Category Archives: Test Cricket

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. 

Younis Khan: The most underrated great

Younis Khan’s retirement will see one of the last true greats of the last 20-years leave the game, and perhaps the most undervalued and underrated.

Pakistan’s leading Test run-scorer is rarely mentioned in the company of other legends, unfairly.

He’s not got the flair of Brian Lara, so he doesn’t get bums on seats.

He doesn’t have the signature shots of Ricky Ponting, that make you watch hours of footage.

Nor does he have the technique of Rahul Dravid, that coaches study to pass on to the next generation.

Younis is scrappy, hap-hazard, and unorthodox. But what got him through so many innings has been his mind.

His feet might not have been moving.

Maybe he played a missed a few times.

Maybe he nearly ran three of his partners out in a twenty minute period.

It didn’t matter. Push through, and if there’s a landmark to reach, it’s all the more frustrating for a fielding side when he gets there, having given chances.

In some respects, Younis’s game-plan was to lure oppositions into a false sense of security.

He made them think that they could get him out because of the holes in his technique.

It was a clever ploy, and allowed him to be the perfect decoy to other Pakistani greats who were more flamboyant, or perhaps technically sound.

At one end, you had Younis jumping around and flapping outside off stump, and the other end, such greats like Mohammed Yousuf, caressing the ball effortlessly, or Inzamam Ul Haq, and in more recent times, Misbah, crashing the ball to the boundary.

He is the scrappy supplement to aesthetically pleasing batting, but this isn’t meant to be patronising. Nor, is it meant to imply he only had success because of others.

Ahead of the West Indies series, he averages 53 in over 115 Tests, which is phenomenal. Indeed it’s ’s a higher average than Inzamam (50) and Yousuf (52).

Currently, he stands on 9977 Test runs, which means bar a rotten series’, he should become the first Pakistani to reach the historic 10,000 mark.

Younis will also go down as having an exceptional conversion rate and therefore reliability. He scored 34 centuries and 32 fifties. Not many batsmen retire with more hundreds than fifties. Sachin had 51 tons to 68 fifties, Kallis 45 to 58, 41 to 62, and so on. But not only that, on 19 occasions his tons have been in a wining cause.

He scores important runs, and no more so was this apparent in the U.A.E, away from home. In 27 Tests in the U.A.E. Younis cracked 11 centuries and seven fifties.

Oh, and he scored a ton in 11 countries, which is an incredible feat.

All-in-all, Pakistan are going to lose a character.

They are going to lose their leading run scorer, possibly their best ever and most reliable performer.

He, alongside Misbah, will leave a gaping hole in the side, and for international cricket, one of the last true modern greats of a generation will depart.

A legacy over a goodbye

Every fan is invested in the career of their favourite players, and I’d rather remember a great legacy like that of Kumar Sangakkara than a grand goodbye like Sachin’s.

I loved watching Brian Lara.

I was upset when Lara retired, not just because he would be no more, but because I felt he went prematurely. He retired in 2006/7, when he was 36, but when I was just 13.

This feeling of being robbed of some sumptuous Lara runs was compounded when contemporaries like Ricky Ponting, Rahul Dravid, Shiv Chanderpaul and others, continued right until they were 40.

The question of when to go is really a dilemma that bugs fans as well as players.

On the one hand, you want to see your favourite players play on and on, but on the other hand, everyone forges a legacy, that must end at some point.

I remember Lara walking off in his final innings, thinking that he could have carried on, but in recent years, I’ve had to change my view.

His abrupt ending was not right, but at the same time, Sachin Tendulkar’s legacy was arguably tarnished by his decision to play on too long.

He played on until 2013, when he was 40. But he had scored just over 500 runs in his last 15 Tests. He was playing for numbers and records, chasing a nice figures, like getting to 200 Tests, 100 international hundreds, and 15,000 runs.

Like the three bears, if Sachin played too long, Lara was cut off prematurely, one batsman got it just right, and is perhaps the model for future great retirees.

Despite being fifth on the all-time Test run scoring list, Kumar Sangakkara is so often overlooked as a true ‘great’.

But, perhaps one hallmark of greatness, is knowing when to quit.

His exit was slow, starting with International retirement in 2015, done at a time when he could have continued. He scored 1,400runs in 2014, averaging over 70. He left us wanting more.

Despite no more international ambition, unlike Sachin and Brian Lara, after retiring Kumar Sangakkara climbed down to domestic cricket. He scored a thousand First Class runs for Surrey, averaged in the mid-forties in List A cricket, and got through 46 T20s in 2016.

He recognised that retirement is a process that requires the sequential relinquishing of responsibilities.

This week, in an interview with Island Cricket, the Sri Lankan Legend shows no regrets. Speaking about his retirement, he said: “..my mind was made up at that time and I was not going to think of reasons that were quite selfish [to continue].

“..in my view, when you know it is time to go, no matter what is in front of you, you have to make a decision and stick to it..”

He fulfilled his desire to carry on in some capacity, whilst not jeopardising the legacy he’d built up.

Sadly, he has got to the bottom rung of the ladder.

He has just been dropped by his Big Bash League side, the Hobart Hurricanes after scoring just 173 runs at 14.41 without a fifty.

Damian Wright, the coach spoke about dropping Sangakkara, saying it “was comfortably the hardest thing I’ve had to do… because of the quality person that he is”. He says: “You could feel he probably knew it was coming. He was pretty apologetic that he hasn’t gone as well he would have liked it.’”

Retirement might be hard, but remembering a batsman’s retirement is the biggest curse a player can have.

I’ll remember Sachin walking down the steps for the last time, and I’ll remember Lara walking off for the last time. I can’t remember Sanga’s last Test.

He showed no regrets about retirement or bitterness from his decline. He showed no greed to carry on for Sri Lanka, but a hunger to continue in another capacity.

Not being able to remember Sangakkara’s finale is the biggest complement one can pay him.

Let’s stop this race to the bottom

If poor quality cricket is seen as more entertaining then good quality cricket, then all that will happen is the degradation of the sport.

Last week two Tests concluded.

Australia lost to South Africa, after being humiliatingly bowled out for just 85 in 32.5 overs.

England drew with India, after two mammoth totals were unable to separate the teams.

If a martian landed on earth, and had the option of watching cricket for the very first time, I have little doubt which they’d chose.

They chose the calamitous collapse down under, not the hard grind in the sub-continent.

Fortunately, Test cricket’s popularity is not determined by extra-terrestrial beings, but by fans of the sport.

In the concluding day of these two test matches, a martian seems to have written an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald however.

This particular being, known locally as ‘Malcolm Knox’, claims that “While Australia destroy themselves, England destroy the game”.

He writes in his article, “…while Australia are lambasted for playing their own way, a feckless younger generation putting entertainment ahead of survival, Cook cruises like a stately zeppelin towards his fifth Test century in India, more than any other visitor.

As he did so, televisions were switched off across the subcontinent, and left on only in places where the only alternative was to look at the rain”.

His logic, is: ‘Sure Australia were bad, but at least people watched it’. It’s is the kind of lowering of standards, that does long term damage. It’s the kind of attitude that encourages people to say “what’s the point of Test cricket..”

What’s more, India and Australia have fairly similar win records at home. The difference, is Australia lose a lot more, because they are more gung-ho, or perhaps more willing to take risks.

Since 2007, when a number of Australian greats retired and the IPL was set up, India and Australia have fairly similar records for home test wins.

Out of 52 home Tests in Australia since, 33 have produced home wins (63%). India have won 28 out of 45 home Tests (62%).

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India’s home record since January 2007

The difference, is Australia have lost 10 Tests, India have lost four.

Australia think results are key. 82% of home Tests have produced definitive results. Yet, India know how to draw. They have produced 13 of them (28%).

Malcolm Knox may consider a draw to be ‘boring’, but one needs to look at the bigger picture.

Most teams would rather draw in the short term to win in the longer term. You’d rather be 0-0 in a series than 1-0 down. Right?

If a batsman, or a team is capable of holding out, then fair play to them. Right?

England, and indeed Alastair Cook, certainly showed this during his 235* at the Gabba, Malcolm?

This simplistic view that Test cricket must produce results or else it’s boring, is exactly the type of attitude that will kill the game. It’s selling the game’s soul for a cheap illusion that it’s exciting.

The entire point of Test cricket, is that it tests you. It’s supposed to be an endurance race. A long game, and sometimes, an indecisive dead-heat. Indeed, some of the best Tests ever seen have been draws.

Sometimes it can be frustrating to watch Alastair Cook.

But, he did exactly what was required of him, leading a side that just slipped up against Bangladesh.

They served a moral victory in many respects.

Whilst every team wants to win matches, forcing results for the sake of it, and branding it ‘entertainment’, is a lowering of everyone’s standards.

It’s a race to the bottom that Test cricket just doesn’t need.

Why England should beat a wounded South Africa

If England cannot beat a bruised South Africa, we will be able to see just how far behind they are against the world’s best team.

Despite a disappointing 2015 for the Proteas, major similarities still exist between the two sides.

Out of the seven Tests South Africa have played this year, they have only managed to win one, versus the West Indies.

More pressingly, the main reason for this is a lack of top order runs.

In 2015, only one Test century has been scored by a South African batsman, Ab de Villiers. The star man is languishing at number 38 on the international Test runs list for the year.

Whatever the averages on paper, it’s just not sufficient to maintain their space on the rankings.

South Africa have lost many players due to retirement and injury over the last few years, and this has placed a huge burden on de Villiers and captain, Hashim Amla.

It’s clear they are struggling, but is their position strong enough to overcome England?

In some respects, the same issues exist for England, but in a different way.

There is an over-reliance on two key batsmen for the touring side, but unlike the South Africans, these two have hit form, so the issue has not been as exposed.

Over the last year, the world’s top two run-scorers have been England’s Alastair Cook (averaging 59) and Joe Root (averaging 61).

Contributions from elsewhere have been few and far between, with the only other centuries coming from Adam Lyth and Ian Bell (both dropped), Gary Ballance (unsure as to whether he’ll play) and Ben Stokes.

So in the touring party, it really is two batsman from either side pulling the weight.

If England want to win they must press South Africa’s major pressure points, better than South Africa do to England.

South Africa, unlike England, don’t have a weight of runs behind them, and the introduction of inexperienced players will exacerbate this problem.

South Africa have uncharacteristically selected a lot of new faces. These include Dane Piedt, Rilee Rossouw, Stiaan van Zyl, Temba Bavuma, Kagiso Rabada, Kyle Abbott and Dean Elgar. None have played England.

Of course, England have selected new faces too. But they have played South Africa before, or at least, have had experience and some success in Test cricket before.

James Taylor and Jonny Bairstow, have faced the South Africans, whilst Nick Compton, Garry Ballance and Moeen Ali, are all in their mid to late 20s, with some Test success.

England and South Africa are both in no means good form. They both lost their immediate last series. In many regards, they face similar challenges, but the home side are feeling it more acutely.

Without runs on the board, the two sides’ bowling attacks; which have a mix of experience and pacey youth, will be under more pressure.

Whoever gets more runs on the board will give their bowlers a greater opportunity to have an impact towards winning Tests.

This could be England’s best chance to overturn the South Africans at home for a decade.

The Proteas side may have the advantage of reputation and playing at home, but England are about to play a wounded beast, and they really should win.

If they can’t overcome them, it will show that even a resurgent England cannot beat a weakened and bruised South African side, which goes some way to highlighting the gap in quality between the two.

India must find balance between home advantage and good Test cricket

India’s use of home advantage isn’t unfair, but it does produce one-dimensional and turgid cricket that nobody would want to watch. 

If Test cricket is to survive, it must be embraced by India, in such a way that makes people want to watch it. 

The most recent series between India and South Africa, blunted the Proteas usually explosive batsmen.

On the one hand, it was a brilliant assertion of Indian home advantage, as India won 3-0. But it also turned me off watching.

As a neutral, I found the cricket as I would expect too.

A little bit predictable, almost scripted, and very dry.

It was a series, engineered to be dominated by certain players.

Spinners, and by Indian batsmen who can play spin.

Neither of these facets, South Africa have in abundance.

When sides tour England, the pitches help seam bowlers and batsmen who can leave the ball.

There is, one cannot stress enough, nothing wrong with preparing pitches to suit a home side. 

But, there has to be a contest generated, or else it stops being entertainment, and begins to be a foregone conclusion. 

In the most recent series’, of the top six run scorers, five were Indians.

Only two South African fifties were scored in the duration (both by Ab de Villiers), with only one South African averaging over 30 (again, Ab de Villiers).

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The top two wicket-takers in the series, were the Indian spin twins Ravi Ashwin and Jadeja taking 31 and 23 wickets.

Nobody else in the Indian attack passed seven wickets.

Following the 3-0 victory, India should have been triumphant. But, all the conjecture was about the pitches.

Not necessarily because they were ‘bad pitches’, but because it produced boring cricket. 

In the first Test, both sides made a turning pitch look a lot worse than it was. Four low-scoring innings of 201, 184 200 and 109 suggest an inability to play the surface, as the match finished in three days. 

The second Test was of course washed out.

The third Test at Nagpur however, was rated as a ‘poor’ pitch by the ICC, whilst the final Test produced a block-a-thon.

In that final Test, in the fourth innings, Amla scored 25 off 244 balls, De Villiers 43 off 297, with the overall team going at under one run per over for 143 overs.

When asked about the state of Indian pitches during the series’, Indian spinner Amit Mishra said: “We also get seaming pitches when we go out of India. We also adjust. We don’t complain. They need to adjust.”

To an extent, he is right. But on the other hand, he is also missing the point: The brand of cricket these pitches produce is exceptionally negative.

No pitch curator would dream of creating such a surface for a T20 or ODI match, in which there is a desire to produce exciting cricket. 

The droll cricket in this series may be something one can appreciate. Especially if you’re sitting behind a screen looking at a scorecard years down the line, admiring the resilience of AB de Villiers.

But in reality, every cricket fan hopes that a block-a-thon, never happens if you’re in the ground yourself.

I would certainly be angry if I turned up at Lord’s and saw 143 runs in 143 overs. 

India need to find that balance between home advantage and producing good cricket.

At the moment, they are experts at the former, and failing miserably at the latter.

 

On This Day: Glenn McGrath

Screenshot 2015-02-09 23.47.50On this day in 1970, arguably one of the best ever seam bowlers is born, Glenn McGrath.

Now, he didn’t have the sheer raw pace of Brett Lee, nor was he someone that got bounce and movement like Malcolm Marshall. Infact, if you didn’t see his statistical record, you may think ‘what is all the fuss about?’

In truth, Glenn McGrath was one of the best, because he mastered the basics the best.

As a young cricketer, you’re told to hit the top of off stump. 

That is what he took through his entire career, taking 563 Test wickets, not to mention his stellar limited overs career, taking 381 wickets, at an average of 21 and 22 respectively. 

As an Englishman, the day McGrath retired, was the day I breathed a sigh of relief. 

But in truth, I loved watching his skill control, and he remains one of the key factors as to why I play cricket. 

Here are some of my favourite clips of Glenn McGrath:

Nobody can forget his 5-21 against England at Lord’s in 2005

Known for being exceptionally poor with the bat when he started off, his batting became somewhat of a cult. 

He will primarily of course be remembered for his outstanding bowling, but his fifty against New Zealand will also rank very highly. 

And THAT catch of course…

Why Kumar Sangakkara is very good, but not a great

Kumar Sangakkara’s astonishing statistical record has often led people to attribute him to be a true great of the game. At closer inspection he has not had as tough a route as others, and this title needs reconsideration. 

Before you quit this post because you love watching Sangakkara so much, let’s get a few things straight.

He is cricket as an art form.

I love watching him, and he is certainly in my top one favourite batsmen ever. 

Nobody disputes he is an exceptional talent, with longevity, class and ability, but there is certainly a case that two of his major flaws been glossed over because of how good he is to watch.

Let’s take a look. 

Sangakkara has done it all. His Test average is nearly 60 (58.66), he has over 12200 Test runs, 38 Test hundreds and 51 Test fifties. This has all been done over the course of 130 Tests, and he is also the fasted batsman, in terms of innings, EVER, to reach 12000 runs, which is an achievement that he reached in 23 innings fewer than Sachin Tendulkar, as you can see below.

He is pretty damn good at batting.

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So, I’m guessing you’re now thinking how an earth can this man seriously be brought down.. 

Sub-Continental runs are not less valuable than runs outside, but Kumar Sangakkara has got a notoriously Sub-Continent heavy record.

It is an undeniable fact.

Sangakkara has scored 30 of his 38 Test hundreds in Asia (75%). He has scored 9158 of his 12203 Test runs (75%) in Asia.  

Compared to two other sub-continental greats, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, no number of velvety Sangakkara cover drives can make up for the disparity in consistency. 

Sachin, by comparison, of course played more Tests, with 200. But he scored 33 of his 51 Test tons in Asia (64%), which is much better than Sangakkara. Dravid had a better record too, with 22 of his 36 Test tons (61%) in Asia, and 7370 Test runs in Asia (55%), which is again better.

So yes, Sangakkara did get to 12000 the quickest, but he also scored a lot more runs in conditions which were more favourable to him.

In non-Sub-Continental conditions, Sanga has had much more limited success. In South Africa he averages 35, in the Caribbean just 34, and in England 41. This does not extend to Australia and New Zealand, where he has averaged over 60. 

It is clear, that Sangakkara, at least compared to the two other Asian ‘greats’ has a poorer record outside of Asia, and heavily relies on conditions closer to home. 

For that reason, he is not a great, because his record has been vastly inflated.

The only real other chink in Sangakkara’s record is the fact that he scored a lot of runs against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, compared to his closest contemporaries. 

Sangakkara’s seven centuries against Bangladesh,  including 1816 runs vastly outweighs his closest rivals, and this also further inflates his record. 

Bangladesh are not very good at Test cricket. In their history, they have won seven games, all against the West Indies and Zimbabwe.

Sangakkara’s seven centuries constitute 18% of his overall career Test centuries and 14% of his runs, and they don’t reflect a true great, when considered with the previous angle of having a poor non-subcontinental record. 

Versus Bangladesh, Sangakkara’s contemporaries for greatness, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Ricky Ponting and Jacques Kallis scored 1957 runs combined. This is only marginally more than Sangakkara did alone, and echoes just how significant Bangladeshi runs are for the Sri Lankan number three, and for Sri Lanka as a Test team as a whole. They clearly play them a lot.

Ponting scored just 6% of his 13378 Test runs against Bangladesh, with Sachin Tendulkar (5%), Rahul Dravid ( 4%) and Jacques Kallis (2%) all taking a much more arduous route to the top.

Now of course, a player can only score centuries against who they play.

Not for one moment would anybody criticise Sangakkara for scoring those runs.

But his nine centuries versus Bangladesh and Zimbabwe in 20 Tests he played against them, causes his average to shoot up from 53.83 to 58.66. 

The threshold for greatness must be high, and this must be taken into consideration. 

Can he seriously be considered a great when he has ultimately filled his boots against a very poor opposition to prop up his figures?

Can he really be called a great when he has relied so heavily on conditions that are so familiar to him? Perhaps there is an argument that he shouldn’t be. 

Of course statistics are not everything. 

Players are considered greats for a plethora of reasons.

Don Bradman is considered the best for his average and his consistency.

Brian Lara for his spark, and for twice breaking the world record highest test score.

Sangakkara is seen as a great by many because he makes batting look sexy and easy. He is a joy to watch, and he always goes big, with 11 double centuries to his name , which is second top.

Without a doubt, Sangakkara will be viewed as an incredible batsman, and probably the best Sri Lankan, after Murali.

He plays every shot, he can bat in every style in every format, and he is a very cool and classy head. But great? His reliance on runs versus vulnerable opposition in conditions that benefit him will differentiate him from those that were able to do it against everyone, everywhere.

To prove this is *nothing* personal against you Sanga, here is my an awesome video.

Point-to-prove XI for 2014

Reflection of the previous year often aids with informing the expectations of the season to come. As we recover from a year of retirements and the changing the guard, we can look into a crystal ball, and see who will be looking to have a more productive 2014. Not all in this list have had a disappointing 2013, but, all will be looking to have a purposeful year ahead, and really prove something.

*2013 statistics are amalgamated from all formats of International cricket.

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1. Jesse Ryder [New Zealand] – 2013:

Batting: 1 innings – 0 runs. Average 0 |

Jesse Ryder is a special talent, but certainly not a fulfilled one. His staggered career has developed at an uneven rate, which has given rise to the fact that at 29 years old, he has played just 18 Test matches, and only 41 ODIs. He’s better than that, but it needs consistency, and discipline on and off the field. Combining the two could allow Ryder to explode back onto the scene, which may be important with T20 contracts up for grabs. A century on the first day of 2014 is a good sign, but with Ryder, it is never far away from something unexpected.

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2. Murali Vijay [India] – 2013:

Batting: 14 innings – 704 runs – Average – 48.82 | Bowling: Overs 1 – Wickets: 0 – Average: 0

After having made his debut in 2008, Vijay’s chance for Test cricket has been stifled by the likes of Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag at the top. They have since been put to one side, and Vijay’s chance has finally emerged. 647 Test runs at an average of 46.76 in 2013 was a good grounded response to continued selection. But, with the likes of Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara for company in the batting order, he must stay relevant, and not be a passenger. In order to not be buried in the drama of Indian cricket, and the high octane performances of others, he must push the boundaries, and really build a reputation.

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3. Azhar Ali [Pakistan] – 2013:

Batting: 15 innings – 272 runs – Average: 31.77 | Bowling: Overs: 7 – Wickets: 0 – Average: 0

Pakistan are about to go through a turbulent period, with Misbah Ul Haq at the ripe age of 39, and Younis Khan at 36, spare parts are desperately needed. Azhar Ali was steady for a number of years for Pakistan at number three, but severely fell away in 2013, with just two fifties, and averaging under 20 in Tests. 270 runs in 14 Test innings is not good enough, when in the previous year, he scored more than double that in less matches. There is lots to work on, and lots to like about Ali, but he really must show he has a future for Pakistan, post Misbah and Younis, by seizing number three by the horns, and not letting go. Pakistan cricket is a roller coaster ride sometimes, and a solid, steady number three is what is needed. Step up Azhar.

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4. Joe Root [England] – 2013:

Batting: 48 innings – 1579 runs – average: 38.51 | Bowling: Overs: 118.0 – Wickets: 8 – Average: 69. 87

The golden boy of English cricket is finding out the hard way that top level cricket is very difficult. Averaging 34.48 in Tests last year, he has been moved up and down the order perpetually, not being allowed to settle. He has been worked over by Australia’s quicks, exposed horribly, and although having played the short ball well, he has not been the defensive rock that England had hoped for at the top of the order. Whereas some will attribute this to him being unsettled due to constant change, it must also be recognised that he has not made any of the positions his own. He is only young of course, but the sooner he consolidates a position, the better, and that is the task for the year in all formats.

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5. JP Duminy [South Africa] – 2013:

Batting: 32 innings – 948 runs – average 35.11 | Bowling: Overs: 177.4 – Wickets: 20 – Average: 36.90

The left hander has gained a reputation as a One Day specialist, which is something he will be keen to repute. He has only played 21 Tests in his career, and has always been placed in the lower middle order, coming in to bat after a flurry of world class batsmen such as Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla and AB De Villiers. Nobody doubts his One Day credentials, but his First Class average of nearly 50, simply does not translate in Test cricket, where he averages a meager 32.88. He will be looking to assert himself, and prove he is not just a One Day specialist.

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6. Angelo Mathews [Sri Lanka] – 2013:

Batting: 34 innings – 935 runs – average: 34.62 | Bowling: Overs: 200.4- Wickets: 23- Average: 40.34

As a player, and as a captain, Angelo Mathews has struggled to form a cohesive Test side. He played in 28 limited overs games, whilst having only three full Tests in 2013, which outlines the difficulty of long term planning. A general depression in form in Tests, has been contrasted by a strong-ish year in coloured kits. In Tests, scoring under a hundred runs in the year, and taking not a single wicket showed his ineptitude, yet in ODIs, his 585 runs and 19 wickets helped build his character as a leader. 2014 needs to be the year in which the Sri Lankan captain strengthens his place as the leader, and transfers limited overs contributions to Tests, because if he doesn’t Sri Lanka will be far too heavily reliant on the old guard.

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7. Quinton De Kock [South Africa] – 2013:

Batting: 23 innings – 928 runs – average: 42.18 | Wicketkeeping: Catches: 33 Stumpings: 4

With the retirement of Jacques Kallis, a position in the batting order has opened up. Quinton De Kock has had a fantastic year in limited overs cricket for South Africa, the only format he was afforded selection with 928 runs, including four centuries. He is the obvious player to come into the Test side, and as a wicketkeeper, he has an added string to his bow. Some will say at 21 he is too young to fill Kallis’s enormous hole, but  someone has to, and in spite of his inexperience, De Kock has shown considerable ticker in his performances so far.

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8. Darren Sammy [The West Indies] – 2013:

Batting: 35 innings – 709 runs – average 26.25 | Bowling: Overs: 260.1 – Wickets: 21 – Average: 50.04 | Fielding: Catches: 30

The West Indies beleaguered captain is chronically unable to lead from the front, and must show some more substance. His toothless bowling produced eight Test wickets in nine innings in 2013, and his Test batting average of just 21 is not exactly electric dynamite. He is economical and steady, but he is clearly picked as a and captain in Tests. After having been relinquished of the role in 50 over cricket, it’s surely only a matter of time before a new captain of any degree of competence emerges, which could render Sammy obsolete. He continues to be a solid limited overs performers, but especially for Test cricket, he needs to start showing his worth. 2014 must be the year of Sammy, where he shows his value to the team not just as a captain.

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9. Ravichandran Ashwin [India] – 2013:

Batting: 24 innings – 359 runs – average: 17.95 | Bowling: Overs: 617.1 – Wickets: 81 – Average: 28.60

Disposed of for the second Test in South Africa, India’s spinner seems to be inept outside of the sub continent. 95 of his 104 Test wickets have been in Asia, which does not take away from his achievements, but it suggest he is a one dimensional and inexperienced performer outside of India. When his side plays England in five Tests in 2014, he will be desperate to be in that side ahead of Pragyan Ojha, the genuine spinner, or Ravi Jadeja, the genuine allrounder. He must break out of his Sub-continental mould, and really secure his spot in the side by developing a stock ball, and learning to use variations more intelligently. Until he does that, he will never have success where there is less spin to be had.

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10. Steven Finn [England] – 2013:

Batting: 15 innings – 142 runs – average: 10.92 | Bowling: Overs: 324.5 – Wickets: 44 – Average: 32.63

In 2011, Steven Finn became England’s youngest bowler to 50 wickets, at the age 22 years and 63 days. The tall seamer was set to be ‘the next big thing’, but failed. Struggling with control, even when he got wickets, they were expensive, and he has spluttered and coughed his way through his career since being dropped in 2011. 2014 simply must be the year for Finn to settle his action, and lead. Whatever format, ‘If’ he has a serious future, and ‘If’ he wants to carry the legacy on that was laid out in 2011, this year has got to be the turning point. He is clearly a good bowler, and has performed spectacularly well especially in limited overs cricket, but without consistency, he will always simply be remembered as the bowler that occasionally performed well. Getting a consistent reliable action is his task for the year. If he does, success will come his way.

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11. Ishant Sharma [India] –

Batting: 17 innings – 34 runs – average: 3.77 | Bowling: Overs: 367.2 – Wickets: 47 – Average: 34.53

How do you solve a problem like Ishant Sharma? A tall, gangly fast bowler, that is robotic. His bowling lacks the emotion that a fast bowler should have, sometimes more stiff and unimaginative than a bowling machine. 12 Test wickets at an average of 48.16 in 2013 has reinforced his dire 2012 performance which produced just seven Test wickets at an average of 75.57. He is only 25 years old, despite having been around since 2008; but time is running out regardless of his age. Only for so long can India continuously pick this uninspiring and ineffective bag of unfulfilled potential. 2014 might be Sharma’s last chance to prove everyone wrong before he is dumped on the scrapheap once and for all.

Other contenders: Steve Smith, Mitchell Johnson and Nathan Lyon.

Captain Sammy – Part of the solution or the problem?

Darren Sammy has plugged the West Indies problems as a captain for some time. Whereas he has been relinquished from his limited overs captaincy, his captaincy at Test level has stabilised the West Indies side much like Misbah Ul Haq’s has for Pakistan, but unlike Misbah; Sammy’s role is not worth the drama it causes. He is not there on merit and it’s time the West Indies stopped wasting a place in their side, and gracefully said thank you, and progressed on in Test Cricket.

Turning back the clocks, the appointment of Darren Sammy as captain came after a host of catastrophes. West Indies captains came and went almost as often as Australian off spinners, as both board troubles and internal disputes meant that the likes of Chris Gayle, Ramranesh Sarwan, Dwayne Bravo and others, had short unsuccessful stints as captains. Sammy has won nearly a third of his Tests, despite a thoroughly mediocre individual record, but undoubtably, the fact that he was barely selected before captaincy, indicates why he is in this side.

Selection to captain is a dangerous and wasteful tactic. Mike Brearley is the obvious case, whereby the team recognised his value as a captain, regardless of his ineptitude at Test level as a batsman. But, he was successful, captaining England in 31 of his 39 Test matches, winning 17 and losing only 4. Because he had a clear role, and excelled, the team was willing to carry him.

Sammy has had remarkably little impact with bat or ball, and is unable to lead from the front, yet, out of his 35 Tests, 29 have been as captain, and there have been eight wins within those nine, which is considerable bearing in mind the West Indies terminal decline in recent years. His tenure has included a T20 World cup win also, which crowned the West Indies resurgence. He is a significant part of recent success in limited overs cricket, and certainly represents a scrappy and hardworking attitude, but he is certainly not selection on merit for Test cricket. Nobody doubts his limited overs use.

With the bat, an average of just 21.96 is entirely pedestrian, even at number eight. His first class average of just 23.95, suggests that this Test average is not doing him a dis-service; as he is not a genuine allrounder. Out of his one Test century and five fifties, four fifties have come against Bangladesh Zimbabwe and New Zealand, which are lower ranked sides.

With the ball, his meagre average of 36.01 highlights his mediocrity. Nibbly medium pace, gives the same impression as with the bat; that his position as an ‘allrounder’ encompasses minimal on field value. He barely breaks the 80 miles an hour barrier; which although at times has been ‘steady’, is impotent.

Sammy acknowledges “that my role is to build pressure and be the workhorse of the team”, according to ESPN Cricinfo. The West Indies have so many options, and wicket taking options at that, that it feels like such a waste to continuously select a workhorse, when a bowler that bowls upwards of 90mph, or a recognised world class spinner is forgone. Fidel Edwards, Ravi Rampaul, Jerome Taylor, Shannon Gabriel, and Sunil Narine sit on the sidelines waiting for an opportunity, whilst Sammy impotently probes.

He has done a stellar job given the enormity of the challenge that encompasses the West Indies captaincy. But, he prevents penetrative bowling in the present, and prevents development and gelling of the team in the long term, because realistically, he is holding the job until a more permanent fixture emerges.

His ordinariness as a cricketer does not compensate for his full heart, nor his steady captaincy or workhorse-like attitude. He is not Misbah, because he is not time and time again saving his team. He is perpetuating its insecurity, and it can’t go on like this If the West Indies are a serious Test team.

But is there a better option to captain?

Surely the West Indies have a potential captain that could contribute to the team, and maintain some degree of stability. The West Indies has a number of potential captains, although none of them tactically as strong as Sammy. The obvious options that spring to mind would be senior or established players such as; Dwayne Bravo, who is now the ODI captain. Perhaps Marlon Samuels, although he has been known to have an uncontrollable and often overconfident attitude, which may be a liability. Or Denesh Ramdin, who is the wicketkeeper, and captain of Trinidad and Tobago.

Alternatively, The West Indies could adopt an entirely new captain, such as Kieron Pollard who has recently snuck into the Test squad against New Zealand, after a period of being a limited overs specialist.

It is clear that there are relatively limited stocks of captaincy talent within the West Indies domestic competition, as captaincy in the day four format, is dominated by very experienced, such as Ryan Hinds (Barbados) and Assad Fudadin (Guyana), the weak, such as Jamaica’s Tamar Lambert, or the numerous aforementioned National players who also captain their domestic side.

There is an exhaustion of options, and it would seam a potential new captain would be Dwayne Bravo or wicketkeeper Denesh Ramdin, as both are permanent fixtures in the side, and have captaincy pedigree.

Yes, he has captained well, and has been a part of the solution to a greater problem, but he seems to be a part of the problem, far more so than the solution. He encapsulates the West Indies.

Fighting with themselves before they can fight the opposition. Whilst the removal of Sammy may prove difficult in terms of captaincy, having a complete team, with nobody being carried will surely aid long term success in the Test Format.