one of those was in their spin bowling. In Graeme Swann, England had a truly world class spinner, and another high quality option in Monty Panesar. The second test saw the pair combine for 19 wickets, bowling 121 out of the 159 overs England bowled in the game. They were the men trusted to win the match for England, the pair that took on Tendulkar, Kohli, Sehwag and the rest, and won.

But maybe England had never had it so good. Moeen Ali has been the main spinner for England since Swann's retirement in late 2013, and despite a strong start at home against India, for all his hard work doubts have continued to follow him around. An average of 41.12 after 31 tests isn't much to enthuse about, nor is his economy rate of 3.81. Opposition batsmen tend to fancy facing him, not allowing him to settle and be the man to keep things tight whilst the seamers rotate at the other end. But at the same time, really, he's the best England have got right now.

The best alternative is anyone's guess. Adil Rashid is England's number one spinner in the ODI game, where batsmen need to take risks which often punish them, but in test matches they can wait for when the bad ball inevitably comes. He has the advantage of being able to spin the ball both ways, the element of mystery that can see him run through teams as he did in the second innings against Pakistan on debut; but to his Dr Jekyll there's also his Mr Hyde, the one went at nearly five an over for figures of 0/163 in the same game. I'm a big fan of Rashid and I do desperately want him to succeed, but unfortunately sometimes the idea of him can be better than the reality.

Of the others, England brought the two Surrey men: Gareth Batty and Zafar Ansari. Gareth Batty did a decent job in the first test, particularly impressing in the second innings where he picked up three wickets (and might have got more, if Cook didn't seem to forget about him for a session). He has experience and knows his game, offering control and a good fight to boot. But with an unremarkable record from his first spell around the team, and having taken fewer wickets than other county spinners such as Jack Leach and Olly Rayner, it was a controversial choice. That's ignoring his age, too - England's tests in Asia are now, so it's understandable to be selecting as such. Ansari, replacing his county teammate for the next test, might be more of a 'for the future' kind of pick, one the selectors are clearly keen on after being initially selected last winter (unfortunately withdrawing through injury). Even so, his selection still came as something of a surprise too, having suffered an injury-hit season that might have affected his chances.

But it's also a matter of trust. Moeen Ali took five wickets in the match, Batty four and Rashid three. It was far from plain sailing for them, but until the ball started reverse swinging they offered the more likely threat. But they were often expensive, and Cook's instinct was to go for defence. One hit down the ground and the fielder would go to long on, rather than making the batsman have to take the risk and try it once or twice more. Or they might be taken off completely. It was telling that in the crucial moments, when Cook wanted to break the partnerships, he would look to his seam bowlers, not trusting the spinners to keep up the pressure, seeing them as options that would leak runs in a tight chase.

Maybe it's just a matter of role reversal. It's a series where spinners have taken the new ball and seamers are better of with an older ball, and counted on to hold up an end. And it's something always likely to be a problem when travelling to Asia. There come the pitches crying out for spinners, but also the batsmen brought up facing spin and those conditions. It's not uncommon for spinners to have a hard time of it. It's a learning curve - knowing the right pace to bowl at and the balance between speed and spin, knowing the fields, the pitches, the batsmen, bowling with a new ball. But with six tests more to come, it's a learning curve to they will need to rise up fast.

Extra thoughts:
  • Moeen Ali does of course offer more to the team than just his bowling. His talent with the bat is plain to see, and really he's one of my favourites to watch. Without his lower order runs this year, who knows what England would have done.
  • Jack Leach really has to be in contention for England in the future, but spinners mature later and with his county coach suggestion caution, maybe that's the best route for now. After Simon Kerrigan's struggles on debut, England will always be wary of something similar. 

Monday, 24 October 2016

Tension, joy, and broken hearts

Monday, 24 October 2016
Darkness had come again, but still the final words had yet to be written. A thrilling test match had been left in the balance, narrow margins separating both sides from victory. For England, two wickets; for Bangladesh, 33 runs for a historic victory. A low scoring match had proven a thriller. The tension would be carried overnight.

Of course, that was just part of the story. There had been England's recovery on the first day, and Bangladesh for the most part looking comfortable with the bat on the second. They were led again by their talisman with the bat, Tamim Iqbal, who simply seems to love playing against England - as two centuries and five fifties in ten innings can attest. The last wicket of the day was the first in the game to fall to seam, when Mushfiqur Rahim (48) was caught behind off Stokes in the final over of the day. Spin dominated proceedings on a turning pitch, but it was still far from a paradise for England's trio. There were undeniably some cracking deliveries - Rashid's dismissal of Mahmudullah (38) a prime example, a classic legspinner's wicket - but a lot of the time, batsmen raised on a diet of spin were more than happy to face them.

Where England were strong, however, proved to be where Bangladesh were weaker. In the first innings, England's last five wickets contributed 187, transforming a struggling innings to a decent score on the board of 293. Bangladesh's lower order were less successful, the last six wickets falling for only 27 runs; their hopes of a lead at 221/4 faltering as they stumbled to 248. Ben Stokes had been the pick for England, striking three times on that third morning for figures of 4/26, his reverse swing proving a potent weapon.

As is the glory of all-rounders, he wasn't done for the day. Frustratingly, England's top order faltered once again - and I really hate sounding like a broken record, but it just keeps happening. Gary Balance is one whose place looks increasingly under threat, and as much as I would desperately like him to succeed, even I'm not sure how much longer he can hold down his place. Hameed, Buttler, and Ansari are all waiting in the wings. But, at 62/5, Ben Stokes (85) stood up and made his mark for the second time in the day. His batting on the subcontinent has come on hugely already this tour, and his growing maturity shone through in a patient innings that was still aggressive when needed, and thoroughly hard-fought. Bairstow of course joined him, chipping in 47 runs as the two shared a partnership worth 127 runs. England's innings was rescued again, a total of 240 setting Bangladesh 286 runs to win.

The big wicket of Tamim Iqbal fell early, a start that boded well for England. But Bangladesh were on the counterpunch, Imrul Kayes scoring a 61-ball 43 that saw the initiative go back in the host's favour. It was an approach enough to put Alastair Cook on the back foot, a captain always likely to edge towards the defensive, particularly when bowling his spinners. But either side of lunch, England wrested control again - first through Rashid's dismissal of Kayes, and then Gareth Batty picking up the wickets of Mominul Haque and Mahmudullah in quick succession. Batty's call up for this tour - at 39 years old and with a gap of 142 tests since his last cap in 2005 - certainly raised some eyebrows, mine included. But this was him doing exactly what he was picked for - always having the fight about him, and often more control than his younger spin colleagues. At 108/4 and then 140/5, England looked in control again.

Sabbir Rahman had other ideas. It might have been his debut, Bangladesh might have been chasing their most significant test victory to date, but you couldn't tell that from the way he batted. He took on England's bowlers from the start, putting the pressure back on Cook and testing his faith in his trio of spinners. It was a battle Sabbir won when after tea England bowled a pair of quicks together in Woakes and Stokes, with the ball not yet offering a great deal of reverse swing. In terms of the run rate, the thinking was clear - spin went at over three an over whilst pace went at under two - but when Batty returned and picked up the wicket of Mushfiqur almost straight away, it felt that maybe an opportunity had been missed. It was the key breakthrough, a partnership that was starting to look like a matchwinning effort as Bangladesh edged ever closer to England's target. With it broken, England looked the most likely winners.

But Sabbir fought until the very end. Stuart Broad ran in to bowl - a nine over spell on the fourth evening - and whilst his partners were dismissed, Sabbir was still there, still batting. Broad might have been anonymous for periods of the game, but at the crunch end he was delivering, doing his job as the leader of the attack. Darkness had fallen, but Broad was bowling too well to be taken off. The contest would be carried overnight.

Cricket is a cruel and beautiful game. For all Bangladesh's fight, for all Sabbir Rahman's best efforts, he could only watch from the other end when Stokes had his way, two LBWs in three deliveries wrapping up the game for England. Sabbir finished with 64*, but it will be the 23 unscored runs that will have the most impact. The match ended in heartbreak for the hosts, elation and relief for the visitors.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

New battles and familiar struggles

Thursday, 20 October 2016
With every new season comes a new challenge. Today England's marathon test winter begun, starting off a sequence of seven tests in just nine weeks - two in Bangladesh followed by a five test tour of India just a week later. There is no doubting that it'll be tough. They may be the favourites in Bangladesh, but even the most optimistic part of me struggles to see them coming away from India with much.

Despite the change in scenery, England found themselves again in that familiar scenario. 21/3, yet another stutter at the start of the innings. The trial by spin had begun, Bangladesh's teenage debutant Mehedi Hasan dismissing England's debutant Ben Duckett, with Gary Ballance and Alastair Cook also falling in the space of three overs. It was easy for the pessimism to creep in already; they have a long winter ahead where they'll only face more of the same. But the recovery duly came, as ever led by the vice-captain Joe Root. He's the batsman that doesn't play to the script, the set pattern you would expect when three quick wickets fall within the first hour. Always he is looking around for the gaps, for the runs, shifting the onus back on to the bowler but without any rash judgement. He was joined at the crease by Moeen Ali, up the order to number five - perhaps a more naturally fit for an all rounder particularly gifted with the bat.

Moeen Ali was the cat with nine lives. Mehedi had picked up the prized wicket of Root in just the second over after lunch, but Moeen might have twice been dismissed the over before him - both times saved with a review. Overall he faced a staggering five reviews before reaching his half century, a charmed life if ever there was one. England had slipped to 106/5, and it was time for the recovery once again. Moeen was joined at the crease by Jonny Bairstow, the two a familiar pair in positions not too dissimilar during the English summer. And again the pair got to work. Moeen made 68, until his luck finally ran out thanks to a fine delivery from the man of the moment Mehedi.

Bairstow, meanwhile, battled to 52, along the way passing 2000 test runs and 1000 this calendar year - and only falling a fraction short of Andy Flower's record for most runs by a wicketkeeper in a single year. With another six tests before Christmas, it's a record he will surely surge past by a distance. It's been a transformative year for Bairstow. After an outstanding county season in 2015, it took a little while to really bed into the test team - but since taking on the gloves as well he hasn't looked back. His average has gone beyond the forty mark and this was his fourth half century on the bounce - the eighth time he's passed the mark this year. He has become one of the key parts of this England batting lineup, and even if there are still questions over his keeping ability, with the bat he is here to stay. In the end though, he also fell victim to Mehedi. Eighteen years old and five wickets on your test debut, it doesn't get much better than that.

But England had recovered well. Coming from 21/3, and 106/5, and reaching 258/7 by the close of play is no small achievement. Whilst Bangladesh stole the first half of the day, the second belonged to England and the match was fairly balanced by the close. England, of course, have their much vaunted team of all rounders - at the close Chris Woakes had looked good for his 36*, whilst alongside him Rashid has a game that looks well suited to these conditions. Both Gareth Batty and Stuart Broad also have first class centuries (though these days calling Broad an all rounder is a bit of a stretch). If England could make it to 300 or even beyond, it would be a very good score on the surface. And then it will be their chance to see how their spinners fare.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Selected thoughts: Bangladesh vs England ODIs

Thursday, 13 October 2016
And so the winter begins, three ODIs and two tests in Bangladesh to form the first leg of England's tour to Asia. Maybe a few years ago, it might have looked a relatively straight forward prospect. But not any more. Over the past couple of years or so, Bangladesh have been one of the most improved teams in ODI cricket - six series wins on the bounce can attest to this, and who can forget their victory over England to reach the World Cup quarter finals last year? With England another team on the rise, the series offered an interesting contest.

Game one, and it was the Bens who shone for England. Duckett, on debut, and Stokes came together at the crease at the not-so-simple position of 63/3 for England. But Duckett looked up to the task from the start, tough and ready for the challenge in the first game. It wasn't simple by any means with unfamiliar conditions and a difficult situation, but he passed his first test on the international stage, a crucial score of 60 anchoring England's innings. Alongside him, Ben Stokes made his first ODI century. Perhaps it wasn't as flamboyant as we've seen before, just over a run a ball though still with four sixes, but it showed his improvement in slow, turning conditions - and an upward curve as an ODI batsman. At the start of this year, he had passed fifty just twice in 34 games; this year he's passed the mark five times, and this was his third score above fifty in a row. The pair's partnership was worth 153, giving the captain Buttler time for his customary blitz (63 from 38, making it look all too easy), and England finished on 309/8.

Yet in response, Bangladesh looked to be cruising. At 153/4, it might have gone either way. But at 271/4, they were safely heading for the win, a brilliant century from Imrul Kayes (112) and an attacking 79 from 55 for Shakib Al Hasan setting them on the path for victory. England were drifting, a bowling attack possibly suffering from a lack of variety without the extra pace of the injured Plunkett. But they didn't give up. Somehow, Bangladesh lost five wickets in the space of nine runs and the match was transformed. Jake Ball became the first Englishman to take a five-for on debut, whilst at the other end Rashid had picked up four - with a run-out to boot. England may have been wilting in the stifling heat and humidity - and Ball looked to be running on empty as he looked for that final wicket - but they fought to the very end. Buttler had passed his first test as captain, and England had dramatically drawn the first blood.

Match two, and it was a good bowling performance from England. Bangladesh could never quite get away, England being tight with the ball and regularly breaking partnerships before they could get going. For much of the innings, only Mahmudullah (75) could really settle and score at a decent rate. But the captain came to the crease and was the man to make the difference - Mashrafe Mortaza making 44 from 29, supported by Nasir Hossain with a run-a-ball 27. A total of 238 was one England might have fancied - but that blitz at the end was the sort that could make all the difference.

Straight away England struggled. Bangladesh opened the bowling with the spin of Shakib to great effect, and with three wickets from Mortaza England were 31/4 after the first powerplay. England were rebuilding before they'd even begun. And though Bairstow (35) and the ever-impressive Buttler - using his feet in a run-a-ball 57 - had made something of a recovery, three wickets from Taskin Ahmed brought the innings crashing down again. Tensions started to fly, the normally calm duo of Buttler and Woakes riled up after the celebration of Buttler's wicket, but despite a mini-fightback from the last wicket pair of Rashid and Ball, Bangladesh sealed a deserved victory by 34 runs. The finale was set, and now with an added spice.

And so, to the decider. Bangladesh made a good start, a pair of forties from openers Imrul Kayes and Tamim Iqbal - the latter becoming the first Bangladeshi batsman to pass 5000 runs in ODI cricket. Sabbir Rahman also made 49 with Mushfiqur Rahim top scoring with 67*, while England's fast bowlers struggled to make an impact. Plunkett had returned to the side in favour of David Willey, and - though in most cases I'm an advocate of his presence - in these conditions the extra spin option of Liam Dawson would likely have been a better call. Rashid was the pick of the bowlers, finding turn to pick up 4-43 (though the bad balls picked up more wickets than the good), but a score of 277/6 still looked a tricky one to chase.

But England had their own strong start. With an injury to Jason Roy, maybe Sam Billings wasn't the most immediate choice to open the innings - but he seized his opportunity with both hands, making 62 from 69 deliveries. Duckett was also in the runs, scoring his second fifty of the series after a duck in the previous game. It was a show of the fantastic young talent England have on offer; the only problem being who will miss out when the trio of Root, Hales, and Morgan also return to the team. Stokes was also there at the end with 47*, while Chris Woakes finished the job off with a six down the ground, cool as you like. It was a fine and mature chase, and a fine performance by England to win the series.

It might not always have been plain sailing, but the best challenges never are. It was a hard fought, competitive series, and after the second game, one with that extra spice about it. But England came through at the crucial moments - when Bangladesh crumbled at the end of the first match, and with a strong run chase in the final match. Then again, had it gone the other way we would have been saying that about Bangladesh - Mashrafe Mortaza's performance in the second game especially. In a hard fought series it's often a matter of fine margins, and how a team fares in the big moments. And this time, in a stern test, England pulled through.
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