Monday, 23 January 2017

A reality check

Monday, 23 January 2017
The ODI series against India came as a challenge for a much-improved England side who had made leaps and bounds over the previous two years, reaching new heights over the English summer as well as coming through a hard-fought series against Bangladesh. It promised to be a tough task, but hopes were high for a team much hyped by many corners. What came next was something of a reality check.

Not that it was all bad, of course. Make consecutive scores of 350, 366, and 321 in a three match series and you would probably expect to come away with a series win. The problem was that India were still able to outscore them on two of those occasions, only just falling short in the final ODI. A series that saw many strong performances with the bat, saw few with the ball. It's not a time for drastic action, but in some areas a bit of a rethink could be needed.

The most obvious area of attention is, of course, their performance with the ball. It's a horrible time to be a bowler in ODI cricket right now with run rates going through the roof and records are falling all around, and England's bowlers certainly struggled. Often they were able to get the early breakthroughs - having India facing positions of 63/4, 25/3, and 37/2 across the course of the series - but from there India were able to recover with batsmen like Kohli, Yuvraj, Dhoni, and Jadhav all playing a big role. In the opening two games, these four shared the big match-winning partnerships, the kind that make all the difference in this format of the game. Kohli and Jadhav's 200 run partnership took India from 63/4 to a position of strength at 263/5; Yuvraj and Dhoni's 256 gave them a platform to go all out in attack in the last seven overs. England batted well, no doubt, but never had that truly colossal partnership that makes all the difference. India's bowlers took more wickets in the middle overs. It was also worth noting in the individual century counts, where India had four to England's one.

It is often said that wickets are key in slowing down the run rate in this format, and for the most part, it's true. And that was one of the big problems for England. The bowlers struggled to take wickets in the middle overs, and India could recover before imposing themselves again towards the very end of the innings. Over the last twelve months, Adil Rashid has been a key man in this respect, in 2016 England's leading wicket taker, most economic, and with one of the best strike rates. But Rashid's form is so often in flux, and in this series he played just the one game - five overs, fifty runs. It was difficult for Morgan to have confidence in his man after that. Moeen Ali became England's sole spinner, and was their most economic bowler in the series, but was left wicketless from the three games.

Was it that the bowlers were often failing to consistently hit a line or length, or was it that they lacked that so-called 'x factor', an extra quality to take wickets in the middle overs? An attack relying primarily on swing and seam that can generally do a better job in home conditions looked to be needing that different option - like Mark Wood for instance if fit, or Steven Finn if his confidence returns. It feels somewhat premature to abandon Stuart Broad in this format, too.

In fairness, India's bowlers were far from remarkable either. Ravindra Jadeja was the only bowler on either side with a series economy rate under 6 runs per over, going at 5.23. Figures of 1/50 and 1/45 in the first two games come away as simply brilliant, and were arguably a key difference between the sides. When England had their best day with the ball - when the short ball was used to greater effect, more wickets fell in the middle of the innings, and Stokes and Woakes tied India down at the death - they won the game. Though the series brought three high scoring and thrillingly tense games, part of me was still longing for a more even contest between bat and ball. The basic premise of cricket is obviously 'score more runs than the other team', but in a way that premise was taken to the extreme.

It's a big year for England in ODI cricket, with the format taking centre stage until July and a home Champions Trophy beginning in June. Even if this series provided something of a reality check after what was generally a high flying 2016, England have to be considered among the favourites to win. Home advantage will be a big deal, and for all the bowlers' struggles they should at least go better in their more naturally suited conditions. This tour showed though, that their journey is not complete; they're not world beaters just yet.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

England's one day test

Sunday, 15 January 2017
India. It's always known as one of the hardest places for any team to tour, in any format of the game. That's something England will know well after a test tour that got worse and worse the longer it went on. Their ODI record in India over the past decade offers little hope too; since 2006 reading 18-3 in India's favour. But this isn't the England team of before, instead one that has risen rapidly over the past two years, that has won five of their last seven series - including two in Asia. An England team that surely has their best chance of major success in a long time.

England's batting power was in full display today. 350/7 was their highest score against India in ODIs, with 105 runs scored in the last eight overs alone as India's death bowling went to pieces. It took 33 balls for Ben Stokes to get to fifty, England's fastest against India. Fifties came from Roy (73 from 61), Root (78 from 95), and Stokes (62 from 40), with cameos a-plenty - Moeen Ali's 28 from 17 another little gem for England at the death of the innings. It was England's ninth score of 350 or more in ODIs; seven of those have come since the 2015 World Cup. It's no longer become a surprise when they do that sort of thing, which in itself shows how far they've come.

But while England might be able to score 350, you wouldn't necessarily back them to defend it - certainly not against India in India, not against Virat Kohli. It was a total that gave them a good chance, but even with such a weight of runs the match still looked set for a close chase. England got the start they needed, the opening pair falling to Willey before Stokes and Ball picked up one apiece. India were 63/4 in the first twelve overs, but their new ODI captain had come to the crease.

It was a familiar tale for England. New format, new year, but Kohli still reigning supreme. It was his 27th ODI century. 27! And he's only 28! Only three players have scored more centuries than Kohli - Jayasuriya (28), Ponting (30), and Tendulkar (49). Think of how many matches they've played. And run chases are his forte, an extraordinary average of 90.90 in successful chases for India. When Kohli bats, everything just looks easy. He's on another level to the rest of us mortals.

He didn't do it alone, of course. It was Kedar Jadhav who was the man of the match, his own century being India's fifth fastest in ODIs. The two shared the partnership that changed the match. It would be easy for a team to crumble at 63/4, still nearly 300 runs adrift, but India weren't going to crumble. The two shared 200 runs for that fifth wicket, utterly demoralising England in the process. England could never get the lid on during those middle overs when the spinners were to bowl; twelve balls from Rashid to Jadhav going for 31 runs alone. The bowling wasn't good enough, but the batting was brilliant.

Yet eventually, Kohli did fall. Jadhav was struggling with cramp and barely able to run, though with a few more sixes in him. But with those two gone, the score at 291/6, the game was far from over. Only England saved perhaps their worst bowling for this stage, not able to find a line or a length to stop India. Jadeja and Pandya had problems of their own, an element of panic setting in: chaotic running between the wickets, trying to whack every ball when it wasn't needed. It became a bit of a scramble towards the end, but Pandya did settle, a vital innings of 40* at the death. The mammoth chase and been chased.

It's a three match series, short and sweet, but leaving no more room for error. Certainly with the bat England have shown their worth, and it's not very often you score 350 and go on to lose. But it feels almost as if no total is enough when coming up against Kohli in this kind of form, and especially so when the man alongside him is playing far more than just the support act. England's bowlers will take a bruising, but they can do better, and they need to do better. They are strong at the start of an innings, but really need to follow that through - the key middle overs where the spinners come to play, and hitting their lines and lengths at the death. ODIs are always a tough game for the bowlers, a contest of which team can batter more runs than another, but wickets will always be the best way to slow down a run rate. India broke partnerships throughout England's innings, whilst Kohli and Jadhav were together for 24.3 overs as the run rate rose and rose. A chance to chase could make a difference too, and much could depend on who wins the toss - or just what call they make. England showed again the team that they are - rough around the edges and still with lessons to be learned, but damn exciting to watch along the way.
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