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).

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.

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.

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. 

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.  

Three Things That Peter Moores Has Got Absolutely Right

Whilst wading the through long grasses of mockery around the #newera, it’s important not to allow the successful parts to pass over our heads un-noticed.

In his short stint as England Coach [part II], Peter Moores has made a concerted effort to stamp his method of coaching on this team.

But notwithstanding factors like the shadow of the bygone era, and in spite of the criticism which has flowed like a mighty stream since his appointment; he has done plenty of things which have worked.

Being consistent in decision making and selection

The  most important thing that Moores’ has done right is maintain consistency with decisions and selection; and not buckling under criticism.

When building a team, under the banner of a #newera; critics look for the slightest hint of disharmony. They even look for any tell tale sign that the team isn’t working.

Chopping and changing, inconsistency and U-turns shows that decisions were wrong in the first place, and the management is weak and not in control. Yet, not changing course when something is clearly wrong shows stubbornness.

He hasn’t flinched at all, backing his decisions and gaining a return in quick time, which shows he made the right calls so far on many decisions.

At Lord’s, England were thrashed.

But, only a minor change due to injury [Plunkett] and a second change due to poor performance occurred [Stokes]. In the third Test the faith, repaid. A captain under fire felt backed; scored runs, and captained well. A near complete team performance ensued, as England drew the series with two to play.

The #newera is only going to work if an identity and a style of play is built, and from what has been displayed thus far; this is what Moores is creating. A new brand of cricket, which backs players and gives them a fair chance, on his watch.

Backing Counties

It is no surprise to anyone that follows county cricket, that a long time county coach is picking reliable county stars, and has faith in them.

Flower never really coached county cricket. He went on gut, and sometimes that worked.

More often than not however, it was mature and established players that did it for him, with the exception of Graeme Swann and Jonathan Trott; who were his selections through and through. The core of the team was not drawn from recent County success though. Moores has literally built this team up, and given it an identity. 

This summer has seen the selection of a number five and a number three to bat in the opposite positions, in addition a 29 year old bowler that was on the scrap heap, an Australian opener, a fiery fast man from Barbados, and Steven Finn.

Gary Ballance has been a revelation; translating his county form to the Test arena, striking three centuries and two fifties in 10 innings this summer. Liam Plunkett’s recall, is something I promoted when he was performing very strongly in County Cricket, here. His return to the Test side has been successful, offering pace, and heralding 18 wickets in his four Tests, and a fifty.

Even when Moeen Ali, Sam Robson and Chris Jordan have struggled, he has backed them fully, with no hints of them being dropped or replaced.

Moores has sent a large flare up into the air to signal that England’s selectors is watching you; County Performers.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. Fight hard, and you’ll get through, because this #newera recognises you.

Learning from mistakes

After the Lord’s catastrophe, England could have reacted violently, and scrapped the course they were on.

Cook’s head was in the chopping block. The excessive hooking was under scrutiny, and the perpetual short pitched bowling which yielding such little success was under the spotlight too.

Even England’s fielding was a low point, as catches went down and defensive  unimaginative captaincy dominated.

But there were no panic stations or flashing lights. As England turned up to the third, and now fourth Test; it’s clear that something has clicked into place.

They are pitching it up. Taking their catches. Cook’s captaincy is not as reactive, with much greater trust invested in Moeen Ali’s spin bowling, to the extent that Moeen took a 6 wicket hall at the Ageas Bowl.

page separator

There has been a strong desire to justify decisions made, by ironing out faults and dealing with issues; as opposed to scrapping plans and trying something new; pushing those failures under the carpet

It’s refreshing, and Moores deserves credit for not dragging England back through the 1990s style selection and despair.

It has been; and will be, difficult; but there are plans there, and there is a definite direction that these plans are being plotted.

As an England fan, it’s nice to finally be stable again.

Associate and affiliate players in county cricket?

Shapoor Zadran
Shapoor Zadran

In a recent discussion on the ESPNCricinfo County live blog, the topic of associates and affiliate members came up in the context of overseas players. The dilemna was ‘why if players are good enough are they being denied the possibility of playing, purely on the basis of their nationality, or the fact their country is not a top side.’

After all, it would seem ludicrous in any other sport to have this situation. Could you imagine if Dwight Yorke had been prevented from playing for Manchester United because he was from Trinidad and Tobago (currently ranked 81st in the world).

Numerous players from associate and affiliate sides could benefit so much from a stint of  cricket in the UK regardless of format, and would certainly enhance and improve the image and attention in their country domestically if they improved themselves, and brought more success.

Currently, counties are restricted to choosing one overseas player, and this is restricted to countries that have played a requisite number of International matches. It seems a rather arbitrary and stifling rule, especially as the vast majority of affiliate and associate members would not be of the standard to play in the UK anyhow. Why put a barrier up to prevent those that are good enough from partaking in ‘the finishing school’, purely because their International side is not good enough.

It’s unlikely that should players from affiliate or associate members ever be allowed to be considered as overseas players, that all of a sudden Kenyans, Namibians, or Swedish cricketers would pour into the counties because the plain facts are that most would not be of the standard.

But, as with every developing country in cricketing terms there would certainly be a select few that are good enough, and it seems such an illogical rule to restrict them on such an arbitrary basis of nationality, or the number f games their internationally affiliated side plays.

Afghanistan have of course been a hugely impressive side in terms of how they have developed from playing in dirt tracks on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and making it all the way to the top as an Internationally ranked side. They are a side of course that has some players that look entirely out of their depth against established teams, yet at the same time players like Mohammad Shezhad, Shapoor Zadran and Mohammad Nabi  were all highly talented. Shapoor Zadrand was easily reaching 90 miles per hour in the world cup, which regardless of your passport stamp is extremely difficult to face.

If he was running in for even a second division side, it would be beneficial firstly for him, secondly for the county side that signs him, and thirdly, perhaps most importantly, for the state of Afghan cricket. It would be the big break. Just take a look at Zadran in action:

Having a player in an established first class league, exposed to the cricketing world, and with new opportunities that would go with that. Did someone mention the IPL?

In the past, players such as Kenya’s Steve Tikolo and Canada’s Jon Davison were stars in very average minnow sides. But, beyond them, there was relatively little and there was no long term and sustainable growth of cricket in their lesser established cricketing countries because their success and talent was not built on clearly. These were players that had talent and would have not only benefited from even a short stint of cricket for a county side, but it would have placed them on a plinth that would help to grow cricket domestically in their own country, and hopefully develop better domestic talent, and the image of the game in general.

The only way for associate and affiliate nations to sustainability develop is to grow domestic popularity of the game, as this breeds interest, and essentially a larger poole of talent. If offering those associate and affiliate member countries that have players that are good enough for a stint in the UK that very opportunity, then realistically, what is going to be the downside? Maybe a home grown player misses out in the UK occasionally, but judging by the number of Kolpak players already milling around county cricket in a number of formats, this issue doesn’t seem to have been sincerely addressed anyhow, and what is the problem with it anyway? It improves the cricket immeasurably to have a better quality of talent on show. If it is not going to be a hugely significant number of players from affiliate or associate members that would meet the standard of county cricket anyway, then surely all this rule change would potentially do, is lift a barrier blocking talent of those that would meet the standard, such as Shapoor Zadran, that are currently prevented on the basis of where he is from.  It seems a small price to pay to allow a handful players the opportunity to play, that they otherwise would have been deprived of on a very illogical policy.

What is needed is perhaps an overseas policy allowing overseas players from the established nations, in addition to one overseas player from an associate or affiliate member. It is important to remember that most counties would not pick an associate or affiliate member, but those that would, could benefit, and there would be a very size able mutual benefit for the associate or affiliate member also. Perhaps this could be trailed in the lesser profile YB40?

Of course many will dismiss this as an unwanted change. “Why should they take up English players places” i hear people saying already, but in reality this would not be a widespread thing. It would would benefit county cricket by allowing those who are good enough to be in contention, which is minimal at the moment. It would afford a greater profile to cricket in the domestic cricketing league of those countries, and motivate affiliate and associate members to build on development with further development. It would be a hugely beneficial move, and it would remove an entirely arbitrary restriction.