Tag Archives: Cricket

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. 

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.  

Investment in Moeen shows way forward for top-order conundrum

The trust and persistence placed in Moeen Ali is how England should approach their top-order conundrum.

After a decade of success, English cricket demands instantaneous results, but this approach has cut off the side’s nose to spite their face.

Selection policy has become impatient and short sighted when it comes to the top order.

Alastair Cook has gone through 11 opening partners since the retirement of Andrew Strauss in 2012, now compounded by more gaps at numbers three and five.

Yet in the midst of chaos, Moeen Ali has emerged as a reliable and increasingly threatening allrounder.

But, it’s easy to reflect on his 25 wickets and over 252 runs against South Africa with rose tinted glasses.

It hasn’t always been plain sailing. Moeen Ali has batted in every position from one to nine, only scored one century in his first 20 Tests, and was averaging more than 50 in 2016.

England stuck with him, because they believed in him. They wanted Moeen because of the potential he offered. Perhaps the biggest seal of approval, was the bringing in Saqlain Mushtaq to assist him. Moeen has now said he wants him there permanently.

Ali has been an investment for England. His form has been changeable, but the concept is right.

The question, is why have England openers not been invested in? They have been tried and trashed. Quickly.

It ultimately lies in trust.

England have picked openers because of county form, with the hope they’d continue that. But they couldn’t, or at least not instantaneously.

But, It takes time to adapt. Keaton Jennings, like Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook scored a century on debut, and now he looks frail. But, no more frail than how Moeen himself looked in the first two years of his career – when he showed inconsistency.

They kept him and trusted him to recover. The investment was seen as worthwhile.

Jennings, and the hoard of other openers, haven’t been trusted to be able to adapt.

Within five or six Tests of his debut hundred, there are calls to drop Jennings and replace him with with yet another cab-off-the-rank from county cricket, with no-doubt, an impressive domestic record.

Why pick them in the first place if they aren’t going to be trusted?

England set a precedent in May 2013 when they dropped Nick Compton for the first time, and they’ve been doubling down ever since. They’ve been too afraid to change course.

Nick Compton had success opening for England. He scored two centuries in New Zealand, and had a good partnership with Alastair Cook. He was experienced, and in form. He needed to work on his game, but who doesn’t?

Dropping him set the ball rolling for England’s opening policy.

Openers are disposable, not investments.

Until a new Andrew Strauss comes along, domestic performers can be used once and thrown away.

This is a ruinous policy. England need an opener. They need one that will work in the long run. They may struggle at first, but Moeen Ali’s progress shows what can be done with hard work.

Stop the separation of sixes

If Test cricket wants to survive it must claw back its name as a diverse format in which hitting sixes is a vital part of its fabric.

Test cricket has an image problem. It’s image is one of competition with T20, the infant of cricket that’s taking the world by storm.

T20 has successfully branded itself as the home of sixes.

Fans want to see big hits and crashing fours, and will pay big money for it.

This makes the format lucrative, especially as the games are so short. You can come after work to indulge in a short sharp burst of power hitting.

The association has become so strong, that when someone like Ben Stokes smashes a hundred, such as his 258 off 198 balls in South Africa, the murmurings on social media was about the influence of T20 on Tests. And I’ve heard it before when David Warner has batted like that, or when Chris Gayle or Ab de Villiers have.

Instead of it being seen as a rapid Test innings, some were saying it was fundamentally a T20 knock.

They’re wrong. Hitting sixes is as much a part of Test cricket as blocking and leaving is.

Some of the greatest opening partnerships ever have been a mixture of aggression and caution; such as Strauss and Trescothick, Gibbs and Smith, Langer and Hayden, Greenidge and Haynes.

Time is rarely a constraint in Test cricket, so the need to bat aggressively is for a purpose.

Either to accelerate an innings, capitalise on poor bowling, or simply put pressure on.

For that reason, Test cricket has always had a place for aggression, as part of a strategy, not as a prime way of scoring.

It’s part of the fabric of the game, and it give Tests the subtlety that T20 can lack.

The problem, is if aggression and caution separates exclusively in to the T20 and Test forms.

Test cricket must fight ensure it has a space for big hitting. Or at least, that it’s perceived to still have that space.

Especially with the rise of year-round franchise cricket, T20 is shepherded onto younger fans as having to ‘compete’ with Tests. The likes of Ab de Villiers and Aaron Finch are unwilling to dip their toe in the pond of Test cricket, and others like Alex Hales are ignored.

This separation is being formalised by cricket boards and players, and it ultimately it leads to the horrible question nobody wants to ask:

What would happen if a Kevin Pietersen or Chris Gayle.. or Viv Richards, turned up right now?

Would they really, honestly, want to play Test cricket over IPL and Big Bash? It would certainly be a dangling carrot.

If Test cricket starts to lose its aggressive stars, it will lose its subtlety.

It will become one dimensional and boring. If aggression and caution is allowed to separate out into T20 and Test, then cricket’s oldest format will quickly die out.

Post edited and re-published from Jan 4, 2016

Don’t get hung up on the Stokes-Flintoff comparison

As Ben Stokes continues to rise in stature, his numbers are matching and surpassing another allrounder in Andrew Flintoff, but it’s unfair to compare them on numbers alone.

Measuring Ben Stokes against Andrew Flintoff’s success is not an outrageous thing to do, either due to their playing style, or charismatic, occasionally hot-headed, nature.

But when you compare their numbers alone, Ben Stokes has already reached Flintoff’s level.

Over the course of Flintoff’s 79-Test match career, he struck five centuries and took three Five Wicket Halls. Ben Stokes has already reached these feats in 35 tests.

But, does that mean Stokes is better? Not necessarily.

After the most recent Test match at the Oval against South Africa, Stokes was asked about emulating Flintoff. He said: “I am trying to produce certain moments in a game so it can swing our way but I am not trying to live up to anyone else’s reputation. I am trying to do what I do and trying to keep putting in good performances.”

It’s undeniable that numbers show Stokes achieving more at a better rate, but it’s not just about numbers. There’s a reason why Stokes would talk of trying to ‘live up’ to Flintoff.

Everyone could see how good Flintoff was, but it never really translated in the record books. Regardless of that, given the option of having him or not, you’d take him.

Why? Because he was a talisman. He didn’t take lots of five wicket halls, or convert enough fifties into tons, but he got out big players, and was a game changer.

And, he balanced a team; a very different team in a different era, in different playing conditions, and against arguably better oppositions.

Fred was part of Duncan Fletcher’s England, who battled a mighty South African side and defeated one of the best Australian teams in history. Who knows what Stokes would do if he had to face Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath? Would he have run down the pitch to Murali, like he does to Keshav Maharaj? I don’t think so.

Whilst Flintoff was at the heart of a settled team, Stokes has had more opportunity, and necessity, to take responsibility. Stokes is part of a side which has been searching for a number of permanent positions in the top order.

This means that Stokes is not coming in to hit a nice cameo, he’s arguably England’s best batsman, now.

And, let’s face it, by the end of Flintoff’s career, he was batting at seven or eight. He was a bowling allrounder, and Stokes is a batting allrounder.

Here’s Flintoff bowling all day on his last Lord’s Test. Unplayable:

Lastly, the game has changed considerably. Whether the impact of T20 affecting risk-taking, or using DRS in taking wickets that would never have been given 10-years-ago, there are lots of variables.

Whilst it is disappointing Flintoff’s numbers don’t represent how good he was, Stokes inevitably surpassing his statistical achievements don’t tell the whole story.

Anyone who watched Flintoff knows he was a lot better than his record suggests, and anyone who wants to compare England’s current allrounder too him, should remember who Stokes are up watching.

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%).

screenshot-2016-11-15-23-06-43

screenshot-2016-11-15-23-07-12

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.