Sunday, 18 August 2013

How to be a club tailender

Insist that your proper place is at number eleven. Get into half-jokey, half-serious arguments with team-mates about getting to bat there.

Sit down and busy yourself umpiring, scoring or changing the scoreboard if you're rubbish at all those jobs too.

See a few wickets go down. Assume that they'll recover and won't need you. Have a bowl just off the outfield or wander around the pavilion.

Return to find four or five wickets down, early. Sit down and nervously flick a ball from hand to hand.

See the seventh wicket go down, know that's the cue for you to pad up. Go to your kitbag and pull out your nice new pads, gloves you've had since you were twelve, box you've had since you were twelve (maybe I should get a new one, just for self-respect)

Wander out, trying to look casual, shitting yourself inside. After one more wicket goes down, have the moment when briefly you feel like you want to have a bat.

Borrow someone else's bat, since yours was one you found in the attic, and seems to be from the 1940s. Laugh along with the toothpick jokes.

Psyche yourself up by thinking about your best innings. That two squirted through gully in a charity match where you ludicrously found yourself batting at six, since about five of the players hadn't played the game before.

Try not to think about that fact you yorked yourself and missed a straight ball soon after. Try not to think about the time you went to pad up, got out of the pavilion to find your services immediately needed, walked out to the middle, was clean bowled first ball having forgotten to take guard, and returned to the pavilion, all within about a minute. Your first foray up to the dizzy heights of number nine.

Try not to think about the time you came in after a twelve year old, and he farmed the strike off you. Although, to be fair, you were unbeaten, and he got out.

See the stumps splayed, as the number nine gets out, and wander out to the middle, trying to look calm.

Walk up to your partner, and hope he has some good advice, "Just do your best, one ball left in the over" Oh, thanks, nothing on the pitch or the bowlers mate?

Wander down to the strikers end. Try to look professional. Take a middle stump guard, because you should take a guard, not for any tactical reason. Scratch your guard out and walk away and survey the field.

Settle into your stance as the bowler thunders in. Try not to let him know you're scared. Swish and miss at the first ball outside off stump, and thank god he didn't bowl straight.

Try to take a single the next over, and see the number ten try to keep you off strike. Get down to the strikers end against a leg-spinner. Swish and miss at a couple of turning balls, defend one or two successfully and swipe at the triple bouncer bowled off the cut strip.

See out the over, see your partner cut the seamer to gully, and try to seem disappointed that the team are all out. Actually, you are disappointed, despite only getting bat on ball twice in eight balls.

Start thinking about actually practicing, maybe moving up to seven or eight. Remember how bad you are, and look forward to bowling.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Simon Jones keeps going

Simon Jones wanders out to bat at eleven in a late season YB40 match. The same time eight years ago he was playing in the Old Trafford Ashes Test match, just coming off his best Test figures of 6-53 in the first innings, and a day from perhaps his greatest wicket, bowling Michael Clarke, leaving a huge hooping inswinger, a ball bowled at his customary brisk pace that swung in from a foot outside off stump. One of the images of the summer.

So many of the greatest memories of the 2005 Ashes come from balls he bowled. Before he picked up one of so many injuries in the Fourth Test he was England’s best bowler. 18 wickets at 21, the lowest bowling average besides Shane Warne in the whole series.

His first ball here sees him do battle against the latest England fast bowling sensation. First ball, he creates a little room and slices him through the covers. I wonder whether he thought at all about the days eight years ago when he was that sensation. Finn has more Test wickets than he ever managed, yet he’s nothing like the bowler Jones was in his prime.

Jones manages five off two balls as Glamorgan bat first. Before he is brought into the attack, he chases a ball down to the boundary at fine leg, and pulls it back, in the old style, over-running the boundary. No slides for him. After what he went through in Brisbane, perhaps it’s understandable.

Seven overs in, with Middlesex at 32-3, he enters into the attack. The run up seems slower than 2005, but the jump, gather and hurl remain the same. His first ball was timed on the speed gun at 69.5 mph. It looked quicker. His second got a wicket, Morgan slugged one out to the deep cover fielder, who took a good catch diving forward.

It wasn’t that great of a ball, but his next was better, a seaming skiddy in-cutter, which rapped Adam Voges on the pads. Jones screamed, pure aggression seeping out of him, a proper fast bowler, defying the years. Hat-trick ball, raps John Simpson on the pad... the thigh pad, leg bye down to fine leg.

When he gets it full, batsmen are reluctant to come forward. The speed gun may only be registering in the low 80s, but with his skiddy action it seems faster. His first spell yields 2-7 off two overs.

He comes back for his second spell with a full toss, a grimace, and an apology. Very close to being a no ball. His third ball, a yorker is inside edge down to fine leg. Another grimace. He tries a slower ball, and it concedes two. Stick to the fast stuff he thinks, the next one is faster and fuller and over over mid off for four.

One more over, and after four he has figures of 4-0-17-2. Glamorgan close out a win comfortably enough in the end, and although it’s not the Ashes, Simon Jones is happy to still have the chance to run in fast. Will he make a comeback to First-class cricket? It’s doubtful at this stage, but given what a sight he can be at his best, one has to hope. His contract is up with Glamorgan, and he’s hopeful for another deal, but prepared to go elsewhere to keep playing cricket.

You have to hope he finds somewhere, and the spectacular sight of him bowling isn’t lost. When you’ve been through as many injuries as he has, it must be tempting to give up, do a bit of analysis work for Sky, find a new living. This fast bowler is more stubborn than that though.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

England regain intent with a new method

In the first innings, Alastair Cook played with grit, determination, and stodgy boringness. It was the right innings for the time, and it was his method, but after he got a ball from Jackson Bird with his name on it, he may have thought about missed opportunities, chances to score more than 51 off the 164 balls he played.

In the second innings, Alastair Cook stopped pushing back half-volleys. In 37 balls, he drove through extra cover, straight, flicked with confidence down to fine leg. He scored three fours, a few couples and a couple of fews. Then he slashed at one, length outside off stump and walked off, possibly thinking about the perils of positivity.

In the first innings he got out leaving one he should have played, and in the second playing one he should have left. No happy medium. It’s an obvious point, but the happy medium was leaving well outside off, then driving full and straight balls, flicking off his legs and making the bowlers bowl at him. The regular Cook method.

Joe Root got two good balls, the second innings jaffa from Harris better than good. Jonathan Trott seemed to have abandoned his method. In both innings combined, he scored at a strike-rate of 81, quicker than he tends to score in ODIs. Perhaps the relentless criticism of his slow batting in ODIs has had the effect, just to his Test batting. The old Trott waited for the bad ball and was perfectly content to play boring innings.

The new Trott is like a mini KP, constantly trying to move across his crease, trying to flick into the leg-side. In both innings, he got out mistiming flicks, one off Nathan Lyon to short leg, and one off Ryan Harris fending down the leg side. Maybe he’s not in his bubble any more? He’s certainly changed his method.

Pietersen though, got out in both innings to Nathan Lyon, not even through overly attacking, or ego driven shots. His miscues are normally powerful enough to evade fielders, but when he pushed at the ball tentatively he edged behind, then leading edged to cover. Both of those shots were not Pietersen’s method. He blocks or bashes, and that works for him.

If you could pick two players from this England team to bat together in long partnership, purely for brilliance of play, it would be Pietersen and Bell. Pietersen’s batting is all ego, a desire to dominate. Bell’s is pure aesthetic pleasure. He’s also a player who seems to have tried to change his method over the years.

At times, he’s got out through the false desire to dominate - such as in the first Test in India last year, and the first innings here - but that’s not his method. His method is to leave well, and bat beautifully when its in his hitting zones. He scores at a reasonable strike rate whenever he does that, and he corrected in the second innings, dabbing through the slips, cutting, driving off front and back foot with orgasmic beauty. Little went in the air, and it didn’t need to when he played so smoothly along the floor on his way to a third hundred of the series.

Alongside him for part of the evening session was Jonny Bairstow. In the first innings he played a knock totally alien to him, 14 off 77 balls, in an innings that did precisely nothing. It didn't build a partnership with a more free scoring partner, it didn’t take valuable time out of the game like such an innings might in a third or fourth innings.

In the second innings, Bairstow attacked intelligently, hitting Nathan Lyon over his head for four twice, and even though he went back into his shell for a while after, he was still alive enough to the attacking options to back foot drive then hook Harris for two consecutive fours, progressing to 28 off 65 balls before edging a sharply bouncing Lyon ball behind. The same number of balls in the first innings had netted him just 12.

The difference between the first and second England innings was intent. The first innings had none, and was based on the idea that batting would get significantly easier later. But Siddle, Harris, Bird and Lyon are nothing if not workhorses. They were never going to bowl lots of easily hittable stuff after England battled their way in.

So, second time out England resolved to take every opportunity for runs, and take calculated risks. That may have been out of the method of some of their batsmen but it worked perfectly for Bell and Pietersen. England were rewarded with what looks to be moving to a par third innings total, and a potentially match winning lead. They got the method right.

Monday, 5 August 2013

The dampest of squibs

The Oval 2005, Pietersen’s heroics regain the Ashes, and rain can’t dent the momentous occasion. The Oval 2009, Swann picks up the final wicket and England regain the Ashes after Broad’s heroics. Melbourne and Sydney 2010/11, England smash Australia twice to retain then win the Ashes.

Old Trafford 2013. Rain falls for two and a half hours, and the captains shake at 4:39. England retain the Ashes in a damp anti-climax. Maybe at Chester-le-Street they’ll provide a lasting winning memory in a thrashing or close thriller, but this damp squib is suitable fitting for what has been a damp squib of a contest.

However well Australia competed at certain points, it was always obvious that England had enough more, and that they were going to win the series. After Trent Bridge, the likelihood of a 2006/7 style evisceration seemed less likely, and now with that gone, the series holds about as little interest as an Ashes series can.

Maybe the rest of the series can retain some interest if England try to find the missing (and I hate this phrase) X-Factor. They need to look for the instinctive way to play, at times everything is too robotic. Now’s the time for some fun. Pietersen and Swann are about the only two players who have that sense, they need to transmit it to the rest of the team, if they’re going to go to the next level.

England will win one of the next two Tests at least, and in the very worst case the final score will be 3-1, the same as down under two and a half years ago. That series however was against a slightly more balanced Australian side, and England - Perth aside - brutally eviscerated them, Three innings victories, all sealed by bowling first, batting big, then bowling Australia out cheaply for a second time.

Even the draw in that series was more of a victory, as England batted Australia into submission in their second innings 517 for one. Go back to 2009 and a poor series is made interesting by two closely matched mercurial teams, Here, a solid but flawed team so far has comprehensively beaten as poor an Australian outfit has there has been in a long time by less of a margin than expected in a series marred by poor umpiring


Sunday, 4 August 2013

Swann wickets paper over cracks whilst Lyon gets less than he deserves

Not much spat, little tantalising the batsman, there were no grenades wrapped in candy floss. Little fizz, any turn was slow turn. Despite a five for in the first innings of an Ashes Test, it seems that Swann’s a bit under his own high standards. That seems strange to say of a bowler with 18 wickets in two and a bit Tests, at 24.77, but with general Australian ineptitude against spin and some fairly helpful surfaces, he could have more, or cheaper wickets.

On the other hand, Nathan Lyon bowled 26 probing overs, searching with subtlety, spin and bounce, yet came away with no wickets. He kept the batsmen honest mostly, bar a brief assault from Pietersen which kept him mostly out of the attack until Pietersen was out.

Lyon, whilst lacking the wickets that Swann picked up - for now at least - bowled with considerably more zip than his opposite number, and it showed in his economy rate. Lyon attacked the England batsmen and was unlucky not to get a single wicket, whilst Swann was forced too quickly on to the back foot and by bowling defensively left easy runs on the plate.

On the first day of this second Test Swann had some success, taking the wicket of Khawaja with a perfect off-break. Granted, the ball passed by the bat and shouldn’t have been given caught behind, but that doesn’t diminish the quality of the ball.

After his fifth over, Swann’s figures read 5-1-12-2 as he trapped Chris Rogers leg-before, and although his figures slipped a bit through the rest of the day, he came back on the second morning with the wicket of Steven Smith, caught off a skier then a nicely turning ball to ensnare Warner.

At that point, his figures read 27.4-2-89-4, perfectly reasonable for a first innings effort, but after that point he bowled 15.2-0-70-1, leaking runs to anyone and everyone, to finish with 43-2-159-5, somewhat Krejza-like figures, lots of wickets, but lots of runs (although not as many wickets or as quite a bad economy rate as his ridiculous Test debut)

The fact that he only bowled two maidens in the whole innings perfectly illustrates how he had difficulty tying the Australian batsmen down. He also seemed to revert to the round-the-wicket angle to the right handers too often, as did Lyon.

That angle may be an attacking one on a raging bunsen, but on a first day pitch in England, few bowlers are going to turn it miles off the centre of the pitch, and for a defensive option it was surprisingly easy to hit. The cardinal sin of spin bowling is going for runs whilst bowling defensively.

Ashley Mallett, in a fine piece for ESPNCricinfo just before the Test wrote that “The good spinners take risks. They are prepared to give a bit to get a bit.” Swann seemed to give a bit, but with little threat of taking a bit at times. At other times he preferred to give nothing, and mostly got nothing, between his two double wicket bursts he bowled twenty overs with little threat of a breakthrough.

During the mammoth - by recent standards - partnership between Clarke and Smith, Swann looked fatigued, and struggled in the field, twice gingerly fielding balls in the mid-wicket region, not looking his characteristic bubbly self.

It seems churlish to complain about a five-for, but take out a couple of cheap wickets from awful slogs by Smith and Siddle, and the Khawaja travesty and Swann got hammered for 2-159.

This may be a simplistic analysis, but also the fact that when the two were bowling in tandem, even Root induced more false shots from the slogging tailenders seems to indicate he was making the batsmen work more than Swann.

Swann will get better of course, and if he continues taking wickets at the same rate he may end up in with a shot at man of the series. Like Shane Warne he has that little bit of nerve that means he occasionally gets wickets that he doesn’t deserve. If he starts working batsmen over again, and getting the ones he deserves too, there aren’t many more irresistible bowlers in the world.

Nathan Lyon however, looks like an unlucky man. If he was to bowl the perfect off-break, it seems more likely to give away four byes than rip out the off-stump. That’s the difference between the two men. Batsmen say they play the ball not the man, but that’s not the whole truth. Shane Warne made batsmen play his reputation, Swann does the same thing to a lesser extent. Nathan Lyon doesn’t have that reputation.