An update on world cricket in three parts. Today, part one on India, Pakistan and Australia. A brief review of where we are, a look forward to the winter and other assorted comments.
The World Game… Test Cricket
This blogger loves test match cricket. You know that. But there is not enough time in the day, or the week, to keep up with it all. Not while holding down a full time job, and keeping up with all my sporting interests. But I can take an overall view of what’s happening, subjecting myself to the greater experts out there, but putting down a starting point for a discussion. Hopefully.
India (Latest Series – Leading 2-0 v West Indies (a))
The Indian cricket team, on paper, doesn’t strike fear in the hearts. This may be because I take a rose-tinted view of the past teams, with the Sehwag-Laxman-Dravid-Sachin-Dhoni axis at the top of the order, and with a quality seamer in Zaheer Khan. Spin also seemed more daunting with Kumble and Harby over the past couple of decades. The team is currently playing the West Indies in a four test series (and by the time this goes to print, it will all be over) and they have handled the hosts quite comfortably. The batting revolves around Virat Kohli, who has looked good on this tour at times, with solid citizens like Rahane to back him up. The opening slots look to be between 3 players – KL Rahul, Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan – while Pujara, who looked awesome a couple of years ago, seems to have really gone off the boil. In this series India have played Ashwin as a number 6 bastman (and he has rewarded them with two centuries) but that has to be an unlikely gambit to play at home against England, one would have thought. Saha appears to have nailed down the keeper-batsman slot, which leaves the bowling. We’ll see three spinners I would imagine (given the quality of Ashwin’s batting, we are talking a potential all rounder here) in the series against England, and hoping that Ishant and whoever else is doing the seam work can do their share.
Before England visit India, there is the small matter of a three test series for India at home to New Zealand. These will be played at Kanpur, Kolkata and Indore, with the first starting on 22 September. The five test series against England will start on 9 November in Rajkot, with the following four matches in Vizag, Mohali, Mumbai and Chennai all being wrapped up before Christmas. India are also scheduled to be playing a one-off test against Bangladesh at home – that’s taken them just the 18 years – at Hyderabad in February. I refuse to believe that India will then let their international players twiddle their thumbs until the IPL starts, but Cricinfo has not got them playing anyone until then (but it looks like Australia will be visiting – see below). Surely Sri Lanka are available for an ODI series?
England fans are always going to wonder about India. It’s terribly hard to shake the memories of the Indians last two tours to this country. Firstly the 2011 tour, when a keenly fought first test gave way to a downward slide in performance was put down in part to a dying of the light of the old pros (although Dravid gave a lie to that), part due to Zaheer’s injury and part to boredom on the part of India – and a bloody decent England team playing just about as well as they could. 2014 was different only in that the performances lasted until the second test, before the remainder of the test tour descended into performances of atrocious quality. India will be back here in 2018, and with the different style of Kohli as captain, I don’t expect phlegmatic shrugs and devil-may-care attitudes. Not sure Kohli hasn’t seen a situation he doesn’t see as a competition, and I put the brilliant but undervalued Ashwin in the same category. Both are fine cricketers. Many love to watch Rahane, while I’m quite partial to the traditional opening skills of Murali Vijay. The bowling will always be a hostage to the conditions that home matches are played in.
Many think that the five test series will be played on similar surfaces to the ones that took South Africa down last winter. Some on here were particularly scathing of those wickets. We’ll get an idea when New Zealand visit. England know what is coming. India do to. They can reinforce the number one position in the world this winter against two good foes.
PAKISTAN (Latest Series – 2-2 away v England)
The English summer, as Chris said in his recent piece, was a magnificent one for Pakistan, and for England fans who craved a competitive series with committed and competent foes not from the Big Three. It wasn’t 18 months ago that New Zealand had provided an albeit short quality series, but Pakistan’s longer series was much to enjoy, and greatly received. They stand on the cusp of World #1, and yet this may be elusive as India may well reinforce their lead. Their core is quite old, with two key batsmen nearer pensionable age than school age (allow me some poetic license with Younus, eh) and the quite experienced tier underneath looking good at home, but not so much on the road. However, I mean Asad and Azhar in particular here, both adapted and made test hundreds in England to add to their excellent home records. Like many world teams, the openers are not settled, but they may have found a good one in Aslan (a lion heart – sorry), and I suppose Hafeez may come back for home conquests. It was interesting that Azhar opened in the final test, and whether this may be his new position we’ll see in the fullness of time. The bowling was up and down in England, but is going to be useful in its “home environment”. Actually, Yasir Shah is probably a bit more than “useful” in the UAE, while Amir will be good for the run-out in England, and Wahab, Sohail and Rahit all looked decidedly decent at times. They’ve got some great talent.
According to the cricinfo page on future series, Pakistan will not be playing tests in UAE this winter, but they have two test tours lined up. The first of those is the abomination that is a two test series, which makes no sense still, in New Zealand, with the matches being played in Christchurch and Hamilton. These take place in November. This is followed by a tour of Australia for three tests – the first, in Brisbane, is a day-night match, with the second and third at the traditional Boxing Day and New Year’s venues of Melbourne and Sydney. International duties are fulfilled by the end of January in Australia, and there then seems a gap. Maybe the path is being cleared for the PCL, or whatever it is called? The ICC Future Tours programme (stop laughing Simon and D’Arthez) suggests they’ll be contesting a four test series in West Indies. As if. It also suggests that they’ll be playing a two test home series against the West Indies in October, but I haven’t seen a lot about that, have you?
Pakistan were impressive tourists, but we could see their flaws in the way they were thrashed at Old Trafford, and let a great position slip away, in my view due to an abundance of caution, at Edgbaston. When on the front foot they can be excellent foes, and at Lord’s they won a close game by keeping their heads when England were losing theirs. The team’s core is old, and when they go, which won’t be long, it’s going to need Azhar, Asad and Sarfraz in particular to take up the cudgels of senior pros and lead from the front. They have the ability, but whether they have the sticking power is debatable. But their ability, their flair and their personalities shone through and the long-awaited renaissance of Pakistan cricket looks to be on track. Whether it is sustainable, and whether it crosses into other formats, is a matter of wait-and-see. The world would be a better place for a firing Pakistan playing regular international cricket.
AUSTRALIA (Latest Series – Lost 3-0 in Sri Lanka)
What on earth is going on? We know that for non-Asian teams, winning away on alien surfaces is a treasured prize, but the same goes for Asian teams on their visits overseas, and very little slack is cut for them (see my views on India in 2014). This Australian team is an absolute mess when it leaves the shores of their beloved home. It folded any time there was movement in England in 2015, and now, in Sri Lanka, a team rebuilding after star players have left the stage, who looked dreadful for large swathes of their previous series, turned over Australia in three hard fought matches. Their bowling didn’t let them down, it was the batting putting their bowlers into various states of Mission Impossible. On paper, with Warner, Smith and Voges an experienced trio anchoring the batting this should not happen. Joe Burns and Usman Khawaja are supposed to be talented batsmen. But there is something about Australian selection that is harking back to the hilarities of the Hilditch regime, where bits and pieces players are popping up at number 5 (Moises), and talents like Burns are given a couple of bad games before they are fired out of a cannon into limbo. Australia used to be the benchmark when it came to shrewd considered selection. I’m wondering if Ted Dexter is secretly running the show.
Australia will fall back on their success at home as they attempt to get over yet another Asian shambles. They go to South Africa for some ODI nonsense, before hosting the Proteas in Australia for three tests in November (South Africa want Boxing Day matches of their own, not bowing down to Australia, so it seems unlikely Sydney and Melbourne will see them much in the future). Those matches take place in Perth, Hobart and finally Adelaide (a day-nighter it seems) and will probably end up in a comfortable home win with lots of players looking really good. This will then be followed by another three test series against Pakistan (see above), where we will see if normal service is resumed, and Australia dish out a beating. After some ODI action, the FTP has them playing four tests in India in the early part of 2017. No details of venues yet, but Bengaluru, Dharamsala, Ranchi and Pune are mentioned as the potential hosts.
But what of the team? The flow of ready-made, top quality batsmen, with almost flawless techniques seems to have passed. Australia, rated number 1 until recently, are a pale shadow of past number 1 teams – hell, if you need a benchmark from 10 years ago, they are it – and are something we’ve never associated with them, brittle. From losing the first test having bowled the hosts out for 117 in the first innings, to contriving to lose a test match in Colombo where the hosts were 26 for 5 in their first innings, and the visitors were 267 for 1 in their reply is staggering. These players appeared mentally bereft. The old tenets of international cricket were ripped up. Australia losing their composure? Really?
Selection for the first home test is going to be fascinating. Joe Burns had two ordinary tests and was replaced by Shaun Marsh, who promptly made a ton, but has let Australia down before. David Warner is secure, but he went another Asian series with no real success. Steve Smith was a centurion in Colombo, and made starts in the other two tests, but he’s not convinced as a leader as yet, and may find himself in a position that Clarke inherited, but without a Mitchell Johnson to bale him out. Voges had a low-key series, Khawaja, having looked a million dollars last winter, was dropped again as soon as he failed in a couple of games. The bowling was fine, although Lyon wasn’t the success that was hoped on wickets where Herath made hay. But it was Australia’s sense of throwing selectoral mud on the wall and hoping some would stick that mystified. Heaven knows what happens when they go to India next year. It might not be pretty.
One senses with Australia that they will maintain home dominance and still falter when not expected to away. Despite weaknesses against spin, and the apparent discomfort on Asian surfaces, no-one expected that latest reverse to be so dramatic. Their handy dismantling of the New Zealand good news story last winter is evidence that this is a quality side. Where they concern me, if I can be concerned about Australia, is that this team needs selection patience, and they aren’t doing it. It’s fine and dandy to have a hair trigger when your team is dominant and your 2nd XI would probably give you a better game than most test teams (as in the early 2000s), because the top boys need to maintain their standards. In a team bedding in new players, that’s not sensible. I mean, seriously, who envisages Moises Henriques becoming a test stalwart? We saw this in 2010-11, albeit a bit more laughable, but the portents aren’t good. Burns and Khawaja are quality players. Faith is needed. Perhaps the most interesting country to watch this winter. It might be bipolar in the extreme.