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Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Stoneman must accelerate where Carberry stalled

For England cricketers there is nothing tougher. Playing and travelling on the subcontinent may still have its moments, but for intensity and hostility nothing beats an Ashes tour. If anything it has got harder. Gone are the leisurely trips up country ostensibly to  'spread the game' but really to escape, to spend some time in quiet reflection, consolidation or recuperation away from direct spotlight. Now those games have gone and the spotlight is everywhere; social media points its searchlights into every nook and cranny of their lives.

But these are professionals. They don't do difficulties, only challenges; if they see a wall or a barrier its merely an invitation to jump over it or run through it. It is why they do what they do and why the best of them thrive under such conditions. It's all about character you see.

Given all this, one might imagine that any personal success, even only relative success, on an Ashes tour would stand a fellow in good stead, for his future career and all that. A casual observer might think that, so might a so-called expert. But sometimes it doesn't quite work out like that. Just ask Michael Carberry.

On the 2013-14 tour, Carberry scored 281 runs in 10 innings. As raw statistics they are not going to impress anyone and certainly not our casual observer. But context is everything, or at least it should be. If he was not a shining light, or a beacon of hope, Carberry was at least a token symbol of resistance on that miserable expedition. He fought hard at Brisbane and was still fighting at Sydney. Had other shown the same resolve, well it would probably still have been 5-0 actually, but you get my point..

It wasn't just Carberry's mental strength. He left the ball better than any of his colleagues, better than Cook, Root or Bell. In doing so he faced more balls than any other English batsman. No one spent more time on the front line. It is true that he did get tied down from time to time, and would have been deeply disappointed not to have cashed in on a number of good starts but he was hardly alone in that. Not once did he look out of his depth, not once did he look overawed in the face of the unrelenting onslaught. We shouldn't forget, not only were Johnson and Harris fast, agressive and nasty they were startling accurate too, especially Johnson. If you got through them Siddle, Lyon and Watson were parsimonious in the extreme. There was no respite.

And what was his reward for a winter dodging 90mph bullets? Well firstly he was dropped from the  squad for the 50 over and T20 series to follow. A decision which must have been hard to take given his 63 had secured England's only win in the home series four months earlier. But it got far worse. When the selectors convened to pick the Test side for the following summer, Carberry was nowhere to be seen. They had seen what he could do and decided to move on.

It was cruel certainly but more than that it just seemed damned unfair. Not perhaps in the Larwoodian echelons of selectorial betrayals but not entirely removed from it either. Were the selectors right? For once the raw statistics don't lie. Alastair Cook's latest opening partner Mark Stoneman is his nineth since Carberry. In four years.

Stoneman may actually be the most promising prospect since Carberry to partner Cook. Like Carberry he has courage and skill, hopefully he has more luck.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Forget batsmen and bowlers, England must find their best eleven

Edgbaston was a game and a finish that satisifed only the most partisan and the most short sighted.  England were ruthless (which is to their credit as they have not always been so) but the West Indies were so utterly toothless that any satisfaction was blinkingly ephemeral.

 Over the past thirty years there has been no sadder sight than the seemingly endless decline of Caribbean cricket. This was another sorry chapter. Just when you think they have reached rock bottom someone comes along with a shovel and proves otherwise. The announcement of their rebranding - no longer West Indies, simply Windies (or is it WIndies?)  - seemed as desperate as it was apt. Where there was fight there is now only flight; where once there was great substance there now seems only hot air.

 While no doubt sympathetic to the West Indian plight (Windian??) one small group who will been equally exasperated by the Birmingham stroll are the England selectors. With only this short three match series before they must pick an Ashes squad and with at least three batting places to fill they must have been desperately hoping that this First Test would bring some clarity and insight. Unfortunately as an academy of learning Edgbaston was more Do-The-Boys' Hall than Warwick University.

 As a result (and how England batsmen from the 1980's would laugh or cry at this) the failure of Mark Stoneman, Tom Westley and Dawid Malan, to prove themselves, has cemented their places for these final two Tests. Simply more data is needed. Each now has a golden opportunity at Headingley tomorrow to secure their positions for the winter (for a Test hundred is always a Test hundred) and yet each in their own way has as much to prove.

 Of Mark Stoneman, nothing can yet be judged, having received a ball of which even Malcolm Marshall would have been proud. Stoneman by name, he at least looked light and nimble in comparison to the statuesque Keeton Jennings.

 Tom Westley is an altogether more difficult nut to crack. He falls into the category of a number of recent players that have "looked the part" without ever convincingly playing it. Stylistically there is something of John Crawley, although a little less elegant in my view and certainly not in the same class in the playing of spin. Westley's tendency to hit balls on a fourth stump line through mid-on has already led to his downfall on several occasions and this, along with a tendency to play loosely at wider length balls (in the manner of James Vince) will  have been noted Down Under. As Mike Atherton has pointed out, with the Australian sure to target him in this area, he will need to employ the cut shot effectively.

 Meanwhile Dawid Malan's 68 merely takes him past Go and with it the right to receive two more Test caps. You can give him credit for surviving the second new ball as it swung compliantly under the lights but a closer examination would show that he only actually faced 21 balls from pace bowlers under these most testing conditions. So only a small credit and one quickly cancelled out by his failure to cash in fully the following day. Malan, unlike Westley, is at least on upward curve as Headlingley approaches.

 There is however, a very strong possibility that these issues will not be resolved in the next two games. Perhaps one of the three will make an unanswerable case, but any more than that is surely wishful thinking. On this basis the selectors' should already be working on Plan B. Only in my view Plan B should really be Plan A; and Plan A means picking your best eleven players. Carrying one player into an Ashes series is unwise, more than that is suicidal.

 In an ideal world this would mean choosing the five best batsman followed by Stokes, Bairstow and Ali and three other bowlers.But in England's case the aformentioned Stokes, Bairstow and arguably Ali are also amongst those five best batsmen. On the hard, bouncy Australian wickets Stokes is in the top three with Bairstow close behind. The fact that we don't have five other international class batsman need not be a weakness, picking substandard ones would be.

 Continuing the best XI principle and the option of Chris Woakes, who made his England debut at number 6, would strengthen this middle order yet further. Do the selectors believe that Dawid Malan is likely to make substantially more runs than Chris Woakes? Enough to offset Woakes' all-round value? If they do then he should play. I have my doubts though. If they decide otherwise the selection suddenly becomes a little simpler. And simpler becomes almost straightforward if Mark Stoneman were to nail down the opening position and prove a reliable partner to Alistair Cook because  this would surely encourage Joe Root to return to his best position of number 3.

 Ian Chappell argues that it is the best place to bat because you can establish the pattern of play. In his view it is best suited to a skilled stroke maker capable of launching a counter attack, rather than "the technically sound player who fights his way out of trouble after an early loss".  But there is a caveat - a player must be mentally prepared to face the second ball of the innings "otherwise number 3 isn't for you". Root has all these attributes, however there is a big difference between being mentally prepared to face the newest ball and it being a matter of course. Nevertheless with Root back at 3, Stokes at 5 and Woakes at 8, suddenly it is a side with few weak links and many strong ones. Westley and Malan or even Ballance (for balance) would now be fighting it out for one spot instead of two.

 There also remains one bowling spot left alongside Broad, Anderson, Stokes, Woakes and Ali in what would be a six man attack. It is often said that six is too many, if they duplicate yes, but not if they complement. In Mark Wood, Mason Crane (or why not still Adil Rashid?) they have the option to include someone who can do something a bit different.

 One issue that still needs clarifying is Moeen Ali's role. The first or second spinner question is misleading. His all-round ability means that he will always play, therefore he is by definition the first spinner. Where Ali falls short, and the selectors were not wrong to highlight this, is when the pitch starts out flat. If there is help for the seamers, his first innings workload should be light, and if it turns from the start then he has the attributes to threaten all but the very finest players of spin. But if there is nothing much doing (as will often be the case in Australia after twenty overs with the Kookaburra ball) he lacks the control to to tie down an end, as Graeme Swann was often able to do.

  At Lord's against South Africa the selectors strayed from the 'best XI' principle in picking Liam Dawson, succumbing in my view to the overly normative assumption that the containing role must fall to a slow bowler. In a five man attack maybe but with six, it need not be the case. Chris Woakes (not fit for the Lord's game to be fair to the selectors) would be equally capable. Fitness permitting, he should be be back in the team this week, bringing England in the process another step closer to that best XI.

 Overall, there is much to play for over these last two Tests, both for individuals and for the English team. For the West Indies it is all about pride.    

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

A Last English Summer by Duncan Hamilton (Book Review)

In cricket, seemingly nothing ever stays the same. The times are always a changin' and seldom, so goes the prevailing view, is it for the better. From the Golden Age to Bodyline to Packer, from run rates to over rates to the Old Lie itself - the 'spirit of the game', cricket has been forever heading on a one way journey straight to hell.

Duncan Hamilton's particular snapshot in time is the 2009 English season. Unashamedly invoking the spirit of J.B. Priestley's English Journey and the style and substance of Geoffrey Moorhouse's The Best Loved Game (chosen, incidentally, by Michael Atherton as his favourite cricket book), he guides us on what feels like a valedictory tour around England (and Wales), from Lord's to Ramsbottom, from Headingley to Hambledon, from Cardiff to Canterbury.

Hamilton is an unapologetic traditionalist, taught to love the game by his grandfather over leisurely summers days at Trent Bridge in the late 1960's.  To Cardus, Nottingham was a 'lotus land' where the score was always 360 for 2. It is no less special to Hamilton whose prose may be a slightly darker shade of violet and more resistant to hyperbole but who is a no less eloquent, honest or heart-felt observer. Whilst his recurring themes may claw with some readers, they merely resonated with this one.

At Trent Bridge, he eavesdrops on a debate over the number of overs bowled in the previous season by the somewhat injury prone Ryan Sidebottom.  On cue, a Playfair Annual, still the essential companion for any self respecting country cricket watcher, is produced. The issue is resolved but self-righteousness and disbelief pervade. It is a scene so familiar as to be almost cliche. At Old Trafford in the late 80's the "three bores", as we came to refer them, frequently (and with disturbing precision for a 25,000 seater ground)  installed themselves and their reference libraries directly behind my father and me in the Ladies' Stand driving us to seat-shuffling distraction with their curmudgeonly chit chat whilst simultaneously enveloping us in cigar smoke. Looking back now with older, hopefully wiser eyes, I wonder whether they too were not simply in mourning for their own halycon days when Brian Statham bowled unchanged from the Stretford End and the opposition were always 36 for 4. Even now it only takes one whiff of a cigar to transport me back to those carefree, oh so innocent times.

The author's major gripe, unsurprisingly, is with the rise and rise of T20. His argument, and it is a strong one, Is that T20 is simply an inferior game, not simply a pared down version of the first class one but one stripped of the qualities that make cricket great.

He takes particular issue with its brashness and superficiality in general and the IPL in particular with its music, gimmicks and incessant, screeching commentary. There is an element of chicken and egg in all this though. Is T20 a mere reflection of today's Snapchat society or have we as a society been simply reprogrammed by modern media to accept that instantaneous, unthinking gratification is the reward most worth seeking?

Despite his disquiet Hamilton never descends into mean-spiritedness, a trap into which other 'traditionalists' like Michael Henderson frequently fall. He writes with sadness rather than bitterness on the changing shape of the English summer and the future of the first class game. However, as he rightly points out much the same arguments were being made when the 40 over Players' League started up in the late 60's. It was supposed to be the beginning of the end but instead it improved standards particularly in fielding and raised the incomes of struggling counties. Sounds familiar? Lessons from history need not always be warnings.

Sometimes though, lessons are simply just not learnt. In mid-May, the author visits Durham as England face the West Indies. For financial reasons the Test series has been crammed into a fixture list bloated by the World T20 Cup which will begin in early June. Unsurprisingly the crowd is pitiful, the lowest in recent memory. Prior to the game, the then West Indies captain Chris Gayle comments that he "wouldn't be so sad" if Test cricket died. The two events sit in uncomfortable juxtaposition.  The author ponders how such scheduling could have come about.

Far worse, however, has been the failure to learn from such mistakes. Another poorly conceived and even more poorly attended Test match in May 2016 exacerbated Durham's already dire financial situation. Cruelly, the 2013 champions started the 2017 season consigned to the second division, punished for their financial failings with relegation and a 40 point penalty.

There are also sobering reminders of tragedy's shadowy presence over cricketing life.  At Worcester, Phillip Hughes, battles with form and footwork on his first Ashes tour whilst at Colwyn Bay, Tom Maynard, cocksuredly predicts and delivers a spectacular hundred. Both exceptional talents, both now gone. Meanwhile at Scarborough, James Taylor plays a stylish cameo for England Under 19s, blissfully and perhaps thankfully unaware of the congenital heart problem that will end a promising international career seven years later.

Hamilton has rightly avoided disrupting the natural flow of the text with too many statistics and instead the book ends with an annexe of approximately 60 pages encompassing almost every conceivable fact and figure along with pen portraits which follow up on the fortunes of the book's  key protagonists. It's questionable whether such detail adds much to the work as a whole and indeed when contrasted with the mellowness of the previous pages this chunk of raw data feels particularly rough, like being awoken from soothing dream by a hotel fire alarm.

I first read this book back in 2010, it was good then but time has given it an extra dimension. Beautifully written and sympathetically observed, it stands and will continue to stand as an historical piece, just as Moorhouse's did for 1978, proving once again just how quickly things can change and yet how much they stay the same. As Cardus once mused " the golden age is always well behind us; we catch sight of it with young eyes when we see what we want to. ."