Monday, 26 November 2012

India v England, Round Two: Reintegration, You Say?

The weather outside is indeed frightful. The fire inside is no longer delightful because, well, have you seen those heating bills? The majority of people spend their early mornings peacefully sleeping or stumbling home after a more than merry night out. And then there's the others. You know who you are. You're those who crawl out of bed at 4am, switch on the TV, grab the nearest dose of caffeine and stare, bleary eyed, at the TV.

Recently, these early morning excursions have brought little more than annoyance and disappointment to the England fan. The start of the year saw dismal batting performances, and judging by the first test against India, it looked like the year may end on a similar note. But the Wankhede was different.

It didn't begin well. Following a night visualising the coin toss, Cook called incorrectly and the glint in Dhoni's eye grew bigger as he decided to bat. But despite heroics again from Pujara, who is fast moulding himself into the Hashim Amla sized pain in England's backside, India didn't blow England away. Their footwork was poor, the shots loose and for all the talk of England's spin struggles, they looked unable to deal with the differing paces of Panesar. Monty remains one of the most likeable players in the England squad. Hard-working, dedicated and willing to learn, there are few players who embrace playing for their country more than he does. After attempts at tinkering his action, trying to force him into something that he wasn't, Panesar bounced back with the help of Sussex, and his performance was a credit to them.

Following the bowling performance, the 4am fan is still a little sceptical. Yes, we've bowled them out; but after having India 199/5, letting them get to 327 could be costly. And England still had to bat on a pitch that was beginning to turn. And history has a nasty way of repeating itself. It was in no way plain sailing for the batsmen. Only two passed thirty, with the tail that last year was vaunted as wagging harder than any in international cricket collapsing for the grand total of six runs. Success was down to the brilliance of two batsman, poles apart in technique but equally determined. Pietersen's innings was sublime. Not as elegant as the Headingley effort but even more impressive, the derision with which he treated the spinners brought a nostalgic tear to the eye of all those who remember Warne v Pietersen in '05. Cook did what Cook does best. He concentrated. He played himself in. He slashed the loose balls to the nearest boundary. It was a brilliant performance from the two.

413. A lead of 86. Still the fan is nervous. Again, England went beyond expectations. When England sense they are on top, their game automatically improves. The fielders in close take catches that after a few hours in the field they would probably have missed. Bowlers are more attacking; when a waist high full toss to one of India's brightest young talents is smashed straight to the waiting fielder, you know you are part of something special. Cook's captaincy is still cautious at best, but he closed the field in, allowing Swann and Panesar to build pressure and ultimately, spin England to victory.

There are of course problems for England. Broad's form has not just weakened but has deserted him all together, and the middle and lower orders folded a little too easily. But for now, they deserve their moment in the sun. After all the media-friendly talk of reintegration and team unity, England went with actions rather than words, and put in their best performance of the year. And the 4am fan could not be happier. It was worth getting out of bed for.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Match made in heaven

One is brash, unorthodox and has experimented with the world of hair dye. The other is unassuming, dogged and awkward. One is bosom buddies with Piers Morgan; one spends his spare time castrating sheep. Feel free to work out which is which. 

Differences aside, Cook and Pietersen are one of the best partnerships in the England set-up. Their names are among the highest English scoring batsmen of all time, and both will undoubtedly score more than 22 centuries apiece. When the two come together in tests, England are usually in a bit of trouble; if Pietersen is jittery, they end up in even further trouble. But the partnership at the Wankhede, the highest third wicket partnership at the ground, was different. 

There was an aggression to both players. Pietersen started off frenetic; determined to dominate, but not to repeat the two dreadful shots in Ahmedebad. His defensive technique looked more solid but every so often the veneer would slip and he would strike out to relieve the tension. Cook struck out in the way he knows best - cutting and sweeping the bad balls, leaving the tempters and blocking the straight ones. Together, they were the perfect foil. Pietersen knew he could he could attack without Cook feeling the need to catch him up, while Cook, after guiding Pietersen through the first overs, could sit back and watch Pietersen go.

It was a stunning effort from Pietersen. Refusing to allow the spinners to settle, in particular Ojha and his left armers, his footwork was excellent. There were no switch hits, but cover drives, sweeps and the heave in the air were a regular feature of his innings. Cook barely looked troubled. When he went for the big shots, they were from the classic armoury that had featured in Gooch's game before him. He read length better than any of the batsmen had managed in Ahmedabad, allowing him to sweep with a confidence that the majority of England players had left in the UAE. Pietersen's fondness for quick singles could easily be matched by Cook's constant alertness. Cook never appears tired at the crease, with a textbook block that stays perfect until the very last ball.

The two work well because of their difference styles. Each are comfortable in the way they play, now more so than ever. Cook's century came from 236 deliveries. Pietersen's? A mere 127. Their totals contributed 75% of England's runs; they were the only two to pass thirty and both looked like they could have continued for longer. They built the platform that England's lower order threw away. Without Cook, there are many times when England would have been in sticky situations. With Pietersen, England get their edge back. Combined, the two offer a stability and aggression that can only benefit England's sub-continent campaign.

Monday, 19 November 2012

England in India, Round One: Same Old Story

In horror films, there's always a moment where the badly masked villain is approaching his victim in the darkness. The victim knows what is about to happen. The audience know it too. Yet everyone still jumps in surprise as the inevitable happens.

England's latest horror show, The Atrocity in Ahmedabad, is more than a little repetitive. It's the sequel to January's hit collapses in the UAE; similar players doing irresponsible things and looking surprised when the whole thing blew up in their faces. And this time, there was not even the consolation prize of England's bowling attack standing up to the opposition. A few star cameos aside, this was an all-round turkey of a performance.

At times, it was almost as though England tried to out-rubbish one another. Bell's dreadful decision in the first innings to smash his first ball into the stratosphere was marginally outdone by Pietersen's sweep all around a full length straight ball that subsequently clattered into his off-stump. Patel's full delivery that was nonchalantly launched for six by an imperious Sehwag was little better than Broad and Bresnan's short and wide campaign to the same batsman. England's batting problems are half flawed technique, half mental panic. Their bowling was simply below par. In the UAE, the bowling attack were constantly let down by the batsmen. In this case, neither elements stood up to scrutiny.

There were positives. Cook's second innings fight spoke more about his determination and mental strength then anything else he could do as captain. It showed that the spin England were facing was not unplayable. There was no doosra; Ashwin's carrom ball was relatively easy to pick, and didn't bring him a wicket. Cook was positive. Blocked the good balls, put the good ones away and rotated the strike in sweltering conditions. Paired with Prior, whose controlled aggression on the fourth day had India worried, they showed what was possible. They showed what England had thrown away in the first innings.

Technically, there looks to be very little change from the winter's sub-continent trip. Sweep shots still look uncertain and are not being played to the right length deliveries. Footwork is either static or too over-complicated; Cook is strong off the back foot but got forward to smother any spin in defence, whereas players such as Trott stayed too far in their crease and paid the price. The coaching staff includes two of the best players of spin cricket has created, and Gooch, with his ability to prosper in English and sub-continent conditions, should have begun to iron the faults out. He has done wonders for Cook, but for the rest of the batsmen? They are not children, and Gooch cannot hold their hands and play for them, but he can stop them making the same, costly mistakes time after time.

Mentally, England fear the spinning ball. After being decimated in the UAE, losing the number one ranking to a superior South African side and mediocre performances in between, England look poles apart from their position last year. Broad is down on pace. He looks out of ideas, resorting to ridiculous LBW appeals and short ball barrages that on the slow Indian pitches do nothing but sit up and ask to be hit. His batting, too, is hardly impressive. Bresnan is far better with the bat but he is not the same bowler that tore through India at Trent Bridge last year. Since his elbow surgery his pace has dropped and he seems to have lost the ability to get any reverse swing. Sehwag targeted him on the first day, and he never recovered.

England know they have been outplayed, but they must also know that they hardly helped their own cause. Swann was controlled but after his elbow complaints recently, he cannot be expected to hold up the entire bowling attack on his own. Panesar will surely come in for Bresnan, and replacing Broad for Finn, who may be match fit but has only bowled four overs so far, or Meaker, who is inexperienced but able to achieve the pace Broad cannot, should give the attack some extra potency. Bell's absence opens up a place for Morgan or Bairstow, neither of whom have played test cricket in India and both are suspected to have the same problems against spin. Whether it's arrogance, complacency or exhaustion, England's slide over the last year has been pretty disastrous. And it doesn't look to be stopping any time soon.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

On the rise?

The state of Australian cricket over the last two years has led to despair at home and sardonic amusement elsewhere. Successive Ashes losses were followed by an embarrassing 47 all out against South Africa, a loss to a New Zealand side who were hardly world threatening... it was a miserable two years, before 2011's 4-0 whitewash over a dire India set Australia back on track. Of course, with the Australian press, things are either amazingly good or the team are a national disgrace; probably something to do with the rich history of Australian cricket. But now they're facing South Africa, Australia are arguably on the up, just in time for next year's back to back Ashes.

Any Australian side will always be compared to the greats. Emerging spinners perform well, and they're the new Warne. A consistent fast bowler? The new McGrath. Michael Clarke's side are nowhere near the heights others have achieved, but under his leadership, they are laying the right foundations.

The bowling attack wavers from mediocre to hugely impressive. Hilfenhaus is surely in the twilight of his international years. Down on pace, his ability to swing the ball has all but disappeared, as has the fight that went with it. Siddle is capable of hostile spells but hardly looks intimidating. Australia's future rests on three young fast bowlers; Pattinson, Cummins and Starc.

Pattinson is the most mature of the three. Eons apart from his brother, he has pace and the ability to swing the ball into the batsmen. He is aggressive, and the consistency will come with time. All three bowlers have problems with sustaining pressure. Pattinson is susceptible to no-balls, Starc drops too short and wide when under pressure and Cummins so far doesn't have the body for test cricket. Successive back fractures have pushed him out of the last two international summers, and whether he is a by-product of Cricket Australia's new policy of wrapping bowlers in cotton wool or his body is simply prone to injuries, he has so far played one test for Australia, despite his name being bandied around as one of the most promising fast bowlers. Starc is potentially the most underrated of the three. A spell at Yorkshire did wonders for his line and accuracy, and he is a huge asset in limited overs. The sooner he integrates into the test side, the better.

The batting line up is slightly more fractious. Australia tend to rely on names; Hussey and Ponting have 58 centuries between them and generally perform when the stakes are high. Yet Ponting is looking increasingly less like himself. Despite the 221 against India at the start of the year, it was against a bowling attack as threatening as a shark with dentures, and against Steyn and Morkel, he struggled. His dismissal, pushing forwards to drive and edging behind, was horribly predictable. Ponting is undoubtedly one of the finest players of his generation, but he looks obsolete against quality attacks.

Australia persist with Warner at the top of the order, a player who appears to have two settings: go hard or go home. His partnership with the orthodox Cowan worked well against India but while Cowan dug in against South Africa, Warner couldn't resist the temptation to try and intimidate the tourists. Warner constantly wants to be the aggressor, to make his mark and set the tone of the innings, but against the best bowling attack in cricket, it requires patience and a bit of thinking. Watson is injured, but his inability to get past 50 is well documented, and questions as to whether he is an opening batsman or not have followed his career. He is still incredibly flat footed, and is becoming an easier target to bowl at. Clarke is the in-form batsman; a beautiful player of spin, he may take a while to settle in but he is the classiest of the line-up by far. His leadership is also one of the more interesting in cricket. Trying new field placings and having an understanding of what role each of his bowlers should represent have made Australia look like a more polished unit.

Australia will be hit and miss for a while. That's the way things work - it is difficult to instantly bounce back from successive Ashes defeats and Australia's slide started well before 2009. But at the moment, they look hugely promising. The bowlers are more potent than the batsmen, but when everything clicks into place in the not too near future, Australia will be pushing for Ashes dominance again.