Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Where to now?

England don't win in India. It's a fact of life, in the same way that New Zealand are the cricketing underdogs and Stuart Broad will appeal for bat before wicket at least three times per innings. But despite an almighty hiccup in Ahmedabad, England have stuck to the task, ground the opponents down and used the whole range of clichés to clinch the series. India have looked threatening in parts, none more so than in the first test, but on the whole, this has been England's series.

What went wrong for India? An over-reliance on England's spin issues has cost them dearly. England do struggle against spin. Say the words 'Ajmal' and 'doosra' in the same sentence and Ian Bell will be reduced to a gibbering wreck for days. But Ajmal was not an ordinary spinner. His variations, the fields he set and the ability to dry up the runs meant that England panicked and made a rod for their own back. Ojha aside, England seemed to work out Indian spin quicker than they ever could with Ajmal. Ashwin's carrom ball was no doosra/teesra/Steve - for players who have seen, and struggled, against so many variations, it was relatively easy to pick and didn't bring him any wickets. India were unable to tie England down. Going in with four spinners wasn't a result of careful reading of the pitch. It was under the theory that England would see four spin bowlers, see one ball spin out of the rough, panic and let history repeat itself.

That didn't happen. The majority of wickets did fall to spin, and while players such as Bell and Bairstow struggled, on the whole, England handled themselves far better than in the UAE. Pietersen was aggressive in the second test, but without the frenzied nature that so frustrates the fans. Cook was outstanding. He will go on to break even more records. Forming a solid partnership with Compton, who on a tough tour impressed with his relative calm at the crease, Cook was responsible for setting the tone of England's biggest innings. Usually when England faltered, it was due to Cook's absence - or terrible umpiring decisions. Root on debut was calm, composed and handled batting with Pietersen (an art form in itself) admirably. Prior goes from strength to strength, if relying too heavily on sweep shots that force the heart to leap into the mouth, and the out-of-sorts Trott looked like his old self in the final test.

India's batting was a different story. The first test was Sehwag's; Pujara's century was composed in the first test and sublime in the second. Kohli showed at the final hour why he is so highly rated amongst the critics. If only the temper could match the classy nature of his batting. The rest struggled. Tendulkar has so long been the king of Indian cricket, and it may be time for the king to fall on his sword. Starts were not converted, he so rarely showed the cover drives and the delicate wrist movement that is associated with him. It was poor, for want of a better word. Gambhir's batting is bizarre. Antsy one minute, mature the next, he wavers from one extreme to the other. His batting with the tail was also costly. Selfish in rotating the strike for singles, rather than protecting the weaker batsman, he was instrumental in India's fold in the second test.

Captaincy, batting and keeping were all difficult for Dhoni throughout the series. Whether arguing (needlessly, as it happened) with umpires, fluffing catches that should have been taken or failing to hit Panesar and Swann out of the attack, Dhoni came under fire from all quarters. But who can India turn to? Kohli is too young and surely too hot-headed; Gambhir needs time to work on his game; Pujara is relatively new to the side and both Sehwag and Tendulkar are happy to offer their expertise on an informal basis. Dhoni's field placings, first test aside, were poor and when India were behind, his fields were too defensive. Cook too goes on the defence far too easily, again as shown in the first test, but as the series continued, Cook grew. Dhoni stalled.

England can take pride from this victory. Winning in India, no matter how poor some judge the Indian team to be, is a huge achievement. There are problems for England, but for now, they should be allowed their moment in the sun. India need to ask questions, and urgently. Prestige and history is no excuse for keeping a faltering player in the side - performances should be judged fairly, not on the strength of one's name. A watering of the fast bowling tree would not go amiss, as would improving the fitness of the team generally (although England, too, could do with a little nudge in this direction). Make no mistake, this series has shown that changes need to be made in India, or this slide will continue. England can hold their heads with pride; India need to pull theirs from the sand.

Friday, 7 December 2012

One debacle after another

Oh, New Zealand. Why must your finger permanently hover over the self-destruct button? A win in Sri Lanka, and a rare win at that, and all of a sudden, the knives are out and the PR machines grind to a halt. Ross Taylor's removal from the captaincy has been public, embarrassing and completely unceremonious. The excuses have come thick and fast, each more asinine than the other, and cricket's year of public relations messes looks to be getting worse.

"[Hesson] had concerns, not about [Taylor's] captaincy, but he felt it would  be better for Ross to focus on his game. It was felt that the work load for a young captain was a lot"

If Taylor is to be believed, Hesson mentioned stepping down from the captaincy at the beginning of the Sri Lanka test series. Taylor's bowlers gave their best performance to date in the first test, before the batsmen imploded on themselves, but the second test saw Taylor score a commanding 142 to help New Zealand to their first victory in Sri Lanka for fourteen years. A man under pressure from above went out and scored two half centuries and led his team to victory. If that isn't proof of his character and leadership abilities, then what is? Taylor's game has always been under question, dating back to before he took the captaincy and there were mutters about his careless approach to batting. But his average has increased whilst he was captain. There are still careless shots in his armour, but doesn't every player have one or two of those up their sleeves?

It is not as though New Zealand suddenly became a bad team under Taylor. As a test nation, they have always had their ups and downs. Vettori oversaw many defeats as captain, yet his place was rarely questioned. Taylor has had eighteen months in the job. It's seen some embarrassing losses but it's also seen some of the most remarkable victories. The win against Australia at Hobart was a testament to the Black Caps determination. Kane Williamson's almighty effort against Steyn, Morkel and Philander earlier in the year saved New Zealand from another defeat. The win in Sri Lanka, which has been overshadowed by this debacle, was a genuine team performance. The bowlers fired and the batsmen played themselves in. A captain can't ask for much more.

Incidents such as these normally occur on the back of a defeat. New Zealand were celebrating a win. That is what makes the whole situation so strange. Young captains have been dropped in at the deep end before and flourished. Alastair Cook has just made five centuries in five tests as captains, as well as captaining the one day team and experiencing his first full tour in the most difficult part of the world for teams to conquer. He and Taylor are made from similar stuff. Their respective games could not be more different, but both have a determination to succeed. Taylor's lackadaisical approach to batting has left people wondering how seriously he takes his role, but as a captain, Taylor gave a lot. In the early days, he turned to Vettori to advice, showing his willingness to learn. And it is a willingness that eventually paid off with the recent victory. Now, the Black Caps have lost not only a captain who was probably just growing into his potential, but the middle order looks rockier than ever. When Taylor put his mind to it, just as any other player does, he often emerged on top. The hole in the middle order will be felt. And when there is another batting collapse, and fingers are to be pointed, who will they land on?

McCullum is not a bad choice for captain. He has lead well in the past and has appeared more willing to experiment than Taylor and Vettori did. But why not appoint McCullum when Vettori first stepped down? Why give Taylor full backing as a 'young captain', celebrate his successes and then dump him when things began to look up? The situation reeks of underhand tactics. McCullum and Hesson's Otago connections will be constantly debated in the press; hardly the solid start that a new captain would be looking for.

McCullum's own place in the team is somewhat of a paradox. Once considered one of the best keeper-batsman in the world, since giving up the gloves in tests McCullum has opened the batting, to little success except against Zimbabwe, dropped down to the middle order where he looks settled one minute and jumpy the next, and as a result, his one day form has suffered. McCullum has received the backing of Hesson because of his 'aggressive' one day mindset - yet his recent one day form, a rip-roaring T20 century against Bangladesh aside, is poor.

Just as the KP text-gate saga before it was, the whole situation is a mess. New Zealand come up against the best test team in the world without their best batsman. Taylor feels unable to carry on with cricket at the moment; and really, who can blame him? Only time will tell who the new scapegoat for New Zealand's poor test performances will be.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Retiring with Dignity

Most of us revelled in Freddie Flintoff's on-field battles. Whether he was winding Tino Best up or bowling as fast as possible to Ricky Ponting, he was a joy to watch. Now, fans can watch a slimline version of Freddie don a pair of boxing gloves and take on an opponent who, to call him amateur would be an over-statement. It might be the jungle, the dance floor or putting their face to the least embarrassing brand available, it seems that some are incapable of retiring with grace.

Shane Warne was a great leg spinner once upon a time. He wasn't always Mr Hurley, or appearing on the back pages of the newspapers showing his pearly whites and modelling the advantages of Advanced Hair studio. It's sad to think that some will know Warne more for his celebrity girlfriend than his cricketing adventures. Every year, Warne announces a grand comeback; following international retirement, he captained the Rajasthan Royals to inaugral IPL victory, before retiring again in 2011, and then unretiring to act as the fresh ('fresh' is used loosely here. 'Perfectly moisturised' may be more appropriate) face of the Melbourne Stars in Australia. Now he is offering his services to Michael Clarke in Australia's next battle for the Ashes. Does the sideshow ever stop?

Are post-cricket opportunities really that thin on the ground? There are those who have flourished. Rahul Dravid has taken to commentary like a duck to water. Nasser Hussain's TV appearances have made him more likeable than when he acted as captain. Yet figures such as Warne and Flintoff are almost addicted to the limelight. Maybe it's because of the status they earned as players. Flintoff was the face of English cricket for 2005, Warne synonymous with the rise and rise of Australia. When the attention begins to dwindle, the desire to stay in the spotlight is stronger. And the stunts become more ridiculous.

Flintoff's foray into boxing was uncomfortable to watch. He described it as one of the best achievements of his career. This from a man who has five test centuries and over 200 test wickets under his belt? If Flintoff were doing this as a genuine career move, his motives could be more understandable. As it happens, his every move was filmed by Sky, his opponent was relatively inexperienced and appeared to completely back off after knocking Flintoff to the ground, just to allow him to fight back. The whole experience smacked of a publicity stunt. He arrived wearing a Lancashire Lightning t-shirt, Oasis blaring through the speakers; every cliché could be checked off with a big red cross. If it was good for Flintoff, then that's fine. But to try and sell this as a genuine sporting experience? No, thank you.

Warne's face is currently plastered on the side of British buses. Flintoff's adverts for "real men's clothing" are on TV at regular intervals. At one time, they were on TV for entirely different reasons. It's sad, to see greats of the game reduced to selling their names to remain relevant. Their legacy should speak for itself.