Monday, 11 March 2013

Australia in India: PR Disaster 2.0

Anything England can do, Australia can do better. That was the message the team were looking to promote when they travelled to India after England's historic series victory. And they have indeed managed to prove that whatever PR or player management messes England can produce, Australia are capable of going one better.

There were collective sighs throughout last summer as the ECB and Kevin Pietersen stand-off became more ridiculous by the day. Fans were isolated, players trotted out the approved lines while management and PR agents squabbled over the most minute and absurd details. Australia have taken this format and ran with it. The rise and fall of Australian cricket has been amusing to even the most impartial observer, but the dropping of four players for not submitting a three point presentation on how they could improve (a presentation which, apparently, could include popping a scrap of paper under the coach's hotel room door) goes beyond a joke.

The vice-captain has left India, to be at home with his pregnant wife and 're-assess' his test career. Two of the players dropped haven't played any part in the test series, and Pattinson has played in both games, been the most impressive of the pace attack by far and took a five-for on a road of a pitch where seamers and spinners alike struggled. The coach declared the dismissing of the players as part of Australia's new tougher stance which was essential to their quest to become number one team in the world. Arthur stated that the best teams in the world "have the best attitudes." They also have a feeling of unity and security in their dressing rooms. Problems are sorted discreetly and privately, there is mutual respect between players and staff and the cricket takes the front seat. This seems non-existent in Australia.

This situation cannot be solely blamed on Arthur. During the press conference, he emphasised how he and 'Pup' had worked together to strengthen the team. Team problems have a knack of following Clarke around, and he has an unnerving habit of sitting quietly in the background while things blow up around him. There was the incident with Katich, which lead to the dropping of a player whose services would surely have come in useful throughout this series; Symonds blamed his career ending on Clarke's influence in the team; Hussey's retirement this year, and subsequent dropping from the one-day team, led to more rumours about Clarke's influence in the dressing room and now this. They could, of course, just be rumours. But it seems odd how closely they follow Clarke around. Clarke is a player, captain and selector. He is involved in every aspect of team life, which surely cannot be healthy. How can he gain the trust of players if incidents such as this happen? A captain is meant to inspire, act as a sounding board for players to express their opinions without fear of retribution. Does disagreeing with Clarke mean one's place is in jeopardy? It shouldn't, but one can't help but suspect that it does.

This goes far further than players forgetting to hand in their homework. The cricket has taken a backseat, just as it did in England last year. Hughes has hardly blossomed at the top of the order. Khawaja was almost certainly slated in to take his position. Now, Khawaja remains on the sidelines, Hughes will presumably continue to struggle, his confidence will be shot and Australia will have to pick him up and rebuild him for the second time in his career. Hardly helpful, in a back-to-back Ashes year. There is also the fact that, no matter how stupid the players may have felt the task was, they simply ignored what their coach was asking of them. Hardly the sign of a positive dressing room relationship.

England will be watching, no doubt with some amusement. Their own PR situation resolved itself after a month long posturing contest and a period of reintegration. One suspects Australia's may drag on for longer.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

England in New Zealand: Complacency Costs

Complacency. Defined as a feeling of quiet pleasure or security, often while unaware of some potential danger or defect; self-satisfaction or smug satisfaction. Or, it could mean England facing New Zealand in the same year as back-to-back Ashes tests. It's too early to say that England have lost this match - New Zealand and their fractious line-up still have to bat, after all - but England have put the opposition in a fantastic position on what is effectively the first day of the test.

New Zealand bowled well, and McCullum set excellent fields, but England's shot selection ranged from bad to completely brainless. Pietersen was the only batsman who was really 'got out', undone by a fantastic delivery from Wagner first up. The majority of the batsmen seemed to think they were in the back garden, hitting sixes for the entertainment of their children. Cook, Bell and Prior both slapped deliveries straight to fielders, Trott played himself in and then got himself out in one of the ugliest ways a batsmen can (a slog sweep straight to backward point), Root and Compton both prodded and poked at deliveries they could, and should, have left and Broad's thoughtless hit to a fielder who had been moved into position the ball before summed up England's mindset. No patience, no application, no thought.

England were complacent. Cook warned against it, Flower has spoken in the past about bringing intensity to every match, but very few elements in England's performance suggested they were taking this particular game seriously. It's New Zealand, a team who were rolled for 45 just a few months ago. If we are perfectly honest, England expected to win. It's the done thing; go to New Zealand, beat them, throw in a few patronising comments about underdogs punching above their weight, get into some form and then return home for back-to-back Ashes. The preparation time was almost non-existent. One warm-up game, compared to the time spent in India and Australia before the series there, the 'get to know you' pre-Ashes sessions in Germany and spin academies in Dubai that the team attended. There was a solitary warm up game, which was the first time players such as Compton and Pietersen had played a first-class game in three months, and then a day of rain to give England time to mentally readjust. Which they failed to do, in rather spectacular style.

Complacency is a dangerous mindset to fall into. England have returned from what will be for some players the tour of a lifetime. They were fantastic in India, and they know so. The problem is, this isn't three months ago, when the players had plenty of cricket and training sessions under their belt. These are conditions that England know better than the ones they faced in India. India was, above all, a test of mental strength - New Zealand is a test of technical ability. England are currently grading an F in that department. They knew India wouldn't be easy because historically, it hasn't been. Neither has New Zealand. The last time England visited New Zealand, they overhauled their bowling attack, Strauss and Bell scored two career (and match) saving centuries and despite the scorelines, New Zealand put up a fight. That, however, seemed to have been forgotten on the first day back in whites.

Saying that it's a big year for English cricket is a little like saying Richard Hadlee was an alright bowler. Back-to-back Ashes, against an Australian side that are equal parts exciting and disappointing, are going to be at the forefront of the players minds. But that is no excuse to throw away games in the time being. Quite why England felt the need to not just throw away but happily hand over their wickets, rather than try and get some time in at the crease, is unfathomable. India was a fantastic tour for them. Cook proved his captaincy mettle in one of the toughest places to play, as the Australians are discovering at the moment. He applied himself in his batting; Pietersen was aggressive but controlled, Trott and Bell played themselves into form in the final test match and Compton showed no obvious struggle in such alien conditions. Yet in an overcast breezy Dunedin, more reminiscent of Scarborough in April than the hazy Indian pitches of the winter, England looked out of ideas.

The highest partnership of the innings came between Finn and Anderson, the numbers 9 and 10. Three of the top six got into double figures, Trott just closing in on a half-century, and yet no-one went on to get the big score. Wickets were thrown away, and while New Zealand's bowling was sharp and backed up by some good fielding, they were not unplayable deliveries that were swinging across the deck. There was a little in the pitch, but it was a lovely day for batting. It's a shame England missed out on it.