Thursday, 30 August 2012

Hypocrisy and the spirit of cricket

Cricket sees itself as the gentleman's sport - where the spirit of the game is just as important as the rules or regulations. While competitors in other sports dive or deceive in order to get ahead of the game in any possible way, cricket's noble code shuns anybody who doesn't play fair. So when Surrey's Murali Kartik 'Mankadded' (ran out the non-striker as he came in to bowl) Somerset's Alex Barrow in today's game at Taunton, the cricketing universe went into overdrive decrying the former Indian spinner for flouting the all-important spirit of the game. But technically neither Kartik, nor Surrey (who refused to withdraw the appeal) broke any rules - and arguably Barrow was playing against the spirit of the game by attempting to back up while the bowler was in his stride, especially considering Kartik had already had the grace to warn him about it previously. So who is in the right - and indeed, is the spirit of cricket still relevant?

Well, in this case, it seems that Kartik was in the right. While Mankadding is cricketing etiquette's biggest no-no, he had already informed both Barrow and the umpires that if his over zealous backing up continued, he would be left no option but to whip off the bails and appeal. And despite this, Barrow ignored the fairly reasonable request, and he had to go. Critics have said that Kartik completely ignored the 'spirit' of cricket - but in fact, by warning him in the first place (which under the laws he didn't have to do), he showed an understanding and respect for it that many have missed.

There is a level of hypocrisy about the 'spirit' of cricket and it's application - it's almost become accepted that some batsmen are walkers and some wait to be given, and not a great deal is said if a batsman knowingly nicks it, but isn't given out by the umpire, and remains. How different is that to Kartik's actions? Kartik worked within the rules and exploited the stupidity of the batsman to leave his crease while the ball was in play to take his wicket, whereas the non-walkers of this world willingly break a rule (that they are out if they are caught after hitting the ball) in order to continue batting. While there are differences (the non-walking batsman can claim that it's the umpire's fault for not spotting the edge), those who refuse to walk are very rarely given the kind of stick that poor Murali Kartik has had from the cricketing world today.

And deception of the umpires generally often goes unpunished from the guardians of the spirit of the game - wicket-keepers appealing after knocking off bails themselves (step forward Matt Prior), fielders claiming bump balls (Pragyan Ojha) or even AB De Villiers literally the other day lying to the umpire in order to grant himself a reprieve. But why do none of these acts of actual, against the laws treachery carry the same level of outcry as the totally within-the-laws Mankad?

For generations cricket has prided itself on being the noble sport where nobody breaks the rules and everyone plays fair, and often lauds itself over other sports because of it - but is that really the case? Contrast this example from football, where Paulo di Canio refuses to score when the opposing keeper went down with an injury, to Paul Collingwood's moment of shame in cricket, where England ran out Grant Elliot after a collision with Ryan Sidebottom. The spirit of cricket, while noble, can be used as a stick to beat teams with even when playing inside the laws, as seen in the Ian Bell run-out last year, where India, despite being well within their rights to keep the appeal, decided to withdraw it, and ultimately lose the game, thanks to pressure over the spirit of cricket. But in this era of big bucks and high pressure, is the spirit still relevant? Surrey, in a tumultuous season, are in a real relegation battle, and need all of the help they can get. So when Kartik, inside the laws, ran Barrow out, surely they would have been even more foolish than Barrow himself to allow him to stay, and possibly play an innings that might send them down? While I'm not telling cricketers to cheat as badly as Pinky the Panther did during the Mascot Derby, I'm saying that it would be naive to expect teams to not take advantage of the rules when they're available. At the end of the day, the spirit of cricket doesn't pay the bills, and while romantic fans like to think that cricket is the noblest of sports, in reality, it's just as bad as the rest of them.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Strauss announcement

Written before the ECB press conference, so most of the content of this is based on spurious rumours and gossip from Twitter. If the ECB announcement turns out to be about a move from Buxton water to Evian as the sponsor of the drinks break, please ignore below.

So the ECB are calling a press conference at 12, and without wanting to pre-empt anything, it looks like it will be dealing with the future of Andrew Strauss. As much as it pains me to write, it looks like Graeme Smith has claimed the scalp of yet another England captain, and Strauss is to step aside as England skipper. But is Strauss leaving his post the right thing to do for the England team?

Well, initially, it depends on how exactly he decides to leave. The first option would be the outright, effective immediate retirement from England duty. No last hurrah. No rejoining the ranks. A swift clearing of the locker and out. This would in one fell swoop rid England of not just their captain, but one of their openers, with an incredibly tough tour to India only months away and nobody with any experience ready to step into his shoes. While a re-jig could see Trott move up to the top, more likely would be a youngster like Joe Root or Alex Hales (or because I'm biased, Joe Denly or Sam Robson of Middlesex) thrown straight into the deep end of what is probably cricket's toughest tour. So not ideal then for Team England for Strauss to chuck it in then.

So what if he went the Ricky Ponting route and fell back in line as one of the foot soldiers? Well, for one, is he good enough to justify his place in the team as a batsman alone? Strauss' record over recent years has been sketchy to say the least, and it could be argued that he's only been able to keep his spot because he is the captain. Can England afford to carry an underperforming player who may well be past it with India this winter and an Ashes series next summer? And while the young pups may not have much experience, as Alastair Cook showed back in 2006, being thrown in at the deep end can reveal a player's true class. Who's to say that someone like Root, who was identified as a talent long ago and brought through the England Performance Program wouldn't excel from the off? But then (just to be awkward), what if unburdened from the captaincy, Strauss refound the form that followed him for the first few years of his test career. One of Strauss' finest hours in an England shirt came on the last tour to India - a tumultuous tour that followed a home South African defeat and the resignation of the captain. Who's to say that he couldn't do it again?

The elephant in the room, and quite probably the reason Strauss feels he needs to call it quits, however, is Kevin Pietersen. Strauss may feel that the divisions between Pietersen and himself are irreparable, and knowing that long-term Pietersen will score more runs for England than he will, has decided selflessly to step aside to help ease KP's return to the fold. But then again, if that is the case, would the fractions between the anti-KP and pro-KP camps in the dressing room (the pro-KP camp would just be KP) become even more irreconcilable if he is directly to blame for the loss of the well loved and well respected leader, making it even less likely that Pietersen can ever succeed as part of an England team again?

I really do hope Andrew Strauss doesn't give up the England captaincy, simply because it just shouldn't end this way. Strauss was meant to keep going for another year, win his third Ashes series as captain before handing over the reigns to Alastair Cook, who'd then go Down Under and win them again. Strauss is a captain that did win back-to-back Ashes, as well as leading England to number one in the world, and history will judge him as one of England's finest captains ever, and it's so undignified for such a good, decent man to have to leave over some texts and a parody Twitter account. But whatever happens to Andrew Strauss, one giant problem in the England camp needs to be decided. Back in early 2009, Strauss took over the job after a fall-out caused by Kevin Pietersen. In August 2012, it looks like Strauss will give up the job after a fall-out caused by Kevin Pietersen. As talented a batsman as Kevin Pietersen undoubtedly is, can England afford to have him causing so much damage any longer?

Saturday, 9 June 2012

The Question of Rest-ing

It’s become accepted wisdom that international cricketers play far too much cricket. The words ‘burnout’, ‘fatigue’ and ‘rest’ have crept their way into cricket’s terminology, and don’t look like going away any time soon. In the giant hamster wheel that is top level cricket, the players are expected to jump on and keep running for years on end, with a test series in England followed the next week by a 14 match ODI series in Australia, before jumping on a plane that for a T20 exhibition in Kathmandu against the Allen Stanford Invitational Eleven.

Understandably, what with all this cricket, cricket boards have realised that their 100mph fast bowlers won’t be able to bowl 100mph for 365 days in a row without picking up a variety of injuries, so it makes sense to give them a week off here and there. And that’s what England have done this week by not picking Jimmy Anderson or Stuart Broad for the third test match. A few days to sit at home with their feet up will keep them fresh and prepared for the challenges ahead.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to deny Anderson, Broad, or any England player from any much needed rest. It would be foolish to expect every England player to play in every game for their country, as the short-term view would ultimately lead to some very long-term injuries. However, the idea that Anderson and Broad are missing this game at Edgbaston infuriates me beyond belief.

Another long held mantra that keeps getting trotted out is that “test cricket is sacred”. And it should be. Test cricket, by its very definition, is the best eleven available players from one country pitting themselves against the best eleven players from another. It is the ultimate test between the cream of the crop, between master batsmen and skilled bowlers. There is no room for passengers or also-rans – test cricket is for the best of the best. Test caps shouldn’t be thrown around like confetti – they should only be deserved for those who truly deserve them. So to take players who are the best and to rest them, the entire set of values that test cricket is based on is undercut and diminished. Yes Steven Finn and Graham Onions are both top-class bowlers, but the selectors don’t think that they are in the best eleven cricketers in the country. So they should not be playing in this test match. Anderson and Broad should be.

What rankles more with me though is the timing of the rest for England’s regular new ball pair. Again, I’m not denying them the valuable feet-up time, but really? Now? Jimmy and Stuart are missing a test match, which is fundamentally wrong, but the fact that they are missing the test match but will play in 8 ODIs against the West Indies and Australia sickens me. Again, I enjoy ODIs. I don’t want to see them disappear. There is a place in the international calendar for the fifty over format. But the day that the England powers-that-be looked at the calendar when working out when to rest their two strike bowlers and decided to pick a test match for them to miss rather than 8 pointless and unnecessary ODIs is the day that cricket lost its soul. It baffles me beyond comprehension how the ECB feel it appropriate to protect the ODI series while devaluing and diminishing test cricket. Anderson and Broad both said that they were fit and wanted to play in this test, but their views have been overlooked.

It’s not even as if they’d get more of a rest by missing the test match. If they’d managed to get five full days of play in at the test (which with the weather forecast was never going to happen), Anderson and Broad would around 50 overs over the course of 5 days (this year Anderson is averaging 41.57 overs per test), and they’d then be finished. In 8 ODIs they stand to bowl 80 overs each, spread over the space of a few weeks. Those weeks include travelling around the country, lots of days of net practice, and a lot more opportunities to break down. So it can’t even really be said that the resting is down to a cricketing decision.

Sadly, as with many things in cricket, money talks, and the ODIs are where the big bucks are. The packed houses and the money Sky that pay for fifty over games keeps the ECB afloat, and without the star names for those games, the ODIs aren’t worth half as much. Why else are England playing Australia in a ridiculously thought-out series slap bang in the middle of the summer if it isn’t to keep the accountants happy? Why else did the ECB try to block Pietersen’s ODI retirement by threatening to stop him playing T20s (only for him to call their bluff and walk out on it anyway) if it isn’t to push the punters through the turnstiles and the cameras through the gates? And why else are they ensuring Anderson and Broad are available to wear the new blue adidas kit in the first ODI on the 19th by resting them in a boring, dull, pointless game of test cricket?

Cricket has been more of a business than a sport for a while now; we all know that. And it’s a sad state of affairs that the international game has become so saturated that players are required to rest in the first place. But it’s another thing altogether when test cricket is being devalued by withdrawals and rests just so some can line their pockets. While England  are choosing to let their players sit out tests, the West Indies have been faced with some of their top talent preferring to play in the IPL rather than at Lord’s and Trent Bridge, and it all looks a very sorry state of affairs. Cricket is a gruelling game - England’s ODI series in Australia last year, where a half-fit squad limped their way to a 6-1 defeat after an incredibly gruelling Ashes victory took its toll on most of the team shows just how damaging cricket can be on the body, and with the international calendar as it is, it would be ridiculous to suggest that resting players is not a viable option. However, the fact that international players are on a never-ending treadmill with no natural breaks and as such need to pick and choose games is fundamentally wrong. While it’s a great shame that Anderson and Broad are missing a test match, the bigger shame is that the international calendar being what it is means they have to miss a game in the first place. It’s a slippery slope, and with the international calendar only getting worse, and with the money men only getting greedier, it might not be long before players missing test matches so they can put their feet up becomes a regular occurrence. But as long as they play in that T20 game for the Pyongyang Princes against the Baghdad Blitzers (live on ESPN), then that’s all right.

Friday, 30 March 2012

International Cricket's National Identity Crisis

For part of my uni course, I've had to write a magazine feature on any chosen subject. Unsurprisingly, I went for cricket, and specifically, the growth of 'foreign imports' in international cricket. It's set a couple of weeks ago so some of the dates are a little out, but it's all still fairly relevant. It's aimed mostly at those who are vaguely interested in cricket, but not massive fans, but I thought I'd put it up here anyway just so people can have a look if they're interested. Enjoy! Will

This week has seen the start of the qualifiers for the World T20 cricket tournament – a chance for cricket’s less-established nations to gain entry to the sport’s most lucrative tournament. These smaller nations lack the resources and infrastructures of cricket’s elite, so many are looking for any loophole in the rules in order to give them a competitive edge, including pushing laws on eligibility to their limits. Nations are spending a lot of time scouting and picking the best talent available – including players who aren’t actually from that country itself. Italy have won three of their five games whilst playing a team that consists of four Australians, four South Africans, one New Zealander and only two Italians, which begs the question, what makes international cricket a battle between the best of two nations?

The ICC (international cricket’s governing body) state that if a player is a citizen of a nation, he is allowed to play international cricket for them. While this normally means that only those born and raised in a country can play for them, there are ways of getting around the rules. If a person has just one grandparent from that nation, that is enough to gain citizenship, and a passport is granted if a term of residence is served. The cricketing administrations of these countries are fully aware of the loopholes in the laws, and are using the flexibility of certain people’s nationality to their advantage to improve their teams.

One nation that’s seen both sides of the coin is Ireland. Thanks to investment at grass-roots level, Ireland have been able to produce plenty of world-class talent, which has made them competitive at international level. However, without the lure of test cricket, Ireland have lost some of their brightest talents, with Ed Joyce switching to English colours in 2006, Eoin Morgan in 2009, and Boyd Rankin, Paul Stirling and George Dockrell all reportedly on the brink of changing allegiances. To counter this, Ireland has looked to the best of the English county scene whose chance at international level seemed to have passed them by, with former England Under-19 bowler Tim Murtagh being picked for the first time for this tournament after he successfully applied for an Irish passport. And to confuse things further, Ed Joyce is now back playing for Ireland after being dropped from the English team, with ICC rules permitting players to switch back and forth as and when they choose.

Supporters of Irish cricket would argue that ‘stealing’ players from England is the only way they’re able to compete, as England have been poaching their best and brightest talents for years. And some would argue that Tim Murtagh playing for Ireland is a non-story, as with three Irish grandparents it makes him as eligible as any. Tim himself is excited at the thought of playing for Ireland. “Through my grandparents I do have Irish blood in me. I’m coming up to my 30th birthday so realistically if I was going to play for England then that would have happened by now, so the chance of playing an international tournament is massive for me. Cricket Ireland got in touch and offered me the chance to play, and I jumped at it”.

Irish cricket expert Sinead Farelly, however, isn’t so keen on ‘plastic Paddys’ like Tim representing her nation. “It all boils down to one simple thing, your nationality is part of who you are. In Ireland we are very much into supporting the area you grew up in; the area that you call home. We love seeing players who came through our own training systems performing well on a national or international stage, and while we do delight in the presence of Trent Johnston [former captain, born in Australia] being in our sides; truth is, any time that we play, the Irish fans would always prefer to see an Irish player take to the stage”. 

But how should we define nationality anyway? The case of Geraint Jones is a curious one. Born and raised in Papua New Guinea to two Welsh parents, he moved to Australia when he was 12, and then to England when he was 22. Qualifying for England through his Welsh parents (the England team is officially the English and Welsh Cricket Team), Geraint became England’s most capped Welshman despite never having lived in Wales. After being dropped by England in 2006 and with his international career seemingly over, he was selected by Papua New Guinea for this World T20 qualifying tournament.  So who should Jones play for? PNG, the country of his birth? Australia, the country that he went to school and learnt cricket in? Or England, the country of his parents?

The question of nationality in international cricket is certainly an emotive one, and an issue that’s unlikely to go away. In today’s multicultural and multinational society, it’s very difficult legally to stop players from switching between nations as and when it suits them. But does players representing countries that aren’t their own go against everything international cricket stand for? Sinead certainly thinks so: “Cricket overcomes divides in our country – it’s a celebration of all things Irish be it Catholic or Protestant. When we play we stand together as a nation. I feel that some of that is lost, no matter which country, when imports are used to make up the numbers”. The fickle nature of fans, however, means that for most, blind eyes are turned as long as results are good, and the ruthless nature of the cricket boards, combined with the constant relaxation of citizenship laws worldwide, means that international cricket will continue to be a very international affair for a long time to come.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

How to make England win in the subcontinent

So England have lost yet another test match in the subcontinent. The number one ranked test side have now lost four in a row - unthinkable only a few short months ago. So what's going wrong - and how can things be changed so England can be good again?

Well to start off, it's obvious where the problem lies. England's batting in the subcontinent - against spin in particular, is horrific. While the batsmen were booking in for bed, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and another night against India last summer, there's been none of that determination to remain at the crease in the four tests of this tour. While there are obvious technical flaws in most of the batsmen, much of the issue is mental. How can Rangana Herath, who England destroyed back at home turn from a pie-chucker into a world-beater? Herath is the same bowler as he was 8 months ago, there's very little mystery to him, but England's fragile mental state to spinners in the subcontinent made him look like a cross between Hedley Verity, Jim Laker and Shane Warne. Any issues over facing Herath are solely between the batsmen's ears, which is making their previously adequate techniques fall to mush when a spinner is thrown the ball.

So what can be done? In between trolling Indian fans on Twitter and combing his new hair, Michael Vaughan made a good point about mental baggage. Before 2005 England hadn't won an Ashes series in 18 years, and had been consistently humped by the Aussies, so most of the team that he inherited came into games against Australia expecting to lose. Vaughan then got rid of the players with mental scars about playing Australia, and got in a new brand of Ashes newbies who promptly went on and won. Vaughan's point was that a similar approach may well work here, with seemingly all of England's current side paralysed by fear of spin, and waking up in cold sweats after dreaming of Suraj Randiv's teesra. Basically, Vaughan advocated getting rid of the batsmen and starting again with a fresh bunch, a group who may or may not be as good technically, but at least wouldn't fall into the trap of consistently getting themselves out.

Vaughan's argument does have it's merits, but it would be very difficult to just "bring in a new bunch". To start, who would they be? As strong as the county system is at the moment, it isn't brimming with test-ready players who'll be able to swim when they're thrown in at the deep end. Plus, who do you drop? Cook, Bell, Pietersen and Trott all made double-tons last summer, Prior is the best wicket-keeper batsman in the world, Patel has only just come into the team, and Strauss is the captain. (More on him here). These are all clearly very good batsmen (how else would England have got to that number one ranking?) but seemingly only Jonathan Trott has the mental stability to dig in on the subcontinent. When the players get back to England in a few months, chances are that all of the batsmen will fill their boots and make everyone eat their words.

So what can be done? Well, if teams sometimes play 'horses for courses' bowlers at certain grounds, why not horses for courses batsmen? Monty Panesar is purely playing in these tests because they expect it to spin, so why not a spin-specialist batsman? Having a James Taylor or an Owais Shah to only play if the ball's going to rag square may be quite unorthodox, but why should the batting order be set in stone? Dropping Pietersen for Joe Root for subcontinental games may seem unfair to KP, but isn't Panesar getting picked a little harsh on Steve Finn? As England and India's fluctuating fortunes have proved, cricket is a very different game depending on where in the world it's being played, so surely the smart thing to do is to pick different players depending on the different conditions? It's certainly something worth considering, as while England may well beat the West Indies and South Africa in the summer on green seamers in Durham, the four test series that follows in India could be a very long one for England fans unless something drastic changes.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Strauss - time to go?

Andrew Strauss is arguably England’s greatest ever captain. Taking a second-rate team to the top of the world, with two Ashes wins on the way; Strauss has unified a broken dressing-room, and alongside Andy Flower, has created a culture of success in England’s most prosperous team in generations.

However, as brilliant a leader as Strauss has been for England, he’s picked primarily as a batsman, and as a batsman, he’s just not cutting the mustard. No test centuries in 48 innings, and only one since 2009 simply isn’t good enough. For all of his calmness and brilliance in the field as captain, at the crease as an opening batsman, he looks skittish, confused, and bereft of confidence. While he has done an excellent job as captain, he’s been carried as a batsman for a while now, and England can ill afford to do so much longer.

Nobody is doubting Strauss’ aptitude as a captain, or indeed, taking away from his past glories as a batsman. His 161 in a day against Australia in 2009 was as good as it gets, and his 177 against New Zealand in 2008 was the definition of a gutsy, back-against-the-wall century. However, those days of a classy, imperious Strauss dominating attacks seem like very distant memories, and there doesn’t appear to be any signs of them returning.

Is time up for Strauss? Well, as a captain, he can still clearly command respect, make the correct decisions on the field, and be a success. But as a batsman? His dismissal in the second innings this test, where he advanced down the pitch to Herath before chipping a catch to short midwicket (great position by the way) shows all the signs of a scrambled brain. Too many times in his century drought has Strauss got himself in before finding a way to get himself out, and this was a prime example. But is he finished as a batsman completely? Often when a veteran is reaching the end of his career, his eyes go a little and misjudgements creep in (Rahul Dravid getting bowled a lot in the Australia tour springs to mind). But that hasn’t been an issue for Strauss. He has been getting himself in, at least, and it was only last week that he scored an unbeaten century in a tour match. And last summer, after a difficult India series, he went and smashed a double ton for Middlesex.

Strauss may not be completely finished as a batsman, but he hasn’t justified his place as an opener for a while. It’s clear that if here wasn’t the captain, he would have been disposed of a while ago. While there doesn’t seem to be any obvious county openers knocking on the door, Jonathan Trott could be pushed up to open with someone else moving into the middle order. And as Alastair Cook goes from strength to strength as ODI captain, and proving a viable alternative in test colours, the selectors now have a ready-made replacement to take over the proverbial captain’s armband. Andrew Strauss is far from undroppable – a situation which would have been unthinkable only a year ago. While he won’t be booted out midway through a two-match tour, Strauss is going to need some serious runs in the second test, otherwise he may be out of a job come May and the start of the West Indies tests. Strauss’ best knock in an England shirt came when he was one game away from the axe back in 2008, and he may need something similar next week if he’s to retain his place.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Swann, Panesar, and pecking-orders

In recent times, England selections have been less haphazard and random, and far more 'pecking-order' orientated. Gone are the days of bizarre one-off selections, and instead we have a system where players battle their way up the ranks, and everyone knows where they stand.

England's policy when injury or loss of form dictates that changes must be made is to look to the 'next cab off the rank'. When Paul Collingwood retired, the next cab was Eoin Morgan. When Jonathan Trott got injured, the replacement cab was Ravi Bopara. England's squad has a clearly defined pecking-order, and everyone knows where everyone else is on the way.

Jimmy Anderson is the leader of the fast-bowling attack, with Stuart Broad behind him. Matt Prior is the number one wicket-keeper, with Steve Davies behind him. And Graeme Swann is England's number one spinner. Or is he?

While the pecking-orders can be set in stone, they can also be flexible. Going into the UAE tour, Tim Bresnan was the third seamer, coming off the back of an excellent India series the previous summer. When Bresnan got injured, Chris Tremlett came in, meaning that Steve Finn was a lowly fifth in line to the fast bowling throne. However, Finn's performances in the ODI series meant that when Stuart Broad was withdrawn from the first warm-up game, Finn was turned to ahead of the now-fit Bresnan.

Graeme Swann has been England's number one spinner since 2009, when he wrested the crown from Monty Panesar in the West Indies. And it wasn't that long ago that Swann was considered the best spinner in test cricket, let alone in England. But Panesar has rip-roared his way back into test cricket after a three year sabbatical, picking up five-fers in each of the four games he's played in since his return. And his ascent has come just as a few questions have been asked of Swann after a quiet 2011, meaning that further down the line, some tough questions could be asked of the selectors.

After England have finished their stint on spin-friendly subcontinental pitches, they'll be back to England to take on West Indies on green pitches in May, meaning that only one spinner will be picked. As it stands, Swann is England's first choice spinner, but what if Monty continues to torment the Sri Lankan batsmen, just as he did the Pakistanis in his two tests against them? There are signs that the pecking-order isn't as set in stone as previously thought, with Swann only asked to bowl 1 over in Pakistan's first innings of the third test, with Panesar bowling 13. The total game comparison saw Monty wheel away for 70 overs compared to Swann's 40 - perhaps a sign that captain Strauss is placing more trust in the massive hands of Panesar?

I'm not saying that I personally would pick Panesar over Swann at this moment in time, it isn't inconceivable that at some stage Swann is superseded by the bearded Monty. However, a healthy rivalry may not be a bad thing for Swann. The pressure put on him by a genuine rival for his place means that he'll have to constantly be on his game, and will push himself harder to produce when it matters. The idea of the pecking-order system means that players constantly need to justify their places in the team or their dropped - just ask Eoin Morgan. This need to perform will see better performances from both Swann and Panesar, which can only be good for English fortunes. While the pair will bowl in tandem for this Sri Lankan tour, and likely at the back end of the year in the Indian tour, their partnership will turn into a fight for a place in the team when only one spinner is required, meaning that the spin contest between Swann and Panesar will surely become a long running battle over the next few years. And with two players pushing harder and harder to do well, this can only be a good thing for England.

Friday, 9 March 2012

England's New Test and ODI kits 2012

It's time for everyone's occasional Short Midwicket feature - it's the return of The Shirt Midwicket! Hot on the heels of 2010's all inclusive kit review, with the news that adidas are bringing out two new England shirts comes the not-at-all-informed Short Midwicket kit review. So let's start of with:

The test shirt

Like most test shirts, it's white, and like most recent England test shirts, it has a bit of red trim on it. There isn't a great deal you can do with a plain white test shirt, but there is a tiny bit of red on the collar, which looks quite nice.

In terms of going out to buy it - I don't think anybody's going to notice if you turn up wearing last year's effort, seeing as the only difference that I could spot was a black adidas logo rather than a red one. And at £49.99, it probably isn't really worth the bother. Still a nice kit though - you can't go far wrong with a plain white shirt.

The ODI shirt

Hallelujah! Adidas have finally made an England kit that's actually blue! After four years of various shades of navy, England finally have a bright blue kit to strut about in. The kit itself looks very sharp, with a nice red trim going under the arms, white adidas stripes across the shoulders, and a few touches of red at the back too. The combination of blue, red and white really does work, and has led to a great kit!

For me, this is easily the best England kit since adidas took over in 2008. I'm not a massive fan of the zip-up collar which has been retained from last year's ODI kit, but all in all it's an absolute stormer. It doesn't come cheap, with prices going from £49.99 to £55 if you want it with long sleeves, but there will be plenty who'll think it's a worthwhile investment.

Both of these shirts are available to pre-order from the ECB store website now, and in shops from the 4th April - and again, if you're reading at adidas, it may well be worth you sending me a couple of shirts, just so I can continue testing them...

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Tinkering with the World T20

It's fairly common knowledge that nearly every decision the ICC make is purely motivated by how much money they can make out of it. Scrapping a test championship to make room for a more lucrative Champions Trophy, booting the associates out of the World Cup so they can ensure the big guns make the final rounds (so they can sell the TV rights for more money), even a look towards day/night tests - the ICC isn't so much cricket's governing body as it is cricket's fundraising arm.

The ICC don't get many of their decisions right. The furore of getting rid of the smaller nations from the World Cups was so vociferous that eventually they had to backtrack - but only when the broadcasters threatened to pull out instead. Most of the tournaments are bloated, too long and not interesting - mainly due to the greed of getting as many matches in as possible in order to satisfy TV demand.

However, with the World T20, they have something right. A short, sharp tournament which lasts two weeks - just enough time for a plot to develop, but short enough for it to not drag on for a suicidally long time. The initial three-team group system means that every group game is important, meaning there's no dead rubbers, something which is a common feature of the seven-team group fifty over World Cup - plus the format is simple and easy to understand. Games happen thick and fast and teams don't have long from one game to the next, meaning momentum is built and interest is peaked. The World T20 is one hell of a tournament, and somehow, the ICC have stumbled across a winning formula.

However, with the ICC being the ICC, they now want to change that. Their proposal to increase the teams to fifteen (from the current twelve) would completely change the simple, quick and easy nature of the current set-up, with more games added, a far more complicated system implemented, and the excitement taken away. I know the ICC's move to add a couple more associates is done with noble intentions, but surely there must be a better way than to completely re-think the tournament itself? A qualifying stage that takes place immediately before the 'final' stages of the tournament perhaps? Or sticking all of the competing teams into a preliminary stage, before they move onto the current system as we know it?

In the World T20, the ICC have a golden egg - a tournament that really does work. So far, all three versions of it have been a massive success, and there's been no calls from any quarters for change. So why would they need to tinker? Instead of worrying about things that they're actually getting right, the ICC's time would be better spent on the far more pressing issues of the day, rather than turning the golden egg into yet another failed cash cow.

How to make it as a county cricketer

Kids! Like cricket and think you've got what it takes to make it big? Have you considered becoming a county cricketer? With these handy tips, this is your chance to make it as a pro with the likes of Northamptonshire, Glamorgan, or exotic Derbyshire!

If you are going to be a county cricketer, there are some important things that you need to know:

1) Bant is everything

A player will not be judged by his peers on the basis of his skill, ability or match performances, instead he will be viewed solely on the quality of his bant. Bant is an all-encompassing skill, which is important both in the dressing room and on Twitter. Even if a player is averaging over 100 for the season, if he has no bant, he will not be accepted into the pack.

2) Nando's is the food of champions

For county cricketers, there is only one place to eat - Nando's. The chicken emporium will become your home for the summer months on the road, and peri-peri will become the blood that runs through your veins. It's been rumoured that certain players mix the extra hot sauce into their on-field drinks, but this is to be confirmed.

3) A nickname is essential

Once you've shown that you have bant and can handle a whole chicken to yourself, aspiring county cricketers will need to get a nickname to prove their worth to the team. Some players like to be inventive with theirs, but for English players, simply adding a 'y' to the end of the surname should suffice.

4) Be willing to travel

Much of a county cricketer's life is spent on the road, trekking around to fulfil the fixtures of the ECB's latest harebrained competition, so any aspiring county player will need to have a working car and a very good knowledge of the various motorways and B roads of the UK. A map of some sort is essential equipment for any county player - even more so than a bat or pads. There's no point in honing your forward press or slower ball if you're going to spend match day sitting in a lay-by outside Thurrock wondering if it was a left or a right at the aerodrome.

5) Get down the range

If there's one thing that cricketers love doing, it's playing golf. Days off will be few and far between, but any downtime will be spent on the course, and if you can't play very well, you're nothing. That's why it's important that any available moment is spent finetuning the backswing, practising sand saves, or draining mid range putts. Only then can you be considered a proper county cricketer.

The journey from excitable youngster to gnarled county pro is a long one, but with these tips anybody can make it big in the county game. Remember kids, it's a long tough road, but if you apply yourself, you too could become the next Graeme Wagg, David Masters or Luke Sutton. Good luck!

Monday, 20 February 2012

Eoin Morgan's Definition of Madness

Albert Einstein once said that "the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results". I don't know if Einstein was much of a cricket fan, but the saying certainly does ring true in the sport. Eoin Morgan would do well to listen to wise Albert's words of advice. Morgan, now a very established part of England's teams, has come out and said that he won't be changing his very unique style of batting in order to get test success, as he feels he can make it work.

To call Morgan's technique unorthodox would be underselling it. Beginning as a slight bend at the knees before turning into a full-on crouch, Morgan's unique manner of batting certainly isn't in the coaching manual. As interesting as it is, it hasn't yielded great results, especially recently, with a very modest average of 30 from 16 tests.

The picture here demonstrates Morgan's bizarre technique perfectly - knees squat, backside parallel to the ground and bat waved high above the head, Morgan's technique is a walking disaster. The next trigger movement will be a big lurch upwards, which makes Morgan horribly prone to big outside edges. And at a time where England have been castigated for their failure to move their feet to the spinners, Morgan's technique means that it is near enough impossible to do so without shuffling like a crab or losing balance totally. In short, Morgan's technique is a complete horror show.

It wasn't always like this. When Eoin first came into the England team, he had a very serviceable batting set-up. Yes, it was quirky, and yes, it did need a bit of work, but Morgan had a technique that wasn't that far out of the ordinary. But after a bit of tinkering and exaggeration, he has some weird monster of an action, which hardly sets him up for long-term test success.

Morgan's strengths are clear, an ice cool temperament and an unbelievable range of shots - two factors that make him one of the world's best in limited over cricket where the field is spread and there is more license to hit out. But in test cricket, where there will always be slips in place to gobble up those inevitable edges and bowlers given more leeway to target the body, Morgan's record has been thus far sketchy. Which makes it odd for Morgan to arrogantly deny that he needs to make any changes to his technique in order to succeed in the test arena. None of this will matter in the short term, as Morgan is very likely to be out of the team for the Sri Lanka tour, but chances are that he'll be back in whites at some point in the future. It would do Morgan well to heed the words of Einstein if he is to ever get success as a test player.

Dropping Ponting The Right Thing To Do

After being appointed as head of Australia's new selector's panel at the back end of 2011, John Inverarity has wasted no time in making his mark on Australian cricket. After the failures during the Ashes a year before and the fall-out from the Argus Review, Australia's team has undergone a rapid makeover, with the chaff cut and new faces blooded in their place. Australia's success in such a short length of time is due heavily to the ruthless cull from the selectors, and their ability to find replacements who were good enough to come into the team and perform straight away. If you weren't doing your job, regardless of any past glories, you were out, and someone new was in.

The selectors have today shown that sentiment is of no relevance to their decisions, with the Ricky Ponting, he of 375 ODIs and 13704 50-over runs, being unceremonially booted out of the squad midway through the tri-series. While Ponting has arguably been Australia's most successful ODI player ever, the recent dry spell of five consecutive single figure scores has meant that he isn't justifying his place, and has been shown the door. On the face of it, the decision is obvious - Ponting won't be around for the 2015 World Cup, isn't scoring enough runs, and Australia have plenty of replacements ready to come in. John Inverarity tellingly said: "You don't put your heart to one side, but your head has got to dominate, and to the credit of the NSP, everyone holds Ricky in the highest regard, as a player and as a person, but we've got a decision to make, and we made a decision we believe is the right decision and the best decision in the interest of Australian cricket". Wise words indeed.

Ponting being dropped will of course upset a true legend of Australian cricket, but the selectors know that it's worth a few days of angst from Ponting if the team is to be more successful with him out rather than in it. Compare this ruthless attitude to that of the Indian selection panel. While in the recent test series, Australia were prepared to make some big calls and change things, India were all too happy to watch their team of legends fail, and fail again, coming off the back of tour of England where they failed even more. While a few superficial changes were made to the bowling attack, the much vaunted batsmen were left to their own devices. It's telling that the only batsman to get the chop after the English tour was Suresh Raina, who conveniently was the only batsman not to be backed up by thousands of caps or hundreds of hundreds. It was patently obvious that India's top, and middle order needed to be broken up and scrapped despite their success over previous decades, but nobody in the Indian selection panel was brave enough to make those gutsy calls, even though their over-the-hill performers just weren't cutting it.

Neither India or Australia are the best teams in world cricket, but Australia have realised this and are attempting to find a way to take over the mantle once again. India, on the other hand, have consistently buried their heads in the ground, and have blissfully ignored their big problems. The focus isn't on test cricket for a while, with the circus of a unnecessarily long ODI tournament taking centre stage for the time being, but before too long both teams will be back in the whites with some big calls to make. Australia's big calls, including dropping Ponting, have shown that nobody's place is guaranteed, which has led to players constantly needing to stay on the top of their games to stay in the side. Certainly the same can't be said about India, as too many players have been given places in the team for life, and they've been firmly in the comfort zone ever since. The big calls must be made, and Australia's success over recent times have proved their worth. Whether India can follow suit remains to be seen...

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The ODI Bell tolls for Ian

The curious case of Ian Bell has plagued England's One Day side for quite a while now. Clearly ridiculously talented, Bell just hasn't got it together in ODIs, with just one century from 108 games and a worse-than-expected average of just 34.04. While his test form has gone through the roof in the past two years (this Pakistan series excepted), if anything his ODI form has gone downhill, with only one fifty in the last fourteen games. After not making the team for the first four games of England's most recent ODI tour, he hasn't even made the squad for this to-be-played Pakistan series in the UAE. So is Ian Bell's ODI career over? Or indeed, should it be?

Well, simply put, the performances of Ian Bell in ODIs sum up England's failing in the fifty over format. A few starts here and there, but very rarely the big match-winning score, and when the pressure's on, he hasn't been the man to put his hand up for the team (Bell averages just 26 in games England have lost). Add to that a poor away record (averaging 28 in games outside England), and Ian Bell's ODI history is a microcosm of England and their general lack of consistent ODI success.

The stats may be harsh on Bell, as he has been shunted up and down the order, having been employed in every position from aggressive opener, to middle-order nurdler, even to number eleven tailender (admittedly coming in with a runner due to a broken foot), and the England management's inability to find a regular slot or gameplan for Bell could well sum up why England just haven't got it right in fifty over cricket as well. But, he's been given countless chances to impress at ODI level, and hasn't done it. Eventually somebody had to be ruthless and give him the boot.

Mediocrity has almost become a by-word for English batsmen in ODI cricket over the past ten years, and probably well before that as well. Players who are clearly naturally talented, or have had sparkling test careers just haven't cut it in limited over cricket, yet have been allowed prolonged stays in the side, without ever producing. Owais Shah - 71 matches, averaging 30 with only one hundred. Michael Vaughan - 86 matches, averaging 27, no hundreds. Ravi Bopara - 69 matches, averaging 29 with no hundreds. These are not numbers that lead to a successful side. You can add to that post 2008 Kevin Pietersen - 36 matches, averaging 25 with no centuries. The culture of "well, he's clearly a good player / scored runs in tests, so let's keep him in" has led to England being nothing more than a second rate ODI team, and if England are to become successful, has to stop.

There's no real room for sentiment in international cricket, and while Ian Bell's test exploits should be celebrated, his ODI form should be downright ridiculed. While being a good test batsman can sometimes mean you'll be a good ODI player, the Venn Diagram doesn't totally intersect. Just ask "good in ODIs, not so good in tests" Eoin Morgan for proof that the two disciplines require different talents, and don't always lead to the same results. In the likes of Alex Hales, Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow, England have some incredibly exciting young batsmen, who's games are perfectly set up for limited over international cricket. These are the players who England should be playing, not Ian Bell, and after a long time, it seems that the England management have realised it. While Andy Flower has spoken about how dropping Bell for this series isn't the end of his ODI career, if England are to make a success of it in the short-forms, hopefully this will be the last that we see of Ian Bell in ODIs.

Friday, 3 February 2012

The DRS "Paranoia"

This series between Pakistan and England has seen the greatest amount of lbws in a three-test series in test history. Already 36 victims have been struck plumb in front, and have been forced to trudge back to the pavilion, with most batsmen and an increasing number of pundits blaming the rise of the DRS for the increased number of ell-bees.

So is the reason for the disproportionate number of leg-befores due to the use of technology? It’s certainly been proved that since the implementation of the review system that a greater percentage of appeals have been given by umpires, especially to spinners, as replays have shown that a lot of the previously rejected shouts would have gone on to hit the stumps. This has been a boost for the likes of Swann and Ajmal, who have been given plenty of wickets over the past couple of years that they would simply not have been given in times gone past. Umpires have seen that even when batsmen take a big stride down the pitch that the ball will sometimes go on to hit the stumps, meaning that they’re far more willing to give batsmen out. So arguably, DRS has played a part in the dismissals.

For this series, however, the DRS is being blamed for the fact that ball is hitting the pad more often. David Lloyd has spoken about the “paranoia” that the DRS is causing, leading to batsmen’s techniques falling apart and being struck plumb in front. But can the DRS really be blamed? Surely if a batsman plays with a straight bat and actually hits the ball, no amount of replays or ball-tracking technology will give them out. Yes, there have been a lot of lbws this series, but how many of those have been due to poor technique (especially by English players playing spin), and the awareness of the bowlers to exploit this by bowling at the stumps?

The DRS is said to have closed the gap in the balance between bat and ball in test cricket, and that can only be a good thing. One of the arguments against the review system is that there are a lot more wickets given than in the past – but wickets are only given if a batsman is out. Which means that in the past, batsmen who should have been given out weren’t, and if that happens to favour the bowlers then so be it. Surely that’s a lot better than incorrect decisions costing teams games? If the DRS is causing a “paranoia” amongst batsmen about how to play certain shots, then shouldn’t they getting down the nets and working on their obviously shaky technique rather than bleating about the pros or cons of technology? Hawkeye or no Hawkeye, a batsman is asking for trouble if he keeps getting hit on the back pad when standing in front of middle stump, and if the DRS is helping the umpires to get those decisions right, then that can only be of benefit to test cricket.

The DRS does have its opponents, and some arguments against its usage, many of which are very relevant and should be looked at. However, the fact that it is leading to more correct decisions being made surely isn’t one of them. Instead of looking for excuses, the batsmen should be looking at themselves and working out how to avoid being hit on the pads, as until then, the bowlers are going to keep bowling at them.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Is there need for change after the Abu Dhabi drubbing?

If last week's result was bad, this one was worse. To lose one test heavily is unlucky, but two in a week suggests there is something drastically wrong. The worst thing about it though is that for three and a half days of the test match England were in command, with a handy first innings lead being complemented by some fine second innings bowling, but the game just slipped away from them this morning after being slightly lax in the field and hopelessly abject with the bat. The 72 all out collapse - not even getting half way to the 145 target - was up there with England's biggest headless chicken chases, not knowing whether to stick or twist, they eventually got rolled by a high-class display of spin bowling from Rehman and Ajmal. The calls for change have been made, but who should get a stay of execution, and who should be led to the chopping block?

There is an argument, of course, that there's no need to make any panic decisions based on the first two defeats in over a year. The England of Flower and Strauss don't do panic - they trust in the players that they've picked to go out after failing and turn it around. The consistency of selection over the past few years has been crucial to England's ascent to the top of the rankings, with a settled team able to play without the fear of constantly worrying about their place. And by and large, this has been a good thing. Players like Pietersen, Bell and Cook were eased through lean spells, and the results, and those individual player's performances in 2011 proved the selectors right. While England have performed badly these two weeks in the Gulf, there is a school of thought that if the selectors continue to consistently make consistent selections, those players will turn it around and the wins will come.

To a degree, I agree with those thoughts. Certainly in the case of Bell and Pietersen, two players who've come under a lot of scrutiny this series for four low scores, their exploits over the last year, where they could arguably have been named the world's number one and two test batsmen, shows that they clearly have the class and ability to score lots of runs at test level, and the fact that they've happened to have two poor games in a row doesn't change that. Calls for them to be dropped strike me as ludicrous.

The two players that have had a much longer trough than peak have been Eoin Morgan and Andrew Strauss. While Cook, Pietersen, Bell and Trott can point to (near-enough) 50 or above averages, Morgan doesn't have this to fall back on. Morgan has flattered to deceive so far in his fairly brief test career, but after 15 tests an average of 31 is just not acceptable. Indeed, his first class record in general (averaging 36 from 68 games) is unremarkable to say the least, and certainly doesn't indicate a rapid improvement of scores from the Irishman. Eoin's class and ability in one day cricket is undoubted, and he got into the test team on the back of limited over exploits. However, he simply hasn't cut the mustard in whites for England, and should be dispensed with.

Andrew Strauss is a curious case - as excellent a batsman as he has been on his day, he just hasn't scored anywhere near enough runs for England in recent times. Since his run-a-ball half-century at Sydney this time last year, Strauss has only made one 50 in England colours, and in nine tests has only made 324 runs. For an opening batsman, this isn't good enough. While there have been some reactionary calls for Strauss to go, it shouldn't be forgotten that his batting isn't all that he brings to the team. A born captain and the natural leader of the team, taking Strauss out of the dressing room would leave a chasm that just wouldn't be filled, and could lead to imminent disaster. However, as important as it is that Strauss remains in the team, as it stands, it isn't tenable for the opening batsman to be so out of touch and form. Strauss's play at the moment reminds me of the final throes of Michael Vaughan's England career - so valued as a captain but so scratchy at the crease - incidentally the third test will be the first dead rubber England have constested since the South African series in 2008 that signalled the end for Vaughan.

So what options do England have? The only spare batsman in the England squad at the moment is Ravi Bopara, but replacing Morgan with the equally as frustrating Ravi seems more of a sidewards step than forwards. The England Lions are on tour at the moment, and of their contingent, the likes of James Taylor, Joe Root and Alex Hales have all been tipped for further international recognition. However, my solution for England's ills is a cunning one, and one that may not have even been thought about by the powers that be (probably with good reason). Strauss has really struggled against the new ball over recent times, which is sort of a bad thing for an opener to struggle against. With Morgan looking clueless in the middle order, a fix could be pushing Strauss down the order (thus keeping him in the side), with someone else coming in to open, be it Hales, Steve Davies or even Middlesex's Sam Robson (although I may be slightly biased about that one). England get the benefit of Strauss's captaincy and experience in the middle order, which as Misbah has showed is certainly no bad thing, and in their new opener they have the opportunity to pick someone who is better than Morgan or Bopara. While this is a very unlikely situation, I believe it is the right thing to do, so as such, I am hereby announcing the start of the #straussforsix bandwagon. Feel free to jump on it.

This second defeat is the first time in nearly four years that England have lost back-to-back, and the 74 all out is the lowest score since the 52 all out debacle in Jamaica. England are currently ranked as number one in the world, but can't legitimately lay claim to being the world's best until they address their stark batting issues in the subcontinent. The foundations are there for an excellent side - the bowling especially was absolutely world-class. But England have been carrying players for far too long, and some big decisions need to be made. While Bell and Pietersen do deserve to be in the team after last year's form, nobody should be "undroppable" (just see what being undroppable has done for India's test side...) and a big kick up the arse should help solve a few problems. However, if England genuinely are to be thought of as the world's best, they are going to have to rapidly step up their game in foreign conditions. Whether or not they can do it in time for the final test is debatable, but with seven more tests this calendar year to be held in the subcontinent, something has to be done.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Bowl dry or roll the dice?

England, it seems, are a team blessed with a veritable battalion of fast bowlers, all good enough to step straight into the test side. This means that while Bresnan, and seemingly Tremlett (according to reports) will miss the second test, England still have the luxury of choice, this time between Steven Finn and Graham Onions.

So with Tremlett looking like he's going to drop out of the team, who should come in? Well, the "let's play two spinners" argument has muted since last week because according to reports, Abu Dhabi is a spinner's graveyard. This, and Team England's stringent determination to never change a winning formula means that Monty's going to spend the next five days mixing up Maximuscle for Stuart Broad.

So it's between Steven Finn and Graham Onions. Leaving aside the sentimentality of Onions, who could play his first test in two years after a career threatening injury, and the next-cab-off-the-rankness of Finn, on a purely cricketing level, who should play?

Both offer very different things as bowlers - Onions is much more of a full-length swing bowler who's fast medium at absolute most, whereas Finn is easily England's quickest, and much more of a bang-it-in bowler. Finn has so much to offer an England test team - he's an aggressive, wicket-taking bowler who can genuinely frighten batsmen with his speed, but he has one obvious Achilles heel. His control. Simply put, Finn does have an annoying habit of gifting runs to the opposition through one or two rank balls per over, which really does count against him.

A lot of England's bowling game-plan is to dry up the runs and utilise the pressure that it creates to take wickets. This was seen only last week, when England dragged Pakistan back (sort of) with the ball by keeping the run rate low and the pressure constantly on - leading to a late flurry of wickets. Unfortunately for the bowlers, who all performed admirably, the batsmen hadn't put anywhere near enough runs on the board, so that will be the priority for Andy Flower, but would England have had the same late-day success had Finn been going at 4 or 5 an over?

Finn's control has improved since his last test outing, and he's developed markedly since he was dropped at Melbourne last winter, but the doubts do still linger. This England set-up don't much like gambling, and they'll see Finn as quite a punt. Onions is the safe choice, but do safe choices win test matches? England are one-nil down, and they'll need to win both of the remaining test matches if they're to come away from the UAE with a series win. It might be harsh to call Onions nothing more than a "steady bowler", but his reliability is what's got him this far - solid if not spectacular. Finn is far more mercurial, and while on a bad day he could go for a few, he'll more often than not chip in with some big wickets while he does so. It goes against England's play it safe attitude, but sometimes it's worth taking a punt, as the rewards could be spectacular.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

One bad game does not a bad team make…

… but that was a really really bad game. England simply didn’t turn up or show any form of application with the bat in either innings, and unfortunately, if the only batsman to score over 17 in both innings is the number nine, you ain’t going to win many test matches.

The New England of Flower and Strauss don’t lose many test matches, but oddly the ones that they do lose are absolute canings. Think Jamaica and Headingley in ’09, Johannesburg and Perth in 2010, and now Dubai in 2012. England, as good as they can be when they apply themselves, are prone to the odd brainfade of a test where nobody turns up and they get hammered. Until these random inconsistent tests are cut out, England’s claims to be the all-conquering best team in the world aren’t quite as strong.

However, as bad as that was, it is just one test. One loss in 13 months for a team who have near-enough consistently swept everyone aside shouldn’t automatically mean that alarm bells should ring and knives be sharpened. Cricinfo have already run an opinion piece calling for Strauss to go, which is downright ludicrous and the definition of “knee-jerk”. Dropping an opener with no obvious replacement is one thing, but to push aside the captain of the number one ranked side after just one loss? Hardly.

The key defeats in Strauss & Flower’s reign are obvious, and have all served a purpose in the ascent of the team. The 51 all out in Jamaica right at the start of the pair’s partnership led to the batsmen sitting down and taking responsibility for their own games, and the numerous double centuries in the past couple of years is a result. The humiliation at Headingley at the hands of Australia, where England went in with five bowlers has seen the side take a formulaic shape which has served them so well. It’s obvious that this defeat has been equally as humbling, but it could lead to an improvement in the way batsmen approach and play spin in the subcontinent – something England have traditionally been very poor at doing.

There’s been a lot of negativity from all concerned about England’s performance, but I’m saying that there shouldn’t be. Yes, it was a poor performance, but these things happen. And England have shown a remarkable tendency for bouncebackability over recent years – the last four defeats have all been immediately followed by innings victories. England will have to show an incredibly dramatic upturn in form to beat Pakistan by an innings in the second test, but it isn’t impossible. England’s bowlers plugged away well, and their tenacity and control over the Pakistan batsmen was commendable. Had they had more runs on the board to contend with, the pressure would have been increased, and greater rewards could have come their ways. And with the bat, well, the only way is up. This is by no means a good day for English cricket, but on the whole, the English team is doing far more things right than wrong, and it isn’t as bad as it all seems.

Friday, 13 January 2012

England's Selection in a Spin

England have won their second warm up match, with the Pakistan Cricket Board XI crumbling to a 100 run defeat at the hands of the-best-team-in-the-world(TM). The big story from the game concerns Monty Panesar, who certainly put forward his case for test selection with 8 wickets in the match. Monty hasn't played tests since THAT game at Cardiff in 2009, but has he given himself a shot at getting into England's XI for the first test starting on Tuesday?

Common cricketing logic dictates that a team touring the subcontinent (yes, this isn't actually the subcontinent, but the pitches will be close enough) play two spinners, which England probably want to do. However, the selectors lives are made much harder with the lack of a genuine all-rounder. If there was a Flintoff style player who is good enough to bat in the top seven as well as being a test-class bowler, then Monty would happily slip into the team alongside Swann, Anderson and Broad, with Eoin Morgan the unlucky batsman to miss out. Sadly this is not the case. England's selection policy has been reserved to say the least over the past few years, with Andy Flower still bearing the mental scars of the horrific Ashes test at Headingley in 2009 where England played five bowlers, had no backbone to their batting, and collapsed miserably. Broad has developed as a batsman (the most recent game against Pakistan where he got 169 is testament to that) but doubts remain as to whether he's consistent enough as a test number seven. While he did score runs against India, that was the first time in a long while that he done anything with the bat, and moving him up the order (especially given Panesar's notorious inability with the blade) could be a recipe for disaster. Seeing as the closest thing England have to a proper all-rounder in Tim Bresnan will be watching the series from the comfort of The North, Flower will be very reticent in vastly altering the shape of the team to accommodate an extra spinner.

Another option would be to play only two seamers, with the dual spin of Panesar and Swann, as they did in the warm-up game (with Tremlett and Onions playing the roles of Anderson and Broad). While there would be a lot of testing spin, rotating the two fast bowlers would be tricky, especially in the new-ball period which seems to offer a lot out in the UAE. England no longer have the handy holding overs of Paul Collingwood to toss the ball to, which would make this option a no-goer as well.

The third way to get Monty back into the England team would be to play him instead of Graeme Swann. Dissenting voices of Swann have mentioned his lack of wickets over the last 12 months, but surely dropping the-best-spinner-in-the-world(TM) would be wrong? Yes, Swann hasn't taken many wickets recently, but that's mainly because the fast bowlers have done the majority of the damage on pretty green pitches. When Swann has needed to step up on a final day (Adelaide v Australia, The Oval v India), he's made match-winning performances to seal victories. Besides, dropping a key player would be very un-England, where the success has come from consistent selection, backing their players, and allowing those in poor trots to come good. Swann may not be in a bad trot, but he hasn't dominated a series in a while, but on the first tour with turning pitches since he decimated Bangladesh two years ago, Swann has the chance to tear them apart, again.

All in all, Monty Panesar won't play. As much as playing two spinners is important in these conditions, there isn't really any way (short of calling up Samit Patel, which they should have done in the first place) of getting two spinners into the team without sacrificing a batsman or a fast bowler. While Panesar took the wickets to win the game, the most important wicket of the match was that of Fawad Alam, who was caught Trott bowled Pietersen. If England go in with only one frontline spinner, Kevin Pietersen will have to turn his arm over a fair bit, and that wicket will give Flower, Strauss and the selectors confidence that he can do his bit. Whether or not they think that after the first test remains to be seen...

Friday, 6 January 2012

Podcast - Samit Patel's Probably Still Eating

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Yet another week has passed without Sachin making his #100th100, so Will looks at why, and how this is impacted on India's performances. Also at the SCG, Michael Clarke made hundreds of sticker-less runs, and Will looks at Clarke's potential as both a batsman and a captain. England have flown out to the UAE to take on Pakistan, so the series is previewed, as well as the England v Associates game that will take place. Pretty much everything that's happened this week in cricket, except Jacques Kallis getting 200 in his 150th test. Sorry Jacques.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Criticsms of Clarke

Getting to the highest score in the history of test cricket isn't something that happens every day. Of all of the hundreds of thousands of test innings, to be ranked as the highest is some achievement, so a changing of the guard is very rare indeed (between 1938 and 1994 it only changed once). To post an absolute great grand-daddy triple or quadruple ton, you need to be one of three things. Either a) massively selfish and happy to play a long personal innings irregardless of the match situation (see Lara's 400 not out v England in 2004), b) playing against a crap team on a road (see Hayden's 380 v Zimbabwe in 2003), or c) freakishly good (see Bradman, numerous).

Cricket is an odd game, as it is a pursuit of individual success masquerading as a team sport. In no other team sport are personal statistics pored over so often and held with such reverence, or individual glory celebrated so vocally (see Sachin, various). While everyone says that they just love winning test matches and like doing well for the team, deep down every cricketer who's picked up a bat wants to put themselves in the history books. Sure, winning's nice, but what about a bit of personal glory?

Which makes Michael Clarke's decision to declare unbeaten on 329 slightly odd. Yes, as captain he should be seen to put the team first, but imagine the statue he would have got outside the SCG had he got past 400? In 9 months time there would be a boom of babies born in Australia, all nicknamed Pup, and he could have had his own ill-fated chat show. Against a tired, disinterested Indian attack, 401 and history was there for the taking, and Clarke let the pesky matter of trying to win a test match get in his way. And he didn't have the smarts to get a lucrative bat sponsor for this game. For shame.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Ricky Ponting's 70th 100

Pretty much all of the build-up to the Sydney test, as with pretty much every Indian game since the World Cup, has been focussed on Sachin Tendulkar's persuit of the elusive 100th international 100. Since making his 99th on the 12th March, the cricketing world has been on edge to see if the Little Master can go where no other batsman has gone before, and into triple figures for triple figure international scores.

Sachin's quest has been dragging on for a while now, and the spotlight hasn't become any less intense. On Twitter, which is always the best barometer to the cricketing world's feelings, each Sachin innings starts with a flurry of "I have a feeling, today will be the day" tweets, followed by the inevitable "Oh well, I'm sure he'll do it in the next knock". It would not be wrong of me to say that there are some more concerned about Sachin's personal scores than the state of the matches he plays in.

But ultimately, if Sachin did get to his 100th 100, it wouldn't really be that important. His place in the side doesn't rely upon it, nor would his legend be diminished if he fell narrowly short. It is solely a statistical quirk, and just an opportunity to celebrate the incredible career that the man demi-god has had. That could not be said of Ricky Ponting.

Ponting, like Sachin, is a bona fide legend, not just of our time, but of any time. Yet his search for a ton has lasted a lot longer than Sachin's, with January 2010 being the last occassion Ricky passed three figures in test cricket. Since then, the Ashes have been lost (again), the captaincy has fallen by the wayside, and an alarming dip in form has led quite a few to call for Ponting to either stand aside, or be stood aside. A few fifties in recent tests signalled some sort of revival, but without the headline grabbing hundred, Ponting would continue to be under pressure, and questions would continue to be asked.

Which is why Ponting making a hundred at the SCG was far more important or newsworthy than if Sachin had got there. Ponting's shows that he's still got the guts, ability, and run-making for test cricket, and is clearly still worth a place in this Australian team, and might be good for a Dravid style renaissance (let us not forget that The Great Wall finished 2011 as test cricket's top run scorer). Sachin's would show the ultimate endurance effort, and be the culmination of a great career, but other than an interesting statistic, it doesn't mean a great deal.

This isn't to say I won't stand and applaud if/when Sachin gets there, but at this moment in time, Ponting getting there is a far greater moment. There have been some who've called Ponting's 134 the biggest of his career, and while I wouldn't go that far, it could well be the signal of a return to the top for Punter, and for a few more years in the Aussie middle order.