Saturday, 31 August 2013

Thoughts on the women's Ashes

The England women’s Ashes series has been a mix of innovation and the type of cricket that has worked well for both teams in the past.

Despite such a strong showing in the test match, particularly the bowling, Australia have stuttered their way through the remainder of the tour. Meg Lanning has been the backbone of the line-up, the only one to make any impact. At Durham, it was a tired looking team that took to the field. England were hardly storming through the line-up, the wicket was slow but not offering huge amounts of turn and Australia just crumbled. It was the performance of a team that looked shattered. After the leisurely start to the series, a four day game in picturesque surroundings, the ODI and T20’s seemed to be crammed together at the end.
The advantage of having the double headers with the men is clear; increased media interest, crowds turning up early to watch two games and the women get a chance to increase their exposure. The scheduling, however, is simply unfair. The second T20 at Southampton ended with a plane, train and automobile trip across the length of the UK to get to Durham early on Friday morning. Then to training, back to the hotel, then an early start on the day of the game – 10am slightly undermines the concept of encouraging more people to watch – would be exhausting for anyone. Even traipsing off the bus to start the game, the tourists looked, quite simply, knackered.

The format of the series has worked reasonably well. The weighting of the points is intended to reflect the importance of test cricket. In retrospect, it encouraged a draw. Neither team wanted to risk losing maximum points by gambling the state of the game. So they, to all intents and purpose, blocked it out. That aside, the rest of the series has worked well. The women have been allowed to play the two games that they play the most, and games that have the most appeal to the crowd. More test cricket would of course be preferable but realistically, when do they get the chance to play? England and Australia play the most tests, and the last time they met was in Australia in 2011. More test cricket is, at the moment, not feasible.

It is a format that could be used in future women’s series, as well as for associate countries. The sense is, however, that not all nations want to play test cricket. Let’s face it, one day cricket is more exciting, and crucially it is more financially beneficial for the players. England and Australia are the rare countries who still play tests – and even then it’s only once every two years.

England have not played without fault. The batting collapse at Lords was truly awful. An innings built around the captain Charlotte Edwards crumbled as soon as she went. The batting never truly fired throughout the limited overs series. Their innings relied on cameos. Lydia Greenway at Southampton, Sarah Taylor at Chelsmford; they played the biggest part in the T20 victories. England’s bowling, particularly the openers, has been consistently good throughout the series. The back-up seamers are a worry. Arran Brindle in particular as dispatched to all areas during the test match. The spin bowling is developing well. Laura Marsh is starting to control her length a little better, improving throughout the test. Danni Wyatt can follow up a brilliant delivery with a rank long-hop but control is something that comes with experience.

The better team won. Despite Australia claiming victory in the T20 and 50 over World Cups, they haven’t played anywhere near to the standard they are capable of. Australia ruled the test match for the majority of the game but in the limited overs, it is England who have worn the trousers.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Round one: advantage no-one?

In a game with six points at stake, it was going to take an extraordinary batting collapse or a serious spell of quick bowling to ever push for a result at Wormsley. The wicket was good; too good, in fact. There was no rough for the spinners to work with, little pace for the seamers and only variable bounce – and that is if we’re being generous.

Giving the test match a higher points ranking was always going to be dangerous. Awarding it six points highlights how important test cricket is; it is still seen by the majority of the players as the pinnacle of their career. However, the women play fewer and fewer four day matches, and by placing so much emphasis on the game in terms of points, the willingness of either side to take risks to push them into the front lessened by the day. A Sheffield Shield style points system, with points awarded by innings, would maybe work better for the future.

It seems strange given the match situation to praise Australian captain Jodie Fields for a brave declaration, but in some ways it was. After the runner arrived in the 82nd over to pass on a message from the dressing room, Fields and Osborne proceeded to put on 34 runs in four overs. Arran Brindle and Danielle Hazell suffered the most; Hazell saw two balls disappear back over her head for two respective boundaries, before Brindle’s poor line saw three identical deliveries hammered to the boundary in quick succession. Fields was aggressive from the off. After reaching her half century, she smashed 24 off the next 25 deliveries.

Her declaration in the 86th over, setting England 249 to win from 45 overs, may have seemed overly cautious. But the speed with which Fields and Osborne went about making their runs highlighted how fast the outfield was. Once it beat the infield, the ball nearly always travelled to the boundary. There was also nothing in the pitch; keeping a total down was reliant on tight bowling and although Australia generated the pace that England lacked, they were not as economical.

Elysse Perry again achieved the bounce and carry that had eluded England. Although England never looked as though they would try to chase down the target, Perry’s first few overs – fast, reasonably full with the odd short ball to keep the batsman awake – kept them in check. Quite why Australia chooses to hide Holly Ferling from the new ball is a mystery. The pace she generates is not dissimilar to Perry, yet Australia chose to go with Meg Schutt. When Ferling was brought on from the Deer Park End, her first ball took a wicket. Heather Knight hit to square leg and ran through for a quick single; Perry’s throw hit and Knight was out by a yard.

Sarah Taylor and Arran Brindle played their shots. There is hardly a shot in Taylor’s repertoire that looks inelegant. The way she handled Erin Osborne’s spin was particularly impressive, rocking back on her feet to cut her through the covers being the highlight of the spell. When Brindle fell, caught and bowled by Sarah Elliott, to leave England on 48/2, there was no sense of panic among the players. Charlotte Edwards put her disappointing first innings behind her to join Taylor in some strokeplay.

The game was in danger of drifting to a draw after yesterday’s slow going, but some smart work from England’s bowlers kept things interesting. Meg Lanning, whose bowling later on in the day was reminiscent of Lasith Malinga, except with a higher arm from which the ball was slung, was caught by Brindle after scooping a leading edge into the air off Anya Shrubsole. An unbelievable piece of fielding from Lydia Greenway then accounted for Elliott. Elliott, century-maker in the first innings, cracked a drive to Greenway at cover. Greenway fielded one handed before instantly shying at the stumps, running out Elliott by some way. Shouts of “Greenway!” echoed from the player huddle as England hauled themselves back into contention.

Jess Cameron played her shots, including smashing the first six of the match over cow corner off the tiring Shrubsole. Katherine Brunt was absent for much of the day with an upset stomach and although Shrubsole bowled consistently well, Laura Marsh claimed the final wicket, trapping Alex Blackwell LBW for 22.

Speaking afterwards, Edwards said that she was proud of the way her bowlers had come through the test match; “We came in today believing we could still win and I think we showed that in our first session. We believed we could get some early wickets, put some pressure on and maybe chase 200 over 60 overs.” 

Both she and Jodie Fields were supportive of the new structure, though Edwards suggested that maybe a change in wickets would be more beneficial. By producing wickets with more spice in them, or maybe even moving to a county ground – while there is no denying the beauty and tranquillity of Wormsley, a ground which sees cricket on a more regular basis may be more beneficial – there may be a better chance of forcing a result. 

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Slow and steady wins the race?

(Getty Images for the ECB)

There is a certain beauty in the slow ebb and flow of a cricket game. Watching a batsman grind a team down, playing themselves in and taking their time can be a real pleasure. Laura Marsh’s crawl to her half-century, the slowest in English cricket by a man or woman, from a painstaking 291 deliveries over 5 and a half hours with just three boundaries was hardly the most scintillating viewing – but it was necessary. When she reached her fifty, the ground rose to applaud the woman who had not just broken records but whose patience and graft had pulled England to safety.

The irony of the situation is, of course, that Marsh opens the batting during the T20 games. Usually the aggressive opener, Marsh arrived at the crease with England six down and struggling. Getting her head down, seeing off Holly Ferling and Ellyse Perry, the most dangerous of the Australian attack, Marsh did exactly what was needed. It might cause derision from some but Marsh along with Heather Knight have kept Australia from winning this game.

Marsh faced more balls in her vigil here than in her entire test career to date. “Naturally I do like to be a bit more positive, but I tried to be positive in defence” was her explanation of her innings. “It’s difficult (to maintain concentration) but it was really helpful to have Heather at the other end.” Asked about the Australian reaction to her innings, Marsh joked that by the end they were “all as bored as she was!” but there were some tactically baffling decisions by the tourists. 

England began the day on a high, helped by Knight’s century and Australia’s reluctance to take the new ball. Despite the turn she began to achieve last night, there was nothing in the pitch for Erin Osborne. Bringing on Perry and Ferling was particularly confusing. Alex Blackwell, the vice-captain, stated that England “forced our hand” with taking the new ball – “we were hoping to get a wicket and then take the new ball, to try and wrap up the tail.” Yet there was no swing for either, and bowling with the old ball allowed Knight and Marsh to re-establish themselves.  Why let the best two bowlers in the side tire themselves out with a ball that is doing nothing when there is a shiny red cherry sitting and waiting in the umpire’s pocket?

Knight looked settled from the beginning. An all-run two off Perry took her to 98, before a wild slash which bypassed everyone, keeper and stumps, took her to 99. Her maiden international century came in 328 minutes; a painstaking effort. She opened up following her century, again helped by a soft ball that did nothing for pace or spin bowlers. Her partnership with Marsh was the highest against Australia in tests; it ended just one short of the all-time record, with Knight run-out by Rachael Haynes for 157. Slapping the ball to cover, Knight lost sight of the ball and called Marsh through for a single, ended up way out of her ground and run out by a yard.  The pitch remained stubbornly flat, highlighted by Katherine Brunt as she whipped her first delivery off her legs for four.

Marsh remained equally stubborn, grinding her way to lunch, tea and a rain break before bringing up her half century shortly before England reached 300. She had just begun to open her arms when she was bowled by Megan Schutt for 55, another ball keeping slightly low and sneaking through her defences.  Anya Shrubsole and Danielle Hazell could do nothing but try to propel England into the lead, before Shrubsole edged behind to give Jodie Fields her first catch of the game.

England ended 17 runs short of Australia’s target, and any thoughts over Australia trying to set a large total and put some life back into the game were quickly put to bed. Although Sarah Elliott played her shots, including a full blooded pull stroke off Katherine Brunt that echoed around the ground, there appeared to be little intent to make a go of the game. Australia ended the day with a lead of 81, and barring a collapse worthy of the men’s game, a draw looks the most likely result.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Baby faced assassins and the art of patience

Holly Ferling is the baby of the Australian cricket team. She played her first game of men’s grade cricket when she was just 13. Her parents drove her to the ground and left, not expecting her to get a game. Brought on first change, she took a hat-trick with her first three balls, before a dot, another wicket and a dot gave her figures of 1-1-0-4. Aged 17, she made her debut in the ODI squad in place of Ellyse Perry earlier this year and impressed with some economical bowling. Ferling is still studying at high school; she brings her school books with her on tour as she takes a month out to compete in the Ashes.

Ferling and Perry are two bowlers cut from the same mould. Both tall, blonde and capable of generating some extreme pace, Ferling was still in awe of Perry when she first began training with the Australian side.  Perry plays cricket and football for her country. Still under pressure from her football team to give up cricket, despite turning out for them on a regular basis, Perry is the poster girl for Australian cricket. She takes the new ball and bats aggressively in the middle order; the ideal all-rounder.

Her first eight over spell today was consistently probing. On a pitch where England had only got the odd delivery to bounce, Perry achieved a decent amount of pace. Despite a few problems with her footing – two no-balls in her first two pre-lunch overs suggest a work in progress – she bowled a tight line and was well rewarded with the wicket of Arran Brindle, LBW for 5. Done for pace on a ball that seemed relatively straight, Brindle departed to leave England wobbling at 36/1.

Ferling followed in Perry’s footsteps. Again generating the bounce that had eluded England’s seamers, the highlight of her spell came when she bounced out the dangerous looking Sarah Taylor. Taylor, a player who can look elegant when scoring a duck, played some beautiful on-drives through the constantly vacant mid-on before Ferling got one to stick in the pitch and rise. Taylor, trying to pull, could only move her head out of the way and watch as the ball sailed to the waiting Sarah Elliott at point. Taylor’s score of 33 was her highest test score to date. For a player of such promise, a record of five tests with an average of 17 hardly does her talent justice.

Ferling’s second wicket was more fortuitous but equally deserved, a loud LBW shout accounting for the England captain. Edwards was unhappy, perhaps feeling the ball was sliding down leg, but on a good batting deck England were 84/3 and struggling. Erin Osborn, mixing up her lengths, had Lydia Greenway caught and bowled off a leading edge, before Tammy Beaumont fell in the first over after tea caught at short leg.
Jenny Gunn played the most irresponsible shot of those to fall, slog-sweeping across the line and being easily adjudged LBW. Another contracted player, Osborne has been ear-marked as the player to replace Lisa Sthalekar as the spinning all-rounder, a role she clearly relishes. “We’re really happy with how play ended for us… it’s starting to turn and a few were shooting through so hopefully for myself it’s about to break up a little bit and turn."

England’s batting stuttered and then crumbled. Taylor aside, the rest could not make starts, let alone push to make the big scores. It was in stark contrast to Elliott’s painstaking march to her maiden test century. Tied down by some accurate bowling from Anya Shrubsole, Elliott moved slowly toward three figures, with a quiet celebration and wave to her family before she slapped a Shrubsole delivery to Greenway at point. Her patience – 349 minutes at the crease – emphasised the slow nature of the pitch. When Perry arrived at the crease, the pitch suddenly appeared to liven. A breezy player, she attacked from the off. A streaky boundary through third man was followed up by a beautiful straight drive back past Laura Marsh. A player of both delicacy and aggression, Perry was unbeaten on 31 when Australia declared at 331/6.

Heather Knight could only stand and watched as the rest collapsed around her. Playing the sort of innings that had brought Elliott and Alex Blackwell success. Her half-century came from 126 deliveries, a mammoth effort given the circumstances. The Berkshire captain is still only 22; a recent graduate from Cardiff University, she stood head and shoulders above the rest of her team. It’s a situation she’s found herself in recently; “I play county cricket for Berkshire and we’ve had a fair few collapses this season!” She was blunt however about England’s situation in the game; “it’s a pretty good pitch and a shame we lost a lot of wickets… when the ball goes soft and they bowl straight it’s quite hard to score, it’s about waiting for the bad ball and putting it away.” She and Marsh batted patiently towards the end, Marsh scoring an embattled 13 from 114 deliveries while Knight plugged away for her 84 from 218 to leave England on 171/6, just 10 behind the follow-on score.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Quintessentially English: motherhood, sunshine and test match cricket

Wormsley. The name itself implies a unique quaintness still associated with English cricket. Tucked away in the middle of Buckinghamshire, surrounded by trees and watched over by blue skies, Wormsley could not be more picturesque if it tried. One end of the ground is even named after the Vicar of Dibley. It is unashamedly English; a cliché without being clichéd. There could hardly be a more fitting place to hold the Ashes.

This was the first women’s Test match since the previous Ashes meeting at Sydney in 2011. Their last two meetings have seen the Australians emerge victorious; Australia claimed the 2012/13 Women’s World T20 cup by four runs, beating pre-tournament favourites England, before a  two run victory during the ICC Women’s World Cup in February set the Australians on their way to another world title.

The re-imagined format of the women’s Ashes embraces the trend for one day cricket; one test match, worth six points for the winner, three ODI’s and three T20’s, each worth two points decides who claims the urn. Australia currently holds the Ashes and there was little to suggest on the first day that this would change any time soon. After winning the toss and choosing to bat, three patient half centuries hinted at the depth in the batting line-up – and the difficulties England will encounter throughout the series.

England’s opening bowlers started well. Katherine Brunt, returning from injury, bowled four consecutive maidens, before debutant Anya Shrubsole claimed the first wicket, a straight delivery sneaking through Rachael Haynes attempted drive. Despite the early wicket, there was little in the pitch for England. It remained stubbornly flat and although the odd ball remained low, Australia looked untroubled. Opener Meg Lanning and Sarah Elliott put on a patient 50 partnership, before a superb piece of fielding immediately after lunch ended their 70-run stand. Lanning, running the ball down through the covers, pushed for two before turning for the third. Brunt, fielding on the boundary, stopped the ball before whizzing it back to Sarah Taylor who completed a smart stumping. Lanning was left on her knees, two short of a maiden 50.

Elliott ended the day on 95*, only a few tantalising runs short of her maiden century. In some ways, Elliott is the outsider of the team. A test specialist, she is the only member of the test squad not to be contracted to Cricket Australia. Her last international game came at Sydney two years ago. Since then she has moved to Darwin, a five hour flight from Melbourne and her Victorian team, and become a mother to 9 month old Sam who is travelling with her on tour. She made her return to competitive cricket six weeks after giving birth – after being dismissed in her first match back, she headed off the field and straight over to the stands to feed her son.

England didn’t bowl poorly, but on an unresponsive pitch they were negotiated easily by Elliott and Jess Cameron. Known as a big hitter, Cameron initially struggled to find her rhythm, before playing aggressively against the spin and Arran Brindle in particular. She fell the ball after her half century, trying to turn a Laura Marsh delivery off her pads and being adjudged LBW. Alex Blackwell, one half of Australia’s first identical twin cricketers, picked up where Cameron left off, a vicious cut shot off Marsh the highlight of her innings.
Shrubsole and Brunt were the pick of the England bowlers, both bowling dry and with some aggression up front. Shrubsole’s contest with Elliott was one of the highlights of the day, Shrubsole beating the bat several times with the new ball before Elliott pounced on some of the looser deliveries. “We know that it’s a decent pitch and we knew there’d be a little bit in the morning… I don’t think we’ve necessarily got the rewards that we deserved,” Shrubsole said after the match. “Credit to Elliot for the way that she batted, she withstood quite a lot of pressure and in quite a good battle she’s managed to come out on top.”

Shrubsole was enthusiastic about the benefits of playing test cricket, in particular the rivalry surrounding the Ashes. “It’s just England vs. Australia, it’s quite a hard things to put into words… it just has a bit more to it and obviously we don’t have much test match opportunity, to get out here in an Ashes match is really exciting.” Elliott meanwhile begins tomorrow in search of her maiden test century, but her main priority is a decent night’s sleep; “I hope Sam sleeps tonight! We’re still getting up a couple of times a night so I’m hoping tonight is the first time he sleeps through!”