Wallcharts at the Ready

If ever there was a day for multi-screening, yesterday was it. Four World Cup matches, a succession of rugby internationals, the US Open golf, a Test match in the Caribbean, and the small matter of an ODI.

At the end of it, Australian sport had suffered the kind of day that England fans tend to be grimly accustomed to, with defeat to France at the World Cup, defeat to Ireland in the rugby, and defeat to England in the cricket. Schadenfreude may not be the most attractive character trait, but amusement was both widespread and frankly enjoyable.

Enthusiasm for this series against Australia appears limited, not least among those buying tickets. As much as it was claimed the game was sold out, there were plenty of empty seats on show in Cardiff. Either the Welsh have an awful lot of money to throw away, or someone is gilding the lily. Still, disappointing crowds are not that unusual for internationals at that venue, and it was hardly deserted. But the sense of going through the motions is unsurprising given both the timing of the series and the sense that this nothing other than a financial obligation tour.

England are 2-0 up without giving the impression they are remotely playing at their best, and with Australia missing so many key players there is little to engender a feeling of this being much more than practice for either side. Those players who look dangerous in the short form continue to do so, those who appear to be struggling show little sign of answering the questions about them.

A football World Cup always dominates the sporting environment, and a Test series during it would struggle for attention too, but despite being as relatively inaccessible (pay TV) as the cricket, the rugby summer tours have a greater sense of occasion to them. The sarcastic description of one day games as JAMODIs (Just Another Meaningless One Day International) has rarely felt as apposite as here. The pretence that this is about the build up to next year’s cricket World Cup doesn’t cut it, especially given the absence of Pakistan from the schedule despite being here for two Tests.

With 13 white ball matches across the heart of the summer before the Tests get underway again, we have barely got going. This becomes troubling for a number of reasons – the press themselves in unguarded moments will confess to struggling to write anything new about them, and while that isn’t especially an issue in itself, the translated ennui among cricket followers is. Andrew Strauss obliquely referenced the lack of context with his concept of a points system, which while widely derided does at least draw attention to the fundamental problem.

Ironically, cricket had its solution to this in the past, by making the ODIs part of the build up to what most still consider the main event. The last but one England tour of New Zealand comprised three T20s, then three ODIs, then three Tests. The sense of a build up towards a sporting climax was inescapable, and provided that much needed balance and importance. The same applied to the 2005 Ashes series, where there was certainly no shortage of white ball cricket scheduled, but it felt like part of a wider whole, and by the time the first Test came around, anticipation was at fever pitch.

The problem with this Australian tour is that winning or losing is instantly forgettable for both sets of fans and success or failure doesn’t matter – except to make Malcolm Conn look an idiot, and he doesn’t usually need help with that.

The more dramatic cricket news has still happened in the Test arena, firstly with Afghanistan’s debut, and secondly with the ball tampering allegations concerning the Sri Lankan team in the West Indies. In the former heavy defeat inside two days matters little in the wider sense of welcoming a new team to the Test game, and if the cricket boards show little inclination to support expansion, the same can’t be said of the Indian team. They conducted themselves in an exemplary manner, showing every indication of being fully aware what an extraordinary achievement it was for Afghanistan to have reached this point. They deserve credit for recognising it in such a classy manner.

In contrast, the refusal of the Sri Lankan team to take the field after being accused of changing the condition of the ball offered up plenty of reminders of Pakistan’s similar action at the Oval in the forfeited Test. The problem here is the failure to support the umpires in their decision-making. Already whispers of legal action have begun, which is precisely why umpires are so reluctant to take action in the first place. Whether they are ultimately right or wrong is beside the point, if officials aren’t allowed to make decisions and receive support, then they won’t make them. Darrell Hair’s ostracism and belittling remains a stain on the game whatever his character flaws. The umpire’s decision is not final, and it should be.

England’s next match takes place on Tuesday, the day after their football counterparts open their World Cup campaign. Whatever the result, it is undoubtedly the case that the football will be all that receives extensive coverage. Of course, a World Cup is truly special, but it’s also on free to air television, making it a community event. The audience figures for the Spain-Portugal match are simply astonishing, reaching a peak of over 10 million across TV and online. Cricket may not be able to match that kind of reach, but it highlights for the umpteenth time the absurdity of claiming that free to air doesn’t matter.

Peter Della Penna tweeted that the BBC had made an offer to Sky to broadcast the Scotland-Pakistan T20 on the red button which was declined, as Sky didn’t want it distracting from the England Women’s ODI they were showing. To begin with, the realisation that the Scotland matches were under the umbrella of the ECB contract came as a surprise – in return for England playing them, it had been outsourced. As a result, Scotland’s match wasn’t shown anywhere in the UK when it could have been. Yet it makes explicit the position that a low key international not involving England could be more popular with the viewers, even when online or interactive TV, than a pay TV one that does. The very importance of that can’t be overstated, given it is exactly what is repeatedly denied by those who propound the pay TV model.

Assuming no more shenanigans, there will be Test cricket on later. But let’s be honest, we’re going to be watching the World Cup.

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Around The World – Part 2

In part 1 of the World View I looked at the fortunes of the three teams up there with England at the top of the World Rankings. In this part I’ll be looking at those in the mid-division and having a peek at their future series and where they might be going in the next year. This, I must stress, relates to test matches, not other international cricket. It was also written earlier this week, before the conclusion of the South Africa v New Zealand test. Hope you enjoy it.

South Africa

The Proteas were the top dogs of test cricket for quite a while (since 2012?) without ever seeming to have that aura of a dominant team. That was amusing because whichever way you looked at it, the 2-0 win in England to take the top slot was mightily impressive. It is hard to fathom that England have ever been more soundly beaten in a test match at home as they were at The Oval in 2012. South Africa’s reign at the top was assisted by the fact they rarely lost away from home, so that when they did lose at home, as they did to Australia in 2014, the away wins kept them top (along with the inconsistency of all the other nations).

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The South Africans fortunes have waned recently, culminating in a horror winter of 2015/16 when they lost at home to England and were thrashed in India on what one might call some interesting surfaces. As they did so their cracks became clear. The first is at the top of the order. Walking into an England series with Elgar and Van Zyl looked like it was asking for trouble. Elgar is a solid citizen, and played well for a century in Durban, but he’s no Smith or Gibbs. Van Zyl was a middle order test player stuck up the order and did not produce. The middle order solidity of Amla, Du PLessis and DeVilliers let them down in the two series, and when that was breached, problems in other areas got exposes. DeVilliers in particular is sending out warning signals about his workload that some Saffer fans are not too happy about. DuPlessis did not score as heavily and his average dropped down to the low 40s. Amla cannot go on forever. Cook coming into the top order (some saying long after he should have been) added some strength and Bavuma has a lot of promise, but this doesn’t strike you as World Number One batting. What they seriously must hope is that Quentin de Kock is going to work as an opener. He’s great to watch in the one day matches and the South Africans would love to see him do that for them. He’s opened in this recent match, made an 80, but you suspect this is a Hales like experiment. Probably doomed to fail.

Where the cracks are really showing is in the Proteas’ main strength; their seam bowling attack. They simply can’t get their top four pacemen fit at the same time. Imagine an attack of Steyn, Morkel, Rabada and Philander in England next Summer? That is all we will do because Steyn is breaking down more than a 40 year old Trabant, Morkel is rickety, Philander has been out for quite a while and only just back, and Rabada is shouldering a large workload. South Africa have little spin threat, although Dane Piedt isn’t bad, but that’s something they are used to. The bowling just below test level is unproven – as it is most everywhere – but this doesn’t seem to be at the depth of England’s for example.

South Africa’s winter is a bitty one. They play this series against New Zealand, and look like they might win the test at Centurion, then play a five game ODI series against Australia at home. They then travel to Australia for a three test series in Perth, Hobart and then a day-nighter at Adelaide. Given Australia’s recent travails in Sri Lanka, that looks a potentially exciting series. Sri Lanka visit South Africa for three tests starting at Port Elizabeth on Boxing Day (followed by Cape Town and Johannesburg).and then a whole host of limited overs bilge. Then South Africa jet off for a series in New Zealand, playing copious amounts of ODIs before settling in to a three test series starting in early March in Dunedin – the other two matches are at Wellington and Hamilton.

With that workload their chances to get to England with the four pace bowlers intact looks limited. 11 test matches I make it, and bundles of hit and giggle. Those people sniping at AB for the workload comments (and yes, that is rich when you make the IPL your be all and end all) may need to revisit it. South Africa are at the crossroads, like so many, with younger players not really establishing themselves in blocks, but with enough green shoots to be tantalising for the future. They need to eke out as much as they can from AB and Amla before they ride off into the sunset. That may not be far away.

Sri Lanka

The legends are bowing out, one by one. Holes in the test team need to be filled. By common consent, from what you read, the authorities running the game in Sri Lanka are beyond the ECB in ridiculousness. There are perennial financial crises. The nation that brought  us Murali, Vaas, Kumar, Mahela, Sanath, Aravinda et al looked firmly on the downslope of their test match fortunes. They seemed the poster children for the travails of the test game worldwide. They played a frankly miserable series in early summer England (and I use the word summer with due poetic licence) where they lost 2-0, may well have lost the final one but for rain, and all seemed doom and gloom.

Then Australia visited Sri Lanka and all hell broke loose. Suddenly, a month later, they had whitewashed the supposed World Numbe One team (and when have we ever seen a number one team thrashed like that in Asia. That never happens) despite batting weaknessess that have been opened up wherever they go.

The reasons for the Sri Lankan demise, if that is what it is, is that maybe in this modern era of test cricket, having oven ready longform players is not going to be the norm. These players are going to take time to adjust, to gel, to form decent careers. In many ways this means selectors and senior pros are going to need to take time and not a little skill to identify who the top prospects are. Sometimes they will thrill you, play the innings of their life and give you a glimpse of their ceiling, but that is just what it is, a glimpse. We’re not talking about a James Vince cover drive in a dashing 30, but a matchwinning, Mark Butcher 173-esque zone of a lifetime knock. A Chandimal. A Kusal Mendis. A Dananjaya De Silva.

For Chandimal, who also keeps wicket, that’s not such an issue, but Kusal and Dananjaya have given us a tempting look at the future. All around there is uncertainy, save for the trojan captain Angelo Mathews, who can’t go on forever. The fleeting sights of a Karunaratne ton are outweighed by maddening inconsistency. Kaushal Silva shows flashes of brilliance. There seems no shortage of those flashing lights, but they aren’t as world savvy as their predecessors, and aren’t coming into a team protected by the genius bowling of Murali. And while Herath is a lovely bowler, a joy to watch, and of full of width as your author (actually, I wish), he isn’t Murali and we can never hope to see another.

That 3-0 win was a shot in the arm for test cricket. In each test they won the scraps. When it got tight, they got out of it. In each match they exposed the visitors’ weaknesses and held sway. In doing so they threw Australia into crisis. The spin bowling was brilliant, and although the seam bowling, despite Sanath’s cries, is not the best in the world, it has enough going for it. Will it be worldly wise enough to carry them through the next few years? Only time will tell. But watching Sri Lanka will be fascinating going forward. I think they are the bellwether for tests (along with the West Indies). When Sri Lanka’s production line is strong, then there’s warmth in my heart for tests.

This winter Sri Lanka seem to have no test cricket until December when they travel to South Africa for the three tests mentioned above. They outstrip England for a stupid tour (our’s to the West Indies for 3 ODIs) with one to Australia for three T20 internationals in February. And that is it. There is nothing on Cricinfo suggesting they will be going anywhere else. Are they going to Zimbabwe? Their future tour programme shows a massive blank up until five tests at home after the Champions Trophy (2 v Zimbabwe, yeah right, and 3 v India).

So how can you develop with a patchy program like this? So those that shout from the rooftops that Sri Lanka’s win against Australia vindicates test cricket, should look at the bigger picture and wonder why they are spread so thin this winter? Sri Lanka are one of those teams to nurture, not shun. We won’t be any further forward in knowing what we have in 9 months. Staying strong in South Africa would be an achievement, and then…. we may have quite a wait.

New Zealand

With those two series defeats, home and away, against Australia, together with the retirement of their talisman, Brendon McCullum, it really looks like an end of an era for New Zealand. Such as it was. The most patronised of international cricket teams might still be ultra competitive in the shorter forms with their explosive, brutal batting, but in tests the flaws are too great for them to march forward, and you don’t sense a production line of Kane Williamsons are there to keep them afloat.

The upcoming winter, if you include this series, sees New Zealand play 12 test matches, which is a considerable number compared to recent years and probably going to test them well. Two in South Africa, (well one given what happened in Durban) is followed by a series in India with three tests (see India section in previous post for venues). Then New Zealand host Pakistan in a two test series, have South Africa at home in three, and according to the FTP, Bangladesh visit as well with two tests in Wellington and Christchurch in January.

Of course, as English-centric as we are, we can only refer back to the last series between our two teams as a marker. Some have claimed it to be the most important series of test cricket played in recent years, which is lachrymose nonsense. It was a two test series contested between two evenly matched teams, and the cricket reached very good quality at times. It produced excellent performances, and it also contained some absolute nonsense (Day 4 at Headingley again…). The key message should have been that a two test abomination at the start of a summer treated a good team with contempt. Instead it was Stokes and Cook.

So what do we have with New Zealand now? In common with pretty much all test teams (India aside?) there are problems with openers. Latham and Guptill don’t seem to be that secure but they don’t appear as though they are going to be left out. The replacement is Rutherford, I presume. The next two batsmen are plenty solid enough – Kane Williamson is in the top echelon of players, and as I write he’s the only one not falling apart against South Africa. Ross Taylor has had some top innings in the past year, and is a major player. After that we have promising players, unproven players and insecurity. That is except BJ Watling, who is one of the most unsung cricketers I’ve ever seen. I’m a huge fan, and it is always a sense of consternation to me that his innings at Headingley is hardly ever mentioned. He’s a total pest to shake off when he is in.

Then there is the bowling. Trent Boult and Tim Southee are a good opening pair, and there is back up in the seam department with Wagner, Bracewell, Henry and Milne. The spin bowling is taken care of by Santner at the moment, but like many others, the lack of mystery spin, or even a Swann-type hinders many teams these days. New Zealand are no exception. Will we have any more idea where New Zealand will be in the next 12 months? There is a feeling of a slightly managed decline, with the odd top performance being countered by continued problems against foes they struggle against. Pakistan at home for two games, and South Africa for three look to set the tone for the next couple of years.

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The Final Part will be around in a week or so, dealing with West Indies, Bangladesh and England. Zimbabwe? Why bother? Who knows when they play?

Dubai – Day 2 (and a bit on today)

Dubai Millennium

With things looking to be in the visitor’s favour on the departure of Shan Masood, the experience of Younus Khan and Misbah, together with Asad Shafiq pulled the day back round to Pakistan’s favour. Misbah completing his ton in the final over was the icing on the cake.

England are not out of it but that does depend on ridding us of the turbulent 41 year old and seeing off his young tyros. That’s not easy but not impossible. Beware of the use of “two quick wickets” in the pre-game show.

Being at work today I didn’t get to see much of the action, trying to follow it on the Cricinfo site and Guardian OBO. It seemed, from the little bit I watched, that the wicket had a bit more carry and a bit more life, which, frankly, isn’t hard. But no-one is confusing this with Day 1 of the 3rd test in 2012.

Simon and others have made many really good comments on Misbah’s ton. The obsession on The Verdict over that last over is making me chuckle, because it really appears as though they have nothing else to talk about. I’m not sure it’s the world’s best debate, and as Dominic Cork is on it, the tariff of difficulty is much raised, to get up there.

282 for 4 is a good start, especially given the ground statistics I cited yesterday. England will be doing well to keep them under 400 and then the scoreboard pressure routine begins again.

In the other matches played today, Sri Lanka were skittled out for 200 at P Sara, with West Indies 17 for 1. Again, let’s see how both teams bat on this before we make a judgement but this is still a very decent rebound from the tourists. The main damage was done by debutant Jomel Warrican, described on cricinfo as a slow left arm bowler (again, not had a chance to see any of it) who took four wickets. Innocent Bystander on Twitter was saying that the spread odds on the number of wickets for Herath in this match would be 10.5/11.5 and so we’ll see how much assistance Warrican got from the wicket (anyone who might have caught it, could they comment?). Because if there is assistance, Herath is pretty damn good at getting the most out of it.

India won the ODI in Chennai, and still kept up there record of not making 300 there (just). Virat Kohli made his 23rd ODI century with a score of 138. Despite AB’s heroics in another audacious 112 (I’ve just watched some of the shots… wow) the series is now tied, ready for the decider in Mumbai.

Another series going to a decider is the Zimbabwe v Afghanistan contest. Afghanistan won today’s contest by three wickets with Mohammed Shahzad making an almost run-a-ball 80. Obviously there’s been no coverage I’ve seen, but this is promising for the associates and a little bit worrying for Zimbabwe. Tim Wigmore’s piece in the recent Cricketer magazine explains the new Zim admin’s philosophy, to play more frequently, and I’d recommend reading it (despite being surrounded by a lot of tut).

So two tests tomorrow to concentrate on. Comments welcome.

Anyone guess the horse?

2015 World Cup Quarter-Final – Sri Lanka v South Africa

Feel free to comment, and that includes all the journos who had to fly home because their newspaper budgets don’t stretch to watching the denouement of a major world tournament because England have been knocked out. You want an indication of how cricket is falling out of our fabric of sporting life?

Still, never mind. We were never any good at this one day lark.

Enjoy proper players playing properly because they aren’t paralysed with fear and their coaches aren’t in love with Moneyball. Well at least until South Africa come out to bat, but then again, they are there at least.

Comments below.

2015 World Cup – Game 22 – England v Sri Lanka

Wellington. Eight days ago. Annihilation.

Welcome back England, for an important game in the qualification process. Win, and we may get South Africa or India, lose and we may get South Africa or India. There’s a lot riding on this one. Actually, that’s being facetious. The big game in this group may not be this one, although winning it would help, but the one against Bangladesh. I’m looking past Afghanistan which may not be wise, but the Sri Lankans have alread buried Bangla and struggled past Afgha, so they have their two wins out of the way.

This thread is for comments as the game goes on. Also, follow my other alter ego, you know what it is, on Twitter for comments through the evening.

The past form guide isn’t good. We lost in 2011, in the quarters, in a stuffing. We lost in 2007, in the Super 8s, when Ravi and Paul Nixon came so close to snatching a win, which I was trying to listen to while at the same time listen to my future wife in the car back from Heathrow Airport, having not seen her for around 2 months! She still doesn’t understand this obsession with cricket. In 2003 we didn’t meet, whereas we did in 1999 when we won a low-key damp opening day game (I had a George Sharp anecdote re no play at The Oval, then found out it was another time – probably 2004… only five years out). Then there was Faisalabad in 1996, memorable for the brainstorm of picking Phil de Freitas and getting him to bowl spin! Brilliant times. Oh those Illingworth years….