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.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Scout Report: George Worker

With the World T20 in India seven months away, teams are ramping up the number of T20 matches they play. New Zealand are on a limited overs tour of Southern Africa, starting first in Zimbabwe, and after that moving on to South Africa. After taking the ODI series in Zimbabwe, a single T20i against the same team precedes by two against South Africa.

With Brendon McCullum, Tim Southee and Trent Boult all skipping the tour and Ross Taylor ruled out through injury, there’s room for fringe players to step up, and with Mitchell Santner injured as well, a space opened up for a left-arm spinning all-rounder and 25-year-old George Worker was called up for his first taste of the international game.

Despite having been around the First-class arena for nearly eight years, he only averages 24, so he don’t expect to see him around the Test team any time soon. His limited overs records show more promise, so it was odd that despite usually opening in the format for Central Districts, he was pushed down to three, with Williamson moved up to open.

That decision worked on Williamson’s side, with the Kane train getting off to a rollicking start before derailing for 20. That brought the left-handed Worker to the crease. He struggled to get going early on, not scoring off his first seven balls, twice missing out on pull shots off the bowling of Chibhabha.

With a slightly crouched stance and low grip on the bat, he has a preference for the leg side which may have worked against him in First-class cricket. Indeed, his first ten balls included just one shot into the off side. Against the spinners and medium pacers he liked to sweep and slog-sweep and hit the odd pick up shot off his legs.

Some of it may have been a function of the bowlers trying to bowl straight, but even when he got balls on off stump he often tried to work them into the on-side. With that leg-side bias, Graeme Cremer’s leg-spin just fell in his arc, and the first ball he faced against the bowler was hoisted over long-on.

After he settled into his innings, he began to expand his game, despite his clear leg-side bias, he also cut well behind point and eased into a few workmanlike drives, and he continued to pepper the leg-side boundary, bringing up his fifty with a six driven over long-on.

Not content with sixes, he even managed a seven, running a suicidal third on a lofted cover drive, with the certain run out thrown away by Chakabva the keeper as he shied at the stumps, and with it four overthrows.

With the spinners and Utseya’s slow medium dominating the middle overs, he wasn’t overly tested against pace and it was spin which got him in the end, charging down the track to be bowled by Sean WIlliams for 62 off 38 balls.

Unlike Santner whose place in for in the squad he took, Worker is more of a batting all-rounder than a bowling one, and he didn’t get a chance to bowl as New Zealand ran through Zimbabwe’s batting. Still, based on his batting alone, it was an impressive start, capped with a man of the match award, but against fairly limited bowling. Harder tests are yet to come, starting with South Africa next Friday.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Stuart Broad's Ashes miracle

The look on Stuart Broad’s face when Ben Stokes plucked the ball out of the air behind him to give England their fifth wicket, was pure disbelief. He wasn't the only one dumbfounded by an extraordinary morning of cricket.

If the first three wickets were good, this was great. Adam Voges pushing out in front of his body, the ball flying wide of the fifth, yes fifth, slip, and then Ben Stokes sticking an arm out, diving at fulls stretch, hauling the ball in behind his body. Yeah, there’s gonna be some disbelief.

21-5 is a ridiculous score, but what was so ridiculous about this was the speed in which the wickets came. The fifth went down in the fifth over, as the runs flowed (mostly off the inside edge) and the wickets flowed just as much. Most scores of 21-5 will be a slow dirge with the bat as the bowling team pile on the pressure and the batsmen start to just try to survive. This was a hurricane, as wickets fell, runs scored and Australia crashed their way to 60 all out. 

As the Australians subsided, your thoughts could easily turn to Clive Rice. Before play, the former Nottinghamshire all-rounder who passed away recently got a minute’s applause at his home ground, and the Sky team reminisced about pitches so green you couldn’t tell them from the outfield. This wasn’t quite that green, but Australia are so discombobulated by movement and the sight of green below them or white clouds above them, it doesn’t bear thinking what Hadlee and Rice could have done against them on a 1970s green mamba. 

It bears saying again that this wasn’t an unplayable pitch or devilish bowling. The pitch offered help, and the skies offered swing, but it was mostly Australia’s fault that at 29-6, the top scorer was extras with 12.

Chris Rogers and David Warner got good balls, but Steve Smith played at one he didn’t need to touch. Adam Voges pushed too hard at a ball that needed playing, but Shaun Marsh and Michael Clarke were both culpable, the captain most so, slashing at a wide half-volley which was taken head high at slip. 

With the wicket of Clarke, Stuart Broad had a five-for before lunch on the first day, better still, a five-for before 11:40. The last man to do the first feat was Sydney Barnes back in 1913, who coincidentally also took eight in the innings (whether Broad can match Barnes’ 9-103 in the second innings is yet to be seen). When you’re ever talked about in the same breath as SF Barnes, let alone surpassing him, you’re doing something right: this was an Edwardian morning of cricket.

At 47-9 it felt like groundhog day. Stuart Broad bowls, and Mitchell Starc guides one to Joe Root at third slip. Stuart Broad bowls and Mitchell Johnson guides one to Joe Root at third slip. Perhaps it was best that Mitchell Marsh was left out.

Broad has made a habit of Ashes clinching spells. In 2009 he sealed the urn and in 2013 the series win, with virtuoso performances at The Oval and Chester-le-Street, and this one will be the most special of the lot. The urn may not be in England’s hands yet, but the pendulum has swung far enough for England to catch it and hold on to it. 

This is how England broke the cycle. Win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win… hand out an absolute shellacking. It takes a lot to break a cycle that was so entrenched, this was a lot, a whole hell of a lot. 

The records just tumbled. Stuart Broad had his best Test bowling figures by a distance and the quickest five-for in balls bowled ever. Nine wickets went down caught behind the wicket, whilst one was bowled. Broad had the cheapest eight-for since the nineteenth century, and the 21st best innings figures in history. The only better bowling figures for England versus Australia were Laker’s twin efforts in 1956, and this was the most wickets before lunch on the first day ever in a Test match. Add to that the humiliation of the quickest any team has ever been bowled out in the first innings of a Test, and the stats rain down humiliation on Australia. 

Just compare him to the man he’s drawn level with on the England wicket takers list: Fred Trueman. He also had an eight-for, but his came against India, at the time an unproven Test team uncomfortable against true pace, Broad did it in the heat of an Ashes battle. 

Compare it to day one of 4th Ashes Test in 2010 for certainty of scorecard. Then England finished the day on 157-0 after bowling Australia out for 98. This time it’s compressed, 60 all out followed by 13-0 at Lunch. It’s pretty certain, as was the lead of 214 England held at the end of day one. 

With the game how it is at the end of day one, it would take a comeback of Headingley ‘81 proportions for Australia to steal a win here. They won’t do that. This will be Broad’s match, Broad’s Ashes perhaps. England’s almost certainly. 

Saturday, 11 July 2015

The team it’s alright to like

The sacking of Kevin Pietersen dealt a death blow to my support of England. The 2013/14 Ashes whitewash wasn’t fun, but I’m used to supporting losing teams. It’s a lot more difficult to support a team that has sacked one of its best players.

Since then, not much has made me change my mind. I resolutely cheered for Sri Lanka against them, then was ambivalent both about India’s win and England’s comeback later last summer. Their World Cup was embarrassing, and it wasn’t until the tour of the West Indies that I could even not actively root against them  

Since then, through a pulsating Test series, and new era defining one-day series against New Zealand, slowly but surely, this new era of England has wormed its way back into my affections.

If nothing else, you can’t be neutral in the Ashes. It’s Australia; you have to beat Australia. Oh, and they did.

But also, it’s this team. Gary Ballance plays ridiculously deep in his crease and takes his shirt off in nightclubs. Ian Bell may be of the old era, but his cover drive is still technical perfection. Joe Root laughs at his captain getting hit in the balls and salutes Ben Stokes. The ginger allrounder himself smites sixes and has stopped punching lockers.

Jos Buttler is soft spoken and hard hitting, Moeen Ali is the beard that is feared, maybe the best number eight in history, and a full time spinner (no matter what you might say). Mark Wood has an imaginary horse, reverse swing, and even hit a six then grinned.

The old guard is just four deep. Cook, Bell, Broad and Anderson. The team is losing culpability for the sacking of You Know Who, and for that it’s gaining my support back.  

If you wanted an obvious metaphor for the teamwork in this new England team, you could look at the dismissal of Mitchell Starc as the captain put his body on the line at gully to push an edged cut up in the air, ripe for Adam Lyth to snaffle. A new opening partnership, working together in the field.

But ultimately, it’s nothing concrete that’s brought me back to this team, it’s just the feeling that this team is positive, not tainted by the past. There’s tangible hope around this team.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Have England suddenly mastered the ODI format?

Aberration? Or new normal? That’s the question to be answered after England out New Zealanded New Zealand, out McCullumed McCullum, and scored their highest score, then their highest second innings score. Even in losing the second ODI, they entertained more than their entire World Cup. But can they keep it up for long?

Cautiously, hesitantly, I’m going to say that they can. Why?

Trevor Bayliss and Paul Farbrace
England’s incoming coach hasn’t started his new job yet, but he was involved with the picking of the current ODI squad, and what a squad it was. Hales and Roy have threatened carnage at the top, Root, Morgan and Buttler have moved up the order, all three talented and versatile players given more influence on the game. Bayliss' knowledge of and attitude to the one day game, gleaned from IPL and BBL stints along with a World Cup final in charge of Sri Lanka will surely come in handy. Add to him Paul Farbrace, who took Sri Lanka to World T20 triumph and has been in charge of England for the last two ODIs, and you have a coaching team who will not sideline limited overs cricket.

Eoin Morgan ensconced as captain
An Alastair Cook lead team was never going to be aggressive. As much as they said they were going to play a positive brand of cricket, the presence of a limited accumulator of runs at the top of the order always limited that. With Morgan in charge you get a captain with limited overs nous, one who can concentrate on the limited overs game without Tests to distract him. Plus, now as part of a positive team, he's back in batting form.

Lower order batting
There’s an embarrassment of riches in the England lower order. If Sam Billings starts to come good, he’s a quick scorer at seven, if not there’s still Moeen Ali to come in, strengthening both batting and bowling, or the exciting David Willey. If Adil Rashid’s bowling continues to keep him in the side, he’ll be a great eight. Jordan and Plunkett can both hit absurdly big for where they are in the order and seem to have ice in their veins. This team bats down to ten, giving the top order hitters license to play without fear of collapses to 220.

Burial of the past
Ian Bell, Alastair Cook, Stuart Broad, Jimmy Anderson.  566 ODI caps between them, and all unceremoniously dropped for the current ODI series (or for the World Cup in the case of Cook). If the selectors resist the urge to bring back any of these players back, for the first time England have a clean break. Only Eoin Morgan, someone with proven limited overs skills, is left from the veterans, and this mix of debuting youngsters and players who have recently confirmed their places in the team gives England their first ever proper fresh start in the format. True, some might not work out, and there will be changes, but if England stick to new guns, they’ll build an exciting team for 2019, untainted by repeated major tournament defeat.   

Even in losing the second ODI, England must have realised what other teams did years ago, that 300 is not unchaseable as long as they maintain a quick start through the middle overs, that building big scores can help your bowlers and that putting pressure on their opponent takes it off them. These two games have changed the tenor of England ODI cricket. Gone is the inbuilt sense that England aren’t good at ODIs. This team believes they can go big.

Attacking with the ball

It may have gone wrong in the second ODI, and it may have been helped by scoring 400 in the first, but for the first time perhaps ever, England have finally realised that the best way to limit scores is to take wickets. Adil Rashid is a genuinely attacking option, and the seamers have had slips and bowled attacking lines. All four seamers can bowl up to 90mph. Who’d have thought that fast bowling and leg-spin could be attacking?

Friday, 5 June 2015

Everything's coming up Bishoo.

Devendra Bishoo is another leg-spinner who makes me (wrongly of course) feel like I could be a Test bowler. Bryce McGain and Pravin Tambe made me feel like I had time left, that not being in age group sides, or even playing a great standard of club cricket was no barrier to eventually playing Test cricket (or the IPL). Devendra Bishoo makes me feel like being a 5’8” bag of skin and bones is no barrier to top level cricket. It is of course, and despite appearances, Devendra Bishoo has more spinning talent in his fingers than I do in my whole body (plus more muscle and fitness etc.)

It’s been a long road back. Bishoo’s first year of Test cricket brought him the ICC Emerging Player award, after just five Tests in four months. That might have been premature, but his figures up to that point of 21 wickets at 35.42 don’t do justice to the overs he bowled, long spells at home against Pakistan and India, and the promise he showed against quality players of spin.

Soon after that award, he picked up his first five wicket haul, against Bangladesh at Dhaka, but a difficult tour of India meant that after one further Test at home against Australia, he was jettisoned. He had three years in the wilderness, bowling domestically, learning and growing.

This is the second Test match of Bishoo 2.0. The first was a long slog for a four wicket haul against England. This was a joyous celebration of everything leg-spin can do. He got all of the leggie classics. The edges to slip, off balance, beaten in the flight, dismissed by the spin. Steven Smith, comprehensively stumped, the fleet footed Aussie dancing past the lure, pulled back half-way down. He saw you coming, mate.

Then the coup de grâce: twenty-two years to the day after the Ball of the Century, Bishoo produced his own version. Of course, he’s not Shane Warne, so replace Gatting with Haddin, take away about a foot of spin and note how poorly the Aussie wicketkeeper played it. Still a great ball though.

He secured his five-for with Samuels catching Mitchell Johnson on the sweep, then secured his Mitchell two-for (and sixth wicket overall) when Starc swung over the top of a leggie from around the wicket for the easiest clean bowled you could think of.

He could be even better. Either adding the googly, or sorting out his seam position - which is generally more scrambled than it could be - could add another dimension to his attack, with either extra spin or the ability to threaten the inside edge.

The one big thing he has to work on his his knuckles. Most leggies gets problems with the first knuckle on the ring finger because unless you’re gripping the ball loosely like Warne used to, you’re going to get cuts and blisters on it which make bowling painful. He went off the field for treatment on it just after his sixth wicket, and actually missed a Test in the England series because of it.

The only way to get past the problem is to bowl and bowl and bowl, creating a callous on the finger which hardens and stops blisters developing. That’s a minor problem though. He ended up with 6-80, the best innings figures by a leg-spinner since Danish Kaneria took 7-168 back in 2009. In fact, in the last five years, only five leg-spinners have five wicket hauls: Kaneria, Bishoo, Imran Tahir, Yasir Shah, and Jubair Hossain. Not a great list, a match-fixer, the bowler with the worst match figures ever, and

Shane Warne, Stuart MacGill and Anil Kumble spoilt us for leg-spin, over a fifteen year period where we also had Murali as the leggiest offie of all time. Things have changed now. There are no great leg-spinners around, none even threaten to be great. We have to live within these reduced parameters. You never know, there might be a future great out there, developing, bowling, gestating even, but for now Devendra Bishoo is good enough.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Where is terrifying Mitch?

For a while I was terrified of Mitchell Johnson. There was an Ashes series, I’m told, where he was very frightening. Personally I don’t remember. It does seem strange that two Ashes in a row will be in England, but I’m pretty sure there wasn’t an Ashes series during either of the last two winters.

Joking aside, for two series eighteen months ago, Mitchell Johnson terrorised England and South Africa. In three and a half months, he went from has-been laughing stock to the best and fastest bowler in the world.

Since then, he has 22 wickets at 30.59, and while those figures aren’t that bad, they’re also not that great for a bowler of his supposed class. He doesn’t have a five wicket innings haul in that time, or for that matter more than five in a match.

Look back to the World Cup, and those figures have more lustre, with 15 wickets at 21.73. Forward to the IPL, and it’s pretty terrible, averaging 37.33 with an economy rate of 9.37 for his nine wickets.

Now it’s his first taste of Test cricket since India at home just before the World Cup, and Australia are in Dominica. His first spell of the match ended after three overs, not a short spell by design, like he was used to great effect in the last Ashes, instead a bowler taken off because he was bowling poorly. He improved in later spells, getting Shai Hope caught at gully, and castling Denesh Ramdin.

There’s something missing though, and it’s extreme pace. His slingy action and left arm delivery still make him awkward to face, but with his pace dropping from 150 to 140kph, his menace is diminished. The visceral thrill you’d feel, even in the safety of your living room, has faded.

When he was troubling the best batsmen from two very good teams, it seemed like new version Mitch was here to stay. He’d been great before, but he’d never been so purely terrifying. But maybe that’s the problem, maybe he was never going to sustain that pace, and therefore that terror. He wasn’t swinging it. That was how he had his initial success, six years ago now, but he’d abandoned that to be the battering ram that broke England apart.

Fast-forward a month or so, past this two Test hors d'oeuvres, and it’s the Ashes. The scene of his greatest heights and his lowest lows. The mustached terror, and the ridiculed spray gun. Are this England team still scarred, or do the new guns hold no fear? Which Mitch shall we see? Terror, terrible, or just… this.

Monday, 13 April 2015

West Indies selection mistakes prove crucial to England comeback

Cricket is all about mistakes. Wickets drive the game forward, and they’re rarely down to an unplayable ball. Fielding mistakes, dropped catches, poor shots, poor shot selection. Then there’s the off-field mistakes. Wrong team, wrong call at the toss.

The first day of the Test series between the West Indies and England was defined by mistakes, most of them made before the first ball was bowled. The first mistake was made by both teams, not playing two spinners.

Both teams went in with a specialist finger-spinner, and left out a leg-spinner. For England, it seemed more understandable. Those watching England’s warm-ups and net practice report that Rashid, in the words of George Dobell, “is not currently in the form to select.”

But net bowling is one thing, Test cricket is another thing entirely. Perhaps Rashid wouldn’t merit selection as an only spinner, but as a second spinner, batting at seven, even if he didn’t contribute wickets, his overs would be expendable. England may have made the correct decision, but it wasn’t the brave one, it could still prove to be a mistake on a pitch where seamers found it difficult once the new ball's shine faded.

Rashid’s selection was a risk worth taking, but Devendra Bishoo’s was an obvious choice spurned. I’ve written extensively about West Indies’ spinners, so it hardly needs repeating. Suffice to say, Bishoo is in form, the pitch should spin, and England are inclined to self-destruct at the mere possibility of leg-spin (witness Steven Smith’s wickets in the 2013 Ashes - from a bowler well inferior to Bishoo).

If you’re not with me on my leg-spin hobby horse, fair enough, but one decision which will take some explaining is Denesh Ramdin’s decision to bowl upon winning the toss. It wasn’t quite Nasser Hussain at Brisbane levels of misguided, but England are not quite the 2002 Australians.

The decision was flattered by three early wickets, confirming Denesh Ramdin’s reasoning at the toss of early moisture. However, making a decision based on early moisture can backfire when it evaporates. The moisture did, the swing slowly ebbed, Bell and Root got in and made hay.

Then there were the on-field mistakes. Sulieman Benn dropped Root at mid-wicket on 61. He went on to make another 22. Ian Bell edged through a vacant third slip on 21; he went on to make another 122.

Still, as the game goes on, the fundamental bowling mistakes may cost West Indies just as much. Bowling too short as the day went on, waywardness in the face of stubborn, then increasingly fluent resistance.

England have been known for starting series slowly, but what was impressive for them today is that they didn’t let it degenerate beyond 34-3. Perhaps the best analogue for today is the first Test two years ago in New Zealand. England were confronted with a decent but not world beating attack, and after losing early wickets, batsmen never got in and never got a chance to grind the bowlers down.

Here, the bowlers were ground down. It seems a long time ago now, but 16 overs in to the day, Gary Ballance had just succumbed and each of the West Indies’ quicks had a wicket, whilst Benn when he came on also threatened, but only briefly. But good batting exposed the West Indies bowlers.

Individually they’re all talented, but they were thrown a raw deal by their captain, and his lack of leadership in the field meant that the day drifted, the West Indies drifted and squandered their opportunity.

Perhaps the lack of Bishoo defined the day. After the early wickets, the West Indies seamers searched too hard for wickets, bowling bad balls in the process. Add Bishoo to the equation and you have another wicket taker in the middle overs of the day, allowing the seamers to bowl consistently and not worry about blasting out wickets.

Add Bishoo as a fifth bowler and you eliminate the costly and impotent overs from Samuels, you take some burden off the seamers (and Benn for that matter), allowing them to be fresher late in the day for the second new ball. Put simply, when coming up against the quality of Bell and Root, the West Indies needed more incision and more overs and they left the man who could have provided that out. Big mistake.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

The new spin kings of the Caribbean

It’s six years since England last toured the West Indies for a Test series and since then the ongoing development in West Indies regional cricket has continued to be towards the spinners. Thirty years ago every regional team had two or three decent pacers, now each plays at least two spinners. Times have changed.

In the last first class game at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, site of the first Test, 23 of the 32 wickets to fall went to spin. In the last game at the second Test venue that figure was 18 out of 25, and at the third Test venue 20 out of 31. Three matches, 61 of 88 wickets going to spinners. Where pace once ruled, spin is now king.

That hasn’t translated to West Indies’ Test cricket though. Since England last played Tests in the Caribbean, they’ve been through a number of spinners, but essentially, five main contenders. Three still contend: Benn, Bishoo, and Permaul. This domestic season, the first extended one, has brought to light three other serious contenders yet to play international cricket: Warrican, Jacobs and Khan.

The two to have dropped out of the reckoning are Shane Shillingford and Sunil Narine. Both have dealt with suspect actions and both are reduced with their new actions. Narine will continue to play in the limited overs teams, but Shillingford needs greater domestic form to push his way back in.

The man who replaced Shillingford - Sulieman Benn - is the West Indies’ number one spinner currently, having taken 34 wickets at 32.05 in Tests since he returned to the team in mid-2014. However, if you take out the two matches against Bangladesh where he harvested 14 cheap wickets, he’s struggled to be incisive, with 20 wickets at 45.80. Still, it would be uncharitable to discount the matches against Bangladesh, a team who usually play spin well. Benn deserves to keep his place… for now.

Pushing him for the spinner’s slot, and likely for a second spinner if needed, are the Guyanese spin twins, Devendra Bishoo and Veerasammy Permaul. Both have previous Test match experience, Permaul’s the more recent, and Bishoo’s the more extensive. Both have had a fantastic First-class season. Permaul sits atop the wicket-takers list with 63 at 14.49 and Bishoo is not far behind with 57 at 17.59.

On the surface, with five spinners heading the wicket-takers list (Veerasammy Permaul, Devendra Bishoo, Imran Khan, Jomel Warrican and Damion Jacobs), spin bowling looks rosy in the West Indies, but all isn’t quite as it seems. Despite at least five years of spinners dominating, batsmen still haven’t figured out how to counter them. Any spinner able to spin the ball reasonably hard and hit a consistent line and length is almost guaranteed an average in the low 20s. Guile barely required. Stats should be adjusted accordingly.

West Indies selectors have quite rightly not put too much stock in these inflated (or deflated really) figures, but with Benn being nearly 34, it’s time for them to look to the future. Beyond Bishoo and Permaul, two other spinners have come to the fore in the last year.

One is Barbados’s Jomel Warrican. A slow left arm spinner who bowls with an economical action, the young bowler harvested wickets as part of a decent Barbados team. 49 wickets at 14.98 was quite a statement, and pushed him ahead of Ashley Nurse by the end of the season as the team’s number one spinner.

The other was Jamaica’s Damion Jacobs. Continuing the trend of success for spinners taking the ball away from right handers, the fifth placed of the top bowlers is a late-developing leg-spinner. Jacobs just turned 30, yet only made his First-class debut a year ago. With Nikita Miller and Odeon Brown to get past, it’s understandable that he didn’t get a chance sooner.

Despite his age, Jacobs shouldn’t be discounted for future higher honours. Clarrie Grimmett to name one, only made his Test debut at the age of 33 (although, to use two conflicting examples, Bryce McGain made his debut 36 and Bob Holland at 38). Leg-spinners can take longer to develop, and have some of their best years (Shane Warne in 2005) at older ages than other bowlers.

Returning to the figures, spinners averages are significantly lower than what they’d get in a country with better pitches and batsmen. Take Sunil Narine’s domestic FC average as a benchline. He’s scalped wickets at a barely believable 11.54. That needs adjusting upwards get his true worth.

One way of doing this is calculating the overall average of all spinners in the Regional 4-Day competition. A long evening with Cricinfo and a spreadsheet later, and I worked out that the average of all spinners who bowled relatively often (either at least 10 wickets in the season or more than 0.5 of a wicket a game in their FC career) this season was 23.28.

That’s pretty low. Compare it to  So spinners figures in the West Indies should be taken as relative to this low bar. Slip under it and you’re performing above average, above it and you’re below par.

Applying this metric and we see that the likes of Permaul and Bishoo are well under par averaging in the teens. Permaul and Warrican lead the way with averages around 14, Jacobs and Bishoo are a little further back around 17, but still impressive, and Imran Khan’s figures suddenly look not as great, only slipping marginally under the average, taking his wickets at 21.89. With four spinners performing better than him, Khan slips out of the equation for now.

Having benchmarked West Indies’ spinners against their peers, I also wanted to see what their figures would look like in a country where spinners find it harder. In the 2014 County Championship Division 1 season, the average spinner (calculated in the same way as before) would have taken their wickets at 39.63. That is a factor of 1.7 higher than in the West Indies, so to compare spinners across competitions, we times West Indies’ averages by that.

Permaul and Warrican’s averages adjust to 23.96 and 25.50 respectively. That gives them lower averages than the likes of Jeetan Patel and Adil Rashid, the best performing spinners in an seemingly unusually spin unfriendly year. Bishoo and Jacobs’ averages adjust to 29.05 and 30.32, giving them better averages than the likes of Simon Kerrigan and George Dockrell.

If you do the same with the Division Two figures (a division much friendlier to spinners with an average of 32.71), Permaul beats all comers, Warrican and Bishoo had a year similar to Gareth Batty’s 2014, and Damion Jacobs compares favourably with Monty Panesar and Danny Briggs.

In the end, these stats are instructive but not conclusive. Bishoo is currently the first in line behind Benn, jumping above Permaul probably due to more extensive Test experience and the selectors reluctance to go into a Test with two left-arm spinners. Warrican and Jacobs now need to show they can repeat or better their seasons. If they can, West Indies’ spin stocks may be healthier than they have been for a long time.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

McCullum’s three balls

Take a ball Brendon. Surely?

It was over the moment the ball hit the stumps. New Zealand have come back before, but their head had been cut off. It was not to be at the MCG, not against Australia this time. McCullum gone: game gone.

Will those three balls play over and over again in Brendon McCullum’s head? He was always going to hit out off the first ball. When you’ve lead from the front all tournament, it looks like a backward step to take a ball. But should he have?

First ball, between bat and pad as McCullum swings, missing off stump. Second ball, between bat and pad as McCullum swings, missing leg stump. Third ball. Zing bails. Detonate.

It takes immense bravery to hit that indiscriminately at the beginning of the innings. Brendon McCullum hit his first ball of the tournament for four; the first ball of the next match he sliced over cover for one attempting to do the same. Against England he actually dabbed his first ball for one, but second ball he cut for six.

Then against Australia he came up against Mitchell Starc for the first time in the tournament. Brendon McCullum was Starc’s first Test wicket. It’s a duel that can’t be dull. Pacey, swinging ball against blunderbuss bat.

Round one went to McCullum. Starc started with a wide as McCullum charged. Then he bowled full and McCullum launched himself at it. Six over extra cover, full swing of the bat ending up over the shoulder.  Starc bowled him nine balls. Two went for four, one went for six, and McCullum harvested 17 runs. Peaking too soon?

Sometimes McCullum did take a ball. Against Afghanistan he was positively sedate, pushing a single off his first ball before launching Dawlat Zadran for two fours Against Bangladesh he had to wait until his third ball for a boundary.

In the quarter final against West Indies he even accorded Jason Holder the honour of defending a ball, taking an age in McCullum terms, until his fourth ball, to hit a boundary.

Could he have waited? Could he have taken a ball? Could everything have been different?

Who knows.

Aside from his batting, McCullum’s spring uncoiled fielding has been a trademark throughout the World Cup. Time after time he’s chased a ball down to the boundary, legs whirring. Instead of sliding to stop it, McCullum dives. Head first, no regard for life and limb. Keep the ball inside the boundary, worry about the advertising hoardings later. (Not long later)

Not many captains have blended leading from the front in so many ways with tactical agility. He opens the innings, biting as much as he can from targets or setting up for a big score for others. He fields like a man possesed, besting men ten years his junior. He is New Zealand’s captain. Mitchell Starc may have got Man of the Tournament, but this was Brendon McCullum’s World Cup in all but one way.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

New Zealand are magic

Trent Boult rips a ball past the outside edge. Matt Henry jars one into the splice. Grant Elliott backhands one past the stumps. Brendon McCullum chases a ball down like it’s a baby in a pram rolling towards a cliff. New Zealand are at Eden Park, but it feels like the Colosseum.

South Africa are present, but barely. After three overs they have 20, the next ten harvest 23, painfully eked out off the edge and the splice. A lot is made of Brendon McCullum’s tactical brilliance, but it’s overstated. What really sets him apart is his extraordinary commitment in the field (helped by his perpetual motion legs) and willingness not to let the game drift.

His captaincy is inventive, but like an inventor, sometimes it blows up in his face. It wasn’t a game changing mistake, but giving Trent Boult a seventh over in his first spell was the wrong move, as Boult dropped short repeatedly, showing that slight fatigue that should have been spotted and gave away twelve. 

Brendon McCullum’s natural leadership style has dovetailed with the current ODI playing conditions. As teams have put more emphasis on building through the innings and exploding at the death, McCullum has attacked with the new ball and forced opponents to pick their poison.
Either they attack and risk losing too many wickets, or they defend and reduce the platform to launch from. Australia made the former mistake, forgetting that in the battle between high class swing and big hitting, the bowlers will win. England made the latter mistake. 

But with the bat, where they’ve zigged, he’s zagged, swinging like a windmill at anything that comes along, and dispatching most of it into the outfield or the stands. For most teams, 59 is a decent score from an opener, but one in which the opener failed to see it through. McCullum doesn’t even think of seeing it through. If he did he could score 300.

Kane Williamson is so often a totemic figure in the New Zealand batting that, measured elegance the other pole to McCullum. Even though it seems silly to think it now, after he fell I almost conceded the game for them. It seemed like the perfect combination: a quick innings from McCullum to bring down the required rate, and a big one from Williamson to take it deep and leave the death over hitters a manageable task. 

But when he under-edged a pull, his reaction showed how crucial he knew his role was. The zing bails lit up and Williamson bowed his head and trudged off. When Ross Taylor ran out Martin Guptill, the other main candidate for a big innings, it was left to Elliott and Anderson.

Grant Elliott was batting a place too high. Grant Elliott’s bowling lacked much of anything. Grant Elliott barely made the squad. Grant Elliott won a World Cup semi-final with a six.

New Zealand are magic.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Selfishness and West Indies batting

It’s clear that the West Indies don’t have a strong and united team. Perhaps the only thing they’re united on is abandoning tours. In India they left in body, in South Africa today they left in spirit. Are the West Indies’ best batsmen, the men who should be grafting runs, selfish?
Marlon Samuels is more arrogant than he has any right to be. Virat Kohli can say he has no respect for Mitchell Johnson if he’s just made 499 runs at 83.16 in the series, but can Samuels say that no spinner in the world can bowl at him with a Test average of 35.72?

He’s received, perhaps rightly, a great deal of criticism for getting caught at long on, precipitating another West Indies collapse, but the criticism from the commentators and pundits fell down in one crucial way. When Samuels had hit Harmer for two sixes and an aerially struck four, all with long on in place, he was applauded for the shots, but labelled “brainless” by Bob Willis for trying to do the same thing again.

A less obvious example of selfishness was Shivnarine Chanderpaul. Compare his batting with the tail to Kumar Sangakkara’s. The Sri Lankan legend built three significant partnerships with lower order batsmen to give his team an unexpected lead. He did that by taking as much responsibility as possible, giving his partners one or two balls an over at most whenever possible, helping them settle and even coaxing the odd defensive shot out of Rangana Herath.

While Samuels was chastised for taking too much risk, Chanderpaul (despite being the owner of an 69 ball Test century, proof he can take the attack to teams) seemingly refused to take responsibility, leaving tail-enders who either didn’t have the talent or the temperament to cope with a fired up Dale Steyn.

It would be difficult to blame him giving Jason Holder, an emerging all-rounder, the strike, and Jerome Taylor got out too soon to try to protect him. However, the ball after that wicket he blocked the last ball of an over, not even trying to get the single to protect the number ten, Sulieman Benn. Lo and behold, Benn nicked off against Steyn next over, sucummbing to bowling that was just too good for him.

Next, Chanderpaul took an ill-advised single off the fifth ball of that over, giving Shannon Gabriel possibly a whole over against Simon Harmer. Again Chanderpaul kept himself away from danger, responding to Gabriel’s call for a single off the fourth ball of that over then padding away the last ball of the over, not even trying to take a single to get to Steyn’s end.

Gabriel ended up facing ten of the fourteen balls in that last wicket partnership. The final indignity from Chanderpaul was running himself out taking a ludicrous single to get on strike for one ball, which he presumably would have left alone to give Gabriel the strike yet again.

Samuels will get more blame, but the utterly brainlessness came from Holder and particularly Taylor’s shots, and Chanderpaul’s utter lack of desire to take responsibility for shepherding the tail. You get the feeling that Chanderpaul thinks that if he gets a red-inker that he’s done his bit. He hasn’t.

Is he too old for this shit? Not physically or in terms of ability to score Test runs, but has Chanderpaul’s formidable mental strength been worn down by years of struggle? He’s just as good as ever at batting within himself, but has he lost the mental strength to be the main man, sometimes the only man. If he has, it’s time to go.