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

Lancashire won by 14 runs

Lancashire finally have their first win of the 2013 and secured it in dramatic fashion at Colwyn Bay. The win moves Lancashire up to third in the second division table, behind Northamptonshire who have had an excellent start to the season and Hampshire who have had the better of the bonus points.

It was in some ways the worst match Lancashire have played this year; certainly the batting failed to match the standard set in the opening two matches at Old Trafford. Lancashire dominated those two matches, but were never firm favourites at any stage of the match. It was at best very close right up until the last wicket fell and twice Glamorgan looked to be cruising to victory. The first time was when Simon Katich was given out to leave Lancashire effectively 45-7 in their second innings and the second was when Glamorgan were 94-2, needing just sixty more to win.

There were several heroes for the Red Rose in coming from the dead to win the match, but the biggest plaudits have to go Glen Chapple. He actually had not had a great start to the season. In the first two matches and the first innings of this one he had taken only 5-203. But he always seems to come up with something big when we need him; in this case he brought himself on with the cause seemingly lost and took three wickets, including both well set batsmen, to set Lancashire on the way to victory. He bowled for the remainder of the innings and then also broke a mini-partnership that was tilting the match back in Glamorgan’s favour. It was a staggering effort.

Although it was Chapple who made the breakthroughs and gave Lancashire a chance it was Simon Kerrigan who finished off Glamorgan with a five wicket haul and nine in the match. It was reminiscent of some of the performances he had in 2011 and in particular the last-gasp win against Hampshire. Kyle Hogg only bowled one over of the run chase, but he was instrumental in giving Lancashire a chance as he scored 47 in the second innings to make the total just large enough to defend.

Ideally this win will serve as a bit of a kick start to Lancashire’s season; now that they have a win and a bit of belief they need to consistently bowl sides out cheaply and start winning matches like the first two where they really did outplay the opposition. This match was not only the first in which they bowled out the opposition twice, it was the first in which they had even come close. Admittedly the rain had intervened in the other two, but this was still the best bowling performance of the year. What will also give Lancashire some heart was that it was not all done on the back of James Anderson and that there was enough time left that even if it had rained it would not have ruined the match. In the meantime they have a few days to enjoy the high of a remarkable win!

Swann’s elbow and England’s spinners

On the field it was not an exciting first day of the New Zealand v England series, unless one feels that seven hours of rain are particularly interesting. But there was a surprising moment at the toss when England made a late change to the XI after Graeme Swann was ruled out of both the match and the series due to the elbow problem that he has had for the past several years.

Swann is going to America to have surgery on the elbow and he is expected to be back by ‘early summer’ and England are said to be targeting a return in time for the Champions Trophy. But given the utter pointlessness of that competition, it is surely a better idea to have him play in the County Championship and prove his fitness ahead of the back-to-back Ashes. Whilst England could certainly still win the Ashes without Swann, we know just how much of an asset he can be even at home and especially the way Australia have been playing spin in India there is no reason at all to risk Swann in the Champions Trophy. There is literally nothing to gain and plenty to lose.

This brings the question of England’s reserve spinners to the fore, both for the next couple of series and as a reminder that Swann may not have a lot of cricket left in him. For the short term there is Monty Panesar who performed decently in the subcontinent in the last two winters and has replaced Swann in the XI for the Dunedin Test. There is also James Tredwell who has been playing when Swann has been rested from the pyjama squads. Tredwell has been called into the Test squad as (extra) backup, but I would be very surprised if he got a match. There is little to no chance of England playing two spinners and I doubt that Panesar will bowl so poorly as to be dropped, unless England decide to play four seamers. (Which, given Onions’ form in the warmup also seems vert unlikely.)

I expect Panesar to still be in the XI for the return series in May, but it may be wise for England to give a game to one of the younger candidates instead. None of Simon Kerrigan, Scott Borthwick or Ben Stokes impressed on the recent Lions tour of Australia (though to be fair, no one did), but they will have each had a handful of County Championship matches to try to make a case ahead of the first Test as well. If England want to give someone a taste of international experience then one of the early season Tests when everyone is thinking about the Ashes is a decent time for it. I would probably still have Panesar as Swann’s backup in the Ashes (unless he bowls very poorly in New Zealand) simply due to his experience, but it won’t be long until neither he nor Swann are available and England should take this as a reminder to start choosing a replacement and getting him ready now.

Lancs’ winter so far

Obviously the winter is just getting started; the County Championship ‘only’ ended about a month ago. But there have still been some moves of note from Lancashire, albeit few of them really done by the club.

The first is that Ajmal Shahzad did not stay with the club and instead went to Nottinghamshire. This is not a surprise, but it is a disappointment as it only adds to Lancashire’s need for bowling in depth. Sajid Mahmood was also released so Lancashire will need to either try to bring in a bowler (which will be difficult being in Division Two) or rely on someone like Oliver Newby, who had an excellent 2012 season with the second XI, to step up and be the full time third seamer. I would imagine that it will be the latter due to both the practical considerations of luring a bowler to a D2 side and the opportunity to see how someone like Newby gets on in the easier environment of the second tier.

Gary Keedy also left the club, going to Surrey. Whilst it is sad to see such a long time servant of the club go, it is certainly the best move for Keedy and probably the best move for Lancashire as well. Keedy did not get a lot of playing time this season because of the emergence of Simon Kerrigan and the scarcity of wickets on which two spinners could be played. It is likely that the same situation would have arisen again next year so it is hard to blame Keedy for wanting to leave. He will be missed, especially with regard to the tutelage he could give to Kerrigan, but with Stephen Parry also having a good season for the seconds it is at least not a major blow.

The good news, however, is that Glen Chapple will stay on as captain for another year. His ability to lead from the front has been invaluable and he was the only bowler to consistently perform last season. His steady hand at the tiller will give Lancashire a huge leg up on promotion next season.

Lancashire in 2012

After the euphoria of 2011, the comedown of 2012 could hardly be more pronounced. From Champions to relegated and with the added pain of Yorkshire going up, meaning no Roses cricket next year as well.

Listening to Lancashire all season, it felt almost like they never could quite ‘click’. They always seemed to be playing a little bit worse than they ought to be and when they improved it was short-lived. Fate did not help at all. Last season Lancashire only lost 200-odd overs to the weather. This year it was about nine times that much; over five full matches worth of time lost. In practice it completely ruined eight matches: against Somerset (twice), Notts, Sussex, Surrey (twice), Worcs and Durham. Not all looked like being Lancashire wins, of course (though the two against Somerset did), and when it didn’t rain Lancashire still lost more often than not. The result can certainly not be blamed on the weather, but it really did not help. The other bits of misfortune were injuries and the schedule. Tom Smith missed most of the season with a hamstring injury and showed at the end of the year just how much that hurt the team. Lancashire finally started hitting their stride and either won or came close to winning their three matches before the T20 break. But that month of pyjama cricket broke their momentum and form.

Still, it would be inaccurate and rather irresponsible to blame fate for Lancashire’s relegation. There were flaws with both the bowling and batting. The batting has looked quite poor as there were a number of dramatic collapses that seemed to all but put Lancashire out of matches. But whilst it is true that the batting was not great, it was probably not as bad as it first appears. The first thing to remember is that the conditions favoured bowlers all year. No team batted as well as one would otherwise expect and Lancashire’s total of 25 batting points was comfortably more than Durham and only one fewer than Nottinghamshire. The biggest problem for Lancashire seemed to be that there was a much greater reliance on one person this year: Ashwell Prince. Prince scored 1,008 run at an average of over 40 in 15 matches. But he had no support; the next highest tally was Steven Croft’s 666 runs at under thirty. The practical upshot was that sometimes the batting would fire and put Lancs in a good position and sometimes there would be an astonishing collapse.

Those collapses are quite memorable, of course, but the bowling was the much larger problem. The summer was so wet that the conditions very much favoured bowlers, but Lancs had a terrible time taking twenty wickets. In sixteen matches they took only twenty wickets only three times. It was very much the bowling that won the title last year, with three bowlers taking over fifty wickets in 2011 and Simon Kerrigan of course taking 24 in just four matches. Whilst it would be a lot to ask for a repeat performance, few of the bowlers even came close. The apparently ageless Glen Chapple took 42 over the course of the year (with a pair of five-fers, ten in one match and a bowling average of 24 over the course of the year) and Kerrigan still managed 44 on what tended to be fairly unhelpful pitches. But he did so with an average over 33 and the next highest wicket total was that of Luke Procter of all people with 25. This is not to say the bowling was uniformly terrible, but they did a terrible job of making the most of good starts. In the first match of the season, Sussex recovered from 13-3 to 300 all out thanks to a fourth wicket stand of 164 and unfortunately it was that which really set the tone for the season. Every match that was not badly rain affected had at least one century partnership for Lancashire’s opposition and usually they occurred after early collapses. Of particular import were Warwickshire’s stand of 224 after being 81-7, Worcestershire’s partnership of 127 after being 93-6 and of course Middlesex’s recovery to 446 after losing three wickets early. The first two probably cost Lancashire the match, and by extension their place in the first division, whilst the third all but broke the back of the season.

There will be some calls for change over the winter, I suspect, but I think restraint is important. There are changes we can make, but I think we only need a few. First is that we will need a replacement for Ashwell Prince, unless we can convince him to return. Whilst we have to back our batsmen to improve next year (we know they can play better than they did this year), they will be very much helped by having someone very good and reliable like Prince again. There aren’t a huge number of options due to the IPL and international commitments, of course, but there are a few who are in similar situations as Prince was and who we might be able to sign. But as I said above the bowling was the bigger problem. Ajmal Shahzad looked a decent addition (especially with Sajid Mahmood having a shocker of a season), but he did not actually come up with a lot of wickets. Kyle Hogg also had a poor season, Tom Smith was injured for much of the year and we seldom had chances to play both Keedy and Kerrigan. It’s probably fair to expect Hogg to have a better season next year. Shahzad and Mahmood are a lot more uncertain, but both are talented. I don’t think there is actually a lot we can do to improve the bowling from a personnel standpoint. There are no English players (and I’m assuming we use our overseas player for a batsman) who spring to mind who are all of available, affordable and a clear improvement to what we have. It’s not ideal, but I suspect we will have to make do with what we have. (And maybe hope we get Jimmy for more than just one match this time.) Really, it should be enough, though, especially in Division Two. I think in most cases one would expect it to have been enough in Division One.

I’m optimistic about Lancashire’s chances next season. Unless something goes very wrong in the winter (eg: Chappie retiring) we will probably be favourites to go straight back up. There are improvements to be made, but I think that sticking with the core of this squad will pay dividends.

England squad in India

With the retirement of Andrew Strauss, there now another aspect to the question of how England will look when they play India on the 15th of November. England need a new opener in addition to deciding how they want the middle order to look and deciding on the balance of the bowling attack.

As far as an opening partner for Cook goes, there are three main possibilities: Trott could be moved up a spot with someone like Nick Compton coming in to the middle order, Joe Root of Yorkshire could come in or Michael Carberry could come in. Of the three, I think moving Trott up would be a very bad idea. He has batted at three for almost his entire career and despite being a bit short of form at the moment he has had great success at that spot. To move him would also necessitate moving Ian Bell up to three and them possibly leaving three batsmen at four, five and six with only six caps between them. I would rather break up the inexperience. Choosing between Root and Carberry is interesting because a couple of years ago there really would not have been a choice. Carberry was the heir apparent and was even given a Test against Bangladesh when Strauss was rested in 2010. But he suffered from a blood clot in the lung and although he has fought back from that his form has fallen off this year and Root has had a blinder. (Both have been in Division Two.) I’d be quite tempted to have them both on the plane to India and see who looks better in the warmups. I’d have Root as the favourite though and (with a couple of LV=CC matches still to come, of course) if I had to pick just one right now it would be him.

With the bowling attack, England still have the ‘problem’ of having more Test quality bowers than they can fit into a single match. There is also the added problem in India of whether to play two spinners and if so how many seamers to play alongside them. The received wisdom is to play two spinners in India and indeed anywhere on the subcontinent. It is important as it provides a threat when there is not a lot of help for the seamers as well as a way to keep the scoring tied down. But England’s strength is seam bowling. We have seen in New Zealand’s series in India that good seam bowlers can get help from the Indian pitches and can make life difficult for the batsmen, at least in August. I think England would be well advised to play three seam bowlers, but that does not rule out two spinners. England played three seamers and two spinners in the one match they won over the winter last year, so Flower is clearly not impossibly set against the idea and it has been successful. I favour five bowlers anyway, but especially in conditions such as in India that can be quite draining on the bowlers. To play three seamers and two spinners would give England ample options for both attack and defence and I think they will need that.

The most obvious second spinner would be Monty Panesar, though Samit Patel does offer more with the bat and acquitted himself decently in Sri Lanka. He did not, however, look Test quality and England may need a bit more in a four Test series. There is also the matter of Swann’s elbow to be considered. He is being rested from the ODIs against South Africa, but it is not at all clear how fit he will be in India. England could not afford to have just Patel and a half-fit Swann, I think, which would mean an almost certain recall for Monty Panesar. He didn’t look great in the one match he played in Sri Lanka, but he was very good in the UAE before that and his nearest competition, James Tredwell and Simon Kerrigan, are a bit short of international quality and still too inexperienced respectively. At least one of them (and with an eye to the future I would have it be Kerrigan) should be in the squad as backup, but I would not expect them to play unless Swann is so injured he has to miss a Test.

This just leaves the middle order. Right now it is Trott, Bell, Taylor and Bairstow, but if England do play five bowlers than one of them would have to miss out and it’s a fair assumption that it will be one of the lower two. (Though if Trott is moved up to open then that would no longer be the case.) Bairstow is probably the favourite to stay in the side after his heroics at Lord’s, but Taylor looked very talented as well and should at least be on the plane. He can push for a spot in the playing XI during the warmups. There will also be no doubt suggestions of recalls for Eoin Morgan and/or Kevin Pietersen. Neither should be seriously considered, however. Morgan did well by announcing that he wanted to focus on his Test career, but he still has to back that up by actually refining his technique and improving at the first class level. He may get back in the test side at some point, but he is behind both Bairstow and Taylor now and will need to prove himself over most or all of a season with Middlesex. Pietersen should simply never be considered for England again. Most of his actions this summer have been unconscionable and although he was not the main reason for Strauss’s departure there can be little doubt that he does carry some of the blame. As Rob Smyth put very well in the Guardian: ‘if he cannot see “Straussy’s” blood on his hands, he has an even bigger lack of self-awareness than we feared’. Pietersen threw England into disarray at the end of 2008 and he is having a go at doing so again. Regardless of how talented he may be, it is time England got shot of him for good.

With all of the above in mind, my touring squad to India would be: Cook*, Anderson, Bairstow, Bell, Bresnan, Broad, Carberry, Davies†, Finn, Kerrigan, Panesar, Prior†, Root, Swann, Taylor, Trott

The playing XI would depend heavily on the results of warmup matches, but I would lean toward: Cook*, Root, Trott, Bell, Bairstow, Prior†, Broad, Swann, Anderson, Finn, Panesar

Twelve Lions

The Lions squad was announced last week and whilst I didn’t remark upon it at the time, there are some interesting names both included and not.

Apart from the inclusion of Simon Kerrigan (about which I am actually a bit disappointed as we really need him in the LV=CC right now), Nick Compton has also been rewarded for his great start to the season with a call-up. The side is still led by James Taylor. Ravi Bopara has not been included, fuelling suggestion that he is already written into number six in the Test side. This may be true, but I am not certain that it is. The argument goes that England are so sure he will be in the side that they do not want the Windies to get a look at him ahead of time and thus they have omitted him in favour of a purely experimental side of youngsters. Again, this could be. There’s nothing ridiculous about it. But I am not convinced. (Note that this has nothing to do with the fact that Bopara shouldn’t be selected, it’s the separate question of whether he will be anyway.)

First off, I am uneasy with using a lack of selection to a reserve match as proof of first team selection. Note that Graham Onions will also not be playing for the Lions either, however he is very, very unlikely to be in the Test side. The bigger objection is the inclusion of Compton, however. Compton will be 29 this summer, he is not a young prospect. He is not a developing player. I don’t see him being in the Lions as a measure for the next few years, the way it is with Taylor. Surely, the only reason for him to be playing is as an audition for the Test side. Were it a guarantee that Bopara were playing, there would be no need to select Compton for the Lions.

I think the most likely explanation is that Bopara is the default. Despite not playing recently, he will be selected if nothing changes. However, the selection of Compton is an opportunity for something to change. I think the attitude of the selectors will be that Compton can force his way into the side with a good Lions performance in much the same way that Morgan did last year. I rather hope I am right, Bopara remains almost the last person I want to see batting at six for England.