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Thursday, 31 May 2012

KP's not-so-fond farewell


It wasn't so long ago that Mario Balotelli whipped off his playing shirt to reveal a t-shirt with 'why always me?' scrawled across the chest. One wonders if KP might be calling him to ask for stockists details. There's a horrible inevitability when it comes to news about KP - it's always going to be picked up on by the media, it's always going to be widely reported and it's always going to prompt plenty of debate.

But KP may be right to ask 'why always me?' in this case. His initial decision was to retire from one day internationals, before being told by the ECB that because the contracts were "closely linked" with the T20 selection policies, a player had to retire from both. Putting aside the fact that the ODI and T20 teams have two different captains, one of which does not play in the shortest format of the game, it was this statement that caught everyone's interest:

"… we have a selection policy that means that any player making himself unavailable for either of the one-day formats rules himself out of consideration for both formats"

Yet when Strauss retired from limited overs in 2011, he received "special dispensation" from the ECB, allowing him to keep his central contract. There isn't any special ruling for KP. Pietersen, the #1 ranked T20 batsman, hit two hundreds in the recent one day series in the UAE. He has scored just over 4,000 runs in his one day career. But this isn't enough for the ECB to waive a ruling that, quite frankly, makes little sense.

The ruling appears to be there to protect one day cricket - if a player can quit one format, it arguably dilutes the quality of that format.  Graeme Swann said recently that he’d like to see 50 over cricket scrapped. Back in December, KP criticised the selection format for the limited overs teams. One day cricket is the least loved of all the formats in England. It can be a drag to watch unless you are there live. It lacks the history of the test game and the energy and pomp of T20’s.

One day scheduling is just as detrimental to the health of the game as any lack of player interest. This year, England play twenty two one day games. Twenty two games. At the expense of an extra test against South Africa? At the expense of fan interest in a five game series against Australia that, realistically, will prove nothing? It’s overkill. If the ECB were so dedicated to protecting the health of the shorter formats and protecting their players, helping them to avoid burn-out should be just as much of a priority as gaining revenue from the games.

And what of KP? Last week, he was fined for a few choice comments over Nick Knight, a move which seemed petty and, once again, designed to protect the ECB’s financial interests given their deal with Sky. KP’s personality will always be held against him, by both the fans and the management. His poor captaincy, the disagreement with Moores, the first Twitter spat – they all hurtle him into the headlines. Strauss has barely put a foot wrong in his tenure as an England player and then captain. Maybe that it was the ECB meant by ‘special dispensation’ – rewarding a player based on how many positive column inches they attract.

KP will continue playing tests. But that isn’t the point. His experience at the top of the order worked for England – in Flower’s own words, it gave them stability. He would have played a crucial part in England’s World T20 campaign, given that it was only recently he hit 100 in the IPL. But then maybe that counts against him; maybe turning his back on the county championship negates his right to retire from one format. The ECB will say they want to avoid players picking and choosing what games they play, whilst simultaneously omitting a crucial, in-form component from their T20 squad. There is, of course, a principal to be laid down. No one player is bigger than the team. But in this context, it seems to be one rule for one, and one for the other. Sometimes, it is all about KP.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Bresnan, Onions, Finn: stick or twist?


Too many cooks spoils the broth. In terms of selection problems, there are worse situations that England could find themselves in. Now that they've temporarily solved the number six problem, mostly thanks to whichever mirror Ravi must have smashed, the bowling attack which prospered over the winter has come under scrutiny. Anderson and Broad's places are concrete, but the third seamer spot is still up for grabs. 

England like a four bowler attack. Since the minor cock-up at Cardiff in 2009, a line-up containing four bowlers has become the norm. There's Bresnan, who replaced Finn in Melbourne, helped England to Ashes victory and hasn't looked back since. Finn, who seems to gain extra pace every time he steps onto the pitch, is often touted as the future of English bowling, whilst Onions, whose recovery from that horrific back injury has made him a stronger, and arguably more aggressive bowler.

So who do England go with? So far on the West Indies series, they've gone for Bresnan. Bresnan missed out on the tour of the UAE due to injury; Tremlett took his place for one test, before he too broke down, and England opted to play two spinners. He was economical but not exceptionally successful in the final test of the Sri Lanka series, but Bresnan was undoubtedly a key figure last summer. He proved capabilities with bat and ball at Trent Bridge, before producing a magical delivery to dismiss Tendulkar for 91 at the Oval, and push England towards a series whitewash over India. But since his injury at the start of the year, Bresnan seems to be missing the spark that has propelled him to success.

The way Bresnan bowls seems to have undergone a change since the test series against India. He is now far more economical than he used to be - during the first test, he bowled four maidens first up before conceding a run. This is no bad thing. But by becoming more economical, Bresnan seems to have lost, temporarily at least, his ability to make a break-through. He bowls more and more outside the off stump, hoping to tempt the West Indies into a loose drive. This does work, especially with the flighty West Indian top order. But against South Africa, a middle order that contains Amla, Kallis and de Villiers? They will be more than equal to this tactic. It is fine for Bresnan to be economical; keeping a tight lid on runs is what Flower has instilled in his bowling attack. But Bresnan's main role in the bowling attack has been to make the breakthroughs, to get the old ball to swing and remove any stubborn partnerships. Against South Africa, this role will be crucial - but so far, Bresnan looks lacking in this role.

Then there's Finn. Finn was dropped in the Ashes - 'rested', if we toe the official line - for being too expensive, and has been fighting for his place ever since. Finn was relatively new to the test scene when playing in the Ashes, showcased by his barrage of short and wide deliveries to Hussey, who delighted in dispatching them to the nearest boundary rope. But since then, he has matured. He appears to have gained extra muscle, and with extra muscle comes extra pace. He was the sole bowler to come out of the India ODI series with any sort of respectable figures, yet he hasn't played test cricket since the Sri Lanka series last year, where he came in for an injured Anderson.

Finn is often regarded as having saint-like qualities by England fans, yet there is the underlying sense that the management don't quite trust him just yet. When in a test shirt, Finn overcompensates - during the Sri Lanka test, he seemed torn between being quick, short and aggressive, or pacey and patient. There are an array of clichés to describe Finn's bowling, but ultimately, he is a fast, line and length bowler who has the potential to form a future dangerous new ball pairing. To limit someone of his talent to the one day teams is ridiculously short-sighted, but there is still the sense that England find him too expensive to become a regular part of the test team. Bresnan shows that Flower likes the third seamer to reign in the runs - one wonders how long Finn's performances in Brisbane and Perth will linger in the management's mind. There is only so long a bowler of Finn's calibre can be kept on the sidelines.

And last but not least, there's Onions. A man who cemented his place in this sentimental idiots affections on the second day of the Edgbaston Ashes test, where he removed Watson and Hussey in his first two deliveries. Onions is highly rated by the South Africans; he took 28 wickets in 8 matches against them in 2009-10. But since his injury, and the emergence of Bresnan and Finn, he has dropped almost to the back of the England queue. 

Yet Onions is a prime example of what county cricket can do for a player's international chances. At the start of the county season, it was Onions who tore through Middlesex at Lords, exploiting a decent pitch and dank overhead conditions to spark a Middlesex collapse, including the captain of the England side, who he dismissed second ball. Arguably, Onions would have been the best option for the first test at Lords. More aggressive than Bresnan, but more reliable than Finn, it would have made sense to play Onions on the pitch where he was so successful only a few weeks previously - a sensible choice, given the eventual struggles England encountered in shifting West Indian partnerships. But still, Onions sits on the sidelines, edging in front of the competition but always knocked back at the last hurdle.

So what do England do? One would suspect that they will stick with Bresnan for the remainder of the series. The simplest solution would be to play five bowlers; take out the new number six, move Prior and Bresnan up and then choose from Finn or Onions. Onions would potentially get the nod, but how long, realistically, can Finn's talent be left on the sidelines? Bresnan is a bowler first and foremost - is his batting strong enough to withstand that outstanding South African seam attack? Flower and Strauss are not a pair to make rash decisions, nor are they a couple who tinker with a winning formula - but five bowlers, on the evidence of the West Indies series so far, would tip the advantage further in England's direction when South Africa arrive in the summer.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

A Tale of Two Batsmen


It's that time of year again. Time to replace the woolly blanket for one with a slightly lesser thread count. Pack up the sandwiches, the chocolate and the half price bottle of wine - it's the first test of the English summer. England had endured a miserable winter, being tormented by Ajmal, Herath and Eoin Morgan's attempts at playing test cricket on a low, skiddy pitch. The West Indies had fared little better, having arrived on English shores with certain members of their team missing - Sammy even admitted that he had "no idea" where one of the opening batsmen had ended up. Yet this test was, in reality, a tale of two batsmen. One, the captain of his team, with one century in 50 innings. The other, the prolific backbone of the West Indies, capable of both winning and losing a test.

Poor Shivnarine. Many a time he's been the beginning, middle and end of a West Indian innings. When they visited these shores in 2007, it was he who scored a century in every game of the tour. Five years on, Shiv arrived at the crease with Anderson gracefully swinging the ball, the Windies at 86/3 and their patchy middle order in danger of collapse. Shiv counterbalanced a collapse with his crab-like style, moving around to make the bowlers bowl where he wanted them to. And then he chipped the ball for a gentle single - a single that was easily attainable. So easy that his partner, Bravo, was nearly halfway up the pitch as Bell advanced on the ball. Shiv could have run - Bravo would have made his ground. Instead, he turned and grounded his bat, leaving a bemused Bravo stood next to him as Prior threw, missed, and left it to Swann to sweep in and complete the run-out.

It was a ridiculous moment, both visually and tactically. But Shiv remained. As he amassed, the West Indies middle order - or West Indies tail, depending on how highly you rate Samuels, Ramdin and Sammy - fell away, leaving him batting with the tail. The two tests in Sri Lanka showed their veteran, Mahela Jayawardene, farm the strike beautifully when he was left in a similar position, which both protected the tail and further frustrated the English bowlers. Shiv, a player who likes to take the singles, took one from the first delivery of the last over of the day; giving him the best view in the house as two balls later, number nine Edwards edged through to Prior. Shiv ended day one on 87 - ultimately, he ended the first innings on 87 as Gabriel was dismissed on the first ball of the second day. No-one can deny the value Shiv has contributed over the years to the West Indian batting; but these incidents were short-sighted, to say the least.

And so, to Strauss. Graeme Swann termed it a witch-hunt. The majority of onlookers, including the man himself, saw it as common sense. Strauss went into the first game under a lot of non-existent media pressure, and came out on top. Although nervy at the start of the innings, chasing some wide balls which were really not there for the slash through mid-wicket, Strauss started to look more like the player most know him to be. His on-drives were well timed; his pull shots punchy and hitting the ball hard. He looked nervous in the eighties, reprieved in the nineties when Shiv dropped a catch at slip off an Edwards no-ball. But it is a testament to Strauss' mental toughness that he pushed through.

The drop catch seemed to give him the jolt that he needed, as he dispatched Sammy's second ball through the covers for a boundary to reach 100, and was greeted by a bear-hug from KP, and a huge standing ovation from the Lords crowd. It was the twentieth century of his career, and his fifth at Lords - and it came at the most poetic time of the season, in the first innings of the first test match of the summer. Strauss is a popular man, with both fans and media alike, and there wasn't an observer there who didn't want to see him succeed. The smile on his face said it all - Strauss walked out in the morning determined to succeed, and, clichés aside, that's exactly what he did.

Shiv is regarded as the cornerstone of West Indies batting; Strauss as the tactical nous behind England's rise to number one. But whilst England have flourished under Strauss, Shiv has been left in a side of fluctuating players and internal disputes. Michael Holding's extraordinary rant during the second day, aimed at the WICB, summed up the majority feeling surrounding the West Indies test team. On the first day of the test, whilst the West Indies tested out their batting skills in drab, English conditions, Chris Gayle was enjoying some buffet bowling on the other side of the continent, striking 100 from 53 deliveries. Gayle has patched up his latest dispute with the board in time to play the ODI and T20 series over here. But Gayle's big hitting could just have easily been utilised in this test series, particularly given the frailties of the Windies line-up. Shiv at one end, amassing; Gayle at the other, striking out.

It speaks volumes about the governing body of West Indian cricket when one of its most recognisable and aggressive batsmen of the last ten years is choosing to smash around some second rate Indian seamers for fun. Or money, depending on how cynical your views are. Jerome Taylor, a key player in England's crumble to 51 all out only three years ago, is ostracised from playing international cricket, until he plays a full domestic schedule; a domestic schedule that is coincidentally structured to prevent him doing so until 2013. The way the board is run has presented its players with two choices - play for money, which Gayle, Bravo 2.0 and Narine have chosen, or play for a system that could turn on you at any minute. It is a sad, sad day when we see a group of players turn their back on playing for their country, and sadder than ever when we see the standard of cricket suffer right before our eyes.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Why Jonny Bairstow should play test cricket


1. He's making the runs
It's the earliest and wettest start to the season for a long time. Conditions have dominated the news stories, from Ramps' outburst to a run of low scores across the board. There are precious few who have made consistently high runs, and Bairstow is one of them. Two hundreds within the space of two games; firstly, against a highly rated Kent bowling attack as the rest of the batsmen crumbled around him, and secondly in testing, Baltic conditions in Scarborough, forming useful partnerships with the captain and Anthony McGrath. Bairstow is naturally aggressive, and that can lead to skittishness at the start of the innings. But more often than not, when he settles in, he can make the conditions work for him. He's a big hitter by nature, and he has the array of shots to hit the ball to all parts of the ground. There's the classic strokes, such as the on drive, and then the newer inventions, such as the reverse sweep.

2. He's not afraid of the big stage
His England debut, in the final ODI against an admittedly knackered India side, was what propelled Barstow to the forefront of English minds. Making 41 from 21 deliveries, which included three sixes, Bairstow showed that he is not easily intimidated, not by the namesake that a generation of fans will compare him against, or by playing the way he chooses to play in an England shirt. Too many times, players have stepped up to the international stage and have felt compelled to change the way they play in order to fit the mould of an England player - Eoin Morgan immediately springs to mind. But Bairstow stuck to doing what he knows, and more importantly, what works for him.

3. He's a wicket-keeper
Prior is the man for England's test squad - there's no doubt about it. But there will come a time when England need a new keeper. Bairstow has a very similar work ethic to Prior. He was handed the gloves following an injury to Yorkshire's then-regular keeper, and then worked to become Yorkshire's first choice keeper for the 2011 season. His keeping has hugely improved since he first appeared behind the stumps, and crucially, his batting hasn't suffered for the extra keeper training. Being a keeper-batsmen is a delicate balancing act at times, and sometimes, when one area slides, the other one follows soon after. Bairstow's recent big hitting has been accompanied by some athletic work behind the wicket. That can only be a plus point for England, at a time when other keeper-batsmen are struggling to overcome the early season conditions.

4. He's not Bopara/Morgan/Patel/Taylor etc.
There's a crushing sense of inevitability whenever England's middle order is discussed. Do we go with Bopara again? Bopara's rabbit-in-the-headlights face has become a common sight in recent times, and although he played a fantastically good innings against Bairstow's county team early in the season, there still seems to be signals from the England camp that he is not entirely trusted to become a permanent member of the middle order. He didn't play a game during the tours of UAE or Sri Lanka, despite England's batting disasters. Morgan has spent the last month carrying water - and at times, not even being allowed to do that - for KKR over in India. As a result, the last game he played was back in February. Given Flower's open disapproval of Morgan choosing to go to the IPL, it's unlikely he'll be picked for the West Indies. Patel never seemed to be any sort of real contention to be a permanent figure. He was picked for his bowling in Sri Lanka, and although it is early days, his batting didn't show any real test calibre. Taylor, captain of the England Lions, recently lost his EPS contract, a move which seemed baffling after he switched counties and continued to captain the Lions. Could Bairstow bring something fresh to the England line up, rather than the same old, same old?

5. He's ginger
Team England relies on a token ginger. Paul Collingwood is proof of that. 

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Ta-ra, Ajmal


It seems like we have been hearing about Yorkshire's plans for promotion since they were relegated last September. The batting line-up was strengthened with the addition of Phil Jaques. The bowlers were put through their paces on the pre-season tour. Rashid had his action tinkered with to give him the control that he'd been lacking over the summer. And there was huge optimism surrounding Ajmal Shahzad.

Shahzad, by his own admission, had a horrible 2011. Troubled by an ankle injury, he was playing when he shouldn't have been, and his bowling suffered. He was rarely on the mark with his lines and length, and lost his instinct on how to bowl a team out. But 2012 was to be different. Interviews he gave were full of positivity, and he seemed confident that he was back in form, and would be vital to Yorkshire's promotion push.

And now, just over a month into the season, Shahzad's gone. There was the usual press release, that used an awful lot of words to say very little. This came just a day after Yorkshire had confirmed that Mitchell Starc had been signed for the remainder of the season.

Now, it could just be coincidence. It could be that Shahzad simply didn't want to play for Yorkshire any more, and the club decided the best thing to do was to let him go. But given the pre-season hype surrounding him, the recent praise from Gillespie, who likened his bowling throughout the Essex game as 'test match quality,' letting such a vital component of Yorkshire's promotion push go seems bizarre. Shahzad has been off colour in the last season, but this is a player of England quality. Yorkshire gave him the chances in the first team, it was his performances for them that made the England management aware of his presence - and now, for a club that has always prided itself on home growing England players, they have let one walk away, seemingly without much of a fight.

The early season signs from Shahzad have been good. Although he did lose his lengths at certain points during the Essex game, he was continually quick, and produced some searingly good deliveries to dismiss the top order. Gillespie even came over to speak to him on the outfield to give him a pat on the back. He was in the wickets in the recent Kent game. From a playing point of view, he has done nothing wrong - fielded well, bowled to the best of his ability and swung the bat around once or twice.

So now what for Yorkshire? This is a bowling attack that struggles to maintain consistent pressure when a wicket falls. Some have speculated that Starc's arrival would push Shahzad out of the team, yet with Bresnan so often away on England duty, Starc and Shahzad would surely have played alongside one another. Maybe it was felt that Shahzad would hinder the push for promotion. But to dismiss a player - and not just send him to the second XI, but cut ties with him completely -because he may occasionally prove too expensive seems notionally backwards for a team that prides itself on its local players.

This is, of course, all speculation. And no amount of speculation can take away the fact that Shahzad has put in some wonderful performances for Yorkshire over his four and a half years as a first team regular, and the pre-season interviews indicated he was fully commited to Yorkshire. But, speculation aside, Yorkshire have lost a damn good bowler.