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.