Saturday, 27 October 2012

How to win in India

It's been twenty seven years since England last won a test series in India. England were victorious in 1985, when Graeme Swann was dreaming of playing for England and Joe Root was little more than a twinkle in his parent’s eyes. Since then, England have gone from bottom of the international rankings, to the top, then back to somewhere in the middle, with three Ashes victories, an army of backroom staff headed by the dignified figure of Andy Flower and a fair few cock-ups along the way. But conquering the subcontinent still remains a mystery. Some teams have made decent attempts, but on the whole, England have taken to subcontinent conditions like a duck to tarmac.

Gower's team of 1984/5 covered the basics. Following a defeat in the first test, largely down to some mediocre batting, they fought back with bat and ball, before a stunning 241-stand for the second wicket between Fowler and Gatting helped England secure victory in the fourth test, and with it, the series. Gower looked assured and alert as captain - a first time for everything - and, according to Fowler, team spirit and a genuine enjoyment of each other's company inspired England to victory.

England go to India with a new captain, a freshly reintegrated batsman and a healthy mix of youth and experience. There's no reason why they can't win. Despite some lacklustre performances over the English summer, and a more than forgettable T20 World Cup, England aren't a bad side. They are a side, however, plagued by the psychology of the subcontinent. This year has shown that when faced with a spin attack that they perceive to be deadly, England's batsmen go to pieces. In March, they collapsed to the flighty but orthodox spin of Sri Lanka's Herath; Tahir was gifted more wickets than he deserved over the English summer and the T20 game against India, which saw England collapse to their lowest ever T20 score, did not have violently turning hand grenades but relatively simple bowling that England did not know how to play. They get caught between being over-aggressive, with an over-use of everyone’s favourite, the sweep shot, and playing so far inside the crease it's a wonder they don't tread on their own stumps.

Gooch's experiences in the 80's should be invaluable to the tourists. He was aggressive, hitting out against the spin, but he was clever about manipulating the field. England need to cash in on this attitude. Trott, Cook and Prior showed elements of this sort of game during the series against Pakistan and Sri Lanka, but it is essential that they lead from the front and make a big score, particularly with the presence of three new batsmen.

This is also Cook's first tour as full time test captain. Touted as Strauss's replacement since journalists first glimpsed the hair, the plum accent and the jawline, he will be desperate to prove himself. Tactically, Cook is still a little paint by numbers. A flattering victory rate in England has made Cook's ODI captaincy record look more impressive than it actually is. A captain who doesn't feel comfortable taking risks, Cook is orthodox to a fault; his partnership with Flower will be crucial to England's successes. While Cook can leave the flashy captaincy to the likes of Michael Clarke, he needs to be comfortable in his role. Gaining the respect of the team is another matter entirely.
Strauss was the statesman-like figure from the word go. Affable and at ease with the media, he instantly commanded respect. This is something that will grow in time with Cook. At the minute, one suspects he is still seen as the same old Cooky. It is vital that he commands the respect of the dressing room, and in particular that of figures such as Anderson, Swann and Broad, whose tempers often need reigning in before Cook watches his match fee fly out of his pocket.

The elephant in the room surrounding the tour to India is, of course, KP. But for the time being, that is not important. England need to place more emphasis on making the three newcomers as comfortable as possible. Bairstow's baptism of fire continues; have conquered a short ball problem that was exaggerated more than it needed to be, his ability against spin will be scrutinised from all areas. Root and Compton both bear the weight of expectation. For Compton, it's the legacy of a surname and the desire to prove that he has come of age; for Root, it is to show that youth is just as valuable as experience. Rather than being caught up in squabbles, again, England need to put the showboating to one side, and get back to what is important; batting, bowling and quashing the spin struggles for good.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Saying sorry, the ECB way

" our society we believe that, if an individual transgresses, and the individual concerned recognises that and apologises for what they may have caused to those involved then it is important, and a fabric of our society that that individual should be given a real opportunity to be reintegrated into our society - and this principle is an essential part of having civilised and sensible ethics."

You'd be forgiven for thinking you'd stumbled into the last scene of The Shawshank Redemption. A farcical few months came to a close in the most fitting manner possible. Giles Clarke sat beside Pietersen, fielding questions - all three of them - as the epitome of morality. Pietersen, who has spent the last two weeks looking at ease in a TV studio, appeared uptight and uncomfortable.

It was a strange affair. Clarke compared Pietersen's "rehabilitation" into the England team as similar to reintegrating a prisoner into society. A man who has 21 test hundreds to his name sat like a naughty schoolboy as Clarke spouted soliloquies that may have sounded good but had little substance.

"This is a private matter," Clarke stated. Except it's anything but. This whole saga has played out in the public eye from start to finish. The media have reported every twist and turn; it has been debated endlessly on Twitter and barely an England loss has gone by without someone raising the question of KP. Pietersen's apology was fine tuned within an inch of its life. It was suitably grovelling, as well as media savvy. 

Essentially, Pietersen's career will be decided by his team mates. He will travel a total of 32,000 air miles to take part in the sporting equivalent of marriage counselling  Quite what the sessions will entail is unknown. Maybe Clarke himself, baring his soul over the Stamford debacle that will always hang over his head? Graeme Swann's guide to insulting team mates in a book, but doing it in a hilarious way that will have everyone in fits of laughter? Stuart Broad's guide to social media? The very idea is laughable.

The ECB seem to have forget that they are dealing with a sporting team first and foremost. The time, and expenses, spent on sending Pietersen on his grovelling road trip, would surely be better spent, say, investing time in Ravi Bopara and getting to the bottom of his confidence issues that have been so present throughout his England career. Or just maybe, preparing Root, Bairstow and Compton for the pressure of a test series in India?  

Neither side emerges from this with any grace. It has been a childish affair from the go. Pietersen's ego started the debacle, but the ECB's decision to continue the playground mentality meant a situation that could have been nipped in the bud has gone on for too long. As a result, the cricket has taken a back seat. England were a weaker team without Pietersen, that is a fact. Although his presence may not have had a dramatic effect on England's fortunes in the World Twenty20, he would surely have provided a better counter-attack to spin than the inexperienced Bairstow and Buttler managed. This sorry state has left a sour taste in the mouth, and cricket is a little worse off for the actions of those who supposedly love and protect our game.