Tuesday 31 January 2012

Why is the 'doosra' a wrong'un for English off-spinners?

With the horror of England's Abu Dhabi capitulation finally beginning to subside, a far healthier appreciation of just how impressive a display of spin bowling from both sides was afforded to the spectators has taken precedence.

It is difficult to be critical of England's spin duo of Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar, even in contrast to their Pakistani opposite numbers who, lest we forget, took 19 of the 20 England wickets that fell in Abu Dhabi.

Swann and Panesar bowled quite beautifully in restricting Pakistan to two sub-par, and what should have been losing totals, exercising exquisite control coupled with not inconsiderable purchase from a helpful if not raging turner of a pitch.

Saqlain Mushtaq - inventor of the doosra
In reply, the two frontline spinners of Pakistan - Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman - wove their own web of cunning and deceit, leaving England's esteemed batsmen looking little more dangerous than the proverbial trapped fly.

Chasing small fourth innings totals is often a case of mind over matter. In this instance, it is perhaps fair to deduce that the trickery of Ajmal in particular played a key subliminal role in laying waste to the English batting order. In fact, such uncertainty can probably be narrowed down to just one delivery; the 'doosra'.

The term doosra translates to "(the) second (one)" or "(the) other (one)" in Urdu; one of crickets more mysterious deliveries reportedly invented by former Pakistan off-spinner Saqlain Mushtaq. A delivery that turns the opposite way to a conventional off-break, it is a formidable weapon within the arsenal of the modern off-spinner.

Why, then, is so little seen of this mystery delivery outside of the sub-continent?

Cricketing law states that a bowlers arm must not straighten beyond 15 degrees when bowling a delivery, a revision made in 2005 to replace the previous limit of 5 degrees which effectively outlawed the doosra in its entirety. Nevertheless, many an attempted purveyor of this enigmatic delivery has still fallen by the wayside; their actions called in to question and reputations left in tatters.

The list of those whose action has been referred to the International Cricket Council by on-field umpires is extensive. Muttiah Muralitharan of Sri Lanka, Shoaib Malik and Saeed Ajmal of Pakistan, Harbhajan Singh of India and Johan Botha of South Africa have all had accusations of 'chucking' their doosra levelled at them. Whilst Muralitharan and Ajmal have been cleared to continue bowling the delivery, the others have effectively been forbidden in its use.

Such controversy over this one delivery has led to the word doosra becoming almost taboo in many cricketing nations. Australia, for example, chose to ban the teaching of the doosra in 2009, with a summit held by Cricket Australia declaring that the delivery simply cannot be bowled legally. England has its own issues with the doosra. As recently as 2011 Maurice Holmes, a young off-spin bowler on the books of Warwickshire CCC, was suspended by the ECB after umpires reported a suspect action when Holmes utilised his own doosra. Despite weeks of remedial work leading to his action being cleared, Holmes was released by Warwickshire.

Holmes, during a recent interview with The Telegraph, says that despite his own struggles and controversy surrounding the legality of his action, he is of the belief that more English off-spinners should be encouraged and taught to bowl the doosra. “There are a lot of similar bowlers around the world and I don’t think that it should be discouraged,” says Holmes. “The doosra is a growing part of the game but I’m a rarity in England. As far as I am aware I am the only English bowler who bowls it.”

Former England off-spinner Peter Such is one advocate of incorporating the doosra in to the English game. “If someone wants to bowl the doosra you work with them,” says Such. “It’s an easy thing to coach but they have to be aware of the parameters of flex and straightening of the elbow that are permitted and they have to work within that.

It should be of little surprise that English batsmen struggle when confronted with this mystery delivery, then, given the paucity with which it is encountered at a domestic level. Former Warwickshire all-rounder Alex Loudon bowled his own version of the doosra with a less conventional but legal action, but retired somewhat prematurely to pursue other business interests.

Given Saeed Ajmal's recent torment of England’s batsmen, there is a possibility it will cause a re-think amongst the hierarchy of the ECB as far as the coaching of the doosra goes in England. Certainly, it would be a more than valuable addition to the repertoire of deliveries possessed by England's own off-break bowlers, but perhaps of greater importance is that it could go some way toward ensuring their batsmen don't read this delivery in the same manner they would a badly translated Mandarin Shakespeare script.

The doosra should no longer be deemed a wrong’un in English cricket.

Saturday 28 January 2012

Rehman gives England the Trott's...

Whilst Jonathan Trott was experiencing plenty of uncomfortable off field troubles of his own in Abu Dhabi this afternoon, his fellow England batsmen were providing a similarly gut wrenching performance to a horror struck audience back home, only this time in a cricketing sense.

After the continual successes of the past two years, England supporters could perhaps have been forgiven for believing that a run chase of 145 was well within their achievable means. England of old would have made hard work of such an insignificant total, leaving nails chewed to the bone by the time all was said and done, but not this England; someone always steps up to the plate.

Alas, not in Asia, it would seem. Ghosts of Multan in 2005 returned to haunt Andy Flower’s men, and it was painfully evident that England’s batsmen are yet to conquer this particular fear. 198 was the fourth innings target set in Multan, only for England to be bowled out for 175. Danish Kaneria did the damage then, taking 4-62 as England crumbled in Pakistan’s backyard, and it was the spinners that left England humiliated once more here in Abu Dhabi as they crashed to an abysmal 72 all out.

There are two striking similarities between the debacle of 2005 and the humbling in Abu Dhabi; both defeats were to Pakistan, and both were in a series following England beating the then number one ranked side in the world, Australia and India respectively. After wins of such enormity where runs have come at ease, the travails of England’s batsmen in sub-continental conditions are highly unlikely to be confidence related, one would think.

Abdur Rehman decimated England with 6-25
Of course, there is always pressure involved with a run chase; particularly those targets that you are expected to comfortably reach. An early wicket, as was the case when Mohammad Hafeez removed Alastair Cook caught and bowled with England on just 21, only serves to increase the anxiety.

In this instance, though, England’s batsmen did not look panicked or outwardly ruffled. England’s problems, as has been the case in each of the two Tests played thus far in this three Test series, stemmed from the lack of technique and absence of intent from each and every one of their top order batsmen.

An infuriating tendency to play back to almost every ball delivered by Pakistan’s trio of spinners, coupled with a complete lack of willingness to utilise their footwork to nullify the purchase gained from the surface, left England’s batsmen prodding and poking at ball after ball from deep within their crease, simultaneously allowing the spinners of Pakistan to build pressure whilst adding very few runs to the total.

Ian Bell, in at number three as a result of Jonathan Trott’s unfortunate ailment, was rather unlucky; defending an Ajmal delivery down in to the pitch, only to see it spin back through his legs and dislodge a bail from the stumps. Captain Andrew Strauss fought hard, struggling to an agonising 32 from 100 balls before being put out of his misery by Abdur Rehman, but the stagnant nature of his innings summed up just how insipid a batting effort this was from the team who prior to this series had no less than four batsmen sitting inside the ICC top ten rankings.

Despite the ghastly showing from England’s batsmen, full credit must go to the bowlers of Pakistan. Abdur Rehman and Saeed Ajmal in particular were truly outstanding, giving the batsmen very little to hit without taking significant risk. Rehman exploited the appreciable turn on offer to cause nightmares for the right handed batsmen as he saw many a delivery played at and missed, but it was against the left handers that he had considerable success. Pitching in the rough and spinning back in to the left handers, Rehman dismissed Andrew Strauss leg before wicket and rearranged the stumps of both Eoin Morgan and Stuart Broad, before picking up the final wicket courtesy of a top edged slog from James Anderson. Final innings figures of 6-25 were just reward for a magnificent spell.

Ajmal, as is his wont, again had England tied up in knots with subtle changes in pace and clever use of the dreaded doosra; a delivery that very few England batsmen are showing even the faintest sign of reading. Playing constantly off the back foot, England’s batsmen were nothing more than sitting ducks waiting to be picked off by these unerringly accurate marksmen.

Pakistan’s captain, Misbah-ul-Haq, is the antithesis of his countries recent cricketing history. Calm, composed and a strong believer in consistency of selection, he has almost single-handedly reformed Test cricket for this great cricketing nation. Gone are the political controversies, departed is the inner turmoil inside the Pakistan dressing room, and no more are the brainless shots that cost many a Pakistan batsman his wicket that were so evident during their last tour of England. Under Misbah, Pakistan are once more a force to be reckoned with on the international scene, and Test cricket can only prosper as a result.   

If confidence amongst England’s batsmen was high coming in to this series, it will have all but deserted them by now. A captain that has scored just one century in almost two and a half years, and a middle order that cannot buy a run out here in the United Arab Emirates will cause plenty of thinking to be done ahead of England’s next tour to Sri Lanka where similar conditions are likely to be experienced. Calls for widespread change are of course premature after just two poor Test matches, but Eoin Morgan is one batsman that will be spending plenty of time looking over his shoulder prior to the dead rubber third Test at Dubai next week. After failing to consistently impress even as England crushed India last year, Morgan’s abject failures in this series will likely see him replaced by Ravi Bopara at number six in the England line-up.

At 2-0 down, the third and final Test at Dubai has now become something of a salvage mission for England’s batsmen; a chance to regain a measure of pride and faith in their own ability to play successful cricket in these conditions. You have to feel for England’s bowlers, Stuart Broad and Monty Panesar in particular, who have taken to the task of bowling on difficult pitches with aplomb only to be let down by their batting counterparts. That is one positive to take from this otherwise disappointing series, and a source of hope for their tour of Sri Lanka, at least.

England are still number one, just, and a big performance is needed in Dubai if they wish to persuade anyone that they’re still worthy of such a title. They say a win in Asia is the benchmark of a great side, but going on the evidence presented across the last two weeks we may just have to be a little less lavish in our praise for the time being.

Pakistan v England 2nd Test Ratings - Abu Dhabi

After a collapse of Biblical proportions in their second innings, England's batsmen can expect to receive much the same ratings that they did at the disastrous first Test back in Dubai. You have to feel for the bowlers, who yet again put in a sterling effort only to be let down by their counterparts. Here is how I rated the two sides:


Mohammad Hafeez - 8 - modest returns with the bat in this Test, despite getting a start both times, but his 8 rating comes as a result of his much improved off-spin bowling. Boasting an incredible bowling average of less than 20 when bowling inside the first 20 overs, Hafeez twice removed an England opener and kept things very tight throughout.
Taufeeq Umar - 2 - Poor Test for Taufeeq with the bat, returning scores of 16 and 7; both bowled. Many an opening batsman would do well to learn from Rahul Dravid, but in Taufeeq's case it seems he has picked up the unfortunate attribute of having his furniture rearranged on a regular basis.
Azhar Ali - 8 - fell in the twenties in the first innings after getting a start, but gets plenty of credit for his ultimately match winning 68 in the second. Azhar combined superbly with Shafiq to see Pakistan through a very rough patch.
Younis Khan - 2 - got a start in the first innings before being bowled by Broad, and was out for just 1 in the second to an unplayable ball from Monty Panesar. No contribution of not from Pakistan's premier batsman as yet.
Misbah-ul-Haq - 7 - excellent innings of 84 first up, switching expertly between defence and attack as he swiped four big sixes off the bowling of Monty Panesar. Failed second time around, but excellent captaincy throughout.
Asad Shafiq - 8 - played a key role in that crucial second innings partnership with Azhar, and hit an impressive 58 in the first innings to ensure Pakistan finished up with a respectable total. Much improved from Dubai.
Adnan Akmal - 5- two failures with the bat but kept very well to the spinners of Pakistan in testing conditions. May be warned about excessive appealing, but it was rather ironic that the only time he kept quiet in this Test was when Jonathan Trott looked to be plumb LBW early in his innings of 74.
Abdur Rehman took a second innings 6-25
Abdur Rehman - 9 - bowled with great control throughout the first England innings, extracting more turn from the pitch than his fellow spinners in doing so. Really came in to his own in England's second innings, taking a mightily impressive 6-25 from just 10.1 overs. With all eyes on Ajmal, it seems Rehman slipped beneath England's radar.
Saeed Ajmal - 9 - once again bamboozled England's tentative batsmen with a variety of orthodox off-spin and the dreaded doosra. England's back foot policy to Ajmal plays right in to his hands. Unerringly accurate, and man of the match for the second Test in a row. Who would bet against a hat-trick in Dubai?
Umar Gul - 6- not much threat from Gul this time round, and didn't bowl a great deal of overs as spin dominated proceedings for the most part. Did however pick up the key wicket of Ian Bell with the second new ball in England's first innings as Pakistan looked to minimise the deficit.
Junaid Khan - 1 - wicket-less in the first England innings, and not used at all in the second, where Misbah opted for spin right from the off. Clueless with the bat.


Andrew Strauss - 3 - failed again with the bat in England's first innings. Fared better second time around, making a slow 32, albeit with a huge slice of luck when third umpire Billy Bowden inexplicably gave him not out to what looked like a perfectly good catch. Scoring options to the spinners look very limited. Strauss gets a bonus point for marshalling his troops well in the field.
Alastair Cook - 6 - an impressive 94 in the first innings as he shared a big partnership with Jonathan Trott, but fell playing against the spin to the off-spin of Hafeez early in the second to get England's run chase off to the worst possible start.
Jonathan Trott - 5 - a solid innings of 74 first up, despite somehow surviving a plumb LBW decision whilst in the twenties. Batted at 7 in the England run chase due to illness keeping him off the field, but only managed to score 1 before falling to Rehman.
Kevin Pietersen - 1 - another failure in this Test and looks quite out of sorts at the moment. Perhaps unlucky in the first innings as he was caught off the inside edge in to his pad, and missed a straight one in the second. England will be looking for a response from KP in Dubai.
Ian Bell - 3 - undone by a good ball from Gul in the first innings, and desperately unlucky in the second as a ball from Ajmal that he had blocked happened to roll back between his legs and dislodge the bails. Another that is in need of some runs.
Eoin Morgan - 1 - sums up England's middle order at the moment. Can't buy a run, tentative against the spin, and looks well out of his depth in Test cricket. Expect Ravi Bopara to replace Morgan in Dubai.
Matt Prior - 4 - only managed 3 runs in the first innings, before being left high and dry with the tail as England's run chase faltered spectacularly in the second and was out trying to force the pace. Kept well.
Stuart Broad - 8 - once again superb with the ball, taking 4-47 in Pakistan's first innings and exercising great control in the second, he has taken to bowling in these conditions exceptionally well. A counter-attacking 58 not out with the bat in England's first innings to gain them a lead highlighted his all-round credentials, but fell for a duck in the second as England ground to a halt.
Graeme Swann - 7 - bowled well again and with great control. Couldn't repeat his exploits in Dubai with the bat.
James Anderson - 6 - just the 3 wickets for Anderson in this Test, but he carried out a key containing role despite these conditions not suiting his bowling style particularly well. Batted well in support of Stuart Broad at the tail end of England's first innings.
Monty Panesar - 9 - fantastic return to Test cricket for everybody's favourite left arm spinner. Showed good control in Pakistan's first innings, despite the assault by Misbah, and was exceptional in taking 6-62 in their second. Desperately unlucky to leave Abu Dhabi on the losing side.

How did you rate the two teams? Let me know if you agree.

Thursday 26 January 2012

Common sense bypass? Yes, another...

As news reaches my ears of the scheduling of the 2012 Friends Life English domestic Twenty20 competition, it is difficult to hide my consternation at some of the proposed start times of 7.30pm set out by the counties involved. Clearly a move in keeping with a worrying trend of affability toward corporate punters, one cannot help but think that the decision-makers are somewhat missing the point of this competition.

Ask the cricketing world what they believe to be the pinnacle of the game and the majority will tell you “Test cricket” without hesitation. On the other hand, even the most ardent of cricketing purists will, perhaps begrudgingly, admit that the longer format of the game enjoys its peaks and troughs. To the ripened cricket aficionado, the archetypal ‘thou shalt not pass’ innings from characters of a bygone era were a thing of beauty, allowing them to drink in the sure, dull thud of a perfect forward defensive. Yet, even to one so utterly in their element, there would have been passages of play involving the likes of Hanif Mohammad or Chris Tavare that promptly spurred the yawns in to action. In short, growing to admire stout defence and unbreakable concentration does not happen overnight.

Thankfully, Test cricket has evolved, inching from war of attrition toward intriguing exhibition. That, of course, is the view of this author, one that has had an affinity with Test cricket since the turn of the Millennium. Perhaps the most pertinent question, then, is whether a youngster newly introduced to the sport would share that view. No, is probably the answer. What this author sees as a fascinating contest between bat and ball, watching a bowler set up his intended victim with subtlety and cunning, a youngster would likely deem worthy of the question “why is nothing happening?”, aimed in the direction of their accompanying parent.

Cricket, like any other sport, relies on popularity amongst the younger members of society in order to prosper and safeguard its future. That means accommodating their needs. As we know, youngsters like to see action and entertainment. For those with a shorter attention span, and perhaps less of an appreciation of the finer subtleties of the game of cricket, that means two things: boundaries and wickets, which is where the inception of Twenty20 cricket really comes in to its own.

Why then the English cricketing bureaucracy have decided to commence certain domestic Twenty20 matches at 7.30pm is anyone’s guess, effectively ruling many families out of attending those games. With fixtures concluding at almost 11pm, far too late for school children, it is clear that little thought was given to the next generation of potential cricket fans and players, and such a situation stinks of pandering to corporate demands. Money, it would seem, is still very much king.
Kids prefer cricketers in pyjamas

The argument that a 5.30pm start can be too early simply doesn’t wash, particularly when you consider that the original marketing strategy for Twenty20 cricket was that the early starts and early finishes were ideal for families with children. For local corporate groups planning to attend, 5.30pm should give sufficient time to arrive at the ground and buy that first pint before a ball has been bowled. If it doesn’t then that is unfortunate, but is more than made up for by the grounds being packed with families and youngsters, thus allowing for the next generation to become engrossed with the sport in its simplest format, and sowing the seeds that will hopefully grow to see them come to appreciate the sport in its purest sense: Test cricket.

As one fellow cricket enthusiast said to me, “today’s youngsters are tomorrow’s aficionados.” By placing corporate needs above those of youngsters, the hierarchy may just be removing tomorrow from the equation. Twenty20 provides the perfect platform from which to launch a youngster’s eventual undying interest in all formats of the sport, but judging by this news it may soon be firing blanks.

It is understandable that counties will be looking to maximise income from participation in the Twenty20 competition, given that it is the most lucrative in what is a barren wasteland of monetary opportunities, and corporate entertainment is one effective way of doing so. As one Lord’s member noted, however, the 6pm starts afforded the Twenty20 competition last year were ideal both in the interests of corporate entertainment and of course departing the venue at a reasonable hour; evidence, if needed, that corporate and family entertainment can co-exist.

Regardless, there is plenty of scope to achieve a satisfactory corporate to family balance, and failure to address the situation swiftly may just have more of a destructive effect on the future of English cricket than the money men would ever have cared to envisage.

Sunday 22 January 2012

Pakistan v England 2nd Test Preview - Abu Dhabi

England's cricketers returned to training yesterday for an unscheduled session in Abu Dhabi, on what should have been the fifth and final day of the first Test in Dubai. The mystery spin of Pakistan's Saeed Ajmal and the renewed struggles of English batsmen on Asian pitches had put paid to any possibility of that a whole two days prior as Pakistan romped to a ten wicket win, and many reports are suggesting that the England coaching staff wasted no time in putting their charges through a rigorous session. Not so much as punishment to the players, but as a sharp reminder that they are here to win Test matches, sustain their world number one ranking and that a Test series win in Asian conditions is perhaps the one obstacle separating this side from English cricketing immortality.

Of course, to do so, England know that their batting simply has to stand up better to Pakistan's trio of spin bowlers. Of the 20 England wickets taken in the first Test at Dubai, all but five fell to spin, with Jonathan Trott the sole England batsman to be removed by pace in both innings.

Merlyn - can it imitate Ajmal?
Enter 'Merlyn'. This infamous machine, capable of bowling a variety of spinning deliveries to batsmen in the nets, was initially designed to combat the genius of a certain SK Warne during the 2005 Ashes series in England. Now, England have shipped it out to Abu Dhabi, where hours of practice will no doubt be endured by England's top order in preparation for round two with Saeed Ajmal when hostilities resume this coming Wednesday. England, as you probably know, went on to win that historic series in 2005, but whether Merlyn can provide the same effect this time around remains to be seen. One thing is for sure; England will be hard pressed to perform any more incompetently against Pakistan's spinners than they did in Dubai.

There is however one key difference between the use of Merlyn in this current series and the Ashes series of 2005; Warne extracted prodigious turn from almost any wicket he played on, whereas Ajmal actually turns the ball very little. It would appear, then, that the deceit lies in the flight of the ball after leaving the hand. How much Merlyn can hope to replicate that remains to be seen, but I'd suggest that it may prove rather difficult, and thus allow Ajmal to keep his title of 'mystery spinner' intact.

Many of England's spin induced batting problems in Dubai stemmed from their apparent tendency to get caught in two minds. The indecision as to whether to play forward or back to Ajmal's deliveries invariably resulted in many of the batsmen, perhaps Matt Prior and Jonathan Trott aside, to play almost half-forward, tentative strokes that left them more than susceptible to the doosra. In Abu Dhabi, a greater degree of conviction is no doubt required. England's number nine batsman, Graeme Swann, highlighted this particular necessity when playing authoritatively against Ajmal in each of his innings, and with far greater success than many of the illustrious batsmen above him. Pakistan and Ajmal, it would seem, don't like being attacked; a handful of aggressive shots from Swann saw the field drop back and the threat posed by Pakistan's man of the moment significantly reduced. Calculated risk may just be the order of the day for England's top order batsmen; allowing Ajmal to bowl at them simply won't do.

Not a huge amount is known about the nature of the pitch in Abu Dhabi, though there has been plenty of talk suggesting it to be even flatter than the batsman's paradise of Dubai. Make no bones about it, England's batsmen had no business being bundled out for two vastly sub-par totals in Dubai, and any hint of complacency should now have been well and truly banished. What they must contend with now, however, is the added pressure to post a big first innings total under the scrutiny of the cricketing world, and to prove that they do indeed belong at the summit of the ICC Test rankings. As for England's bowlers, more of the same is required. To remove Pakistan for a still below par 338 was a more than acceptable effort given the nature of the pitch, and the bowling unit should carry none of the demons that their batting counterparts can expect to have with them.

As for selection, one would have to imagine that Pakistan will stay unchanged after the emphatic nature of their victory in Dubai. For England, there are calls typically ranging from the wholesale replacement of the batting line-up, captain and coaching staff to the suggestion that Monty Panesar might be an effective pick. Under the guidance of Team Director Andy Flower, consistency has been the key word, and to envisage any more than perhaps one change is rather optimistic. There would appear to be two viable options, both involving the replacement of Chris Tremlett. One would be to replace the economic but ineffective Tremlett with Panesar, which at this point is probably the most likely change, with a further option being to introduce the additional pace of Steven Finn to the attack in place of Tremlett in an attempt to take the benign pitch out of the equation somewhat. England, as is their wont, will keep their cards close to their chests until the day of the match when conditions have been thoroughly assessed.

This series has just got all the more interesting, and England's first real test as the number one ranked side in world cricket is well and truly upon them. All eyes are on their batsmen, and you simply have to imagine that they will make a better fist of things this time around. Have they learnt from their mistakes in Dubai? Will Merlyn have had an effect, or will the mystery spin of Saeed Ajmal continue to leave them bamboozled? It is all very intriguing and makes for a great spectacle, but my official prediction for the second Test in Abu Dhabi is: Draw. 

Friday 20 January 2012

Pakistan v England 1st Test Ratings - Dubai


Mohammad Hafeez - 8 -
a solid knock of 88 in Pakistan's first innings to set the foundations of their substantial lead over England, and a bonus point for the early wicket of Cook in England's first innings.
Taufeeq Umar - 7 - played a valuable supporting role to Hafeez in getting Pakistan's first innings off to the ideal start as he made 58.
Azhar Ali - 2 - out for 1 in Pakistan's first innings, playing at one he shouldn't have. The problems he had in England back in 2010 still appear to be embedded.
Younis Khan - 6 - fielded well and made a solid 37 to steady the Pakistan ship after the loss of Ali.
Misbah-ul-Haq - 8 - captaincy was excellent throughout, particularly his bowling changes which were timed perfectly, and made a typically gritty if unspectacular 52 to guide Pakistan towards a first innings lead.
Asad Shafiq - 3 - poor dismissal in Pakistan's first innings. Looks to have technique issues.
Adnan Akmal - 9 - six catches in the match to go with his impressive 61 in Pakistan's first innings, despite a shaky start. Farmed the strike very well as he batted with the tail.
Abdur Rehman - 7 - bowled well despite not taking many wickets. Exercised a good deal of control.
Umar Gul - 7 - took 4 wickets in England's second innings, which gets him a couple of bonus points, but overall didn't look particularly threatening.
Saeed Ajmal - 10 - a point for each wicket for the stand out performer, taking 7 wickets in England's first innings, and constantly bamboozling the England batsmen in the flight, despite very little turn being on offer. England need to develop a strategy for playing Ajmal if they are to turn this series around.
Aizaz Cheema - 6 - was quite unlucky not to take more wickets, with his new ball spell at Cook in England's second innings being particularly testing. Hampered by an apparent hamstring injury.


Andrew Strauss - 6 - captained well when England were in the field, and was desperately unlucky to be given out in England's second innings. His worrying run of form continues, however, but talk of him being under pressure is incredibly premature.
Alastair Cook - 1 - no runs in either innings on a pitch that should have suited his batting style perfectly. Needs a big improvement after a run of five scores of five or less in his last seven innings.
Jonathan Trott - 7 - the one England batsman along with Prior's first innings knock that looked at home in the conditions and against the Pakistan spinners. His team mates would do well to take note, despite his two disappointing strokes to get himself out. Finally became the 'partnership breaker' he is so often referred to as when he took the key wicket of Younis Khan in his first over.
Kevin Pietersen - 1 - two failures. Worked hard in the first innings for his 23 ball 2 before being trapped lbw, and played a rash shot when on nought in the second innings. Could the empty stadium have subdued this player that so often performs on adrenaline?
Ian Bell - 1 - two failures also, his dismissal to Ajmal in the first innings was the only real case of the bowler getting the batsman out, but his failure to pick the doosra is a worry and needs rapidly correcting if he isn't to become Ajmal's 'bunny'.
Eoin Morgan - 3 - fielded well and looked in decent touch with the bat, but got out relatively cheaply both times. Looked to be one of the better players of spin in the England lineup, despite falling to it in both innings.
Matt Prior - 7 - England's stand out batsman in the first innings, batting with unusual caution before being left high and dry on 70 not out. Kept well, his catch to dismiss Shafiq being the highlight, but fell cheaply in the second innings.
Stuart Broad - 7 - the pick of England's bowlers, Broad bowled very well on a batsmans pitch (though England's batting effors wouldn't have you believe that) and had a go with the bat.
Graeme Swann - 7 - took 4 wickets in the Pakistan innings despite not being as economical as he would have liked, and gets a bonus point for two very decent knocks with the bat.
Chris Tremlett - 5 - economical with the ball but largely unthreatening. Not really his type of pitch and may be replaced by Steven Finn for the second Test.
James Anderson - 7 - was economical and dangerous with the ball at times. Possibly unlucky not to have taken more wickets and played a key role alongside Broad in restricting Pakistan's run rate. Scored more runs with the bat than Cook, Pietersen and Bell combined.

Thursday 19 January 2012

Fitness First? Not For India...

As I sit down to write this piece, India are in the process of being bowled out for 161 by Australia at Perth. A spicy pitch with pace and bounce, but not the minefield that this distinguished Indian batting line-up would have had you believe. David Warner brutally dismantling an ailing Indian attack on his way to the fourth fastest Test century was clear testament to that.

Test cricket hasn't been the happiest of hunting grounds for India across the last twelve months. When playing at home and on top, there are few batsmen that grind their opponents in to the dirt so attritionally. Stack the odds against them away from home, however, and the most startling of transformations takes place all too often. Two away series - England and Australia - have seen more collapses than the average household ironing board, but the root of this problem appears to extend far beyond batting alone. Wayward bowling, even from proven world class individuals such as Zaheer Khan, has been backed up by a worrying lack of energy and enthusiasm in the field whenever the opposition has been in the ascendency, a rather frequent occurrence in the aforementioned series.

A recent comment made by Australian wicket-keeper Brad Haddin summed up India's plight perfectly: "we spoke about a bit of that when we were batting. The longer we could keep them out on the field the bigger chance we had of breaking them. We know this side can be as fragile as any team in the world if things aren't going their way and they can turn on each other and the media turns on them pretty quick. We knew if we could keep them out there and put the numbers like we did on the board we knew we'd get the rewards because they break quicker than anyone in the world."

Such showings initially led me to question the mental strength of the Indian players after numerous abject performances in the face of adversity, but maybe that is a little unfair. Of course, technique is another issue for batsmen that are unused to foreign conditions, but when you consider that this is the much vaunted line-up of Sehwag, Gambhir, Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman, arguably boasting the finest middle order that the world has ever seen, that surely cannot be the key factor, either. But what of culture? Could it be that the seemingly endless production line of talented cricketers coming out of India has led to many being brought up on the notion that cricket is about batting and bowling, and thus a neglect of basic fitness and conditioning? It is likely only because of such a wealth of talent that previous Indian sides have been able to 'get away' with this lax attitude in past years, but with the game now moving in to the professional era, and their rivals taking fitness more seriously than ever before, India have found themselves left behind.

As alluded to previously, it is a sometimes unfortunate trait of the Indian sides that their fielding lacks energy and, on occasion, effort. Let's take the current India team as an example. An ageing group they may be, but if we compare Indian players of similar age to their Australian counterparts, there is little contest. Ricky Ponting, 37, moves with far greater vigour in the field than Sachin Tendulkar, 38, while VVS Laxman, 37, is the proverbial tortoise to the hare in comparison with Mike Hussey, 36. Fitness, it seems, is sadly lacking in the current Indian side, and may well be the crux of their problems.

Perhaps tellingly, a recent ESPN Cricinfo appraisal of the current Indian side suggested that you would only want six of that team on the field when faced with the prospect of a toilsome day. That six comprised of MS Dhoni, Virat Kohli, Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag, Ishant Sharma and Sachin Tendulkar, and of those perhaps only Dhoni and Kohli are of the fitness levels that would be deemed of a high enough standard for an international cricketer.

Any top sports psychologist will tell you that physical fitness is directly related to mental fitness. If you aren't physically fit, you cannot be in the best possible mindset to perform to the best of your abilities. During Michael Clarke's monumental 329 not out in the second Test at Sydney he and Michael Hussey were still running hard two's and three's late in the evening session after batting throughout the day. Had the roles been reversed, and Virender Sehwag had been batting, could we have expected the same? Batting is mentally very taxing, and if the body isn't in the right condition to spend hours doing so it greatly enhances the likelihood of a lapse in concentration.

There is, nevertheless, some hope for India. Their One Day International side has evolved in to an athletic outfit with the introduction of several fit and agile youngsters, namely Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Ravindra Jadeja and Suresh Raina. Of these, only Kohli has cemented himself a place in the Test side to date, but with the inevitable changing of the guard in the next six to twelve months we can expect to see a far more sprightly Indian side. It hasn't happened yet, but contrary to the beliefs of many dispirited Indian fans, there is indeed a glimmer of light at the end of this particularly dark tunnel.