Tuesday, 20 August 2013

In, out, shake it all about

"If he gets a good run at it, that's what you want. If he can get that run and he doesn't have that fear of getting dropped straight away, he'll do well" - Darren Lehmann on Usman Khawaja, 1st January 2013

A quick footnote to the last blog I wrote - after asking for some consistency in Australian team selection, it's all change once again, as Khawaja is dropped, Watson moved up the order, and Starc continuing his Ashes hokey-cokey to replace Jackson Bird after one test. So to confirm, in the last three tests, Watson will have opened, batted at 6, batted at 4, and will now bat at 3. And Starc's series has read played, dropped, played, dropped, played.

In five tests under Darren Lehmann, Australia will have used 17 players. If England pick Finn for the fifth test, they'll have used 12. England are 3-0 up, and it's easy to see why. A settled side with a clear and obvious set of selections, England have planned this series meticulously. Australia sacked their coach two weeks before the first test, and have approached this series with the subtlety of David Warner in a china shop. Who knows how many of the current squad will survive for the first test at Brisbane?

John Inverarity, Darren Lehmann, anyone in the Australian set-up who may be reading this (unlikely)... come on? Really?

(Though as an English fan, continue the good work chaps)

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Why the Aussies should stick, not twist

So, Australia have lost the Ashes, and it was hardly a shock. Long before Stuart Broad's quadrennial Ashes winning spell, fingers had been pointed, post mortems had been written and the inquests had begun. Selectors, coaches, the media, fans, twenty20, the Sheffield Shield, state cricket, grade cricket and even Sam Robson have all been blamed for the urn not being #returned, and all kinds of crazy theories have been spouted by those in the know (and those who really aren't) about how the Aussies can get back to their former glories.

One way forward, as mooted by coach Darren Lehmann, is to cut the whole lot of them, and start again. Speaking in his post-match press conference, Lehmann said that Chris Rogers and captain Michael Clarke were the only certainties to play, and that everyone else is playing at the Oval for their test careers.

While clearly being used as a motivational tool for his underperforming charges, if Lehmann is serious about dropping the entire side, this could be the worst thing to happen to Australian cricket for a long time - even considering the considerable list of bad things to happen to Australian cricket recently. The fifth Ashes test is a great chance for the Aussies to finally play freely and without pressure - while they have nothing to play for in terms of the urn, they can go and play positively, score runs and shift some momentum their way before the score resets at nil-nil in Brisbane. Attention and focus should be taken off these by-and-large inexperienced players, but instead, Lehmann has pushed it heavily back onto them.

On a cricket level, cutting his losses and moving on from this team would also be a pretty poor idea - mainly because somehow or another Australia have stumbled across a pretty decent side. More by luck than judgement, they've found two openers who complement each other well - one counter-attacking and adventurous; the other gritty and determined, both of whom will fight to the death for Australia. Moving Clarke up to 4 has been long overdue, as has dropping Watson to 6, and they give a much better balance to the batting card. Questions still remain over Khawaja and Steve Smith at test level, but they've both shown glimpses of their ability, and should be backed to come good. This is a side that were the equal of - if not outplayed England for the entire third test, and most of the fourth, but came unstuck against some high class bowlers who got their tails up. Ripping this team apart just as they've come together would be a disaster.

Shaking the team up wouldn't be a bad idea if Australia had ready-made replacements - but they don't. Unless Lehmann's found a time-machine, there really aren't many options, with most of the names (Maddinson, Doolan) touted as potential newbies having only played a handful of first-class games, let alone tests. Contrast that to the near-enough conveyor belt of potential English replacements, and it's clear where Australian problems lie.

Lehmann would do well to contrast the English sides he played against of the 90s; where players came and went with alarming regularity, there was no settled side and no idea over who the strongest eleven was, to the England side he faces as a coach in this series; where a regular set of players are given the confidence of the selectors to perform, and consistent selections are made. Nick Compton and Steven Finn could argue otherwise, but they are the exception rather than the rule, and the exceptional success of recent years compared to the overwhelming failures of earlier owe a lot to consistent selections. Australia have not had a settled side since, well, the wonder team of Warne, McGrath, Hayden and Gilchrist - with new faces appearing, disappearing, then reappearing a few years later hardly conducive to success, and woeful Australian results in the past three years bearing this out.

If Australian cricket is to return to anywhere near the glory years (though I imagine they'd take just being competitive in two consecutive games), an element of consistency has to come in. While they have been good in spells this series, those spells have been few and far between. And what surely can't help it is the constant tinkering with the side, and player's roles throughout. First Watson's an opener who won't bowl, then he's a number six expected to bowl a lot of maidens. The spinner was meant to be Lyon, but it suddenly was Agar, but then it was Lyon again. Clarke wasn't going to bat anywhere else but 5, then suddenly he had to bat 4. Mitchell Starc was playing, then he wasn't playing, then he was, then he wasn't again. Warner got in a fight so had to go to Zimbabwe, then he got parachuted in to bat at six, then suddenly he was an opener. Australia had a really long tail, then they picked three bunnies. How does Lehmann expect these players to perform if even they don't know what he expects of them?

For me, somehow or other, Australia have stumbled across a half decent formula that doesn't suck nearly as much as the team that they started the series with. Lehmann could keep throwing names up in the air and hoping a winning team magically forms, but his best bet is to stick with what he's got, and get them to grow as a unit. Lord's aside Australia have given England a much bigger contest then they thought they were going to get, and throwing this lot away for untried and untested newbies is a gamble that could spectacularly backfire. Lehmann may argue that it's a gamble worth taking as he doesn't have much to lose, but going into the fifth test, these Aussies need backing, not sacking.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

DRS-ting times

The debate about using technology in cricket is not a new one, and on the face of it, should be pretty simple. Unlike sports like football, where a referee's view of an incident is purely subjective, cricket is more like tennis, where technology tells the umpire whether the ball was in, or out. Technology was first used to help umpires on run-outs and stumpings - issues of black or white, in or out, whether the batsman had got behind the line or not. There was no 'benefit of the doubt', margin for error or umpire's call. It was a pretty simple system, and it worked.

However, the Pandora's Box of technology was opened, and we've now arrived at a crossroads in cricket. The DRS system is in place in most international matches (you can take a seat for this bit, India) and was introduced in order to 'eliminate the howler', and to try and get every single decision correct. No longer could a player claim he was robbed by a poor umpire's decision, as he'd be able to make the T, go upstairs and have the decision overruled on irrefutable evidence. Sadly, that is not the case. If a bowler is sure he's made the batsman edge, he can go to the third umpire only to find that it's one of the up to 10% of hotspot decisions that don't show an edge. Or a batsman can be given out for a shady LBW that could have been missing, purely because the umpire put his finger up.

The weighting of the 'umpire's call' is totally wrong. The whole point of technology is to take the possibly wrong decision of the umpire out of the equation, and find if a batsman is out, or not out. We saw a situation today at Old Trafford where Steve Smith was given not out to an LBW from Swann, which when reviewed was shown to be hitting 49.999999% of leg stump. As the umpire had decided to not give it, his decision was upheld, but had Tony Hill put his finger up to the exact same ball, Smith would have been on his way. If cricket is a game of in, or out, how can the exact same ball be given two wildly different outcomes based on a fallible human decision which technology was designed to eradicate?

Saying that had been their final review, and the next ball the umpire missed another plumb leg before call, with replays showing middle stump being knocked out the ground, even though the correct decision would have been out, the batsman would have survived. How is that getting a larger proportion of decisions right? A lot was spoken after the first test that the main reason England won the tight game is because Alastair Cook used the review system a lot better than Michael Clarke. Surely that shows the balance is completely wrong, where using the system is more important than playing good cricket? Technology shouldn't be used to find which captain has the best restraint, or is the better gambler - it should be used to find if a batsman is in, or out.

Too much of the DRS is based on not hurting the umpire's feelings - far too much weight is put on not overturning their onfield decisions rather than making the simple call of in, or out. While opponents of the DRS claim that ignoring the umpire's decision on referrals reduces the men in the middle to bean counters whose jobs it is to solely count to six, if technology is going to be bought in, it should be all or nothing. Captains should be able to review every single ball if they so wish, with the third umpire's decision being the only one that matters and not influenced by whether the latest scapegoat in the middle put their finger up. Every ball should be scrutinised for to see if the bowler overstepped, rather than just wicket-taking ones - a system which is ludicrously unfair and in the batsman's favour. Or, nothing goes upstairs.

The only way the DRS can ever work successfully is if it is given total control of cricket, firing laser beams from the stands towards unfortunate batsmen and giving people out or not out in the post-apocalyptic world that cricket would become. Or, cricket could go back to how it was played for years before, where instead of blaming a bloke watching on telly for making a bad call, they'd blame a bloke standing in the middle holding the bowler's hat. I'm in favour of modernising cricket and making sure decisions are correct, but there can't be a halfway house with technology. In a cricketing all or nothing, I'm voting all. And let me be the first to say, I for one welcome our new technological overlords, and like to remind them that as a trusted cricket blogger I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their underground hotspot labs.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Through thick and Finn

Let’s be honest, this test match Steven Finn bowled an absolute load of dross. The two-in-two with the new ball on Day One aside, he was a bystander as Anderson tore through the Aussies, and when called up to bowl, helped push the game Australia’s way with two horrendously bad momentum swinging horror spells as firstly Agar in the first dig, then Haddin in the second cashed in. After dropping a tricky but makeable catch, the lanky paceman looked bereft of confidence and for all the world like he’s getting the heave-ho for Lord’s next week. The only saving grace was at least that someone else called Finn had an even worse day than he did (too soon?)

But I feel sorry for Finn. Things weren’t made easy for him. First up, the pitch did him no favours. Comfortably England’s quickest speedster (sometimes touching 90mph – at least if you believe the speedgun), Finn turned up at Trent Bridge hoping for a quick, bouncy deck and was faced with a slow, low graveyard. England have obviously decided that preparing pitches for spin and seam will give them the best chance of winning this series, which while it brings Anderson and Swann to the fore, pushes Finn right to the periphery. This obviously played into captain Cook’s mind when waiting until the 29th over of the second innings to give Finn the ball – by which time the rock hard new ball that Finn would clearly favour had been reduced to putty, hardly giving Finn the best chance to show off his skills. Add to that the noticeable lack of confidence in Finn from Cook (that spell only lasted three uneventful overs), and with his tail down on a slow pitch with a soft ball, it’s no wonder that Finn disappointed.

One area that Finn can’t excuse however is his use of the short ball. While Ashton Agar played what could well be the innings of his life, Finn helped get him on his merry way by feeding him a variety of long hops and other freebies, giving Agar time and room to swing hard and dispatch the ball with ease. As previously said, the pitch was far too slow for Finn’s “natural” game of banging it in short (note – Finn is far better when he bowls back of a length rather than trying to bounce every ball) which meant that he had very little chance of taking the wicket that would have spoiled everyone’s fun, and was only giving Australia vital runs at a crucial time in the game. While it must be tempting as a six foot plenty giant to try and hit the pitch as hard as he can, it clearly was not the way forward, and Finn needs to be a lot quicker to move to a plan B – or indeed go to a plan B at all.


Despite having a poor test match, Steven Finn is undoubtedly a fine bowler, and has the ability to get some of the world’s best batsmen out. He’s quick, he’s tall and he bowls from very tight to the stumps meaning that any test batsmen should be on their guard when facing him. What is a real shame though is that England aren’t really backing him at the moment. They fiddled around with his run-up to make him bowl right over the stumps, and when he started kicking them over, they fiddled around with it again, which has only served to take a touch of pace away from him. They ask him to continually bowl short in the “enforcer” role that isn’t really his natural game, and they provide him with pitches that clearly don’t suit. The captain doesn’t even give him a bowl until his main asset of the  new ball has been softened, giving him next to no chance to succeed - and even if he does start taking wickets, he’s moaned at for not ‘bowling dry’. Finally, it’s clear that England would prefer the runs of a batting-bowler such as Bresnan over Finn’s scratchy defence, even though Finn’s worked so hard at his batting that he even has a test fifty to his name. Finn almost certainly won’t play in the next test given the question marks over his selection coming into Trent Bridge have only got larger, and given likely conditions for the rest of this series, it may be until the Ashes roadshow jumps on a plane in November to Brisbane when he’s considered again. Despite not having a good game here, Steven Finn remains a very good bowler who could easily break all kinds of bowling records for England in test cricket. The only hope is that the odds are a little more in his favour next time.

Friday, 12 July 2013

To walk or not to walk...

"I always walked... as soon as the umpire put his finger up" - Geoffrey Boycott

Last year I wrote something about the spirit of cricket. There'd been a bit of a furore in a county game after Murali Kartik Mankadded Alex Barrow, with half of the cricket community calling Kartik a disgrace, with the rest sticking up for the Surrey twirler, arguing that he was well within his rights to run-out the non-striking batsman. Where the grey area lay was over the much spoken about 'Spirit of Cricket' - the Mankad is allowed in the laws of the game, but strictly forbidden in cricket's all-important code of conduct that attempts to ensure the sport is played in a sportsmanlike fashion. The Spirit of Cricket used to be an understanding between sides that they'd play the game in the 'correct' manner, but was officially written into the Laws of the Game as a preamble in 2000, telling players "cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but also within the Spirit of the Game. Any action which is seen to abuse this Spirit causes injury to the game itself". Wise words indeed.

So to Stuart Broad, who refused to walk after a clear edge behind at a crucial point of the first Ashes test. Broad will argue that the umpire didn't give him, but what of the much vaunted Spirit of the game? Broad knew he was out, the fielders knew he was out, but the umpire didn't, and Broad remained. While in the spirit of test cricket Broad should have walked, the laws of the game state that the umpire's decision is final, and as Aleem Dar didn't raise his finger, the batsman is not out.

All of this spirit of cricket stuff is very murky, with players happy to apply it when it suits them, and happy to sneak a fast one when the umpire isn't looking. Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin, as captain and wicket-keeper respectively  took it upon themselves to castigate Broad in their self-appointed roles as guardians of the spirit of cricket, yet both have decidedly shaky records when it comes to respecting the spirit. Clarke even took to Twitter during the last Ashes series to apologise for the exact same 'crime' of not walking when given not out, writing "I want to apologise for not walking off the ground when I hit the ball - emotions got best of me". Would he accept that same apology from Broad at the close of play?

The argument that's been doing the rounds on Twitter is that 'what goes around, comes around' - that these things even themselves up over time. Broad was given not out at a vital time in the test today, but what of Ashton Agar yesterday, who was also given not out stumped controversially before making his remarkable 98? Or of Jonathan Trott, given out by DRS when the umpire's decision was perhaps incorrectly overturned? Is the idea of cricketing karma enough to justify knowingly standing your ground when you know you've hit it?

For me, it all comes down to umpiring. The difference between, for example, Broad's dodgy edge and a fielder claiming a catch when he knows he didn't catch it (step forward Dinesh Ramdin) is that a fielder puts forward an appeal knowing it is not out, whereas Broad simply stood his ground to wait for a decision. It is not the batsman's role to give himself, or anyone out - it is the decision of the umpire, who on this case thought him not out. And with all the spirit of cricket in the world, if the umpire doesn't give you out, you don't have to go anywhere.

The spirit of cricket is a nice thing to have in the rules, it's a very vague statement which probably stops David Warner attacking people with his bat and allows cricket fans to look down their noses at fans of other sports and demonstrate how superior the 'gentleman's game' is. But while the "unique appeal" of cricket is nice on paper, in reality every team on the planet attempts to push the laws as far as they allow, and that's just the way of the modern game. Contrast, of course, Australia's reaction to Clarke's apology in 2010/11 where he was castigated for daring to say sorry for not walking, to the Australian agony and anger at Broad doing the same thing today. Every now and again cricket will throw up these unusual pieces of poor sportsmanship, but is this any different to a footballer scoring when he knows he's offside or a scrum pushing before the balls gone in? If the officials don't find fault with it, there isn't much anyone can do. While I am looking forward to Australia's new role as moral arbiters of the sport, I'm also looking forward to them relinquishing the role when their next batsman refuses to walk. The onus shouldn't be on the players to make the decisions, it should be on the umpires, and spirit or no spirit, that should be the way it stays.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Why England need Michael Clarke back

Reports are coming out today that Michael Clarke is suffering from a recurrence of a back injury that's plagued him throughout his career. Since ascending to the captaincy in 2011, Clarke has almost single handedly led the way with the bat for his Australian side, and with the retirements of Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey is near enough the sole hope for the tourists when they attempt to win the Ashes back in a few weeks.

You'd have thought that news of Clarke's injury would be good news for England ahead of the Ashes series, with Australia so bereft of batting talent that Peter Siddle managed to top-score in the last test (where Clarke did not play), but for me, this is completely not the case. The 2005 Ashes will go down in English cricketing folklore as the series - the two best teams in the world going head to head, with all-time legends making up both sides in a gargantuan series that was fought hard, but more remarkably, was an incredibly high standard of cricket. England's achievement of winning back the urn after so many years was multiplied tenfold by the fact that they'd beaten the team of Warne, Ponting, Gilchrist, Hayden and McGrath. This was no hollow victory against a second-rate side. The events of 2005 converted a nation to cricket - kids who'd never previously heard of the game were enthralled by Vaughan's cover drive, Jones' reverse-swing, Flintoff's all-round heroics and Pietersen's haircut. And Ashley Giles.

A generation of cricketers grew up dreaming of taking on the likes of Warne and McGrath, and that series has helped produce a great many players who could become just as good as those England heroes in summers to come. Joe Root has spoken about how he used to pretend he was Michael Vaughan when playing in the garden, and Steven Finn has told of the benefit to his career that it was to watch Glenn McGrath play in that feted series.

But what if this Australian team roll over and get beaten 10-0? While English cricket would give themselves a big pat on the back, would there be the public interest? Would it get kids picking up cricket bats wanting to be the next Prior, Cook or Bell instead of the next Milner, Barry or Phil Jones? Without Clarke, a serious beating (OK, maybe not 10-0 but still a bit of a thumping) could be on the cards, which would obviously be bad news for Australian cricket, but in the long run could spell disaster for England. Australia need Clarke to get fit, but not as much as England do.

Friday, 31 May 2013

Boyd's call-up continues to Rankle

There are two sides to the news that Boyd Rankin has been called up to the England ODI squad for the remaining two two games of the series, and they are divided by the Irish Sea. This is not the first time an Irish international has been called up to the England side, but it comes at a key moment in Irish cricketing history. But first, let's look at the short term of Boyd Rankin being picked for England.

First and foremost, Rankin being picked for the England team comes as a bit of a surprise. Not because he isn't good enough, because his height and bounce, plus his reasonable ODI record for a supposed weaker nation prove that he very much is an international player, but the fact that he's been fast-tracked up the pecking-order so quickly will leave a few others feeling a tad miffed. Rankin may have been but an injury away from a test call-up in early 2012, but a difficult 2012 season saw him going backwards in the selectors thoughts, to the extent that he didn't even make the England Lions squad for their winter tours, with Matt Coles, Stuart Meaker, Toby Roland-Jones, Reece Topley, Chris Wright and James Harris being preferred, with Harris even getting a call-up into the full England squad for the ODI tour to New Zealand. Roland-Jones, Wright and Graham Onions led the Lions' seam attack against New Zealand earlier this month, with Rankin nowhere in sight. Yet suddenly, from almost completely off the radar, he's been parachuted in after injury has ruled out Stuart Broad and Steven Finn, and Roland-Jones, Wright, Harris and Meaker very much have the right to feel aggrieved.

On the face of it, the decision seems sound. Broad and Finn are both tall men, and without them the England attack lacks that X-Factor that a tall, steepling quick can bring. Rankin very much brings that to the table, and the added international experience over his counterparts will also have counted in his favour. What those rivals will not be so happy about, however, is the county from which Rankin has been selected. While as county champions it's only fair that are large pool of players are being selected from Warwickshire, but in Ashley Giles' short reign as limited overs coach he's pushed forward Chris Woakes and now Boyd Rankin to England colours. Rankin becomes the fourth Warwickshire Bear in the current ODI squad, and while there is no suggestion of anything underhand, the accusations of favouritism will only grow stronger, leaving those waiting in the wings bemoaning the close relationship between Giles and his former charges at Edgbaston.

The other side to the story lies a short hop over the water, where yet another Irish player has been vindicated in his decision to turn his back on his parent country by being called up by England. Cricket in Ireland has never been so healthy, and after two fantastic ODIs against Pakistan last week, where they lost the series by the narrowest of margins after a tie and a two-wicket defeat, the only downside is that had Eoin Morgan and Rankin been added to that side, Ireland should currently be celebrating their first series victory over a test-playing nation at home. Something is clearly going right in Ireland, as without the huge bank balances and TV deals that England, and other nations possess, they are finding and creating a group of very talented players who are going toe to toe with some of the world's best players. However, the worry for Ireland is that whenever they do produce a world-class player, he is but a few good performances away from his head being turned by the lure of fame, fortune, and test cricket in England. How can Ireland expect to compete and improve when their best talent is at constant threat of being taken from them by a country that's shown they have no qualms in doing so?

The first thing Ireland can ask for is help from the ICC. First and foremost, a law that prevents an Irish player switching to English nationality at the drop of a hat is absolutely paramount. The laws have nothing in them that could have prevented Rankin playing for Ireland yesterday before being whisked away to play for England tomorrow, but they do prevent the opposite, with him potentially having to wait for four years after his last England appearance before changing back to the boys in green (see Ed Joyce). This rule is completely backward, protecting the bigger boys ahead of the small associates (which really isn't like the ICC at all) and should be remedied as quickly as possible, if nothing else, to stop the likes of Rankin and Morgan from switching so readily. Ideally, a rule that outlaws players playing cricket for two nations at all would be introduced, but given the intricacies of employment law, this may not be feasible. Nevertheless, we could see a situation in the next ODI where Morgan, Rankin (Ireland and England) and Luke Ronchi (Australia and New Zealand) have all represented two cricketing nations, which plainly just is not right.

More importantly for Ireland, however, is making sure that the pull to leave is outweighed by the rewards of staying. Ireland have targeted test cricket by 2020, and with central contracts bought in, an improved national four-day set-up and improved performances against established nations, it would be hard to argue that they wouldn't be as deserving as Zimbabwe or Bangladesh for test status, with Ireland probably being more competitive in test matches than those ranked nine and ten in the rankings. Test cricket is said to be the primary motivation behind the switches of Morgan, Rankin and Joyce, and if the ICC could give some indication that it could even be a remote possibility, this could be enough to encourage the next batch of promising youngsters to stay. In the meantime however, regular ODI series against the test-playing nations will have to suffice, like the one just gone against Pakistan, and the key is to ensure that the one/two-off matches are turned into three or five game series. Packed houses like the ones seen at Clontarf and the possibilities of upsets might well be enough to keep hold of the likes of Stirling, Dockrell and Sorensen, who could already be on England's radar, and Ireland, with the support of the ICC and other cricketing nations need to be able to offer that to them on a regular basis.

In an odd way, the call-up of Rankin to England's ODI squad may prove to be the best news possible for Irish cricket at the moment. Rankin's long-term injuries meant he would only be able to appear sporadically in green anyway, but him being picked by England shows the cricketing world that a) Ireland are capable of producing world-class players and b) they need support in being able to keep hold of them. If he performs well in England colours, this only adds to their claims. Another man who'll be hoping that Rankin performs is Ashley Giles, as plenty of aggression, hostility, steep bounce and wickets would justify Rankin's selection to those who are accusing him of only looking to further the careers of those he's coached before.