Tuesday, 24 April 2012

An Ode to Darren Sammy

There is a special place in my heart for Darren Sammy.

It's the same place that occupies a soft spot for Tim Bresnan. Sure, he may not be the most tactically aware captain of all time. And yes, his side do have a knack of letting a strong position slip through their grasp. And OK, he's dropped the same amount of slip catches as Shane Watson has made his way to fifty and then run someone out/slapped it to cover/edged it behind. But there's something about Sammy that is endlessly appealing.

Maybe it's the way he's gone after Watson in this series. When Watson comes on to bowl, Sammy loves to take a big heave at him. Sometimes it misses. Sometimes it connects, flies for a six and leaves Watson smoothing back his hair and giving Sammy the eye. And what does Sammy do? He gives him the eye right back. They exchange words; Watson will swear, gesticulate, puff himself up. Sammy will say nothing. Just stare Watson out. And then pull the next one for a boundary.

Sammy's batting is, at times, erratic, misjudged and generally sends him back into the hutch before he's pulled his team out of whatever situation they've landed themselves in. But he's from the breed of middle order biffers - Sammy will hit out, and sometimes it will be glorious. Playing cautiously suits Shiv Chanderpaul; he's made playing awkwardly and patiently work for him. This will never work for Sammy. He bats the way he tweets - a touch insane with a few mis-judgments and a few gems here and there. As a bowler, he is tight, very rarely giving much away in terms of width. His bouncer to Watson, which Watson attempted to pull in a shot that Haddin would have been proud of, came after a series of medium pacers that Watson fended off without any difficulty. That's clever bowling.

Sammy is good for West Indies cricket. He has a young team, but it's a young team that's progressing. They've had Australia looking down the barrel several times in this series already. It is frustrating to not watch them capitalise on this; watching them throw away the pressure they built in the second test through a sub-par batting performance was infuriating. Yet slowly but surely, this team is growing. Their spin attack is working the current Roseau pitch to its full potential. Sammy can be defensive, but he can also be attacking. Clarke's declaration in the second test put the West Indies under pressure, given how brittle their batting line up can be. So Sammy took the attack to Clarke's men by batting aggressively and preventing a possible collapse. Sammy has the support of Ottis Gibson, a man who knows how to develop a bowling attack.

West Indies cricket has been a source of mockery for some in the past. But it is quietly starting to rebuild itself. The vulnerabilities are still there; the loss of pressure, the boom or bust batting line up. But they've stood up to the Australian attack. They've removed the Australian big guns, with the exception of Mr Cricket, time after time. Sammy is cultivating a team to be proud of.

Maybe that's why I have such a soft spot for Sammy. The warmth he creates on the pitch, the smile when a bowler makes the breakthrough, the easy nature with which he interacts with players and press. Sammy is a normal guy, but he's no idiot. He knows how to manage a team. His warmth was just what the West Indies needed to rejuvenate themselves - their visit to England next month will be their next big test.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

County Watch #1: Joe Root

The start of every county season sees the "future England player" tag bandied around the circuit. Some flourish under the expectations; some don't. Joe Root caught attention for his Vaughan-like technique and patience, and in a Yorkshire batting line up that is more bust than boom in recent times, Root is starting to move out of Vaughan's shadow and establish himself as an opening batsman in his own right.

If Vaughan was the early 2000's, then Root is the Vaughan of the 2010's. His elegant, well-timed cover drives are more than reminiscent of his Sheffield Collegiate predecessor. But there are modern elements of his game that it is hard to imagine Vaughan rolling out. He favours the sweep shot against the spinners, both regular and reverse. In a period of English cricket where the sweep shot has been greeted with sighs of inevitabilty, Root is fluent, with strong wrist movement.

His running between the wickets has improved hugely. In the recent game against Essex, Root made the best foil for Sayers' cautious stroke play. Sayers and Root are an unusual partnership. Sayers is the slow accumulator, putting away the bad balls and happy to block and defend. Root is cautious, but is undoubtedly the more visually appealing of the pair. They understand one another well - in recent games, when the scoring has slowed, the two have taken the quick singles needed to take the impetus away from the opposition.

Root is patient, and he flourishes in dispatching the bad balls. There are, of course, some flaws that need ironing out; he is often dismissed chasing at one down the leg side, but these are attributes that will come with time. He's 21, yet at the crease, he looks more mature than that. He made his maiden first class hundred last year against Sussex, in a season when Yorkshire's youthful side really struggled to make progress with the bat. He only narrowly missed out on 1,000 first class runs in his first season as a full first XI player. Stats aside, the classy nature of Root's stroke play, and the determination shown at the crease, fully support the 'England player' slogan that has been pencilled next to his name.

Friday, 20 April 2012

County or IPL?

If there's one thing worse than a cricket bore, of which I've met precious few, then it's a cricket snob. I've met reasonably few of these in my time too, with the exception of one gentleman who, after a few too many beers, spent a good hour lecturing me and everyone else in Coach B of the 19.46 train to Sheffield about how India have destroyed cricket and everything that is good and pure about it. Whilst it wasn't a speech of Cowdry proportions, it highlights the thought of every cricket fan at the start of the English season; county cricket, or IPL?

The debates are always going to rage about the IPL. It's not just the English season that it affects - West Indies are currently in the middle of a test series against Australia, and two of their most exciting players in Gayle and Pollard are battling it out in an array of increasingly ridiculous outfits. With Gayle, it's hard to keep track of whether he's feuding with the cricket board or not, but the point still stands. Rain aside, the two tests so far have been a mixture of attritional cricket and finely balanced game play. West Indies have been in, out and then back in a second later. Yet two of their players are hitting second-rate domestic spinners for sixes (sorry, DLF maximums) for fun. It would have been unthinkable at one point to pick and choose what games an individual played, particularly if it came to test versus pyjama cricket, but that's exactly what has happened.

Kevin Pietersen recently said that the English press are jealous of the IPL. No. Many of the English press are worried about the effect it has on our own domestic game. Surrey vs. Middlesex last week was a highly strung contest from start to finish; would KP's involvement have made a difference? Yes. Would it have changed the outcome of the game? Maybe, maybe not - but seeing him bat in those seaming conditions, on a variable pitch, would have been just as rewarding as him smashing Dan Christian for 4.

Eoin Morgan spent much of his time in the UAE looking like a deer in headlights clutching a stick of wood for support. There might be an argument for Morgan finding his form against spin on India's low, skiddy pitches, but as KP himself said, there are plenty of "second rate Australians" bowling full toss after full toss. Wouldn't Morgan be better suited in the county game? Becoming reacquainted with getting in and staying in on the early season pitches? Surely it'd be more useful than being sat on a bench for a month and occasionally mopping Kallis' brow?

I don't hate the IPL. The RCB game a few days ago, in which Gayle released all hell on Pune, was genuinely gripping. Cricket is cricket - and the plus with the IPL is that it's televised on Freeview, meaning home comforts and tea whenever you want. But maybe it's the romantic in an English cricket fan (or me) that enjoys the early morning trudges through the fog to the local ground. Or trying to stay awake on a train full of angry commuters and last night's drunks. There's something unique, so very English cricket, about checking a scorecard to see 'delayed - rain' in big, bold letters.

County cricket doesn't need to worry too much about the IPL yet. It's still the uncool part of cricket; the annoying, younger brother that shouts and shouts until you give it some attention. There's been much debate over India's love of Twenty20, and is it killing off the game. It may be the case in India, whose last two test showings have been so abysmal that it became painful to watch, but England? England love test cricket. England fans love county cricket. It's the fans that fight for their counties, the fans that debate who could be the next England opener, or listen to regional commentators getting steadily gidder as the games get more exciting.

Maybe it is the romantic in me, but I like to think that as long as the fans want it, county cricket shall remain safe from the IPL. When our youngsters, our future test players, turn down their counties in order to play in the IPL, that is when we need to worry the most. But right now, the biggest hurdle facing county cricket is the administration itself. The Morgan report, the merging of counties.... these are issues that raise their heads time and time again, and the biggest supporters of the counties, the fans, are left scratching their heads.

It's okay to like the IPL. Really, it is. Sometimes, you might want to sit in front of the TV and watch MS Dhoni bat like an Adonis in a canary yellow suit. That's fine - it really is nothing to be ashamed of. But I'll be in the corner with the laptop, because Trego is on a hat-trick, and Bairstow is only five away from his century. And that suits me just fine too.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

England vs. Sri Lanka: a witch-hunt? No, just poor batting

For the amount of times the cherry of 'test cricket is dying' is thrown around, the face of the game has changed dramatically over the last year or so. Historically, test cricket is a slog to play in and at times, to watch. Watching Sir Geoffrey nurdle out maiden after maiden was considered the norm. And yet the recent influx of low scores and batting collapses seems to have changed expectations. 2011 saw a run of amounts failing to reach triple figures. But there is still a charm and a joy in watching an absorbing, patient day of test cricket. And there is something even more charming when it happens to a man under "pressure".

The term pressure is used loosely. Strauss doesn't appear to be questioning himself, nor does the management. For all the comment pieces, very few called for Strauss to stand down. Most were fair and balanced. Bob Willis, when not mumbling about England's (read: Trott's) batting rate, announced that he expected to see captaincy history repeating itself when the South Africans arrived in the summer. But with possibly the exception of big Bob, no-one wants to see Strauss go. He has the respect of his team and of the media; cool-headed, thoughtful and a man who gives his all. But the recent run of scores told a different story. One hundred in 48 innings. Four successive losses. A second marriage to the sweep shot. Strauss was the only one of the top six to not cash in on the battered Indian bowers last summer; even the lower order enjoyed biffing their deliveries around the ground.

He came to the crease at Colombo, collar starched high and a determination that was reminiscent of his last pressurised innings in New Zealand. It was slow. To start with, it was painful. The first boundary came from a thick, and not especially well controlled, outside edge to the vacant third man boundary. Strauss was lucky to not chop on just before lunch as he tried to deposit Lakmal over midwicket. After lunch, there was a change. There was no sweep until the 39th over, to a ball that sat up and demanded to be swatted out of the way. Strauss was calm, and that grit that the England top order had shown back in Australia slowly crept back in. When England knuckle down and get in, then it can take something special from the opposition to get rid of them. Cook and Strauss took little to no chances. Bad balls were deposited, the spinners were stoutly defended and they behaved as one should in a test match - as though they had all the time in the world.

After 50 overs, only 9 boundaries had been hit, yet the pair had already passed the hundred partnership. Maybe they had taken a leaf out of Mahela's book. It was not as flashy, or as elegant, as a Mahela innings, but it was every bit as collected. There were some sweep shots that went wrong, and the crowd, fans and commentators alike winced in anticipation. But there were the cuts, pulls and on drives that Strauss and Cook have revelled in before. Strauss' first innings ended to a not-so-good shot to a not-so-good ball from Dilshan, who had managed to unsettle Strauss from the start of the over. But it was his most composed performance in a long while.

Some players suit being aggressive. Pietersen's 151 had strokes that only he could pull off; the day Trott attempts to switch hit Dilshan for a boundary is the day cricket implodes on itself. Pietersen will always be a source of frustration to the majority but when it is his day, he is a joy to watch. Pietersen is the player such as Morgan should aim to be. When he plays his natural game, which is attacking, and nearly always ungainly to begin with, he undoubtedly gets a big score. A strong player off the pads, when he gets in, he can sweep, pull and even switch hit, and it will nearly always find the middle of the bat.

It's been a long winter for England fans. And it wouldn't be an England game in the sub-continent without a few wobbles; Mahela appeared to be making the crease his second home, and Strauss and Trott's early dismissals in England's run chase brought back memories of the debacle of 72 all out in the UAE. England's perseverance with the bat proved to be the difference in this game. The bowling was as good as it had been winter. But the batting performance that England have been crying out for all winter finally reared its head. England have tightened their grip on the number one ranking for the time being; the next challenge will be when South African return to Blighty. After all, what more could Graeme Smith want than a glittering, oversized mace?