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 - - 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.