Archive | August 2014

Falling short of 200, again and again

two hundred178 152 161 148 94

If Indian cricket fans needed a 24 hour telephone help-line, this could be the number. It’s the sequence of five innings scores that saw the optimism of leading the series after Lord’s get swung and spun into humiliating defeat.

Five consecutive sub-200 run completed innings in Test cricket is a rarity. It’s 55 years since India’s only ever previous sequence of this kind – also in an away series against England. In 1959, they faced Trueman and Statham. But just as in 2014 it wasn’t always Anderson and Broad who took the wickets, so Tommy Greenhough (a Lancashire leg-spinner), Harold Rhodes and Brian Close prospered in that earlier series.

Scoring fewer than 200 runs in a completed innings is itself not unusual. There have been 1,478 instances in the 2,137 Test matches played to date. 28% of all completed innings fail to top 200. What is rare, in Test history, is the run of these run-shy innings.

The longest sequence suffered by a Test team stretches over 11 Test matches and four years. From July 1886 to August 1890, Australia were dismissed by England 21 times in succession for scores as low as 42, but never higher than 176. Every match, but one, was lost. In July 1888, scores of 116 and 60 by Australia were sufficient for a victory at Lord’s with the comfortable margin of 60 runs.

The late 1880s were a period of exceptional low scoring in Test cricket. In four of the Tests that feature in Australia’s skid, England set their own record of eight consecutive innings without making 200, while winning three of the matches.

South Africa own the equal second longest streak of this kind, which began in the late 1880s and continued until the second half of the next decade. These were the African colony’s first six Test matches, all played at home against England and lost.

Bangladesh have also endured a run of 12 innings of sub-200 scores. It started 13 months after their Test debut, when they had not only topped 200 but reached 400. Dizzy heights. Across seven Tests, in four countries on three continents, Bangladesh went from December 2001 until October 2002 making 12 scores between 108 and 184.

The West Indies were another side to find 200 too steep for a period of their early days in Test match cricket. In their first series away in Australia in 1931, the West Indies had six consecutive sub-200 scores. They broke that sequence at Sydney in February 1931 with their first victory away from home, losing only 11 wickets in the match.

Two other Test teams have had runs of six completed innings below 200. New Zealand in England in 1958 didn’t even make it to three figures four times out of the six innings. Australia in 1979, rebuilding without most of their established stars who were playing World Series Cricket, finished the Ashes with five scores below 200 and started a series away in Pakistan with a sixth.

Then one notch down comes the India team of 2014. Not a nation at the outset of its Test career; not battling in tense encounters on uncovered nineteenth century pitches; not deprived of its finest players by defection or selection.

India’s streak is alive, although its prognosis is poor. Their next Test match starts on 31 October at the Hyderabad (Deccan) ground [note 1], where India’s lowest completed innings score in three Tests is 438. The opponents are the West Indies who conceded 453 and 495 in India’s two innings in Tendulkar’s farewell series last autumn. It will take something truly wretched for the India team of 2014 to go one step further and become holders of the joint fourth longest streak of sub-200 Test match innings scores.

Note 1: India did not play their next Test in October, because of the abandonment of the West Indies series owing to the tourists’ dispute with their Board. The start of India’s next series, in Australia, was delayed for compassionate reasons. Their opportunity to end this streak will take place at Adelaide, where India have only once been dismissed for less than 200. Their most recent innings at Adelaide (January 2012), however, only amounted to 201.

(updated 7 December 2014)

Wearing one

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Descriptive language tends in two directions. One is the hyperbolic, where the notable is ‘incredible’, the amusing is ‘hilarious’, the inconvenient is ‘a complete nightmare’. The other direction is careful or casual understatement and it is often found in situations of danger.

In cricket there’s little more dangerous than being hit by the ball. And so the understated, off-hand description of a batsman being struck on the head by a fast bowler may include ‘the ball got big on him’ for the moment prior to impact; ‘sconned’, not for an incident in the Great British Bake-off, but for the thud of the ball onto head; and ‘wearing one’ for the outcome of being unable to elude the speeding ball.

Rarely has ‘wearing one’ applied more literally to a cricketer than to Stuart Broad at Old Trafford on the third day of the fourth Test.

Broad’s innings was brief. He played no stroke to his first two balls, ducking under a short delivery from Pankaj Singh. The following over, looking to increase the scoring rate to build England’s lead quickly, Broad drove at a full ball from Varun Aaron, before hooking successive short balls for six.

The next ball, the sixth of Broad’s innings, was also a bouncer. Broad aimed another hook but, with the ball propelled at 87mph it may have bounced higher, he played under the ball, which arrowed towards his eyes. The momentum of the shot, rather than any move to avoid the ball, swung Broad’s head to the right so the ball crashed into his helmeted head facing midwicket, rather than the bowler. The ball, perhaps through some minor misalignment of the helmet’s grill, forced its way under the helmet peak, breaking Broad’s nose.

Broad swivelled and moved back past his leg stump, after a few steps crouched and waved to indicate help was needed. All the while, the ball was jammed against his face, pinned in place by the helmet’s grill.

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I have found the image of Broad with the ball stuck hard against his face, inside the helmet, oddly unsettling. Much more so than the pictures of him bleeding onto the ground, or stitched and bruised. I cannot quite put my finger on what gives me such a strong instinctive reaction to that image, but I’ve tried to rationalise it and have identified the following possibilities and associations:

  • the sight of an object lodged fast against the face suggests not just injury, but suffocation. The damage caused is continuing and needs urgent alleviation, not merely treatment.
  • the ball is screening the wound, meaning the true extent of the injury has to be imagined until it is revealed.
  • a projectile bursting into a body references warfare – not missiles and bombs, but their deadly side-effect, shrapnel
  • it even conjures images of assaults by animals, their teeth or claws attached to the flesh
  • the picture, in my mind, that it most closely resembles is that of a victim of 1970s football hooliganism with a dart in the nose.

hooligan dart

Broad may return for the Oval Test, wearing a mask and wearing a replacement helmet when batting. If he does play, he’s sure to be tested with short-pitched bowling. Let neither he, nor anyone else, have the misfortune of ‘wearing one’ in that unsettling way.

Rewarded

The realisation comes fairly quickly to the blogger, that you either have to enjoy blogging for its own sake or you’re not going to be a blogger for long. Self-published web articles won’t make you a professional writer. Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame was a very analogue theory. In our digital age, most pages of carefully composed arguments are scanned and clicked away from in less than a minute.

Most days, I allow a little time to the thought that all the energy and emotion I invest in these pieces is futile. But my philosophical approach holds sway: I will stop writing when I don’t want to write any more. In the meantime, I have more ideas than time to write.

So this blogging enterprise is driven from the inside, but it helps along the way to get some reinforcement. A kindly comment. A challenge from someone who has taken the time to read the work closely enough to see its flaws, but found it interesting enough to engage with. The pulse of the visitor stats when someone higher up the social media food chain (but, in the case of Piers Morgan, lower down all other food chains) tweets a plug.

But these welcome intrusions, if not exactly dealt randomly, aren’t earnt in proportion to effort or excellence. So if the blogger starts to count on them, disappointment and bruised self-esteem will follow. Best to enjoy the writing and self-publishing process for its own sake.

This week, though, I have been reminded that there is a reward. Something that makes the late night hours of research and keyboard tapping have an extrinsic value. For the fourth time in 12 months I have met people who know me through the blog. A beery evening of the widest ranging, always entertaining, cricket talk: from making balls out of bicycle tyres, to grieving at Tendulkar’s retirement, to the dress code for women in The Lord’s pavilion. Then today, in the rain, a net at my club accompanied by my kids and wife, with the writer who cannot remember not knowing cricket and his partner, learning the technique of a foreign game.

You really should know already, but if you don’t, Subash and Kathleen are on a world cricket tour. Look out for them at a cricket ground near you. If you have a love of cricket, you may be in for a treat. I certainly was – ample reward for Declaration Game.

Follow Subash’s journey at The Cricket Couch and @thecricketcouch
Kathleen writes The Adventures of a Cricket Widow and @missuscouch

Lord’s, day three (at the Test with a teen)

 

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Father and son, a day trip from Manchester to the Lord’s Test. So long anticipated. I’m excited, but all too aware what a risky business it is inducting these modern kids into the sweet, deep, almost shameful habit of watching a day’s cricket. There’s the hope he might want to accompany me for years ahead; the fear he’ll be bored or repelled by the kind of people who do this. And this day is an event: it’s not just me and mine, but my Dad, who first brought me to Lord’s 36 years ago, will be sitting with us in the Grandstand. I bet he wears a jacket and tie.

Potentially tricky situations with children are best managed (I know, because I’ve got it wrong with three of them) with food. Just let the usual rules lapse, don’t insist on token fruit or the presence of a pure protein. Say ‘yes’, much more often than ‘no’. Duck the battles, sway away from the arguments like we hope to see Kohli later having to deal with Broad.

But no.1 son has started the day feeling nauseous. Stuffed with pizza and two bottles of coke from his friend’s 13th birthday party on Friday evening. He turns down breakfast, which means we’re away to Piccadilly promptly, but accepts a croissant, although nothing to drink, at the station. It’s wet as our early train leaves town and it stays wet for most of the journey.

“A coke. Can I have a coke?” gasps the boy as we arrive in Euston. I buy myself an apple. “Fancy one?” I check. But it’s the sugar and the fizz he needs and gulps in the taxi to the ground.

‘What will he think of Lord’s?’ I wonder of this place I cherish visiting. Will its atmosphere, its confidence sweep him away? We queue at the North Gate. Tickets, bag search, body frisk and into the bright light of Lord’s flashing off white awnings, stands and media centre. “Is that where the commentators sit?” he asks of its blank, arced rear.

I steer him to the nursery sightscreen, to make his first sight of the 200 year old ground, the iconic view of the Pavilion presiding over the wide open outfield. “It’s not at all as I imagined,” he offers inscrutably. And, just as he has done when I take him to see his side at the Eastlands/Etihad Stadium, “Can we go straight to our seats?” I concur, although I want to stride around, spot players, ex-players, maybe even old pals.

Into the Grandstand and no.1 son spots Grandad, standing guarding our seats. He’s wearing a suit and tie. There’s warm welcomes, as befits an event: “Your first visit to Lord’s. Lovely, fantastic.”

Play is only 15 minutes away, so I dip back under the Grandstand to get coffee, tea and, for no.1 son, a packet of ready salted crisps, while he recaps his season so far. His first season where he has shone more as batsman than bowler.

Back upstairs for the start of play and I realise it’s not just bright, it’s hot. Some men a row behind us are taking off their shirts, looking sweaty as though they’ve joined in the Indian team’s fielding warm-ups. It turns out some hospitality box dwellers had tapped their yellow and red sun shade, sending last night’s rain smacking onto the £90 per ticket hoi polloi below. That remains a threat to the lower Grandstand for the rest of the morning. Them upstairs also shoot champagne corks, but these clear us and reach the outfield, where they sit looking like objects, sometimes seen on cricket grounds in public parks, that should be picked up and disposed of in plastic bags.

At noon, Grandad hauls in the first beer of the day and sandwiches – cheese for no.1 son. “It’s got pickle all over it” he hisses at me at a volume just below his Grandfather’s sensory range, as though I have conspired to place preserves in the least acceptable locations. I offer to find a replacement, but the nausea of 7am, 200-odd miles north has returned.

By the afternoon, when weathermen warned of storms, the sky is wide and blue. I’m happily roasting under a straw hat, Grandad may be snoozing and no.1 son is getting bothered that the sweat may be showing on his back. He accepts the need for protection and wears my club cricket cap. His hunger is back and I take him to the Jamie Oliver food court for thick-cut chips. He holds the cardboard basket up and oscillates it while directing me to pump more and more ketchup on top. “Can I have some salt?” he knows to ask. “I’m not looking,” I know to answer on this day of dietary laxity.

Back in our seats and no.1 son is soon offering chips. That’s unusual. Maybe he isn’t feeling well, I wonder, until I see the skin of salt like the mucky froth along a harbour wall. He’s overdone the sodium chloride.

Into the evening session and although it’s late in the playing day it’s hours until I need to drive the car, so I resolve to have a third pint. A soft drink for my Dad and an order for hot chocolate for no.1 son. “Will it be too hot? How long will I need to wait?”

“After Anderson’s next over, give it a try.”

“Now?”

“No, Stokes is still bowling. You could try dipping your finger in.”

“Oww. Why didn’t you make me wait an over?”

Grandad has left and we make a trip to the Lord’s Shop. “Is it good?” he wants to know. I sway my head as I do with a high percentage of the closed questions my kids fire at me.

No.1 son ponders buying a ball with the Lord’s logo stamped on it, then we hear a sudden, sharp cheer, with many many voices layered on top. Looking up at the ‘live coverage’ on the TV screens in the shop and Plunkett is at the top of his run-up. But the wicket falls as we hear the crowd clap the Indian captain off the field. Kohli, the player no.1 son and I have discussed most, is taking his guard on the screen when there’s more abrupt roars. Those of us caught in the shop chuckle as we wait to see the moment of peak excitement that we’ve sacrificed for a bit of retail distraction. It’s a good one, as Kohli waves on a ball into the top corner of his off-stump. The hat-trick ball, umistakeably a dud from the lowing noises we hear, 30 seconds before we see a harmless ball sail wide of Kumar’s stumps.

Ten minutes before close of play, we stand and leave our seats. I, childlike, I suppose, try to watch a few more balls between the heads of the spectators sitting in the Compton Lower, as we follow the concourse around to the St John’s Wood Road. Gently, not wanting to provoke a pressured response, I ask no.1 son what he thinks of Lord’s. “There are too many gaps between the stands. It’s not like a stadium.” I nod. He’s right, it isn’t like a stadium.

At Euston, we head to Marks and Spencer, where we might find croissant. They’re sold out and wearily he explains we should go to one of the station pastry vendors. At some French sounding franchise, he makes a Kohli-like last second recalculation and orders a slice of pizza. Aboard the train, having removed grilled tomato and taking two bites, he declares it disgusting and sits ruing not selecting pastry’s forward-defensive: the croissant.

Two and a half hours later and we’re through the front door. No.1 son, keeps going straight through to the kitchen, bypassing his Mother calling out welcomes from the living room. He’s at the toaster, grabbing butter from the fridge, finding food that fits.

Although we spent 15 hours together, I can only really piece together what my son thought of the experience: good.. the bowling was fast.. a bit boring at times.. not like a stadium.

And I got to see somewhere I know well and hold dear through someone else’s eyes. And what I’ve learnt is that cricket grounds would be even better places if they served toast.

Where have all the captains gone?

 

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Alastair Cook’s hold on the England captaincy ought to be precarious. He acknowledged after the defeat to India at Lord’s that he could be unseated by the end of the summer. His current security, assisted by the victory in the third Test, has a lot to do with the high politics of English cricket in the first half of 2014: when you’ve hailed a new era, you don’t want to be announcing a new, new era within months.

There’s another factor, too, I suspect. Not as compelling as the forthright decision at the end of the winter to reconfirm Cook as the centre-piece of England’s Test team, but it’s there, hanging around, a problem that can be overlooked if only Cook scratches out a hundred and stumbles to a Test series victory. It strengthens Cook’s tenure, while allowing him to dig an even deeper pit while in office. It’s the question, ‘if not Cook, then who?’

England captains are found fulfilling one of two roles prior to their appointment. They are either established members of the team (most usually batsmen) or they are able cricketers who have shown leadership prowess in county cricket. The establishment preference, if not explicitly stated, then empirically shown, is for the former: someone already in the team.

The current England team has three established players: Bell, Broad and Anderson. Of the newer team members, Joe Root is mentioned as a potential future captain. Without assessing each individual, I don’t think it’s controversial to state that none makes an outstanding case. With each of them having spent the majority of their professional careers as part of the England squad, none has experience of leading a county for more than a few matches.

There is another source to which the selectors could turn: the proven leaders in county cricket. Of the 18 appointed county captains for the 2014 season, five are not qualified to play for England, six are former Test cricketers (although not much more could be asked of both James Foster and Chris Read to earn a recall) and two of the others are 35 or older. Of the remaining five – Wayne Madsen, Jimmy Adams, Alex Wakely, Daryl Mitchell and Andrew Gale – I can only remember Adams and Gale ever being mentioned as possible international cricketers. The former is aged 33 and Gale has been overtaken by teammates Bairstow and Root, and probably has Lyth and Lees ahead in the Yorkshire queue for an England batting spot.

Go back 30 years to 1984, and there were ten England Test cricketers captaining counties, seven of whom were still playing (or in contention) for their country, including Botham, Gower, Gatting, Willis and Tavare. Botham led Somerset in around one-half of their Championship matches that season.

I have written before about the impact on Test selection of the separation of the England team from the county game. I concluded that there still remains a route into the England team for those performing very well in the domestic game, despite the ‘hunch’ selections (not justified by weight of runs) and fast-tracking of youngsters before they establish county reputations. The conundrum created by the, ‘if not Cook, then who?’ question suggests another ramification of centrally contracted England players: scant opportunities to develop captaincy experience and aptitude.

But which is the anomaly – 1984 or 2014? I have looked at three dates, one from each of the last three decades (1) when the England captaincy was taken or passed from one player and given to another, to see if the field from which the new captain was selected was as thin as it appears in 2014, or lush with talent as it now seems to have been thirty years ago.

1980 – Brearley’s successor

Mike Brearley, Test batting average in the 20s, stepped aside with ten Tests against the West Indies in 12 months looming. Established players in the Test team from that winter that had lost in Australia, but defeated India in a one-off match, were: Willis, Boycott and Botham. From the counties, Keith Fletcher, Brian Rose, David Lloyd, Roger Knight and Jack Hampshire offered a mix of leadership and Test match experience.

Botham, of course, received the nod. Willis was to become captain, as was Fletcher (and indeed Brearley, again), as England sought to replace Brearley’s leadership skills over the next few series. Brian Rose was also a viable, if outside, contender, having made it into the Test team and become the first Somerset captain to hold silverware – and with that the experience of captaining the likes of Botham, Richards and Garner.

1999 – Stewart is stood down

England failed to qualify for the super six stage of the World Cup they hosted and Stewart was stood down as captain. Nasser Hussain, vice captain, was appointed as successor. Beyond Stewart and his predecessor, Atherton, the team, habitually unsuccessful, lacked established players. But the counties provided captaincy experience to a number of those in and around the squad: Hussain, Cork, John Crawley, Mark Ramprakash, Jason Gallian, Adam Hollioake and Chris Adams.

When Hussain’s “poppadum fingers” took him out of his second Test in charge, he passed control to Thorpe, a novice captain. Unavailable for the next Test, Hussain’s role was taken by Mark Butcher, who had skippered Surrey for only a few weeks earlier in the season.

2008 – Vaughan’s gone

Michael Vaughan’s exit was unplanned: three Tests into a four match rubber with South Africa. Despite his own injury problems and unavailability to captain for much of the preceding three years, Vaughan left an exceptionally settled team that included three England captains: Flintoff, Strauss and Collingwood (ODI only). But appearances deceive: Flintoff (like his predecessor as iconic all-rounder, Botham) wasn’t to be trusted with leadership again; Collingwood was one batting failure from being dropped; and Strauss waited, although not for very long. Pietersen, of course, was invited to succeed not just Vaughan, but also Collingwood as ODI captain.

Central contracts had been instrumental to England’s success that began under Hussain and peaked under Vaughan in 2005. Team England were highly unlikely to look beyond their own group for a captain and the county game that year offered two proven ex-Test cricketers (Mark Butcher and Darren Gough), six Test discards, four one-day internationals, three overseas players and a handful of ‘county pros’.

These three examples, along with the situations in 1984 and 2014, suggest a thinning of the field of England captaincy contenders – related clearly to the introduction of central contracts and the withdrawal of Test players from championship cricket. It can be argued that the absence of many candidates does not really matter: England only needs one Test captain at a time. The injuries to captains Hussain and Vaughan illustrate that a viable alternative is necessary; something that Hussain, in particular, lacked in his first season in charge.

But just as substantial runs or wickets in county cricket are not guarantees, or even a prerequisite, of a successful Test career, how important is having experience of leading a county side? Michael Vaughan thrived without it. Nasser Hussain was made Essex captain only weeks before the England appointment. Michael Atherton leap-frogged the Lancashire job when made England captain age 25.

Perhaps the question is moot: England will continue to select captains from within the centrally contracted, county-deprived squad.

I have heard little of Andy Flower’s new role since his appointment in March 2014 as Technical Director of Elite Coaching, with a remit including the creation of “a leadership programme for young England cricketers,” which he clarified “is not simply about captaincy.” But he would explode the scepticism of many England followers if the graduates of his programme enabled England to appoint future captains with the confidence they could cope with the role like Vaughan and not look as ill-suited to it as Cook often has.

Footnote 1: These three dates (1980, 1999, 2008) provided useful examples to examine as well as being seasons for which I had Wisden easily to hand. Other dates and captaincy changes could be equally, or more illuminating.