Friday, 1 August 2008

Shambolic England On The Brink

Mickey Arthur this week denounced the recall of Steve Harmison as a desperate and short term move by England which took no account of the upcoming 2009 Ashes series. He was right. Michael Atherton tore into the selectors both in general and specifically for recalling Harmison in The Times, stating that they were sending out the wrong message about selection. He was right. Harmison would have been a temporary and short sighted pick. He is bowling well at present and would undoubtedly take wickets, but he doesn’t play ODI’s, he doesn’t travel as every Tom, Dick and Harry knows and he takes a good few matches to get into form, largely because he doesn’t put in the training which other players do. So that would make him available for the second Test series of every summer which just is not viable.

Meanwhile, “The Michael Vaughan Batting Club”, to quote a friend, seems now to be more exclusive and cosy than ever, when it’s hegemony should be in the process of being disrupted. To the untrained eye it appears as though England have imploded in a relatively short period of time. However, look a little closer and the problems have been mounting for a year. The series loss to India was unfortunate, but signalled the start of the latest period of turmoil. The embarrassing performance in Sri Lanka hit the side hard and many a mistake was made. Owais Shah, one of England’s best players of spin and slow, low pitches was bafflingly left out of the side so as to accommodate Ravi Bopara, who proceeded to have one of the worst debuts by an England Test player. And following a series of drops, Matt Prior himself was dropped, which saw Tim Ambrose take over the gloves, another compromise between keeping and batting ability was made.

To New Zealand and one poor match spelled the end for Matthew Hoggard, whilst Steve Harmison finally got what had been coming his way for the previous two years. Team England escaped with a 2-1 series win, but they had been expected to thrash the Kiwis. Tim Ambrose and Paul Collingwood looked good and Andrew Strauss appeared to be back to his best. However, the fact that the Kiwis are a very limited side was completely forgotten. On to the home series against New Zealand and England faced an even more limited side, eventually triumphing 2-0. However, they deserved to lose the second Test after yet more woeful batting and despite a Michael Vaughan revival (currently expected in 1 in 4 series). A good side would have thrashed the Kiwis twice.

Then South Africa arrived and on a placid pitch England racked up the runs, but the ease with which South Africa avoided defeat showed that the pitch had played a major role. The key point was also that only Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen made big runs. The bowling attack meanwhile lacked hostility and pace. Whilst swing may account for average batsman, good batsmen need to be tested with pace and bounce. Andrew Flintoff’s return has been claimed to have unbalanced the side. That is simply not true. He has kept this England side in the hunt and given them drive which was sorely lacking. Ultimately, the sad truth is that England are playing a very good side, a testing side and they are realising that they are just not good enough.

Alistair Cook last scored a ton ten Tests ago, but at least he has averaged 40.00 since November 2007. Vaughan is averaging 27.52 since the start of the Sri Lanka tour, with 1 hundred in 23 innings. Collingwood averages 28.25 in the same period with no hundreds in 18 innings. And Tim Ambrose’s average in down to 26.76 as it continues it’s descent. England can not afford to keep on carrying players, but that is exactly what they continue to do. The term “Michael Vaughan Batting Club” is of course meant to be comical, but it sums up this current England side perfectly. Vaughan has always been staunchly loyal to his charges and this was once a virtue, in the days after the brutally honest regime of Nasser Hussain, but it has now most certainly become a problem, with judgement now blurred by loyalty.

Andrew Strauss was out of form for an age before he was finally dropped and then recalled without hitting a single run in county cricket. Paul Collingwood was dropped for one match before being recalled for the current Test in place of Stuart Broad. The reasoning behind this seemed stupid at the start and even stupider now. Stuart Broad needed a rest, yet is playing a four day game for Nottinghamshire. The extra batsman would balance the side, yet they essentially replaced a cricketer who has averaged 55 this year with one who has averaged 8. Are the fans missing something here? The end result was obvious for everyone to see even before Collingwood had gone out to bat and once he was there it was even more painfully obvious, no less so than to Collingwood himself, whose torturous 45 minute innings was packed full of nerves and completely devoid of any semblance of confidence. His lack of confidence seems even to be effecting his fielding, as he dropped a relatively easy catch off of Neil McKenzie later on.

England need a reality check and now. They will lose this series, that is all but a certainty, barring a Flintoff inspired miracle and changes to the team. Even worse though, they will slip to 4th in the world and are likely to be humiliated in India and at home by Australia if they do not do what is necessary and change the batting line-up. If it means changing the captain then so be it. Players can only live on past glories for so long and Geoffrey Boycott is not alone in seeing Vaughan as a cricketer who is far from the man who peaked in Australia in 2002. It isn’t as if he excels for Yorkshire either and one good score every other series simply isn’t enough. Who comes in for Vaughan and Collingwood is up for debate, but the leading candidates are Ravi Bopara and Owais Shah, whilst the likes of Rob Key and Joe Denly will be watching the latest troubles of Cook and Strauss with great interest. The captaincy would have to pass to either a younger player, or the more experienced Andrew Strauss, who is statistically proven to improve his run output as captain, averaging around 15 runs more as captain for Middlesex and England (55.66). Vaughan incidentally averages 5.62 runs less as captain (36.02).

On the wicket keeping front it is probably time to go with the best keeper in the country, who in my opinion is James Foster. He will also fit nicely into the ODI side, allowing England to keep consistency of selection which they see as being crucial. If Broad has been returned to county cricket to work on his bowling then playing four bowlers becomes an easier task for England, with the current incumbents the most deserving, although Broad and Simon Jones would be pushing the likes of Bopara and Sidebottom hard for their places in the near future. It is worth noting that at the moment Broad and Jones could only play in a five man attack. Perhaps if the batting line-up could deliver the runs then five bowlers would once again be a viable option. For the moment though it is not.

England Test Batting Averages since November 2007:

Strauss 45.07
Cook 40.00
Vaughan 27.52
Pietersen 41.31
Bell 46.66
Collingwood 28.25
Ambrose 26.75
Broad 41.22
Flintoff 45.5 (3 innings, 1 not out)
Bopara 8.40 (5 innings)

Test Debuts Since 2000:

4 Wicket Keeper debuts;
10 Batsman debuts;
22 Bowler debuts;
3 Allrounder debuts.

Test Debuts Since Ashes 2005:

2 Wicket Keeper debuts;
2 Batsman debuts;
9 Bowler debuts;
1 Allrounder debut.


Richard Lake said...

Chris - it's not just the England selectors who advocated the return of Harmison (sorry Tim). Personally, I would pay little attention to Micky Arthur. A fit and firing Steve Harmison is a player who would be in Ashes contention. Personally I don't see it happening due to his other frailities, but he's not at an age where he should be discounted completely.

As for the rest of your points - I shall be putting my own thoughts up on the situation soon.

Tom said...

Interesting article,
I notice that the SA coach singled out Harmison and no one else, probably because he has regained form on the county circuit and could have been a handful for them. M Arthur isn't offering advice to England out of the goodness of his heart, it was aimed at keeping England replacing Sidebottom/Anderson who appeared quite toothless yesterday.

I would like to see some players dropped for the next test, it must appear like England are a closed shop to regular county performers - maybe a revamp with thelikes of Denly/Sales/Shah/Bopara/Read/Harmison/Jones/K Ali considered

Phil Mackenzie said...

I think this series is showing that there is no room for Anderson and Sidebottom in the team, particularly if we insist on the folly of four bowlers. You said yourself that "good batsmen need to be tested with pace and bounce", and I agree. At this time, and on current form there is no better purveyor of pace and bounce than Harmison. For this reason he should be picked, but on the condition that this is his last chance. Any more failures to adequately prepare should see the end of him.

In past interviews Harmison has come across as being rather immature. This is probably the cause of his problems. However, he is approaching thirty, an age where people tend to mature and where the end of his career looms into view. If he grows up and trains properly we may get two or three years of Harmison at the top of his game. Any England fan would want to see that.

Chrispy said...

Firstly regarding Mickey Arthur I think that what he is saying is a great indicator of where the England hierarchy are right now. The South Africans are targetting the leadership because it appears so confused and has an obvious lack of accountability. No-one takes responsibility for mistakes and there are clearly disagreements over selection going on behind the scenes. What he said about Harmison was true though. England fans hoped for over two years that he would buck up his ideas, but other than his brief purple patch in the Windies in 2004 Harmison has not played well away from home. Indeed he gets home sick, so that will always effect his away performances. He is only bowling well now because he a) is at home, b) is playing lesser quality on what is a wonderful wicket for bowling c) is bowling regularly d) is away from pressure. Like I said stick him in the team now and he will take wickets, but it would be short term. He isn't going to play ODI's or away from home and how can you tell a guy great performance on tour this year fella, but Harmi is back for the summer. As with Tres you couldn't do it. Better to work with a bowler who will be there consistently and who you can rely on. Kabir Ali is ahead of him on performances this year, but he won't be given a chance I guarantee it, which reinforces the idea of a closed shop which prevents top county performers from getting a look in.

As for the bowling I don't think that it is the bowling which is losing us matches at the moment. Monty isn't up to much so far tho. If you fail to get in excess of 200 because of poor batting and not conditions (which is what is happening) then the opposition are always going to go past you and they will have time and confidence to build a big lead and tire the four bowlers. I would dearly love to get Jones in the side, which would mean having Broad also, but the batting would be even weaker, which is why the likes of Ambrose, Collingwood and Vaughan have to be made accountable. From playing West Indies (3/4), India (0/3), Sri Lanka (0/3), New Zealand (4/6) and South Africa (0/3) we have only won tests against WIN and NZL. Not one test has been won so far against the others - that is a great indicator of how far this current IX is behind and why they are heading for fourth.

Tim said...

Very interesting stuff Chris - and agree with most of it, with the exception of what you say about Harmison. He's in form and would do well in the next game - that should be our priority, not some mythical date in the future. Australia have been 'too old' for five years, apparently!

In terms of pitential captaincy replacements - Rob Key?

I've been lamenting the cosyness of the set-up for something like a year - it's there for all to see, as the averages you quote prove! Am not convinced about Strauss actually - two years since a ton not against the Kiwis!