Thursday, 30 August 2012

Andrew Strauss, the captain a mother could love

How do you pay suitable tribute to Andrew Strauss?

The facts speak for themselves. A double Ashes winning captain, once down under. 50 games as test captain, with 24 victories and a personal average of just over 40. A stint, albeit a brief one, as the leader of the number one test team in the world. As a man, all the usual adjectives will be rolled out in force. A level header leader; a class act; a courteous, determined player who gave his all for England. But somehow, these don't seem to do Strauss the justice he deserves.

Old Trafford, 2005. Brett Lee was bowling at his fastest and most hostile. Strauss had taken one to the head in the first innings, and was suitably dismissed three balls later. In the second innings, the same happened again. Strauss's bloody ear was patched up, Lee went back to his mark and sent another one straight into Strauss's body. He played it safely away. No panic, no wild slashing - just a calm man playing his natural game. He went on to make 106, with the moment summed up perfectly as Strauss removed his helmet to reveal a bloodied ear, haphazardly bandaged, and a smile stretching across his face. 

A lesser batsman would have backed away after the blow. But Strauss took the attack to the Australians. It was to his credit the way he handled himself throughout his century. In the first innings, he was subdued, and looked lost against Lee. The second time around, Strauss was confident; self-assured. When Strauss's confidence was up, he was one of the most pleasing batsmen to watch. Against Australia in particular, he seemed to prosper. Maybe Strauss took the threat of the old enemy more seriously than any other. 

His performance at Lords in 2009 set up England's first victory against Australia at the ground in 75 years. He picked off the bowlers; dislocating Hauritz's finger, slashing an erratic Johnson to all parts of the ground, greeting Siddle's short aggression with hooks and pulls and carefully playing Hilfenhaus, at that point the biggest threat in the attack, out of the game. Again in 2010, when England were under pressure in the first game at Brisbane, and Strauss was on a pair, he milked the attack for all they were worth, cover driving Australia out of the game and showing the fighting spirit that ultimately would allow England an Ashes victory down under.

Not all Strauss's centuries were easy to watch. His comeback in 2008 against New Zealand, an innings that saved his career, was a prime example of his determination, just as his century against the West Indies was earlier this year. Neither of these were shining examples of the delicacy Strauss possessed as a batsmen. They were gritty, stubborn affairs, that saw chances go begging but a focused batsman pushing onwards, and pushing himself back into form.

Strauss will not be remembered as an innovator. He could be cautious to the point of overkill. But his steady nature did wonders for an England on the brink of implosion in 2009. He was the man in the team that a mother would take a shine to; well dressed, polite, rational and an all round good guy. But Strauss, the player, was so much more than that. He was gracious in defeat, yet aware enough to acknowledge failings, both on a personal level and as a collective. In victory, he was courteous, and the respect which the team held him in shone through. 

The last few weeks will have played their part, just as failures in the sub-continent and a slide in form will have contributed to Strauss's decision to retire. He will leave a hole in the team, not just at the top of the order but as a figure in the dressing room who cultivated calm and dignity. He can leave, however, on his own terms, with his head held high; a suitable manner for a man of such character.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

What Ifs and Maybes - England v. South Africa

It feels strange that just over a year ago, a new dawn was being heralded for English cricket, with the test team at the pinnacle of its success. This week, they lost the ICC mace, the title of number one test playing nation and, more importantly, a bucket load of pride, to South Africa.

What changed? England didn't suddenly become a bad team overnight. They became something worse than that. They were complacent. Arrogant, even. No matter how many interviews were given that stated England would carry on working hard, and the title wouldn't go to their head, it ultimately did. And they've been brought back down to earth in quite spectacular fashion.

This decline did not suddenly appear as soon as the South Africans touched down in England. It started in January, when England travelled to the UAE, and it has been gently downwards since then. Even the series against the West Indies, which many expected England to walk, and which they eventually won 2-0, pointed to the beginnings of problems that would arise against South Africa. At Edgbaston, England's much vaunted cupboards of fast bowling stock were emptied, with Onions and Finn out to prove that they could step in to Anderson and Broad's rather large shoes. They could, up until a point. Tino Best's 95 was everything from ridiculous to sublime, but it highlighted an important chink in England's bowling armour. They couldn't remove Best. By taking the attack to England, he unsettled them. Finn's radar went haywire, Bresnan was tight but ineffective, a common motif across the summer, and Onions' pace and bounce was negated by the way Best went after everything. When he was eventually removed, England's attack looked short on ideas and down on energy.

One might expect that with Onions and Finn not being regular fixtures in the test team, Anderson and Broad's  returns would sharpen things up. When South Africa arrived, very little changed. By the end of the series, Anderson's 9 wickets came at 40 apiece, and Broad, despite a five-for at Headingley, took 11 wickets at 39 apiece. Anderson's figures are slightly more deceptive than Broad's. He was the most consistently hostile of the attack, and was let down by poor England fielding, particularly in the slips. There had been hints of Broad's problems in the West Indies one day series, in particular a lack of pace, but given his success against India last year, many expected him to come out fighting.

If anything, Broad's pace further decreased against South Africa. He resisted the temptation to continually bang the ball in short, but his short balls lacked any real aggression. He settled for bowling wide outside the off stump, which the South African batsmen could easily leave alone. Given his all-rounder status, Broad's form with the bat was equally disappointing, and one wonders if Onions, who took nine wickets, and was involved in a run out, on the morning of the Lords test, would be a better choice for the India series.

The worst result to come from this series will be the constant what ifs, buts and maybes that England will ask themselves. At Lords, what would have happened if Swann and Prior had stayed together? If Bairstow had hung around? If Strauss and Cook had batted together in a way that is becoming increasingly rare? There is little point pondering these issues, however. The series was already lost at Lords. England's fight back on the final day was heartening to see, and they can take credit from the way the lower order went about their innings, but on the whole, England's all round game has not been up to par.

England will be left to rue the dropped catches that have proved so costly in this series. Amla, South Africa's top scorer and one of the more continually underrated batsmen on the international scene, made big scores of 311* and 120. The sheer weight of these scores already rests uncomfortably on England, but it is made even more embarrassing when one takes into account that Amla scored a total of 390 runs following dropped catches in the field. England's fielding, which has in the past looked athletic and inspired, has suffered throughout this series. Why?

England had become complacent with their position in the rankings; players and coaches have said as much. But throughout this series, they were outplayed at their own game by a better opponent. South Africa ground England down, the way England ground India and Sri Lanka down last year. For all the talk of a battle between Anderson and Steyn, it was Steyn who emerged victorious, and easily so. Despite looking rusty on the first day of the series, his aggression, pace and radar rarely wavered, and he was a joy to watch throughout. In reality, the formula South Africa used was very simple. Score a ton of runs + top quality bowling = victory. And while England at times looked close to toppling South Africa, none more so in the last test where an inspired spell from Finn saw three wickets fall for 29 runs, they never really looked to be on the same level as their opponents.

The batsmen have the most questions to answer. Throughout the series, their performance has been very paint by numbers. Strauss was continually unsettled by Morkel, and his performance as captain was secondary to Smith's. Trott's patience ultimately deserted him. Despite averaging a respectable 38, this has in no way been Trott's finest series. He has looked out of sorts, unsure of when to play and when to miss. His preference to shuffle across the crease cost him, in particular against Steyn, who kept Trott continually on his toes and induced some horrible stroke play that, one suspects, he wouldn't have dreamt of playing two years ago. Cook made a century at the Oval but despite that, has fallen back on his favoured method of dismissal; the flash outside off. There have been some beautiful deliveries bowled in the series, but often, they haven't been the ones to take the wickets. Whilst England produced some mediocre balls at Lords, and some equally horrible strokes from South Africa, they are the ones who have looked all at sea when facing the South African attack.

This series will not just be remembered for the cricket. No doubt the shadow of Kevin Pietersen will hang over English cricket for a long while yet. But, Pietersen or no Pietersen, England have been outclassed by a better sort of opponent. The signs were showing when they were humbled in January against a Pakistan determined to rebuild. They underestimated the power of a rebuilding side, and as a result, none of the crucial components of batting, bowling and fielding seem to have clicked together in a way they have previously. South Africa are the best team in the world, that much was apparent to anyone who saw them against Australia, Sri Lanka or New Zealand earlier in the year. And yet, England are not a bad team. They are a team who lost their way at the worst possible time, and when it would matter to them the most. There are, of course, positives. Bairstow's return was heartening, and Prior has undoubtedly secured his position as the worlds best keeper-batsmen. But on the whole, England have a lot of soul searching to do, before heading off to what will be their second biggest challenge this year - facing the sub-continent.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

A five step plan to winning at Lords

England have one test match left with which to keep Graeme Smith's overly large mitts off the mace that belongs to the number one test team. With a poor showing at the Oval, and a slightly better, but still flawed, performance at Headingley, how can England win and remain number one?

1. Leave the politics behind
There are personalities in the England dressing room to suit all tastes, from the miserable but self-effacing humour of Anderson, to the polite, media trained veneer of captain Strauss. But the biggest personality of all is Pietersen, who has hit the headlines with startling frequency over the last few weeks. 'Personality' generally sounds insulting when used in conjunction with Pietersen. There is nothing wrong with having a personality; but when combined with the confidence - or shall we say ego? - that Pietersen has, it becomes little more than a disaster waiting for happen. Pietersen's recent comments about the dressing room will stir up tensions, but it cannot distract England. The amateur dramatics should be put aside. For years, England have prided themselves on creating a team spirit that has allowed them to get on top of their opponents. Ultimately, cricket is a job. The workers need to be as professional as possible when at work. England are no exception to this. Pietersen is not the only ego in the dressing room. Despite what some may think, there are certain teammates and superiors who have similar egos and 'personalities', yet for one reason or another their characters are seen to be more acceptable than Pietersen's, and thus they fly under the radar. Pietersen will play no part in the final test of the summer, but his presence will be felt more than ever; it is important that England stay focused and do not buckle under the strain of KP.

2. Goodbye, Steven Finn
It seems harsh, given how hard Finn has worked to break back into the test side. But nothing he showed at Headingley, or Edgbaston earlier in the summer, seemed to justify a permanent role as third or fourth seamer. Finn still goes at four runs an over; the same reason he was replaced in Melbourne by Bresnan. He brings aggression at times, but is unable to sustain any pressure. Whilst Bresnan, and latterly Anderson, have not been overly penetrative, they have been tight. The maidens have continued and the pressure has increased. Finn still appears to be stuck between being an aggressive, fast bowler and a traditionally economical line and length bowler. Whilst dropping him on his home ground will be unfair to some, Onions seems a much better bet, should England still wish to go with four seamers, or alternatively, drop both Bresnan and Finn. Bresnan, whilst out-performing Finn, does not look 100%. His elbow appears to have left him down on pace, and although he still bowls the long overs that England require him to, wickets are not coming with ease. Broad has easily been the most disappointing bowler throughout the tour, but one suspects that his five wicket haul at Headingley, however fortuitous some dismissals were, will have firmly tipped the scales back in his favour. Onions is a more complete package than Finn, and is economical whilst still being a wicket taker - characteristics which are key to Flower's England.

3. Shape up and smarten up
With spills in the slips that even Gambhir and Sehwag would wince at, England's fielding has not been up to par throughout the summer. Send Strauss for an eye test. Remove Cook from the slips and stick him wherever he can do the least harm; there's usually a vacant space at third man screaming for his attention. Pop Trott in there when Jimmy is bowling; hell, provide a towel so he can dry the "sweaty hands" that so offend England's bowlers whenever he touches the ball. South Africa's fielding, despite their best fielder being behind the stumps, has been far better than England's, who have dropped catches that twelve months ago they surely would have took. Maybe  the pressure of coming up against a side who can fully rival England in all elements of a test match is taking its toll. India's fielding was so bad that it bordered on comical; anything England did in comparison was bound to look good. There have been some bright sparks. Taylor's test debut saw him throwing himself around the pitch, replacing Bell at short leg and displaying enthusiasm that has been missing from England in recent times. As it stands, it is an uphill struggle to remove the likes of Smith, Kallis and Amla by bowling alone. If England are not taking the chances when they are offered - and frankly, they're not - it makes for a long day in the field.

4. Attack the personalities
Smith, Kallis, Amla, de Villiers. Steyn, Morkel, Philander. These are the names that are synonymous with South Africa, and they are the individuals that England need to attack. Attacking cricket does not mean stupid cricket. Attacking bowling is not bowling four foot wide of off stump; attacking batting is certainly not trying to smash every Steyn delivery out of the park. It is about being clever. Wearing the bowlers down and exploiting the batsmen's weaknesses. Not every perfectly pitched, on middle stump delivery will sneak through the defences of the batsmen. They will get hit for four, and rather than stomping their feet or yelling like an actress auditioning for a part in Hollyoaks, the England bowlers need to go back to their mark, think it over and try again. It sounds so incredibly simple; and in reality, it is. But it's something that has appeared to elude England so far. At Headingley, Strauss was worked over by Morkel, before finally edging Steyn through to the keeper. No doubt the dismissal at the Oval, and the previous times Morkel has dismissed Strauss, were playing on his mind. Strauss needs to attack Morkel from the go, and attack means to frustrate him into bowling a delivery that will suit Strauss. There is no need to go chasing after the wide deliveries. For a team that prided itself on patience during the Ashes, England look to be in too much of a hurry.

5. Don't be so quick to defend
It goes against every grain of the collective Flower and Strauss body, but England's defensive nature which has benefited them in the past is starting to damage them. The instant a batsman starts to attack, England shirk. Slips are deposited to the boundary, bowlers bowl wide and it feels as though England are waiting for a wicket, rather than trying to create one. There is nothing wrong with being cautious. It's served England well in the past. But this South Africa side is a different calibre to the recent opponents England have faced. Smith is, tactically, a better captain than Strauss. While he too is defensive, he is attacking when it matters, and so far in this series, has had a better grasp on how to take 20 wickets than Strauss has. Team England love a plan. Flowcharts, Powerpoint presentations and visualisations will have been key to England's preparation. They will, of course, want to stick to their plans. But sometimes, it takes something special from the captain. A spark of initiative, an act that he is leading from the front. Strauss needs to take control more. If he thinks something is worth a try, try it. Don't fall back onto being defensive. South Africa have capitalised on this so far. Strauss needs to be more of a presence, both with the bat and his actions on the field.

Monday, 13 August 2012

The real losers

Who are the real losers in the Great KP Saga of 2012?

Is it Pietersen, who by all accounts, has waved goodbye to an England career that he professes to love? Team England, who have a lost a player with the ability to change matches? Or the ECB, who have lost a star who brought a new generation of cricket fans to games across the country?

To be perfectly honest, no. It isn't any of these.

It's the paying customer who loses out the most. Throughout this little lesson in player/power politics, they are the ones who have barely been given a second thought. Neither side has acted with any sort of consistent maturity. Pietersen has made demands that directly undermine his supposed love and commitment to playing cricket for England; however outrageous these demands were, he has a right to make such demands in private, and the leaking of these demands to the press were never going to set future talks off on the right foot. Morris, in his speech on the day of selection, put great emphasis on trust. Where was this trust when Pietersen spoke to the ECB, under the not unreasonable assumption that talks would remain between the two parties?

This is not a case of one side good, one side bad. It has been reduced to an almost playground level of discussion. "He said that/but then they said this/so I said that." Where does the actual cricket come into these discussions? What about the opinions of the fans, those who pay the extraordinary ticket prices, travel up and down the country to see their favourite players? There are those who will side with Pietersen, just as there will be those who favour the stance of the ECB. But whatever side of the argument one falls down on, it is the public who are ultimately been cheated out of the biggest spectacle of all - watching Pietersen in full flow.

Pietersen is a masterful batsman. It is not as though he has developed an ego and a certain edge of prima donna overnight. He has long been a controversial figure. Fans love him and hate him. He frustrates them but so many adore watching him. The ECB were more than happy to cultivate the ego of Pietersen as long as it benefited them. He was their star player; the firepower that drew in the crowds. But the ego has had enough. It has turned on those who pampered him in the past. That was to be expected, and neither party involved has handled the issue with any grace. But both sides have forgotten who really matter here.

Piers Morgan, unofficial president of the Kevin Pietersen fanclub, says that he speaks on behalf of the fans. He doesn't. How many times has Morgan paid for a ticket, queued excitedly all day, just to get a glimpse of his hero on the boundary edge? Morgan's comments make sense in some places, but they are not made out of a love of cricket, or a desire to protect the paying customer. They are made as they always are with him - to stir up controversy and put himself at the heart of a matter that, in reality, has very little to do with him. Morgan claims he is a cricket fan. If he was, he would stop attempting to create a media sideshow around his fury with the ECB, and concentrate on the event that everyone seems to have forgotten about - a must win Test match taking place in four days time.

Sometimes, it feels as though fans, journalists, broadcasters and the like become jaded. We see so much of these players, from on the field, to press conferences, even to Twitter feeds. We forget how special it is for those who cannot consume the amount of cricket that we do to attend a live match and see their hero. And no matter how hard people try to deny it, Pietersen was an idol to so many young cricket fans. At Headingley recently, kids crowded around the boundary to get Pietersen's autograph. His batting has entertained and, one would hope, inspired them. Now, they will lose out on that. There is no winner in this saga, but it is the fans, the ones who Pietersen and the ECB claim matter the most, that lose the most from this sorry mess.