Saturday, 31 December 2016

2016: Memorable moments

Saturday, 31 December 2016
As we reach the end of a long 2016, it's that time when reviews of the year are to be found everywhere you look, and so it's time for me to add another. In the past I've done a list of five highlights; this year I'm going for more of a round-up, some memorable moments of the year mostly from the English game.

Ben Stokes batters South Africa

What list couldn't include this innings? Just the numbers speak for themselves: 258 runs from 198 balls; 130 runs scored in the morning session alone; a partnership of 399 alongside Jonny Bairstow, who made his own 150*. 2016 had barely begun, and it had already had one of its finest performances. It was a brutal assault, and one of the most incredible innings I've seen. And it was the start of a stellar year for Stokes, his finest yet with the bat and with the ball.

Carlos Brathwaite hits a six, and another, and another, and another

But not everything went right for Ben Stokes this year. West Indies needed 19 from the last over in the final of the World T20, with England sensing victory. Though Marlon Samuels stood at the other end with 85*, not much had come in the way of support with England's bowlers keeping it tight and taking regular wickets. But it was never quite over. Stokes was the bowler, Brathwaite was the batsman. Six, six, six, six. Four massive hits, an extraordinary innings for an extraordinary win. England were heartbroken; West Indies could dance the champion dance once again.

West Indies Women win the World T20

The men weren't the only West Indies team celebrating that night. Ahead of the women's World T20 final, Australia were the favourites by a distance. They'd won the last three tournaments, and beaten the West Indies in all eight of their previous meetings in the format. But history doesn't matter when finals are concerned. West Indies had 149 to chase down and were in charge all the way, not losing a wicket until they already had 120 on the board. 18-year-old Hayley Matthews made 66, captain Stafanie Taylor 59, and there was a new team at the top of the women's game. 

A big year for women's cricket

The West Indies' win was just one moment from a big year for women's cricket. The first WBBL in Australia, starting in late 2015, was a huge success, bringing new opportunities for players and bringing women's domestic cricket to the television screens. WBBL02 has built on this further, with more games on television and others streamed across Facebook. In England, it was all change, with a new captain and new coaching regime, with new players coming into the side and making an impact, and others coming on in leaps and bounds - opener Tammy Beaumont leading the way. It was also the first season for England's own Twenty20 competition, the KSL - with the Southern Vipers lifting the trophy. With a World Cup in England in 2017, it promises to be a bumper year again.

Misbah's press-ups

Maybe the most memorable moment of the English summer was not Misbah-ul-Haq's century in the first test at Lord's, but the celebration that followed - the press-ups on the hallowed turf. Four days later, after Yasir Shah had taken ten wickets in the game to defeat England, the whole team followed suit - with Younis Khan leading the way as the drillmaster. It was a Pakistan team united, and putting the ignominy of their last visit firmly in the past, with captain Misbah leading from the front. The series ended 2-2, and Pakistan rose to number one in the test rankings for the first time. 

England reach new heights

Though in test whites England often struggled this year, they were at home in the shortened formats. The pick of the bunch had to be that glorious day at Trent Bridge, where they racked up a mere 444/3 against Pakistan, the highest score in ODI history. Leading the way was Alex Hales, a score of 171 finally breaking Robin Smith's 23-year-old record for England's highest ODI innings. Jos Buttler (90 from 51) and Eoin Morgan (57 from 27) almost made that look boring. Last year's World Cup had become a distant memory.

The County Championship finale

I don't have the chance to go to a great deal of cricket, but I made sure to head down to Lord's for the last two days of the final round of the County Championship. Middlesex, Somerset, and Yorkshire were all still in the running going into the last match, with Middlesex and Yorkshire playing each other. First it was the battle for the bonus points, with Yorkshire needing 350 in the first innings to stay in the race - and rain stopping play at 349/9. Then, after Somerset's win, both sides were needing a victory to win the title. It came down to an engineered run chase, 240 from 40 overs for Yorkshire and a never-say-die attitude. Toby Roland-Jones took a hat trick and Middlesex were the winners, a dramatic end to a thrilling season.

A new star for Bangladesh

A series that England would have expected to win turned into a thrilling two games. The first, won by England, was one that went down to the wire. Ben Stokes was the hero, an all round display capped off by taking the last two wickets, but Bangladesh had only fallen 22 runs short. The second test saw England making a strong start in chasing 273, but 100/0 became 164 all out in the evening session. Bangladesh had claimed their biggest scalp yet, with Mehedi Hasan the hero - nineteen wickets across two tests, including three six-wicket hauls. And he only turned nineteen between tests. The future looked bright.

Bairstow's golden year

The year began with him only just having taken the gloves from Jos Buttler, still looking to really cement his place in the team, and still looking for that first test century having made his debut in 2012. The year ended with him established as one of England's star players, having scored the most test runs by any keeper in a calendar year, and only just falling short of Michael Vaughan's record for most runs by an Englishman in a year. Three centuries and eight fifties came in between, innings where he counterattacked, just attacked, or really had to dig deep and fight. His keeping, whilst still a work in progress, was definitely improving too. 

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

England, what's going wrong?

Wednesday, 21 December 2016
So, really all my attempts to be optimistic in the face of impending doom in my last post turned out to be in vain. It's like I made them in the face of impending doom, or something. Funny how that works.

England slipped to their fourth defeat of the series yesterday and their second innings defeat in a row - and that being their second innings defeat in a row after scoring 400 in their first outing with the bat. There's not really a lot you can say about that. India simply outclassed England in every department; everything England did well, India then went and did better. England score 477? India scored 759, and declared. Moeen Ali gets a century? Lokesh Rahul gets 199, and then Karun Nair gets 303* - his very first test century and it's a triple. India never settled for just winning matches, they dominated them, pummeled England into the ground. Nair's triple was scored off only 381 balls, with Jadeja scoring a 55-ball 51 alongside him at the end.

England had a day to bat to save the match, a perfectly achievable aim on a pitch doing nothing for the bowlers. They made a strong start, too, with the openers sharing a century stand. But there was always that sense of inevitability as they crashed to 207 all out, losing by an innings and 75 runs. Their first innings score of 477 became the highest ever to end with an innings defeat.

So what's going wrong? Whilst they're still searching for their best eleven - and more so when playing in Asia than anywhere else - there's still a group of players with unquestionable talents who just aren't adding up to the sum of their parts. And some of it will be tiredness, yes, but when you see the same things happening again and again you'd expect them to learn a lesson at some point. English batting collapses are nothing new, for example, but over this winter they seem to have found a new template. It might even be one more frustrating than before. Mirpur, Vizaj, Mumbai, Chennai - all times when England surrendered completely when sensible batting might have saved them, or at least offered some dignity. I mean, innings like that do happen on occasion - opposing sides start to smell blood and move in for the kill whilst batsmen fall like dominoes - but England have made it a habit this winter, and more than usual. And a lot of the time, they're getting themselves out, playing shots that in the situation they have no business playing. What was Bairstow doing, what was Moeen doing? When you have a very real chance to save the game, to at least salvage some scrap of dignity, why would you do that?

So is it the coaching then? Bayliss has worked wonders with England in the shortened formats, but the test side has gone up and down and not really got anywhere. The year started with a brilliant away win in South Africa and it looked like England were in a position to build from. But since then we've had disappointing draws against Pakistan and Bangladesh and now humiliation in India; with plenty of batsmen going in and out of the team and nearly as many spinners this winter alone. There's no specialist fielding coach whilst chances are going down; no permanent spin coach when the spinners are struggling (and when Saqlain Mushtaq arrived, Rashid for one did much better); there's no wicketkeeping coach for a keeper still learning his craft. The same attitude that's brought so much success in the one-day arena doesn't translate to a match that lasts five days: there's still room to attack with the bat, but application has to come first and foremost. There's a time and a place to take the game to the opposition, and England haven't found either.

Things can go to far the other way though, which they often do in the field. It means coming back to Alastair Cook, and talking about his captaincy is unavoidable. The thing is, though the batsmen can be too aggressive when they don't need to be, in the field England have been defence first, and probably defence later too. And when it goes wrong, Cook rarely has a plan B to turn to. England just drifted in the field, Cook just rotated his bowlers - not really providing a firm leadership or notion of creativity. It's hard to see him continuing in the job for much longer. Even Cook himself has been hinting at it since the start of the winter. Four years in the job is a long time. There have been times before when he might have gone, but there didn't seem to be any heir apparent - or at least one that's ready yet. Now Joe Root has played over fifty tests, and that younger generation that includes star performers like Stokes and Bairstow look ready to step up.

Choosing a star batsman as captain always has that element of risk, that the pressures of leading will take their toll and neuter their offerings to the team with the bat. The same might happen for Joe Root, or it could be the impetus he needs. There's no doubting that he's one of the best batsmen in the world, but his collection of scores in the eighties look more of a missed opportunity than anything. Could the responsibility of being captain give him that edge he needs to convert these into centuries, 'daddy hundreds', the big scores England need to dominate the opposition? It's what Kohli does for India, at least. Root also seems to be more pro-active in nature and could offer that fresh approach England need, a new angle of looking at things, the man they need to shake things up. A tough home series against South Africa and an Ashes tour on the horizon may not be the ideal time to start, but then again, when is? It feels like his time is coming.

There's so many other comments to make about this winter, and it's hard to find the space to go into on just one post here. There are selection issues, often dubious; the lack of penetration with the ball; the question of just how many all-rounders is a blessing and how many makes too many; the scheduling; to name but a few.

The good thing at least is that England have seven months before they next take to the field in their whites, seven months they need. Though the defeat was, well, pretty horrific, it's not a time for rash, knee-jerk decisions. They were expected to lose and did just that against a strong Indian side. The question is why it was so bad.  There will be changes in personnel in the team, but none too drastic. It feels more like changes in approach off the field will make the bigger effect - and even that's not a call for Bayliss to go. They need to address why it is that such a talented bunch of players are underperforming to this extent, why they don't seem able to string together a sequence of performances across tests, even across innings. There are seven months before they play again, seven months to have a long, hard look at what's going wrong.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

The see-saw of hope and despair

Thursday, 8 December 2016
When I last updated my blog, after the first test of the series, things didn't look too bad for England. Sure, depending on your viewpoint they might have squandered their chance to take a series lead, but they had certainly gone a way to dispel the gloom that followed the series draw in Bangladesh. Since then, whilst I was laid to waste by flu, England were also laid to waste by India's batsmen and bowlers. With India now 2-0 up with two to go, the series practically in the bag, there's a lot less to be happy about.

But still I go 'looking for the positives', that cliché that so often follows a disappointing performance. And England's performance has been disappointing, no doubt about it. There's a batting lineup, that for all its obvious talent, continues to fold too easily. Six different players had passed fifty at some point in the series before today, yet still England have found themselves in positions such as 80/5, 87/4, and 78/5. In Mohali, they had a great chance to post a big score batting first, but so often threw their wickets away in making 283. Then there are the Indian batsmen, classy players such as Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara in particular, teaching England a lesson. For a long time in the second test, only a dog on the outfield was able to stop them batting. And if they get past them, there's always Ravi Ashwin, nearly as much of a danger with the bat as he is when coming in to bowl at England's many left handers.

Maybe there aren't that many positives then. Maybe I'm clutching at straws. I can't see anything other than an Indian series win, after all. Maybe it's a just fit of excitement from seeing a player like Haseeb Hameed come into the side at 19 and look the part straight away. After scores of 31 and 82 during an impressive debut, in his next two games he continued to look the real deal. A score of 25 might not seem that much on a scorecard, but in the second innings at Visag he occupied the crease for over three hours, 144 balls, 50.2 overs to make those 25 runs. Maybe it wasn't a thrilling and buccaneering innings, but it was absorbing in its own way and the sort England needed in that situation. In Mohali, a badly broken finger wasn't enough to stop him, bravely battling for 59* at number eight and doing all he could to keep England in the game. If the game is about character and temperment, he's got it in spades. And of course when you finally find an opener, two come along at once. Keaton Jennings made his debut in replacing Hameed for the fourth test, and made a century on the very first day. After the amount of openers that have flattered to deceive, I'm wary of declaring anyone as England's savior. But for now at least there's a lot to celebrate with these two.

And others are improving as well. Stokes and Bairstow are ever-improving against the spinners, and continue to be a strong partnership when they often have the chance to bat together. Stokes in particular has added that extra layer to his game, an extra patience for that hard graft when facing the spinners. Maybe there's the odd rush of blood to the head, but he won't give up easily; and he relishes having a big role with bat and ball. Adil Rashid, also, might be getting better with every match. The four ball might still be just round the corner, but more frequently the wickets are too. England's spin consultant, Saqlain Mushtaq, joining the tour has had its effect - but you can't only credit the coach, the bowler has done the work too. He appears to have won the trust of his captain now, which might be half the battle. He will always provide that mix of frustration alongside his element of mystery and genuine wicket taking threat. But with 18 wickets in the series so far, leading England's list by a distance, things are looking up.

Yet, it's still hard to plaster over the team's obvious flaws. They have been beaten twice, and you can't argue against that. I will freely admit that my optimism is, indeed, hopeless. Today they might find themselves in a decent position at 288/5, you can't run away from the fact that they are 2-0 and don't really know their best eleven or the order it should go in. They've tried three spinners, but the third option has never been good enough, so now they're back down to two on a pitch already deteriorating (though I would still say the 4/2 seam/spin should suit England more). With no warm-up games before or in-between, there's no coming back now for dropped batsmen like Ballance or Duckett, Buttler in the team as a specialist number seven. The call-up of Liam Dawson for the injured Zafar Ansari perhaps shows the muddled thinking of the selectors - not knowing if they needed a specialist batsman or a specialist spinner, so going somewhere between the two. If he does play, it must surely be as a batting option first - but where exactly does he fit? Consistency also remains an issue. Batsmen might deliver separately or in pairs but not often as a whole group, and not often for a run of matches in a row. The talent is there, so what's missing? Fatigue from a long year might be a part, but what else?

Instead, I'll flip back one more time and just be happy about today's play. They lost a few wickets foolishly, but all in all it was a solid day of cricket. It's always lovely to see a young player come into the team and make an impact straight away, and Jennings certainly made his presence felt. 288/5 is a position England can work with and build upon, and though Stokes and Buttler will have to fight hard to make their runs as the pitch turns and turns, the promise is there for a score of 350 plus or more if they're lucky. When the ball turns, it's good to have those runs on the board - it's something to work with. Maybe my hope hasn't quite died yet.
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