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!