Hello again! (And thoughts for the first Test)

Looking at the most recent post (before this) two things stand out: first is that it begins with an apology for not writing and the second is that it is eleven months old. So apologies again. In my defence, I spent those elven months first moving house, then starting grad school and preparing to do research in astrophysics. It has been a touch busy. And there is nothing to really suggest that it will get markedly better, but we’ll see how things play out. I did actually watch sport over the winter though and have some thoughts on the winter of discontent going into the international summer.

First off is that England probably made the right choice as far as a new head coach goes. It would have been better if Andy Flower had not left, but having done so it was down to Mike Newell or Peter Moores for me. I was hoping Newell so that Moores would stay at Lancashire, but there is no doubt in my mind that he will do an excellent job. This of course ties into the big story over the winter of Kevin Pietersen. I don’t want to drag that up again too much; I made my feelings very clearly known on Twitter and I’ll only go into detail if his fanboys find some fresh stupidity.

The biggest issue going into the summer is the uncertainty regarding the actual positions. There is one spot at the top of the order free, two in the middle order (assuming that Ben Stokes plays at six in the long-term even if he is not fit for the first Test), the spinner’s role and the third seamer all up for grabs. I am not including the wicket-keeper as vacant because I do not at all think that Matt Prior was dropped for anything other than an experiment; if he is fit he will keep wicket for the first Test.

The opener’s spot is probably the most straightforward: it should go to Sam Robson. He had an excellent year last year, has started well this year and has stated an ambition to bat for England. Give him a shot. The only other option would be Nick Compton and whilst I do think he was harshly dropped he has not done as much as Robson since then. He would be the reserve choice, however.

For the middle order, Joe Root is the incumbent in one of the spots and probably will get another go at five. If he is picked, hopefully he stays there most or all of the summer; he has not had enough time to settle in to any one spot properly and that cannot have helped him. At the same time, however, he did struggle for much of last year and cannot be said to have nailed his spot down. It is mostly due to his potential that he still seems to be a fixture in the side. The other spot is more open. Gary Ballance is technically the man in possession, but as with the wicket-keeper’s spot above I am very reluctant to take the selection late in the winter too seriously. However, he earned his callup with an excellent 2013 and he has started this year well. The same is true of Moeen Ali, however, and his weight of runs has certainly pushed him into the frame. Those are the most likely options but James Taylor, after being so harshly discarded in 2012, has batted well both for Nottinghamshire and the Lions and Jonny Bairstow is technically in the current XI. I don’t see either as particularly likely candidates though. I actually would prefer to see both Ballance and Ali bat in the middle order; I think they have both done more to get the spots than Root has. If Stokes is not fit then I would have Root at six, but otherwise I would let him bat with Yorkshire for at least the series against Sri Lanka.

For Graeme Swann’s replacement, it seems like every spinner in the country has been mentioned at least once. The realistic candidates are Scott Borthwick, Simon Kerrigan, James Tredwell and Monty Panesar. I am biased, of course, but for me it has to be Kerrigan. He only bowled a handful of overs in his previous Test and simply cannot be judged on that. More importantly, none of the other candidates have come close to matching his first-class record over the past few seasons. Kerrigan is, without question, the best spinner in the County Championship and that has to make him the front runner for the vacant England role.

There is one way Kerrigan could reasonably be left out of the first Test against Sri Lanka, however, and that is if England field an all-seam attack and there is a decent argument for doing so. Steve Finn, Graham Onions, Tim Bresnan and Chris Jordan all have cases, but this is possibly the oddest of any of the contest for a place. Just judging on first-class form Finn and Onions have to be the front runners and I think they probably are. But Finn’s mechanics were apparently completely hopeless in Australia and he fell well out of favour. Meantime, Onions did everything anyone could have asked last summer and never seemed to even be considered. Bresnan looks a shadow of his former self and although Jordan looked excellent last year it was the first time he has done so.

This adds up to Bresnan probably being the longest shot; I’d like to see him bowl for Yorkshire and maybe fight his way back into the reckoning, and I think he could be quite good again, but right now he looks a long way from Test quality. There is not a lot to pick between the other three, however, which is why I think picking an all-seam attack against Sri Lanka may be the way to go. Finn and Jordan are probably the best two choices; they are similar styles of bowler and it is a style which probably fits best behind Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad. In the longer term, however, I would like to see England be more willing to go ‘horses-for-courses’; if a pitch calls will suit the swing bowlers more then play another one in Onions. If more pace is needed, then supplement the attack with Finn or Jordan.

At least right now (and it is still a month until the first Test, so this may change) my XI for Lord’s would be:
Alastair Cook*
Sam Robson
Ian Bell
Moeen Ali
Gary Ballance
Ben Stokes
Matt Prior†
Stuart Broad
Chris Jordan
Steve Finn
Jimmy Anderson

Sri Lanka win by 75 runs

The month and scenery changed, but this Test was a familiar tale for England: A frustrating and avoidable defeat. This time was all the more galling (no pun intended) for coming against a demonstrably weaker side. When England collapsed against Pakistan they had the excuse that they were up against a very good bowling unit, not so in Galle. Herath took what may have been the luckiest Test 12-fer in history (though the last one was taken by Jason Krejza, so maybe not) as the batsmen repeatedly gifted him their wickets. Of the seven recognised batsmen (ie, Strauss – Patel), nine of the 14 wickets to fall in both innings were needless. Even granting Patel leniency on debut and accepting the inevitability of the occasional batsman error, one would still call six of the 12 wickets inexcusable. Of those, two were to misplayed sweeps shots and three were to needless charges down the wicket (and remember, I am not including Broad through Monty in that). It is fair to say that without those errors, England would have won. Herath is not a 12-fer bowler without a lot of help, and in this match he picked up three wickets from stupid shots, three tail-end wickets and the debutant twice. The other four were at least reasonable, but four wickets for a subcontinent spinner is nothing special. But that’s about right, because it wasn’t a special performance. He was not only outbowled bowled by Swann, but even Randiv was getting more bounce and turn. It’s fair to say that Herath was the third best spinner in the match, but England made him look like Shane Bloody Warne. It’s frustrating, annoying and the same thing they did in the UAE. They should have learnt and they did not.

The bowlers were once again very good, but they did not cover themselves in glory the way they did in the UAE. Jimmy Anderson’s five wicket haul in the first innings was excellent, starting as it did by reducing Sri Lanka to 11-2 and removing the very dangerous Sangakkara first ball. He also produced a pair of fantastic deliveries to finish the innings on the second day, though by then it was later than England would have liked. Graeme Swann certainly deserved more for his efforts. Six wickets in the second innings, including Jayawardene, Sangakkara and Samaraweera (cumulative average: 159.12) for only 55 between them. He had Sri Lanka 127-8 in the second innings and gave England a chance to win. He also batted in a cap in both innings. It’s a small thing, but it does not happen nearly often enough and it is very, very cool when it does. Between all that, I think it would have been fair to have given Swann MotM.

The bowling unit as a whole, however, was not quite incisive enough and Strauss had a bit of a shocker with the captaincy. The biggest problem for England was probably the selection, we played two seamers and three spinners. The notion was presumably that the seamers would not be effective on the slow surface, but Anderson and Broad put the lie to that in the first innings. Neither Monty nor Patel looked incisive, meantime, and all of their wickets were those of tail-enders. This lack of firepower cost England badly as the Sri Lankan tail added valuable, and ultimately match winning, runs in both innings. The second innings was the more frustrating. This time, Sri Lanka did not have an established batsman to guide the tail and yet the last two wickets put on 87 runs. England only lost by 75, so it is no exaggeration to say that those cost England the match. Strauss did not captain well in that time. To be fair to him, he was handicapped by only having two wicket taking options: Patel and Panesar looked unlikely to bowl anyone out and Broad was half fit. Strauss could not keep Swann and Jimmy on for the entire session and Sri Lanka profited. At the same time, however, he did not attack enough. England needed to wickets to have a great chance of winning, but he put men back and allowed easy singles. The notion was to get the ‘rabbit’ on strike, but this seldom seems to work and it did not come close to doing so here. This is not the first time England have changed tactics to tail-enders and I find it baffling every time. The original tactics had reduced the Sri Lanka to 127-8 and got some of the best batsmen in the world out cheaply. Why alter that to a number ten? In the first innings, Jimmy bowled Welegedara with an unplayable offcutter. The batsman had no chance. Why this was not the plan in the second innings is beyond me.

England could have, and should have, won this match. There is still some hope, but they must cut out the errors before the next Test. Having watched this side at their best we know this is possible, but one would think it would have already happened. I have already written about how England can improve their player selection, but the biggest problem is shot selection. As long as they are playing rash shots, like sweeps, they will struggle.

2011: England’s dominance, India’s collapse

My original plan for this post was a month-by-month review of all sports. I got halfway through May before realising that I was even boring myself and that there was no way anyone else was going to read past the end of the Sydney Test.

I’m not sure if it was the biggest surprise this year, but I don’t think anyone expected England to do as well as we did. England finished 2010 well by beating Australia by an innings at the MCG, but even after the Sydney Test it was not clear if England were very good or Australia very poor. Strauss and Flower’s stated ambition to become number one in the world was clearly possible, but if it was going to happen it looked like it would be a long climb to the summit. Instead it took eight months. India did not play well, but the extent of England’s dominance over the course of the 4-0 whitewash was incredible. There are no weak links in the side; even though Trott finally started to look mortal Ian Bell picked up the slack. He averaged 118 this year, 23 runs more than the next best batsman. Cook was as brilliantly obdurate as ever, KP had a resurgence and Morgan started to look comfortable at Test level. Prior is easily the best wicket-keeper in the world, both with the gloves and with the bat. Broad stopped trying to be an ‘enforcer’ (though I still haven’t stopped making jokes about it) and instead took a shedload of wickets. Bresnan and Tremlett would share the new ball in probably every other country bar South Africa, but right now they can’t both even get into the team unless someone else is injured. Graeme Swann is still the best spinner in the world and Anderson is second only to Dale Steyn. The calm leadership of Andrew Strauss has ensured that no one has got carried away. In eight Tests in 2011 England won six and lost none. They averaged 59.16 with the bat (and that’s the entire XI, not just the top order) and 28.45 with the ball. With Prior, Broad, Bresnan and Swann in the side England could reasonably be said to bat down to number ten. No other side came close to playing better than England in 2011, and the question is no longer if England are the best side in the world but if they can turn their current success into the kind of dominance that the West Indies and Australia did.

Australia did not play for several months after the Ashes, but have made a good effort to rebuild their side. They’re batting is yet to really come around, though Shaun Marsh is talented and the dropping of Phil Hughes for Ed Cowan was long overdue. Ponting and Hussey are still in the side though, and although they made some runs at the MCG they cannot be allowed to stay much longer. They both have had poor years and are in the twilight of their careers. The real improvement for Australia has been their bowling. In Nathan Lyon they finally seem to have found a long term spinner and the injury to Mitchell Johnson was probably the best thing that could have happened. The introduction of Pat Cummins and James Pattinson in particular are major improvements. They still have some way to go, but the strides they have made since the Ashes were clear when they were playing an Indian side who did not adjust at all to being beaten by England. Australia have become a side very difficult to predict, collapsing to 47 all out against South Africa and losing at home to New Zealand, but also recording big wins over South Africa and India. It might be some time before we know how good they are, however; after what should be an easy tour to the Windies next March they do not play again until November.

There was cricket amongst the non-Ashes sides too, although not very much. (It’s not just this year either. If you want to despair look at the number of Test matches in the Future Tours Programme.) The West Indies lost twice to India, and barely avoided losing a Test against Bangladesh. They beat Pakistan in a Test at the beginning of the year though and they made India work for their victories. (Though that’s not too impressive, see below.) All things considered it was probably a positive year, albeit not by much. South Africa didn’t play for nine months after the New Year’s Test, but looked quite good when they did. Then in the Boxing Day Test they looked dreadful and lost to Sri Lanka. It could simply be another attack of their well known mental problems, they’ve lost four Boxing Day Tests on the trot, but their batsmen are starting to age and they will find themselves in a similar position to Australia before too much longer. Pakistan were overshadowed by the spot fixing judgements, but played very well against weak opposition. Statistically they were the second best team in 2011, after England. Sri Lanka had a bad year, but they ended the year on a high with their first victory in South Africa. They need to find more consistent bowling however, over the course of the year only Bangladesh were worse. No one really expected Sri Lanka to play well after the loss of Murali though. Zimbabwe returned to Test cricket and beat Bangladesh and almost beat New Zealand, neither of whom played enough cricket this year to make an impact.

The worst team in 2011 was surely India. They started the year as the number one Test side, but never looked interested. They did not try to force victories in Tests in South Africa or the West Indies, although the former was to win the series. They never bothered to turn up in England and then used their (self-inflicted) lack of preparedness as an excuse. They didn’t try to improve and looked just as bad at the MCG. That match was only close because Australia are not as good as England and collapsed themselves. As bad as India’s performances were, the fact that they do not seem to care is probably worse. Their batsmen are massively overrated, especially Sehwag, and all of the possible replacements are limited overs specialists. They were the worst team this year and unless there is a massive change in attitude they will be next year as well.

Twenty-eleven also featured the 2000th Test of all time. Officially it was a close encounter at Lord’s in which 20,000 people queued for a mile to get into the ground on the last day and England finished off India in the last session. The actual 2000th Test was a week later at Trent Bridge and saw Stuart Broad and Ian Bell turn a close game into a blowout. Outside of the performances of the individual teams, the year was most notable for the resurgence of bowling and some very close finishes. England twice won a Test in the last session, India drew with the West Indies with nine down and the scores level and Australia won by two wickets and lost by seven runs in fairly quick succession. I lost count of how many debutants took five-fers this year, but I can remember at least four, plus Doug Bracewell’s match winning performance in his third Test. It was a year of fascinating and absorbing Test cricket which highlighted the short-sightedness of the administrators who had been increasingly marginalising the longest form of the game. Hopefully next year we’ll see more good performances and those in charge will give Test cricket the respect it deserves.