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Wednesday, 14 September 2011

England v. the West Indies: a glorified job interview

The announcement of the England squad for the upcoming, and seemingly pointless, T20 match against the West Indies reads more like a role call for a job interview than an convincing limited overs team. With both captain and vice-captain being forced to watch from the sidelines due to shoulder injuries, it's fallen to veteran Graeme Swann to lead the mish-mash of a squad onto the pitch.

Giving Swann the captaincy makes some sense given that he is the oldest in the team and the most experienced in shorter formats, and therefore will have a better understanding of how to set a field and work with the players strengths and weaknesses. However his appointment seems to directly contradict the selectors initiative of preparing the "young future of English cricket" by giving them authoritative roles and the chance to play in England colours in order to ready themselves for the next world cup. Swann also has the most entertaining personality in the team, and a quote he gave recently about not wanting to captain the side because "I couldn't still be the light-hearted, piss taking guy if I was in a position of authority" speaks volumes. Some have said that because of his personality, Swann won't take the captaincy seriously; I disagree. It's having to change who he is that bothers me the most. Cook, Strauss, Broad; you often feel that these are players who were bred for captaincy. Swann isn't one of these. At the risk of sounding cliched, he's an everyman - a player who works hard but sees nothing wrong in mucking about a bit off the pitch and in between overs. Why should he have to stop this to take on a role that he has spoken about not wanting for two matches that, in the long run, mean nothing?

Without wishing to sound rude, the chances of Swann playing in the next T20 world cup is highly unlikely, therefore giving the captaincy role to one of the younger players would surely have been more practical in the long run. Most surprising of all is the omission of the England Lions captain, and the player most logistically poised to take on Broad's role, James Taylor.

Taylor averages 49.61 in the CB40 championship, and 34 in T20's. He led the England Lions to two victories in the recent one day series against Sri Lanka, scoring 111 from 132 deliveries in the deciding match and outscored several players who were selected ahead of him for the West Indies game. Why is Taylor so consistently overlooked by the selectors? It's obviously not a question of trust; when announced as the Lions captain, Taylor was lauded by the selectors for having a strong and mature head on his shoulders, qualities that any future England captain or player needs to have. Despite his county team finishing bottom of Division Two, Taylor has shone this year in the longer format of the game, and his skill has carried over to the limited overs games, as Leicestershire won the T20 finals only a fortnight ago.

Maybe it is because of Leicestershire's standing in the league that Taylor has been overlooked; the majority of players come from first division teams or the two teams that topped the second division. Warwickshire made a bid for Taylor only a few months ago, which Leicestershire captain Matthew Hoggard derided as "insulting", but as Hoggard pointed out, transferring to a team that has topped division one might improve Taylor's chances of England selection. But why should Taylor have to up sticks just to be in with a sniff of selection? His talent speaks for itself, and that should be enough for the selectors.

Ultimately, though, these T20 games aren't any sort of real competition; they are overhyped try outs to decide who goes to India when the real matches begin. There are some odd inclusions in the side; James Anderson might bowl well on lovely green English pitches but his struggles in the sub-contient have been well documented, and the four pronged spin attack and three wicket keepers implies that the selectors are taking a pick and mix approach to the T20 side. Equally, there are some shrewd inclusions - Alex Hales, Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler have all shone for their counties this season, particularly in the short format. There are ups and downs to having a bowler as a captain, just as there are ups and downs to having a young team with a few 'veterans' thrown in for good measure. The real worry is the constant shifting about of the squad; with so few T20 games scheduled, there seems to be hardly any time for the team to gel before jetting off to India, or indeed the next World Cup. Only time will tell how well this team can perform.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

The Woes of Ravi Bopara

Ravi Bopara. Just the sight of his name seems to antagonise most England fans. It's understandable why; having been continuously outscored in the Lions matches, and with the wealth of batting available in the county teams at the minute, it seems a mystery as to why Bopara has managed to retain his place in the England squad for so long. The injury to Eoin Morgan and 'resting' of Kevin Pietersen led to a vacancy in the ODI squad, a vacancy that Bopara has filled. And despite being out in the middle at the death of the last two ODI games and the T20 game a week ago, Bopara has still failed to silence the critics. But why?

Maybe it's because, no matter how hard Alastair Cook tries to change our minds, Bopara just isn't a convincing player in the limited overs format. His last three innings have brought about scores of 2 (from 4), 24 (from 20) and 40 (from 41). They are not statistics that instill faith in the supporters; Bopara bats at number 6, a position that gives him licence to play his shots as well as defending the unplayable balls. But his run rate is often so slow; taking singles when there are two runs available, hitting back to the bowler rather than going on the offensive. Bopara is so often unable to keep up with the pace established by the higher order batsmen, and whilst there isn't always the need to be a big hitter in the limited overs format, he so rarely shows the aggression or 'get-go' of the players before him. There is no doubt that England's middle order is inexperienced against spin, particularly now that Morgan is out of the series. Bopara looked exceptionally uncomfortable against the Indian spinners during the third ODI. His defence was tentative, and despite playing a good back footed attack against Ashwin for four, his stature against the spinners failed to convince. India's spin attack was bang on the money during the game, but there were opportunities for Bopara to score; opportunities that he failed to take.

The other characteristic of Bopara's innings is how a good, strong shot can be followed by a meek swipe a second later. A full toss from Raina was thrashed through extra cover for four; the next ball had a wide swing thrown at it and was nearly edged through to Dhoni. There never seems to be any fluency or confidence to Bopara's innings. It's almost as though the England shirt has a freezing effect on Bopara. Whilst Bopara's latest season at Essex has been up and down, he's had some big scores in an Essex shirt, including a 7 hour stand at the crease whilst captaining the side against Leicestershire. But in the England games, especially in the shorter format, there is rarely a hint of this sort of player; nervy and unsure, he seems to tangle himself up at the crease far more than his counterparts, leading to panic and a cheap dismissal, such as skying the ball down to mid off.

The one skill Bopara has in his armour is that he's a bowler, and a good medium pace bowler at that. He has the ability to slow the run rate down and more often than not incur a false shot from the batsman; he recently dismissed Dravid in the T20 game by bowling a decent length ball that Dravid miscued straight down cover's throat. Bopara's first class bowling averages stand at 5/75, and 5/73 in the 40 over format. But given the wealth of bowling that England seem to have in their ODI attack, and indeed available to them from the county teams, surely this isn't enough to justify Bopara's place in the side?

With Bopara, it all boils down to can he handle the pressure? Every time an England shirt is given to him he appears to fall to pieces. Those who have seen him play at Essex can vouch that he has skill, but this skill seems to desert him when he steps out into the middle. In fact, the majority of the time it is Bopara's bowling that attracts the praise of the critics, not his batting, and with the middle-order of the England squad looking less convincing without Pietersen and Morgan, Bopara is running out of time to convince that he is a suitable number six batsman. With the likes of James Taylor, Jos Buttler, Alex Hales and Jonny Bairstow waiting in the wings, how long can Bopara justifibly keep his place in this England side?

(Interestingly, the day after I published this, Bopara went on to make 96 in the tied ODI game at Lords. Clearly I am a good influence on him. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about that)

Thursday, 1 September 2011

England v. India T20: the good, the average and the ridiculous

Sometimes, often whilst following Yorkshire's campaign in the county series, I think that T20 is a stupid format. Other times I think it's great. It's flashy, it's entertaining, anything and everything can go wrong, and people come in their droves to watch it. The one-off England v. India T20 at Old Trafford was no exception. Around 70% of the crowd consisted of lively India fans; they'd brought cymbals, bells, whistles, signs and flags to show their support and put the embarrassment of the test series behind them. The England fans seemed much more subdued (or maybe the India fans just outvoiced them. They were seriously loud) but they were still there in copious amounts, all of them desperately hoping that England had moved on from the awful T20 game against Sri Lanka.

There were some good signs for England in this game, the most obvious accolades going to Jade Dernbach. Dernbach is by far and away the best death bowler in the side; by putting his slower ball to a much more effective use than in the previous ODI/T20 series, he is able to slow the run-rate down, deceive the lower order batsmen and cause those looking to make a big hitting innings to miscue and send the ball down a fielder's throat. As with the final Sri Lanka game, it was Dernbach who was handed the ball for the final over, and he took two in two, one wicket aided by an excellent bit of fielding from his own bowling. Anyone who has seen Dernbach in county cricket is well aware at how lethal his slower ball can be - couple this with his strong self-belief and confidence in his ability and he has become the perfect death bowler for this England side. Broad and Bresnan clearly thought the best mode of attack was to bowl short at the Indian bowlers, as it was the short ball that had troubled them so much in the test series, yet it was Dernbach's slower pace and the tiniest offering of width that caused the wickets to fall.

Eoin Morgan is so often the stalwart of an limited overs innings, and this game was no exception. He was typically flamboyant; he must have the most amazing slash ridiculous arsenal of stroke play in the game today. His reverse sweep is so incredibly fluid and powerful, yet his ability to just create a new stroke if the ball doesn't swing or land in the way he anticipated is equally as impressive. Morgan, like Pietersen before him, isn't afraid to go on the offensive, but the main difference is that Morgan changes position or batting stroke so quickly that his miscues tend to go farther than the original shot that he intended to play. Pietersen's miscues so often lead to his dismissal, although he was aided early on in his innings by a dreadful drop catch at third man.

India were the favourites coming into the match, and the game certainly seemed to be swinging their way after debutant Rahane wowed the crowds. He achieved 61 from 39 balls in a powerful opening innings - he jumped on the wider deliveries from Bresnan and attacked Broad's short balls. Any chance he got, he took; something which Rahul Dravid also capitalised on. Making his first - and last - international T20 debut (you'd think that all he wants now is a sit down and a nice long rest) he proved a point by smashing Samit Patel for three consecutive, beautifully timed sixes. India's collapse following three loses in quick succession was hugely disappointing given the fantastic start to their innings by Rahane. India seemed too over-eager; they knew that they were squandering what had been a strong position but their efforts to bump up the score - with the exception of Raina, who belted two sixes off Bresnan and a six off a Broad bounder, perhaps wanting to prove a point to the bowlers - just led to a quickening collapse.

Much has been said of England's close run victory, and the way Patel and Bopara carried out their final innings. It has been described as 'brave' and 'cohesive', yet it is almost certain that had the result falling the other way then they would have been criticised for being sluggish and introverted. Both Bopara and Patel fell far too short of the tone set by Pietersen, Morgan and Kieswetter; they were too content with taking singles when there were two runs available and were not at all convincing in the final couple of overs. Unless Bopara is considering a career change - he really is a very deceptive medium pace bowler, as Dravid found out today - then England surely cannot keep him in the side for his batting ability. There was no confidence, no aggression; yes, Bopara is not as extrovert a player as Morgan but he is capable of smashing boundaries in the most unorthodox of places. And whilst India tightened up their bowling, there were several wide deliverers that Bopara, had he taken a gamble, could have easily dispatched for a big score.

There were signs of improvements for both teams; MS Dhoni's wicket-keeping has improved since the Test series, proven by the excellent bit of stumping to dismiss Pietersen, whilst England's bowling attack is starting to shape up nicely. The signs look good for England; although Hales was dismissed for a second ball duck, anyone who has seen him play for Nottingham knows what a natural big hitter he is. The same goes for Jos Buttler, who may have been able to grab the win quicker for England if he'd gone in to bat ahead of Patel. He is an exciting young player who has an array of flamboyant shots to rival Morgan, including his very own Somersetian-Dilscoop. But there are still problems; the spin attack - Patel really came in for a hammering, compared to Swann who is still the best limited overs bowler in the attack - could be livened up with the introduction of some of the young faces from the county sides, namely Scott Borthwick. And despite being out in the middle when the winning runs were hit, Bopara's 31 from 36 deliveries were not convincing by any means.

But the most important thing is that England have won. The old England would have squandered the momentum that was gained from the Test match victory; Broad and his team have continued their good form and will go into the one day series confident of another victory. But judging by the performance of several of the Indian youngsters both with the bat and the ball, we may finally have a proper contest on our hands.