Archive | July 2015

Quick single: Early lead

There’s much to be commended in going out and celebrating your team’s victory. Soak up the success; prolong the elevated mood by reconstructing the achievement, bouncing favourite moments off fellow fans.

At home, not quite alone, I am looking forward, as much as backwards. Like the anxious, partisan football fan, who sees his side take an early lead, I think, “No. Too soon. So much time for that other team to mount a come back.” There’s basic psychology at work: a lead means there is something to be lost. Being defeated, without ever being ahead, doesn’t have the discomfort of dashed hopes, the humiliation of squandering an advantage – particularly when, before the contest began, as is the case with England in this Ashes series, I held very slender hopes.

I wanted England to compete, to push the Australians. I hoped this summer that a new bowler of international class would emerge, and two of England’s fresh batsmen would solidify their places. I wanted Cook’s captaincy to be resolved (by which I mean, ended).

Now, though, a vista of opportunity has opened up. But the broader the vista, the deeper the holes into which we can fall. All because of this early lead.

What really complicates things for me is England’s new positive approach to, in particular, batting. Clinging to a one-nil lead throughout a five Test series is not feasible. It used to be. India achieved it in 1982/83 over a six match series: wrangling a first Test victory on a poor pitch and holding out for draws for the rest of the series on pitches where “conditions were so heavily weighted in favour of the bat” (Wisden, 1983). This series will have at least two more results.

I would like England to bat conscious of their lead. I want to see consolidation and conservation applied to their innings. I want context to be recognised and respected.

At the moment, the England middle-order (and one of the openers) seems to believe that attack is the answer to each and every challenge. It worked at Lord’s against New Zealand, and again in both innings at Cardiff.

And it did a thrilling job in the ODI series with New Zealand. But playing without fear isn’t a tactical choice, but a necessity, when it becomes obvious that scoring at seven runs per over is what’s needed to win the game. That’s not the case in Test cricket. While England have found success from playing audaciously on a few occasions, on others they will not.

So far, they have benefited from surprise. If it becomes the default response to the loss of a few early wickets, the Australians will be ready for it and England will show all the calculation of the gambler who doubles his stakes after every loss. England have also been lucky, notably at Cardiff. Root played and missed, edged and squirted the ball past the close catchers. Bell, excluded from the ODI jamboree, appeared determined to show he belonged. His innings featured his classy off-drives – none of which we would have appreciated had any one of his early shots that looped past fielders fallen to hand.

To win a five Test series, a team needs to master a variety of tempos. As a batting line-up, England seem enthralled by a pacey approach, that will soon speed them to defeat, if not used selectively. That’s what I believe – just as I believed in 2005 that Vaughan was reckless and should consolidate gains in that famous Ashes series. My approach to Test cricket was stuck in the past then and maybe similarly out of date now. There’s only one thing for it: can someone take me out to celebrate?

Quick single: whose day?

343-7 (88 overs)

Australia’s day: the pitch is benign and conducive to heavy run scoring; seven wickets taken on a day when the bowlers lacked focus and looked only intermittently threatening.

England’s day: took the attack to Australia’s bowlers, scoring at nearly four runs per over across the whole day; Root reinforced his status as the key batsman and Ballance demonstrated he can battle to make runs.

Add to the mix the selective punctuation points of 43-3 and 280-4 and more arguments can be made in favour of one team or the other.

Our keenness to call the first day of the Ashes series suggests it has meaning: setting the tone for cricket to be played across England and Wales over the next seven weeks; establishing advantages and inflicting inferiorities that will recur in the twenty-odd days to come.

Is that the role of the first day of an Ashes series – to create patterns of play and relative position that predict its outcome? I have looked at day 1 of the last ten Ashes series.

2013/14 Brisbane: Australia 273/8 (Warner 49, Haddin 78*, Johnson 64, Broad 5-65)

Day 1 did not foreshadow Australia’s dominance or England’s horrors. In retrospect, it seems a day belonging to the preceding series, rather than the one it started. Haddin’s salvage job on the Australia innings from 100-5 was to become a feature of the series. Johnson, it is often said, bowls better when he has scored runs and that association proved, in this case, true.

2013 Trent Bridge: England 213 (Trott 48, Siddle 5-50), Australia 75-4 (Smith 38*)

It could be argued that day 1 at Nottingham fairly summarised a series where England’s worst could be outdone by Australia’s; or more generously, Australia would be unrewarded for periods of fine cricket (in this case Siddle’s bowling). The only major player on that first day to go on to have distinguished series was Anderson, who took two of the wickets to fall, including Clarke bowled with a gem.

2010/11 Brisbane: England 276 (Bell 76, Cook 67, Pietersen 43, Siddle 6-54), Australia 25-0

England’s disappointing first day of the series (second and third days, as well) were poor indicators of this contest’s ultimate direction. Some of England’s batsmen showed form that was to develop into great richness. Siddle took almost half of his wickets in the series on that first day.

2009 Cardiff: England 336-7 (Pieterson 69, Collingwood 64, Prior 56)

A closely contested day’s play, with the initiative swinging between the sides and no dominant individual performance was a fair microcosm of the 4 and 4/5 Tests that followed.

2006/07 Brisbane: Australia 343/3 (Ponting 137*, Langer 82, Hussey 63*)

It wasn’t the first day that summed up this series, but the very first ball: Harmison’s wide delivered straight to his captain at first slip. Australia cruised to a big total on the first stretch of their cruise to a 5-0 whitewash of England.

2005 Lord’s: Australia 190 (Langer 40, Harmison 5-40), England 92-7 (McGrath 5-21)

This thrilling day was a fitting overture for ‘the greatest series’. It suggested however that England’s best would not be quite enough to topple Australia. The day also impressed on all the importance of McGrath, though noone was thinking about the impact his absence would later have.

2002/03 Brisbane: Australia 364/2 (Hayden 186*, Ponting 123)

Day 1 was one of many in the series that Australia won by a distance. Hayden and Ponting scored heavily while England toiled. Simon Jones’s injury, sliding in the field, was the most serious of a number than hampered England in the matches that followed.

2001 Edgbaston: England 294 (Stewart 65, Atherton 57, Caddick 49*, Warne 5-71, McGrath 3-67), Australia 133/2 (Slater 76*)

A rambunctious first day saw runs scored at almost five per over. The hints on this day of close competition were misleading as England failed to reach 250 in another innings until the fourth Test when the series had already been lost. Warne and McGrath – 8 wickets on the day – kept up their early momentum, sharing 63 wickets in the five Tests.

1998/99 Brisbane: Australia 246/5 (S Waugh 69*, Healy 46*, Taylor 46)

Australia emerged on top after a tightly fought opening day. England could only attain that level of competitiveness sporadically across the series that followed.

1997 Edgbaston: Australia 118 (Warne 47, Gough 3-43, Caddick 5-50), England 200-3 (Hussain 83*, Thorpe 80*)

England had a first innings lead before the end of the first day. It was an aberration, although not one Australia could correct until the second Test (England bowled out for 77). By the fifth of the six Test series, Australia had a 3-1 lead.

Five of these first days proved to be fair indicators of the direction the series would ultimately take. There were too many false clues laid, however, for any reliance to be placed on the first day as a predictor of the cricket that follows.

Short pitch: back in the nets

My Dad once (or twice) netted with Surrey. That was back in 1946 when he was a 15 year old school boy.

IMG_0955This weekend, 69 years later, he was back in the nets, bowling at his second grandson, who is aged 14.

The two stories seem equally as unlikely, but are as true as each other.

Quick single: Jonny Bairstow form and flaws

Picking players in form is one of the national selectors’ least important duties. Far more significant to identify the player with the talent and technique to thrive at international level, than to pluck the name from the top of the county (state, province, etc) averages. 

Sometimes, though, with a cricketer who might, just might, have the right stuff for the international game, the timing of their selection can have a long-lasting impact. Jonny Bairstow, in mid-summer 2015, is in the form of his life. He has a three-figure average in the County Championship with hundreds scored in three of his last fiur innings. In the last but one match, he was joined in the middle by Tim Bresnan, with the score 191-6. The pair added 366 together (the third highest partnership for the seventh wicket in first class history), with Bairstow 219* at the declaration. The week before, replacing Jos Butler in the England limited overs squad, his innings of 83* won the deciding match in the series against New Zealand. 

Bairstow isn’t in the England squad for the first Ashes Test and is playing again for Yorkshire this week at Edgbaston. 

The highlight of his 14 Test matches came at Lord’s in 2012 with two belligerent and brave innings against South Africa, which took England close to a victory against the team that replaced them as the number 1 ranked Test team. The stronger impression created by Bairstow’s Test batting career to date is of a player hampered by technical flaws. Initially, during his debut series against the West Indies, it was his ability to play the short-ball that concerned. Dismissals (bowled, lbw and caught off a leading edge) playing across the line of full, straight deliveries became the focus of doubts about Bairstow’s suitability for Test cricket. 28 was Bairstow’s highest score in his last 8 Test innings (preceded by 64), the most recent of which was in the final Test of the 2013/14 Ashes whitewash. 

How should the England selectors weigh up Jonny Bairstow’s current run of good form with the evidence of his early experiences of Test cricket? In one sense, the existence of clear flaws in his batting in 2012-14 clarifies the matter as the selectors should be looking for assurance that those issues have been resolved. That, however, assumes that problems exposed at Test level would be apparent in the county game, where the bowling subjects techniques to less strict examination. 

That Bairstow favoured the legside was well known when he made his England debut and is far from a unique preference – witness Cook, Trott, etc. But was he falling to straight deliveries in Test cricket because, starved of balls directed at his pads, Bairstow was forced to find runs somewhere? Playing for Yorkshire, Bairstow may have defended those balls safely, knowing that juicier morsels would arrive soon. 

It seems probable that, facing Australia’s strong and deep pace bowling attack, England’s middle order will need reinforcement with new players, by the second half of the Ashes series. If Jonny Bairstow remains in the form he has shown for the past six weeks, his case will be persuasive. It will come though with some unease about frailties that division one county championship attacks lack the expertise to probe. The selectors will, I believe, have to accept that we won’t know if Bairstow is ready for the rigours of Test cricket, without trying him out there again. Weighing on their minds may be a similar calculation, albeit featuring different variables, that was made when Jonathan Trott was reintroduced to Test cricket in April. 

Short pitch: the Grade Cricketer

This is a post that needs writing now. In a matter of days, praise for anything Australian will come through gritted teeth. But this week I am relaxed and can write uninhibited by a live Ashes series.

Amidst the dense polyphony of Twitter, original voices are very rare. An original voice that, paradoxically, is that of an everyman is an inspired creation. The Grade Cricketer, like thousands of men around the world, plays weekend club cricket. His milieu is the changing room, the mid-week nets, the after-match trip into town. His world revolves around the match and his team-mates, jostling for status. So much, so familiar.

The Grade Cricketer’s achievement is that he is a macho chauvinist, who in the span of twitter’s 140 characters can both assert his base maleness and undermine it. He is dedicated to this sport and crippled by it. He is on show and yet pathetically self-conscious; boastful but under-achieving; a member of a team, without mates.

The nearest English equivalent is Dave Podmore, satirical seam bowler for various East Midlands county sides, who was always on the look out for some sponsored munificence. But Podmore’s world was gentle – English farce never did anyone any harm. The Grade Cricketer is in a harsh, realist drama and may just topple over the edge.

The Grade Cricketer is very funny. That’s service enough. He also reminds us that the game fosters selfish, brash, unpleasant men. At a time when we want a broader interest in the sport, the Grade Cricketer’s simultaneous exposing and ridiculing of those traits is an important achievement.

Quick single: the long limbs of Steven Finn

Steven Finn, part of England’s successful ODI side in the series against New Zealand, has today been restored to the England Test squad. Finn’s career has followed the contours of an Alpine Tour de France stage. He is now perhaps, on the steep incline towards one of those mountain passes. 

With Finn’s prospects again looking positive, I can, guilt-free, explain why I remain a sceptic. 

The first thing most of us knew about Finn when he was initially identified as a potential England fast bowler was his height: 6 foot 7 inches. An England bowler on the scale of Joel Garner (6ft 8in) or Curtley Ambrose (6ft 7in) fostered thoughts of a loping stride and long, sweeping swing of his right arm, propelling balls into the pitch and rising past the batsman and being taken head high by the keeper. 

When I did see footage of Finn on his international debut, something didn’t look right. The more I watched him the odder his action appeared – or further from my preconception about how a very tall man would bowl. Garner, Ambrose, Bruce Reid (6ft 8in) all seemed to move more slowly than other fast bowlers. The pace they attained came from getting maximum benefit from the rotation of their long levers. In particular, their bowling arms started low to their rear and were pulled through a lengthy arc, with the ball released at the apex of that curve. 

Finn, on the other hand, had the rushed action of a shorter bowler, not the measured swing of a man delivering the ball from more than 10 feet above ground level. For a while, I convinced myself that Finn resembled, not Ambrose, but Robin Jackman, the five foot six inch tall Surrey bowler. But that was as much of an illusion as my expectation that he would bound to the crease like Garner. The batsman’s eye view of Finn confirms that he is an intimidating sight. 

Years and many fluctuations in Finn’s career later and I have pinpointed what to my eye is so unsatisfying about his bowling action. Finn’s bowling arm straightens and begins its sweep towards the point of delivery with his arm close to perpendicular to his body. The actions of the tall bowlers that excited me all have the arm straightening much earlier with the arm pointing down to the ground. 

I don’t believe this is an aesthetic matter. Finn, by straightening his arm later in the delivery action, loses the catapult force of pulling his arm and the ball through a full arc. In place of the long, strong pull, Finn pushes the ball at the batsman. An action that I suggest is both less efficient and reliable. 

Finn may have the advantage of long limbs, but his bowling action doesn’t make full use of those natural attributes. I doubt that a cricketer who isn’t fully utilising his physical assets can achieve enduring international success.