Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Essex v. Australia: battle of the young pacemen

(Image courtesy of Getty)
The Australians are here, to claim possibly the most important accolade of the cricketing calendar: the Natwest ODI trophy. Five one day games, sandwiched between England's series against the West Indies and South Africa, and presumably depriving the public of a fourth test against the latter, gave Australia the chance to let their young gun bowling attack have a practice on England's "summer" pitches. It also gave their batting line-up a chance to loosen their arms, or in the case of Shane Watson, work on his calling technique. After a reasonably one-sided affair against Leicestershire, and then a trip to Ireland to watch the rain fall, the Australians took on Essex.

Essex had the returning Cook and Bopara to strengthen their brittle batting; Australia had a good mixture of experience and youth in both batting and bowling. Watson and Warner headed up Australia's batting. Given Watson's propensity to run out his partners in recent times, it seems Australia have decided to counter this by having Warner shriek "NO" at every opportunity. The two steamrollered ahead, adding 50 in just under 5 overs. The highlight was undoubtedly Warner's huge pull at one of Napier's medium pacers, sending the ball scuttling into the car park and narrowly avoiding the touring bus.

Warner went after going for one big hit too many, and Watson, as is often the case, soon followed. Watson was the first of four wickets for Topley, Essex's eighteen year old left armer. Topley was hugely impressive. Similar in stature to Steven Finn, Topley achieved pace and bounce, which seemed to particularly trouble Warner, who struggled to pick him up. Topley's success was forcing the batsman to play. He constantly brought Watson onto the front foot, an area where has struggled in the past. Napier's medium deliveries allowed the two openers to rock onto the bat foot and pull viciously; Topley didn't. The highlight was his delivery to dismiss Lee, who had rocketed into IPL mode. Topley pitched the ball up, sent it down with more pace than Lee expected, and removed his off stump.

The only Australian batsman who failed to impress was Bailey. Whilst Clarke and David Hussey, who did an excellent job of ignoring the 'where's your brother?' jibes from an increasingly rowdy crowd, accumulated in traditional middle over fashion, Wade, Smith and Lee hit out. Bailey? He looked uncomfortable at the crease, often unable to hit it off the square. Wade, meanwhile, took his time to settle in, before taking particular offence at Greg Smith's bowling. After swatting him for three boundaries and a six, in relatively quick succession, his stay was ended by Napier.

Australia set Essex 313 to win, a target which depended on a stable start. With Pettini, Cook and Bopara, this seemed a plausible task. Yet Lee and Cummins were too quick for the batsmen. Lee is fast - that's a fact. But more often than not he is wayward, leaking no balls and wides. His front foot was still pushing the line, but more often than not, he was on target. His pace did for Pettini, who slapped straight to midwicket after six successive dot balls, and it also placed pressure on Cook. Cook is always vulnerable at the start of an innings. The patience that works in test matches has to be readjusted for the one day games, and after slapping McKay to the boundary, he fell next ball trying his favourite cut shot to a short, wide delivery.

Cummins, however, is the real find for Australia on this tour. For nineteen years old, his line is near perfect. He is quick, too; tall, broad shouldered and clearly in better shape than Mitchell Johnson, whose innings break net was painful to watch. His pace did for Westley, who lasted two deliveries before one snuck through his defence and sent his off stump spiralling down the ground. Smith departed in almost exact fashion, before Foster's impressive resistance was ended by Cummins' first delivery to him.

Bopara was the highlight of the Essex batsman, not letting Cummins or Watson settle. Yet his run-out curse returned to haunt him, involved in an incident that was both horrifying and hilarious. Foster provided some resistance, but Essex's batting was ultimately below par. It couldn't cope with the pace of the Australian attack. On the plus side for England, they will hopefully have seen Warner and Watson's struggles against Topley and will consider the effect Broad and Finn will have in the ODI next Friday. As for Cummins... he will only get better. A sobering thought.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

5 things England v. West Indies has taught us

1. Centuries are like buses

Cricket fans like a good fairytale. After a century drought for fifty innings, plenty of media debate about whether there was any media debate surrounding Strauss’ position in the England team – there wasn’t – and a miserable winter tour, Strauss forged two centuries in consecutive matches. The first was a determined knock in gloomy conditions; the second a more laid back affair against a ragged bowling attack. Strauss looked nervous in the twenties, twitchy in the eighties and offered in a chance in the nineties during the first test, but he pushed through. There is a huge amount of respect for Strauss from fans, pundits and the dressing room that precious few players have achieved, and the ovation that he received at Lords highlighted how highly regarded he is amongst English cricket. The odd chink in the armour still exists, whether through nerves or technique. Early on, Strauss can be susceptible to misreading the length, either flashing outside off or leaving and watching the delivery clatter into his stumps. But the two centuries, the second in particular, were as confident as Strauss has played for a long time. His captaincy can be critiqued for being over-defensive; an aversion to a third slip during the final test, when Tino Best sent two easy catches straight through the vacant area, irritated many a watcher, but on the whole, this series has been the most decisive for Strauss, the batsman, since the Brisbane test of 2010. 

2. Mind the record books, Tino

Ah, Tino. It takes a hard heart, or being called Geraint Jones, to not have a soft spot for the energetic man from Barbados. Recalled for the final test, Tino arrived at the crease after two days of rain, with the West Indies on 283/9, and embarked on a record 143 partnership with keeper Ramdin. Everything went a bit bull in a china shop for the first few deliveries. There were wild attempts at pull shots, balls flying over the slips and a few thumps down the ground. But there was also the odd, well-timed cricket shot that left England’s bowlers looking clueless. Tino’s helicopter whirl, the way he held a pose after striking the ball made for an incredibly enjoyable innings, topped off by the enthusiastic celebration as he made his first 50 in any format of the game. He eventually fell on 95, just 5 runs short of breaking test records, as he was foxed by an Onions slower ball. Although he was helped by lacklustre, over-pitched bowling and an England fielding side that looked down on ideas, Tino went out and played the knock of his career. And best of all, we’ll never have to hear about the bloody windows ever again… 

3. A new ginger

It was Jonny Bairstow who got the nod for the vacant number six spot in this series, after Ravi Bopara wound the cricketing gods up and they inflicted upon him a thigh injury. Bairstow, who hit two first class centuries for Yorkshire in the early, bowler friendly season, and had made an impressive step up to England’s limited overs squad, was favoured over Taylor, Carberry and Compton. His first delivery in a test match – fast, short, aimed at the throat – exposed a weakness against the short ball that already has some wondering whether Bairstow is the man for the number six slot. As Yorkshire fans can vouch, Bairstow is not a bad player of the short delivery; he can see the ball incredibly well, and his upper body strength means he can often dispatch it for four. However, at county level, Bairstow will rarely have experienced the short deliveries that the West Indian bowlers were capable of producing, and expecting him to instantly be able to cope with such pace and aggression, at just 22, seems short-sighted to say the least. Bairstow showed the temperament a test player needs, and given the chances England gave Bopara at the number 3 slot throughout 2009, to drop him after three matches would almost be a backwards step for the number one test side. 

4. Sammy's West Indies

There is a lot to like about Darren Sammy, from his baiting of Ricky Ponting to his lackadaisical approach to playing, but this series has tested his captaincy. At times his approach has reflected the scatter-brained nature of the West Indies cricket. His field placings have made no sense and too many times has he arrived at the crease, needing to dig in and rescue the team, before falling to a big shot that doesn’t come off. Yet Sammy has experienced some success. He made a century at Trent Bridge to address those that said his ‘all-rounder’ status was not enough to justify his place in the team. Although the 100 arrived in typical Sammy fashion – an inside edge down to third man – for the most part he played a mature innings, and succeeded in frustrating England’s bowlers further. His team were also on top for the vast majority of the rain affected third test, after the lower order proved capable of holding the team up. There are, of course, still problems for Sammy to address. The West Indies top order has consistently failed to produce; Kirk Edwards instantly springs to mind, after making 20 runs in four innings, and being outscored by Tino, and with the West Indies, there is always a sense that an inevitable collapse is around the corner. Yet the West Indies have fought back throughout this series, and Sammy now has a platform to work from.

5. Bowling 

Anderson, Broad, Bresnan. They are Team England’s definition of a ‘unit.’ In the first test, it was Broad that shone, taking 11 wickets in the match, whilst Anderson was lethal with his new ball swing. Bresnan took one wicket and went for a duck, but bounced back at Trent Bridge, taking 8 in the match, inducing a second innings collapse and battling away with the bat. For the third test, Anderson and Broad were ‘rested,’ much to their delight, giving Onions and Finn the chance to shine. Finn was much more accurate than his last showing in a test shirt, if dropping too short at times, whilst Onions’ wicket to wicket style reaped its rewards. Of the two, Finn looks more the work in progress; he is still occasionally wayward, which costs runs, and has a habit of running into the stumps at the bowlers ends. Onions, whilst economical, lacked the aggressive nature of Anderson, though he tried his utmost to relight Anderson’s dialogue with Samuels. On a frustrating fourth day at Edgbaston, the three bowlers were unable to make the breakthrough to bowl the West Indies out quickly – the wicket fell thanks to a mis-hit, not from any sort of ferocious bowling. England have plenty to think about going into the South Africa series; risk dropping a batsman for the fourth seamer? Or gamble on the three?