Monday, 30 July 2012

The KP Saga, Vol. 3513

It's hard to know how to discuss Kevin Pietersen these days without thumbing through the well worn book of cricketing clichés. Cliches were invented primarily to discuss KP. He courts controversy. He is the wildcard; he is England's talisman. He splits opinion in ways precious few players have managed.

Recently, he quit limited overs cricket, to spend more time with his young family. And whilst ex-players seemed the most vocal in their criticisms, most writers and fans were sympathetic with his grievances. Now, however, it appears that we have misunderstood Pietersen's motives. First, there was his desire to continue playing in the IPL; fine, he played earlier this year, and returned to England to watch the rain fall in his obligatory county fixture for Surrey. Then came the news that he wanted permission to extend his IPL tenure and thus miss the first test of the cricketing summer. And now, he is linked with two Big Bash franchises, which begins straight after England's test series against India, in India - a place where they have frequently struggled to make runs.

It's hard to know what to be more frustrated by. Pietersen's fluctuating motives and comments to the press.
The predictable, media friendly comments that come from the England camp. Most irritating of all, however, is the overwhelming feeling that we have been taken for a ride.

Are we idiots for thinking that yes, Pietersen did want to spend time with his family? That the England schedule was too busy for a man with a young son? It certainly feels that way. Pietersen's quitting did bring the manic England schedule into the spotlight. So far, we are three quarters of the way through the England cricketing summer, with two test matches to come. Four have already gone, as have eight one day internationals, and five more one day games (and three T20's, for good measure) are to come before England fly to India. Twenty two one day games. A huge amount of cricket in a not especially large amount of space.

So now do we treat all sports figures with suspicion? Are we to assume that when a player wants to spend more time with his family, he is actually sending a green light to overseas franchises to bid increasing amounts of money for his services? Not to mention the effect this could potentially have on the test team. For all the media friendly talk of unity and concentrating on the task in hand, it is a kick in the teeth to watch Pietersen bite the hand that has fed him, and fed him well, for the past five years. And for players such as Bairstow and Taylor, the young up and comers who see test cricket as the pinnacle of their careers, it must be galling to see it treated in such a casual and callous way by a player who has divided opinion but still demands the support of the paying crowds.

People pay to watch Pietersen. That is a fact. And now, paying customers will not see him in the international limited overs games; potentially he will miss the first test of the 2013 cricketing season - admittedly, so will a vast majority of the New Zealand team, again due to IPL commitments, but the sanctity with which so many England fans hold the first test match of the season makes Pietersen's demands seem just that bit more arrogant - and one would imagine he will not foaming at the mouth to turn out for Surrey in the early and mid season. As paying customers, they are cheated out of an amazing spectacle. Pietersen, when on form, and ironically, when his arrogance converts into something special, is a joy to watch. They won't be able to watch him in person, playing for the national teams. But if they switch over to ITV4, they will be able to see him in a $2 million playing shirt, smashing second rate Australian spinners out of the park for fun.

Maybe the most irritating facet of all is that Pietersen's new role as a T20 mercenary glosses over the problems with England's schedules. There is too much one day cricket, and it is placing pressure on the overlapping members of the test and limited overs squads. The recent Australia one day series was fun, largely because England won every game. But Stuart Broad's struggles in the latter half of the West Indies series worsened during the Australia games, and were fully exposed in the first test against South Africa where he looked out of form and out of ideas. Maybe a spell back at his county, which was so effective before the India series last year, would have helped rejuvenate him. But the focus will move away from scheduling problems, and back to Pietersen. Fans do not appreciate being patronised; nor do they appreciate being taken for granted. People are losing patience with Pietersen. One wonders how long it will be before the England management feels the same.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

England v. South Africa, round one: advantage Steyn

The highs

The Oval is best known for three characteristics; a good batting track, gradual turn and bounce for the spinners on the final few days, and for hating Ricky Ponting’s guts. So when Strauss won the toss and elected to bat, Cook and Trott made good his decision. After Strauss fell early, Cook provided a master class in facing the world’s best bowler. Whilst Trott occasionally prodded outside the off-stump to Steyn’s deliveries, Cook greeted them with cover drives and cut shots. The highlight was a gorgeous drive past the bowler, with a straight bat and minimal exertion on the batsman’s behalf.

Cook’s hundred seemed to have put England in front, but it was the heroics of the South African top order that really put the boot into England. Smith will never be a batsman who people queue to see; the aesthetic part of batting abandoned him on day one. But does it matter, when you’re running the singles and punching anything wide – of which there was plenty – down the boundary? No. Smith’s average in England was already outstanding; following his hundred in this game, it takes it to above 70.

Amla, however, went one better. Arguably, Amla is continually underrated by the critics. Too many remember his debut but don’t take enough notice of the changes he has made since them. He is elegant, patient and a crisp timer of the ball. All clichés aside, Amla has defied expectations and become the first South African to reach 300 runs, spending an amazing thirteen and a half hours at the crease. He has moved away from the nervy, slightly ungainly batsman he was when he began and is one of England’s biggest threats in this series.

Whilst Steyn may have been down on pace on the first day, he undoubtedly made up for it on the second. His opening spell was devastating for England, after he removed Cook first up. He then found the extra pace that he had been missing on the first day to send down a bouncer to the continually under-pressure Bopara, who had a horrid whirl at the delivery and nicked through to the keeper.

There is something incredibly endearing about Steyn. His bowling, whilst similar in style to Anderson, seems to have more rhythm; more aggression. Anderson relies on the verbals. Steyn is verbal when necessary but often the speed and direction of his bowling speaks louder than words. Anderson wears the ‘leader of the attack’ label proudly, and rightly so, whereas Steyn prefers to be seen as an aggressor, rather than a leader setting the pace.

Twice, Steyn didn’t open with the new ball, with Morkel taking it in the first innings and promptly dismissing Strauss with his third delivery. In both innings, however, he produced devastating spells that firstly injured, and then killed off, England’s hopes. His five wicket haul in the second innings included a spell of 8/3, including using the second new ball to end Bell’s hopes of dragging England, however miniscule, into the lead. His celebrations, as aggressive as his bowling, showed that whilst he may not view himself as the leader of the pack, the team look to him for inspiration and energy.

The lows

South Africa did not look good on the first day. After dismissing Strauss through a combination of good bowling and clever captaincy, the bowlers looked short on ideas. Morkel bowled far too wide, which Cook and Trott ignored with the disdain they have been formulating for years. Philander was economical but largely ineffective, and Tahir seemed to struggle with landing the ball on the pitch. The bowling performance was hugely improved in the second innings, with the bowlers finding the energy from the deadened pitch that England could not, but in both innings, the extras reached worryingly high totals of 43 and 39. Tahir is relatively inexperienced with international cricket, particularly in the context of his bowling counterparts, but his line and length wavered far more than the traditionally unpredictable Morkel.

When it came to analysing each side’s batting, there was a common consensus that bowling outside off stump to Petersen, the new opening batsman, was England’s best chances of removing him early. Those who had seen him in county cricket had a different view. Very flat footed, and not keen on getting forward early, Petersen seemed a prime LBW candidate. It was this weakness that Anderson exploited early on, sending down an in-swinger that Petersen seemed to miss completely. It was as plumb as plumb can be, and put England’s reply in a strong position.

Strauss had a horrid game, both as captain and batsman. Morkel continued to make Strauss his bunny by dismissing him third ball, and in the second innings, Strauss swept at a ball from Tahir that kept low. The previous deliveries in the over had turned, and twice already Strauss had tried to sweep, and miss. Final ball of the over, Strauss, down on one knee, sweeps to midwicket and straight into the waiting hands of Philander. It was a ridiculous dismissal, more reminiscent of UAE Strauss than the captain that had scored back to back hundreds against the West Indies and a hundred only a week before in the county game.

As captain, Strauss was also less than impressive. He is always quick to go on the defensive, but this time, he seemed so thrown by the initial partnership of Amla and Smith that he went on the back foot almost instantly. Then, when the second new ball came around, there were no slips; the slips were on the boundary ropes. Of course, a few edges induced by Anderson went flying through the vacant slip cordon, which was hastily filled a few overs later, by which time Smith had settled back down.

The downright ugly

Maybe England had forgotten what it was like to lose at home. Maybe they’d forgotten how dangerous this South African side is. They’ve had a stark reminder.

Pietersen, Bell and Prior need to look at their dismissals and seriously question what they thought they were doing. Bell played beautifully on the last day to give England a meagre bit of hope – before edging the new ball straight to slip. Prior threw it away with a sweep potentially worse than Strauss’, and Pietersen’s dismissals in both innings were gift wickets to the South Africans. Each player came out intent on saving England from the game, but they threw their wickets away and left England in just as precarious a situation as they were at the start.

As usual, it will be Bopara and Bresnan whose places are seen to be under threat. Bopara had his biggest chance yet to prove himself, when he and Bell took to the crease on the fifth day. Despite, rather unbelievably, looking the most dangerous bowler, his batting was below par. An unnecessary, and incredibly ugly, hook shot in the first innings, and a lame inside edge in the second. Despite his insistence to the contrary, there is still a suspicion that Bopara does not have the mental strength to cope with test cricket.

Bresnan’s place is continually under question. Some of the time, the criticism is warranted; this time, it seems a little unfair. Yes, Bresnan was down on pace. He did, however, take the second wicket, admittedly with a rubbish looking delivery, and was the last batsman standing at the end. England’s other all-rounder, Broad, appeared in far worse touch than Bresnan, yet his pass to remain in the side without criticism or question seems to have worked once again. Broad bowled continually too wide, to three batsmen who are known for their diligence at the crease. He looked slow, unfit and completely out of ideas. While he has not yet reverted to the ‘enforcer’ role, one wonders if it is only a matter of time.

The loudest clamour will be for England to play five bowlers, bringing in Finn for Bopara. Given the recent test against the West Indies, where Finn overcompensated and was arguably gifted wickets rather than out-thinking the batsmen, Onions would be a better bet for the fifth slot, particularly on a Headingley pitch that seams and suits pitched up bowling. Incidentally, Finn is cited as test potential because of his recent one day performances; Bopara, whose one day performances were equally outstanding, is rubbished at every opportunity.

Potentially dropping Swann, who was also off radar and ineffective on a pitch that was supposed to suit him, would give England more stability, should they feel the need to have an extra batsman. England have not won a test at Headingley since 2007; South Africa will be looking to repeat their 2008 drubbing on the same ground. England need to buck their ideas up, and South Africa will be looking to reclaim the number one crown.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Brett Lee

The first time I saw Brett Lee, I wasn't marvelling at the pace he produced, or his gritty determination to bat his team out of the hole they'd found themselves in. It was more along the lines of "who is this bad bleach job? And why won't he just get the hell out?"

Lee epitomised the 'go down fighting' mantra that the Aussies adopted throughout the late 90's and beyond. The 2005 Ashes will remain his most memorable series. McGrath had the persistence and the precision; Warne the elegance and the intimidating persona. Lee had the aggression. Sometimes wayward, always fast, Lee provided support for McGrath in the first test, before spearheading the seam attack after McGrath's injury, Gillespie's awful form and Kasprowicz's lack of penetration.

Lee will be remembered for the pace he achieved, but he was more than just a fast bowler continually banging it in short. At Edgbaston, Lee sent a bouncer searing down the pitch to Strauss. Strauss tried to pull, misjudged and received a firm whack on the helmet as the ball reared up, bounced over Strauss' bat and rapped him on the chin. Lee was straight to the other end of the pitch; Strauss waved him off and re-marked his guard. The next ball? A slow yorker. Strauss, unsettled, not thinking especially straight, pushed forward unconvincingly, shimmying slightly across his stumps and turning to see his off stump lying on the ground. It was a brilliant bit of bowling. Unnerve the batsmen with too much pace, defeat him with a lack of it.

It is such a cliché, but Lee gave Australia everything in the test arena. The picture that heads this article is synonymous of this series; Lee, slumped to the floor, defeated after coming within two runs of victory, and Flintoff placing a consoling hand on his shoulder whilst the remainder of the England team celebrated their win. The image is often used to epitomise the mythical spirit of cricket. It also shows the effort that Lee threw into saving that match, into pulling Australia out of the mire.

Along with Warne and later Kasprowicz, Lee faced England's hostile bowling attack for the majority of the fifth day. England went after Lee in any way they could. Flintoff smashed him on the hands with a bouncer; Harmison sent one flying into his ribs. But there was enough presence of mind to take the singles, rotate the strike and, occasionally, edge the thing to the boundary.

Putting it mildly, it was frustrating for the England fans. There were heads in hands across the ground; those at home yelling at their television sets and radios. But when the game had ended, there was a respect towards Lee from commentators and, presumably once the alcohol had worn off, the England faithful. It was a gutsy innings, and it perfectly set up what, in my mind, is the greatest series ever.

2005 was the series that drew many people into cricket, myself included. And whilst at the time we shouted, swore and cursed Lee for firstly prolonging our agony at Edgbaston, and then saving the game at Old Trafford, it will remain his finest series. He led the attack twice in the absence of McGrath, his four wickets at Edgbaston setting up that ridiculously exciting finish. He batted with - and again, it's a horribly overused cliché, but there are few better ways to describe it - his heart on his sleeve.

He left England, as Rob Smyth said, as the Australian that it was okay to like.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Payback in Pyjamas

Pyjama cricket's shinier, less important alternative to the Ashes, the Natwest Trophy of contractually obliged one day internationals, was greeted with a lack of enthusiasm that is rarely ascribed to clashes of the old enemy. This series was viewed as an unnecessary interruption to England's clash with their biggest rivals in the test arena. Yet the first game at Lords was greeted with enthusiasm and hints of excitement from even the most cynical of commentators; enthusiasm that prevailed throughout the series as a clinical England rose head and shoulders above the Australians. So what has this series taught us about England and Australia: the ODI teams?

These are two sides that pride themselves on their fast bowling stocks. England have a fearsome test attack, with Onions, Finn and the human terminator Tremlett waiting in the wings. Australia's pace attack was endlessly ridiculed throughout the 2010 Ashes, with Johnson forgetting how to bowl straight, Hilfenhaus not penetrative enough and Siddle's one man bouncer barrage proving ineffective. Going into the series, Australia had the excitement of a new, unseen pace attack. 

Cummins, quicker and far more consistent than some of his peers, confused the Essex batsmen in the warm-up game. At Lords, his line wavered thanks to the slope, although he exploited Cook's weakness with a waft outside off. Pattinson, the second part of this new look pace attack, had to wait until the fourth game to make his mark, whereby his radar was off, sending down too many deliveries on the pad and being punished by Cook and Bell. With the exception of McKay, who was underrated going into the series and was the quickest bowler to adapt to English conditions, Australia's bowling was plain ineffective. They never forced England to bat deeper than six; there was no spin for Doherty, Johnson's comeback was no different to every other comeback game he's gone through and Watson bowled too short and generally looked down on pace and fitness.

England's pace attack was suited to such conditions. It's the soggiest July in years, with one day of sunshine followed by five days of flooding. As early season county cricket has shown, these conditions make it a bowler's game. To quote Sir Geoff, it was time for the batsmen to "dig in." Yet the aggression of Australia's opening pair suggested that digging in was the last things on their mind.

The opening pair of Warner and Watson have struggled against genuine pace, with both preferring to play off the back foot.
Watson reached fifty once, and then departed five overs later, in a crippling similarity to the majority of his international stands. Warner, when allowed to, hit out and hit hard - but his struggles against Essex's Reece Topley followed him into the international game. Finn exploited these problems perfectly, consistently beating the pair, and never allowed Australia to get off to a decent start. Forrest and Bailey made little to no impact; Forrest, surely, must have his place under question after failing to play any sort of decent innings, attacking or otherwise, and Bailey only really let his form rip in the dying overs of the final game. David Hussey was the most prolific batsman for Australia, but his experiences in English conditions must surely have helped. 

Australia were not helped by injuries throughout the series. 
This might be one day cricket, but England fans still talk about the '06/'07 Ashes in hushed tones, where injuries, bad bowling and Shane bloody Warne humiliated England. This time, the boot was on the other foot, particularly with regards to injuries. Swann, Bresnan and Anderson all suffered injuries, ranging from a groin strain (Anderson) to sore body parts, which were in no way strategic rests before the South Africa series.

In the first game at Lords, Cummins suffered a side strain, and was ruled out of the rest of the series. This is the second injury in his short international career. England's handling of young bowlers such as Finn has been criticised by some as denying him the right to play the highest level of cricket. Yet such handling has kept Finn injury free, allowing him to work on his bowling, his fitness and develop a mindset for international cricket. Cummins' two injuries point to his age; he is 19, and bowling at such pace will undoubtedly put his body under strain.

Watson made it through four games before adding another injury to his never-ending list; Lee too went down in the fourth game, bringing about whispers that this might be his last international excursion. All in all, not the greatest advert for Australia's fitness levels. Some injuries were unavoidable, but one suspects if some such as Watson took fitness a little more seriously, injuries may be staved off.

This was a good victory for England. For all the jokes about the excitement levels of watching Cook, Bell and Trott, England have read the conditions, and adapted to them, far better than the Australians. England don't do flashy cricket, but this series has proved that flashy is not necessarily the best tactic. The bowling has, for the most part, been good line and length; Clarke's experimental fields earned praise but not the wickets that Cook's orthodox placings brought him. There is the elegance of Bell, the big hitting of Morgan, tied in with the unglamourous but effective nature of Cook and the sometimes slow but increasingly useful talents of Bopara. England have built strong starts - Australia haven't. England have taken wickets - Australia, again, haven't.

This is, of course, all well and good, and it is the most sardonic of fans who will not admit to a guilty thrill of pleasure when seeing England beat Australia, whatever the format. Yet this series seems to have highlighted how matches between England and Australia should be treasured. The Ashes are series that draw fans into cricket; the rivalry, the history is something that precious few sports can claim to hold. Do series such as this damage the appeal the Ashes hold? There was an underlying feeling throughout that this series was the ECB scratching the back of Cricket Australia. Spectators paid their money, as the ECB knew they would because they knew the appeal England and Australia showdowns held, and they have seen a very good England side beat a very average Australia side. But was this really necessary? Was this worth losing a test or two against the second best side in the world?

Put it this way. Who would you rather see steaming in; Dale Steyn? Or Mitchell Johnson?

Sunday, 1 July 2012

An open letter to Swann

Dear Graeme Swann,

It's hard being you.

I know it must be difficult, acting as both the best spin bowler in the world and England's foremost undiscovered comedic talent. I get that babysitting Bresnan, having hilarious japes with Finny, and your best friend being ruled out with a groin injury must take it out on a man.

But really. Have a word with yourself.

I can only imagine how frustrating it is, watching a team mate shell a catch. Ask Steven Finn; he's watched you do it at slip many a time. I'm often the poor sod hovering at point whose shelled the catch in the first place. Sometimes, it might be my fault. Maybe I didn't run in quick enough. Maybe I tripped and fell on the way. But sometimes, what to you, the bowler, can look like a simple catch, isn't as easy as you might think.

Take Bresnan today. Bailey, after crawling along at a pace that Trott would applaud, runs in from the boundary to take a skying delivery. It's not the most difficult catch in the world, but it's not exactly a simple nick to the keeper either. It's high. Despite it being London in July, the ball was coming through the one bright patch, directly towards Bresnan. He misjudged it. It happens.

Maybe you took it as a personal insult. Maybe you felt Bresnan had dropped it because he'd taken offence at your latest joke about his weight/accent/hair cut. But acting like a two year old whose had their favourite toy taken away from them is surely not the best way to handle the situation?

One of the most unappealing facets of the England ODI team is their reaction to one another in the field. When England are on top, it's all pats on the arse and high fives. When they're frustrated, it's the exact opposite. There's shouting and arm flailing and spitting and a general lack of energy. Of course it's irritating when things aren't going your way. But having the body language of a group of children isn't the way to rectify it.

It makes for horrible viewing. What fan wants to see their team spitting flames at one another? England have been successful because of the together-ness of the team. As cliché as it sounds, knowing that these are players that get on well together, and respect one another, makes team victories all the more encouraging. Shouting and screaming at one another makes it feel as though everything is in disarray.

It's not just you, Graeme. Jimmy permanently has a scowl on his face, and Broad looks as though he might castrate the next fielder who slips up against him. But in this very same match, Morgan shelled two chances off Dernbach; one relatively simple, one more difficult. And what did Jade do?

He sighed. Put his head in his hands.

He didn't act like a five year old. It was refreshing.

So please. Stop it.