Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Sri Lanka’s annus mirabilis, and my confession

Win in Bangladesh? Sure. Win the Asia Cup? Well done! Win the World T20? FANTASTIC. Win all three series in England, including a first ever Test series win in England, off the penultimate ball of the series. Annus mirabilis beckoning.

Late June may be an early time to pass verdict on a year, but if it continues as it has gone so far, Sri Lanka’s own new era may be dawning into view. They’ve dealt with the loss of some big players in the last few years, going back to Muttiah Muralitharan. Since then, they’ve lost Dilshan at the top, Samaraweera at five, Chaminda Vaas, and Lasith Malinga. Those are all players England would love to have.

A mix of new and old pushes forward for Sri Lanka. Shaminda Eranga is a unassumingly effective seam bowler, outswing with the new ball, seam and cutters later on, and accurate to the end. Rangana Herath is both new and old, 36 years old, but enjoying his second life as a Test bowler, out from under Murali’s shadow.

Then you have Sanga and Mahela. Kumar in the form of his career; Mahela as cheeky and inventive as ever. They won’t be around for longer, but they will surely see out this fine year. They will be the hardest to replace, but there are signs that others could handle the burden.

Angelo Matthews had a fine series at number six, capped with the finest of second innings hundreds, and when Sangakkara retires, that number three position could he his. He hasn’t the technical perfection of the great man, but determination, savvy, and weight of stroke could prove an able replacement.

But enough of future changes, this fine team should remain essentially unchanged through the rest of their year. Perhaps Dimuth Karunaratne’s lack of conversion will concern, and maybe the second spinner isn’t a nailed on certainty for when they return home, but with three series to go this year, their position is strong.

The first will be another humdinger. South Africa may be recently deposed as numero uno, but they still haven’t lost an away Test series since 2006 in, guess where…. Sri Lanka. Home advantage should set up an evenly matched series.

Eight days after that series ends, Pakistan become the next challange, two Tests, Galle and Colombo, the usual drill. They’ll be just as tough as South Africa, not as good a team overall, but better suited to the conditions. But at home, with this confidence, it’s winnable.

Then there’s a wait, ten ODIs intervene, until the Test team travels again. This could be the capper to the year. New Zealand are Test cricket’s coming team, perhaps the hardest of the three series will be taking on the Black Caps. The second Test starts just into the new year, and as it concludes we shall know. Good year? Or annus mirabilis?

As I write this, a nagging thought gnaws away at my brain. All through this tour, I, an Englishman, have been supporting Sri Lanka. When Jimmy Anderson fended to Herath, I cheered and clapped and toasted the “little Sri Lankans” as Tony Greig - who if he was still with us would I’m sure too would have been secretly delighted - used to say.

It’s easy to seem condescending if I say it was simply a case of supporting the underdog, and indeed, that wouldn’t be true. It’s a mix of that, dislike for an out of touch  England cricket establishment - ECB England as Yates puts it - along with genuine love and respect for some fantastic Sri Lankan cricketers.

 Sri Lanka will retain my support for the rest of this year, as they take on South Africa, Pakistan and New Zealand. Three series wins will do for me…. no pressure.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Kraigg Brathwaite looks wrong

Every shot looks a bit off. The straight drive isn’t often played with a straight bat. The cover drive is played rarely, and with a lot of bottom hand. Balls are defended in varying ways. He flicks through the leg-side with a curtain-railing bat, bottom hand pulling it around. He doesn’t look like a Test match batsman.

What Brathwaite is good at however; is not getting out. That means that if he hangs around for long enough he scores runs.

At one point today, he had 9 runs off 47 balls, each one a painstakingly compiled single. Then he showed something he hadn’t previously managed to muster as a Test batsman, and rarely as a First-class one: Acceleration.

It started with a push for three down the ground, somehow managing to play it wristily through mid-off. That was off Trent Boult, but it was Mark Craig’s introduction to the attack that paid dividends for the young Bajan batsman. The off-spin of Craig, turning onto the bat of the leg-side preferring bottom hand dominant opener, was just what he needed, and a few drag downs helped even more, as 41 of his runs came off him.

You see more awkward looking shots watching Brathwaite that any other batsman outside Chanderpaul. That man is a good comparison for Brathwaite. Both are slender men who rely on touch more than anything else. Neither are beholden to the textbook, Chanderpaul in a more obvious way.

His previous innings was against Bangladesh A, and it exhibited quicker scoring than Brathwaite had ever managed before, a tally of 164 made at an impressive strike rate of 69.19. The Bangladesh bowling attack was not a threatening one, but beyond Boult and Southee, neither is New Zealand’s. Brathwaite’s new dimension is punishing the mediocre.

He identified the good, the bad and the mediocre and treated them accordingly. Boult offered the most threat, so he was neutralised for 15 runs in 49 balls, and no boundaries. Craig was dominated, and when the ball stopped swinging, Southee was attacked. Sodhi was afforded some respect, but Neesham milked like the medium pacer he is.

Brathwaite is known for his concentration, but he had a little lapse of that on 89, going into the 90s with a nick over the slips, then next ball inside-edging an expansive drive into his pads. All talk is of his mental balance, but this nervousness speaks of something else, as does a low conversion rate of 21 fifties to 7 hundreds. Does Brathwaite have a problem with the nervous nineties? Wouldn’t you if your first Test century was at hand?

Kraigg Brathwaite now had 93. A ball outside off stump guided through the slips for four… 97.

Short of a length ball from Neesham nudged down to square leg for a single. Looks composed enough... 98

Bouncer from Neesham, ducked under. Could I have had a go at that? Brathwaite refocuses… 98

Length ball pushed at, a thick edge goes through the covers. Brathwaite retains the strike. One away… 99

An impending milestone forces a change of bowler. Kane Williamson gets his first over of the day. Easy runs? That’s what McCullum wants him to think. First one… defended. Second one… defended, half a step down the track, no run there. Chat between captain and bowler, time slows down. Third one… guides one down to point, it’s there… NO! Fourth one… same shot, it is there, the tension releases as Brathwaite charges down the tack a bit quicker than he needed to. That is a Test century. Even as he should be celebrating he touched his bat in and waited for the throw, on the prospect of an unlikely second run.

He celebrated it in a low key way. Raised bat and helmet, a grin which said, “Good for a start” then back on with the game. He managed another 29 before getting caught and bowled by Trent Boult.

Kraigg Brathwaite is low key, his batting is ugly, but he has a thirst for runs, and a hunger for time at the crease. The next Shiv? Very possibly.