Tuesday, 25 October 2011

England's ODI Wake-Up Call

So England have been humiliated in an ODI series. I suppose it had to happen - for all of the talk of a new dawn post-World Cup under Captain Cook, not an awful lot had changed, and rain affected wins over disinterested Sri Lankan and Indian touring teams had papered over some sizeable cracks. The time is right to rethink the ODI strategy, be ruthless, and sort out the only format that doesn't see England sit on top of the rankings in.

As bad as England have been this series, it isn't all doom and gloom. England's bowling, when all fit, is up there, and it shouldn't be forgotten that this is an England team missing it's two main bowlers. (Yes, India have missed a few of their gun batsmen, but that's by the by). Jimmy Anderson, the oft quoted "leader of the attack" can be devastating against any side, and Stuart Broad has developed into a world-class ODI bowler. While Anderson may start to need the odd bit of strength and conditioning rotation every now and again, Broad is now coming right into his peak as a cricketer, and can become the spearhead of England's ODI bowling. The pair bring a lot of international experience (something that's been obviously lacking this series) to the attack, and combined with the also oft quoted "best spinner in the world" Graeme Swann, they provide the backbone to a more than handy bowling unit. Those three, when fit, should be automatic no-question picks, and will certainly make England a lot more competitive (at least) then they have been thus far this series.

They'll be complemented by either Tim Bresnan, who has come on leaps and bounds as an international bowler despite a poor tour here, and Steven Finn, who is probably the only England player who can hold his head up high this tour. Bresnan bowls with plenty of guile, and as proved with a very good World Cup, is suited to subcontinental conditions. While he isn't quite good enough to bat at number seven, the "all-round" (that isn't a pun on his weight) string to the bow certainly helps his argument for selection. Finn has spent a lot of time in county cricket learning his game over the past year, and it has clearly paid off. He's added a couple of yards of pace to himself (and can quite possibly be called the most consistently quick bowler in world cricket) and his one-day game is developing into a world-class standard. The only bowler to come out of this tour with any credit, it would be harsh to see him miss out, so he and Bresnan will likely vie for that final out-and-out bowling position.

Any good ODI team has a number seven who is a genuine batsman first and foremost, which is why Bresnan playing there just isn't a viable selection. Samit Patel has done well in spells and could retain his place, but long-term it's clear that England see Ben Stokes fulfilling this role. Whether he's quite up to it at the moment is debatable, but once he's over his finger injury the extra dimension that his bowling gives should help see him get a game. Personally, it would be nice to see Peter Trego given a go, but it's looking fairly unlikely.

While England's bowling is fairly sorted, it's clear that the batting needs a bit of work. Quite simply, mediocrity has been not so much tolerated as it has been celebrated, and widespread cuts should be made immediately to the batting line-up. For someone to play so many games for England and only average 29 as a top-order batsman is criminal, and while he does offer the bonus of a bit of trundly medium pace, Ravi Bopara should be cut. While Ian Bell is one of the world's best test batsmen, he simply has never done it at ODI level, and has had too many last chances. Craig Kieswetter, who is one of the worst wicket-keepers in the country and hardly one of the best batsmen is charged with opening the innings and donning the gloves, and we've seen too many dropped catches and not enough runs from him, which means someone else should have a go. And Kevin Pietersen, who only a few years back was probably the world's premier ODI player, has fallen away so badly in the format that it might be worth not using him to keep him fresh for his test and T20 travails.

So that just leaves Cook (who has to stay, as he's the captain - and to be fair he has done well since coming back into the side), Trott (who despite all of the hate is a vital part of the team due to anchoring nearly every innings), Bairstow (a clean striker who can be used to good effect in the final powerplay, as well as potentially taking over as wicket-keeper), and England's trump card Eoin Morgan. It's the basis of a good batting side, and if the likes of James Taylor, Alex Hales and Jos Buttler are brought in and take their chances, it could develop into a very good team.

England have been humbled fairly humiliatingly by India this series, but for the World Champions to beat a touring team who have notorious subcontinental troubles isn't that surprising. England do have a lot of work to do if they are to get to India's level, but it can be done, and if the big calls are made now, we could start to see a marked improvement in their ODI fortunes. This series has been an alarm call for the England management, but it remains to be seen whether they wake up and make the changes that England need.

England's potential new ODI team:

Alex Hales
Alastair Cook (c)
Jonathan Trott
Eoin Morgan
James Taylor
Jonny Bairstow (wk)
Ben Stokes
Stuart Broad
Graeme Swann
Steven Finn
Jimmy Anderson

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Why Can't England Win ODIs in India?

It's the question on everyone's lips. Or, more pertinently, how can England play so badly only weeks after stuffing India out of sight on a tour where the world champions failed to register one victory?

All of the old excuses have been trotted out. England can't play spin. England don't know how to bowl on the sub-continent. England bat too slowly in India. England throw their wickets away. And to an extent, England have lost their first two games by falling into those very easy to pigeon-hole stereotypes.

But, that's just what they are. Stereotypes. Just because England teams of 3 years, or 30 years ago couldn't play spin or bowl tightly on the subcontinent doesn't mean that every England player to ever pull on the three lions is doomed to fail in India. England are currently producing some of the most technically correct players in generations, which doesn't indicate weaknesses against spin. Any problems England are having, as Alastair Cook touched upon in his post-match interview after the second ODI are confined to the mind. England can't win in India, because they don't believe they can win in India.

Without wanting to go into any psycho-babble, England do appear to have a mental block about playing fifty over cricket. How else can a team that currently dominate two of the three formats seem so far away in the third? How else can players like Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell, who seem so at ease when in whites appear so out of their depths when in the colours? KP and Bell have come off unbelievable summers in test cricket and could arguably be regarded as the two finest batsmen in the world, yet put them into a fifty over match and they freeze. Pietersen hasn't made an ODI century in three years, Bell in four. Pietersen's place is under threat and Bell can't even get into this England team. How else can this be explained other than a general English mental block to playing ODI cricket?

Yes, there clearly has been a marked improvement in English ODI fortunes. Following the seminal away victory against South Africa in 2009, the Andys Flower and Strauss (and latterly Cook) have turned around English thinking about fifty over cricket, come up with winning strategies and won quite a few series. Since that South African tour, England have lost only one head-to-head series, and that was at the back end of a generation-defining and exhausting Ashes win. Yes, rain did help, but this team have just finished a home summer where they beat both of the World Cup finalists, one of them to nil. So somewhere along the line England are doing something right.

The key, as was said earlier, is in the mind. Other than the 6-1 humiliation to Australia back in 2009, England have won every home ODI series under Andy Flower. West Indies, Australia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India have all perished. It's no surprise. England feel far more comfortable when at home with green pitches where the swing bowlers can exploit the friendly home surfaces. Just as England have a mental block about playing on the sub-continent, it seems that teams are travelling over to us and having mental blocks about playing on a cold, wet, windy night at Durham.

Two heavy defeats doesn't make this England team a bad one, just as three rain-affected wins over India doesn't make them a great one. Until England master their sub-continental yips, England fans are just going to have to accept that their brave boys are very good at home, but not as good when away. Beating all of those teams at home shows they are a good side, but being humbled by the world champions in their back yard just goes to show how far England have to go before they can really consider themselves ODI contenders.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Bairstow Blasts His Way Into the Reckoning

It may only have been in a warm-up, but Jonny Bairstow's unbeaten 104 from just 54 balls against Hyderabad means omitting him from the first ODI is nigh on impossible. Bairstow's talents are obvious, and it's no longer a case of if or when he gets a regular spot in England's team, more a case of how long he'll be a permanent fixture.

With Bairstow all but nailed on, somebody from the established order is going to have to make way to accomodate him. Assuming England will go in with Cook and Kieswetter opening, with Patel at seven so he can help out with some spin, there are now four potential berths in the England middle order that need filling, with five players vying for them. And arguably, only young pup Jonny Bairstow is guaranteed of his place ahead of the old guard that he's threatening.

The question of who will bat at three is a conundrum of the highest order. With an inhumanly high average, Jonathan Trott must surely be a shoo-in, but doubts over his scoring rate do remain. There is an argument that he could be used as a "horses for courses" batsman in ODIs, just as we see bowlers picked if the pitch suits their strength, we might only see Trott play if the pitch is slow and England need someone to dig in. However, as proved today (where Trott put on 74 from 68 alongside the Bairstow carnage), he isn't as much of a slouch as often thought, and his stability down the other end gives licence to the likes of Bairstow to go big early. For me, Trott should play.

Ravi Bopara is in the form of his life, and finally coming good after so many years of promise. His handy medium pace gives the bowling another option, and dropping him is almost unthinkable.

Which just leaves one place in the middle order, and two very big names fighting over it. Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell, mainstays of pretty much every England team over the past six years and amongst the two best batsmen in world cricket, are vying for the one remaining spot. On the face of it it seems very odd, but quite frankly neither have delivered in ODI cricket for a long time. Kevin Pietersen started out by making ODI tons for fun, but hasn't made it to three figures since the last time England toured India, where he captained the side back in 2008. And Ian Bell doesn't even have the luxury of a strong ODI history on his side, with just one solitary ODI century back in 2007, 59 games ago.

Both men have played over 100 ODIs, and both are clearly talented batsmen. But for whatever reason, neither have performed in 50 over cricket for England over the past couple of years, and their places are under threat. It is a toss up as to who gets the nod for this Indian series, but with Eoin Morgan still to return, the emergence of Jonny Bairstow could signal the death knell for both Pietersen and Bell's ODI careers.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Save BBC Cricket

Yesterday the BBC announced that they're making a lot of cuts. While a lot of their output is all being reduced, I don't really care about Radio 1Extra, CBBC or rubbish TV like "Snog, Marry, Avoid". What I do care about is the BBC's coverage of cricket.

The BBC and cricket have been intertwined for years, just as the national broadcaster and one of Britain's national sports should be. However, as time has passed we've seen cricket almost disappear under the BBC carpet, with the loss of TV rights, erosion of county coverage, and a general apathy towards the sport from the executives. While TMS still (just about) stands firm, county cricket coverage has been largely passed over to local radio. The same local radio that, if these cuts go ahead, will see all sport output cease from 2013.

This plainly isn't right. It isn't right that people won't be able to hear about their local football, rugby, curling or badminton teams. And from this bloggers perspective, it isn't right that the BBC's coverage of live county cricket will cease after next season.

On a personal level, from being involved in some of the coverage of live county cricket, it's clear to see just how important it is. Sometimes picking up upwards of 10,000 people (who tuned in for the dramatic climax to the Somerset v Lancashire game at the end of the season) all around the world, it is a way for cricket lovers to keep in touch with the matches. It's a way for the ex-pats to keep in touch with home. It's a way to while away the long office hours whilst listening to the excellent coverage from the likes of Kevin Hand, Mark Church, Dave Callaghan and the rest. The live county cricket commentaries is the BBC at it's ultimate best - bringing people together to engage in what is a fantastic broadcast each and every day.

If the BBC do go ahead with their incredibly short-sighted decision that contravenes a lot of what they set out to do in their manifesto, an awful lot of people are going to suffer. First and foremost jobs will be lost, as well as quality programming, which means that absolutely everyone loses out here, just so Chris Moyles can get an extra zero on the end of his contract. If the cricket commentaries are lost, some may continue on a subscription basis, but some may be lost forever, which would be such a shame.

So what can be done? Well, email the BBC Trust at trust.enquiries@bbc.co.uk. Let them know what you think. Tweet @bbctrust, and tell them your thoughts. And follow @SaveBBC_cricket on Twitter, create a public backlash and let the execs know that they just can't take these services away from us.