Monday, 23 September 2013

Insular England have no time for difference

The exclusion of Nick Compton from England’s Test touring party to Australia is just one of several controversial choices, but it gives an insight into the current nature of the England ‘group’. Despite the inclusion of three uncapped players to go to Australia, it is insular and gives further credence to the theory that England likes their players identikit and robotic.

Compton’s path wasn’t the typical age group to Lions to England team one taken by the likes of Root, Bairstow and Broad etc. but a rambling journey from early talent at Middlesex, to contentment at Somerset and an amazing 2012 season which through weight of runs pushed him on to the India tour and to a Test début at Ahmedabad.

That first series in India produced a few useful contributions, but no place sealing innings, but two hundreds in New Zealand seemed to seal his place for the long term. However, after struggling for two Tests against New Zealand, he was dropped for the Ashes series, somewhat prematurely.

What happened after the dropping indicates it was the wrong decision. Root, bar one big century, struggled opening the batting, making many slow starts as England lost early wickets regularly throughout the series, and England missed him at six, Jonny Bairstow lacking the technique to counter Australia's bowlers.

Compton went back to his county and scored 889 runs at 46.78 in a misfiring Somerset team in the County Championship, with two centuries and six fifties, to add to a couple of half centuries against the touring Australians. His batting seemed to exude confidence, and he scored noticeably quicker. 

So when the Ashes party to go down under was announced, it was a surprise to see Michael Carberry get the backup opener’s slot. Carberry made 602 runs at 40.13 in Division Two of the County Championship, and had a middling ODI series, hardly battering the door down for selection. The likes of Varun Chopra, with 1063 runs at 53.15 and Sam Robson (1180 runs at 47.20) – both in the England Performance Programme squad – had better cases for inclusion, not to mention Compton.

David Hopps, on ESPNCricinfo wrote about Compton that, “England's management will not be swayed from the view that Compton's game became dangerously introverted against New Zealand - and successes for Somerset and twice against the Australian tourists have not changed that.

"He has also suffered from a perception that outside his runs he gives little to the dressing room and because of his reservations about working with England's batting coach, Graham Gooch, who he feels does not understand his game. He also expressed his disappointment at his exclusion quite forcibly and this England management prefers its players verbally malleable.” So, that’s that. Two poor Tests and if you don’t fit into the ‘group’, you’re out for good.

The exclusion of Woakes is another curious choice. Just a few weeks ago he took the number six spot and delivered an admirable performance in the last home Ashes Test. His bowling settled down after a slightly nervy start, and he was unlucky not go get more wickets, and he batted well on the final day to push England close to the target with Bell.

Despite that, he doesn't take a place in the touring party. Ben Stokes, on the basis of a few ODI performances and perceived talent has overtaken him as England's number one Test all-rounder.

The exclusion of Graham Onions as well suggests that the England selectors don’t care much for County stats. They want players they’ve been able to mould, players who’ve come through the system. Compton and Onions are seen as county players. Woakes came through the system, but has been excluded for the next off the assembly line.

The England performance programme squad contains few who could be expected to cover the main squad, and no Compton, Woakes or Onions. It’s very much a development squad, and given that it’s shadowing the main party, it's an odd approach to take.

England like their players to fit the mould, and Compton, Woakes, Onions et al don’t, so their rewards for bouncing back from being dropped, a solid first Test, and a brilliant county season respectively are a seat on the sofa with the rest of us.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Get rid of bilateral ODIs, bring back the tour match

Since the Ashes finished, we've had two largely pointless, but fun, T20Is - surprise surprise: 1-1 draw - an Ireland v England ODI which showed how far the Irish had come, and how far they have to go, and a Scotland v Austalia game which showed the gap between Ireland and the rest of the Associate nations.

All of those games had some meaning to them, or at least some fun. After them has come the long slog of a five match ODI series, so far lead by Washouts by two to one over Australia, England a distant third. Even without two rain ruined games, it's hard to see the interest or relevance for these tacked on matches.

The advent of the ODI in 1971 came about nine years after the first domestic one dayers, in an experimental Midlands Knockout Cup. The format has changed a lot since both those days. The Midlands Knockout Cup and the early days of the Gillette Cup were played over 65 overs, and the first ODI over 40 overs. Both were hastily scheduled, experimental ventures, but ended up as the future of cricket..

By contrast, the advent of t20 was a clearly thought out marketing ploy, to take the game to a new audience. The first domestic t20 came in 2003, and it became an international format within two years, when Australia and New Zealand donned throwback costumes and larked about at Eden Park.

Both formats so enlarged the international calender that another type of cricket faced being squeezed out. No, not the Test match - although you can make that argument - but the tour match. Back before the ODI of course, teams would tour a country and play two or three months of tour matches as well as the Tests.

The Australian invincibles who didn't lost a match on their 1948 tour of England, played all 17 First-class counties including Yorkshire and Surrey twice each, plus Cambridge and Oxford, MCC, Durham, Scotland twice, South of England, Gentlemen of England, HGD Leveson-Gower's XI. That amounted to 31 First-class games (including the five Tests) plus three non First-class games. They even played three warm ups in Australia before they left, more than most teams tend to while on tour these days.

England are better than most, playing at least a couple of warm ups on most tours, but these are often glorified net sessions, with players retiring, and teams declaring to try to give everyone a bat. Some teams will play just one or even none at the start of a tour. What with three formats being played at international level, if teams are thorough, tour matches are needed in each.

Abolishing bilateral ODIs could solve several problems, giving the space for more proper competitive tour matches, increasing T20I series to three matches, but also reducing the amount of international cricket, and the amount of games between two teams rotating as fast as they can. It would also free up a little time for players, especially those who don't play t20, to play domestic cricket.

You'd get more competitive Test cricket, with away teams getting a chance to adapt to conditions. You could have local Associates providing the opposition four tour matches, driving up their skills, Ireland for tours to England, Afghanistan for tours to Pakistan in the UAE, Canada for West Indies tours. Test cricket improves and the Associates have the chance to  improve too.

The only problem with this is really that the gap in skills between the two forms of the game is too much to bridge during tours, but this should be alleviated with the increase in tour matches. The end of ODIs may be a good thing for all formats, it could become just a domestic game, and the standard of Tests and t20s could only go up.

This is obviously unlikely to happen. The ODI, whilst the third choice of many hardcore fans, is still a money spinner, particularly in India, who held out on T20 cricket up until 2007 to protect the ODI cash cow.

They are also a good middle ground for Associates, giving more of a grounding of skills than t20, yet still holding hope of an upset against full members. Still, Associates could keep playing 50 over cricket amongst themselves, whilst the full members could give it up outside World Cups, and tour matches would give them a chance to  A mix of Test and t20 players and skills could convene every four years for the only ODI event many care about.

The question about ODIs is not just whether they are interesting, it's whether they are relevant, and whether they fit into any context. Frequently in bilateral series they're not. Keep them just for the World Cup. That's got context.

Monday, 9 September 2013

England's spin stocks

The incumbent

Graeme Swann
Still taking as many wickets as ever, but has Graeme Swann lost a little nip from his best? Several times over the summer, Lyon managed more spin out of the same pitch as Swann, who at times seemed to succumb to bowling too quick and flat. The tour to Australia will be a big test for him, and there are less left-handers to feast on than last time.

The immediate backups

Monty Panesar
The Brigton pisser.With all the attributes to be a top class spin bowler, bar perhaps a crucial bit of guile and variation, he's been the long time number two spinner to Graeme Swann since the latter's usurpation of him back in 2008. In that time, he's won games for England in India and had success in the UAE, but recently bombed out as lead spinner in New Zealand and after his embarrassing nightclub incident, was dropped from the Test squad. Still, if he can display any semblance of form out on loan at Essex and prove that he's sorted his mind out, he's a gimme for the Ashes squad down under.

Simon Kerrigan
Despite a disastrous Test début, Simon Kerrigan is still a long term prospect, and if Swann, Panesar and Tredwell were all concurrently injured, you'd suspect he'd  be playing in a Test match. So, from second to fourth choice in the space of five days. Still, he bounced back to take 7-145 for Lancashire, and if he keeps taking more wickets than any other English qualified spinner, he'll make it back.

James Tredwell
As England's backup ODI bowler, he's had plenty of chances through injuries and rest to Graeme Swann, and a single Test in Bangladesh. He's had a pretty poor County Championship season though, struggling for incisiveness. A steady hand, useful in ODIs, and that's about it.

Danny Briggs
Firmly ensconced as the third spinner in England's ODI reckoning, and the immediate backup to Swann in the t20i format. Briggs looks dangerously close to a career as a t20 spinner, despite having a good action and pleasing flight. He needs to have a big season at first-class level to move out of that box.

The outside chances

Scott Borthwick
The Durham man is a leg-spinner of rare promise. His action is wonderful to behold, and England have liked the look of him, giving him three international appearances in the limited overs formats. Borthwick now needs to find regular First-class bowling, maybe at another county. Durham have turned him into a number three batsman this summer, with some success, but if he's to be a test spinner he needs to bowl a lot more. Most Durham games end with him bowling few overs, only for him to be wheeled out on the fourth day and on dustbowls and expected to run through sides. It doesn't work like that.

Adil Rashid
The forgotten man. Now earning his living as a number six batsman and more than part time spinner, there's still some potential there. Sadly, it looks unlikely to be realised, and a fifty wicket season is needed for him to re-insert his name into the debate. That will only happen when he devotes himself to spin over batting.

Ollie Rayner
A tall off-spinner, who by his own admission, used to bowl flat, containing rubbish, has had a wonderful 2013 season, the highest wicket taking English spinner in the first division, and much of this has come from one astounding performance against Surrey, 15-118, the best Championship figures of the summer. For now, it's just time to see whether he can make the most of his natural bounce from a steep height, continue to turn the ball, and push himself into the Lions frame.

George Dockrell
A controversial one, not in the middle of a great season for Somerset, but England have half an eye on him. The Irish international has so far continued to commit to Ireland, but if there continues to be no pathway to test cricket for the Irish, in a few years he could be tempted to switch his allegiance.

Tom Craddock
Yes, I am biased with this one. A young man with a lot of potential, Craddock has had a mixed summer, taking three First-class wickets, six of them against England. Those were First-class wickets when he took them, but the game lost that status after England added extra players to their team. If that game had kept its status, that would give him 9 wickets at 28.89. England seem vaguely interested with him, picking him as a sub fielder for one of the Ashes Test matches. The potential is clear with him, he has the sort of control that most young leggies would die for, and a knack of taking wickets. His time with Essex has been stop-start, never cementing a place despite good performances, and personal issues have kept him out since the end of July. He may be an outside pick for an EPP squad to go Australia. (I am aware of my biases when it comes to Craddock though)