Thursday, 2 March 2017

Try as he might, Kraigg Brathwaite is not an ODI batsman

Kraigg Brathwaite is the opposite of orthodox as a batsman. He makes Shiv Chanderpaul look technically correct, and Alastair Cook look stylish. Just like many other limited Test batsman in the past, he’s embarked on a quest to crack the one day game.

Look at his List A figures on Cricinfo and it looks like he has. 1434 runs at 42.17, with two hundreds and nine fifties. But a cursory glance at his strike rate and it’s clear he hasn’t. In the recent Regional Super 50 tournament, he scored at 65.40, look at his seven ODIs to date, and it drops to 57.86.

Compare that to Geoffrey Boycott, a notoriously slow scorer who played his last ODI in the considerably less run heavy environment of 1981, and Brathwaite only just comes out on top. This can’t just be interpreted as a young player getting used to ODIs. Whilst his steady hand may be useful at the top of the order for Barbados, a player whose strike rate, if multiplied across all the other batsmen in the team, would leave the West Indies with 174 from their 50 overs, is not good enough to play ODI cricket.

Yet, with England jetting in for a three match series, due to begin on Friday, Brathwaite remains in the ODI squad and is a good bet to open the batting, as he did against Pakistan in the UAE. Whatever stat you look at, it doesn’t look good for Brathwaite. Twelve fours and no sixes in his seven ODIs. His highest score so far is 78 off 117 against Zimbabwe in a match West Indies tied. In that match, no other West Indies player to play more than ten balls scored at a strike rate under 80.

Compare Brathwaite to Alastair Cook. England’s former captain had periods of heavy scoring in the ODI team, and periods where he managed to hang on to the sort of strike rate required. But his selection was symptomatic of a negative approach to the one day game – something West Indies are rarely accused of. It even damaged his Test game. Playing some domestic one day cricket may open up Brathwaite’s scoring a little and help his Test game, but playing ODI cricket – a step too far for Brathwaite as it stands – will start to damage it.

Cook even has a reasonable domestic T20 record, whilst Brathwaite is yet to make his senior T20 debut, and has not even entered the CPL draft this year. As the 50 over and 20 over forms begin to more closely converge, Brathwaite’s style is even further out of pace with ODI batting. His selection is indicative of a team who feel they will struggle to bat out 50 overs without a Test style batsman at the top of the order.

I write all this as a fan of Brathwaite. His crabby, bottom hand dominant, right handed Graeme Smith but without the strength, batting looks unlikely to be able to sustain a Test average of over 20. Brathwaite averages 37.52. His last Test match saw him carry his bat in the first innings for 142, then remain not out for 60 in seeing a tricky chase home in the second innings. He became the first ever Test opener to remain not out in both innings. It was a masterpiece of concentration, self-denial, and knowing your scoring areas.

Boycott would have been proud, and he also may have given some advice to the young grinder: Know your limitations. Kraigg Brathwaite has the temperament to become the next great West Indies run scorer. He would change his style at his own peril.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Is Keshav Maharaj South Africa's long term spinner?

In the five years since Paul Harris retired, South Africa have tried out six frontline spinners (seven if you include JP Duminy - which I don’t). Imran Tahir was the great white hope, and flamed out at Adelaide. Robin Peterson was steady and little more, after four years out of the team.

Dane Piedt scythed through Zimbabwe, fought back from injury, then was discarded for being an off-spinner. Simon Harmer impressed across five Tests in 2015, then was dropped for the returning Piedt, and decamped for England, as Piedt may do himself.

Keshav Maharaj impressed on debut at Perth after Dale Steyn’s injury left South Africa shorthanded, then was barely used in the next Test, and dropped the one after that. Tabraiz Shamsi got one Test, included because his variations were harder to pick with the pink ball.

Now for some background.

South Africa have had only one truly great spinner, the leading off-spinner of the 50s, Hugh ‘Toey’ Tayfield. Paul Adams, Nicky Boje, and Paul Harris all took over a hundred Test wickets and played their roles in the late 90s, and through the 00s, but since the retirement of Harris, South Africa have struggled to stick with a spinner.

It’s interesting to note that all three of South Africa’s modern spin trio are left-arm spinners (two orthodox, one very unorthodox). Left-arm orthodox might be the best way tie up one end against the modern batsmen, which may what South Africa want out of their spinner most of the time.

Maharaj has cited Rangana Herath as his hero, which suggests he may not be a defensive spinner, just a patient one. He also spoke to Paul Harris before the series to suss out how to bowl in home Test matches. The key word there: patience.

Sri Lanka showed rather a lack of patience in playing him on the second day of the Newlands Test match. Without wanting to dismiss Maharaj’s bowling, which was admirably disciplined, and tactically astute, South Africa’s strangulation of Sri Lanka with their seamers left the batsmen desperate to score against the spinner.

Maharaj had to wait 21 overs of the innings to come on, and was given the tough, but potentially rewarding, job of bowling into the wind. His fourth ball was slog-swept for six by Kusal Mendis, but there was a hint of a smile on Maharaj’s face, a portent of things to come.

The next two balls were slow again, teasing Mendis, a hard hit cover drive for none, and a forward defence. The next time Kusal Mendis tried to slog-sweep him, the ball was marginally more off side, and a little quicker, and the resulting top edge was caught by JP Duminy. Subtle variation. Rangana would be proud.

From a spin bowler’s point of view he’d have enjoyed Mahraj’s first over after tea, with balls bowled as slow as 74kph and as fast as 84kph. Less subtle, but no less varied, the Sri Lankan batsmen could not settle against him.

It took 5.4 overs before he bowled his first bad ball, short and cut to the point boundary by Dhananjaya de Silva. He followed it up with a good length straight ball. Then last ball of the over, batsman having got two fours in the over, he drifted one into the pads of the charging de Silva, and straightened it enough to get the LBW.

It was only two wickets, but Mahraj picked up two crucial batsmen, and provided an invaluable foil to South Africa’s seamers, bowling eleven overs unchanged from his first ball until Sri Lanka were bowled out. Even though he didn’t get a wicket against them, he masterfully targeted the rough outside Tharanga and Herath’s off stump, some balls fizzing back at them and some going straight on.

Mahraj is about patience and changes of pace, and his backup for now Tabraiz Shamsi is of a different sort of bowler, all about variations and mystery, as is any left-arm wrist-spinner, with so few of them about. His debut in the pink ball Test at Adelaide didn’t got to plan, but after his fantastic domestic season that got him picked originally, he should be first in line to partner Maharaj should a second spinner be needed.

Maharaj and Shamsi may find their paths intertwined for some time to come. Born eleven days apart in 1990, they are be the two halves of South Africa’s new spin dichotomy, the new Boje and Adams if you like.

Maharaj will play as the holding spinner, waiting and picking his chances to strike and pick up useful wickets. Shamsi will get his chances on spinning pitches, in the subcontinent, maybe again with the pink ball (if his variations are actually that much more difficult to pick with it).

Dane Piedt may get another chance if he doesn’t take his trade to England. JP Duminy may take Maharaj’s place if the selectors decide they simply don’t care about spin. Imran Tahir may even get another recall in the subcontinent.

Keshav Maharaj is the man now, nobody can take that away from him… yet.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Nine predictions for 2017

The first international century of the years is scored by Hashim Amla
This one will be proved or disproved very quickly. Amla had two underwhelming years and is in a poor run of form, but his class is permanent, and the changing of the calendars frees him up to caress his way to a near run a ball hundred shortly after lunch on the first day of South Africa’s series

Alastair Cook will resign in tears after South Africa beat England
This is my most nailed on prediction. Cook has one foot out of the captaincy, but the long gap before the next set of Test matches against South Africa will convince him to try to continue until after the Ashes; though South Africa will have a different view of that. Tradition dictates that he’ll resign in a tearful press conference after South Africa have clinched the series (2-1, after a win in the last Test at Old Trafford, if you’re asking)

The India v Pakistan series in the Future Tours Programme will not happen
Ok, this is the most nailed on prediction. India and Pakistan haven’t played a bilateral series since early 2013 (ODIs, and T20s) and haven’t played a Test since 2007. The FTP has India scheduled to host Pakistan for a full tour in November and December, but India are already seemingly arranging a tour of South Africa in that time. Of course, India did sign a deal guaranteeing six series between the countries, between 2015 and 2023 - pending government approval - but that has turned out to be not worth the paper it’s written on.

England will lose in the final of the Champions Trophy and Eoin Morgan will resign as captain before he’s pushed
England storm through the group stages with three wins, including a thumping one over Australia. After winning a tight semi-final against South Africa, they come up against Australia again in the final, where a tight chase of 281 comes down to the final ball, with Eoin Morgan at the crease and four to win. Morgan swings and misses, Australia win yet another ICC ODI tournament, and Morgan never plays for England again.

Adil Rashid makes the England spinners job his own
This one is a bit of wishful thinking, but bear with me. England will find a spinning pitch at Old Trafford in the last Test of the series, and pick the extra spinner in Rashid. In a losing cause, he takes twin four-fers as Moeen Ali continues a series of struggle with the ball. As England take on West Indies at Edgbaston in a day night Test next up, Rashid is retained, and continues to chip in with wickets and ever improving control, and Moeen Ali gets to focus on his batting. Rashid goes to Australia the number one spinner and alternates Tests of struggle with match-winning performances at Adelaide and Melbourne as he finds the big grounds of Australia to his liking.

Kraigg Brathwaite dominates West Indies’ tour of England
After Alastair Cook resigns the England captaincy, Joe Root’s first job is a home series against the West Indies. On dry end of season wickets, the pace bowlers run themselves into the ground trying to get rid of Kraigg Brathwaite, who makes a double hundred at Edgbaston, a century at Headingley and a brave fourth innings 99 in defeat at Lords. He fails to get on the honours board this time, but even as West Indies struggle for incision with the ball, he forms the spine of their batting.

AB de Villiers, Misbah ul Haq, Dale Steyn, and Rangana Herath retire from Test cricket
Two of these are expected. Misbah looked a beaten man after Pakistan capitulated at the MCG, and although he’s confirmed he will captain the New Year Test at the SCG, few doubt that whatever the result, the retirement announcement will come shortly afterwards. Rangana Herath has two bad knees and six months before Sri Lanka play again, expect him to bow out after Sri Lanka’s tour of South Africa ends. Alternatively, it is possible he may play on to try to provide a fitting end in beating India at home in July and August. De Villiers and Steyn’s retirements will be a shock to all, both taking the injury induced option of curtailing their Test careers to make it to the 2019 World Cup, with the knowledge that the likes of Kagiso Rabada and Temba Bavuma leave South Africa with a strong future in which they are no longer as crucial as they used to be.

Bangladesh will achieve their first significant overseas Test win
According to the FTP, Bangladesh have two Test series’ arranged against Australia and South Africa later in the year. More concretely, they are currently in New Zealand, with two Tests to come there, and will tour India for one Test in February. Maybe India underestimate them, maybe Taskin and Mustafizur find the Australian or South African pitches to their liking, or maybe they are just better than New Zealand right now. Whichever way it comes, I see another breakthrough win on the horizon.

The year ends with an Ashes series locked at 2-2
England are an improving side, or a side in transition, or a good flawed team. Ditto for Australia. Two good but not great teams will face up in what will be similar to the 2009 and 2013 Ashes series’, exciting cricket, not always of the greatest quality. Australia will get their wins at the Gabbatoir and Perth, England will fight back at Adelaide and Melbourne. Ben Stokes will score one very quick century, Mitchell Starc will briefly bring back repressed memories of another Mitch at Perth. The series will be on a knife edge as we tumble into 2018.