Saturday, 31 August 2013

Thoughts on the women's Ashes

The England women’s Ashes series has been a mix of innovation and the type of cricket that has worked well for both teams in the past.

Despite such a strong showing in the test match, particularly the bowling, Australia have stuttered their way through the remainder of the tour. Meg Lanning has been the backbone of the line-up, the only one to make any impact. At Durham, it was a tired looking team that took to the field. England were hardly storming through the line-up, the wicket was slow but not offering huge amounts of turn and Australia just crumbled. It was the performance of a team that looked shattered. After the leisurely start to the series, a four day game in picturesque surroundings, the ODI and T20’s seemed to be crammed together at the end.
The advantage of having the double headers with the men is clear; increased media interest, crowds turning up early to watch two games and the women get a chance to increase their exposure. The scheduling, however, is simply unfair. The second T20 at Southampton ended with a plane, train and automobile trip across the length of the UK to get to Durham early on Friday morning. Then to training, back to the hotel, then an early start on the day of the game – 10am slightly undermines the concept of encouraging more people to watch – would be exhausting for anyone. Even traipsing off the bus to start the game, the tourists looked, quite simply, knackered.

The format of the series has worked reasonably well. The weighting of the points is intended to reflect the importance of test cricket. In retrospect, it encouraged a draw. Neither team wanted to risk losing maximum points by gambling the state of the game. So they, to all intents and purpose, blocked it out. That aside, the rest of the series has worked well. The women have been allowed to play the two games that they play the most, and games that have the most appeal to the crowd. More test cricket would of course be preferable but realistically, when do they get the chance to play? England and Australia play the most tests, and the last time they met was in Australia in 2011. More test cricket is, at the moment, not feasible.

It is a format that could be used in future women’s series, as well as for associate countries. The sense is, however, that not all nations want to play test cricket. Let’s face it, one day cricket is more exciting, and crucially it is more financially beneficial for the players. England and Australia are the rare countries who still play tests – and even then it’s only once every two years.

England have not played without fault. The batting collapse at Lords was truly awful. An innings built around the captain Charlotte Edwards crumbled as soon as she went. The batting never truly fired throughout the limited overs series. Their innings relied on cameos. Lydia Greenway at Southampton, Sarah Taylor at Chelsmford; they played the biggest part in the T20 victories. England’s bowling, particularly the openers, has been consistently good throughout the series. The back-up seamers are a worry. Arran Brindle in particular as dispatched to all areas during the test match. The spin bowling is developing well. Laura Marsh is starting to control her length a little better, improving throughout the test. Danni Wyatt can follow up a brilliant delivery with a rank long-hop but control is something that comes with experience.

The better team won. Despite Australia claiming victory in the T20 and 50 over World Cups, they haven’t played anywhere near to the standard they are capable of. Australia ruled the test match for the majority of the game but in the limited overs, it is England who have worn the trousers.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Round one: advantage no-one?

In a game with six points at stake, it was going to take an extraordinary batting collapse or a serious spell of quick bowling to ever push for a result at Wormsley. The wicket was good; too good, in fact. There was no rough for the spinners to work with, little pace for the seamers and only variable bounce – and that is if we’re being generous.

Giving the test match a higher points ranking was always going to be dangerous. Awarding it six points highlights how important test cricket is; it is still seen by the majority of the players as the pinnacle of their career. However, the women play fewer and fewer four day matches, and by placing so much emphasis on the game in terms of points, the willingness of either side to take risks to push them into the front lessened by the day. A Sheffield Shield style points system, with points awarded by innings, would maybe work better for the future.

It seems strange given the match situation to praise Australian captain Jodie Fields for a brave declaration, but in some ways it was. After the runner arrived in the 82nd over to pass on a message from the dressing room, Fields and Osborne proceeded to put on 34 runs in four overs. Arran Brindle and Danielle Hazell suffered the most; Hazell saw two balls disappear back over her head for two respective boundaries, before Brindle’s poor line saw three identical deliveries hammered to the boundary in quick succession. Fields was aggressive from the off. After reaching her half century, she smashed 24 off the next 25 deliveries.

Her declaration in the 86th over, setting England 249 to win from 45 overs, may have seemed overly cautious. But the speed with which Fields and Osborne went about making their runs highlighted how fast the outfield was. Once it beat the infield, the ball nearly always travelled to the boundary. There was also nothing in the pitch; keeping a total down was reliant on tight bowling and although Australia generated the pace that England lacked, they were not as economical.

Elysse Perry again achieved the bounce and carry that had eluded England. Although England never looked as though they would try to chase down the target, Perry’s first few overs – fast, reasonably full with the odd short ball to keep the batsman awake – kept them in check. Quite why Australia chooses to hide Holly Ferling from the new ball is a mystery. The pace she generates is not dissimilar to Perry, yet Australia chose to go with Meg Schutt. When Ferling was brought on from the Deer Park End, her first ball took a wicket. Heather Knight hit to square leg and ran through for a quick single; Perry’s throw hit and Knight was out by a yard.

Sarah Taylor and Arran Brindle played their shots. There is hardly a shot in Taylor’s repertoire that looks inelegant. The way she handled Erin Osborne’s spin was particularly impressive, rocking back on her feet to cut her through the covers being the highlight of the spell. When Brindle fell, caught and bowled by Sarah Elliott, to leave England on 48/2, there was no sense of panic among the players. Charlotte Edwards put her disappointing first innings behind her to join Taylor in some strokeplay.

The game was in danger of drifting to a draw after yesterday’s slow going, but some smart work from England’s bowlers kept things interesting. Meg Lanning, whose bowling later on in the day was reminiscent of Lasith Malinga, except with a higher arm from which the ball was slung, was caught by Brindle after scooping a leading edge into the air off Anya Shrubsole. An unbelievable piece of fielding from Lydia Greenway then accounted for Elliott. Elliott, century-maker in the first innings, cracked a drive to Greenway at cover. Greenway fielded one handed before instantly shying at the stumps, running out Elliott by some way. Shouts of “Greenway!” echoed from the player huddle as England hauled themselves back into contention.

Jess Cameron played her shots, including smashing the first six of the match over cow corner off the tiring Shrubsole. Katherine Brunt was absent for much of the day with an upset stomach and although Shrubsole bowled consistently well, Laura Marsh claimed the final wicket, trapping Alex Blackwell LBW for 22.

Speaking afterwards, Edwards said that she was proud of the way her bowlers had come through the test match; “We came in today believing we could still win and I think we showed that in our first session. We believed we could get some early wickets, put some pressure on and maybe chase 200 over 60 overs.” 

Both she and Jodie Fields were supportive of the new structure, though Edwards suggested that maybe a change in wickets would be more beneficial. By producing wickets with more spice in them, or maybe even moving to a county ground – while there is no denying the beauty and tranquillity of Wormsley, a ground which sees cricket on a more regular basis may be more beneficial – there may be a better chance of forcing a result. 

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Slow and steady wins the race?

(Getty Images for the ECB)

There is a certain beauty in the slow ebb and flow of a cricket game. Watching a batsman grind a team down, playing themselves in and taking their time can be a real pleasure. Laura Marsh’s crawl to her half-century, the slowest in English cricket by a man or woman, from a painstaking 291 deliveries over 5 and a half hours with just three boundaries was hardly the most scintillating viewing – but it was necessary. When she reached her fifty, the ground rose to applaud the woman who had not just broken records but whose patience and graft had pulled England to safety.

The irony of the situation is, of course, that Marsh opens the batting during the T20 games. Usually the aggressive opener, Marsh arrived at the crease with England six down and struggling. Getting her head down, seeing off Holly Ferling and Ellyse Perry, the most dangerous of the Australian attack, Marsh did exactly what was needed. It might cause derision from some but Marsh along with Heather Knight have kept Australia from winning this game.

Marsh faced more balls in her vigil here than in her entire test career to date. “Naturally I do like to be a bit more positive, but I tried to be positive in defence” was her explanation of her innings. “It’s difficult (to maintain concentration) but it was really helpful to have Heather at the other end.” Asked about the Australian reaction to her innings, Marsh joked that by the end they were “all as bored as she was!” but there were some tactically baffling decisions by the tourists. 

England began the day on a high, helped by Knight’s century and Australia’s reluctance to take the new ball. Despite the turn she began to achieve last night, there was nothing in the pitch for Erin Osborne. Bringing on Perry and Ferling was particularly confusing. Alex Blackwell, the vice-captain, stated that England “forced our hand” with taking the new ball – “we were hoping to get a wicket and then take the new ball, to try and wrap up the tail.” Yet there was no swing for either, and bowling with the old ball allowed Knight and Marsh to re-establish themselves.  Why let the best two bowlers in the side tire themselves out with a ball that is doing nothing when there is a shiny red cherry sitting and waiting in the umpire’s pocket?

Knight looked settled from the beginning. An all-run two off Perry took her to 98, before a wild slash which bypassed everyone, keeper and stumps, took her to 99. Her maiden international century came in 328 minutes; a painstaking effort. She opened up following her century, again helped by a soft ball that did nothing for pace or spin bowlers. Her partnership with Marsh was the highest against Australia in tests; it ended just one short of the all-time record, with Knight run-out by Rachael Haynes for 157. Slapping the ball to cover, Knight lost sight of the ball and called Marsh through for a single, ended up way out of her ground and run out by a yard.  The pitch remained stubbornly flat, highlighted by Katherine Brunt as she whipped her first delivery off her legs for four.

Marsh remained equally stubborn, grinding her way to lunch, tea and a rain break before bringing up her half century shortly before England reached 300. She had just begun to open her arms when she was bowled by Megan Schutt for 55, another ball keeping slightly low and sneaking through her defences.  Anya Shrubsole and Danielle Hazell could do nothing but try to propel England into the lead, before Shrubsole edged behind to give Jodie Fields her first catch of the game.

England ended 17 runs short of Australia’s target, and any thoughts over Australia trying to set a large total and put some life back into the game were quickly put to bed. Although Sarah Elliott played her shots, including a full blooded pull stroke off Katherine Brunt that echoed around the ground, there appeared to be little intent to make a go of the game. Australia ended the day with a lead of 81, and barring a collapse worthy of the men’s game, a draw looks the most likely result.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Baby faced assassins and the art of patience

Holly Ferling is the baby of the Australian cricket team. She played her first game of men’s grade cricket when she was just 13. Her parents drove her to the ground and left, not expecting her to get a game. Brought on first change, she took a hat-trick with her first three balls, before a dot, another wicket and a dot gave her figures of 1-1-0-4. Aged 17, she made her debut in the ODI squad in place of Ellyse Perry earlier this year and impressed with some economical bowling. Ferling is still studying at high school; she brings her school books with her on tour as she takes a month out to compete in the Ashes.

Ferling and Perry are two bowlers cut from the same mould. Both tall, blonde and capable of generating some extreme pace, Ferling was still in awe of Perry when she first began training with the Australian side.  Perry plays cricket and football for her country. Still under pressure from her football team to give up cricket, despite turning out for them on a regular basis, Perry is the poster girl for Australian cricket. She takes the new ball and bats aggressively in the middle order; the ideal all-rounder.

Her first eight over spell today was consistently probing. On a pitch where England had only got the odd delivery to bounce, Perry achieved a decent amount of pace. Despite a few problems with her footing – two no-balls in her first two pre-lunch overs suggest a work in progress – she bowled a tight line and was well rewarded with the wicket of Arran Brindle, LBW for 5. Done for pace on a ball that seemed relatively straight, Brindle departed to leave England wobbling at 36/1.

Ferling followed in Perry’s footsteps. Again generating the bounce that had eluded England’s seamers, the highlight of her spell came when she bounced out the dangerous looking Sarah Taylor. Taylor, a player who can look elegant when scoring a duck, played some beautiful on-drives through the constantly vacant mid-on before Ferling got one to stick in the pitch and rise. Taylor, trying to pull, could only move her head out of the way and watch as the ball sailed to the waiting Sarah Elliott at point. Taylor’s score of 33 was her highest test score to date. For a player of such promise, a record of five tests with an average of 17 hardly does her talent justice.

Ferling’s second wicket was more fortuitous but equally deserved, a loud LBW shout accounting for the England captain. Edwards was unhappy, perhaps feeling the ball was sliding down leg, but on a good batting deck England were 84/3 and struggling. Erin Osborn, mixing up her lengths, had Lydia Greenway caught and bowled off a leading edge, before Tammy Beaumont fell in the first over after tea caught at short leg.
Jenny Gunn played the most irresponsible shot of those to fall, slog-sweeping across the line and being easily adjudged LBW. Another contracted player, Osborne has been ear-marked as the player to replace Lisa Sthalekar as the spinning all-rounder, a role she clearly relishes. “We’re really happy with how play ended for us… it’s starting to turn and a few were shooting through so hopefully for myself it’s about to break up a little bit and turn."

England’s batting stuttered and then crumbled. Taylor aside, the rest could not make starts, let alone push to make the big scores. It was in stark contrast to Elliott’s painstaking march to her maiden test century. Tied down by some accurate bowling from Anya Shrubsole, Elliott moved slowly toward three figures, with a quiet celebration and wave to her family before she slapped a Shrubsole delivery to Greenway at point. Her patience – 349 minutes at the crease – emphasised the slow nature of the pitch. When Perry arrived at the crease, the pitch suddenly appeared to liven. A breezy player, she attacked from the off. A streaky boundary through third man was followed up by a beautiful straight drive back past Laura Marsh. A player of both delicacy and aggression, Perry was unbeaten on 31 when Australia declared at 331/6.

Heather Knight could only stand and watched as the rest collapsed around her. Playing the sort of innings that had brought Elliott and Alex Blackwell success. Her half-century came from 126 deliveries, a mammoth effort given the circumstances. The Berkshire captain is still only 22; a recent graduate from Cardiff University, she stood head and shoulders above the rest of her team. It’s a situation she’s found herself in recently; “I play county cricket for Berkshire and we’ve had a fair few collapses this season!” She was blunt however about England’s situation in the game; “it’s a pretty good pitch and a shame we lost a lot of wickets… when the ball goes soft and they bowl straight it’s quite hard to score, it’s about waiting for the bad ball and putting it away.” She and Marsh batted patiently towards the end, Marsh scoring an embattled 13 from 114 deliveries while Knight plugged away for her 84 from 218 to leave England on 171/6, just 10 behind the follow-on score.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Quintessentially English: motherhood, sunshine and test match cricket

Wormsley. The name itself implies a unique quaintness still associated with English cricket. Tucked away in the middle of Buckinghamshire, surrounded by trees and watched over by blue skies, Wormsley could not be more picturesque if it tried. One end of the ground is even named after the Vicar of Dibley. It is unashamedly English; a cliché without being clichéd. There could hardly be a more fitting place to hold the Ashes.

This was the first women’s Test match since the previous Ashes meeting at Sydney in 2011. Their last two meetings have seen the Australians emerge victorious; Australia claimed the 2012/13 Women’s World T20 cup by four runs, beating pre-tournament favourites England, before a  two run victory during the ICC Women’s World Cup in February set the Australians on their way to another world title.

The re-imagined format of the women’s Ashes embraces the trend for one day cricket; one test match, worth six points for the winner, three ODI’s and three T20’s, each worth two points decides who claims the urn. Australia currently holds the Ashes and there was little to suggest on the first day that this would change any time soon. After winning the toss and choosing to bat, three patient half centuries hinted at the depth in the batting line-up – and the difficulties England will encounter throughout the series.

England’s opening bowlers started well. Katherine Brunt, returning from injury, bowled four consecutive maidens, before debutant Anya Shrubsole claimed the first wicket, a straight delivery sneaking through Rachael Haynes attempted drive. Despite the early wicket, there was little in the pitch for England. It remained stubbornly flat and although the odd ball remained low, Australia looked untroubled. Opener Meg Lanning and Sarah Elliott put on a patient 50 partnership, before a superb piece of fielding immediately after lunch ended their 70-run stand. Lanning, running the ball down through the covers, pushed for two before turning for the third. Brunt, fielding on the boundary, stopped the ball before whizzing it back to Sarah Taylor who completed a smart stumping. Lanning was left on her knees, two short of a maiden 50.

Elliott ended the day on 95*, only a few tantalising runs short of her maiden century. In some ways, Elliott is the outsider of the team. A test specialist, she is the only member of the test squad not to be contracted to Cricket Australia. Her last international game came at Sydney two years ago. Since then she has moved to Darwin, a five hour flight from Melbourne and her Victorian team, and become a mother to 9 month old Sam who is travelling with her on tour. She made her return to competitive cricket six weeks after giving birth – after being dismissed in her first match back, she headed off the field and straight over to the stands to feed her son.

England didn’t bowl poorly, but on an unresponsive pitch they were negotiated easily by Elliott and Jess Cameron. Known as a big hitter, Cameron initially struggled to find her rhythm, before playing aggressively against the spin and Arran Brindle in particular. She fell the ball after her half century, trying to turn a Laura Marsh delivery off her pads and being adjudged LBW. Alex Blackwell, one half of Australia’s first identical twin cricketers, picked up where Cameron left off, a vicious cut shot off Marsh the highlight of her innings.
Shrubsole and Brunt were the pick of the England bowlers, both bowling dry and with some aggression up front. Shrubsole’s contest with Elliott was one of the highlights of the day, Shrubsole beating the bat several times with the new ball before Elliott pounced on some of the looser deliveries. “We know that it’s a decent pitch and we knew there’d be a little bit in the morning… I don’t think we’ve necessarily got the rewards that we deserved,” Shrubsole said after the match. “Credit to Elliot for the way that she batted, she withstood quite a lot of pressure and in quite a good battle she’s managed to come out on top.”

Shrubsole was enthusiastic about the benefits of playing test cricket, in particular the rivalry surrounding the Ashes. “It’s just England vs. Australia, it’s quite a hard things to put into words… it just has a bit more to it and obviously we don’t have much test match opportunity, to get out here in an Ashes match is really exciting.” Elliott meanwhile begins tomorrow in search of her maiden test century, but her main priority is a decent night’s sleep; “I hope Sam sleeps tonight! We’re still getting up a couple of times a night so I’m hoping tonight is the first time he sleeps through!”

Monday, 15 July 2013

Line, length and Steven Finn

Consistency is a not a word often associated with Steven Finn. In a team that prides itself on line, length and that horrible term, "bowling dry," Finn's performance at Trent Bridge stood out for all the wrong reasons. Repeatedly bowling short and wide will never be seen as tactical ingenuity. On a slow, dry wicket such as the one at Trent Bridge it was borderline irresponsible.

Australia have Shane Watson and Peter Siddle as their first-change seamers. Siddle takes wickets as well as being economical, the very role that England want Finn to play. Watson bowled 19 overs in the game, 13 of which were maidens. Watson offers Michael Clarke the control that can ebb away as the opening bowlers tire; Siddle will run in day and night, bowling wicket to wicket with pace and the occasional awkward bounce. They offer the best of both worlds, a chance to attack and defend at either end.

After Anderson's outstanding 13 over slog on the morning of the final day, which reaped 29 runs and 3 wickets, Alastair Cook turned to Finn. Finn needed to play the Watson role, to act as the container. Instead he instinctively bowled too short. Brad Haddin, sensing weakness, took him for back to back boundaries. His two overs went for 24 runs, just 6 less than Anderson conceded in his mammoth spell . Cook's lack of faith in Finn was evident. He was given shorter and shorter bowling spells, disappearing completely as Australia edged closer to victory.

Finn's natural length appears to be shorter than the usual. At the start of his career his pace often made up for his problems with length. His height allowed for extra bounce, which on the pitches in Australia reaped rewards. But then when facing Mike Hussey, his instinct to rough up the batsmen resulted in him again dropping too short and wide. His speeds now have dropped; as his confidence has dwindled, so has his pace.

There have always been little quirks in Finn's bowling that he has struggled to conquer. His run-up has been tinkered to avoid crashing into the stumps; his release changed slightly to stop him falling at the crease. It could be a case of over-coaching. Anderson's action suffered drastically when too many coaches were involved. In Finn's case the only real change has been his run-up. Shortened, it allowed him more ferocity on release. However, the control again went haywire. Lengthening the run-up erased the stump knocking issue but again, the control disappeared.

Finn's main problem is his consistency. Or more importantly, his lack of it. Throughout his short England career he has never been short of wickets, but the wickets have come more from luck than skill. This is no bad thing; how many times does a bowler send down a jaffa of a delivery with no luck, only for a rank long-hop to snare a wicket? It's when the wickets dry up that Finn's problems begin. He loses his radar. He wants to be aggressive, but in some situations, aggression isn't everything. At Trent Bridge, Finn needed to take a step back and look at the situation. Was going short, on a wicket with barely any pace in it, with an old ball, the best plan of action? The short answer is no. But still Finn continued.

In Graham Onions and Tim Bresnan, England have two bowlers who embody the economical bowling ethos. In Finn, they have someone who Australia have targeted. Ashton Agar, the number 11 whose debut with the bat surpassed everyone's expectations, played Finn with ease and authority. Finn, and England, have to decide what his role is.

Working around Finn's pace should be central to England's future plans. At the start of his career (and during the last test match, if the Sky speedometer is to be believed) he was touching 90mph. He obviously has the pace, so why can't the control be worked on too? Finn shouldn't bowl slower, because it doesn't suit him. His run-up will never be the most elegant sight in cricket, but keeping it at the length it is now has erased the stump kicking problem. What Finn needs, for want of a better phrase, is a quiet lesson about line and length. These problems are more a question of brain first, bowl second.

Finn is often given a free pass from critique because of his age. At Trent Bridge, the technical flaws in his game were exposed. It might seem unfair to drop him for the test on his own ground, but Onions, with his consistency and ability to get the ball to seam, would surely be more threatening. Economical but threatening; that is what Finn needs to become. Right now, he costs England more than he rewards them.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

That first ball

First ball, first blow. That's how the cliche goes. 2005, Steve Harmison smashed Justin Langer on the arm with the first delivery of the series; 2006, he sent one swinging to second slip. In 2009, Mitchell Johnson celebrated by bowling a wide, half-decent delivery, thus securing his place in Barmy Army fokelore.

It is remarkable how much emphasis is placed on one minuscule part of the match. The anticipation for that first ball is unbearable. Even when England are favourites, there’s still that ‘what if’ in the back of one’s mind, years of Australian dominance and Shane bloody Warne eternally haunting the English psyche. The first ball becomes symbolic of your hopes and dreams. What can we learn from it? The crowd yelling their support. The bowler striding to his mark, maybe a low-five from a teammate, words of encouragement from the captain. The batsman scratches at his mark. Adjusts his helmet, lowers his gaze. The noise stops and then builds again like a crescendo. This is it, the moment we’ve all been waiting for.

Nine times out of ten, it will sail harmlessly through to the keeper. The batsman will readjust, the bowler will turn and walk back, and it has begun. Yet so much importance is ascribed to one single delivery. From that first ball, one can work out how the entire series will pan out. Harmison’s delivery at Brisbane is immortalised in record books, Youtube videos and the nightmares of those who were watching. An undercooked bowler pinging the delivery straight to his teammate at second slip, the Australian crowd sensing weakness and emitting a chorus of cheers as Harmison and Flintoff looked abashed and Langer and Hayden stood smirking.

It wasn't the first ball at Trent Bridge that dictated the flow of the match; the first five of Australia's overs emphasised the way the game would fluctuate, the balance tipping from one team to another. Australia wasted the new ball at first, just as England would waste batting partnerships and promising starts. The first over of the series was wayward, wide, unplayable for the wrong reasons. England's batting was remarkable, again for the wrong reasons.

Poor shots, chasing wide deliveries that were barely deserving of a stroke - it was hardly the start either team wanted. England fought back with the ball, if it can be called a fight back. Their poor batting performance was not wholly down to some unplayable bowling. Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow looked the calmest of the England batsmen and they were the two who got the best deliveries of the day. Two inswinging yorkers accounted for them, the few balls that Australia bowled on the stumps. The rest were not undone by clever bowling, just their own impatience. Whether they wanted to assert their authority, or put the hoodoo of opening Ashes games behind them, England's performance could be best summed up by Matt Prior, trying to smash a ball from Siddle, one away from a five-wicket haul, over the ropes and instead finding the waiting fielder.

Statistically, the first ball of an Ashes series means nothing. For those watching, however, it can dictate the series result, the performance of their team; everything.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Australia: new but not improved

Australia aren't very good.

That's the truth. Yes, they're not that bad, but they're not that good either. For years, Australian cricket was on a pedestal that the rest of the world could barely reach. Matches against England were usually worth watching for the self-deprecating humour on show rather than the cricket. And then after 2005, when we saw that Australia weren't completely infallible, things began to change.

Australia's successful history has become a rod with which to beat the back of the current team. There is no Glenn McGrath, no Shane Warne, no Justin Langer; with the possible exception of Michael Clarke, there is no name in the Australian line-up who one looks at and thinks "they could single-handedly change the course of this game." Australian cricket falls into two categories. The first are the young up and comers. Invariably pace bowlers, they are raw, quick and will pose a real threat on English wickets. The second group are the veterans. Years of experience in English and Australian conditions behind them, they are there to bring stability to a fractious batting line-up. On paper, these two elements should come together nicely. In reality, they aren't.

It's not just a question of form. James Faulkner, the latest cab from the pace bowling ranks, bowled well in the Champions Trophy, and Mitchell Johnson's resurgence of form will raise Australian spirits. In terms of the batsmen, George Bailey and Adam Voges stood head and shoulders above the rest. Bailey proved too to be a good substitute for Clarke, shrewd in the field and honest to the point of awkward in his dealings with the media.

Australia's problem in the Champions Trophy were the same as in 2005, 2009 and 2010. Starts were made, but very few went on. There was an inability to deal with the swinging ball; while no bowling attack has had the ball hooping around corners, England have achieved more movement than most, and Australia didn't know what to do. The technique wasn't good enough, just as it wasn't in 2005 when Simon Jones and Andrew Flintoff exploited reverse swing to devastating effect. The bowling attack is still searching for that elusive key component, a quality spinner who can hold up an end and take wickets when needed. Xavier Doherty bowled well but there was the sense that he was never really trusted to take the lead, with defensive fields set at times when Australia should have attacked.

The technical flaws are worrying enough but the off-field incidents do nothing to strengthen Australia's claims of team unity. Homework-gate was universally mocked at the start of the year, and now David Warner's one-man crusade to make a complete fool of himself and the team management has brought ridicule back to the forefront of Australian cricket. These incidents hardly scream of respect for those in charge, be it captain or coach.  No matter how tiresome a cliché it has become, a united team is the best team. Australia are not united. Clarke's injury has left the team rudderless. While Bailey has been more than impressive as a replacement, he does not have the history or the experience of Clarke. As one of the veterans of the team, players look up to Clarke; he has played in four Ashes series, is by far and away Australia's best batsman and will constantly try new things in the field. Without him, Australia look not only a weaker playing side but a weaker group of individuals. Australia began the Champions Trophy as the title holders - they have exited without winning a game. This was the perfect opportunity for Australia to land the first Ashes blow in a packed summer of cricket, and they failed miserably.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

England's bright young things

There are two years and sixteen test matches between them. One bats, one bowls. Both are seen to be the future of English cricket. But while Joe Root, after a grand total of five test matches, is being heralded as the boy who can do no wrong, question marks still hang over the head of Steven Finn.

Despite having only played five test matches, Root has never appeared to doubt his form, technique or his ability to compete at the highest level. Handing a twenty one year old their test debut in India is not the easiest start to international cricket, nor is coming in to bat for the first time when England are wobbling at 119/4 and looking to secure their first victory on the subcontinent for 27 years. The way he carried himself, forming stabilising partnerships with players who he admitted he grew up watching on TV, without getting overwhelmed was lauded by critics. It was impossible to speak about Root in terms that didn’t border on the Messianic. His march towards maturity has continued over the winter. A disappointing showing in the test series in New Zealand was counteracted by 646 early season runs for Yorkshire, before he picked up the mantle again at Lords.

Finn, by contrast, has yo-yoed in and out of the test squad. The first name on the team sheet for the limited overs formats, his test career has stuttered from a lack of consistency, an expensive over rate and the emergence of Chris Tremlett and Tim Bresnan. Even now, three years after his debut, problems find Finn at every turn. He was dropped during the 2010 Ashes for being too expensive, despite at the time being the leading wicket taker in the series. He went away, worked on his accuracy, before a new problem arose; this time, his leg disturbing the bails at the non-strikers end.

A quirk that could probably have been ironed out by a slight change in angle was exploited to perfection by Graeme Smith, ensuring a change in the laws of the game and an overhaul of Finn’s run-up. Running in off a shorter length worked wonders for Finn in the one day series in New Zealand, enabling him to get extra pace and bounce from pitches that appeared relatively placid. In the test matches where he was required to bowl longer spells he looked uncomfortable, unable to combine pace and an accurate line. So at the start of this international season, Finn reverted to his old run up. The knee knocking issue happened only once, but Finn’s lengths were all over the place, completely ignoring the sort of bowling the pitch demanded and instead adopting a short ball policy that did little but give the batsmen easy runs.

Whilst Root is assured in who he is, Finn isn’t. He wants to bowl fast, he wants to bowl aggressively, but he cannot seem to combine the two elements.  When the pitch is faster, then Finn’s pace rises. On a slow pitch such as the Lords one during the New Zealand test, it requires a more accurate style of bowling. James Anderson bowled a fuller length, swung the ball and got five wickets for his trouble. Finn bowled too short on the first day, a slightly better length on the second but still too wide, and his four wickets were, for lack of a better word, gifted to him. Consisting largely of tail-enders, they were as far away in terms of skill from Anderson’s as it was possible to be.

Finn could learn plenty from Anderson. A victim early in his career of over-coaching, Anderson has stuck to his natural bowling rhythm and has prospered. Finn doesn’t quite know what his natural rhythm is. He naturally bowls a ball that is back of a length, but when that doesn’t work, as it didn’t at Lords, he struggles. Stuart Broad was told, to horrible effect, that he was an ‘aggressor’. While he still bowls the odd short ball – how successful it is is debatable – he bowled a fuller length at Lords and troubled the batsman more in one morning than he had done for the entirety of the second day. It is possible to change your bowling plans without compromising who you are as a bowler. It’s fine if you see yourself as a bowler who excels in the short ball; it is a tactic that will undoubtedly come in handy on the bouncy pitches in Australia. But on days such as today, when wickets are being taken with a full ball, Finn needed to stop, evaluate and change. He didn’t, yet somehow, still managed to walk away with four wickets. Funny old game.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Australia in India: PR Disaster 2.0

Anything England can do, Australia can do better. That was the message the team were looking to promote when they travelled to India after England's historic series victory. And they have indeed managed to prove that whatever PR or player management messes England can produce, Australia are capable of going one better.

There were collective sighs throughout last summer as the ECB and Kevin Pietersen stand-off became more ridiculous by the day. Fans were isolated, players trotted out the approved lines while management and PR agents squabbled over the most minute and absurd details. Australia have taken this format and ran with it. The rise and fall of Australian cricket has been amusing to even the most impartial observer, but the dropping of four players for not submitting a three point presentation on how they could improve (a presentation which, apparently, could include popping a scrap of paper under the coach's hotel room door) goes beyond a joke.

The vice-captain has left India, to be at home with his pregnant wife and 're-assess' his test career. Two of the players dropped haven't played any part in the test series, and Pattinson has played in both games, been the most impressive of the pace attack by far and took a five-for on a road of a pitch where seamers and spinners alike struggled. The coach declared the dismissing of the players as part of Australia's new tougher stance which was essential to their quest to become number one team in the world. Arthur stated that the best teams in the world "have the best attitudes." They also have a feeling of unity and security in their dressing rooms. Problems are sorted discreetly and privately, there is mutual respect between players and staff and the cricket takes the front seat. This seems non-existent in Australia.

This situation cannot be solely blamed on Arthur. During the press conference, he emphasised how he and 'Pup' had worked together to strengthen the team. Team problems have a knack of following Clarke around, and he has an unnerving habit of sitting quietly in the background while things blow up around him. There was the incident with Katich, which lead to the dropping of a player whose services would surely have come in useful throughout this series; Symonds blamed his career ending on Clarke's influence in the team; Hussey's retirement this year, and subsequent dropping from the one-day team, led to more rumours about Clarke's influence in the dressing room and now this. They could, of course, just be rumours. But it seems odd how closely they follow Clarke around. Clarke is a player, captain and selector. He is involved in every aspect of team life, which surely cannot be healthy. How can he gain the trust of players if incidents such as this happen? A captain is meant to inspire, act as a sounding board for players to express their opinions without fear of retribution. Does disagreeing with Clarke mean one's place is in jeopardy? It shouldn't, but one can't help but suspect that it does.

This goes far further than players forgetting to hand in their homework. The cricket has taken a backseat, just as it did in England last year. Hughes has hardly blossomed at the top of the order. Khawaja was almost certainly slated in to take his position. Now, Khawaja remains on the sidelines, Hughes will presumably continue to struggle, his confidence will be shot and Australia will have to pick him up and rebuild him for the second time in his career. Hardly helpful, in a back-to-back Ashes year. There is also the fact that, no matter how stupid the players may have felt the task was, they simply ignored what their coach was asking of them. Hardly the sign of a positive dressing room relationship.

England will be watching, no doubt with some amusement. Their own PR situation resolved itself after a month long posturing contest and a period of reintegration. One suspects Australia's may drag on for longer.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

England in New Zealand: Complacency Costs

Complacency. Defined as a feeling of quiet pleasure or security, often while unaware of some potential danger or defect; self-satisfaction or smug satisfaction. Or, it could mean England facing New Zealand in the same year as back-to-back Ashes tests. It's too early to say that England have lost this match - New Zealand and their fractious line-up still have to bat, after all - but England have put the opposition in a fantastic position on what is effectively the first day of the test.

New Zealand bowled well, and McCullum set excellent fields, but England's shot selection ranged from bad to completely brainless. Pietersen was the only batsman who was really 'got out', undone by a fantastic delivery from Wagner first up. The majority of the batsmen seemed to think they were in the back garden, hitting sixes for the entertainment of their children. Cook, Bell and Prior both slapped deliveries straight to fielders, Trott played himself in and then got himself out in one of the ugliest ways a batsmen can (a slog sweep straight to backward point), Root and Compton both prodded and poked at deliveries they could, and should, have left and Broad's thoughtless hit to a fielder who had been moved into position the ball before summed up England's mindset. No patience, no application, no thought.

England were complacent. Cook warned against it, Flower has spoken in the past about bringing intensity to every match, but very few elements in England's performance suggested they were taking this particular game seriously. It's New Zealand, a team who were rolled for 45 just a few months ago. If we are perfectly honest, England expected to win. It's the done thing; go to New Zealand, beat them, throw in a few patronising comments about underdogs punching above their weight, get into some form and then return home for back-to-back Ashes. The preparation time was almost non-existent. One warm-up game, compared to the time spent in India and Australia before the series there, the 'get to know you' pre-Ashes sessions in Germany and spin academies in Dubai that the team attended. There was a solitary warm up game, which was the first time players such as Compton and Pietersen had played a first-class game in three months, and then a day of rain to give England time to mentally readjust. Which they failed to do, in rather spectacular style.

Complacency is a dangerous mindset to fall into. England have returned from what will be for some players the tour of a lifetime. They were fantastic in India, and they know so. The problem is, this isn't three months ago, when the players had plenty of cricket and training sessions under their belt. These are conditions that England know better than the ones they faced in India. India was, above all, a test of mental strength - New Zealand is a test of technical ability. England are currently grading an F in that department. They knew India wouldn't be easy because historically, it hasn't been. Neither has New Zealand. The last time England visited New Zealand, they overhauled their bowling attack, Strauss and Bell scored two career (and match) saving centuries and despite the scorelines, New Zealand put up a fight. That, however, seemed to have been forgotten on the first day back in whites.

Saying that it's a big year for English cricket is a little like saying Richard Hadlee was an alright bowler. Back-to-back Ashes, against an Australian side that are equal parts exciting and disappointing, are going to be at the forefront of the players minds. But that is no excuse to throw away games in the time being. Quite why England felt the need to not just throw away but happily hand over their wickets, rather than try and get some time in at the crease, is unfathomable. India was a fantastic tour for them. Cook proved his captaincy mettle in one of the toughest places to play, as the Australians are discovering at the moment. He applied himself in his batting; Pietersen was aggressive but controlled, Trott and Bell played themselves into form in the final test match and Compton showed no obvious struggle in such alien conditions. Yet in an overcast breezy Dunedin, more reminiscent of Scarborough in April than the hazy Indian pitches of the winter, England looked out of ideas.

The highest partnership of the innings came between Finn and Anderson, the numbers 9 and 10. Three of the top six got into double figures, Trott just closing in on a half-century, and yet no-one went on to get the big score. Wickets were thrown away, and while New Zealand's bowling was sharp and backed up by some good fielding, they were not unplayable deliveries that were swinging across the deck. There was a little in the pitch, but it was a lovely day for batting. It's a shame England missed out on it.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Shot Themselves in the Foot (again)

Did you know there was an international T20 between the West Indies and Australia today? More to the point, did you care? The Australian crowds did, but barely so. Despite the Gabba's handy trick of colour blocking its seats to make the stadium look jam packed, it was half full at best. The crowd were loud, but not overly so. They were enthusiastic, but in a sort of 'too cool to care' way, rather than raising the roof in their support.

Australia hadn't fielded an A team; they'd barely presented a B team. The usual suspects were in India, preparing for the forthcoming test series in traditional, time-honoured fashion; collapsing to some average spin bowling. This was after a five match one day series against the West Indies, in which we learnt nothing we could already take an educated guess it. West Indies need Chris Gayle to fire; Australia is reliant on middle-order cameos; these are two sides that actually, big names aside, are not that good.

Who can blame them, though? Conquering India, or more aptly, the sub-continent, is the main aim of most international teams. England's recent historic victory there has shown that it can be done. With back to back Ashes series on the horizon, Australia will be desperate to prove that whatever the Poms can do, they can do better. The first test begins in roughly eight days. Not only have Australia spent around two weeks playing a one day series that in the long run means nothing, they've missed out on valuable acclimatisation time. 

While they have another tour match lined up, it begins in three days, which hardly gives the Australians time to work on the faults that the first game highlighted. It is a fairly inexperienced team that arrived in India, in particular the batsmen, and Australia should have jumped at the chance to spend as much time in India as possible. England had a pre-series training camp in Dubai, five warm-up games and the England Lions also playing a series in India. There was as much preparation as possible.

Australia, meanwhile, have two games in quick succession. Their new middle order has barely been tested. Now that Hussey and Ponting have retired, Michael Clarke is the most experienced batsman in the line-up. Watson, his vice-captain, is still experimenting in his new role as an all-rounder who doesn't bowl. There's still debate over who will occupy Hussey and Ponting's places; Clarke still seems to have little faith in Nathan Lyon, who bowls better than many give him credit for and the back-up spin options are inexperienced at best, scarce at worst. 

There are also the odd glitches here and there. The sneaking suspicion that David Warner cannot play spin, Matthew Wade's keeping occasionally veering toward village... issues such as these will play on the captain's mind. Given that this is his first experience in leading the side in India, a place where he scored a brilliant 151 on debut, he will be hoping to emulate Alastair Cook's profitable winter. But he does not have the strength of team behind him that England did; there is no-one of Graeme Swann or Monty Panesar's calibre to toss the ball to when things are stalling.

Mickey Arthur, meanwhile, is watching over proceedings in Australia, while the warm-ups go on without him. Quite why it was felt another one day series was needed in Australia is unsure. TV rights must surely top the list. Channel 9 have took great joy throughout the summer at criticising Australia's rotation policy and  anything and everything George Bailey has done, whilst retaining a one-eyed view that has been impressive in its bias. The players, meanwhile, hardly profited from the one day series. Their were centuries for the odd batsman, and Starc was able to prove again what a class player he has the potential to be, but with such an important test series around the corner, it felt rather like a waste of time. 

In the pre-game build up on Sky, Dominic Cork suggested that the success of Australia in the T20 match was "crucial to international cricket." Rubbish. On another Sky channel, England's women were showing valiant fight, to no avail, whilst the West Indies women beat Australia to enter their first world cup final. These are the games that are crucial to international cricket. The umpiring in the women's cup has been atrocious. The games themselves have received barely any media attention in India, and whilst some of the games have been poor, there have been some star turns that have been gripping. These are the areas of the game that deserve more attention, rather than the showy nature of another T20.

Australia do have a good chance of winning in India. England's performance, first test aside, showed that the myth of Indian spin is not as threatening as once was. Clarke is a beautiful player of spin and is currently in the form of his life; Ed Cowan, Usman Khawaja and Steve Smith all scored in the first warm up, and Australia's young pace bowlers will profit from plying their trade on India's flat pitches. But spending two weeks preparing for one day games so near to a test series seems a waste of resources. IPL owners aside, who was really watching?

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

CricketCoachApp Review

As someone whose always enjoyed watching cricket but has the natural batting prowess of Phil Tufnell and Monty Panesar combined, the rise in cricket apps for smart phones is both a blessing and a curse. The CricketCoach App uses a mixture of photographs, videos and training drills from a professional coach to improve bowling, batting and fielding skills. Each of the three areas have a separate app, priced at £1.99 each, so users can target their individual problems.

There are both advantages and disadvantages with the coach specific appearance. The app is undoubtedly aimed at coaches, which means that some of the videos and more text-based advice may go over younger users heads. The videos and photographs, however, are excellent. Dual video vantage points allow users to see batting stances and bowling grips from an array of views, and the option to overlay your own photographs over the technically sound images make for understanding. The videos are of good quality, and are accompanied by step-by-step photographs. The text sections, however, are a little lengthy; although the drills and explanations are useful, they could maybe be condensed to make it easier on the eye.

Despite being marketed as a multi-platform app, the size of the app is best suited to the smartphone. It appears too small on the iPad, which while the quality of the video is still good, some of the finer details are left out. There are also a few too many menu options; it can be a little laborious clicking through option after option to get to the specific training section. However, for those returning to the game, or those coaching larger groups of players, the apps are incredibly useful. The feedback goes down to the minute details, such as how to grip the bat correctly - all tips that come in handy for players of all techniques.

Although it is primarily focused on honing players skills, it also works for fans of the game. Using it when a game is on helps understand some of the finer points of international cricket that are harder to recognise through a TV screen. The sections on spin bowling, for example, were useful during England's recent series in India. They are also explained in a way that doesn't patronise the user, if a little lengthy.

Overall, for price and content quality, the app is a bargain. There are a few tweaks here and there but from a coaching and teaching perspective, it is spot on.

Monday, 14 January 2013

From underdogs to unacceptable

What do you do when the stereotype runs dry? Ask New Zealand. The cricketing underdogs, who history has shown love to punch above their weight, now look very much like the eight ranked nation in test cricket. The last series victory, if one counts a single test match as a "series," was against Zimbabwe in January 2012. The non-test ranked Zimbabwe, to be exact. It's a dismal record, and although there's the odd uplifting victory in Australia here and Sri Lanka there, it quite simply isn't good enough.

So what do New Zealand do? The team that was humiliated in South Africa was missing several of its key players. Vettori, whose bowling has lost some of its potency but who still remains a strong middle order batsman, and Southee, whose resurgence of form has been glorious to watch, were injured; Taylor, the best batsman in the side, was sat at home after being stitched up by the team management. They would undoubtedly have made some sort of difference. However, the inclusion of these three might not have tipped the balance back in New Zealand's favour, so shambolic was their performance.

First innings of the first test match: dismissed for 45. Steyn and Philander may be the best new ball pair in test cricket, but New Zealand should be able to stand up to them. Or at the very least, attempt to. Wickets were thrown away, there was little to no application and no-one seemed willing to hang around and try to make a score. There was no motivation. If getting rid of Taylor was supposed to improve team morale, then it's backfired spectacularly.

McCullum appears to be a decent enough captain, but he is far too flawed to be an opening batsman. His natural way of playing, described alternately as 'aggressive' and 'idiotic,' seems stymied at the top of the order. He looks unable to combine the patience of opening an innings with keeping the scoring rate going at the tempo he is used to, and he either gets bogged down into playing too defensively or he lashes out with some ill-conceived shot. Guptill's performances in South Africa were dire. A blistering T20 century at the very start of the tour, Guptill spent the test matches on auto-pilot; prod forward, edge to slips, edge to keeper, depart for low score. This meant that Williamson, who pulled New Zealand out of a hole in the series against the Proteas last year, was exposed to a relatively new ball, something which he is not used to and doesn't have the proper technique to deal with yet.

The young bowling attack failed to take 11 wickets in both tests. Boult and Bracewell, two relatively young pacemen, were left to lead the attack and managed it as well as they could. Patel, whose contribution to Warwickshire was so crucial to their title victory in 2012, is starting to develop decent control but against Amla and du Plessis, he looked out of his depth. Wagner has pace but lacks control, and Franklin's role as back up seamer should be locked in a box and never spoke about again. How New Zealand handles its youngsters will be crucial to the next few months. As a team that already has a tendency to find a winning formula and then abandon it for the next match, they need to give their more inexperienced batsman and bowlers the confidence, as well as the technical know-how, to continue at test level.

New Zealand next play England in back to back test series, one of which is billed as the warm up for England's dual Ashes defence. At this rate, the two test matches will be little more than batting practice for England's new boys. New Zealand need to show a bit of a fight, or passion, or something that will stop this slide into mediocrity. Heads go down far too quickly; even though they were rolled for 45, they needed to recollect and attack. Instead they didn't, and the result was two easy victories for South Africa, and further problem for Hesson and co.