The Curious Case of Moeen Ali: Part Deux

For such an affable chap, Moeen is a rather divisive cricketer.  His batting and bowling veer from the brilliant to the dreadful; opinions tend to be fairly fixed about his value, and yet even when criticised, it tends to be somewhat reluctant.  He didn’t have a good tour of India with the ball, leading Sean to write a piece he described as being like clubbing a baby seal, yet given his outstanding performance in the first Test against South Africa with both bat and ball, it surely puts to bed any questions about his merit.

Well, perhaps not.  The question marks over him are the same ones that have been there since he first came into the team three years ago, namely that his batting isn’t quite good enough to hold down a front line place, and his bowling isn’t near good enough to be the primary Test spinner.  He has certainly developed as a player over that time, and it would be a harsh critic who would say he hasn’t improved, but the question as to whether he has improved enough – one outstanding contribution fresh in the memory notwithstanding – is still a live one.

There has to also be a certain degree of awareness about the aesthetics of the matter.  Moeen in full flow with the bat is simply gorgeous to watch, more reminiscent of David Gower than almost anyone else who has played since.  No one would argue Moeen is remotely as good a batsman as Gower, but there is a similarity in style there, the way both will make any watcher purr with delight at an exquisitely timed cover drive, and gnash teeth with frustration at an ill disciplined waft outside off stump.  It’s both a positive and a negative, and it very much depends on the character and preconceptions of the observer.  Some will make allowances and forgive the flaws because of the intrinsic beauty on show, others will criticise the nature of the dismissals as irresponsible.  As this blog has mentioned before, there is a strange mentality whereby being out to defensive shots is permissible, yet messing up an attacking one is worthy of venom.  It’s the exact opposite to how batsmen tend to think of it, for being dismissed to a defensive shot is an admission of defeat to the bowler, and getting out to an attacking one an occupational hazard.

So allowances are made for being great to watch.  Or he’s criticised more than he should be because he gets out in apparently lazy fashion.  Strokeplayers everywhere have always suffered the same divergent opinions.

His batting is easier to assess these days.  A career average of 35.45 isn’t terrible, but nor is it of the top level.  Yet (and this will crop up again) with him statistics can tend to obscure what he is and what he brings to a side rather than illuminate it.  For he’s a player for whom the term “stat mining” could have been coined; they can be used to defend him or to criticise him, and both have validity.  Certainly his batting has improved at Test level over the last 18 months, raising his overall average from a sub-par high twenties to its current level.  Even in India, where the overall batting line up consistently failed, he tended to be one of the brighter spots.  More interestingly, his relative recent success has been done from a settled position at number seven in the order.  With only 8 Tests in that role, the sample is too small to be too meaningful, but it does reinforce a perception that his counterattacking style is exceptionally valuable down the order.  Either way, three hundreds in those 8 Tests and an average of 78.77 is quite startling, and of immense value to the team if he can maintain even anything thirty percentage points below that contribution level.  The trouble is that he was also markedly less successful one place lower in the order.  This could be psychological to some extent – bat in the tail, bat like a tailender – but it’s also true that in that position he ran out of batting partners often, and was frequently out late on trying to hit some extra runs.  One place higher mitigates that to some extent, but also provides caution in placing too much value on the impressive statistics.

However it might be statistically, Moeen is unquestionably an exceptionally dangerous customer in the lower middle order.  His rate of scoring is destructive, and he can take a match away from the opposition in a session.  Perhaps not to quite the same degree as his team mate one place higher – Ben Stokes – but he’s certainly one to fear when he gets in.

If his batting is now operating at a level where he could arguably get in on merit solely as a batsman, his bowling is much more difficult to quantify.  He has repeatedly said that he considers himself a part time off spinner rather than a front line one, and post Lords Trevor Bayliss made the interesting observation that if that was how Moeen wanted to internalise it, then they were quite happy to let him.  The raw figures are that he has taken 108 wickets in 38 Tests (not too bad) at an average of 39.35 (not so good).  Yet even this needs some further analysis.

Firstly, it has to be taken into account that England fans have been spoiled by having Graeme Swann for several years.  England spinners over the last 40 years have not operated at anything like the level he did.  To put this into context, Swann had a Test bowling average of 29.96, by far the best since the days of Derek Underwood.  Of the other bowlers in living memory who have played a reasonable number of matches, they tend to group around the same kind of level, John Emburey averaged 38.40, Phil Edmonds 34.18, Phil Tufnell 37.68, Ashley Giles 40.60 and Monty Panesar 34.71.  Naturally enough, times, conditions and opposition are all extremely variable for all those players and over all the years, but those were the most successful England spinners in their eras, and none of them have a record that would make anyone sit up and take special notice.  For the reality is that England only rarely  produce exceptional spinners, and Moeen’s record in that list doesn’t stand out as being particularly poor.

There’s more there too, for when it comes to comparing strike rates Emburey’s was 104.7, Edmonds’ 96.2, Tufnell’s 93.2, Giles’ 85.1 and Panesar’s 74.7.  Swann had 60.1 and Moeen Ali 63.6.  Once again, different times and styles of play need to be taken into account here – the strike rate of the bowlers in the 1980s wasn’t thought of as being particularly awful for the time for a start, but the fact that Moeen’s compares well in this regard even to a bowler as well thought of and recent as Panesar is at least food for thought.  It tends to imply what most would think about him anyway – he takes wickets, he bowls some exceptionally good deliveries, but he’s also a little inconsistent and doesn’t maintain control as well as perhaps we would hope.  What Swann was particularly good at was that he was able to play a dual role: a very good defensive spinner in the first half of the game, and an excellent attacking bowler once the pitch began to deteriorate.

Comparative statistics against different sides and in different eras can be fundamentally misleading, yet what can be said is that Moeen’s performance level is not a huge variation from the mean.  In some areas it is better, in others worse.  In some circumstances he has played worse opponents, in others better.  And of course the nature of Test cricket has changed somewhat in any case.

Perhaps the most critical point here is that Australia spent years discarding spinner after spinner for the crime of not being Shane Warne.  Swann wasn’t at that level of course, but he was the best England had produced for many a year.  To hark back to him and hope that England have a plethora of ready-made, equally good replacements to call on would be unreasonable and a triumph of hope over reality.  It is quite simply the case that England do not currently have a finger spinner who would do significantly better.  A little better perhaps, or a little worse, but nothing that would radically change the spinning position.  This doesn’t alter the truth that Moeen had a poor series with the ball in India, nor that he’s anything but the first to suffer that rather chastening experience.  He’s certainly unlikely to terrify many teams in their own backyard, and in Australia later this year he probably won’t do terrifically well either.  Neither did Swann for that matter though, and he was much superior.

One of the strengths of having him in the team as a bowler is his batting, and along with Stokes and Bairstow as all rounders, this creates additional spots for others to take who are more specialist than him.  It could be argued Moeen the bowler is a free option, and a bonus.  This is important because of the qualification above that there aren’t any substantially better finger spinners out there.  That is because of course there is a leg spinner who could and perhaps should have a claim on a spot in the side, and as first choice spin bowler.   Adil Rashid performed markedly better in India than Moeen did, yet was heavily criticised and discarded summarily for failing to be outstanding in one of the most difficult places to tour for a spinner anywhere.  Yet the mistreatment of Adil Rashid shouldn’t be used as a stick with which to beat Moeen, they are two separate issues.  The relatively free pass given to the batsmen for their failures is as much an example of the unreasonableness of the media attack on Adil Rashid as anything to do with Moeen.

Moeen Ali is a flawed cricketer.  There’s no question about that, but perhaps it is time to focus on what he can do rather than what he can’t.  He fulfills an unusual role in recent England cricket history, and he might even be thought of as something of a bits and pieces cricketer, not quite at the desired level in either discipline.  But he also allows the specialists to be included in the side and in business speak can be said to “add value” to the England team.  Berating him for failing to live up to exceptional standards is pointless unless there are alternatives who could take over and improve the side.  Ashley Giles was no one’s idea of a top level spin bowler, but he performed a role in the team for a number of years, and the side was stronger with him doing that.  Moeen does the same thing while at the same time being a much better cricketer, and one who can and does win matches from time to time.   There are worse justifications for a player.

 

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India v England – The 2nd T20 International

I hope Chris and Sean don’t mind but I thought I’d put down a few thoughts in advance of the match tomorrow. In fact, let me be honest. I’ve not checked if England are playing India tomorrow, but I’m assuming they are. It’s a weekend and we haven’t played yet. So assuming it’s on tomorrow. I think that’s some form of appointment to view, isn’t it?

It’s interesting how these fixtures are viewed. I saw many people say after a very routine England win on Wednesday – I think it was Wednesday, the days merge into an amorphous blob at the moment – that international cricket was no place for T20 cricket. I have to ask why? How is someone expected to be loyal to a club side where the only constant appears to be the shirts the team wears rather than the players that fill them. Of course the megastars are going to be tied to teams for a while because there’s brand identity and all that, but the so-called second tier players won’t be. Also, last week KP was playing for the Melbourne Stars, a couple of months ago for the Dolphins, next week for Quetta. Increasingly a T20 match is about being there at the time, because nothing really has context. Who, outside of a few loyal Western Australians, would care that Perth won the Big Bash. It’s a nice feeling now, but it isn’t something to sustain you in your dotage. Not really. It would be the equivalent of Premier League teams winning a cup competition in England, as today’s line-ups in the 4th round will show you;

The one place the sport has thrived in its own way is India. T20 has had a grip on the country, and yet I can’t tell you who won last year’s competition. As a Surrey fan it takes me 5 seconds to get over a T20 loss, 5 minutes to get over a ODI final loss, and yet I’ll be depressed if we lose a county championship game. I am reading Gideon Haigh’s set of essays on cricket from around of the turn of the decade – “Uncertain Corridors” it is called – and he’s dismissive of the launch of the Big Bash. He gets a fair bit wrong, of course he does because we aren’t seers, but his disdain for not letting the product speak for itself is one I shared. More of that in the future. Haigh is never short of brilliant, whether you agree with him or not, and I’d recommend any of his books that I’ve read so far.

The one place I think T20 can work is international cricket. The T20 World Cup is brilliant in part because it is, once the main teams are there, short. We can get into the rights and wrongs of the way the associate nations are treated, but as a competition of 10/12 teams, playing a set of group games, a semi-final and final, and having that done and dusted in 2-3 weeks is excellent. I don’t share the view over 50 over cricket either, and think there is a place for that as well. I’d like to see top players bat for more than an hour, thank you. I’d like to see top bowlers bowl more than 24 deliveries. T20 cricket if the same downsizing ratio is applied to football would mean a match lasting 9 minutes. You’d be pissed off if you had just that amount of time to appreciate a Messi or Ronaldo. I get no satisfaction in seeing a KP, a Kohli, a Root for short periods. But I know, I know.

But where international fixtures work is supposedly bringing a nation together. If you support a crap club team, you can still get behind your nation’s best players in an international environment. Why shouldn’t that work? One cack match in Kanpur and we’re saying it’s not worth it? I don’t care a jot about our Blast, our proposed T20 jamboree, the Ram Slam, the Big Bash, the PSL, the Caribbean thingamy, the Bangladeshi version… It gives me the only outlet to watch one of my favourite players, and that’s all I have to lean on. Haigh says that about watching Shane Warne play for the Stars back then – he’d watch him in a Christmas pantomime if he promised to bowl a flipper – and it’s true. It’s fluff unless there’s substance. International tournaments, proper ones, with history, are what it’s about. I remember Sandy Lyle, still the only Brit to win the Players Championship, being interviewed after he won it. The Players was the richest tournament. It had arguably the best field all year. It was the players own championship. It was the “5th Major”. When asked by the interviewer what the difference was between winning the Open and the Players, he remarked “about 100 years of history”.

The only way T20 can create that history is to build one based on something more than just transient, convenient cricket, where the result really doesn’t seem to matter. Franchise cricket where players come and go, and where there is no sense of kinship or importance other than your own performance to get hired elsewhere, isn’t a recipe for history or longevity. It’s performance art, not sport. International T20 has no chance when it is all about franchises, and instead there’s the collateral damage to international cricket. Watching the painful performances of Pakistan and Sri Lanka recently is a real warning sign. The problem isn’t the format. The problem is the level of cricket being played.

Oh well, here’s what is coming up. We have our anniversary week. I’ve written a lot on Downton’s article in The Cricketer, and hope to finish it off soon. I have to say I was really disappointed by the tone of the article. He was a disaster. Not even sure I like his modus operandi when you look in to some of his operations “outside cricket”. He was utterly awful. Here’s a little taster…

“At the end of the fifth test at The Oval I felt the side had made some real progress. Cook had come through a very difficult period as captain, when almost every commentator called for his resignation, to re-establish himself as the leader of an emerging England side.”

On the face of it, there’s not a lot to argue about here. Cook did indeed come through a very rough time, and England came back to win the series. Cook himself had not made a hundred. No-one really believed Cook’s captaincy was the determining factor in our come from behind win against India. Many believe his captaincy was the determining factor in our defeat to Sri Lanka. But Downton’s not going to mention that other than to say it was “painful to lose”. We all recognised Downton’s tactic. He nailed his colours to the Cook mast, and to quit on him after five minutes would have made him look even more stupid than he had already shown himself to be. He had no other tactic but to cross his fingers and pray the Indians packed it in. And they did. It may have turned on the early dropped chance at the Rose Bowl (or Ageas Bowl). It was no genius on his part, and he’s re-writing history.

Life is a little quieter. Mum in law is getting better, but not sure of the scale of the potential recovery. Wife still away and that’s really hard. Likely to be away for a while yet. Work hasn’t let up, and got a day out to Munich on Tuesday starting at 4am and likely to be finishing at 1 am the following day. Nice round trip. Aunt’s funeral is on Thursday. Loads to do and the blog does take a back seat. But I’ll try to do what I can.

Comments on the 2nd T20, whenever, wherever, it takes place (oh, it’s Nagpur) here. Sorry to say I won’t catch the first part because my football team is live on TV for the first time in a while, and Dmitri not as Old is coming round to watch with me. Have a good weekend, what remains of it, and see you soon!

India vs England: 1st T20

Perhaps total indifference is an unreasonable response to England finally winning a game on the tour of India, but with the BBC deciding not to broadcast the game on Radio 4 LW, and the pressing matter of a flat tyre to sort out before heading to a meeting, this one couldn’t have passed me by more completely if it had been played on the moon.

Apparently England bowled well.  Apparently they batted well too.  But like the tree in the forest, if it’s not been witnessed who knows if it really happened.  It’s not being dismissive of the game itself or the efforts involved, but cricket is so low key with England these days that I didn’t even remember the game was on until it was referenced in the news as I was driving along.  That’s not meant to be a boast, for the implied virtue signalling of pretending ignorance of something only lesser types pay attention to is far too prevalent these days.  In fact it’s just the opposite, it’s rather troubling that I didn’t realise.

It’s been said often enough that T20 is something of a McDonalds Value Meal, enjoyable at the time, but not something to live long in the memory, and that’s part of its very appeal in some respects.  The World T20 is exactly what a cricket tournament should be, short, sharp, entertaining and with hazard throughout for all the teams.  The Big Bash too has been good to watch, and even at the end the Australian coach’s delightfully crass comments made the whole thing grab attention.

But like that Big Mac Meal (free vouchers for the mention from McDonalds UK are welcome) you aren’t worried at all if you’ve gone without (Ah, there go the vouchers), and the same applies to today.  Tymal Mills bowled very fast it seems, and Moeen Ali and Ben Stokes bowled very well.  Eoin Morgan once again made a few journalists push back their calls for his execution for another day, and England cruised home.

Well played all.  What a pity I can’t think of much else to say.  No, truly it is.  Some will say that’s my problem and no one else’s, and you know what, they are probably right.

India vs. England, 3rd ODI

The key to any game of cricket, be it a red ball match or a white match, a county game or an international is often the ability to create a fair balance between bat and ball. There have been plenty of examples in the Test arena recently of home teams producing suitably favourable bowling strips that ensure that the away team is at a massive disadvantage from the start and is often blown away in under 3 days (yes England are just as guilty of this as everyone else). These are not particularly good contests to watch as unless something out of the ordinary happens, then the predictable projection of the game is apparent after only 2 sessions.

Equally, the same goes for white ball cricket. The administrators wish that every ODI is a run fest does not necessarily make for great viewing either. The first two ODI’s were an exact mirror of this – extremely flat pitches, postage stamp boundaries and a ball that stops doing anything after two overs meaning that the bowlers are simply cannon fodder for any remotely skilled international batsmen. Sure when there is the occasional score of 350+ that should be lauded as a great batting performance, but when it becomes somewhere about par, I find it, well a little bit boring if I’m honest. It seems that the pitch today at Kolkata was a rare example of being able to produce something that gave some encouragement for both batsmen and bowlers alike. There was some swing early on for the bowlers as the batsmen couldn’t just heave across the line, there was some pace with the new ball and the odd bit of uneven bounce when the ball was hard (just ask Yuvraj). However there were also runs to be had by batting sensibly early on and then cashing in when the ball got softer and the fields got spread. This is what international cricket should be all about, no matter whether it’s with the white ball or the red ball and what followed was an exciting match that went down to the last ball. This is the secret to prolonging interest in the 50 over game, not producing slog fest after slog fest, but rewarding both bowlers and batsmen who have the requisite skill to play the game. I’m probably pissing into the wind with this request as no doubt 400 will soon play 400, but it would be a welcome addition to the ODI arena, if the bowlers are able to contribute actively to the game too.

Unfortunately, I admitted in the 2nd paragraph that the pitch seemed to play well, but I cannot be sure as I’ve been sick all weekend and only caught the last half of the Indian innings. I was hoping that Chris might have been around to write this, but he is in Paris staring into the fog in the hope that they’re might be a game of rugby below, so apologies that this report is on the brief side.

From listening to a bit of TMS, it does seem that England did well to make 320 on this pitch (the TMS commentators reckoned 300 was about par) and this was once again down to a number of contributions to the English batsmen again. Roy seemed to be the stand out contributor again, though I’m sure he will be kicking himself that he didn’t go on and make a hundred as he’s had a chance in all 3 games of the series. Billings, Bairstow and Morgan all contributed to the total, though I’m sure that the English media will concentrate on the ugly shot that he got out to (yep the whole play aggressive cricket mantra, but don’t get out to an attacking shot thing again). Stokes came in much like he did in the first ODI and put together an exciting cameo with Woakes to lift us to 321 when 300 looked to be the ceiling of our ambitions.

As for India, there openers came and went early, so it was once again a battle between India’s vaunted middle order and England’s bowlers. Kohli once again looked to be taking the game away from England, especially when he was put down by Ball, before swiping at a wide one from Stokes. Dhoni and Yuvraj both got in, looked to be heading for a big score and then got out at crucial times before Jahdav and Pandya seemed to be taking the game away from England. Jahdav looks to be a real find for India and no doubt will win them a good number of games in the future; however today was not going to be their day. England were able to take vital wickets during the last few overs to stem the runs and despite a repeat take of the Eden Park last over yips that threatened to sway the game India’s way, England managed to regroup and bowl 4 consecutive dots including the vital wicket of Jahdav to snare their first victory of the tour.

I’m sure we’ll cover the lessons learnt from this series in a bit more depth after the T20’s, but as I really don’t feel well, that can wait for another day. I’m back off to bed with a lemsip!

And now for something completely different

8:00 – The cricket has started.  It’s cold.  I don’t want to get up, but I need to.  I’ve got work to do most importantly.

8:15 – No really, I need to get up.

8:23 – Coffee is on, cricket is on, I’m up.  I seem to have missed Virat Kohli, it’s 21-3.  This is one of those situations where if it was England with that score you’d be absolutely certain it was game over, at least for England of most of the time I’ve been watching them.  But India?  There’s the nagging feeling that after 25 overs they’re going to be 150-3.  Basic rule of this one today is I’m not going to to go back and amend anything that makes me look stupid later on.  Some may say that’s a given anyway.

8:43 – Yep, it’s started.  Yuvraj Singh has spent his career making England miserable by pulling the fat out of the fire, and he’s just pinged Jake Ball for three fours in an over.  Thus it begins.  Watching England involves absolutely certainty that no matter how good the situation, they can find a way to make a mess of it.

8:44 – Djokovic out of the Australian Open.  The reminder that for all the corruption, cheating and theft of sport as a concept in favour of filthy lucre, there’s a reason people love it – the unexpected.

8:49 – Yuvraj and Dhoni, it’s so 2010.

8:50 – Woakes off.  Given he’s taken 3-14 off five it seems a trifle harsh not to have mentioned him.  But I didn’t actually see much.  But well bowled anyway.

8:55 – Yuvraj Singh is a lovely player to watch.

8:56 – Work.  We don’t get paid for cricket.  Although I was once.  I was a professional cricketer. It’s true, it really is.  I was a pro for one day, when my boss for my summer job was due to play for the our club, but had to work, so he got me to do it that day and paid me anyway.

9:02 – Is it just me who really hates the way every other advert on TV is for a betting company?  I don’t object to gambling, but the number of commercials for it pisses me off no end.

9:10 – Nasser Hussain mentions that the England players have black armbands on as a mark of respect for Rachael Heyhoe-Flint.  Quite right too, she put the women’s game on the map in a way that no-one had done before.  There are a lot of female cricketers up and down the country, and across the world, who owe her a nod of thanks for her refusal to accept being patronised.

9:28 – at 88-3 India have fought back well.  England are still on top but it’s a lot more even.  They don’t remotely look like taking a wicket, and it’s something that England have been guilty of for quite a number of years, failing to press home and early advantage and then reverting to run saving and hoping a wicket falls.  Perhaps it’s a mentality thing as much as anything else, but it’s extremely rare to see England determined to take wickets in the middle overs.

9:55 – 135-3 off 26.  It’s a decent recovery alright, you’d think all things being equal 300 was distinctly possible.  Part of the reason for doing today’s report this way was to see how wise after the event I tend to be.  The OBO boys tend to describe the action, and I don’t really blame them – it’s a hostage to fortune to talk about expectations.  So I’m going to do it anyway.  There’ll be acceleration and right now I’ll call India’s final total to be 340.  Which may not be enough.

9:58 – The problem with ODIs is that these overs are just pretty dull.  Yet when at the ground, at least in England, that’s part of it, it’s the time when you wander out to get the beers in or something to eat (after pleading with your bank manager for a loan, especially at Lords).  Yet it’s hard to maintain attention to the television, and perhaps that’s not a bad thing.  In my case, I’m working anyway, so I have plenty to do.  No I really am.  It’s true, I’ve done a fair bit so far.  You don’t believe me I know.

10:10 – Just a comment on England sitting in and not trying to take wickets, there have been three edges through where first slip would be.  The temptation to be Ian Botham and imagine there are 15 fielders on the ground is always there, but that’s how you take wickets, by giving the bowlers a chance.  It’s something England are always prone to do, and then wonder why they end up facing a big total after taking them early on.  It’s not especially a criticism of this one per se, more of an approach issue.

10:15 – The general rule is to double the score at 30 overs, though apparently it’s nearer 31 according to the stattos.  172-3 after 31, so my 340 is looking a decent shout at the moment.

10:25 – Hundred up for Yuvraj.  He seems to have been around forever.  And seems to save his best for England.  No matter, he’s a joy to watch, and given his health problems there’s always a strong sense of goodwill towards him.  Maybe his Test career didn’t fulfil him completely, but as an ODI performer, he’s quite something.  Maybe he’s not quite the player he was, but that’s true of most players as they get towards the end.

10:55 – This is getting messy.  Plenty of chat about what England need to be better, and while it’s true Mark Wood is a loss, the temptation to believe those not in the team would be better by virtue of them not being here is always strong.  Some are saying recall Stuart Broad, but he’s never been that great at ODIs, there’s no reason to assume he’ll suddenly become the best thing since sliced bread.

11:20 – One batsman not out 150, the other not out 100.  As Richie would have said “Problems there”

11:21 – Oh nice, I get an email from an aviation magazine asking if I’ll write them 1,500 words on cultural differences in Asia.  Wonder how I can get out of that.

11:26 – Er.  When did England get Yuvraj out?

11:54 – 340 has been and gone.  The problem when you don’t take wickets is that the slog can be completely unrestricted.  Much doom and gloom, but the boundaries are very small and England aren’t out of it by any means.  A big chase, yes, but not an impossible one.

On that point, some mishits are going for six, which always gets people talking about the bats.  But small boundaries are the bigger issue – and it’s a deliberate choice.  If it’s only said when England are on the receiving end (and it’s glorious batting when they do it) then that’s just lashing out and whining that it’s not fair.

11:57 – Dhoni was brilliant today.  He and Yuvraj, both over 35, both outstanding.  Let’s just remember that in England players get written off in their early thirties all too often purely on the grounds of age.

12:01 – 382 to win then.

12:44 – England under way.  Unless they lose wickets early, there’s never much to say at this stage.

13:08 – 51-1 off the first 8 overs.  Decent start and the complaints about England’s bowlers have quietened for a bit.

13:52 – Root goes, but it’s 127-2 off 19.5.  So England are handily placed.  Still not much to say though, and this is the trouble with the ODIs, they purr along in the background while you wait for the business end of the game.  Maybe it’s just me, as plenty seem to love them.  And I don’t dislike them at all, it’s just that there’s so much setting up time.  The irony is that this is the period that actually dictates the result to a fair extent – England have made a good start, and they bat deep.  The next 10 overs will give a strong idea which way this match is going.

1449 – work does get in the way. Now on my way to an event in London, so having to do the cricket following via Cricinfo. This could make detailed exposition on the good and bad a mite tricky. Oh Buttler is out. Oh dear. At this point India are obviously rather strong favourites, so let’s do the prediction thing again. I’m going for England to be all out for 320 or so. They do bat very deep of course. But 10 an over with half the side out is a big ask. Over to Captain Morgan to make the hacks spit their tea out. 

 1457 – Ashwin and Jadeja look like being the difference. Cue wailing and gnashing of teeth that India have better spinners than England. 

1512 -Biggest shock news of the day, Southern Rail are on time. I feel faint. 

1513 – I’m not the world’s biggest Eoin Morgan fan, but then neither do I dislike or have a problem with him. But I’d really love him to ram the words of those who slag him off back down their throats. 

1531 –  Morgan and Moeen have done extremely well, but this would be the highest number of runs off the last ten over by a side batting second ever. Well, records are there to be broken, and you can usually find one if you look hard enough. 

1538 – Just as I was thinking my 320 was looking pessimistic, bang go two wickets. Big ask now. 

1552 – a game of cricket just isn’t complete until you’ve had a third umpire shambles. 

1601 – Morgan appears to have gone into ‘batting like God’ mode. 

1604 – God’s had a word then

1606 – 22 off an over. Those of a certain age will be thinking about Allan Lamb right now. Younger ones, Carlos Brathwaite

1612 – all over, but close. Morgan almost got England there so it’ll be interesting to see how some manage to blame him for it. At best it’ll be ‘he owed them that’ or similar. 

Curious, I was hoping reading this back to have been miles out, but the format is sufficiently formulaic to follow a script.

I’ve made no changes except to grammar. An interesting experiment for me, and maybe we try it again as an over by over. If it interests anyone. 

India vs. England, 1st ODI, 2017

ODI’s to me, I must admit are a bit like a Victoria Sponge Cake, sure if I’m offered it for free at the end of a meal, then I’ll probably have a bite, but would I order it off the menu, then I very much doubt it. Yet to doubt their popularity away from England would be folly, the Indian public in particular love their white ball cricket and India have become a formidable force in this format.

Regardless of what happened in the match, the build up to the game has very much been Eoin the mercenary vs. Eoin the ‘non national anthem singing,’ well mercenary. The Daily Mail has had it’s xenophobia/brexit mantra right in hand, I mean how dare an Irishman, who happens to be England captain, refuse to travel to a country that might not be safe. I mean Andrew Strauss said it was, yet the so called English ODI captain still refused to travel to Bangladesh and even worse, he still refuses to sing the Queen’s National Anthem, that’s just not cricket. I’m still half expecting an outraged Oliver Holt to fly out with a couple of stocks (not Chris Stocks, though no doubt his coverage will be in a variety of English newspapers) painted in national colours, with rotten apples or any other particularly English fruit at the ready to throw at Morgan.

The thing is, if we do well in this series, then it will be branded as Strauss’ brave new ODI side and if we do badly, then it’s Eoin Morgan’s failing England team with a lame dog captain at the helm. I mean who would want to be an England skipper, unless your name is Alastair Cook, who is supposedly being hounded (their words, not mine) out of a job with the very lightest of criticism if you choose to listen to ‘those that know’. I will freely admit, I’m not Morgan’s biggest fan and I guess you will find very few Middlesex fans that are, still I’m not a xenophobic moron either and I will happily support Morgan on the basis that whilst his batting isn’t the same as it was in 2010, and back then his batting was a revelation, his captaincy is actually pretty good.

Now do I think that Morgan is the next Mike Brearly, well of course I don’t, yet the improvements are there. The batsmen are generally posting in excess of 300 runs most innings, somewhat unheard of if you go back 2 years to the Peter Moores reign and the bowlers, whilst most would agree are somewhat limited in this format, at least have some sort a plan to work with, again a massive improvement on 2015. It does actually seem that the Captain and Coach are working in harmony, unlike the Test team, where Sir Alastair does and says what he wants, and that’s why unlike the Test team, that this team has made pretty good strides in the last 18 months. Long gone are the days where we hoped Ravi Bopara might lift us up to 270 in the final 5 overs. English cricket has shown that it can move forward given the right environment and quite possibly with the right captain too.

As for the game itself, well we gave ourselves a chance by scoring 350 on a fairly flat deck with small boundaries, yet even at half time it felt we were about 30 runs short such are the run fests that are becoming of ODI’s now. Jason Roy played a lovely knock before getting a bit too ambitious, Morgan, Moeen and Buttler had nice cameos and Ben Stokes played an absolute gem of a knock when it seemed that 320 was likely to be at the high end of England’s expectations. The strangest innings of the day was Joe Root’s, which despite Nasser Hussain’s constant praise throughout, seemed a bit of a strange affair when you know 350 is about par on this track. It is hard to criticise a player who has just flown in from England after the birth of his first child and has hit 70 odd, but England’s innings seemed to be sapped of any kind of urgency when Root was at the crease and it was only through the power hitting of Stokes at the end that we came up with something resembling a score that might be defendable. Perhaps I’m being too harsh on Root, as it’s important to have an anchor in the innings for others to play around, but equally one could also add that if we had scored another 20 runs then it could have been a tighter match.

Yet despite achieving a par score on this pitch, England’s bowlers gave us some hope by reducing India to 63-4 with some fine bowling from David Willey in particular; however England once again made the fatal mistake of not getting Kohli out early. Of course, I say this with tongue firmly in cheek, as Kohli is batting on a different planet to everybody else at the moment. His partnership with Yadav was a pure mixture of outstanding timing, outrageous shots and total skill from both batsmen to put England’s bowlers to the sword. I’m sure that one or two of our media chums will no doubt put the blame at the door of England’s spinners and I agree they didn’t bowl well, but they were never allowed to settle due to the skill of both Indian batsmen. Perhaps if Moeen or Rashid had managed to get a couple of cheap overs in early then they might have been able to settle into a routine, but that’s by the by as India attacked both with glee and no little skill, which basically forced Morgan’s hand to remove both spinners from the attack and stick with the seam bowling attack in a futile effort to stop the runs from flowing. By the time England had managed to take the wickets of both Kohli and a limping Yadav, each for a fine 100, the game was pretty much up, the run rate was under 6 and India bat pretty deep. There was the odd moment of panic in the final stages from India, but all in all, they won the game pretty comfortably with nearly two overs to spare.

So onto the next ODI game on Thursday on the same sort of pitch at Cuttack no doubt, with the question being will England have learnt anything from this game or will we see more of the same from India? An equally pertinent question may be, does the English public actually care about these ODI’s, but we’ll leave that one for another time.

India vs England again. Preview

So England are back, for the money element of the tour.  Players have cut short their Big Bash contracts and flown over, and the cricketing world sighs and tries to muster up the slightest interest in affairs.  It is always the case that if the ODIs are placed after the Tests they feel like an afterthought in terms of the itinerary, yet for England it’s all there is for the next six months in the run up to the Champions Trophy. Much of the domestic comment has centred around the return of Eoin Morgan as  captain having elected not to go to Bangladesh, with the usual barbs aimed at him for that decision by those can often pick and choose their tours as journalists without anyone noticing or offering comment.  More than one senior cricket correspondent has sent someone else to cover a series they didn’t fancy in the past.

Hales too returns to the side, with none of the criticism that Morgan received, but with the same degree of media pressure to perform having taken the same decision.

The ECB created and agreed an itinerary over the next 18 months that only a sadist could take satisfaction in, so it’s rather startling to see two warm up matches before the relatively short three ODI series (plus 3 T20s).  Given the lack of anything approaching a warm up before the Test series – unless the Bangladesh Tests were considered so – it goes from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Of course, at the same time there is the matter of Alastair Cook’s captaincy to be resolved.  Nick Hoult at the Telegraph has a good record of calling things correctly in recent times and seems of the opinion that Cook will go.  Equally, all the indications are that it is Cook’s decision, which remains a peculiar state of affairs for someone for whom captaincy has been anything but a natural skill.  When the decision finally comes, it seems almost certain that the press coverage will be vaguely equivalent to that for a deceased monarch, and nothing else quite sums up the total disconnect between the ECB media corps and reality, to that created by talking about a captain in awed tones who has done nothing to warrant it.  Some may love him, some may hate him, but by no objective measure can his tenure be called any kind of unqualified success.  The adoration remains what it always has been – deeply strange.  The difference in media approach to Cook and Morgan is all the more striking given that of the two captains, the latter has had much the better record over the last two years.

For the ODI series itself there are few surprises, the squad currently more or less picks itself, and the interest will be in seeing whether they cope with Indian conditions any better than their Test playing colleagues.  In their own conditions India must be favourites, but England remain a threat to anyone in one day cricket.  The question is whether anyone here will even notice.  The Big Bash coverage has been mostly on BT Sports but with some matches on Channel 5.  To date no viewing figures have been announced, but it has to be likely those numbers will be higher than anything the England team get locked away on subscription TV.  In one sense, it is to be hoped they are, for it would at least demonstrate there’s an interest in the sport.  If not, cricket really is doomed in Britain.

English cricket is in something of a holding pattern this week.  Whatever happens, there’ll be a lot more to write about soon enough.

 

Dmitri’s Review Of The Year – The Year of Peaceful Antagonism

hh-review-globe

It’s not exactly original, I know, but the end of a year brings forth a time to reflect, to review and to write tedious end of year pieces looking forward to the next. Good grief, I know I am guilty of that more than most! Be warned, this is a long one……

How will I look back on 2016? It has been a challenging year for blogging, it has to be said. From a personal perspective I’ve found this year quite tough. I’ve not had the pure motivation of previous years, and for quite lengthy periods have not been bothered to write. That’s probably a product of two things.

  • The first is that with a few glorious exceptions, the authorities have upgraded themselves from Keystone Cops to Dad’s Army, and thus haven’t really pushed the buttons. Combined with somehow finishing the KP for England (in the T20) debate despite none of us thinking it was ever an option they would undertake, the ECB mainly steered clear of self-made obstacles. Then they raised their T20 plans and banished Durham, and they gave us some gifts to work on. However, the ECB had a quiet year (by recent standards) it has to be said. The rumblings of old perennial flowers in the garden may give portents to future growth of enthusiasm.
  • The second is blogging burnout. I have said on many occasions how unprepared I was when How Did We Lose in Adelaide took off. Not just the time and effort to write and write and write, but also mentally how draining it can be, especially on top of a very busy job. The whole thing took a lot out of me. Writing the blog became borderline obsessive. Content, no matter how it was derived, mattered. I started feeling the pace during the 2015 Ashes. Having moved from HDWLIA to the new blog, it had become established and even had a new writer to help out (which greatly undersells what Chris has brought to this blog – but that’s how he worded his first offer, “helping out”), but I was thoroughly pissed off by the cricket, the media, the idiots throwing bricks at us, and probably culminated in the Twitter meltdown with Etheridge. I was knackered. At times during 2016 that has resurfaced. I have a life outside of here and work. I have a lot of other interests. It is time I paid attention to them. But, this is like an addictive drug. It keeps pulling me back. I’m sometimes not sure if this is good or not!

For me 2016 was a year when the campaigning, more vociferous (shall we say) blogging was put a little back in its box. This hasn’t been the year for it, although it may have ended a good deal more tetchily than it was in the middle months. That’s not to say I don’t think Being Outside Cricket is declining in relevance, such as we have. There’s still something on here you will not find anywhere else, and that’s a lot of cricket tragics putting forward angry points of view, without fear or favour. The voice is still heard, if a lot less acknowledged in public, and that we have retained a very healthy hit rate and visitor count despite a decline in the number of articles, in conjunction with a test year which, on paper, wasn’t the most attractive in pure media terms, and a lack of major controversies speaks volumes. At the end of 2016 I feel better than at most parts of the year. I do recognise, though, that the next four or five months are going to be absolutely brutal with a lack of England test matches, and only patchy instances of ODI cricket to sustain us. The one thing learned is that test matches drive traffic. Well that and KP and/or Alastair Cook. With an absence of those factors, all of us here are under no illusions how tough the barren lands of early 2017 will be. In contrast, the next year from May 2017 will be absolutely off the charts.

Outside of Being Outside Cricket, I am sad that people like Maxie (totally) and Tregaskis (to a lesser extent) are not rumbling around as they used to. Both are inspirations to me over the past few years, writing in their own styles, and attacking their foe with precision and not a little flair as well. If they are the guided missiles or sniper’s rifle, I’m a big hefty cannon! Maxie in particular is a grievous loss to our cause and to that of cricket blogging. Maxie drives traffic when he writes. You may not agree with him, but you read him. You may argue with him, but you listen to him. He has that skill to get under the right people’s noses. I have said that he will always have a place to write if he ever wanted to “come back” and that stands. Without him, and with the different direction I think The Full Toss has gone, it does feel quite lonely out here, being angry and keeping the fires burning!

That’s because others who were equally vociferous during the tumultuous times are much less so now. That is the writer’s choice, of course, and I don’t want to criticise them for it. Each cricket writer / blogger has to be true to themselves. I have said, many times, that if I wasn’t true to what I believed in you’d see it a mile off, and I wouldn’t be able to write for any length of time. I have a couple of individuals in mind (and not the Full Toss before people put 2+2 together and make 5), and they need to realise that playing both sides of the fence is taking much of their readership for granted. They are still capable of great things, pieces I read and enjoy. But there are other times I think “are you being, have you been, totally honest with your readers?” That’s for them. Call it friendly advice.

It would not be a review of the year without mentioning the madhouse that is Twitter. Contact with the media has fallen off a cliff this year as obviously we don’t need to be acknowledged as we were post-KP. Now that’s a dead issue the media, those who bothered, don’t need to know how the great unwashed feel. That’s no more evident in the recent Cook incidents. The press don’t need to protect him now, because there’s no combined angry backlash if he was to be sacked coming, other than from a couple of diehard pillocks the world can ignore safely. After KP there was an angry backlash from a number of blogs, new and old, and the reporters had to recognise this. Now there’s nothing to get angry about, there’s nothing for them to worry about. I’d be a little bit concerned, if I was a journo, about some of the key big beasts being put out to pasture. They weren’t, in the main, the ones who had the foggiest idea about “social media”, despite being on it.

Twitter has been a lot less confrontational. The odd arsehole that got on my nerves as always – some who follow KP’s twitter feed to have a pop strike me as particularly “obsessed” – but nothing like the rubbish I’ve had to put up with in the past. After the early issues this year with one, we’ve had a spell where we’ve managed, I think, to not get mad at each other, which suits me. The other one I have had constant issues with showed their nasty side by threatening to out my name in a particularly lovely Tweet, but even if they do, no-one cares. Then there was the remarkably odd parody twitter feed. I’ve blocked that old bollocks. Other than that, it’s all quite quiet, and that can only be a good thing for your health, I suppose.

So to the cricket. What, really? If I must? Let’s focus on England.

The year started with the Ben Stokes blitz in Cape Town. This incredible knock didn’t get England a win, but it did set the tone for some high octane stuff during the year. Almost, but not quite, unnoticed in that innings was the magnificent first hundred for Jonny Bairstow, which would lay the table for his year. England actually finished Cape Town on the back foot after a double hundred by Amla and a century by Bavuma, and a last day wobble, but returned magnificently on top at Johannesburg when the stars aligned for another of those Stuart Broad spells. Joe Root’s masterful century on a surface that Broad made hay on is conveniently forgotten by those wishing to criticise him now, and it laid the foundation for the series win. England then went on to lose a one-sided, we don’t give a stuff test, at Centurion. Funny how, when we lose these matches, we don’t give a stuff because we’ve won the series. I suppose it makes us feel like the 1990s Australian team if we think like that.

The ensuing ODI series with South Africa started with England’s attacking play dominating. The first two matches were taken in some style, before the tide turned, and England’s devil may care approach came unstuck in the decider. If one lesson was learned it was not to say we would win a series 5-0 when we hadn’t actually won the series. Maybe we’ll learn. Also, Adil Rashid dropped a catch and copped a ton of blame. That set a tone.

The World T20 competition was greeted with little hope, given it was being played in India and “we never do well in the sub-continent”. England lost to the West Indies in a Gayle tour de force, but came back to win the rest of their group games, including a phenomenal run chase against South Africa that was a much a trait of our new attitude as the loss in the ODI decider in South Africa had been. People, it’s two sides of the same coin. It just isn’t a tuppence, but a nice shiny new £2 one. England qualified for the semi-final, and overcame New Zealand, and when they got to the Final were relieved to be facing West Indies and not India. We all know what happened then, and we also know how important a moment in the cricket year for attitudes going forward in the media and the blogs that was.

The good feelings from the World T20, despite the tumultuous ending, and the start of the new county season seemed to beckon a bright summer. But the first half was low key, and in many ways just dull. The home series v Sri Lanka, both in tests and ODIs, lacked a certain something. There were exciting moments, none more so than Liam Plunkett’s last ball six in the first ODI, but Sri Lanka’s game approach was not matched by results. England won the test series 2-0, with a rain-affected draw the other “result”, and got through the two limited overs portions of the somewhat less than Super Series unbeaten. It was job done for England, but judging by attendances at the test matches, the level of interest on here, and my own (lack of) attempts to keep up with fixtures while on holiday in the US, it raised a number of very awkward questions about the quality of the product on show. This was the first time I had to listen via Guerilla Cricket. A useful service, but really not my cup of Earl Grey. After that it was Cricinfo (and my first question on Polite Enquiries which was met with George saying “I don’t think Dmitri is being totally serious”.

The second half of the summer was covered in my 5th Dmitri for the year. From England’s perspective it was a series that possibly got away. There was much rancour and discord over the omission of Anderson and Stokes from the first test, which grew when the whispers that they were fit were married up with a defeat at the hands of a vibrant opposition and around the same time Andy Flower broke his “dignified silence”. There was a distinct smack of “good journalism” about it all. The second test at Old Trafford was one way traffic once Cook and Root set about the task at hand, with Root becoming only the second domestic player since 1990 to pass 250 in a test match. England took the wickets they needed within the time allotted for a comprehensive win. A tight third test that ebbed and flowed went the way of the hosts when Pakistan failed to survive Day 5 (heard that one before), but any resting on the laurels was rudely awakened when a lax first innings at The Oval was at least 150 runs short (despite a Moeen masterpiece) and Younis Khan’s double hundred pointed the way to a series levelling victory. In both wins Yasir Shah had applied the bowling coup de grace. Yasir was lethal in London, undone up north.

The ODI series that followed had some magnificent performances, most notably the breaking of Robin Smith’s 23 year old record for the highest ODI score by an England player. Hales had 200 at his mercy but had to settle for 171. That new record might not last 23 months. England also made the highest ODI score of 444 for 3, Wahab recorded figures of 0 for 110 (second only to the legend of Mick Lewis in ODIs), Jos Buttler took 22 balls to reach 50 (an English record) and so on and so forth. We also had a number 11 make a 50 in the response! Pakistan rallied towards the end of the series, winning the last game, and then winning the T20 as well, but overall, sentiment towards the white ball team was in the ascendant. They were/are genuinely fun to watch.

The problem with England, its media, and many of its fans, is that there is too much emphasis placed on “doing what is perceived to be the right thing”. Looming at the end of the series was the trip to Bangladesh, where international teams were less keen to go, especially after the early July terrorist attacks at a bakery in Dhaka that was frequented by overseas visitors. After a very thorough review, itself indicative of the tricky nature of the decision, and backed by a host government prepared to throw a shedload of money at security, the tour was deemed safe to proceed. Players were given, by the ECB, keeping in mind the security issues, a choice whether they would go on the tour or stay. Eoin Morgan and Alex Hales said they did not feel comfortable and withdrew, just as Andrew Caddick did in India many years ago. The results were a widespread condemnation of Morgan, an Oliver Holt expedition so shallow that it barely merited being a puddle of a piece, and the generation of nonsensical heat and light about duty, loyalty, courage and leadership. A 2-1 ODI series win, under some interesting and tetchy leadership by Jos Buttler, was greeted like a huge triumph, and now the same heat and light is on whether Morgan should be in the team on merit, or whether we should just throw in the young guns, like, er, Ben Duckett (that went well in the test team). Morgan is a great captain of an ODI team and keeps his place on merit. Cook wasn’t a great captain of a poor performing test team, and was in poor nick for quite a while, and the press could barely mention it. We are a funny bunch.

Once the ODI series and the all the old cobblers that came with had been got out of the way, so we went into the two match test series. Alastair Cook had come back from the UK after the birth of his second child, and assumed the reins of the team, as they sought to hold back the hosts on some very spicy, spinning wickets. Both tests were filled with drama. Batting was perilous, but England got enough to win by a narrow margin at Chittagong, with Stokes being the difference, but the cracks did not hold at Dhaka, and Bangladesh romped to a famous victory. There was lot of great spin in evidence, with the English representatives coming from the media, and the hosts from the team, and especially the exciting talent that was Mehedi Hassan. The media tried to make it look like this was a valiant drawn series against a talented foe. Most of us thought this was a recipe for disaster with India looming, and no-one was being called for it except the three spinners. Batsmen weren’t to blame, they rarely are (unless you should not have been picked in the first place, Gary Balance). Those of us with long memories will recall the over the top reactions to a hit out or get out 50 by Ben Duckett for a while to come. It took all of two matches for him to become “unselectable” after that.

Then on to India. The result was pre-ordained according to the press and other experts. I’m listening to an old Switch Hit where Mark Butcher basically said that anyone with any cricket knowledge should have known that was going to be the result. I am really sorry, but I am not buying it, will not be buying it, and won’t be buying it any time soon. England were competitive, so they said, but lost key sessions and lost 4-0. Because this was the bar set at the start, then it was almost acceptable for it to be the end result. I was half joking when I said anything other than 5-0 would be painted as a success.

But you know, and I know, that this isn’t really what is going on. For the media to, almost as one, indicate that it’s time up for Alastair Cook suggests he’s not really thought of as totally without blame for this one in the same way David Gower wasn’t for the Blackwash of 1984. The captaincy was abject at some points – and all captains go through abject moments – but he seemed to be unable to rouse anyone, to get them enthused or excited. At times it was going through the motions. Karun Nair has a test triple hundred to his name, for heaven’s sake. Gavaskar, Tendulkar, Dravid, Viswanath, Hazare et al have not made one, but Karun Nair has. Jayant Yadav may be a very talented cricketer, but he has a test ton to his name too. Yet this was seen to be almost “expected”. I’m scratching my head.

England played well at Rajkot, batted with discipline, made a massive first innings total, dictated terms, and played with good sense. The declaration caused some ructions, but I wasn’t overly fussed about it. A decent performance after Dhaka was what was needed. Of course, some went silly over it, and then found out why you shouldn’t when we were handily beaten at Vizag. Kohli’s masterful 167 being the key batting difference, and while some were still saying the signs were really encouraging, most of us thought that unless the bleeding was stopped we were in real trouble. Of course, the toss was “crucial” there, and the result might have been different had we won it. When we won the toss at Mohail, we were promptly dismissed for 283 and dead in the water. Of course, this ignores the fact that India were 204 for 6 in reply and were totally let off the hook, as the tail wagged. A 124 run lead for India was enough. England never got back into the game.

At this point Haseeb Hameed had sustained a broken finger and was out of the rest of the tour, which meant his almost legendary start could benefit more from not playing in the final two test matches. Hameed is a talent, for sure, but I do like to see my talents make massive scores before anointing them as the heir apparent to Kumar Sangakkara, even if that means I’m bloody unreasonable in so doing. English sport is littered with kids built up before they are due, and cast aside when they don’t live up to the hype. Let’s hope HH is an exception to the rule.

The last two test matches followed similar patterns. England won the toss, thus gaining an advantage, but still found themselves batting last as they made on the face of it decent totals, but totally inadequate when you neither appeared to have the clue or the sticky hands to constrain Indian batsmen. Are you really telling me that Mumbai was a 631 wicket? I’ve just heard Mark Butcher call England’s second innings as being inevitably below 200, because the deck was doing everything. Yet we couldn’t get shot of the Indian lower order? They were 34 runs behind us when the 7th wicket went down and walked away with a 231 lead! As for Chennai, that was a road. A road we couldn’t be arsed to stick it out on to get a draw.

Look, I recognise, as someone who has watched the game enough that winning in India is tough. I am not bloody stupid. What got me with this is the almost reticent attitude of those following, who seemed to take more time explaining away our failures rather than getting stuck into players who underperformed, unless their name was Adil Rashid. It was quite strange, having lived through some disastrous tours where the press declared open season, even at times when we were expected to be thrashed (every overseas Ashes series it seemed). Now everyone wanted to be ever so reasonable about it. As the beloved says “beware a change of behaviour”.

The year ends with England, touted as possible world number 1s after their win in South Africa in a state of flux. I think most people, in their hearts, know Cook should go. Some have known it a lot longer than others. There is almost ludicrous expectations on Hameed, while Keaton Jennings may have a debut test ton under his belt, but still appears to have a bit to prove. The batting order is a mess, we are playing a wicket keeper batsman as a batsman, and a batsman wicketkeeper as the keeper. Moeen Ali doesn’t know whether he is coming or going. Adil is on the one hand a fragile, catch dropping liability, and within a fortnight our number one spinner. The seam bowling looked worryingly ineffective once the wickets got flat, and James Anderson appears to be an injury prone, too many miles on the clock, up and down bowler (has he lost that nip) on wickets that don’t help him. That doesn’t even mention the coaching staff. Trevor Bayliss got too much praise when things were going well, and pushed off a day early when they weren’t. He’s either managed the press well, or there is something going on. There are a number of grumblings about his test coaching ability, but nothing serious yet. Maybe there’s a nice herbaceous border around him with lots of pretty flowers? As for Paul Farbrace, who knows? Everyone still seems to be in Camp Farby. Nothing to seems to stick to him. If we are doing well, he gets lots and lots of praise. When they go badly, he gets lots and lots of praise. I’m not entirely sure why! Maybe it’s because he’s a cheeky chappy, chirpy and upbeat, a lovely assistant, creating a good environment. 2017 has many many tests – the Champions Trophy had better go well. South Africa won’t be pushovers, and we might freeze West Indies to death by the end of September, while our players will be on their knees. And then….The Ashes!

So to the media. We’ve seen the loss of some of the behemoths of the reporting game. Stephen Brenkley was dispensed with when the Independent went online only, and now is the home of any jobbing freelancer wanting to sell copy. There’s the case of spreading yourself too thinly as a couple of the hardy perennials of the up and coming crew are doing. While Brenkley wasn’t my cup of tea, and to be fair, I’m not really sure who is, I found him more the unthreatening scribe, clearly in love with what he was doing because of the sport and less because he appeared in love with himself. In some ways I miss Bunkers.

Then there was the well trailed removal of Mike Selvey from the Guardian. It is never nice to see a man lose his job, and it is important that this isn’t jumping on his misfortune, but he needed to read the runes and he didn’t. Like Pringle before he gave off the impression the game owed him a living, and the reverence he received BTL in The Guardian often enforced that. The lachrymose tributes on his demise were OTT. His view of embracing social media was to put what he thought out there and slag off anyone who disagreed. As a newspaper man, you can’t do that. Engage, debate, even try to get to know your accusers. Some have done it and found it, I think, of mutual benefit. For Phil Walker to almost cuddle him on Cricket Writers was the last straw for me with AOC. Selvey had no truck with the likes of us, independent of mind, as acerbic in print as he could be. He didn’t want to read views contrary to his, or at least, he might if you’d played the game at the highest level. But he might ask himself why we have a decent relationship with certain journalists and not him while he sups his pint and pines, of course, for a job lost. There were a lot on here who really liked you Mike. Maybe ask why they ended up being on the other side of that line at the end.

Meanwhile the same old correspondents plod along, touring the world, filing copy, being read by fewer people as the game gradually disappears. It’s a bloody shame. Again, to those who block me, namely Paul Newman and Simon Wilde, ask yourselves why we got so damned angry at some of your copy – well that’s Newman, I don’t have the first clue why Wilde blocked me, I quite liked him – because a number of your colleagues did. Think about how the fans are consuming their cricket writing these days. Think beyond scoring a few cheap hits and stupid BTL twaddle, and more about the sport itself. Try not to use your columns to settle other people’s scores.

On TV the new kid on the block, BT Sport, has made a middling start to its coverage. Speaking for myself I think it has a decent panel, even with the odious Lovejoy on it, and it made a splash with the early prominent names of Ponting and KP, knowing these were for a short period of time. This is a practice run for their Ashes coverage next year. Let me give you a number of pieces of advice based on what I have seen of their test and ODI coverage.

  • A highlights show is to watch cricket first, hear you lot jabbering on later. The amount of actual play shown is laughable. When the Ashes are played next year, more cricket and a lot less bunny.
  • Greg James is a promising host but he appears to be limited in what he knows. Now either he is being constrained by the format and the talking heads, or he is limited in what he knows.
  • As for the live coverage, please stop the silly little inserts during the coverage. It’s bad enough with Channel 9 cramming in their imbeciles, without adding to the number of voices. Let it breathe.
  • Separate the action and the chat as much as possible.
  • If you want any more advice, dmitriold@hotmail.co.uk

I have the week off to follow the Sydney test next week, and might provide some more views. It’s good that there are different avenues to watch, but not so good when you have to pay more. The world will, must, have a dedicated cricket viewing source soon, or else it is going to lose revenue and customers.

There’s a bigger piece on domestic cricket to write, and how it interacts with TV. At the moment we have an almighty mess with the ECB and the counties being accused of all sorts by everyone. Until something truly crystallises – ha ha, playing in Beckenham – it’s all heat and light. And dull to watch.

So a year that began with a bang, ended with a dud. There’s too much here already to give a world view of the game, so maybe that’s something I can look into in the New Year. I’ll also be encompassing another aspect in another of the Dmitris, but for now, with cricket, media and blogging in here, it should be enough to be going on.

Happy New Year. One more piece to come.

 

India vs England: Fifth Test, Day Five

Predictable.  That has to be the overriding reaction to England’s epic collapse in the evening session.  Defeat in the final Test and a 4-0 series hammering was expected by more than just the most pessimistic, irrespective of the pitch remaining a good one.  England have looked mentally shot for a while now, and perhaps that’s to be expected.  Indeed, the slightly bigger surprise was that for much of the day they appeared to be on track for a draw, before losing 6 wickets for 16 runs post tea and gaining an outstanding if unwanted record for scoring the largest first innings total when suffering an innings defeat in Test history.

In truth, although Cook and Jennings had reached lunch unscathed, it wasn’t a comfortable stand, Cook being dropped early on, and various other near misses for them both.  That they survived to give England a sniff of what some were waiting to write up as a valedictory draw is actually rather to their credit. Immediately post lunch was where it started to go wrong, 103-0 becoming 129-4 in less than an hour.   Alastair Cook is a curious player in that when he starts to struggle, the technical glitches become ever more apparent, in a way that is less obvious with – say – Joe Root.  Over a five match Test series players getting out in the same way try ever more visibly obvious means of countering the problem.  Cook is getting too far over to the offside, which is leaving him both prone to lbw and to the legside catches off the spinners as in the case here.  No one will be more aware of it than him, and it is not offered up as a criticism of his batting, more an acute illustration of the difficulties of a good batsman under severe pressure, both mental and from the bowlers.

Even then, a decent partnership between Moeen Ali and Ben Stokes had taken England to a healthy position, and on reaching tea four wickets down, must have fancied their chances of saving the game.  What happened thereafter will mark a new entry into the charts of England’s most glorious collapses, and had the merit of style points by being largely self-inflicted.

Moeen’s dismissal in particular will be one that gets replayed, for there is little more embarrassing than getting out coming down the track attempting to go over the top when trying to save the game.  And rightly so too, for it looked awful.  There are caveats to this – it is easy to see some praising the approach for throwing the bowling off line and length if it succeeds; likewise, playing a natural game to try to save a match is thoroughly approved of when it succeeds – Matt Prior’s entirely correct – for him – counterattacking rearguard in Auckland in 2013 was downright lucky at times, not least the moment he went through to his century with a miscued hook.  Yet he was praised for that innings for one reason alone – it worked.   Outcome tends to be the determining factor in these things, and the old adage of “hit sixes but don’t take any risks” often seems to apply.

Nevertheless, there’s no getting away from the fact it’s a pretty dire way to get out less than two hours away from safety, and the rest of the batting order were little better.   As much as anything, it’s indicative of thoroughly frazzled minds, leading to poor decision making.  There is often a temptation to blame the first victim of what becomes a collapse for all the subsequent ones, yet this remains as ludicrous as it always has done.  Players are responsible for their own actions, not those of others, and the dismissals of Stokes, Dawson and Rashid were all poor in their own ways; singling out the player who scored nearly 200 runs in the match on his own as the one to blame for how others got out is bizarre.

Once again Jos Buttler was left high and dry as the tail collapsed around him, making the point rather beautifully that it matters little how many batsmen you have if none of them stay in.  For such an attacking player, there is irony in it being him and pretty much only him who appeared mentally up to the challenge of blocking the match out.

India’s celebrations on taking the tenth wicket were joyous, for they have comprehensively outplayed England, and by ever increasing degrees as the series has gone on.  The grinding into the dirt that occurred in this match was ruthless, but deeply impressive, and for all the rationalising of different elements and players, the reality is that England would most likely have lost the series irrespective of calls for changes.  That said, England could and should have played far better than they did; the chasm between the sides need not have been anything like so vast.  There will be attempts at revisionism from some quarters to indicate this was always likely.  It wasn’t.

For Alastair Cook, the questions about his future came immediately after the game.  His response that he shouldn’t be asked about it was clumsy, as is often the case with Cook, but probably right in the sense that it wasn’t the time.  Much as the media would love to get instant decisions, it is far better to wait for the dust to settle and come to a considered view rather then offer up an emotional one in the aftermath of a battering.  That being said, there’s really only one decision to make here, and not in itself because of the series result.  Cook has been prevaricating about his captaincy for quite some time now, announcing to anyone who asked that he is unsure of whether to carry on or not.  By being so unsure, he has made it abundantly clear that he shouldn’t carry on, for while people will have doubts in private, and may discuss them with family or close friends, to openly discuss publicly the possibility of giving up the captaincy says in itself it’s time to go.  Cook cannot possibly be fully committed to the role any longer having effectively admitted he isn’t, and even if he decided to carry on and was allowed to do so, the same feelings would return wholesale upon the next defeat.

Naturally enough, the rest of the management and team were then asked the same question, and equally naturally, they defaulted to supporting the captain and saying he’s the right man for the job.  There is nothing else they can say, even if they don’t believe it – although there’s no evidence they don’t.  This then becomes a feeding frenzy, and that is not at all good for England cricket, and not even good for Cook himself.  Cook’s tenure may have been a period of dissension and division, but the reality now is more prosaic – it’s simply time to go as captain for his own good and for the team’s.

Cook’s agreement that England have stagnated over the last year is probably right.  2016 has been a pretty miserable year for the Test side, the only series win coming against a Sri Lanka team vastly weakened by retirements.  This winter England have lost five of their seven matches, with only a single victory over Bangladesh.  In normal circumstances, no captain would be felt able to survive that kind of record.  Yet with Cook there are enough queueing up to make every kind of excuse for that record, blaming everyone except the captain himself, that it remains in some question.  It shouldn’t.  It’s not because everything can be laid at Cook’s door for that would be scapegoating to the same extent Adil Rashid has suffered, but he’s never been a sufficiently good captain for it to be a justification in itself.  If he was, then a case could be made for retention as an asset in the role, for even a losing captain of a weak side can be a good one, Stephen Fleming is a decent example.  At times he’s been competent, at others, truly abysmal.

The constant refrain has been that Cook is both popular and a good leader in the dressing room.  That may well be true, but a leader is not necessarily a captain, nor vice versa; Cook in the ranks would still be a leader for the younger players in the side who would look up to him by virtue of his record.  The simple question is whether England would be stronger or weaker with him in charge.  That argument has been made many times over the years, but it is particularly acute given the outcome of this series.  It is very hard to make a case for saying that Cook as captain actually makes England a stronger side, even if some would baulk at the idea that he actively weakens them.  There’s a further point, and that is the question of Cook the batsman.  He’s managed the dual roles better than most recent incumbents, his batting has held up fairly well throughout his tenure, with no obvious indication that it has lessened his batting contribution.  But for all the talk about whether taking on the captaincy would negatively affect Joe Root, few ask the question as to whether relinquishing it would positively benefit Cook – for that is the unspoken corollary of that particular argument.  Cook the batsman is simply more valuable than Cook the captain, and he always was, except as an ECB marketing tool.

When England were whitewashed in Australia 2 years ago, the response was to close ranks around Alastair Cook, single out one individual to blame for the farrago and pretend that none of the cracks that appeared needed to be addressed.  There are already attempts to portray this outcome as being within normal parameters, and beyond the Cook captaincy question, there’s little indication that real attention will be paid to why what has transpired recently has happened.  There have to be fears that Adil Rashid will be quietly removed from future consideration given the heavy criticism he has received from sources who have a habit of being unusually close to ECB thinking.   The timing of the leaks (The ECB don’t leak, remember) concerning the action of Jack Leach will raise suspicions about what exactly the ECB hierarchy are up to, not least given the rather over the top praise for Liam Dawson from those same types friendly towards the ECB.  Perhaps such suspicions are entirely wide of the mark, but when an organisation has been so duplicitous in the recent past, they lose their right to be given trust in what they do.

For this is their abiding problem; it isn’t that there are simple solutions to England’s difficulties, it’s that the pattern of deceit over time, throughout the upper levels of the organisation, leads observers to assume they are up to their old tricks even when they aren’t.  In this case they may be, or they may not.  But why would anyone believe them when they say it isn’t so?

England have problems from top to bottom, but there are areas of hope, and young players coming through who look promising.  The experienced ones cannot be written off just yet, but there is a hint of a changing of the guard in this team.  They have six months off from Test cricket, before one of the most insane schedules England have ever put together kicks in.  Next year’s winter tours, including the Ashes, involve England going away from October until April 2018.  If England struggled with five Tests in six weeks this series, they are going to be on their knees by the end of the New Zealand tour following the Ashes.

With the one day tour to the West Indies and Champions Trophy at home, Cook has six months off to recharge his batteries.  He will undoubtedly need it, and it’s to be hoped he is able to relax, free his mind of the clutter that will be swirling at the moment, and come back with a bang as the batsman who at his best can drive opposition bowlers to despair.  If the price of getting that player back was to give up the captaincy, surely even his greatest supporters would think that worth paying?

India vs England; Fifth Test, Day Four

If the third day was chastening, bordering on disastrous, then day four was humiliation.  About the only thing that went in England’s favour all day was that they didn’t lose any wickets in the short session following India’s perhaps belated declaration.

Inevitably when a side receives a flogging of the kind that England did today, there will be a search for someone to blame.  Most likely, it will be the spin bowlers who receive most of it from the media, and of those, it will probably be Adil Rashid who gets it most of all.  The word for this is “scapegoating”, though it’s not the first time the most successful player in his discipline has been blamed for all the ills of a disastrous tour.  By way of illustration, in the last Test Rashid dropped a catch. It happens, it’s in the nature of the game.  As is the possibility that the drop may prove expensive.  But the response from some was to single out that spill as the reason for defeat – because that dropped catch “cost” 150 runs.  In the first place this is of course complete nonsense – if a team fails to create another opportunity then the fault is collective; in the second, Cook’s drop of Karun Nair has cost in the region of 270 runs so by the same method, and given England’s deficit, it must be entirely Cook’s fault.  Preposterous.  And fortunately for him, no one is making that case.

But here’s the point.  All those journalists who mentioned the cost of Rashid’s drop, but failed to do so for Cook’s are pushing an agenda.  There is no other reason and no justification whatever.  It would be grossly unfair on Cook to throw the consequences of a dropped catch on him, which is why this place won’t do it.  But it was and is equally grossly unfair to have done so to Rashid.  Those that did once when it suited but not the other time are a disgrace to their profession.  It is nothing but bullying, and many will wonder why they are doing it.

Cook does bear some responsibility for the debacle, but not so much for the fourth day’s play, where the wheels falling off is something that tends to happen to most sides facing such a battering and to far better captains than Cook.  It is as miserable an experience as can happen on the cricket field.  It was more for the third day, where the approach was one of containment and entirely of containment.  Again, this is not a matter of assuming different actions would have caused entirely different outcomes, for the flatness of the surface meant it was always going to be a difficult task to restrict India.  But by prizing economy over penetration England thoroughly played into Indian hands and made the fourth day even more painful.

Liam Dawson has bowled nicely.  He’s done reasonably well.  He’s certainly maintained a degree of control when looked at on an over by over basis.  But when the opposition rack up a record score of 759 against you, one has to ask what value that control brings.  Bowling a foot outside off stump routinely also offers control, but there’s a reason why it’s not a very popular tactic amongst the better teams.  It’s not to belittle someone who toiled manfully all day, but it is to question what the priority is and should be.

Likewise, it’s unlikely Moeen or Rashid will look back on this innings with fondness, but neither of them bowled especially poorly – though not well, that’s for sure.  The surface made spin bowling unprofitable to begin with – and it seems many have forgotten that Ravi Ashwin, the Ravi Ashwin England have had all kinds of problems against, went for 151 in the first innings for a single wicket. The suggestion that ANY of the England spinners should be taken to task for not vastly improving on that is idiotic.

Some years ago, when Shane Warne retired, Australia went through spinner after spinner in a vain attempt to replicate one of the game’s great bowlers.  Each one who failed to measure up to the impossible was summarily discarded, before eventually press, public and selectors woke up to reality and cut their cloth according to what they had.  Nathan Lyon has been in place ever since; he’s nothing exceptional, nothing special, but he is the best they have and a decent enough performer – and for that matter better than anything England have.

That doesn’t mean England should just give up on their spin options, but it does mean railing at the hideous truth is completely pointless.  Whoever had been selected, the outcome would have been fairly similar.  This is why beating up on the one bowler who has shown an ability to take wickets is more than just unreasonable, it is stupid.  When England won here four years ago, they had Graeme Swann, the best England spin bowler in 40 years.  They no longer have him, and that’s just way it is.  But would Rashid have performed better if Swann had been his partner?  Almost certainly.

One of the questions asked of this site is why we get so angry with sections of the media.  This is the reason why.  Rather than a proper analysis of the whole of the England set up – and yes, that does include the spin bowlers – they single out someone to blame who must never be the captain.  It is fundamentally dishonest.  No one believes Cook is responsible for the whole shambles, but balance does include talking about him too, and not excusing every error, every issue with the strategy, and fixating on players who for all their flaws happen to be the best we have, and without whom the England team will not be an improved one.

Ten years ago Ashley Giles was the England slow bowler of choice.  No one thought he was outstanding, no one thought he matched up to the spinners other teams possessed.  But the cupboard was bare and thus an awareness that the role he performed was done as well as could be hoped for took hold.  The recognition of that dearth of options was considered, certainly, but that is a different question, and one that could be talked about now as well.  George Dobell is one of few who have raised the wider issue.

India did delay their declaration until shortly before the close, seemingly primarily to allow Nair to reach his triple century.  Naturally, this did attract some comment, not the least preposterous of which was how much stick Cook would have got for delaying one for someone to get a triple century.  It perhaps was a little favourable towards an individual landmark than the team position, but at 3-0 and with still an outstanding chance of going 4-0 up, it’s rather easier to justify than in normal circumstances.  In either instance, whether it be Cook or Kohli, such criticism is not reasonable unless it actually costs a decisive win.  In any case, that Mike Atherton still receives criticism 20 years on for declaring on Graeme Hick on 98 demonstrates that all too often people want it all ways.  England have a minimum of 90 overs to bat tomorrow, and if they survive that eight wickets down, it’s unlikely too many Indian fans will be losing sleep over it given the series scoreline.

There is naturally some anger about today, but this hasn’t appeared out of the blue.  The problems have been there and growing all series, and attacking the bowlers rather overlooks that England have only managed to score more than Karun Nair three times as a collective all series.  Whether it be batting, bowling, fielding or captaincy, England have been second best – except perhaps ironically in the last instance, given Kohli’s curious approach.  But for the same reason some of Cook’s poor leadership has been excused when England have been winning (indeed, not just excused, wilfully overlooked or even perversely praised), so Kohli will get a free pass this time.  And to some extent, that is fair enough, for criticism of Cook was swatted contemptuously aside all too often as long as England came out of the game on the right side, so why hold Kohli to different standards?  A recognition that with the win the captain’s own leadership needs to develop is a different thing entirely.

No, the abiding feeling from today, and specifically today, is sympathy.  This was awful, and the England players looked like they felt it with every boundary, every misfield.  Any player is familiar with the feelings of complete powerlessness it creates, the desire simply to get off the field and away from the misery.  When it goes this wrong, everything goes wrong, and the captain is at his wits end.  The anger though, is better directed towards the build up to it, to the targeting of individual players by those who ought to know better (yes Nasser Hussain, you should know better), to the excusing of others to the point that they end up receiving more criticism from those outside cricket than is necessarily fair, in direct reaction to the whitewashing of the chosen one.

The pitch may be benign, but it is the fifth day, and there will be some assistance for the bowlers.  England are playing not so much for pride, but for their dignity, for a batting calamity will rightly evoke memories of the last away Ashes series.  They are certainly capable of batting out the day and claiming a draw, which would be a (very) minor triumph if they manage it.  To do so, they will probably need Cook to bat through much of it, as is often the feeling in such circumstances.  Curiously, he doesn’t have as great record in rearguards as might be expected, although his valiant attempt to stave off defeat four years ago in India remains one of his greatest innings – and not truly in vain given what happened subsequently.  Yet, he remains the prize wicket in these situations, and whatever people may think of him as captain, a skipper’s innings tomorrow would be welcome, and perhaps for himself most of all.

Should they manage it, it must not be portrayed as any kind of vindication.  England are now being hammered by India, and there are a whole series of reasons behind that – not the least of which is that in these conditions, India are simply much better.  But gathering the shreds of the self-respect is no reason for approval, nor is revisionism claiming a 3-0 defeat represents as good a result as England could have wished for.  The trouble is, it’s actually hard to see England managing even that.

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