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

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England v New Zealand: 4th ODI review

At least in the one day series we get the decider that all that has gone before merits.  And given how this sequence of games has gone, who knows what will happen.

England will of course be praised heavily for an astonishing run chase, exceeded in terms of runs only four times in history.  But it was more than that, it was that England plainly could have chased down another 50, 75, or even 100.  They were that in control they had 7 overs and 7 wickets still in hand.

It’s not so long ago that New Zealand setting 350 to win would have made the second half of the game academic, and by not too long ago, we can say about 10 days.   The turnaround has been astounding; not the turnaround in results, it is 2-2 after all, but in attitude and approach.

Amid the delight at seeing England play like this, it cannot be overlooked how much of an indictment this been of various previous managements of the England team.  Peter Moores will certainly be shifting uncomfortably at what he’s seeing (in truth, given that he’s that kind of man, he’ll probably be absolutely delighted because it’s England), but it isn’t and shouldn’t all be laid on his shoulders.  One day cricket has been like this for a number of years, and at no point until this series have England even attempted to play this way.  A whole bunch of them should be looking at themselves in the mirror.  And not just coaches either, the people above them, the selectors, some of the players, all of them carry the responsibility for the wasted years of trying to get just enough and hoping it will do.

Alastair Cook led that side, and led it in a way incompatible with how the game is now played.  It is completely inconceivable that England would be playing in this style under him.  Throughout the build up to the World Cup, those who pointed this out on a regular basis were dismissed as know-nothings, bilious inadequates, fools and knaves – even anti-England.  But they were right.  They were absolutely, incontrovertibly right.  An acknowledgement from the self-appointed great and good of that reality wouldn’t go amiss, and nor would a realisation that maybe, just maybe that even if you don’t agree with them, they have an opinion which has value.

I’m not going to hold my breath it’ll ever happen.

By way of contrast, some credit has to be given to those selectors who insisted on retaining Eoin Morgan, when he was in a dreadful run of form, and many were calling for his head.  They backed him, and to the surprise of many, re-appointed him as one day captain.  You see, when credit is due, it is given.  Another thing for them to learn.

In amongst the pleasure at seeing England play like this, there cannot but be a feeling of anger at the missed opportunity the World Cup represented.  These players are by and large the ones that were called for, to give England a chance of competing.  They haven’t suddenly become a great side, and there will still be ups and downs ahead.  The point is that allowing the team to have a chance was the thing.  They didn’t give England a prayer.  And that is not acceptable on any level.

During the World Cup, some people went as far as hoping England would lose.  Some people?  By the end I suspect it was a lot of people.  They didn’t do so because they liked seeing England get hammered, they did so out of despair that anyone would actually get out of their stubborn, ignorant, antiquated mindset and pay attention to what was going on in the world game.  This change is precisely because the World Cup was such a shambles, that it shocked even the ECB out of their complacency.

It remains to be seen whether Morgan’s clear desire that England continue to play without fear survives the inclination to conservatism that remains.  Today England set about the target with furious, but controlled aggression.  It’s only a few days since England were bowled out for 302 batting first and the conservative sirens were telling them that if only they’d been more restrained, they’d have got 340.  Their attitudes are obselete.

In defeat, New Zealand once again showed themselves to be a class act.  When Morgan was dismissed they were quick to congratulate him, likewise Root at the end of the game.  Perhaps the most thoughtful, kindest and most considerate action was at the conclusion of the match.  It was Steve Davis’ final game as an international umpire, and to remember that and invite him to lead the New Zealand team off the pitch said a lot about how they play the game.

England were magnificent today.  I can’t remember the last time I wrote that.  Long may they give themselves the chance to be magnificent – even if they sometimes fall short.

@BlueEarthMngmnt

England v New Zealand 3rd ODI: Review

Not very many days ago, for England to be 2-1 down after three matches would have been considered something of a triumph, given how low the expectations were. It’s curious how quickly expectations rise, and given the football team have just won their sixth straight qualifying match and finished the season unbeaten, it’s quite likely that the same sort of thing will happen there.

England – the cricket variety, though it’s true of the football team as well – did a fair bit wrong today in all three disciplines of the game, but there’s far more they continued to do right, and a degree of acceptance and understanding is arguably fitting.

From 288-5 to 302 all out is certainly a collapse, yet the disappointment at only getting 300 was remarkable to see.  It’s the first time England have ever scored 300 three matches in succession, and we’re disappointed.  Not just the supporters either, England themselves were plainly extremely unhappy with the way they fell away.  Good.  So they should be.  But it’s anything but a disaster. In the first match England were 202-6, and went for it.  On that occasions it came off, and the score rocketed to over 400; on this occasion it went wrong.  If we’re to praise the buccaneering spirit that allowed them the freedom to attack on that occasion, we do need to accept it can go wrong sometimes.  That doesn’t mean that they can’t learn from it, because there are many things they could have done better.  But what mustn’t happen is that they are criticised for recklessness, because it was no more or less reckless than it was at Edgbaston, it’s just that on that occasion it worked out and this time it went wrong.

It might have horrible echoes of “executing their skills better”, but sometimes it is about the execution and not the mindset.  A gentle reminder to try and hit that particular ball over long on rather than across the line to deep midwicket for example is approving of the intent completely, but trying to better the specific way in which it’s done, and definitely not making anyone scared of trying it or getting out.  For the reality is that teams who are capable of scoring 400 and who are looking to reach that kind of target do sometimes screw up.  To screw up and still score 302 isn’t all that bad – if we go back to the omnishambles of the World Cup, England patted themselves on the back for a total like that.  This time they’re unhappy with it.  Perhaps that’s the most promising thing of all.

There is always a temptation to be wise after the event, and judge on outcome rather than intent.  When a batsman clears long on, just over the head of the fielder stationed there, then the cry of “great shot” goes up.  If he fractionally mistimes it, and it lands in that fielders hands, then often it’s called irresponsible with the fielder there waiting.  Yet if it’s irresponsible then, it’s just as irresponsible when it goes for six – it can’t only be irresponsible based on the outcome.  But few would ever say that when it sailed into the stand.  For many of the late dismissals, if you were to freeze frame it as the shot was played, it’s not necessarily the wrong shot, it’s just not been played that well.  You have to ask, in that freeze frame, if it sails for six who is going to say it was the wrong thing to do?  The answer is no one.  It’s still a bad shot of course, but often the right shot played badly, which isn’t quite the same thing.

Now, none of that means you absolve England of any blame, but it does highlight the very narrow margins that are there when playing a high risk, extremely attacking game.  England are just three matches into this kind of approach, and they are going to get it wrong sometimes at this stage.  So should they have decided to be more conservative when half the side was out?  Had they taken that approach at Edgbaston, they’d have ended up with around 300, and that’s what the old England would have done.

What England do need to do is do exactly what they are doing, but just look to do it better.  The judgement about what a good score is on any given pitch will come, and as they get more used to the way they are playing, so will the shot selection.  If we want them to shoot for the moon, then we need to show a little patience when they don’t quite manage it.  Especially when playing a side like New Zealand, who we must remember are more than a bit useful.

Having said that about the batting, the catching is something that unquestionably will have to improve.  England had their chances in this game and didn’t take them.  It can happen in any game, but there’s been a worrying propensity to shell them in all formats of the game.   As to why that is, it’s one of cricket’s mysteries quite why dropping catches seems to be a communicable disease, but it’s one that self-evidently needs curing rapidly.  Switching confidence on is the only way of doing so – and here is where the coaches earn their pay.

The bowling is a much more uncertain area than the batting.  Mark Wood was the pick of the seam attack, and worries around him are more about a fear of England overbowling him than anything he’s doing on the field.  The rest are having good moments and bad moments.  Some of them won’t be good enough, but we can’t be sure who that is true of just yet.  Having said that, Finn just doesn’t look the bowler he was, and as more time goes by, the fear that he won’t be getting that back grows ever stronger.

For New Zealand, they did what they do in One Day Cricket.  Williamson and Taylor played superbly throughout.  Their stand of 206 set a new record for the Black Caps for the third wicket, and by the time it was broken, the game was largely won.  Sometimes the opposition play extremely well and you have to doff your cap.  The question of how much is inadequate bowling and how much superb batting is always an open one.

The fourth match is Nottingham on Wednesday, and what will happen is anyone’s guess.  But if England play with the same intent, they have a chance.  And a month or more ago, who would have thought that?  So there we have it.  An optimistic, favourable, forgiving view of England’s performance even though they lost.  There must be something in the water to be so controversial.  I do note that Derek Pringle disagrees with me, and Nasser Hussain agrees.  I think I’ll take that.

@BlueEarthMngmnt

England v New Zealand: 1st ODI review

In truth, not many of the forecasts or expectations for this opening match of the series included the possibility of England battering New Zealand completely, and once again, the potential for going completely over the top on the basis of a single result in the mainstream media is more than a distinct possibility.  Yet there is also nothing wrong with enjoying an unexpected success, particularly when it is done with such style.

A single match is no basis to proclaim the brightness of the future, we have seen plenty of false dawns before, yet as an expression of intent (providing it doesn’t prove to be an outlier), this one does rather startle and grab the attention.  A 210 run margin of victory is the kind of thing that happens to England, not the other way around.

No question that the stars of the show were Root, Buttler and Rashid.  All three batted beautifully at different points of the innings, showing aggressive intent, excellent shot selection and perhaps most importantly a complete lack of fear of getting out.  It’s something England supporters have cried out for for years, the complete antithesis to the safety first approach in a form of cricket that rewards those prepared to back their own ability.

And therein lies the problem.  Despite it being abundantly obvious that this was the way to go, England persisted for years with their conservative, insular approach of trying to get to around a par score that the data confirmed would give them a decent chance of victory.  It’s not a cynical view of how they did it, Graeme Swann confirmed that this was how it was done.  Above all else, this performance is an excoriating verdict of England in One Day Cricket for many years.  The whole World Cup debacle actually looks worse after today than it even did at the time, not because England succeeded today and failed then, but because they didn’t even try then.

Of course, it is better late than never, and if this is indeed the new England, then we will have a side who may or may not succeed, but who won’t die wondering – and that would be a significant step forward.  At 202-6 there is absolutely no chance that the old England would have carried on attacking, there would have been an aim of around 300 if possible and a view that it was then “competitive”.  The point here is that Buttler and Rashid could have perished in pursuit of their aim of a high target, and England would then likely have fallen well short of 300, but even then it is still exactly the right way to go.  It remains to be seen if it is seen that way when it goes wrong, as most assuredly it will at some point.  Mike Atherton – who could defend himself by saying it was a legitimate question – asked that very point, only to be swiftly put down by Adil Rashid in response, quite rightly.  There lies the test.  England will be bowled out from promising positions in some matches adopting this approach, and they must be granted the latitude for that when it happens.

It’s a single match, and a single win.  But making over 400 and the way in which they did so is a marker for a style of cricket that the rest of the cricketing world adopted some time ago.  New Zealand won’t change, it remains to be seen if England do. Let’s hope not.

@BlueEarthMngmnt

England v New Zealand: Review

Perhaps the one thing all will agree upon is that a series consisting of only two Tests has proved to be a terrible mistake.  These things are decided some years in advance of course, and New Zealand’s rise to become a team to reckon with on the field rather than just in words wasn’t known at the time of scheduling.  That is still no excuse whatever, and it shouldn’t happen again.  The trouble is, it is already going to happen again.  England are scheduled next to visit New Zealand in early 2018 for five ODIs, a T20 and…..two Tests.  It is probably too much to hope the two boards are in contact about changing that.

If ever a short series was crying out for a decider, this is it.  For all the observations on individuals and performances which will follow, the cricket throughout has been thrilling. New Zealand are certainly the ones who set the agenda given that this is how they play, but England did catch the bug at different times, and it does take two sides to ensure the cricket is of the nature we have seen.  That England couldn’t maintain that approach in the second Test shouldn’t be surprising in itself – that they tried to in the first is worthy of note given the style of the side over the last few years.

For this match there is no question than that New Zealand thoroughly and completely deserved their win.  Perhaps the most startling demonstration of their approach is shown by the fact that they only batted 163 overs in the match, against England’s 200 – yet winning by the huge margin of 199 runs.   Yet England scored at 3 an over across the match, which might not be scintillating, but isn’t tardy either, especially when the last day was taken up with trying to survive.  Given that so much time was lost to rain- equivalent to a full day –  and that New Zealand won in the final session of the last day, it can be said to have borne dividends to the ultimate extent.  Without such a high risk approach, and given a decent surface and inclement conditions, this match would have been a fairly tame draw.  Indeed the weather turned out to be kinder on the last day than they could have hoped for, and definitely better than the forecasts indicated – the anticipated rain taking out up to a session would have ensured a stalemate and an England series win.

There can therefore be little argument that New Zealand are the most exciting team in world cricket today, and it is not unimportant to note that they do so while playing the game in such an excellent spirit.  England too joined that particular party, which was good to see, because their own behaviour has fallen short on a number of occasions in recent times.

Yet none of this was particularly unknown before the series.  Their opening bowling attack is extremely potent, and Trent Boult lived up to his reputation by proving frequently lethal and taking thirteen wickets in the two games.  If anything, Southee proved to be a little disappointing. The sense of foreboding about this England side facing up to the assorted Mitches later in the summer is not misplaced.  Most of the team did contribute in the series however, and that they won this Test so comfortably with no contributions from a player as good as Kane Williamson and not too much in either Test from Ross Taylor shows that there is depth in New Zealand cricket, and that hasn’t been said too often over the years.

And what of England? The problem so often is that the media do them no favours.  The win in the first Test was something of a steal; for the first three days England were very much on the back foot, it took a fabulous innings from Cook and an extraordinary one from Stokes to turn that around.  This is of course good in itself and was undeniably thrilling, but it didn’t warrant the glowing response from the usual sections of the press for the simple reason that relying on such heroics to win a match is no basis for assuming the health of the side to be so perfect.  England do have some promising young players, and they do have some reasons for optimism.  The trouble is that the coverage of English cricket has been so appallingly mendacious that it was both predictable and pathetic when the usual suspects piled in with glee as though a single win against the odds had answered every objection or criticism ever made.  We might be used to the press being excessive, but it is unusual compared to most sports when they make excuses for every failing and then trumpet a single success.  The England football team certainly don’t get such favourable treatment and nor should they.

An indication of this has been that after today’s defeat, the “five wins from the last eight Tests” line has been trotted out – of course it was “five from seven” until today – which is trying to shut down debate and criticism by clinging to raw figures of their choosing.  Why pick eight?  Why not twelve, so we can take into account the defeat to Sri Lanka and the Lords loss to India?  Why not seventeen so we can include the Ashes shambles?  Or go the other way and say “two wins and two defeats in the last five” which isn’t so impressive, especially when three of those matches were against the eighth ranked side in the world.  It doesn’t mean that saying “nine defeats in the last seventeen Tests” is a more accurate figure, but it does mean it’s an equally valid one.  To try and select a specific one of those and repeat it at every juncture (whichever one it is) is trying to push a particular point of view.

England do have some grounds for optimism – Cook’s return to form with the bat is essential to the success of the side, and it’s not just that he’s scoring runs it’s how he is scoring those runs that counts.  Never mind how, count how many is true in the overall sense, but the how in terms of a specific player is important for indicating how many.  Cook is batting very, very well.  Yet again here it should not and must not be used to cover the issues with his captaincy.  Yesterday morning’s bowling to the New Zealand tail was nothing less than a complete meltdown, not for the first time.  Where the balance of blame lies for that is a matter of some discussion – Cook himself talked about it being very definitely a plan, which is extraordinary if so, given that time and again it results in England being flayed around the park.  Others suggested with varying degrees of strength that it definitely wasn’t the plan, in which case the captain failing to overrule the bowlers is quite simply weak.  Whichever it might be, it doesn’t look very impressive.

One side issue about his batting did come up during the Test, that he’d engaged Gary Palmer for some private coaching sessions.  Good.  He was seeking solutions and finding someone who could help him without direction from on high.  There is nothing to criticise him for about this, just as there is nothing to criticise other players who use a person they trust.  Players must look after their own game, and that doesn’t mean being confined to official structures; that would be just about the worst thing they could do.  One or two in the press ought to have known better when using it as a stick to beat a particular player with.

Cook did OK as captain in the first Test.  And that’s rather the point, he did OK.  It shouldn’t have been treated with such praise for doing the tactical basics passably well.  Yet there should be no problem in agreeing entirely that he was fine in that match, because it’s acknowledging how it is, just as it’s fine to acknowledge that he is batting superbly well.  The problem arises in the complete ignoring of situations like yesterday morning.  The Black Caps scored 116 in 16 overs in that morning session.  An already strong but not impregnable lead turned into a position of total supremacy in the space of an hour.  It is of course entirely possible that even had Cook and the team got it absolutely spot on, something similar could have happened (in any case, 350 or so would have likely been well beyond them), but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that in that short period England well and truly threw away any remaining chance they had.  It doesn’t help anyone to skate over things like this, a year ago at the same ground England more obviously disintegrated, but it is merely a matter of degree; the same occurred on the fourth morning this time too, and when put under identical pressure.

Joe Root’s comments that England would go all guns blazing for the total caused some wry amusement given five of the first six overs of the day were maidens, yet in reality they didn’t have a great deal of choice.  Sometimes the opposition just bowl well.  Root probably absolutely believed it at the time he said it, circumstances just changed rather quickly.  In any event, England never had the option.

Other positives (which we must take of course) for England included Mark Wood, Adam Lyth and Jos Buttler.  Lyth and Wood being two games into their nascent Test careers look promising, it’s not fair on either of them to push it further than that.  But they should certainly be in the Ashes side given their performances.

Buttler has quietly gone about his business since coming into the team, and without ever going on to make a really big score has still impressed.  Five half centuries in twelve innings is an excellent return, as is an average of 52.66.  It doesn’t mean for a moment he will or can maintain that, but he can be quietly satisfied thus far.  His keeping standing back has been good – he’s not the first to struggle at Lords – and his keeping standing up has been mostly adequate with a couple of technical flaws to address.  There’s work to do there, but it’s a decent beginning.

We now move into the one day series, and the side announced today is actually quite exciting.  There will be another time to discuss that, but in terms of how the Test side will look in July when the Ashes begins, the likelihood is that barring injuries it won’t be too different.  Bell and Ballance have some work to do, as both need runs, but dropping Bell would be astonishing given his overall record, and would no doubt cause uproar given he is in the same kind of slump that Cook was fully supported throughout. He doesn’t seem terribly happy at present and he deserves precisely the same faith.

Ballance appears to be going through sophomore difficulties.  But it should be remembered that focusing on his footwork during his current problems only has value as criticism if the same were levelled when he was batting so well.  He looks horribly out of nick, not technically inadequate.

Moeen too is under scrutiny, yet his bowling record to date is perfectly adequate by the standards of any spinner England have had since Underwood.  England need to decide what to do here, he’s only going to improve if he is given time to do so.

There is plenty of time for these matters to sort themselves out.  For now it is a matter of saluting a fine team, who played with verve, skill and daring.  A drawn series is the very least they deserved, because in truth barring a couple of days at the end of the first Test, they outplayed England.  And above all else, they were a privilege to watch. If only we had that third and deciding Test to look forward to next week.

@BlueEarthMngmnt

England v New Zealand, 2nd Test: Day Four report/Day Five preview

Given that play was curtailed with only 29 overs possible on day four, England now have an excellent chance of getting away with a draw.  98 overs may be scheduled for the final day, but the forecast is some way less than perfect for tomorrow as well.  A 1-0 series win is now within their grasp, as it appears that at best a third of the day may be at risk.

If so, England will move up to third in the ICC rankings, and New Zealand will drop to seventh, a rather hard outcome for the Black Caps who have lit up the early summer with their exciting style of cricket.

For make no mistake, England have been on the wrong end of something of a hammering in this match.  The scoring rates have been little short of astonishing from New Zealand – they have the highest scoring rate of any Test team in history who have scored more than 800 runs in a match, while in the second innings they set a different, if slightly esoteric record by becoming the first side in which 8 batsmen hit sixes.

Of course, while their approach deserves immense credit – and remember they were put into bat in difficult conditions on day one – it doesn’t excuse the abysmal bowling performance from England this morning in particular.  Mike Selvey commented that:

Aside from the usual “knowing for a fact” stuff, it begs the question what on earth the captain is up to in allowing it to continue.  Any captain should be telling the bowler in no uncertain terms that it is not acceptable to bowl in that manner, and telling him to do what he is told.  If he won’t do that, then he’s off.  It really is as simple as that.  If Broad instead continues to do his own thing, and if Cook allows him to, then that is truly appalling captaincy, and weak beyond measure.  And here’s the rub – if Selvey is wrong and that it was the policy, then that’s dreadful too, given that it doesn’t work, hasn’t worked and that England have had this problem of being spanked to all parts of the ground by the tail on so many occasions.  It really is one or the other here.

England’s bowling to the tail has been utterly shambolic for some years now, and they simply don’t learn.  No matter how many times it’s pointed out that barely any balls are hitting the stumps and they consistently bowl short, they still do it.  Which would be ok if it actually succeeded, but it doesn’t.  It is pure insanity of the “repeating the same thing over and over and hoping for a different result” kind.

When England lost the series to Sri Lanka this time last year, it was explained away as being a matter of just a couple of balls that could have gone the other way, and that was the difference between winning and losing.  I don’t exactly expect it to be treated in those terms if England get away with a draw in this one – it will be 1-0 and well done England, ignoring entirely that they have been second best for much of the series, and will have escaped purely and simply due to bad weather.

England don’t deserve to win this series, and New Zealand certainly don’t deserve to lose it.  And we don’t deserve to be fobbed off with a two Test series in the first place.   Arron made the point in the comments that England will have played ODI series against Australia in seven out of eleven summers between 2009 and 2019, yet New Zealand get these two Tests.  England could have made space for something more substantial, they chose not to.  Any kind of defence that the schedule didn’t allow for more is nothing but excuses.  Still, we’re used to that.

England could of course decide that in the spirit of the series they will have a crack at the world record target…..no, me neither.  And so many England supporters will be secretly hoping New Zealand bowl England out, and for once it doesn’t have to have anything to do with the ECB, the mainstream media or anything else.  It’s just a matter of fairness and what is deserved.  No one who loves cricket could object to that, surely?

@BlueEarthMngmnt

England v New Zealand 2nd Test: Day 3 preview

Well, well.  What a difference an hour makes.  England were cruising along and making all the talk that New Zealand’s total was a pretty decent one look silly.  But this being England, they’re never so vulnerable as when they look to be in a good position.  From 177-0 to 253-5 is not a collapse exactly, but it is a reversion from a position of strength to the game being very much in the balance.

Doubtless the main headlines will be about Cook becoming the leading run scorer for England in Tests, and while the unquestioning adoration of England’s skipper from so many media sources has been enough to infuriate many over the last two years, today is certainly a time where he deserves all the plaudits coming his way.  And there’s an irony in that – Cook perhaps won’t receive the credit he deserves from some quarters precisely because of an inability for some to ever offer up a word of criticism when it’s warranted.  And the reality is that it is unfair, this is a huge feat for him.

Cook the batsman is and always has been a separate issue to Cook the captain.  His poor form over a lengthy period tended to cause debate about whether he would ever again be the batsman he had been, not a dismissal of his abilities over his career.  But his last two innings have probably removed that doubt for most; he looks very much back to his best.

And to that end, to be approaching 9,000 Test runs at the age of 30 is an outstanding achievement, and it was pleasing to see Cook receive the recognition of that from the crowd – though not at all surprising; if you aren’t going to stand and applaud a player becoming his country’s leading run scorer when will you?  Whatever anyone might think of him as captain, he deserved that for a career that has been excellent and is some way from being over.  Cook is now in 13th place in the all time run scorers list, and with all above bar Chanderpaul (just) and Sangakkara (not too far off) retired, he’ll be catching and passing many of them.  There was an interesting comment on Sky when he achieved the record that it had stood for 20 years, and that Cook’s record would stand for a lot longer.  I’m not so sure about that.  If Joe Root ends up as good a player as he currently looks, then he might have something to say about it over the next decade.

Adam Lyth of course was the star of this particular day, his maiden century on his home ground repaying the faith of his local supporters.  He should now have the Ashes series to try and cement his place as opener on the back of it.

Earlier, England had demonstrated a familiar cluelessness in terms of how to deal with the tail, as Craig, Henry and Boult happily lashed them to all parts, while England refused to attack the stumps in favour of banging the ball in.  Is this actually a plan, or do the bowlers do their own thing?  It’s not worked for some time now, yet they still do it.  Of course, any team can suffer from the lower order batsmen having a bit of a slog, the point is that it happens to England repeatedly.  Nasser Hussain, astute as ever, made the point that they should look to how Broad is got out for the template – yes a short ball or two to ruffle them up, but then bowling straight and full.

Broad himself got one of the more peculiar Michelles* of his career, going at 6.34 runs an over.  You’d probably take that overall, but when batsmen are derided for recklessness so often, perhaps the same thing could be levelled at Broad on this occasion.

The late flurry of wickets means that England will have to bat exceptionally well against the still new ball in the morning in order to achieve parity.  The weather forecast has improved for the next few days, but it looks likely to be cloudy and good conditions for bowling.  That doesn’t mean New Zealand can feel confident, the third innings so often falls away dramatically, especially under the pressure of trying to set a target, but their approach on day one appears to have been somewhat vindicated by the present match situation.  Weather permitting though, a result looks very likely.

The old cliche about the next session being critical does apply.  If England don’t bat at least passably well they will find themselves in considerable trouble.  It’s been a hugely entertaining series so far, thank goodness that if New Zealand win there’ll be a decider.  Oh hang on…

*Does this really need explaining?

@BlueEarthMngmnt

England v New Zealand 2nd Test: Day Two

Those who braved the rain enjoyed a fairly remarkable day’s play on the first day of this second and sadly final Test of the “series”.

With poor weather both this morning, and likely over the next few days, it seems that New Zealand decided that to try and force the win they need to square the series, and in so doing, have scored at 4.6 runs an over across the day.  In so doing, and making just shy of 300 in the 65 overs possible, they have well and truly got themselves in the game.  It might not be an imposing score, but at first sight it doesn’t look a bad one.  There was certainly movement available, both off the pitch and in the air, particularly when there was cloud cover.

Which makes it rather hard to come to a firm conclusion about where the game sits.  It’s certainly moved along quickly, and if there is further time lost, as seems probable, the shot making approach could have bought them anything up to half a day.  Of course, if England in reply rack up a big total, then New Zealand will find themselves in trouble, but as a gamble in order to try and force a victory from the off, it’s hugely impressive and fairly brave.

Latham might have been the anchor around which the others played their shots, but he was hardly becalmed either.  Ronchi on debut played a scintillating knock and was on track for the fastest debut century in Test history.  Doubtless he will receive criticism for getting out the way he did – caught on the boundary off a bouncer when three men were out – but that was how he played his whole innings.  Just as so often, focusing on the dismissal not the runs is one of those things that is somewhat peculiar.  88 off 175 balls with a prod to first slip would certainly have only attracted praise.

At the start of the day Anderson wasted little time in getting the 400th Test wicket of his career, and swiftly added scalp number 401.  With New Zealand 2-2, then end result represents something of a recovery, because in the early stages he looked as lethal as he so often does when the ball is swinging.  He’s been a wonderful bowler for England over the years, and so many of the debates about his “greatness” or otherwise seem spurious.  Not many bowlers reach 400 wickets, because both consistency and longevity are required.  It’s quite an achievement, and he’s an exceptionally skilled bowler.  Assuming he remains injury free, he could well reach 500 and go beyond that.  Anderson is the best England seam bowler in a generation, and in itself that’s deserving of note; I sometimes think Anderson suffers from the Tim Henman Critic Syndrome, whereby Henman was slated because he only got to number 4 in the world and only got to the semi-finals a few times at Wimbledon.

And what of England’s approach in the morning?  The New Zealand tail is hardly the strongest, so it seems probable there will be a few wild slashes and the innings will be closed in short order. Will England adopt the same attacking approach as in the first Test, or will the fact that they are 1-0 up, poor weather is around and time will be lost from the game lead to a more cautious approach?  It might be instructive to see whether the first Test was a glorious fluke of circumstance or if England do intend to try and play this way.

The forecast tomorrow is quite good, and overhead conditions do make a huge difference.  It should be fascinating.

@BlueEarthMngmnt

England v New Zealand, 1st Test: Review

Rejoice!  All is well and those doubting over the last two years have been firmly put in their place.  You were told and you didn’t listen, so now you get roundly abused for your negative attitude, and deservedly so.  Right?

Make no mistake, this was a fine win, in a genuinely wonderful Test match.  England produced a wonderful display on the last two days in particular, so surely even the most critical England fan should be pleased with that?  Well yes, actually, they should.  There is a lot to like about the players coming through in this England side and if this is how England are going to play, then there may yet be a chance of recovering some of the ground that the ECB have so needlessly thrown away.  Suggesting that anyone being critical should shut up now misses the point of the issues raised, because many of them haven’t been so much as acknowledged, let alone addressed.  But if it is a first step, then that would be something for everyone to be pleased about.

The captain undoubtedly had a fine game here.  His second innings century was an excellent knock, not just in terms of scoring the runs he did, but in the manner he did so.  Somewhat belatedly, Sky decided to focus on his technique, rather curious in some ways to do so after he’s put it right having ignored it mostly when it was wrong.  He was indeed much more upright, with his head over the ball and aligned well with his front foot.  As a result both his judgement outside off stump was much improved, and he was playing much straighter to the ball aimed at the stumps – his punching of the ball through midwicket and mid on were evidence of that, where previously he had been across the ball due to his balance taking his weight outside off stump.  Cook is never going to be a pretty player, but that’s irrelevant, as others can do that job.  His concentration is indeed one of his prime assets, but in order to make the most of that, he has to stay in.  The point about bowlers having found him out by pitching the ball up at him was always overplayed, because no side can maintain that degree of discipline endlessly if a player gets in – if the game was that easy it would have been worked out a century ago.  Eventually they will bowl balls for him to cash in on.

A Cook in form does change the proposition as far as England are concerned.  Australia’s bowlers wouldn’t have been concerned watching his hundred in the West Indies.  They will be a little more concerned watching his hundred at Lords.

As captain Cook also did little wrong.  England being bowled out this morning was probably the best thing that could have happened, removing the possibility of batting on too long.  But Cook rotated his bowlers well, and tried different things.  He came in for a fair degree of stick in commentary for having a third man in place when New Zealand were 2-2, but Cook is always going to be somewhat stifled by his existing plans and reluctant to change.  He is never going to be a McCullum or Clarke, and given who he is, today he did well.

So no more criticism of him then surely?  Not quite.  That he did well today as captain doesn’t undo the last two years.  But equally there should be no refusal to offer up credit where it is due.   The likely appointment of Trevor Bayliss will place the onus on Cook to run the side on the field, as Bayliss has the reputation for wanting to operate behind the scenes rather than dictating tactics.  That is as it should be, and maybe Cook will flower late as captain.  Yet he should not be given a free pass on the basis of a single Test, and crowing because of it is unseemly.  Credit where it is due and criticism where that is due is entirely reasonable.  This time, it’s credit.

Ben Stokes will of course receive all the plaudits and rightly so.  His second innings century will live long in the memory.  His style is simple and uncomplicated, and although that is often damnation with faint praise, it really shouldn’t be.  He plays straight, has few quirks, and of course that wonderful power.  English cricket probably does need a hero; given the concerns about cricket becoming a niche sport, it’s essential someone grabs the attention of the public.  If only more had the chance to see him.

Despite his second innings heroics, it was his first innings 92 that was perhaps the more important.  Coming in at 30-4 the game was more or less over right there had he gone cheaply.  Although New Zealand surpassed England’s total comfortably, Stokes, Buttler and Ali ensured England were in the game.  From where they were, that was more than could have been expected.

In keeping with being the golden boy, he of course had a say with the ball.  There is something about these kinds of players that they do this sort of thing.  He has shown that he has talent, and in this match he was perhaps the difference.  A word of warning though, Stokes is combative, fiery and awkward.  Recent history suggests England struggle to manage such free spirits, while there is every chance he will be castigated for throwing his wicket away when it goes wrong in similar circumstances.  If we want the glory of it coming off, we have to accept that the price of that is that sometimes he will fail, and it won’t look pretty.  It’s probably too much to hope that he will be granted latitude over that – no one else ever has been.  And that’s frustrating, because just letting him go is probably how England will get the most out of him.  Some players need that freedom, something that so many forgot when slating He Who Must Not Be Mentioned.

Moeen Ali is another who will look back on the match with pleasure.  4-129 on a surface that was friendlier to seam and (especially) swing was a decent return, and when added to over a hundred runs from the bat from number eight, his has fulfilled two roles in the side.  He has done little wrong in his career thus far.

Broad too bowled well overall.  It shouldn’t be forgotten that not for the first time he and Anderson bowled too short in the first innings, though they did correct it.  It remains absolutely mystifying that this happens so often, when they are so much more successful when they pitch it up.  Anderson himself had a relatively quiet Test, but ironically this is no bad thing.  England were looking far too reliant on him for this summer.  For others to do the legwork for once was overdue.

Mark Wood had a wonderful debut.  He bowled with pace, skill, clearly thinks about his bowling judging by how willing he was to use the crease to vary his point of attack, and perhaps above all looked like he was having the time of his life.  When he scored his first Test run he broke into a beaming smile, and on several occasions in the field he betrayed a mischievous sense of humour.  England for the last few years have appeared the most joyless, miserable, bad tempered team in world cricket.  The simple matter of a player plainly having the time of his life was utterly wonderful to see.   Don’t change him.

From a cricketing point of view, a single Test is hardly a sufficient sample size to form a judgement on him, but his presence did make the England attack look properly balanced for the first time since the 2010/11 Ashes.  The additional pace he brought was slightly reminiscent of seeing Simon Jones a decade ago.  Again, there’s no need to pile the pressure on him, but there’s enough there to suggest he might do well in future.

The other debutant Adam Lyth did less well of course.  It really should be written off as irrelevant.  It’s a single game, and he has played little in the last month.  England set him back by not selecting him in the Caribbean.  There’s little more to be said about him except to wish him luck at Headingley.

Ian Bell had a poor game all round.  He could do with a few runs soon, because England can’t keep losing early wickets and expect to get out of the hole.  He did get a couple of very fine deliveries, so for this game it’s a matter of shrugging the shoulders and saying it happens.  He could still do with getting some before too long.

For New Zealand they will be scratching their heads and wondering quite how they lost the game.  They had easily the best of the first three days, and showed that they are an excellent side.  For England to beat them there had to be some quite exceptional performances – they will be thinking that lightning is unlikely to strike twice.

Boult took nine wickets in the match, Williamson scored a fine century, Matt Henry had an excellent debut, BJ Watling showed why even if some of the commentators hadn’t paid attention, that he is a player worthy of considerable respect.

The worst thing anyone could do after this game would be to loudly trumpet that everything is now fine and dandy.  There is some promise in the players coming through in the England side, but England went one up in the Caribbean too and drew the series.  New Zealand are more than capable of turning it around, and England are more than capable of having a stinker.  Indeed, that they won by playing out of their skin on the last two days doesn’t alter the truth that for the first three they were outbatted, outbowled and outfielded.

None of this is intended to be churlish.  It was a thrilling fightback, one that reminded all those who needed the reminder that Test cricket is the apogee of the game.  And that does mean enjoying it thoroughly, so to that extent the praise that will be coming England’s way is fine.  It remains one match.  If they do it repeatedly, that is entirely different, and maybe it could be an England side to become engaged with.  It’s just a question of perspective.

England did well.  That’s good.  A good start.  Pity about the board of course, but for the team, yes a good start.

@BlueEarthMngmnt

England v New Zealand 1st Test: Day Four

England had a fairly decent day today, but New Zealand remain very much on top in the match.  Some of the deficit has been cleared, and both Cook and Bell batted pretty well to recover from yet another poor start.  Lyth will have been disappointed with the shot he played to get out, but let’s hope he’s not under any kind of pressure just yet – he has barely played any cricket in the run up to this series – precisely the scenario pointed out when they chose not to give him a debut in the West Indies.

Gary Ballance again looked out of sorts, but it was a very good ball that got him out.  Alex Hales on Twitter was quick to point out that a player doesn’t average 56 in first class cricket without being able to play the moving ball.  He’s a young player making his way in the game.  A bit of patience wouldn’t go amiss – his start in Test cricket has been a good one.

Cook himself looked technically much better, and given the situation that was a very valuable innings.  But the work has barely started given the position England find themselves in.

Kane Williamson was the glue holding the Black Caps’ innings together, but he clearly found the going much tougher today.  The overhead conditions were cloudy bordering on murky, which is why the eventual lead of 134 will likely prove decisive assuming it remains the same tomorrow.  Indeed, given that, and that New Zealand scored 220-8 today, the size of England’s task is a major one.

BJ Watling was the other major run scorer, demonstrating his worth yet again.  He seems to go largely under the radar for the commentators, but given a Test average of just shy of 40, it’s rather peculiar that he does so.  He’s a proper batsman.

England certainly bowled better today, but given the conditions they ought to be somewhat disappointed.  Some of it was down to happenstance, balls flying just out of reach on a number of occasions; some of it was self-inflicted, catches being dropped and some of it was down to once again bowling too short.  It’s truly extraordinary to see bowlers with the records the opening pair have go through this on so many occasions before belatedly correcting it.  New Zealand consistently are bowling fuller than England are.

Mark Wood took three wickets, none of which were exactly conventional.  He won’t greatly care at the moment – his relief at his first Test wicket was evident.  Yet he showed some serious signs of promise, his pace was good being consistently around the 90mph mark, he used the crease well to vary his line of attack, and got some late swing.  It’s his first game, and basing judgement on that would be foolish in the extreme, but there appears to be something to work with.  Add to that a post-play interview that was delightful in demonstrating the clear joy he has from playing and he’s proving an engaging character.  And then there’s the imaginary horse…

Ben Stokes at one stage appeared as if he was going to combust.  He didn’t bowl badly, and was let down by his fielders, yet he is in the position of bowling too many bad balls but not taking the wickets, hence a fairly poor economy rate.  Again, he is still in the infancy of his career, but perhaps the worst thing would be for him to focus on the economy most of all.  Bowling dry should be a weapon in the armoury, not the whole arsenal.  He’ll have more productive days if he bowls like this.

And then we come to Moeen Ali.  Ignored for much of the first day and again today, he popped up when finally called upon with two wickets in three balls.  He’s doing little wrong at the moment, scoring runs and taking wickets.  Curiously, although he’s a batsman who bowls primarily, it is his bowling that will determine his England career.  With the exception of the tour of the West Indies, when he was coming back from injury, thus far he’s doing all that can be asked of him.

Jos Buttler’s two catches deserve a mention.  Diving catches always look spectacular, but the first one in particular was special, because it is to his wrong side.  Lords does seem to cause wicketkeepers no end of problems, and that will have pleased him, deservedly so.

So another terrific day of Test cricket.  Yet whilst England will be pleased with their day, they are two wickets down and quite some way from drawing level.  With two days to go, England would have to bat the whole of tomorrow and another session to make the game safe, and that seems like a very big ask.  Of course, they will have hopes of winning the game, and to that end a target of 200 would seem to be the absolute minimum.  To do that and score a further 260 runs is asking a lot.  Getting out of this will be tough, and New Zealand have to date been comfortably the better side.

@BlueEarthMngmnt