Friday, 20 July 2012

England’s missing turn


England has made this series into a battle of the quick bowlers – but in doing so they risk negating their home advantage.

It may seem rather odd to criticise England after an excellent opening day. But England may have already made one crucial mistake this Test match: not playing two spinners.
Perhaps England’s management, normally possessing such enviable equilibrium of temperament, was simply unable to ignore the hype about this series being a battle of pace. Perhaps the two Andys simply didn’t conceive of a strategy that few in the media had so much had contemplated. Yet if England do beat South Africa in this Test series, they will owe virtually nothing to home advantage.
Undeniably, England possess a coterie of quicks that, cumulatively, cover it all: devilish late swing, express pace, ferocious bouncers, canny reverse swing and, above all, sheer relentlessness. But, despite what an underwhelming first day may have revealed, so do South Africa. This series should be a salivating shoot-out of the quicks, the sort of which Test cricket lovers have been denied since the retirement of the great pace-bowling pairs – Donald-Pollock; Wasim-Waqar; and Ambrose-Walsh – in the late 1990s.
But home advantage isn’t meant to be about providing the best possible spectacle. It should be about providing the home side with the greatest chance of winning – something England’s strategy may not have done.
In any analysis of the two sides, there are legitimate debates about the superiority in batting and fast bowling. But there is no comparable debate where spin bowling is concerned. For all the intoxicating excitement of watching Imran Tahir’s variety, no South African would choose him over Graeme Swann. Indeed, it is most questionable whether they would choose him over Monty Panesar.
Boldness is seldom a quality associated with the England hierarchy, but now would have been the perfect time for it. With the first Test at The Oval, England had an opportunity to genuinely surprise South Africa. For all the hype about a pace war, there was nothing stopping the management from pressing for a pitch a la The Oval in 2009, when Graeme Swann’s eight-wicket haul underpinned England’s reclaiming of the Ashes. It may in fact prove that this wicket is not too dissimilar – in which case Panesar would have been a perfect selection.
True audacity would have resulted in Panesar replacing Ravi Bopara in this side, allowing England to field three quicks and two spinners. Given that there is a strong argument that England’s two top spinners are both the Test match superior of Tahir, and his replacement, Robin Petersen, has not played a Test in over four years, it would have been the best way of giving England a genuine home advantage.
On his recall in the UAE last winter, Panesar showed he is a high-class Test match performer, taking two five-wicket hauls against Pakistan. Given the manner in which Andrew Strauss preferred him to Swann against Pakistan’s right-handers, Panesar may have been a potent weapon against South Africa’s powerful trio of right-handers – Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis and AB De Villiers – in the middle order.
If England are unable to force a win in the opening Test – and indeed even if they do – they may reflect that they missed an opportunity to give South Africa’s batsmen a challenge they genuinely would not have been expecting. But if the series is one-all before the final Test at Lord’s, perhaps then it will be Monty’s turn. 

Friday, 22 June 2012

Twenty20 Blog

Apologies for my lack of posting here recently. I have been Cricinfo's main blogger for the English Twenty20 competition - it would be great to have old Third Umpire readers chipping in with their comments. The blogs can be found at - http://blogs.espncricinfo.com/county-cricket-live/ - see you all there for county chat!

Friday, 24 February 2012

England need Thorpe's Asian experience

The cluelessness of England’s Test batting against Pakistan has made their triumph in Pakistan in 2000/01 seem even more extraordinary. In that, and their subsequent victory in Sri Lanka, England had one man to thank above all.
On those two tours, Graham Thorpe towered above his teammates: he averaged 61, 19 more than anyone else managed, twice scoring centuries and remaining unbeaten in both series-clinching victories. In England’s first series in Asia since losing all four Tests against India and Sri Lanka in 1993, it was a genuinely remarkable performance.
How did he do it? Memories of Thorpe that winter centre on his self-denial, epitomised by a century in Lahore that, uniquely in Test history, featured only one boundary. Playing the ball extremely late from his back-foot base and always light on his feet, Thorpe’s greatest skill lay in his ability to glide the ball past fielders. He also mastered the fine art of using the sweep shot intelligently to rotate the strike whilst refraining from using it excessively and predictably.
But unlike so many of the current side, Thorpe, even whilst focused on unobtrusive accumulation, was ruthless in dealing with loose deliveries, in particular deploying his rasping cut shot. He also displayed a chameleon-like ability to adjust his game according to the side’s need.
In all three of England’s victorious run chases that winter, Thorpe stood out – and not just because he top-scored each time. Displaying adaptability worthy of Tom Jones, he swapped the attrition of his first innings batting for second innings aggression, driven either by outrageous time wasting in fading light (Pakistan in Karachi) or the sheer extent of his team mate’s struggles (against Sri Lanka at Kandy and Colombo). In all three of England’s run chases, Thorpe’s second innings strike rate was at least 65; it didn’t pass 46 in his six first innings in 2000/01. Most impressive of all was his sheer mental strength facing multifarious challenges, encapsulated in his 64* to take England to their first victory in Pakistan for 39 years.
England's failure to utilise his experience this winter is all the more puzzling in that his coaching of the England Lions has been widely praised, notably by James Taylor. This is not to belittle the influence of Graham Gooch – that “daddy hundred” has become an infuriating cliché is the greatest testament to his impact. But on tours of Asia, Thorpe’s experiences, possibly alongside that of new permanent batting coach Gooch, could help the side greatly: no one should believe a few ODI wins, impressive as they have been, mean England are suddenly experts at playing spin in Test cricket.
Thorpe encountered Muttiah Muralitharan’s doosra when England toured Sri Lanka in 2003/04 and, although his performances were far less impressive than in 2000/2001, his insights into coping with would have been of great help, especially to Ian Bell. Then there is the case of Eoin Morgan. Thorpe, a fellow left-hander and with a very similar stature and style, may have been able to prevent the disintegration of his confidence and technique that occurred in the Pakistan Test series.
Sri Lanka may lack a bowler of Saeed Ajmal’s mystery but the fundamental nature of the challenge will be the same. It is one Thorpe understands better than any other Englishman, and England should use his expertise.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

A good year to be an Australian debutant

When Ed Cowan makes his Test debut in the Boxing Day Test, he will nudge the number of Australians handed their baggy green cap up to ten in 2011- more than any year since 1977. Then the selectors could blame the chaos caused by World Series Cricket; now it is the fallout to Ashes defeat.

Of those that have already debuted in 2011, four can be sure of joining Cowan in the final eleven at the MCG. David Warner carried his bat for 123* in Australia’s recent defeat to New Zealand and, though he has only played two Tests, there are legitimate hopes he can transfer his stunning Twenty20 form into the Test game. To become anything close to an Australian Sehwag, Warner will need to cope with the swinging ball, but he managed rather well against the Kiwis. The well-directed short ball will also be a challenge: Phil Hughes, remember, scored two hundreds in his second Test until found out by this.

Shaun Marsh looked a Test match natural in compiling 141 on debut in Sri Lanka: so compelling was his knock that Ricky Ponting was promptly moved away from number three, and the spot given to Marsh. Injuries mean he has only received two more caps, but given the solidity and range of shots Marsh has displayed, as well as a phlegmatic temperament, expect him to finish his career, like his father Geoff, with over 50 appearances.

Two new bowlers will also appear on Boxing Day. James Pattinson younger brother of England’s Darren, picked up 14 wickets in two Tests against New Zealand, pitching the ball up and consistently swinging the ball late. The off-spinner Nathan Lyon has been quietly successful: with his cool temperament, control and subtle variations, he enjoys more job security than any Australian spinner since Warne. This might not be saying much, but 22 wickets at less than 25 is a hugely impressive return from his first seven Tests.

Yet the most memorable Australian debut of 2011 was from a man who won’t play at the MCG. Pat Cummins’ first Test was as remarkable as they come, combining a haul of 6/79 with a calm 13* to take Australia to a two-wicket win in South Africa. Only 18, Cummins is clearly a cricketer of rare promise, combining pace and swing with a dangerous bouncer that, unlike many young quick bowlers, he doesn’t overuse. Mickey Arthur has already compared Cummins to Dale Steyn, and the new Australian coach will be frustrated Cummins will miss the India Tests through injury. That a man with only one Test appearance is regarded as a substantial loss is an indication both of Cummins’ progress and the current state of the Australian side.

Rather inevitably, the positive impressions have not extended to all Australia’s Test debutants this year. With an excellent first-class record, Usman Khawaja was much-hyped before his Test debut and, somewhat bizarrely, earned a standing ovation for his assured 37 against England in January. He has a solid technique but, like a young Mark Ramprakash, his Test batting is characterised by passivity: when scoring 7 off 51 balls against New Zealand, Khawaja appeared strokeless. He also shares a propensity for middling scores with the young Ramprakash: seven of Khawaja’s nine Test dismissals have been between 12 and 38.

Whereas Khawaja’s problems seem about self-belief, Australia’s other three Test debutants of 2011 lack the requisite class. The left-arm spinner Michael Beer has slipped back into obscurity since taking 1-112 against England at Sydney: a first-class average of 45 suggests he should remain there. Trent Copeland, better described as a medium-pacer than a fast bowler, performed well enough when injuries earned him three caps in Sri Lanka. But for all his parsimony – his economy rate in those Tests was 2.1 – Copeland lacks penetration, as three wickets in his last four first-class matches reveals. Finally, the left-arm quick Mitchell Starc is not yet 22, but didn’t look Test ready in his two games against New Zealand.

Giving Test caps away is a precarious business. As such, the Australian selectors, so derided for their haphazard selections in the Ashes, deserve credit: realistically, five of this year’s debutants could be prominent members of their 2013 Ashes side. Australia should certainly be encouraged by the displays of their debutants; it is their senior players who should concern them.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Championship team of season


Marcus Trescothick
As imperious as ever, Trescothick scored 290 more runs than anyone else in either division, despite missing three games to a cruel injury. His dominance is such that it has become a cliché to describe him as batting on a different pitch from everyone else.
Mike Carberry
Though it wasn’t enough to keep Hampshire in division one, Carberry’s return, after fears his career was over, was astounding. Against Yorkshire, he hit 300*, displaying the range of shots and concentration that earned him an England Test cap only 18 months ago, while his last-day century against Warwickshire denied them the title.
Chris Rogers
Brought in to average over 50 and lead a side to promotion that finished eighth in division two in the previous two seasons, Rogers made the twin challenges seem positively easy.
Dale Benkenstein
There was no third championship in four years for Durham, but Benkenstein’s excellence remained unabated: only Trescothick exceeded his 1353 division one runs. Long established as his side’s crisis man, Benkenstein’s experience as skipper was a valuable aid for Phil Mustard.
Zander de Bruyn
In a Surrey top six that is as gung-ho as they come, de Bruyn provides stickability, and two hundreds and two fifties in the last three games allowed Surrey to claim a remarkable promotion. Somerset fans, not unreasonably, will feel they might just have won the championship had he not been lured to The Oval.
Jonny Bairstow (wicket-keeper)
In an otherwise bleak season for Yorkshire Bairstow’s excellence, culminating in a memorable England ODI debut, provided some solace. Attractive and calm in front of the stumps, he scored his runs at a strike-rate – 69 – that few top-order batsmen can match. With the gloves Bairstow improved but is not yet the equal of his late father.
Will Gidman
With one first-class appearance before the season began, bookmakers would have given any odds on Gidman becoming the first man for 15 years to score 1000 championship runs and take 50 wickets. But do that he did; and with a batting average (45) more than double his bowling one (21). A late developer at 26, Gidman deserves England Lions recognition.
Glen Chapple (captain)
It’s not only sentimentality that earns Chapple a place in this side, which his achievement in lifting the pennant without stars ensures he leads. At 37, his canny fast-medium bowling was effective enough to claim 55 wickets at under 20, despite often not being fully fit. Though he was uncharacteristically short of runs, Lancashire would not have won the championship without his 97 in their penultimate game.
Tim Murtagh
Unlucky to never represent England (though he may yet play for Ireland), Murtagh’s best season yet propelled Middlesex to promotion. A round 80 wickets in 15 matches highlight his potency, which is especially great with the new ball, as a three-wicket bust in 16 balls against Derbyshire illustrates.
David Masters
Lazy cricket writers have spent years describing Masters as a “nagging seamer” and “journeyman”, but he forced them to be rather more imaginative after claiming 93 wickets. Masters’ mastery of the Tiflex ball and constant ability to seam it was never more evident than when he claimed 8/10 against Leicestershire.
Gary Keedy
The mark of Keedy’s bowling is that his left-arm spin is almost as effective in April as August, while his parsimony (giving away just 2.5 an over) means Lancashire never lost control in the field. His 4-57 from 28 overs in the first innings of the victory at Taunton perfectly encapsulated his qualities.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Saving the ICC from their own stupidity

Today brought the very welcome news that the 10-team World Cup format may not be so final after all. If they want to maintain the integrity of the sport by making the World Cup more than just an invitational trophy, the ICC face some difficult decisions - made all the more so by their own essential impotence. When the 10 full members run the game, it is easy to see why self-interest reigns supreme.

So it may well prove difficult for the ICC to get enough of the full members to vote for a qualification tournament; Bangladeshi and Zimbabwean turkeys are unlikely to be great fans of Christmas. Instead they may try and devise a new format. To the greatest degree possible, it must (a) match the ICC's TV contract with ESPN-Star, which requires a minimum of 48 games in the World Cup and (b) ensure India play as many games as possible. These are the depressing realities.

Within these not inconsiderable constraints, what is the best we can hope for?

My proposal would be for two groups of six, which would make for 30 round-robin games.
Ideally I would then like the group winners to progress to the semi-finals, and the second and third sides to play off against each other, but that format would mean the ICC would have to pay a lot of compensation.

Alternatively - and more financially viable (how depressing it is how finances cannot be separated from any discussion of World Cup formats) - the top four could go into a Super Eight phase. Now, I know - cricket has not had good experiences with Super Eights / Sixes in 50-over World Cups.

But two groups of four, along the lines of the format used in the World Twenty20, would possess an excitement wholly lacking in the miserable 2007 tournament, when the Super Eights seemed to never end.

These groups could consist of the top and fourth ranked side from group A in the opening stages, alongside numbers two and three from group B (and visa versa). No points would be carried forward, as this is always liable to be messy. But crucially, the positions of any sides level on points after the Super Eights would be determined by what position they finished in the first round groups. This would create a real incentive for sides to win their groups in the first round - one conspicuous by its absence in the recent tournament.

There would therefore by 12 Super Eight games (each side playing the others in their group), bringing the total number of games to 42. Add in semis, a third-placed play-off and the final and that brings us to 46, minimising the damage to the ICC.

Perhaps it's not quite ideal - what tournament structure is? - but this format both protects the full members and gives an incentive to the associates to progress. Above all, it would create a much more vibrant and exciting tournament than the current planned format for 2015.

We'll see what is announced at the ICC's meeting in June. In the meantime, what an opportunity for Ireland. If they were to win one of their two ODIs against Pakistan in May, let alone both, while getting large crowds in, the case for the reversal of the scandalous decision would grow greater still.

Monday, 18 April 2011

How a six-team Test championship would work


Further to my previous post calling for two Test divisions of six nations each, here is how it would actually work:
  1. Every side would have to play every other in their league home-and-away, in at least three match series, over a four-year cycle. This means every side would have to play a minimum of 30 Tests every four years for the purposes of the Test championship.
  2. Sides would be free to play longer series (four or five Tests) should they please - so the Ashes could continue in exactly the same way.
  3. Sides would also be free to play Tests against countries outside their division; New Zealand would therefore be able to play around 20 Tests against sides in the top division (when they were outside) every four years. This is only slightly less than they do at the moment. The Ashes, for example, would continue in an identical way even if Australia continued their slump and were relegated.
  4. The points system would work as follows. For every series in the division, there would be a total of six points available. Five of these would be allocated according to the games (so there would be 1 point available per victory in a Test in a five-match series, but 1.67 per victory in a three-Test series, preventing teams getting an advantage for playing more). The points system would encourage attacking cricket - both sides would only get one-third of the points available for a game if they drew it - and also ensure 'dead rubbers' retained a real relevance. There would also be a one-point bonus for a side winning a series.
  5. The culmination of the four years would be the play-off matches - providing Test cricket with a showpiece event it needs. Matches would be played at a country that won the hosting rights. The play-offs would consist of the top two sides in the top division playing three Tests to determine the Test champions of the tournament. During the breaks between their Tests, there would be the play-off series, also of three Tests, between the bottom (sixth-placed) side in the top division and the winners of the second division, with the winners earning the right to play in the top division for the next four-year cycle. Pitches would be prepared by an independent body, designed with results in mind. In the event of a drawn series, the winners of the second division would be promoted, thereby encouraging the higher-ranked side to play attacking cricket and prove they deserved to remain in the division.

To show how it would work in practice, here are two prospective schedules. The first is for England in division one; the second for them in division two (NB assuming New Zealand replaced them in division one)
Division One
Year 1
Home – New Zealand 2 Tests; India 4 Tests
Away – South Africa 5 Tests; West Indies 2 Tests
Year 2
Home – Ireland 1 Test; Australia 5 Tests
Away – Bangladesh 1 Test; India 4 Tests
Year 3
Home – Sri Lanka 3 Test; Pakistan 3 Tests
Away – New Zealand 2 Tests; Australia 5 Tests;
Year 4
Home – West Indies 2 Tests; South Africa 5 Tests
Away –Pakistan 3 Tests; Sri Lanka 3 Tests; then Test championship
Total number of Tests – 50
Division Two
Year 1
Home – Afghanistan 3 Tests; India 3 Tests
Away – South Africa 3 Tests; West Indies 3 Tests;
Year 2
Home – Ireland 3 Tests; Australia 5 Tests
Away – Bangladesh 3 Tests; India 3 Tests
Year 3
Home – Zimbabwe 3 Test; West Indies 3 Tests
Away – Australia 5 Tests;
Year 4
Home – Ireland 3 Tests (away, but played during English season); Bangladesh 3 Tests; South Africa 3 Tests
Away – Zimbabwe 3 Tests; Afghanistan 3 Tests; then Test championship
Total number of Tests – 52
Even in division two, England still have 22 Tests over three years against the biggest crowd-pullers – Australia, India and South Africa.
(Teams in italics are those outside England’s division)