Thursday, 29 November 2012

Who writes Ponting's scripts?

The title says it all. When everything else is said and done, why do I watch cricket? For the narrative. In that narrative there are heroes and villains, and as an Englishman, one regular villain was that beady eyed squinting little man who pulled like no other and would never let himself be beaten.

Yet, in recent years, the runs turned from a flood into the occasional spurt, and Ricky Ponting began to look like a rather sorry figure. When he was injured for the final Ashes Test nearly two years ago, Michael Clarke took over the captaincy and Usman Khawaja seemed to be the man who would lock Pontings spot down, after the most talked about 37 in Test history.

Yet Ponting bounced back, and struggled through for another two years, with one huge series against India and several more middling ones. Then his story comes to an end, playing one last Test, against South Africa, for the number one status.

Graham Gooch once said of Ian Botham: "Who writes your scripts?" Well, Ricky's scripts were never like Botham's. He's scored the second most Test runs of anyone, has the most Test wins, yet at crucial times his script has wavered. He took over the best team in the world, and lost three Ashes series with it, and left it a long way off the top.

Maybe his storyline will have one "Who writes your scripts" moment. As an Englishman I have no love for Ponting, but I am a sucker for a storyline, and a 4th innings match-winning hundred to go back to number one, that would be a fitting way for a great player to go out.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

A suggestion for Tahir, and a look back at the googly bowlers

Back in the early 20th century, Bernard Bosanquet invented the googly, to, in his own words: “ridicule, abuse, contempt, incredulity .” Since then, it's become an almost vital part of leg-spin bowling. I say almost vital, because perhaps the greatest leg-spinner of all time – Shane Warne – rarely bowled one after his shoulder surgery, and still did pretty well. Also, the inverse sometimes applies, the googly isn't a leggie's be all and end all.

Imran Tahir has a pretty good googly. He turns it more than his leg-break, and it's not easy to pick, yet he's just been absolutely smashed by Australia (match figures: 37-1-260-0). He's not s bad leg-spinner, and he has a big weapon in that googly. So maybe he needs to start thinking in the opposite way.

Returning to the early 20th century, Bosanquet started the googly, and taught it to Reggie Schwartz, who emigrated to South Africa. Schwartz became one of a number of googly bowlers in South Africa, which seems extraordinary in today's spin starved country. During the 1905/06 home series against England, they played four googly bowlers in a match several times, in Schwarz, Aubrey Faulkner, Ernie Vogler and Gordon White.

Those googly bowlers helped instigate the first 'golden age' of South African cricket, beating England 4-1 at home, and... Maybe Tahir can take a lessson from them now. All the four were heavy users of the googly, and Schwartz even used it as his stock ball. Your best ball should be your stock ball, no? So why shouldn't Tahir reverse his thinking and use his googly as his stock ball and his leg-break as the change up? He couldn't do much worse could he?

Monday, 19 November 2012

Cook, Bell and how long it takes perceptions to change

Before the tour to the UAE earlier in the year, who was England's best batsman against spin? A lot of people would have said Ian Bell. Yet, where did the perception that Bell was a good player against spin come from? In the same vein where did the perception Cook was a bad one come from?

In Cook's first Test, in India nearly seven years ago, Bell made 9 and 1, getting out pushing forward at Harbhajan Singh in the first innings. Cook made 60 and an unbeaten 104, a century on Test debut. Whilst Cook made few more runs in the series, only playing the first two Tests, missing the third with a stomach bug, Bell only made one fifty in six innings on the tour, averaging 21.83.

That remains his best tour of India and his overall average there after the first Test of this series is 18.36 with one fifty and no hundreds. Given his poor record coming into this series in India, as well as Sri Lanka and the UAE His summer wasn't great either, scoring five fifties in the six Tests, but not making a single one into a hundred, and the bulk of his runs coming against the West Indies. After he goes back home for the birth of his child, there must be a huge question mark over his place in the team when he comes back.

But, back to the relative merits of Cook and Bell against spin, I think Lawrence Booth in the Mail put it best:
“When the pre-series form was doing the rounds – Sunil Gavaskar calls it 'hype', as if we are wrong to feel excited about Test cricket – Cook rarely featured in lists detailing England’s best players of spin. 
While Kevin Pietersen was bestowed with the capacity to take an attack apart, as he did in Colombo, Ian Bell was light on his feet (even if he couldn’t pick the doosra), and Jonathan Trott had shown the way ahead with his century in Galle. Samit Patel had muscled his way into the frame as well.”
Everyone but Cook was given a fair chance against the spinners, and they all failed. Pietersen can be a match winner against spinners, but just as often he gets out to stupid shots against them, Trott seems to prop forward and hope for the best, and Patel's reputation is built on playing Mendis (the Sri Lankan Chris Harris) well in a T20 that was already lost. As for Bell, where did his reputation ever come from?

In his first taste of high quality spin, in the 2005 Ashes, he fell victim to Warne three times in ten innings, and looked very uncomfortable against him. Still, this was the best spinner in the world, early in his career. After that he averaged over fifty in Pakistan, but fell to spin four times in six innings, including criminally Shohaib Malik twice.

So far, so average. Then came his first tour of India and a home series where he thrashed Pakistan for 375 runs in four Tests. Still there was no career defining innings against spin. While his tour of Sri Lanka in 2007 got him 261 runs at 43.50, he succumbed to Murali five times in six innings, the other dismissal a run out.

That was his last tour of the subcontinent - bar one series where he thrashed Bangladesh - until the UAE earlier in the year, and if you look at his whole career in the subcontinent bar Bangladesh, he has an average of 28.43 and only one hundred in 17 matches. So where did his reputation as a good player of spin come from, two decent tours, Pakistan in 05/06 and Sri Lanka in 07, plus butchering poor spinners on English pitches.

That's what he is, a good player of poor and average spin on flat pitches. Of course when he does that he looks inordinately good, unlike Cook who never looks aesthetically pleasing. Cook however has the will to tough it out, and has worked very hard with Graham Gooch to turn what might have been a weakness at one point into a strength.

Compare both their averages in Asia (including Bangladesh this time) and Cook has five centuries and an average of 53.96 and Bell has two and an average of 34.44. Take Bangladesh out of the equation and Cook's average drops to 46.45, whilst Bell's goes down to 28.43. The evidence is there, and the perceptions will change soon too.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

The mystery of Kulasekera

Watching the 4th ODI between New Zealand and Sri Lanka, I was struck by the skill of Nuwan Kulasekera, bowing at Rob Nicol. In his third over, he worked over Nicol, and even with three wides in the over, managed to pick up the wicket with his last ball.

He showcased almost all his skills in just one over, his natural in-swinger swinging big for the first ball, then seaming one slightly away from Nicol, beating the outside edge, and repeating the trick next ball with a lovely out-swinger. He also bowled a couple of good bouncers in-between, which were wided, but would have been fine in a Test match.

He got the wicket with the last ball of the eventual nine ball over, Nicol coming down the track and popping the ball into mid on's hands. The wicket came thanks to the pressure built up through the over, not allowing Nicol a run off the bat, pinning him back with bouncers before beating him with swing and seam.

With such prodigious skill, why has Kulasekera done so averagely throughout his career. His ODI average is high at 33.94 and his Test average is 34.41, having only played 15 matches. It's not as if he is constantly getting better either, his ODI average this year is 41.67 and his Test average is 36.37 He has all the tools to succeed, a big in-swinger, a well disguised straight ball and out-swinger added to his game in recent years, skiddy pace without being all out quick and a decent bouncer.

Maybe he moves the ball too much, sometimes it's the ball that moves a little that takes the wicket. Or maybe it's that the ball swings from the hand, even if he swings it miles, batsmen tend to get bat on it. Perhaps if he used his in-swinger as a shock weapon he'd do better, although as it is his natural ball this seems unlikely for him.

Sri Lanka have the making of a good seam attack, if only they could put it all together, with Lasith Malinga's injuries stopping him playing Tests, Chanaka Welegedera also plagued by injuries, and Kulasekera never quite living up to his promise.

With a good spell of consecutive Test matches, close together – something Sri Lanka won't get for a while – Kulasekera could get into some kind of rhythm. Against Pakistan in 2009 he bowled the most balls in a series by that point in his career, picking up 17 wickets at 15.05. He got that sort of series again against Pakistan, in 2012, and while his performance wasn't great (8 wickets at 36.37) he has the chance in the upcoming Tests against New Zealand to show that he's a good Test bowler.