Thursday, 29 March 2012

Sri Lanka v. England: Sub-Continent Homesick Blues

"There are fewer more depressing sights than that of an Englishman in a baseball cap", Peter Doherty once warbled into a microphone. Maybe Mr Doherty has never had the privilege of watching an England batting performance in the sub-continent. The crowd alone would have left him unimpressed. Rows of England fans, sweltering in the Sri Lankan heat, their baseball caps and slightly misguided sun hats glinting as they sat and watched what they could be forgiven for mistaking as an exact replay of January's tests in Pakistan. Except this time there was no mystery ball. There was no real aggressive turn. There was just orthodox spin. Orthodox spin that was extraordinary enough to baffle the England top six within the first twenty overs.

England like to be consistent, and their recent Tests have certainly followed a pattern. England bowl well. Everything looks positive. England bat badly. The bowlers get to sit down for all of 3 to 4 hours before having to trudge out to the middle, firstly to take their frustrations out on the opposition bowlers, and then to bowl another block of tiring overs in unforgiving weather conditions. Broad's first over against Lakmal spoke volumes: a single, 4, 6, 4 and 4 were smashed to various parts of the ground as Broad indulged in a little passive-aggressive therapy. Anderson's excellent bowling in the first innings, in which he achieved pace, aggression and accuracy on a pitch that was offering up little to him, was almost undermined by the way the top six went about their batting.

Herath is not Ajmal. He's not a great turner of the ball. He's not going to throw in a doosra every so often. But England's batsmen made facing him look like the most difficult obstacle in cricket today. Strauss' first innings dismissal, a poorly judged sweep that hit him full on the pad, was mirrored in the second innings by Bell, who attempted to sweep a low, full delivery and was out in much the same fashion. The sweep is a source of fascination to the England batsmen, and of frustration to most onlookers. A well-executed sweep is excellent against a spin bowler. Trott's reverse sweep to reach his half century in the second innings was judged well and carried out with precision. Anderson appears to be the most natural sweeper of the ball, as he and Panesar put on 36 for the last wicket in the first over. The rest of the batsmen? Use it well, or don't use it at all.

Trott's bizarre dismissal in the first innings, in which he attempted to knock himself out on the gloves of the wicket-keeper in order to forget the full toss that he'd somehow managed to miss, was made up for by a dogged century in the second. Needing a massive 340 to win, Trott arrived at the crease at 31/1. He was patient, calm and as is so often the case with Trott, dug himself in. He and Prior took a leaf out of Mahela Jayawardene's book with gentle rotating of the strike. There were no real, wild flashes. Trott showed that batting on this pitch, even on day four, was not a difficult task.

The innings of the match, however, went to the Sri Lankan captain. Strauss' leadership has been under scrutiny since the start of the match. His fields were overly defensive, as is his way. His batting started off well, particularly in the second innings. He moved his feet, he got outside the line. But if the scoring rate began to drop, or the spinners began to build pressure, Strauss tried to break the shackles, and it didn't work. His dismissal in the second innings, an awful attempt to scoop Herath over midwicket, and only finding Dilshan's waiting hands, left his team in a shaky position. His opposite number out-batted and largely out-captained him.

Jayawardene arrived at the crease with Sri Lanka at 14/3. He was patient from the start. His late cut is one of the most elegant shots a purist could wish to see. As he was left batting with the tail, he rotated the strike with ease to protect the lesser batsmen, putting on three fifty partnerships with the lower order. It was a beautiful innings, and Jayawardene's skills continued as England came in to bat. Clearly the Sri Lankan's had done their homework. Their fields to the openers were attacking. They knew where the two left-handers liked to hit, and packed the off-side field. However clever the field placings were, all Sri Lanka really had to do was be patient and wait for England to shoot themselves in the foot again.

This could be a real tale of missed chances for England. Panesar's two drop catches of Jayawardene in the first innings seemed to cause the English shoulders to droop a little further. The first one was difficult, coming out of the sun and Panesar must have been conscious of his nearness to the boundary rope. The second was more classic Monty. Nothing signalled this more than the loud groan from the huge England contingency. In the second innings, as Prasanna Jayawardene frustrated the England bowlers, Broad dismissed him with an excellent caught and bowled. But the umpire's decision to check the dismissal showed that Broad had bowled his eighth no-ball of the game. He had looked uncomfortable from the start of the game; his run-up appeared off, maybe due to the ankle injury he sustained during training. The annoyance was evident. The last pair then added 47 more runs before Lakmal ran himself out.

The best team won, that much is clear. England's bowling was largely excellent, particularly Swann and Anderson. Trott's innings was superb. But on the whole, England disappointed in the sub-continent. Again. Failures in the sub-continent are fast becoming a cliché of English cricket - and a tiring one at that.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

New Zealand vs. South Africa: same old story

There was a undercurrent of inevitability as New Zealand took to the field against the visiting South Africans. Firstly, that it would rain. Wellington in particular seems to have developed its own exclusive climate. Secondly, there would be a batting collapse somewhere along the way, although it was 50/50 as to which side would collapse first. Thirdly, and just quietly, there was a sense that New Zealand, despite a relatively successful summer, might just mess this series up.

Victory in Australia for the first time in sixty years. Victory against Zimbabwe after three days. Whilst neither team was as strong as South Africa are now, New Zealand must have fancied themselves to come away with at least one victory. To the disappointment of all underdog rooters, it didn't happen. Progress with the ball was undermined by collapses with the bat. South Africa targeted the experienced and the new guard of New Zealand's top order. It wasn't until the first innings of the final test that Guptill passed 50, after chopping on twice to the South African pace men. Nicol didn't fare much better, looking unable to handle the extra pace that Philander and Steyn generate.

Top order failures meant that McCullum and Taylor, two seniors of the team, were coming in at rocky periods when the runs needed stabilising. They managed only one convincing partnership across the series. Timing seems to be a real issue with both batsmen. McCullum has always been praised for his aggression, but at what point does aggression become impatience? They got in. They got out. This left Williamson and his relative inexperience exposed.

There is no doubt that Williamson is a classy player in the making - but he's 21, with 9 Test matches to his name before the series started. Although he bats high up the order, he should not be the one pulling the team out of a hole. Williamson held 3 of New Zealand's highest scores at the end of the series. He was patient. The final day was an outstanding test of his character, as he faced up to an increasingly hostile Morkel, and a permanently angry Steyn, in dimming light conditions. He held out. He picked his strokes, he protected the strike and showed qualities that those in the order above him should learn from. Patience is key.

New Zealand's team is a pleasing mixture of new and experienced. While South Africa have the big bowling guns in their trio of pacemen, New Zealand took the edge in the spin department. Vettori was as consistent and economical as ever, but on surfaces more suitable to the seamers, wickets were hard to come by. At times, Vettori bowled to defend, not to take a wicket. Martin was the stand-out in the first game, and Gillespie's triggering of a minor South African collapse during the second Test was a joy to watch. Hitting a nice line and length, and forcing the South Africans into playing, Gillespie snared the crucial wickets of Petersen, Amla and Kallis. But on the whole, New Zealand's pace attack lacked lustre.

Bracewell's venom against Australia looked lacking against South Africa, who picked him off from the first game. Southee's sudden drop in form, conceeding 100 for no wickets in the first game, led to his dropping, as it did Boult, who was replaced in the final two tests by Arnel and Brownlie respectively. Dropping Boult for the second Test in particular was a move that the New Zealanders may rue. It was a pitch designed for his pace and bounce. Instead, Gillespie had fun, but the pace bowlers couldn't break the Smith/Amla partnership that took the game away from them.

Rain dances must be the new craze in New Zealand, as they've done a fine job of saving New Zealand from potentially a series whitewash. Whilst the batting and bowling was good in places, in paled in comparison to South Africa, who saw five centuries across the three tests. Philander's incredible run of form continued, taking a wicket in every innings except the final one, in which Morkel stood up and produced some of the harshest spells of the series. Steyn constantly asked questions, and de Lange was a joy to watch on the third day pitch of the final game. Rudolph's century was the highlight of the five, proving that he may have finally found his groove in the national side.

There are some positives to take away for New Zealand - Williamson's form is undoubtedly the highlight of the series, and Guptill began to show in the final game that he's developing the temperament of an opener. Maybe it was over-confidence at the start of the series that got things off to a bad start. Maybe it was fear at the end of the series that gnawed at the batsmen that triggered these collapses. Whatever the reason, New Zealand will be disappointed.

At least they have the weather on their side.

Monday, 19 March 2012

The Amir Story

Sadness. That's the overwhelming feeling right now. There's anger, frustration, and a bucket load of disbelief. But mostly sadness.

Spot-fixing is not something that we want to discuss. It's not the reason we start watching cricket; it's something to be spoken about, and dismissed, in hushed tones. But the Pakistan case, and the actions of Mohammad Amir, have thrust the unspoken into the open. Amir is the same age as I am. Whilst I was studying for my A-Levels, he was representing his country at the highest level of cricket. It was clear he regarded his place with pride - one only had to hear the interview with Michael Atherton to see how much that shirt meant to him. But then everything changed.

There will be those who want Amir pushed out of sight, never to be heard of again. There will be those who want to give him a second chance to play the game that he clearly loved. But no matter what happens to Amir, his actions will forever be out in the open. Will we ever be able to hear his name again, without 'disgraced' or 'shamed' appearing somewhere in the same sentence? If he returns to cricket, will we view every bad ball, every mis-field with suspicion? No matter how much people try to deny it, the doubt, that nagging voice in the back of the mind will always be there.

Amir was naive. Following the word of a friend because he liked him, or he wanted to fit in; surely we have all done this at some point in our life? But then there is the deleting of the Ali texts, the almost unbelievable trust that Amir placed in Butt and Majeed's claims that the ICC were investigating his case, and no-balls were the way to rectify the issue. Actions like this seem to undermine the naivety that Amirattempted to convey with his words.

Mohammad Amir, the bowler, is the reason we watch cricket. Before spot-fixing affected our judgement, cricket fans were excited - or dismayed, depending on your allegiance - to see Amir. His hat-trick against Australia looked like the actions of a bowler wise beyond his years. Bowling a beautiful length, hitting that golden line of middle and off, keeping a straight head in a situation where more experienced bowlers have lost their heads, Amir had all the promise in the world. At the Oval, Amir took a five-wicket haul; at Lords itself, the England batsmen were forced forward and unable to defend without nicking the ball to slip, or letting it through the gate. It is difficult not to sound melodramatic, but young, emerging talents are the reasons why cricket excites so many people. To see a boy of eighteen, dismantling players who had years of experience on him, is a rare sight. And it was enthralling.

And then came the revelations. And everything changed. Anger was the prevailing emotion; anger that this boy had thrown it all away. Frustration that he'd given up a career, tarnished the name of a game that we loved, for what? Money? Respect? Only Amir knows that. Whether we approve of it or not, youngsters look up to sports stars. They want to emulate them, to be like them one day. Amir's actions sent out a message that all the talent in the world couldn't keep you out of trouble - that it was down to the strength and desire of an individual to do what is right. And Amir, by his own admission, failed that test.

Sadness. No matter how angry we are, it is sad to see a boy of my age, his career in ruins, his future uncertain. He hasn't gained anything from this; the 'cheater' tag will most likely stay with him for a lifetime. And while we feel betrayed, feel angry, we are also upset - upset that a boy with the world at his feet chose to throw it all away, for what? Nothing, in the end. Personally, I don't feel that Amir should play cricket again. That is his punishment. But to shove him aside is wrong. We need to learn from this. We need to learn not just about the intricacies of the betting world, but of what encourages someone at the start of their life to turn down the wrong path - and how we can prevent it in the future.

I want to remember Mohammad Amir, the bowler. But the decisions he made will always affect my memory of him. And that is the saddest things of all.