Dedication’s What’s You Need

Since the first one day match nearly 50 years ago England have had a rather troubled relationship with the format.  Despite protestations to the contrary over that time, it has taken a clear second place to Test cricket in both the affections of English fans and the ECB itself. Where the horse and the cart are located is an open question, but despite reaching three World Cup finals it’s a poor record compared to any of the other major nations. The World T20 win in 2010, propelled by He Who Must Not Be Mentioned remains the only global title England have ever won, a shockingly poor return.

England have had periods of some success of course, but always with the feeling that they were carrying an extra load on their backs.  The innovation came from from others, England last showing signs of thinking differently when they pushed Ian Botham up to open the batting in Australia in 1987.  The 1992 tournament turned out to be something of a high water mark meaning that for a substantial proportion of followers England have been dreadful their entire lives.  Of course that’s a slight exaggeration, there have been times where they’ve put in good performances, won series and reached finals ; likewise there have been players who have been good performers in both 20 and 50 overs, and yet although individual players were considered dangerous – Pietersen most notably recently – it never amounted to a side who would ever truly scare the opposition.

With the invention of T20 at professional level, it moved to a different plane, as all the major sides upped the ante.  Where scores of 300 were regarded as exceptional, they now became the norm, with 400+ now not even proving a safe score as Australia found in South Africa.  But not for England.  Stories abounded of them being hidebound by computer modelling, of aiming for “competitive” scores that the data told them they would win with, only to be battered.  Graeme Swann has rarely proved to be a reliable witness but his stories of England’s tactical thinking seemed all too plausible.

The nadir came at the 2015 World Cup, where England failed to get out of their group, something that takes a considerable degree of effort considering the determination of the ICC to try to render the group stages to be as meaningless as possible, except financially.  They left to derision from the cricket world, and contempt at home, a path their football and rugby equivalents would follow soon enough.

And yet.  With hindsight perhaps the first glimmers of a new approach came at around that time.  The removal of Alastair Cook from the side, to his clear and very public disgust, was long overdue – not because he isn’t a good player, but because his style of batting is simply obsolete in short form cricket. His replacement Eoin Morgan’s clearly stated dissatisfaction with the method England were employing became ever more obvious during the disastrous performances in Australia, while the omission of Ben Stokes from the squad and refusal to pick Alex Hales seemed symptomatic of a setup that simply didn’t appear to understand one day cricket, thinking it a contraction of Tests not an expansion of T20.  For the first time though, the players were showing the smallest hints of rebellion, and the appointment of Paul Farbrace to the England coaching staff seemed entirely at odds with a side approaching the game in such a conservative fashion.

The removal of Peter Moores as coach appeared to be the catalyst for finally attempting to play the game as the rest of the world had been doing for some years, and the bonus of New Zealand being the first visitors post World Cup forced the change in concept, both in one day cricket and Test cricket.  England have a lot to be thankful to their teachers for.  Andrew Strauss’s decision to retain Morgan as captain was, if not a brave one as such, certainly not what was expected.  Farbrace’s determination that England play with freedom wasn’t remotely the first time it had been said, but it was the first time anyone had ever meant it.  The old line about scoring at ten an over but don’t take any risks which was unquestionably the way England thought gave way to a more forgiving environment where taking risks was encouraged, and failure in that pursuit forgiven.  This is perhaps the biggest, most important change England ever made.  Freeing up players to express themselves is only truly possible if those players do not feel a presence looking over their shoulders in the event that they fail.  There are endless buzz terms to describe that, but it still amounts to accepting that failure is the price of success.

The impact was immediate, England going over 400 for the first time in a series where they scored at least 300 every time except in a rain affected D/L win.  Whereas before 300 was the upper limit of England’s aspirations, they were suddenly viewing it as the bare minimum.  The second match, a defeat, perhaps best expressed the remarkable change in thinking.  New Zealand had scored an impressive 398-5, the kind of total England couldn’t ever have hoped to try to chase down.  They fell short alright, but only by 13 runs.  For the first time, there was a feeling that England might actually be developing the kind of side to seriously challenge large totals.

New players were being brought in, not because they were being analysed for a Test place, but because they were outstanding one day prospects.  Jason Roy had a slowish start but was kept faith with; Ben Stokes was brought back; Alex Hales was no longer kicking his heels and carrying drinks but opening the batting and being told to play the way he can.  From an era where England relied on the middle order to try to raise the tempo from a solid start, they were suddenly going at it from the off, with those below tasked with maintaining the momentum, not rescuing a lost cause and aiming for respectability.

A series defeat to Australia followed, and the flip side of the determination to attack showed itself in the decider, where England collapsed to 138 all out and were thrashed.  This perhaps proved to be the most important test, for rather than retreating into their shells they instead, under new coach Trevor Bayliss, reaffirmed their determination to play in the same way and to consider such failures as nothing other than an occupational hazard.  There’s an irony here – for so long asserting that high risk approach as being the way a player or a team does things has been used as a stick with which to beat them.  Grasping that risk is part of the equation has always seemed beyond a certain, very English kind of mindset.

A comfortable series win in the UAE against Pakistan showed that England could play more than one way under different conditions, for that kind of away series offered different challenges and different upper limits in terms of scoring.  It also marked a change in bowling approach to stop simply using the Test bowlers – not for the sake of it, but because there were better one day options available.  Jason Roy too finally showed what he is capable of, and with Jos Buttler rapidly becoming a player to genuinely fear, for the first time in living memory England had a top five or six where every single one of them could seriously damage opponents.  One player not mentioned so far is Joe Root, and it could be said that he is performing the kind of role given in previous years to Cook or Trott – the conventional player around whom the others would bat.  The difference being that Root is a true modern cricketer, multi-dimensional and capable of all formats.  A run a ball as the base minimum is not at all bad when others are scoring even faster.

England lost the subsequent series in South Africa, but not before once again approaching the 400 mark and not before once again overreaching and falling short in two matches to cost the series. That caused the first criticism from the press of how England were playing, that they needed to learn to lower their sights.  Although never being explicit about it, the message that came back when reading between the lines was to reject that kind of thinking completely, that bad days given the nature of the format were inevitable and that if England were truly to become the best, then this was the only way they would achieve it.

It is of course impossible to assess a wider view on how that response was received, but at least anecdotally, English supporters appeared to be fully behind it, and much more willing to accept the bad days than the media were.  In most sports, supporters tend to be more forgiving of failure if they have faith in the approach.  And this one was exciting – reaching for the stars is more thrilling than simply aiming to get off the ground, even when it doesn’t quite work out.

Which brings us to yesterday.

Given the history of England in one day cricket, the very idea that England would break the world record total was perhaps one of the most laughable that could be conceived.  Perhaps only Bangladesh or Zimbabwe of the full members would ever be thought less likely to do such a thing, and undoubtedly eyebrows will be raised around the world that it was England (“What, England?”) who set the new target.  But it’s been coming.  While results have been a little up and down, the likelihood that England would give a bowling attack a right royal pasting has been increasing all the time.  Pakistan may not be at the level they have been, but their bowling is their strong suit, and yesterday they were simply destroyed.

Perhaps symptomatic of England’s troubled history is that their national record for the highest individual score had stood for over 20 years, and while Robin Smith’s 167 is a fine score in any era, that it barely crept into the top 40 of highest individual scores – with the best ever nearly a hundred more – was as good an example of how badly England had been left behind as you could find.  Smith’s record may have stood for 23 years, but there are no guarantees at all that Hales’ new mark will stand for as long as 23 days.  Jason Roy came close only recently, and Jos Buttler, Joe Root or Ben Stokes look capable of beating it every time they come out to bat, while Eoin Morgan is hardly ruled out.

Further down the order hitters are prevalent too, indeed only Mark Wood resembles a tail ender in any way – Liam Plunkett at ten has shown himself capable of striking the first ball he receives for six in the past.  If that is the batting, then the bowling attracts less attention, but as much as anything this is merely how one day cricket now works.  It is all about the batting, and bowlers, to their chagrin and the delight of batsmen the world over, are reduced to nothing more than feeding the batters and trying to keep the run rate under control.  Perversely or not, this makes bowlers who do take wickets even more valuable, and it is in that discipline that there is a little less certainty with regard to England.

While Hales rightly got the man of the match, it was Buttler who caught the eye even more.  He simply terrorises the opposition – while he is in, anything is possible.  Even so, while he reached his 50 off 22 balls, Eoin Morgan was only two balls slower to his, yet passed almost unnoticed such was the headiness of the striking.

England are now at the point where they strike fear into the heart of opponents.  By making such a statement they are ensuring that no team will ever be sure they have enough runs, that no total is ever impregnable.  It may not be that England are the best team in the world, but they are not far from it and they are still developing.  Next year sees the Champions Trophy held in England, and perhaps for the very first time England will go in to a tournament not just with hopes of winning, but realistic aspirations that they should.  Quite simply, there is no team, not India, not Australia, not New Zealand, who can compete with England’s batting power and depth.  That in itself does not make them the best, for different conditions will bring different problems and highlight specific weaknesses, while other teams will play far better than Pakistan have.  But what it does do is cause every other nation to cast nervous glances towards a side who are beginning to demonstrate that they are something a little bit special.

For any England fan, this is truly remarkable.  The country that showed little interest except during World Cups where they stank the place out has set down a new standard.  For the first time, perhaps ever, it is England who are causing the rest of the world to consider how to catch up.

Remarkable.

 

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England v New Zealand: ODI series review

Just more of the same old problems really.  A static opening batsman, an over-reliance on what the data says, a determination to reach an adequate score that proved totally inadequate.  Square pegs in round holes, a complete unwillingness to try players who have been successful in the short form of the game in domestic cricket, and an approach that looks frankly terrified throughout. Hang on, that’s not what happened at all is it?  England won the series 3-2 of course, but even if they’d fallen short in the final match, it wouldn’t have mattered in terms of them demonstrating progress.  That they did mattered greatly to the players of course, and the joy and delight on their faces was apparent to all. But what it did highlight was the astonishing change in approach for this series and this series alone.  And it raised lots of questions about how England had played before, how they’d been set up to play before, and the management who were responsible for that. As recently as March, Alastair Cook was berating all and sundry for dropping him as captain for the World Cup, stating that the side needed his leadership and criticising Eoin Morgan for how he had led the side.  This is history of course, so why bring it up again?  Well the trouble is that the most striking thing about the change of approach from England is that it has plainly never occurred to the old guard to do it.  When Cook was whining about his omission, he at no time stated his dissatisfaction with the style of England’s play, merely that they didn’t play very well, and that it would all have been so different had he been there.  A penny for those thoughts seeing England play in such a manner Alastair. As for Morgan himself, there are enough indications now coming out that he was deeply unhappy as captain in the World Cup, specifically because of the strait-jacket in which the team was placed.  Whilst he probably won’t win any awards at the Funky Captaincy Annual Dinner, he is clearly a major influence on the way in which England are now approaching the format. One of the most amazing sights about this England team is that they are so obviously and plainly enjoying themselves thoroughly.  The England teams have looked utterly miserable for a long time, and the most basic pleasure of playing sport seemed to have gone completely.  For this team at least, it is well and truly back. What isn’t known is whether that will spill over into the Test side as well.  Of course, it is an entirely different game, but those players who will return do seem to prefer scowling to smiling, berating team mates to jumping on them.  There’s some sympathy to be held here, grumpy, crotchety older players are hardly especially unusual, and particularly so when there’s frustration and unhappiness.  Yet the contrast between Broad and Anderson on the one hand, and Mark Wood on the other, couldn’t be more obvious.  In the last match, Wood playfully pretended to Mankad one of the New Zealand batsman.  He laughed, the batsman smiled, and so did the umpire.  And yet….Wood had rather made the point there hadn’t he?  Don’t push it with the backing up.  All with humour.  Likewise with his sudden sneaky running in before the batsman was ready.  It kept them on their toes, and was all done with a smile, from a player who looks like a kid at Christmas.  What will be fascinating to see is if Wood’s patent enjoyment rubs off on the others.  Because there’s no doubt at all, a team having fun will play better than if they’re not. Wood’s economy rate of 5.23 across the three matches he played was bettered only by Trent Boult on either side, and in a series which was such a run fest, it proved critical to the outcome.  That Boult was injured dealt a huge blow to New Zealand, without question.  But that’s the game, and few series have gone by without injuries to key players.  Where it does become relevant as far as England are concerned is that when Wood first played in the Tests, there were concerns about whether his action made him an accident waiting to happen.  England then played him in the one day series.  This is a difficult one.  England’s bowling coaches mangled James Anderson thoroughly trying to fix a potential injury crisis before it happened, and since he returned to his natural action, he’s remained more or less constantly fit.  It’s probably best to leave Wood alone, and deal with any issues if and when they arise rather than worrying potentially unnecessarily.  But managing his workload is still sensible.  One of the overriding criticisms of England is that they are extremely poor at doing so.  Grinding Wood into the dirt won’t be easily forgiven if they do it. In terms of the selection for this series, it seems that incoming coach Trevor Bayliss requested a young side and the selectors obliged.  That in itself raises questions about how it was done previously.  On tour it’s said that although the selectors choose the squad, captain and coach select the team.  That means that Adil Rashid’s clear success in this series vindicated the selectors who chose him for the West Indies, but rather hang out to dry then coach Peter Moores and captain Alastair Cook for not picking him.  With the ODI series over and eyes turning towards the beginning of the Ashes, quite why Rashid wasn’t tried – and the justification that he’d not bowled well in the nets – looks more and more an aberration, especially given Mooen Ali’s clear and obvious lack of fitness.  Better late than never perhaps, but it doesn’t mean excusing it. A similar circumstance applies to Alex Hales, albeit concerning his absence from the World Cup until it was too late.  Hales didn’t go on to make the big score he would have craved, but he undoubtedly set the tone with his batting, and others carried it on.  That he was ignored for so long because of a supposed weakness to the ball coming in looks ever more bizarre.  And yet it’s exactly how it is with English sport all too often, a focus on what someone supposedly can’t do rather than promote what they can.  Hales was instrumental to England firing from the very top. Not everything England tried came off.  Jason Roy did ok without every looking like he was going to take the world by storm.  Steven Finn took wickets yet still didn’t look the bowler he was.  And of course the final match yesterday had England 50-5.  And yet none of the shots were especially reckless, they just found fielders through slightly awry execution for the most part.  That’s not something to worry about, it can happen and on this occasion it did happen.  It will also happen again.  The recovery led by Bairstow was outstanding, and they still played in the same manner.   On so many occasions England have said they are learning, yet right now with this side, they really are learning.  Some patience with them when they get it wrong is deserved.  It’s only when they use that as a shield to close down discussion and criticism that it’s a problem, I don’t get the feeling with this side that it is. And so New Zealand come to the close of their tour of England, with just a T20 match to come.  They have been brilliant tourists, and that people have been heard to say we should have them every year says everything about how they have played the game.  As well as playing attacking, exciting cricket as a policy, they have some genuinely fine cricketers.  Kane Williamson looks special, Ross Taylor is a terrific batsman, and the seam attack even beyond Boult and Southee looks potent.  Above all else, they have played it in a wonderful spirit, demonstrating beyond all question that playing the game hard doesn’t have to mean sledging, abusing or provoking opponents.  It’s something England could learn from, as could several teams.  Not shouting at an opponent isn’t giving them an easy ride, and never has been. England go to New Zealand in 2018 as currently scheduled.  There are again only two Tests to be played.  It is possible they will look to amend that, but not very likely.  The last tour down there was praised for being beautifully balanced, with three T20s, three ODIs and three Tests.  So of course they are not going to repeat that.  It would be too much to think that the boards could see a good thing and capitalise on it.  Although some things can change on the field, off it very little does.  And while this post has concentrated on the cricket, it doesn’t mean that the ECB are now forgotten for what they have done, not for a single second.  It might be what they hope for, but the news overnight about telling Sky which commentators they can have remains as symptomatic of their ability to make a bad situation even worse as ever. It’s just that the cricket itself sometimes reminds you why we care. @BlueEarthMngmnt

Unmoved

I didn’t watch a ball.

That’s a really poor confession by a cricket blogger who has been going on about how important ODI cricket is to this country and how we can’t take it seriously is holding us back. But I didn’t watch a lot of the 2011 Final (shopping), 2007 (at football) and 1999 (playing cricket). I woke up several times to see this was a pretty one sided final, so I stayed in bed. Well done Australia, but it was a bit like Germany winning the football world cup. You recognise their brilliance, their technical and mental superiority, their will to win and their drive, but you can’t help but hate that it’s your most accursed rivals doing it. It’s a bit like cheering on the dealer at the blackjack table.

What is clear, from the re-run, is that once again Australia were the best at taking wickets. For all the talk about the batting, the sixes, the big bats, small boundaries et al, it was Australia who didn’t look like conceding 300 and facing difficult chases, or taking on water in major chases of their own. Their only loss was the only one away from home, when they walked into a maelstrom in Auckland, and were beaten by New Zealand. I don’t think many seriously believed that result would be repeated last night. We hoped, but at the end, we never got the performance we wanted to see. But they were the stars of the tournament for me – their no fear attitude, their resilience in many games, and their sheer joie de vivre is an example to many nations.

Australia have much of that energy and passion too, and they have the better players (for now) in the crunch. This has been a sobering tournament for many outside the ANZAC region. These two teams had the best bowling line-ups. India took a lot of wickets, and won a particularly impressive victory over South Africa, but once up to one the top two, they were easily beaten. It may be an interesting debate to see if India would have beaten New Zealand in a game of importance, but that’s by the by. This format only really gets interesting when it comes to the knockouts.

Which goes against the grain, I know. While watching Ireland play really, really well, ultimately this competion is about who wins, not who does well early. Colombia and Costa Rica and Chile all played some superb football in the World Cup last year, but they never made the semis. Ireland, sadly, have to face the commercial realities. India, and therefore the ICC, don’t give a shit. We can moan and complain all we want, and I really want to moan and complain, but there’s little point. Sport has been stolen from us by TV companies, sponsors and big businesses. By businessmen who care about the bottom line. It’s of no interest to them that the associates had certainly moved a step forward, even if the results of all but Ireland didn’t reflect that. As a supporter of a lower league football team, I’m still livid about the Premier League. There’s only so much resentment I can have in my heart. Of course it’s wrong what they are doing to the World Cup. I would be stunned if anyone gave a crap about the views of any fans outside of India. If they kicked up, then maybe, just maybe, there might be a change.

I see there is a debate about this being an outstanding tournament. It was pretty good, but not outstanding in my eyes. I’m with those who say there weren’t enough iconic matches, close fought contests to live in the memory. Too many hammerings. So the Irish wins over West Indies, UAE and Zimbabwe are only really joined by the New Zealand v Australia game and the iconic match, and shot, of the tournament – New Zealand v South Africa and Grant Elliott’s six. That was a MOMENT. I have nearly all that game recorded, and I’ll be keeping that, I can tell you.

We’ve got this far without mentioning England. We were a monumental embarrassment. The passage of time has not eased my anger. Not in the slightest. I see invocations that we should “build for 2019” and that this means a certain player should not be picked. Stuff that. I couldn’t trust this lot to build a six inch wall with lego bricks. They were meant to be building towards this, but some rocket scientists couldn’t tell our decent team was getting old, and that of all of that team to back in an ODI format, a beautiful batsman with 3 ODI hundreds up until end 2014, and a captain with all the invention and flexibility of a steel cage, rather than a bloke who may not have smashed it out of the park but seemed to make scores and a maverick with a penchant for being a bit out of line. In my opinion Root, Buttler and possibly Ali are the only three who are certain to be in our 2019 team, injury permitting. The rest requires inventive thinking, patience, skill and a bit of luck. It will need the second of those in abundance. The mob in charge only have patience when they might be proved embarrasingly wrong. That’s the management skill of a dinosaur.

Many times last year we were angry at the way the Ashes had been thrown to the wind, how there was no proper review of the failures, and that history should never forgive those people for this if they didn’t do well in the World Cup. For this was what we had cleared the decks for. To have a proper go at the World Cup. Oh yes, I know the Aussies wanted it moved too, but we were the only country not to play tests in the run up to the World Cup. We had the plans, the opportunity and the schedule that the ECB wanted in the run-up to the most important international tournament. The rest is history. We made it about a captain’s retirement gift, which we decided not to give him anyway. We made it about undermining players like Woakes and Taylor by changing their roles on the first day of the competition. We made it about data. We made ourselves a laughing stock. My Aussie mates are laughing at me for giving a stuff about this lot. They see our lot as a class-ridden, public schoolboy, pampered secluded bunch of people you’d take home to your mum. They see us as an establishment team. A team for the toffs. Good grief. Up until that last Ashes tour, they were beginning to get a bit cheesed off of us beating them. We’ve fallen miles.

So that’s the World Cup in the books. I had a good time, the blog was well populated with excellent comments, and great insight on many occasions. We now move forward to England’s tour of the West Indies, county cricket and more KP. I’m sure there’s still a lot of fuel in the tanks.

As for the competition, I’ll try to do the calculations this week. I know I got the highest team score of the tournament spot on (417) so maybe I should just declare myself winner!

Carry on…..

UPDATE – Lead picture and story on the Mail’s cricket page…. dog whistle anyone?

Mail Obsession

2015 World Cup Final – Australia v New Zealand

Well. The Final.

I’m not one for previews, as I think the hype of these things gets too much. Too many people getting far too carried away, with silly press, silly angles and me being world class Mr Grumpy.

I want New Zealand to win. It’s anti-big three, the Aussies need something like this in their own back yard to go spectacularly wrong (with apologies to my Aussie mates), and well, the Black Caps appear to be nice guys playing above themselves.

But the Aussies are going to win. Just feel it in my bones. They needed to be got shot of before the Final for me, and they never really looked like being defeated in the knockout phase.

Comments as and when. I’ll be on, I’m sure, in the morning. Good luck New Zealand.

Oil

Hello.

Well, I’ve seen a lot of the stuff over the past few days, and also noted that the Sun have commissioned a Yougov poll on Kevin Pietersen. Yes, you read that correctly. This has got seriously stupid

It’s a Saturday night, I’ve been off my feet all day, and recovering from a superb do last night. Everything is concentrated on the World Cup Final and there will be a post put up for that. I will then do the totting up of all the points, and hopefully announce a winner in the next couple of days.

  • PK Troll has Australia
  • SimonH has New Zealand
  • Gambrinus has New Zealand
  • Arushatz has Australia
  • D’Arthez has Australia
  • John Owen has Australia
  • Rooto has Australia
  • Grumpy Gaz has Australia
  • Arron Wright has New Zealand
  • Steve has Australia

The rest of us, bar one (Sir Peter), had South Africa.

Of course, the heart-strings were pulled by Martin Crowe’s piece. It would take a heart of stone not to be saddened by the thoughts in there, but also the inspiration this sort of thing might have. I think most of us are old enough to remember how good Crowe was, and what it would mean to him and all that went before. I wish New Zealand good luck, and Martin Crowe any comfort he can take. Truly awe inspiring writing.

Thank you for all the comments. Cool refreshment of choice was a beer called Freedom last night. Very agreeable, and not Czech.

Enjoy the final.

2015 World Cup Semi-Final – India v Australia

Can’t they both lose?

Comments below. I’ll be awake a bit earlier tomorrow, so I’ll try to watch some of this on the train if I can get my Sky Go up and running.

We are all Black Caps now (presumably if you aren’t Indian or Australian or desperate to win the contest).

Thanks for all the nice words below. It’s always good to know people like the blog.

2015 World Cup Semi-Final – New Zealand v South Africa

The first semi-final will send a new team to the World Cup Final. Will it be Dmitri’s tip for the championship, South Africa, or will it be everyone’s darling team, New Zealand.

Needless to say, I have a job to hold down and need to sleep, so won’t be watching much. But you can comment away downstairs….

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.