Monday, 21 July 2014

Alastair Cook, England's saddest puppy

Imagine a sad puppy. One who has had its favourite toy taken away from him and is now sat in the corner, staring at you with big pleading eyes. It hurts to look at it and yet you can't help but look.

Multiply that by ten. That's Alastair Cook at the moment.

He sat on the Lord's balcony, eyes hidden behind sunglasses but with a look of detached bewilderment on his face. He'd just watched his side take team unity to a whole new level as three batsmen decided to get out to the exact same shot. Ishant Sharma, a man who has lost more games that he has won for India, had just bounced England out. Bounced them out on a pitch that was tailor-made for Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson. That hurts.

It hasn’t been a slow decline for England so much as a free-fall since the winter. Bullied by Mitchell Johnson, out-thought by Ryan Harris and his bionic knee, very little has gone right for England, and Cook, since. There's been some dreadful moments in between - at least losing to the Netherlands was slightly funny. Losing to Sri Lanka at Headingley hurt but this loss at Lord's was worse.

England looked the gift-pitch in the mouth and squandered it. They bowled short on a pitch that begged for a full length. Matt Prior conceded his 50th bye of the season and celebrated by dropping a couple of catches, just for good measure. Anderson look jaded; Broad bowled one decent over and surrounded it with several overs of dross; Liam Plunkett bowled short and wide and Moeen Ali was left to languish at fine leg, rather than bowl.

Cook is trying. He is trying so hard and yet somehow that makes the situation ten times more pitiful. Watching him battle on the fourth day, playing one commanding shot before blocking, prodding and poking as he simply tried to stay at the crease and find some form, was painful. He is not a natural leader. He lacks the statesman-like qualities of Strauss, the ability to motivate a team that Vaughan had. He doesn’t feel like he can demand more from his senior players because they are his senior players; they’ve won test match after test match, they took England to number one in the world, how can he ask them to change if they’ve done all that?

But something has to change. This was Headingley all over again. The only difference was the opposition and the speed with which the end came. At least this time there was no false hope as Anderson blocked out 55 balls to try and save the game.

Two bowlers who have a combined 167 Test caps to their name were shown how to bowl on a green pitch by a bowling attack from the sub-continent. The wicket-keeper who saved the game for England against New Zealand two years ago flapped at balls behind the stumps and was barely better when standing in front of them with a bat in hand. Ian Bell has disappeared when Cook needs him most. Cook might not be the most able tactician but he deserves more from these players.

If he can’t get any more from them, if Prior is physically unable to cope with the demands of a Test match, if Anderson is so exhausted that he cannot carry on, then Cook should let them go. He shouldn’t cling to past successes and hope that they will reappear. They won’t.

The ECB have taken a similar stance with Cook, hoping beyond hope that a man with 25 Test hundreds can rediscover the form that has all but deserted him. He can’t. That much was clear as he wafted his bat to another delivery outside the off stump and edged behind. Enough is enough.

Cook the captain and Cook the batsman are not too completely separate entities. His performance during England's successful tour of India showed that. But right now, England need Cook the batsman. What will they miss if Cook is no longer captain? In all honesty, nothing.

England cannot develop this new era while clinging so desperately to the old one. It is best for everyone if they just let it go.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Thoughts on the women's Ashes

The England women’s Ashes series has been a mix of innovation and the type of cricket that has worked well for both teams in the past.

Despite such a strong showing in the test match, particularly the bowling, Australia have stuttered their way through the remainder of the tour. Meg Lanning has been the backbone of the line-up, the only one to make any impact. At Durham, it was a tired looking team that took to the field. England were hardly storming through the line-up, the wicket was slow but not offering huge amounts of turn and Australia just crumbled. It was the performance of a team that looked shattered. After the leisurely start to the series, a four day game in picturesque surroundings, the ODI and T20’s seemed to be crammed together at the end.
The advantage of having the double headers with the men is clear; increased media interest, crowds turning up early to watch two games and the women get a chance to increase their exposure. The scheduling, however, is simply unfair. The second T20 at Southampton ended with a plane, train and automobile trip across the length of the UK to get to Durham early on Friday morning. Then to training, back to the hotel, then an early start on the day of the game – 10am slightly undermines the concept of encouraging more people to watch – would be exhausting for anyone. Even traipsing off the bus to start the game, the tourists looked, quite simply, knackered.

The format of the series has worked reasonably well. The weighting of the points is intended to reflect the importance of test cricket. In retrospect, it encouraged a draw. Neither team wanted to risk losing maximum points by gambling the state of the game. So they, to all intents and purpose, blocked it out. That aside, the rest of the series has worked well. The women have been allowed to play the two games that they play the most, and games that have the most appeal to the crowd. More test cricket would of course be preferable but realistically, when do they get the chance to play? England and Australia play the most tests, and the last time they met was in Australia in 2011. More test cricket is, at the moment, not feasible.

It is a format that could be used in future women’s series, as well as for associate countries. The sense is, however, that not all nations want to play test cricket. Let’s face it, one day cricket is more exciting, and crucially it is more financially beneficial for the players. England and Australia are the rare countries who still play tests – and even then it’s only once every two years.

England have not played without fault. The batting collapse at Lords was truly awful. An innings built around the captain Charlotte Edwards crumbled as soon as she went. The batting never truly fired throughout the limited overs series. Their innings relied on cameos. Lydia Greenway at Southampton, Sarah Taylor at Chelsmford; they played the biggest part in the T20 victories. England’s bowling, particularly the openers, has been consistently good throughout the series. The back-up seamers are a worry. Arran Brindle in particular as dispatched to all areas during the test match. The spin bowling is developing well. Laura Marsh is starting to control her length a little better, improving throughout the test. Danni Wyatt can follow up a brilliant delivery with a rank long-hop but control is something that comes with experience.

The better team won. Despite Australia claiming victory in the T20 and 50 over World Cups, they haven’t played anywhere near to the standard they are capable of. Australia ruled the test match for the majority of the game but in the limited overs, it is England who have worn the trousers.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Round one: advantage no-one?

In a game with six points at stake, it was going to take an extraordinary batting collapse or a serious spell of quick bowling to ever push for a result at Wormsley. The wicket was good; too good, in fact. There was no rough for the spinners to work with, little pace for the seamers and only variable bounce – and that is if we’re being generous.

Giving the test match a higher points ranking was always going to be dangerous. Awarding it six points highlights how important test cricket is; it is still seen by the majority of the players as the pinnacle of their career. However, the women play fewer and fewer four day matches, and by placing so much emphasis on the game in terms of points, the willingness of either side to take risks to push them into the front lessened by the day. A Sheffield Shield style points system, with points awarded by innings, would maybe work better for the future.

It seems strange given the match situation to praise Australian captain Jodie Fields for a brave declaration, but in some ways it was. After the runner arrived in the 82nd over to pass on a message from the dressing room, Fields and Osborne proceeded to put on 34 runs in four overs. Arran Brindle and Danielle Hazell suffered the most; Hazell saw two balls disappear back over her head for two respective boundaries, before Brindle’s poor line saw three identical deliveries hammered to the boundary in quick succession. Fields was aggressive from the off. After reaching her half century, she smashed 24 off the next 25 deliveries.

Her declaration in the 86th over, setting England 249 to win from 45 overs, may have seemed overly cautious. But the speed with which Fields and Osborne went about making their runs highlighted how fast the outfield was. Once it beat the infield, the ball nearly always travelled to the boundary. There was also nothing in the pitch; keeping a total down was reliant on tight bowling and although Australia generated the pace that England lacked, they were not as economical.

Elysse Perry again achieved the bounce and carry that had eluded England. Although England never looked as though they would try to chase down the target, Perry’s first few overs – fast, reasonably full with the odd short ball to keep the batsman awake – kept them in check. Quite why Australia chooses to hide Holly Ferling from the new ball is a mystery. The pace she generates is not dissimilar to Perry, yet Australia chose to go with Meg Schutt. When Ferling was brought on from the Deer Park End, her first ball took a wicket. Heather Knight hit to square leg and ran through for a quick single; Perry’s throw hit and Knight was out by a yard.

Sarah Taylor and Arran Brindle played their shots. There is hardly a shot in Taylor’s repertoire that looks inelegant. The way she handled Erin Osborne’s spin was particularly impressive, rocking back on her feet to cut her through the covers being the highlight of the spell. When Brindle fell, caught and bowled by Sarah Elliott, to leave England on 48/2, there was no sense of panic among the players. Charlotte Edwards put her disappointing first innings behind her to join Taylor in some strokeplay.

The game was in danger of drifting to a draw after yesterday’s slow going, but some smart work from England’s bowlers kept things interesting. Meg Lanning, whose bowling later on in the day was reminiscent of Lasith Malinga, except with a higher arm from which the ball was slung, was caught by Brindle after scooping a leading edge into the air off Anya Shrubsole. An unbelievable piece of fielding from Lydia Greenway then accounted for Elliott. Elliott, century-maker in the first innings, cracked a drive to Greenway at cover. Greenway fielded one handed before instantly shying at the stumps, running out Elliott by some way. Shouts of “Greenway!” echoed from the player huddle as England hauled themselves back into contention.

Jess Cameron played her shots, including smashing the first six of the match over cow corner off the tiring Shrubsole. Katherine Brunt was absent for much of the day with an upset stomach and although Shrubsole bowled consistently well, Laura Marsh claimed the final wicket, trapping Alex Blackwell LBW for 22.

Speaking afterwards, Edwards said that she was proud of the way her bowlers had come through the test match; “We came in today believing we could still win and I think we showed that in our first session. We believed we could get some early wickets, put some pressure on and maybe chase 200 over 60 overs.” 

Both she and Jodie Fields were supportive of the new structure, though Edwards suggested that maybe a change in wickets would be more beneficial. By producing wickets with more spice in them, or maybe even moving to a county ground – while there is no denying the beauty and tranquillity of Wormsley, a ground which sees cricket on a more regular basis may be more beneficial – there may be a better chance of forcing a result.