Jack Leach’s simplicity and specialisation is vital for England’s balance

Amid all the loud noise of a World Cup-winning Ashes summer, a back-to-basics approach is needed to help an England side violently swinging from meteoric highs to hysterical lows.

Watching England can be bad for your health. 

This summer, I’ve sat through a World Cup final and super over, seen England bowled out for 85 and 67. I’ve watched Jofra Archer arrive, Ireland bowled out for 38, and THAT Ben Stokes century at Headingley. 

There doesn’t seem to be a bridge between horrendous collapses and supernatural individual brilliance and it’s completely unsustainable.

It’s the result of a lack of concentration and focus.

Major elements of the Test side that played in that World Cup team, have struggled, bar Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer. 

Jason Roy’s selection has been a catastrophe, with just 57 runs versus Australia.

Joe Root, has scored two ducks and two unconverted fifties while Jonny Bairstow is averaging 20.50 in 2019, down from a below-par 30.45 last year. 

Jos Buttler has been practically non-existent in this Test side, averaging 19.41 this year, down on his already poor Test record of 32.90.

It’s almost like importing ODI stars into Test cricket won’t work if they can’t adapt their games in a short space of time. 

What has worked, has been Rory Burns, a Test specialist scoring a century in the first Test and a fifty in the second. 

Ben Stokes decided not to play against Ireland, but took a break to settle his mind, and scored two back-to-back tons. 

Archer didn’t face Ireland either, or play in the first Test of the Ashes, and everyone can see his impact. 

What has worked also, is Jack Leach, a 28-year-old who has never played a T20 and has only 16 List A games to date. 

He has focussed on being England’s Test spinner, and has helped give composure for the format.

The reality, is England have been looking for a ‘proper’ spinner since Graeme Swann’s retirement. 

Moeen Ali has been the custodian with 181 wickets at an average over 36, which isn’t terrible. But so far, in seven Tests, Leach has 25 wickets at an average of 25. 

England fans have been screaming out for someone like Leach. 

And what’s the first thing that happens after Headingley? He is dubbed a ‘village cricketer’.

 He responded to the ‘village’ remark, saying it was: 

“… probably because I look like a village cricketer out there in my glasses, the bald head – maybe people think ‘that could be me!’ All the others look pretty professional.”

Fans know he isn’t a superhuman athlete, as he cleans his glasses between deliveries. We know he doesn’t have 15 variations or an unusual action that bamboozles people. 

Leach is an Orthodox spinner that will do a job, and as a specialist, he can hone his game in the format and become more refined and effective. 

Every team needs a mixture of mavericks and workhorses, and in Jack Leach, England may have the perfect counter-balance to the crash-bang-wallop of Stokes and lightning pace of Archer.

A pinch of ordinariness to keep the immortals in check. 

A maverick’s strength can also be their weakness

Originally published on my Tumblr

A maverick’s strength will often also be their weakness; a phenomenon which brought down Kevin Pietersen, and which Jofra Archer must be aware of as his career goes on.

These two players had similar routes to the top, uprooting themselves from their home country, before having a meteoric rise and impact at the start to their international careers.

Mavericks have a mixture of natural ability, consistency and confidence, that make them entertainers, but also often players who divide opinion.

The combination can rub people up the wrong way, and make them a focal point for criticism in harder times.

Natural brilliance can feel like they think they are better than everyone.  Confidence can be perceived as arrogance.  And having a vision for where they want to be, can be seen as self-centred, or too individualistic, in a team game.

Like Pietersen, Archer plays in an emotional way, and reacts to his opponents. 

KP burst onto the scene in the face of raucous booing in South Africa; which fired him up to score three centuries against his native country.  He proceeded to help England win the Ashes, smashing Glenn McGrath onto the Lord’s Pavilion and Shane Warne to all parts. 

Pietersen took people on and showed no respect to others’ reputation. 

He fundamentally changed England’s approach, yet his name is still synonymous with his off-field antics and claims surrounding his various fallings out with colleagues. 

After a World Cup win, and a single Test, Jofra’s reputation on field is on fire. 

He was the talk of the Test before, during and after Lord’s, and of course, everyone was gripped by his terrifying pace during the spell, in where he struck Steve Smith on the arm and head, taking him out the game. 

Yet, after hitting Smith, he was pictured walking back to mark, while the rest of his team mates went up to Smith to check if he was OK.  

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Above: Jofra walks back to his mark as Steve Smith lies on the ground. 

Shortly after, he was smiling and joking with Jos Buttler, and Shoaib Akhtar took to Twitter to say: “…whenever a bowler hits a batsman on the head and he falls, courtesy requires that the bowler must go & check on him. 

It was not nice of Archer to just walk away while Smith was in pain. I was always the first one to run to the batsman.”

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He revealed that his “heart skipped a beat”, and videos do appear to show him checking up on the batsman.  

But it didn’t look good at the time. 

Like Pietersen’s flare and talent, Archer will undoubtedly win England Test matches single-handedly in the future. 

But it’s precisely his ability and over-confidence which could sow seeds for discord, like it did with KP.

As England’s new golden boy, not only will he be a target for oppositions, but also for their fans and press, who want to drive a wedge between him and the mere mortals.

While both of these mavericks are different people and players, they are both essentially a ‘once-in-a-generation’ stars. They are formative to how an era of cricketers play.

When things are going well, mavericks are the expression of the side’s strength.  

And with there are problems, so often the individualistic players are the fall-guys for cause of friction within a team. 

The Root cause of England’s problem

Originally posted on my Tumblr

While Joe Root is indisputably one of England’s best batsman of the last 20-years, the captaincy is clearly impacting upon his consistency, and it’s not a price England should be willing to pay. 

Step back, and you see an overall record which is consistent, well-rounded. 

After 82 Tests, he has 6803 runs at a solid average of 48.94, with tons against every side he’s played, bar Bangladesh.

Yet of late, something is not quite right. 

He comes in, he gets in, and before you know it he’s on 30.

He has a nice partnership, gets past fifty, and then gives it away.

The batsman who has been England’s spine for years, capable of rebuilding or consolidating, has gone from being Mr Consistent, to Mr Consistently Inconsistent. 

In the last two years, he has scored just three hundreds, averaging 29.50 in 2019 (before Lord’s) and 41.21 in 2018. 

Since assuming the captaincy, his record has transformed. 

While a rank-and-file batsman, he averaged 52.80 with 11 tons and 27 fifties. 

While in charge, he has just five centuries and 15 half-centuries.

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His average is down, his conversion rate is down and it is this inconsistency, which is a part of England’s problem. 

Joe Root used to be in a bracket with Kane Williamson, Steve Smith and Virat Kohli, as the four elite batsmen in the world. 

As ESPN Cricinfo highlights; that since January of 2017, Root’s record should just about put him in the top seven:

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Perhaps one of the strangest things to happen with Root’s recent Test career, is his flip-flopping in the order. 

Despite clearly performing best at number five in the order, with six hundreds and eight fifties in just 18 Tests, he moved to four and then ahead of the Ashes, offered to bat at three, seemingly to ‘solve’ England’s order crisis. 

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The reality is, Root’s inconsistent form and inability to convert 50s into centuries is the crux of the problem. 

Him moving to three isn’t going to solve the issue, unless she himself starts cashing in with big hundreds, instead of 50+ scores. 

The problem England have had of late, has been around the opening combination. The inconsistency of Joe Root in that respect has been put into perspective of much bigger problems. It’s almost a ‘nice’ problem, that a batsman keeps getting 50s. 

While it’s obviously preferable a batsman gets 50+ than a duck, it’s also the case that the overall jigsaw of England’s batting will only start to come together when Root himself starts to take responsibility, and the team can bat around him, and rely on him. 

What does he need to do? 

Either he needs to ditch the captaincy and try and find his form of old, free from that burden. 

Or he needs to get back to number five; a position where there is less exposure to the new ball, and hopefully more of a platform.

Joe Root being saddled with the captaincy has an air of deja-vu about it, from his predecessor, Alastair Cook.

As if the best batsman just takes on the captaincy like a hereditary monarchy.

Yet, Root, like Cook, isn’t the world’s most inspiring captain. 

Indeed, at Birmingham on TMS there was plenty of criticism of him over field placings for Moeen against Smith. 

It’s not his forte. He has taken on this work-in-progress role, and the opportunity cost is his strength: runs. 

England need Root the run-scorer more than they’ll ever need Root the tactician. 

Let someone else steer the ship, you can be the engine. 

Middlesex are rock bottom – but there are reasons to be cheerful

*Blog initially posted on my Tumblr*

In 2016, just 3 years ago, I legged it from work one Friday afternoon [losing my wallet in the process] to watch Middlesex win the County Championship, Division One.

But for Middlesex – the wheels have fallen off since then.

Middlesex are rock bottom of the division two table.

We have just recovered, in rather epic fashion against Derbyshire, who scored 557/6 declared in one-and-a-half days, with two of their batsmen getting tons, while others scored 96, 99 and 92. 

Thanks to a supreme Dawid Malan 199, the game ended in a draw. But at the end of Day two, when I began writing, it certainly felt very familiar. Teetering on the brink.

But in many ways, that Malan rearguard sums up Middlesex at the moment. Very much down, but with glimpses of hope. 

How we have got to this stage is quite tough to unpick

I’ll begin with the sense of impending doom at the beginning of the season, when I made the decision not to renew my membership.

Membership isn’t cheap. £265. I looked at the fixtures list, and Lord’s championship games’ starting days didn’t fill me with hope.

There was 2 games starting on each a Monday and on Tuesday, with no playing days on the weekend. 

No games starting on a Wednesday, one on a Thursday, meaning potentially 2 days and no games starting on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

In other words, membership would be worthless as I could literally have gone to maximum two days (and I wouldn’t have gone two days in a row, anyway).

*Blog initially posted on my Tumblr*

Even when the club changed it, so that two fixtures were to start on a Sunday, it was hardly a hook to get me in. 

While this was disappointing, I am fully aware this has been a World Cup and Ashes year, and I’d hope these fixtures are changed for next year, so all hope isn’t lost, quite yet.

The other problem with Middlesex, is the lack of performance in recent years. 

In the T20 last year, they packed out Lord’s each week, but lost 12/14 games, with poor tactics and average overseas players in Ashton Agar and Dwayne Bravo.

The T20 blast hasn’t begun yet but given the fact they had a good run in the Royal London One Day Cup, coming second in the South Group, it would be fair to say things are looking up.

It helped that they showed more ambition, bringing in Ross Taylor for the RLODC, and signing of Ab de Villiers for the shortest form.

When it comes to the Championship, it’s perhaps the case that numbers can be deceiving.

Last year, Middlesex finished fourth, with more wins than the team above us. Yet in 14 games, we had just 4 tons, and the top batsman averaged just 35. 

This year, we may be bottom, but Middlesex has already got 6 tons, including three from David Malan. 

There is Test match experience at the top, with Paul Stirling, Sam Robson, Malan, and when he returns from ODI duty; Eoin Morgan, too.

Although we’ve won just 1 out of 8 Championship games so far, we’ve also had 5 draws, owing in part to the weather. 

*Blog initially posted on my Tumblr*

Middlesex has only lost one game, and Durham, who are two places above Middlesex, have lost double the number of games. 

With just 10 points between Middlesex and Worcestershire in sixth, there’s no reason to give up this season, quite yet; especially with in form batsmen.

All-in-All, there is a lot to worry about, but also in both the short and long term, scope for realistic improvement. 

Perhaps I’m a hopeless optimist, but while the county is clearly not in the best shape – it’s no time to hit the panic button.

There is potential to climb up the table, and build a new squad for next year with some of the older players moving on. 

While Middlesex must do better in the second half of the season – the direction for the future in the longer term is positive.  

What the Cricket World Cup can learn from the FIFA Women’s World Cup

Article initially published on my Tumblr.

When I was growing up, cricket was on the TV. I was born in 1993, and that meant that in 2005 when Andrew Flintoff set the country on fire during the Ashes, I was 12.

And I could watch every ball on Channel 4.

Cricket was on the front and back pages, and a large element of that, was accessibility.

People who had never seen cricket before, or those who had but weren’t ‘cricket fans’, watched it. Everyone was talking about it.

Millions won’t have access to often extortionate services like Sky, and therefore, many won’t go out of their way to watch the Cricket World Cup, in the way they watched the Ashes in 05.

Indeed, even Jonny Bairstow in his Telegraph column tapped into this disconnect, saying that players haven’t been able to watch the Cricket World Cup.

This is not just sad, but counter-productive, as resources are pumped into engaging young people to get into a cricket – which let’s face it – isn’t cheap to play, and can often result in hours of standing round doing nothing.

Cricket needs every bit of help keeping young people engaged.

What’s more, the UK is a very diverse place. We have big cities with ethnically diverse populations, large Indian and Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Caribbean communities, not to mention to pockets of those from the commonwealth.

We could, and should, be the perfect place for a World Cup. Many of the nations’ fans already here – to enrich it, and when India played Pakistan, we saw this very clearly. It was amazing to watch.

Were it not for the fact I am a cricket fan however, I probably wouldn’t realise this World Cup is on.

It hasn’t ignited the country like an Ashes series.

Article initially published on my Tumblr.

It hasn’t found its way onto billboards across the country.

Nor has it been a talking point in the pubs and on the streets.

This isn’t a reflection of quality – which by-and-large has been sound.

It speaks to the fact, that this tournament has not been accessible.

It hasn’t been visible to the ordinary fan, to the occasional fan, or the non-cricket fan, who stumbles across it while flicking through the channels. And it would appear, not even to some players.  If you weren’t aware of it, you might not even know it’s on.

But what about Women’s Football I hear you ask?

I am not the biggest football fan in the world. I’m not an expert, and certainly not when it comes to Women’s Football.

But on a quiet night when there’s not much on the TV, I’ll happily tune into any sport I come across.

It’s no surprise to me, that millions have watched the Women’s World Cup. Is the quality of football the best? No. It can be very scratchy and scrappy.

But there was a record-breaking peak of 7.6m watching England beat Norway.

It just so happens, it is on the BBC. Free-to-air TV.

The BBC outlines that audiences have also been growing in the UK when England play. There was 6.1 million against Scotland, 6.9 million against Cameroon, and 7.6m against Norway.

The crunch question, is how many would have watched these game had it been on Sky or BT Sport?

I’d hesitate to suggest, the figure would be lower.

Article initially published on my Tumblr.

People wouldn’t have watched it if it wasn’t there on the BBC One at a prime time.

Men’s cricket is a more established sport that Women’s Football in the UK, with more resources and more coverage. Of that there is little debate. But it’s also becoming incredibly a closed shop.

It’s only open to those who can afford it, whether that be shelling out on pricey equipment, Sky and BT Sport subscriptions, or ticket prices for this World Cup, which were regularly upwards of £100 (and hard to get hold of.

The paradox of this Cricket World Cup, is there is still huge untapped interest, despite it being one of the world’s biggest sports, owing to its large south Asian following.

Especially from second and third generation migrant communities in the UK, interest is squandered, partially due to a lack of access and routes into the game.

Whatever one’s criticism of Women’s Football, it has one thing right. It’s bringing the sport TO the public.

It’s making sure that interest is being generated, and it’s growing through that exposure.

Cricket’s is not just contracting, but it’s arrogantly assuming that it doesn’t need to keep on enfranchising people.

It must get back onto free-to-air TV in some capacity and its growth must be protected.

The vicious circle killing club cricket

This year has been the hardest for me in terms of playing cricket, almost to the point where I’ve considered not playing.

It’s sad for me to say, but I don’t look forward to getting the whites on anymore. I don’t relish getting onto the field, because when push comes to shove – I’m just not that good, and I can admit it.

I’ve never been that good, but now it seems to matter, where previously it didn’t.

I work hard at improving, but really, I’m a bog-standard seam bowler with little consistency. I can’t catch, and I’ve never hit more than 20 with the bat.

Yet for so long, players like me played cricket in spite of a lack of ability.
We fielded poorly, getting a bit better each year, nipped in with the odd wicket, occasionally did something great, then turned up at winter nets to have a chat in February.

But there is an increasing pressure at this base level of club cricket, which has been eroding recreational players’ place in the game.

In the last decade, participation has gone down steadily due to a number of reasons.

No doubt cost is one, weather another, the fact that cricket is no longer on free-to-air TV is certainly up there, and probably, the prevalence of T20, offering fans regular high-octane action to feast on.

There were roughly 430,000 club cricketers in 2008, and in 2015-16, this had plummeted to below 280,000, according to http://www.statista.com, which is almost half of what it was 20 years ago. Admittedly, I saw other stats flying around, talking about recreational club cricketers being in the millions. I certainly haven’t found evidence so far.

As the numbers of players reduce, clubs are forced to downsize, and in turn opportunities dwindle for fringe players such as myself.

Instead of there being three elevens, like there was in my local side when I first started, there’s now only one eleven.

That one eleven plays only on Sunday in a league, which means if I play, I don’t bowl. I’m way down the pecking order. And more often than not, I don’t get to play, full stop.

This is a damaging chicken-and-egg situation.

The more recreational players that stop playing because they no longer get a proper game, the lower chance there is for fringe players like me, to get a game at all; as clubs have less players to chose from, week-in-week-out, in the long term.

This vicious circle makes it increasingly harder to grow local clubs and attract players.

The options for a player like me, is to have uncertain playing time, if I commit to my regular club. Or to not play, and contribute to the decline of participation in club cricket, or I guess, to go elsewhere; severing ties to friends I’ve made over the last 10 years.

In reality, I am just a domino.
I’m one person, in a long line of recreational players, who have reached a point where they don’t feel it’s worth playing.

This isn’t meant to be a self-indulgent sob story, but unless something is done to incentivise clubs to keep fringe players like me, struggling clubs will only struggle more, as recreational cricketers drop off the radar.

For now, I am not going to give up. I love playing cricket, even if at times it’s the most frustrating thing in the world. But I know of so many people who have, and even more are considering it, and there is a certain sense of inevitability, that at some point, it may be me.

Why Anderson can’t be the greatest

James Anderson’s home-away imbalance doesn’t prevent him being a great, but it might stop him being the greatest.

His achievement of reaching 500 Test wickets will no doubt generate a plethora of think pieces saying he’s either  unquestionably the best ever, or moaning at how overrated he is. The reality his, he’s somewhere in the middle of great and overrated.

His dominance at home makes him, probably, the best quick there’s been in English conditions. But his stats abroad means overall record requires a caveat.

Taking 500 wickets is no mean feat.

It puts him in an elite club, synonymous with being ‘Great’

The question is, whether he deserves to be at the top, even if he surpasses all others.

The simple answer is no.

Currently, the Burnley quick is perched at sixth in the all time ‘most wickets’ rankings, and third in terms of seam bowlers.

Only Glenn McGrath (563) and Courtney Walsh (519) are realistic targets for Anderson to go past, but even passing those two doesn’t mean he’s better than them.

Indeed, it doesn’t even mean he’s better than people he went past a long time ago – such as Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Dennis Lillee.

In England, Anderson is extremely good. He’s taken 19 of 23 five-wicket-halls at home. He has taken 66% of his wickets at home (329 out of 501).

Away from home, he’s simply not world class.

Anderson has just 34% of his wickets – 171 out of 501 away (including neutral venues).

Even his averages are miles, with 24 at home, and 33 away.

In this respect, he’s not as good as his closest rivals, or those he’s gone past in the ‘Most Wickets’ list. You’d still have a bowler of his class in any England side, home or away. But when comparing greats – there are fine margins.

McGrath’s home-away record is far superior than Anderson’s with 51% of scalps at home, and 49% away (with a better average and haul of five-wickets in an innings away too).

Courtney Walsh took more wickets away from home (290/519) and like McGrath, took more five-fers away.

So many of the bowlers Anderson has surpassed a while ago, including Kapil Dev, Sir Richard Hadlee, Shaun Pollock and others, had a more even home-away records too.

This means they were more adaptable.

They excelled in different conditions, and overcame others’ home advantage better.

Maybe Anderson is a better swing bowler than some of these greats – but as an overall record – he’s not on the same level, apart from statistically.

Anderson is  an English great.

He’s probably the greatest English bowler in English conditions ever.

Maybe one of the best swing bowlers ever.

But regardless of where he ends up on the ‘most wickets’ list, he isn’t the greatest seamer ever.