Thursday, 2 March 2017

Try as he might, Kraigg Brathwaite is not an ODI batsman

Kraigg Brathwaite is the opposite of orthodox as a batsman. He makes Shiv Chanderpaul look technically correct, and Alastair Cook look stylish. Just like many other limited Test batsman in the past, he’s embarked on a quest to crack the one day game.

Look at his List A figures on Cricinfo and it looks like he has. 1434 runs at 42.17, with two hundreds and nine fifties. But a cursory glance at his strike rate and it’s clear he hasn’t. In the recent Regional Super 50 tournament, he scored at 65.40, look at his seven ODIs to date, and it drops to 57.86.

Compare that to Geoffrey Boycott, a notoriously slow scorer who played his last ODI in the considerably less run heavy environment of 1981, and Brathwaite only just comes out on top. This can’t just be interpreted as a young player getting used to ODIs. Whilst his steady hand may be useful at the top of the order for Barbados, a player whose strike rate, if multiplied across all the other batsmen in the team, would leave the West Indies with 174 from their 50 overs, is not good enough to play ODI cricket.

Yet, with England jetting in for a three match series, due to begin on Friday, Brathwaite remains in the ODI squad and is a good bet to open the batting, as he did against Pakistan in the UAE. Whatever stat you look at, it doesn’t look good for Brathwaite. Twelve fours and no sixes in his seven ODIs. His highest score so far is 78 off 117 against Zimbabwe in a match West Indies tied. In that match, no other West Indies player to play more than ten balls scored at a strike rate under 80.

Compare Brathwaite to Alastair Cook. England’s former captain had periods of heavy scoring in the ODI team, and periods where he managed to hang on to the sort of strike rate required. But his selection was symptomatic of a negative approach to the one day game – something West Indies are rarely accused of. It even damaged his Test game. Playing some domestic one day cricket may open up Brathwaite’s scoring a little and help his Test game, but playing ODI cricket – a step too far for Brathwaite as it stands – will start to damage it.

Cook even has a reasonable domestic T20 record, whilst Brathwaite is yet to make his senior T20 debut, and has not even entered the CPL draft this year. As the 50 over and 20 over forms begin to more closely converge, Brathwaite’s style is even further out of pace with ODI batting. His selection is indicative of a team who feel they will struggle to bat out 50 overs without a Test style batsman at the top of the order.

I write all this as a fan of Brathwaite. His crabby, bottom hand dominant, right handed Graeme Smith but without the strength, batting looks unlikely to be able to sustain a Test average of over 20. Brathwaite averages 37.52. His last Test match saw him carry his bat in the first innings for 142, then remain not out for 60 in seeing a tricky chase home in the second innings. He became the first ever Test opener to remain not out in both innings. It was a masterpiece of concentration, self-denial, and knowing your scoring areas.

Boycott would have been proud, and he also may have given some advice to the young grinder: Know your limitations. Kraigg Brathwaite has the temperament to become the next great West Indies run scorer. He would change his style at his own peril.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Is Keshav Maharaj South Africa's long term spinner?


In the five years since Paul Harris retired, South Africa have tried out six frontline spinners (seven if you include JP Duminy - which I don’t). Imran Tahir was the great white hope, and flamed out at Adelaide. Robin Peterson was steady and little more, after four years out of the team.

Dane Piedt scythed through Zimbabwe, fought back from injury, then was discarded for being an off-spinner. Simon Harmer impressed across five Tests in 2015, then was dropped for the returning Piedt, and decamped for England, as Piedt may do himself.

Keshav Maharaj impressed on debut at Perth after Dale Steyn’s injury left South Africa shorthanded, then was barely used in the next Test, and dropped the one after that. Tabraiz Shamsi got one Test, included because his variations were harder to pick with the pink ball.

Now for some background.

South Africa have had only one truly great spinner, the leading off-spinner of the 50s, Hugh ‘Toey’ Tayfield. Paul Adams, Nicky Boje, and Paul Harris all took over a hundred Test wickets and played their roles in the late 90s, and through the 00s, but since the retirement of Harris, South Africa have struggled to stick with a spinner.

It’s interesting to note that all three of South Africa’s modern spin trio are left-arm spinners (two orthodox, one very unorthodox). Left-arm orthodox might be the best way tie up one end against the modern batsmen, which may what South Africa want out of their spinner most of the time.

Maharaj has cited Rangana Herath as his hero, which suggests he may not be a defensive spinner, just a patient one. He also spoke to Paul Harris before the series to suss out how to bowl in home Test matches. The key word there: patience.

Sri Lanka showed rather a lack of patience in playing him on the second day of the Newlands Test match. Without wanting to dismiss Maharaj’s bowling, which was admirably disciplined, and tactically astute, South Africa’s strangulation of Sri Lanka with their seamers left the batsmen desperate to score against the spinner.

Maharaj had to wait 21 overs of the innings to come on, and was given the tough, but potentially rewarding, job of bowling into the wind. His fourth ball was slog-swept for six by Kusal Mendis, but there was a hint of a smile on Maharaj’s face, a portent of things to come.

The next two balls were slow again, teasing Mendis, a hard hit cover drive for none, and a forward defence. The next time Kusal Mendis tried to slog-sweep him, the ball was marginally more off side, and a little quicker, and the resulting top edge was caught by JP Duminy. Subtle variation. Rangana would be proud.

From a spin bowler’s point of view he’d have enjoyed Mahraj’s first over after tea, with balls bowled as slow as 74kph and as fast as 84kph. Less subtle, but no less varied, the Sri Lankan batsmen could not settle against him.

It took 5.4 overs before he bowled his first bad ball, short and cut to the point boundary by Dhananjaya de Silva. He followed it up with a good length straight ball. Then last ball of the over, batsman having got two fours in the over, he drifted one into the pads of the charging de Silva, and straightened it enough to get the LBW.

It was only two wickets, but Mahraj picked up two crucial batsmen, and provided an invaluable foil to South Africa’s seamers, bowling eleven overs unchanged from his first ball until Sri Lanka were bowled out. Even though he didn’t get a wicket against them, he masterfully targeted the rough outside Tharanga and Herath’s off stump, some balls fizzing back at them and some going straight on.

Mahraj is about patience and changes of pace, and his backup for now Tabraiz Shamsi is of a different sort of bowler, all about variations and mystery, as is any left-arm wrist-spinner, with so few of them about. His debut in the pink ball Test at Adelaide didn’t got to plan, but after his fantastic domestic season that got him picked originally, he should be first in line to partner Maharaj should a second spinner be needed.

Maharaj and Shamsi may find their paths intertwined for some time to come. Born eleven days apart in 1990, they are be the two halves of South Africa’s new spin dichotomy, the new Boje and Adams if you like.

Maharaj will play as the holding spinner, waiting and picking his chances to strike and pick up useful wickets. Shamsi will get his chances on spinning pitches, in the subcontinent, maybe again with the pink ball (if his variations are actually that much more difficult to pick with it).

Dane Piedt may get another chance if he doesn’t take his trade to England. JP Duminy may take Maharaj’s place if the selectors decide they simply don’t care about spin. Imran Tahir may even get another recall in the subcontinent.

Keshav Maharaj is the man now, nobody can take that away from him… yet.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Nine predictions for 2017

The first international century of the years is scored by Hashim Amla
This one will be proved or disproved very quickly. Amla had two underwhelming years and is in a poor run of form, but his class is permanent, and the changing of the calendars frees him up to caress his way to a near run a ball hundred shortly after lunch on the first day of South Africa’s series

Alastair Cook will resign in tears after South Africa beat England
This is my most nailed on prediction. Cook has one foot out of the captaincy, but the long gap before the next set of Test matches against South Africa will convince him to try to continue until after the Ashes; though South Africa will have a different view of that. Tradition dictates that he’ll resign in a tearful press conference after South Africa have clinched the series (2-1, after a win in the last Test at Old Trafford, if you’re asking)

The India v Pakistan series in the Future Tours Programme will not happen
Ok, this is the most nailed on prediction. India and Pakistan haven’t played a bilateral series since early 2013 (ODIs, and T20s) and haven’t played a Test since 2007. The FTP has India scheduled to host Pakistan for a full tour in November and December, but India are already seemingly arranging a tour of South Africa in that time. Of course, India did sign a deal guaranteeing six series between the countries, between 2015 and 2023 - pending government approval - but that has turned out to be not worth the paper it’s written on.

England will lose in the final of the Champions Trophy and Eoin Morgan will resign as captain before he’s pushed
England storm through the group stages with three wins, including a thumping one over Australia. After winning a tight semi-final against South Africa, they come up against Australia again in the final, where a tight chase of 281 comes down to the final ball, with Eoin Morgan at the crease and four to win. Morgan swings and misses, Australia win yet another ICC ODI tournament, and Morgan never plays for England again.

Adil Rashid makes the England spinners job his own
This one is a bit of wishful thinking, but bear with me. England will find a spinning pitch at Old Trafford in the last Test of the series, and pick the extra spinner in Rashid. In a losing cause, he takes twin four-fers as Moeen Ali continues a series of struggle with the ball. As England take on West Indies at Edgbaston in a day night Test next up, Rashid is retained, and continues to chip in with wickets and ever improving control, and Moeen Ali gets to focus on his batting. Rashid goes to Australia the number one spinner and alternates Tests of struggle with match-winning performances at Adelaide and Melbourne as he finds the big grounds of Australia to his liking.

Kraigg Brathwaite dominates West Indies’ tour of England
After Alastair Cook resigns the England captaincy, Joe Root’s first job is a home series against the West Indies. On dry end of season wickets, the pace bowlers run themselves into the ground trying to get rid of Kraigg Brathwaite, who makes a double hundred at Edgbaston, a century at Headingley and a brave fourth innings 99 in defeat at Lords. He fails to get on the honours board this time, but even as West Indies struggle for incision with the ball, he forms the spine of their batting.

AB de Villiers, Misbah ul Haq, Dale Steyn, and Rangana Herath retire from Test cricket
Two of these are expected. Misbah looked a beaten man after Pakistan capitulated at the MCG, and although he’s confirmed he will captain the New Year Test at the SCG, few doubt that whatever the result, the retirement announcement will come shortly afterwards. Rangana Herath has two bad knees and six months before Sri Lanka play again, expect him to bow out after Sri Lanka’s tour of South Africa ends. Alternatively, it is possible he may play on to try to provide a fitting end in beating India at home in July and August. De Villiers and Steyn’s retirements will be a shock to all, both taking the injury induced option of curtailing their Test careers to make it to the 2019 World Cup, with the knowledge that the likes of Kagiso Rabada and Temba Bavuma leave South Africa with a strong future in which they are no longer as crucial as they used to be.

Bangladesh will achieve their first significant overseas Test win
According to the FTP, Bangladesh have two Test series’ arranged against Australia and South Africa later in the year. More concretely, they are currently in New Zealand, with two Tests to come there, and will tour India for one Test in February. Maybe India underestimate them, maybe Taskin and Mustafizur find the Australian or South African pitches to their liking, or maybe they are just better than New Zealand right now. Whichever way it comes, I see another breakthrough win on the horizon.

The year ends with an Ashes series locked at 2-2
England are an improving side, or a side in transition, or a good flawed team. Ditto for Australia. Two good but not great teams will face up in what will be similar to the 2009 and 2013 Ashes series’, exciting cricket, not always of the greatest quality. Australia will get their wins at the Gabbatoir and Perth, England will fight back at Adelaide and Melbourne. Ben Stokes will score one very quick century, Mitchell Starc will briefly bring back repressed memories of another Mitch at Perth. The series will be on a knife edge as we tumble into 2018.

Monday, 21 November 2016

There's more than one way to skin a batsman

Adil Rashid has been a fixture in English cricket long enough that the England team should have known not to try to meddle too much with him. They didn’t.

It’s particularly galling, since this had happened before. Rashid previously struggled for several years after England tried to make him bowl quicker. Even as he started to trouble batsmen in limited overs games last year there were reports that Alastair Cook was worried that he bowled too slow for Test cricket.

Cook did have one data point to back up the idea: that of England’s front-line batsman turned spinner Moeen Ali. The Worcestershire all-rounder became England’s first choice spinner at the beginning of the 2014 season after a couple of good years as he took on more spin bowling responsibility for his county. Moeen bowls a good five miles per hour quicker than Rashid on average, and has managed to do that whilst still ripping the ball hard and not sacrificing loop.

It was Ian Bell who laid out the fact that Moeen had to bowl quicker, after his first three Test matches were unproductive with the ball. It was a technical tip from former off-spinner, now umpire, Kumar Dharmasena - to grab his pocket with his lead arm - that allowed Moeen to bowl quicker and not lose his loop.

That specific technical tip wouldn’t extend to Rashid, who has never managed to find a way to bowl quicker without sacrificing flight and turn. Leg-spin is such a difficult art, few players tinker majorly with their techniques through their career, and all of them have something they can’t do. Shane Warne’s side on action gave him beautiful control over his leg-break, but left him unable to bowl the googly without significant discomfort. Imran Tahir’s front on action means he barely turns his leg-break, but can disguise a big turning googly.

It’s therefore a fairly big advantage for Rashid that he can turn both his leg-break and googly significantly, in the manner of an Abdul Qadir or Stuart MacGill. Of course, as with all leg-spinners, that means something else has to give. With MacGill it meant that he didn’t have Warne’s control, and with Rashid it also means that his natural pace is slower than most leg-spinners.

That natural pace is not an impediment to success at Test level, if Rashid accepts it and bowls to his own strengths as he did in Rajkot, he’s got the strengths to be dangerous. Seven wickets in the match represented his best match figures and by far his most consistent bowling performance.

Five of the seven were top order batsmen, including Murali Vijay twice. He may have been fortuitous that Virat Kohli trod on his own stumps, and that Pujara didn’t review an LBW that had pitched outside leg, but he made the ball turn and bounce, hit a line and length, and got his rewards.

Of course because Rashid doesn’t need to up his normal pace, doesn’t mean that being able to change his pace up occasionally when needed wouldn’t be useful. Bowling quicker is sometimes better and Rashid will have to be able to do that occasionally in a match.

Moeen has that ability as a finger-spinner, but anyone who has bowled wrist-spin will attest that changing pace (like most things) is more difficult as a wrist-spinner. Moeen’s pace has allowed him to give batsmen less time to react when the ball is spinning, and meant that he proved the better bowler in Bangladesh when the ball needed to be fired into the pitch. Maybe at Rajkot the optimum pace was a bit slower, but his ability to go up and down in pace continues to develop.

There was some evidence of that sort of development in another encouraging performance by Rashid, in the second Test at Visakhapatnam. His second innings leg-break which slid on to get Wriddhiman Saha LBW was 55mph. He’s always been able to push his pace up when bowling variations but the fact that his leg-breaks stop turning at a higher pace can be used as a variation in and of itself. The wicket of Virat Kohli wicket at 52mph, above his natural pace, still spun. His second innings dismissal of Umesh Yadav - bowled at 48mph - showed how alluring, and dangerous his slower pace can be to

Every series he’s played his economy rate has come down, and while his strike-rate halved from Pakistan to Bangladesh, and remained around the same so far in India, his economy moving from 3.81 to 3.55 between the two series this year is significant and only increases Cook’s trust in him. Nobody’s asking him to hold up an end at under 3 an over, but a run-rate around 3.5 gives his captain trust in him, and it’s starting to become clear that he can do that; at his natural pace.

For all that Moeen is a completely different bowler to Rashid their Test match figures are remarkably similar, only a tenth of a run in economy rate separating them, strike rates virtually identical. It it because Moeen is an off-spinner bowling at ‘international pace’ that he is not thought of as a luxury bowler?

To be fair to Moeen, his bowling in this series has cast him as a master of economy, with run rates under three an over in three innings out of four so far in India. This may have come at the cost of incision. Bowling fast on the pitches of Bangladesh brought him wickets but not enough control, and in India the equation has gone backwards.

It’s the idea of ‘international pace’ for a spinner that brooks more investigation. What is it? One imagines that those who believe in it see it at somewhere between 50 and 55mph, but the faster the better. This is at best a partial truth. The best pace for any spin bowler is the one where they get the most spin, and if they look to flight the ball, the fastest they can still bowl with the ball still going up then dipping on a batsman.

Graeme Swann could manage this at 55mph and even higher, Moeen Ali is at his best a little slower. Rangana Herath (most wickets of any spinner in the last 5 years) bowls at the same pace as Adil Rashid, sometimes even slower, Ravi Jadeja is also a left-arm spinner and bowls 10mph quicker. Ravichandran Ashwin bowls quick, Devendra Bishoo bowls slow. Leg-spinners generally bowl slower than finger-spinners but Anil Kumble bowled fast.

There are many ways to skin a batsman.

Despite this, it’s interesting how much batsmen playing their natural games is defended, and how much bowlers are made to change. Think back to Jimmy Anderson’s natural action being changed because he was supposedly at risk of stress fractures; cue stress fracture with new unnatural action.

Adil Rashid - on making his Test debut last winter - had nearly ten years First-class experience behind him. Enough to know your own game, and it’s strengths and weaknesses, you’d think. Enough for the coaches and pundits to know? It seems not.

After that near-decade of First-class bowling, tossing it up slowly and flighted, but ripping it hard at that pace, the coaches and the pundits decided that his pace was not quick enough to prosper at international level. If they truly believed that they should never have picked him. If they didn’t, they should have resisted the urge to tinker.

Saqlain Mushtaq has to be given credit for his work with both Rashid and Moeen. Just like David Saker used to with the seam bowlers, he knows that technical changes to a bowler are best taken with care, and are worse than useless in the middle of a series.

Instead, he’s worked on tactics, how to bowl to specific batsmen, and focused on raising both bowlers’ confidence, making sure they know their strengths, and how they can succeed.

That’s the real truth it comes down to in spin bowling. Slower pace has its strengths and weaknesses, as does bowling faster.

Bowling slow leaves batsmen more time to get to the pitch. Bowling fast makes it more difficult to beat the batsmen on flat pitches

Bowling slow makes looping the ball easier. Bowling fast gives batsmen less chance to react on spinning pitches

Bowling slow requires more guile. Bowling fast requires more rip on the ball.

If you’re good enough as a spinner to pick the best pace for the pitch, the batsman, the ball you’re going to let go; congratulations, you may be Shane Warne. For the rest of us mortals, it’s all trade offs and compromises. When it comes time to pick your poison, maybe your natural way is best.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Mature Mehedi Hasan keeps things simple

It’d be easy for Mehedi Hasan Miraz to get carried away. The Prime Minister has ordered a house be built for him; he’s already the second highest ranked Bangladesh bowler in the ICC rankings at 33; praise is coming from all corners of the cricketing world. Also apropos of nothing, his off-spinning heroes are Graeme Swann and… Ramesh Powar.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that a twice Under-19 World Cup captain is mature enough to handle this; mature beyond his years. Simplicity and maturity are not the usual buzzwords for a 19 year old spin sensation, but they are with him.

Rip the ball. Land it on the right spot. Some will turn. Some will not. That’s the extent of Mehedi Hasan’s bowling tactics. On pitches the like of which Chittagong and Dhaka have served up, that’s pretty much all he’s needed to do.

Of course, that’s a bit reductive. Across his two tests, Mehedi has had the control to keep landing it on that spot, the control of his seam position to get that spin, and natural variation. He’s started to vary his pace like a man older than his nineteen years, the wicket of Alastair Cook based on a ball slowed down significantly to get Cook, pressing in front of his body, caught off the face of the bat at silly mid-on.

As for maturity, the depth of thought that he has showed was exemplified in an interview he gave to Wisden India. Talking about an age group tour to West Bengal he said, “I am so young; I didn’t know Hindus don’t have beef. I realised when I went to play in West Bengal. It was so different. I don’t know much about Partition, I found out when I went to Kolkata.” The tone seems self-deprecating but it’s clear that he’s a thinker, and not just about cricket.

That maturity showed in his debut, and in the second Test when in England’s second innings, Mehedi had to deal with Test batsman attacking him for the first time. Ben Duckett swept, reverse swept, dabbed, hit over the top, pulled and (yes, really) reverse drove.

But all it took was the lunch break, and a ball that kept low, and consistent, calm, mature, nineteen year old Mehedi Hasan was in the game. The wicket of Duckett opened things up. Cook was triggered then saved on review, Ballance pulled a long hop up in the air (“The harder I work, the luckier I get”), then four balls was all it took for an off-break that went on to thud into Moeen Ali’s front pad.

Bangladesh swarmed over England. Shuvagata Hom was pulled along in Mehdi’s wake, his unexceptional off-spin tinged with menace, balls sliding into Cook’s pads and spinning past his outside edge.

But this was Mehdi’s show. Bowling over and over again in the mid-50s mph, he had more luck, but no more than his performance deserved. Cook, unsettled by the wickets falling around him, pressed forward and only managed to prod the ball into the midriff of silly point Mominul Haque.

Bairstow followed, and after Shakib joined in, running through the lower order, it was time for Mehedi to get his champagne moment, turning one onto the big pads of Steven Finn. There was no doubt. Mehedi Hasan was a matchwinner, and the hottest new name in cricket.

Given what he’s managed in his first two Tests, it’s astonishing that he’s described as a batting all-rounder on his Cricinfo page. If you take first class averages (at the age of 19) of 35 with the bat, and 22 with the ball into account, he could well be the next Shakib al Hasan, a second genuine all-rounder in the Bangladesh team.

The first time I saw Mehedi Hasan bowl was in an Under-19 game against West Indies in 2013. Admittedly this is based just on the poor quality live stream that the WICB had provided, he looked tidy, but little more than that. The leg-spinner Jubair Hossain looked the better prospect, and indeed made his Test debut first.

But had I looked closer, I would have noticed that Mehedi Hasan - captaining the side - was doing so shortly before his 16th birthday. I’d have also noticed that although he only average 18.14 across the seven ODIs with the bat, he took 13 wickets at 13.07 with the ball, comparable figures to the leg-spinner two years his senior.

Despite getting his Test debut two years ago, Hossain has receded, dropped for his club side’s last First-class game, and Miraz (as his team-mates call him) has taken his place for Bangladesh. With this sudden success has come worldwide attention - in the world of cricket that is - and he’s shown his maturity there.

His love for the game can’t be disputed. The boy who was beaten by his father for playing cricket, but then continued to play, isn’t one with either a lack of commitment or love.

Mehedi Hasan has risen this far, and greater challenges lie ahead. I have a feeling he might be up for them.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Adil Rashid's sisyphean task

In Ancient Greek mythology, Sisyphus was said to have been punished by the gods for his craftiness to roll a rock up a hill forever, only when he reached the top to see it roll back down again. Adil Rashid did more than roll the ball on his first two days of Test cricket, but his sisyphean task wasn’t a mountain, it was a pitch flatter than flat.

0-163 now is the worst debut bowling performance in Test history (in terms of most runs conceded for no wicket, if not the savagery of Bryce McGain’s debut), but he at least was not alone in his struggles. Lesser men than Rashid (i.e. me) would have taken some solace from the fact of Moeen Ali’s struggles.

This at least wasn’t a shambles for him. It wasn’t Bryce McGain at Cape Town (?), bad shoulder limiting him; slapped around at eight an over, nor was it Simon Kerrigan’s yips at the Oval, or Imran Tahir’s implosion at Adelaide. He simply bowled below average on a flat pitch unsuited to his skills, or those of almost any bowler. The usual bad balls being picked off is one thing, but when Asad Shafiq can go on the back foot to good length balls and repeatedly deposit them to the off-side boundary there wasn’t much Rashid could do.

You could quibble with the details. If he’d landed a perfect length all day, he may have gone at under four an over. I stress, may, this was a pancake of a pitch on which Moeen Ali, whilst not spinning the ball appreciably. If he had a flipper or a harder spun slider he may have had the chance for LBWs. He may have exposed his googly too early and often yesterday, if I can pick it on TV from behind the bowler’s arm, batsmen will too.

There was a slim silver lining. Rashid did turn the ball… at times. On pitches with a bit more pace, i.e. any pace at all, he’ll pick up wickets, but he’ll also go for runs.

The suggestion that he’s too slow for Test cricket has merit, but is a gross simplification. Behind Saeed Ajmal and Graeme Swann, who always bowled at a brisk pace for a spinner, the next best spinner of the last five years has been Rangana Herath, the roly-poly man who works in a bank, and generally bowls at around the same pace as Rashid. Pace doesn’t matter, it’s whether can take wickets with it that matters.

Herath makes up for his lack of pace with preternatural cunning and supreme accuracy. Rashid, if he’s to succeed, will have to compensate primarily with flight, dip, and spin. A bit more cunning would help too. When the turn he did get bowling from mid-crease on to off stump was comfortably left alone, he could have used the crease more intelligently, bowling more from wide of the stumps to make that turn threaten the stumps more. Whether it was lack of confidence in changing his method or simply not thinking of it, more cunning is needed.

He’d do well to glance at some highlights from Sri Lanka, to see Devendra Bishoo twirling away at the same art as him. Similar of build, and not entirely dissimilar in method, Bishoo took 1-78, conceding his runs at 3.54 an over, despite generally looking threatening. The difference between the two on this occasion was the pitch. Galle wasn’t a dustbowl, but it was just fast enough for balls to turn quickly off the surface, something that couldn’t be said of Abu Dhabi.

For context, the seven unthreatening overs from Zulfiqar Babar and the figures of 3-585 - those of the New Zealand and Australian bowlers in their first innings’ here last year - provide ample proof of how difficult this pitch is for spinners.

It’s easy to forget that Adil Rashid is still learning his trade, every 27 year old leg-spinner is. Leg-spin bowling is difficult. Leg-spin bowling at international doubly so. Leg-spin bowling on a flat pitch in 40 degree heat on debut in the first innings against accomplished players of spin, well that’s a punishment even the Greek gods would have baulked at.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Morne van Wyk’s time in limbo

Last week saw the retirement of several distinguished batsmen. Michael Clarke left the stage at the age of 34 and his teammate Chris Rogers along with Kumar Sangakkara gave up international cricket for good at the age of 37 after vastly different careers.

In the middle of that age bracket at 36  but less well known to the average cricket fan, is Morne van Wyk, who made his international debut in the same year as Clarke, but never went on to the same heights. In the twelve years since 2003 he’s had six different spells in the South African ODI team and five in the t20 team. Those spells have given him 25 international caps, an average of two and a half games between each time he’s dropped, making the South African wicketkeeper the definition of the fill-in player.

His debut was the immediate prelude to four years out of international cricket, and when he came back, he was dropped from the ODI team after a duck two games later. That was 2007 and later in that year, he was brought back for one match, and a another duck  This year he was even dropped from South Africa’s t20 team the game after scoring a hundred. Last in, first out.

Until that hundred, the South African selectors couldn’t be blamed for their stance. Indeed, van Wyk flunked his big chance and longest run in the side, playing five of the seven games at the 2011 World Cup, without anything more substantial than 42 against Ireland.

That was his last international game for nearly four years. His next chance came in January this year, because of an injury to Quinton de Kock, and worries over AB de Villiers’ workload, rather than anything in his own form or skill that suggested a man ready to make an impact at the international level.

His chance may be closing, as de Kock’s three consecutive ‘A’ team hundreds have confirmed his readiness to return to international cricket and with de Villiers also able to take the gloves for limited periods. The South African selectors are unlikely to take a third wicket-keeper batsman to next years World T20, and van Wyk looks set to be the unlucky third man, as he was earlier this year for the 50 over World Cup.

There’s a chance today’s ODI against New Zealand may have been his last international match. He would have been relieved when his top-edged pull was put down by Doug Bracewell at fine leg while he was batting on 17.

Despite that reprieve and a confident start to the game, as his innings went on, he got more and more stuck, only scoring 16 singles, and playing out 71 dot balls overall. Eventually, Grant Elliott made one bounce marginally high on him and he edged to slip. 58 off 100 balls in an ODI will not endear you to the selectors even if it’s his second highest ODI score, that being a reflection of his paucity of playing time more than anything else.

When you’re 36, there are always younger men snapping at your heels. Dane Vilas was the man who replaced him on the tour to Bangladesh, and the 30 year old may have van Wyk’s fate in his future, filling in for the occasional match when de Kock’s injured and de Villiers doesn’t want to take the gloves.

Van Wyk may have looked at this match for one last flourish. His international chances have all come at four year intervals. A debut in 2003, limited chances in 2007, World Cup ignominy in 2011, and finally intervals of filling in for a man 14 years his junior this year. In four years time he will be 40, and that will prove a step too far. It’s now or never for Morne van Wyk.

He looks every inch his 36 years, if not more. The picture in his Cricinfo profile shows him with flowing blonde locks, but his hair isn’t flowing now, and it’s more grey than blonde. All his runs can do is keep him in contention, however many he scores, the younger de Kock and indefatigable genius of de Villiers will outrank him.

He might not mind bowing out from international cricket at at Kingsmead, the site of his one shining moment for South Africa, that t20 hundred in a meaningless dead rubber in a series his team had already lost. It’s also his adoptive home in domestic cricket, playing for the Dolphins the last two seasons. It’s a fitting way to go out, a player who wasn’t quite good enough, playing an innings that wasn’t quite good enough. Maybe it didn’t matter to him, maybe he’d already had his moment.