Sunday, 30 November 2008

England ODI Ratings

It seems irrelevant given the horrific events unfolding in India, but here are the series ratings for the 5-0 thrashing India inflicted upon England.

Alastair Cook 3
Simply should not be playing ODIs ahead of Denly, Key, Solanki et al.

Ravi Bopara 6
Showed some encourgaing signs as opener - even if running between the wickets remains a safety hazard. Was the only opener to muster a fifty, so is worth perservering with.

Ian Bell 4
A miserable series, containing three failures and a delightful, but all-too-brief, run-a-ball 46. His place, too, must be under serious question.

Kevin Pietersen 8
Number three is where he should bat in ODIs, as his century showed. However, compared to Yuvraj, Sehwag and co, his destructive ability does not seem quite as impressive. It was mystifying that he should take 60 balls over his last 46 runs during his 111*, but in a tough tour Pietersen cannot really be faulted.

Paul Collingwood 3
Averaged under 17 with the bat, while his bowling was also below par. It was ludicrous that a man in such poor form should be promoted to number four, and his place in the side looks under real threat after essentially doing nothing since resigning the ODI captaincy.

Owais Shah 9
Finally, Shah has arrived. Able to work the ball into gaps, and hit powerfully down the ground, especially off spin, he was undoubtedly England's man of the series, and his 48-ball 72 almost kept England in the series. Continually moving him between positions three and six, England would be foolish if they did not recognise that his best position should be number four.

Andrew Flintoff 6
Toiled away admirably with the ball, as he does, and gave hints of his batting prowess, without ever really going on. But England must use him wisely - can they really expect him to play every international in all three forms of the game?

Samit Patel 5
Chipped in with some useful cameos coming in at number seven, but Patel, as widely expected, was found out with the ball. Still has a role to play in the side - but as a batsman who can bowl, not visa versa.

Matt Prior 3
A thoroughly disappointing series, with some keeping blunders, while even his top score (38) came far too slowly. After 33 games, he averages 22 and has a strike-rate of 73. He may be the best keeper option England have - but he certainly shouldn't be opening.

Graeme Swann 5
Bewilderingly omitted from the first two games, Swann found life tough. But he did confirm that he is a better bowler than Samit Patel, and deserves a longer run in the side.

Stuart Broad 6
Suffered at the hands of Sehwag, but who hasn't? Showed his growing maturity and will learn from the experience. Along with Flintoff, he is Pietersen's 'go-to' man when the opposition are on top.

Steve Harmison 4
He was never going to find conditions to his liking, and so it proved. But at least he managed to take the new white ball without spraying it everywhere.

James Anderson 2
A miserable series: 25 wicketless overs for 158 says it all. As his Test fortunes have waxed, so his ODI ones have waned. Too inconsistent, he must be ditched.

The Verdict
England were always going to find this series supremely tough, and so it proved. Their policy of playing only four bowlers was exposed as sheer folly; with the all-round skills of Flintoff, Broad and Swann, there is room for two relative rabbits at numbers ten and eleven. They ended the series with a completely different top three from how they started, exposing their confusion. They showed a refreshing willingness to tinker with the batting order, on the plus side, but an inflexibility after they had selected their side: witness Shah being wasted at six in the fifth game. England may have discovered a sound formula to do well at home; but, whereas Bell and Prior can work as an opening partnership in England, Harmison as a middle-innings enforcer and Patel as the sole spinner, they cannot overseas. England were too slow to adapt in India; and, simply put, lacked the players to compete.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Time to trust Shah

While England have been getting routinely thrashed on their travels through India, there has been one ray of solace. Owais Shah, for so long underperforming and untrusted, has most certainly come of age. At 30, he is sure of himself and his game; in Kevin Pietersen, he appears to have found a captain who trusts him, even if it is bewildering that Shah continues to be up and down the order, from six to three, and back again.

The statistics for Shah of late are exceptional. Since the start of the English summer, he has played 13 innings, and scored 514 runs at an average of 47 and a strike-rate of 97. With his ability to manouevre the ball into gaps aided by his phenomenal hitting down the ground, the product of supreme batspeed, Shah has established himself as one of England's two best one-day batsmen, probably second only to his skipper Kevin Pietersen.

Pietersen showed great faith in Shah and promoted him to number three for the home series with South Africa. Many felt he was better off lower down the order, where his unorthodoxy and power hitting has proved so effective, but Shah hasn't exactly failed at three during this time, averaging over 40 in six innings. However, perhaps tellingly, his two best innings at three were in much-reduced matches, suggesting he is better when he knows exactly what is required of him. The argument does not completely hold up, though, given he has batted in the top three for Middlesex for years.

Clearly, England are confused over his best position. In the second game of this series, Shah made a somewhat slow 58 batting at three. He was promptly moved back down to six, scoring a useful 40 at nigh-on a run-a-ball. In game four, with England having only 22 overs to bat, many were mystified when Pietersen moved down from three, and Shah back up there. But Shah is probably England's best Twenty20 batsman, and proved as much with a fantastic 72 from 48 balls, treating the spinners and seamers with disdain, especially with his trademark flat-batted straight drive. Had he taken England home with a century, as seemed possible, Shah would have been a hero, but he nonetheless reminded all of his limited-overs skills. So it seemed bizarre when he was moved back down to six for the fifth game in the series. He seemed unflustered, however, providing England's innings with late-order impetus en route to 66*.

England seem convinced that Shah must bat at either three or six. But this seems ridiculous. Pietersen, as England's skipper and best batsman, should bat at three. Shah, not the out-of-form Paul Collingwood, should bat at four, where his dexterity against spin and at the end of the innings can be exploited, and he can be shielded from perceived weaknesses against the new seaming ball.

Owais Shah is playing the best cricket of his career. England seemed in danger of squandering a fine, albeit sometimes infuriating talent; after scoring 88 and 38 on Test debut in India two years ago, he played only three ODIs in the next fourteen months. Most bewilderingly of all, Ravi Bopara, then with just one ODI 50 to his name, was preferred to Shah for the series in Sri Lanka a year ago. England can't keep having Shah as their spare batsman. He is in form, knows the conditions and deserves a run in the Test side at last.

Through sheer force of runs, Shah has established himself as an indispensable member of England's one-day side, one of the very few players able to take the game with conviction to the opposition. Paul Collingwood may have struck a brilliant, career-saving hundred only two Tests ago. But, given their vastly contrasting form, who would India rather bowl to in the Tests?

Monday, 24 November 2008

In praise of the batting power play

The latest ICC amendment to the One Day International playing conditions looks like being a hit with spectators and batsmen, if not bowlers.

The batting power play is cricket’s best new regulation for some time. It might not be as significantly game-changing as the expanded third umpire referral system, but its introduction represents a much-needed fillip for 50 over cricket and shows the law-makers do take spectator enjoyment into consideration.

The new system needs tinkering. There is a grey area surrounding the element of choice involved – what happens if fielding team and batting team want to take their power play at the same time?

The current convention is for the fielding captain to tag his power play onto the first 10 overs of compulsory fielding restrictions, with the batting side targeting a spell two thirds through the innings, around the time of the mandatory ball change at 34 overs.

However, a flying start by the batting team might prompt them to call for their power play at the same time the fielding captain does; whose power play it is is important, as the state of the game might be very different after 15 overs – either side might not want to choose their power play at that stage.

Bowling changes also need to be looked at. It is part of the cat-and-mouse nature of the rule for the batting team to pounce on a part-time bowler by commencing five overs of fielding restrictions; for the fielding captain to stand down a fill-in bowler at the start of his run-up in favour of his star man goes against the spirit of the new regulation.

These are mere teething problems. The meandering middle overs of a One Day innings have been instantly enlivened and a new tactical dimension is introduced. Big hitters can now reside at four and five in the batting order rather than as openers or number seven sloggers – it is the licence Andrew Flintoff has needed to play his natural game, although as Kevin Pietersen’s power play go-to bowler, he must curse the new regulation.

India’s current superiority over England might persuade them to try new batting power play tactics – as soon as possible as mentioned above if Virender Sehwag is in full flight, or at the death if Yuvraj Singh and Yusuf Pathan are new to the crease – although the ease with which teams score in the batting power play asks some interesting questions.

Why do England remain so incapable of utilising the 10 overs of compulsory power play? Why do all batsmen not play with more freedom at all times? Is limited overs cricket heading towards a full innings of fielding restrictions? These queries suggest the batting power play is here to say and not about to join the Supersub on the ICC scrapheap of abandoned regulations.

Written by Philip Oliver, a sports writer who blogs about cricket betting.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Playing a different game

India’s series-clinching defeat of England was in doubt for large portions of England’s run-chase, as Owais Shah and Andrew Flintoff valiantly hauled England back into contention. But had they seen England home it would have concealed a desperate lack of flexibility in the side’s batting – and perhaps most fundamentally, a lack of collective skill.

The decision to open with Bell and Bopara, as if it was a 50-over chase rather than a 22-over one, betrayed a complete inability of England’s management to think on their feet. Bell has shown signs of being a good one-day opener, playing second fiddle, but simply lacks the explosive hitting crucial in a match that was virtually a Twenty20.

England needed to show intent from ball one to chase down the target of 198. Instead, they mustered a paltry 21 from their first six Powerplay overs, a familiar tale. They should have done everything to ensure their best players faced as many balls as possible – obvious, perhaps, but they palpably failed to do so. Opening with Shah, alongside Bopara, and having Pietersen at three and Flintoff at four would have showed a flexibility that would have worried India. Bell’s 12 runs from 15 balls hardly constituted the flying start England needed.

Owais Shah played an exceptional innings, displaying his powerful straight-hitting and unorthodoxy: finally, he has cemented his role in the one-day side, though his best position remains the subject of conjecture. Yet had he taken England home it would only have concealed their pitiful efforts at the start and end of the innings, at their complete inability to adapt to the demands of the situation. Put simply, they appeared to be playing a different game from India, lacking firepower at the start and end of the innings and, save for Shah, Flintoff and Pietersen, the ability to hit sixes.

This side below may be the best England can muster in Indian conditions in 50-over games, although it probably still isn’t good enough:
Harmison (given that Sidebottom is injured)

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Pietersen's favouritism does England no favours

England's desire to keep faith with its players would once have been admirable; now it just makes the management and captain look incapable of making tough decisions.

England’s defeat in the second One Day International made for painful viewing. Watching the defeat, the team’s second mauling in four days, was bad enough, but the post-match interviews were the icing on the cake for England fans frustrated by their team’s performance and composition.

In the era of Team England media training and clich├ęd soundbites, Kevin Pietersen was never going to do anything other than defend his players and the team’s selection policy, but it would have been refreshing if the skipper referred in some way to the problems that seem so obvious to so many.

Darren Gough accused the England management of favouritism in their selection policy and it is hard to disagree. Tim has referred to the absurd preference for Alastair Cook over Dimitri Mascarenhas and the mystifying absence of Graeme Swann and it appears these choices are those of the captain.

Pietersen has been keen to stamp his authority on the job, and whilst his instinct and man-management have paid some dividends – notably the rejuvenation of Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison - his apparent omnipotence in selection is dangerous for those whose faces don’t fit.

A hierarchy has been established that makes objective decisions difficult and results in selection choices being based on factors other than form, balance of the team and conditions.

It is ridiculous that Swann is not playing. It is odd that Matt Prior is retained as opener despite scoring one half century in his 29 ODI innings. It is debatable whether Paul Collingwood and Steve Harmison should be in the team at all.

Sweeping changes are dangerous and it should be acknowledged that India are playing supremely well, but we all have our favourites, don’t we KP?

My team for the third ODI at Kanpur: Bell, Bopara, Pietersen, Shah, Flintoff, Patel, Collingwood, Prior, Swann, Broad, Anderson

Written by Philip Oliver, a sports writer who blogs about cricket betting.

Friday, 14 November 2008

England need Swann, amongst many things

It was as if the incredible 4-0 thumping of South Africa never happened, as England endured a humiliating loss in the first of their seven ODIs in India. England were excellent against South Africa; but they paid the price for stubbornly sticking to the formula that was so successful then. In vastly different conditions, different approaches are needed.

Most fundamentally, England blundered badly in failing to select Graeme Swann. Swann had a very good series against New Zealand in the summer, was extremely unfortunate to be dropped for Samit Patel, and his stats show he should be regarded as England's premier one-day spinner. that is not to say Patel does not have a role to play; but, despite his five wicket haul in the third ODI against South Africa, he is a batting allrounder who should be regarded as the fifth or six bowler. England need both Swann and Patel in these conditions.

Though Ravi Bopara gave a long overdue reminder of his talent, it is bewildering that there is no place even in the squad for Dimitri Mascharenhas. He offers remarkable six-hitting capacity at number eight, canny bowling that could be well-suited to these wickets, smart fielding and a shrewd cricketing brain. Mascharenhas is a fine cricketer and has already done enough to suggest he could have a vital role to play for England.

The opening partnership of Matt Prior and Ian Bell excelled against South Africa, but it feels knee-jerk to critice it so soon on the tour. But, in Indian conditions power hitting, of the sort exhibited by Virender Sehwag, is needed from the off. Prior, the supossed aggressor, may be better utilised lower down the order. But England, having injudiciously selected Cook as the reserve batsman, have few options. They must adapt to survive - select two spinners and show a willingness to tinker with the batting order.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Australia - defeated and now a little vulnerable

As many had predicted, Australia did indeed lose their series in India. In the final analysis, they were twice thrashed and shaded one of the two draws: it was a humbling series, leading many to question whether they are the best side in the world any longer. India were disappointing in their recent series with Sri Lanka and South Africa – so, if the latter can gain a draw and a win from their two up-and-coming series, they could justifiably call themselves the world’s best.

Amidst all the gloom, there were three significant positives to emerge for Australia. Off-spinner Jason Krezja made a spectacular debut in the final game, claiming twelve scalps – although his economy rate of almost five illustrates that he received plenty of stick. But a wicket-taking spinner, even one who needs to improve his control, is something Australia needed and may just have found.

Shane Watson, batting at number six, mirrored Andrew Flintoff’s role in the England side. And there were signs the enigma can replicate his limited-overs form in Tests. He found batting hard, but hinted that he is capable of Test hundreds. And his reverse-swing and control evoked Flintoff: he was Australia’s best seamer. That was not saying too much, however, as Brett Lee had a torrid time, Stuart Clark proved toothless and Mitchell Johnson struggled after a fine start. From this vantage point, England will hope to have the better pace attack come next summer.

Finally, the unobtrusive Simon Katich had a fine series, averaging nearly 50. Unlike England with Mark Ramprakash, Australia have ignored age and past Test failings to reward first-class brilliance: Katich, with three hundreds in seven Tests since his recall, is fully vindicating them. His minimalist technique and eschewing of risk, save for the very occasional injudicious shot, made him invaluable at the top, while he even displayed the ability to dominate the bowling. Just as Justin Langer transformed himself from tenacious scrapper to top-order dominator, so could Katich.

But, save for Michael Hussey, the other batting was disappointing. Matthew Hayden fought hard but appears in decline: Australia’s selectors must be tempted to select Shaun Marsh soon. Ricky Ponting faded badly after beginning with a century, ensuring his record in India remains grim.

In the absence of Andrew Symonds and a spinner in whom they could trust, Australia’s team selection and on-field tactics were more confused than for years. Cameron White, a spinner who barely bowled, batted at eight, leaving Australia with only three bona fida bowlers. And Ponting resorted to a part-timer, in Michael Clarke, too much – he bowled only eight overs fewer than White – even though Katich looked the far more threatening spinner. His over-reliance on spin on the fourth afternoon of the final Test led Allan Border to criticise him for putting pocket before country. Had he bowled his seamers instead of part-timers, the over-rate would have suffered more, as would Ponting’s pocket – but Harbhajan and Dhoni may not have been able to share a crucial hundred partnership.

Amidst all the talk of empires ending, it is worth recalling that Australia were beaten in India in 2001 too. But that series was won by Herculean, career-defining efforts from Harbhajan Singh and VVS Laxman; man-for-man, no one thought Australia the inferior side. On this occasion, they have simply been worn down by a side superior in top- and middle-order batting, wicket-keeping, spinners and even, almost incredibly, pace. That is something altogether more worrying.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Is this the end for Herschelle Gibbs?

The clock is ticking on the career of one of modern cricket's most exciting and controversial players.

Herschelle Gibbs’ axing for South Africa’s One Day series with Bangladesh might spell the end of one of cricket’s most colourful careers. Controversy has followed the explosive Cape Towner around and it would be sadly apt if an off-field indiscretion is to be Gibbs’ final contribution to South African cricket.

Gibbs will be 35 in February and cannot be seen as a long-term part of the Proteas’ plans. Dropped from the Test team in January, his hopes of continued selection for limited overs cricket hung in the balance even before his latest error of judgment, with the selectors keen to rebuild after the One Day team’s heavy defeat in England.

If this is to be the end for Gibbs, he should be remembered for his stunning strokeplay, not the ill-discipline that dogged his career, although this is not an attempt to gloss over his failure to live up to the role model status he was afforded as a representation of South Africa’s united sporting future.

It is easy to dwell on his role in the Cronje match-fixing scandal, his unseemly altercation with Pakistani fans that brought a two Test ban and his drink-related bans, but my principal memory of Gibbs will be his flawless 183 at the Oval in September 2003.

That innings was a microcosm of Gibbs’ career. He exhibited his full range of strokes, striking 36 boundaries and totally mastering the home bowling attack, but his dismissal shortly before the close, slogging wildly at Ashley Giles, precipitated a collapse that culminated in unexpected defeat.

Gibbs’ hand-eye coordination and attacking instinct made him one of the most fluent batsmen of modern times, capable of destruction that puts him in the same bracket as fellow modern-day dashers Adam Gilchrist and Sanath Jayasuriya.

However, Gibbs never utilised his massive natural talent in quite the same way as those left-handed stroke makers, hinting at the petulant and undisciplined streak that got him in hot water with the authorities.

Even his status as one of the game’s greatest ever fielders is tarnished by his dropping of Steve Waugh during the 1999 World Cup, with the Aussie’s riposte to the fielder’s haste to celebrate now in cricketing folklore.

Gibbs fans will choose another encounter with South Africa’s fiercest rivals as Gibbs’ career-defining moment.

No other player could have played the innings Gibbs did in taking the Proteas to their target of 435 in the famous One Day match at the Wanderers in March 2006. 175 from 111 balls, with 21 fours and seven sixes, was the ultimate showcase of Gibbs’ talent. A unique match and a unique player.

Written by Philip Oliver, a sports writer who blogs about cricket betting.