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.