Monday 27 February 2012

That All-Rounder Conundrum...Again.

Amongst an array of wishful bordering on unrealistic thoughts entering my mind when pondering the ideal England bowling attack ahead of the UAE Test matches against Pakistan last month, that aged obsession with genuine all-rounder’s positioned its particularly haggard head at the forefront of my thoughts. It’s a bothersome swine, and it wasn’t to be shaken off. 

Talk of playing two spinners on the fast bowling graveyards (or so we thought beforehand, more on that later) of the UAE, twinned with England’s insistence on playing seven specialist batsmen, left the enduring concern that injury to one of the two front-line fast bowlers selected could see England quite literally cooked in the desert. If ever there was a need for a genuine all-rounder, equally adept with bat and ball, it was then. 

The all-rounder is of pedigree cricketing breed. Throughout the history of the sport we have marvelled at destructive fast bowlers, cunning spinners and artisan batsmen plying their trade, but do any of those truly capture the hearts and minds to the same effect as the elusive all-rounder that combines such traits so seamlessly? 

Many of the games deluxe moments have been fashioned by an all-rounder. Who can forget ‘Botham’s Ashes’ in ’81 or Sir Garfield Sobers’ annihilation of England in ’66? All-rounder’s possess the ability to influence the outcome in every aspect, to be the hero, and consequently have a propensity to be revered above all others. 

In the aftermath of the talismanic Andrew Flintoff’s retirement, a man so often called upon to bowl those extra overs in search of an all important wicket that perhaps ultimately cost him his career, England have demonstrated that life without an all-rounder is more bearable than many first conceived. Indeed, those supposedly benign pitches of the UAE proved moderately responsive to the new ball, and encouraged plenty of assistance for spin. In hindsight, an all-rounder wasn’t a necessity after all. 

That apparition of one of the two fast bowlers operating within a four man attack breaking down with injury and leaving England deep in the mire continues to nag, though. With tours to Sri Lanka and the Indian sub-continent looming on the horizon, locations where fast bowlers have historically toiled, the same question is soon to be resurrected. Of course, England's touring squad of Sri Lanka has already been announced, but with the next five years in mind it is a situation that will undoubtedly be revisited. 

Two front-line spinners will likely be deployed on such tours, and with even less assistance offered to the quick’s than in the UAE can England really risk it all with a mere four man attack once more? More importantly, should they opt for a five pronged attack, who are the candidates in contention to assume the all important mantle of all-rounder?

Tim Bresnan is perhaps the name that will be at the forefront of minds. A burly, bustling fellow averaging 23.60 with the ball in Test cricket, Bresnan holds the distinction of England having won every single Test in which he has played. With the ability to bowl a ‘heavy ball’ and extract reverse swing as the ball ages, Bresnan may prove to be an attractive proposition in sub-continental conditions. In addition, an average of 45.42 with the bat adds significant credence to his claims. 

Nottinghamshire all-rounder Samit Patel is another to have pressed his claims through a string of impressive recent performances in limited overs cricket for England. Boasting a healthy first class average of 41.11 with the bat, Patel offers England a further spin option in the form of his slow left arm bowling. Despite a third spin alternative perhaps being an attractive proposition to the England selectors on the dust bowls of Sri Lanka, it may well be that a rather mediocre first class bowling average of 37.77 proves too innocuous to thrust Patel to the vanguard of what is a competitive pack. 

Every selection debate should contain a wildcard, however, and one genuine all-rounder with a noteworthy claim of his own is Warwickshire’s Chris Woakes. Fans have seen but glimpses of Woakes in an England shirt to date, but if last season’s returns are anything to go by, that could soon be set to change. Having recently turned 23, Woakes holds a significant age advantage over his aforementioned rivals. More importantly, the Birmingham born youngster is rapidly improving and yet to reach his peak. 
Woakes in England ODI action

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Woakes prior to the 2012 County Championship kicking off, and the Warwickshire man made all the right noises when asked about the possibility of forcing his way in to England’s plans. 

“2011 was an incredible year for me personally”, says Woakes when asked about his outstanding County Championship returns of 48.25 with the bat and 21.78 with the ball, “to better those in 2012 would be an amazing effort. I am hoping to be as good if not better with the bat in particular, and will hopefully continue my form with the ball. To better an average of 21.78 isn’t the easiest, is it?” 

He has a point, of course. Further reducing an already remarkable bowling average will take considerable skill and probably an element of luck, too. To put Woakes’ achievement in perspective, the current number one ranked Test bowler in world cricket, Dale Steyn, averaged 25.86 with the ball when playing in seven County Championship matches for Warwickshire in 2007. Indeed, Woakes is of the belief that division one of the English County Championship isn’t too far adrift of the standard of Test cricket. “I do believe I would make runs at that level, but obviously the England Test team are the best in the world at the moment, which makes it difficult to force your way in”, muses Woakes. “I feel that my batting has the potential to become more effective and allow me to bat higher up the order than just seven or eight.” 

Citing his recent tour of the sub-continent with the England Lions as a great learning curve in further developing his all-round game, Woakes adds “I want to improve as a bowler as well. I have worked on certain areas of my technique, and also my one day skills. Having spent a decent amount of time away in the sub-continent, working on facing spin with the bat and working on variations and reverse swing with the ball, I feel my game has progressed significantly since last summer.” 

Ask any Warwickshire member whether Woakes’ bowling is of the required standard for Test cricket and you will be met with an unequivocal ‘yes’, and likely a look of disbelief that you dared let the thought enter your mind at all. Yet it would seem that this view isn’t quite shared by some outside of Shakespeare’s county, with a number questioning whether Woakes possesses the necessary pace. I put this question to him, only to be met with an answer as rock solid as his finest forward defensive. “Look, I believe I am a very skilful bowler who can work out a batsman’s weaknesses and find a way to get them out. I also feel it is difficult to bowl flat out for a whole county season with the very heavy schedule. I am working on a few things to try and unlock a little bit of additional pace so hopefully these minor changes will prove beneficial,” he retorts. 

Another claim levelled at Woakes is that he is more suited to limited overs cricket; a statement rubbished by vastly superior statistics in the four day game. Woakes, though, feels that he can become an all-round all-rounder for England. “I think my statistics suggest that I am a very good four day player and enjoy that form of the game more, but my limited overs skills have definitely improved over the past twelve months. I think people feel my batting is more suited to the shorter form as I am capable of scoring runs quickly at any time during the innings” responds Woakes, “I feel I could offer more higher up the order, and hopefully that will happen.” 

Woakes undoubtedly remains an outside bet to make his England Test bow in 2012, though a repeat of last year’s performances would convert the current selection headache to a rather severe migraine. Whilst loathe to utter those infamous words ‘the next Botham’, there is one thing eminently clear: in Chris Woakes England have a young, ambitious and immensely talented all-rounder, and 2012 might just see his knocking at the door of England HQ begin to wrench a few of those stubborn hinges.

Sunday 26 February 2012

County Cricket: Where Should Loyalties Lie?

With news reaching the cricketing world that batsman Alviro Petersen will be joining Essex as their overseas player for the first half of the 2012 County Championship season, it is the second such announcement of late that I must admit to finding slightly baffling. The other announcement, of course, was that all-rounder Vernon Philander would be linking up with Somerset for a similar time period.

The problem with this? Petersen and Philander are both South African, and which country is visiting England this summer in what should be a crucial top of the rankings clash? That’s right, South Africa.

Home advantage, something which has become exceedingly more pronounced during the last twelve months, is undoubtedly the trump card that many a host relies upon. It may only be a sphere of cork and leather, but the cricket ball is a rather elaborate character with a tendency to act and behave in a vastly different manner dependent upon the part of the globe it happens to be visiting. To the touring side, a series can be lost before the necessary adjustments to individual techniques can be applied. England’s horror tour to the UAE of late provides rather pertinent evidence of that.

Vernon Philander - Impressive.
Alviro Petersen is of course no stranger to English conditions, having completed a past spell at Glamorgan, so in all likelihood anything that he was to learn about English conditions will already be firmly embedded. Vernon Philander, on the other hand, has had a great deal less experience. A rather unsuccessful spell with Middlesex will be Philander's abiding memory of England, and one has to question whether he should be given an opportunity to erase that.

A rookie by international standards, Philander has made a mere four Test appearances; and what an entrance in to international cricket it has been. Notching up four 5 wicket hauls and one 10 wicket haul in eight bowling innings has seen Philander average just 13.23 with the ball, somehow outperforming his habitually peerless team-mate Dale Steyn in the process. One would expect Philander’s average with the ball to rise in time, but it has been a heck of a start.

Herein lies my grievance. Philander, it would seem, is going to prove an incredibly dangerous adversary for English batsmen this summer. Combining metronomic accuracy with prodigious lateral movement, the 26 year old possesses the ideal attributes required to wreak havoc in the swing friendly conditions of England.

The problem goes beyond that, though. It may well seem that Philander is going to turn up and be at his devastating best right from the first ball he bowls, and indeed he might well have done, but whilst England is notorious for its assistance of swing bowling, it can be equally difficult for a bowler to master and control that same prodigious movement. Given only a warm-up match or two prior to being plunged straight in to the Test series could have forced Philander to ‘learn on the job’, so to speak, whereas there is no doubt that half a season of playing in such conditions for Somerset beforehand should bring him up to speed nicely.

Somerset are well within their rights to sign an overseas cricketer that will be lining up against England later in the summer, of course. With financial gain in the English domestic game remaining somewhat thin on the ground it is difficult to begrudge a county placing internal interests atop their priority list.

We are often told, though, that county cricket exists almost as a breeding and training barracks to supply the front lines; in this case England. Many at the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) will tell you so, as will numerous journalists and supporters of the game alike.

Where then should loyalties lie? Should we expect counties to forego opportunities of financial growth purely to gratify England’s requirements? And, if that is indeed the expectation of counties, will the quality of player produced by those counties reduce in time through a lack of capital to invest in the nurturing of youngsters and facilities in which to do so?

Perhaps it is time for the ECB to make clear their stance with regard to the English domestic system, because there is no doubt that at present the signings of the Petersen’s and Philander’s of this world prior to a huge home series with their home nation is doing England few favours. English counties rely upon the ECB to maximise their money making opportunities through innovation and efficient scheduling, yet the current trend of keeping their friends close, but their enemies closer, bares a hint of biting the hand that feeds them.

Perhaps I am overplaying the significance of such developments, but I certainly wouldn’t argue if the ECB were to introduce a blanket ban upon English counties signing overseas players that were due to tour England that same year. From this author’s point of view, affording upcoming adversaries an opportunity to fully acclimatise just isn’t cricket.

Saturday 25 February 2012

Pakistan vs England - 2nd Twenty20 International

Given the brevity of Twenty20 cricket, I will attempt to sum up my thoughts on today’s fixture, in which England comfortably beat Pakistan by 38 runs, with similar concision.

Shades of D’Artagnan

England opted to bat first today after again winning the toss, a reverse of Stuart Broad’s decision to chase in the first Twenty20 fixture between the sides – a decision which in hindsight looks to have been a very bad one given the travails of the England batsmen in failing to reach an achievable target.

Bairstow - fine half century
After a solid start to the innings from Kevin Pietersen and Craig Kieswetter it was Yorkshire youngster Jonny Bairstow that took the innings by the scruff of the neck and propelled England with a flamboyant unbeaten 60. Success has not been instant for Bairstow in international cricket, but on today’s showing he certainly has a future every bit as bright as his hair. Excellent use of the feet to the Pakistan spinners, a propensity for big-hitting down the ground and blurring hand speed that had shades of D’Artagnan in his pomp about it carried England to a very competitive 150-7 at the culmination of their 20 over innings.

A Faulty Exocet

Jos Buttler, another of England’s middle order youngsters of immense promise and expectation, had a case of déjà vu on the very same track in Dubai today. Many of you will have seen some of his explosive, innovative and sometimes downright outrageous innings for Somerset and England Lions in the limited overs game, but the fuse on this ballistic West Country batsman is yet to be ignited on the international scene. After drilling one exocet through the covers for four off the bowling of the ever impressive Umar Gul, Buttler fell in very similar fashion to his dismissal in the first Twenty20 fixture on Thursday. Attempting a scoop over short fine leg that has become his trademark on the county scene, but a shot that saw him find that man on Thursday, Buttler’s “if at first you don’t succeed” mentality backfired spectacularly, the canny Gul clean bowling the Somerset man.

Buttler will have his day, rest assured of that, but it may be worth Jos remembering that scooping Umar Gul at the death and doing the same to a domestic level bowler are two challenges of vastly differing difficulty.

‘Mini Boom Boom’

Well, not quite sure what to say about this chap Awais Zia! After his fearless, gun-slinging display on Thursday where he managed to raise the hackles of Steven Finn, just about everyone in world cricket was waiting in anticipation for the next innings of this wildcard opening batsman. It took Awais until his 13th ball in international cricket to play a defensive stroke, but any thoughts of a more reserved approach were soon to be banished.

Intent on swinging from the hip, it soon became clear that Awais possesses technique not too dissimilar to that of a pigeon moments after hurtling headlong in to a double glazed window - unbalanced, wild, and likely to perish at any given moment.  Zia’s one scoring shot, a gargantuan maximum marmalised in to the stands off the bowling of Steven Finn, came amidst an 11-ball impression of a man angrily but unsuccessfully swatting at a particularly bothersome fly.

Awais certainly brings entertainment to the table, and it is no mean feat to make Shahid Afridi look like a shrinking violet in comparison, but one has to wonder whether the young man is in above his head at this level.

Treacle Tracks

Perhaps unfairly after his recent successes with the bat, ball and in the field, attention will be focussed upon Samit Patel’s ongoing fitness issues once more today. Sent in ahead of Jos Buttler, probably to separate England’s youngsters with a more experienced campaigner, Patel not for the first time in his career found himself victim of a run-out after making 13.

The direct hit from Saeed Ajmal was a fantastic piece of fielding, but before today I had failed to realise that tracks in the UAE consisted primarily of rather thick treacle, such was Patel’s struggle to make his ground. Without even chancing a full length dive, those that have previously criticised Patel for his rotund appearance may well regain some of their lost voice.

You know you have played a poor shot when…

…Shahid Afridi rolls his eyes at it. That is indeed the fate that befell Pakistan captain Misbah ul-Haq during an ailing and increasingly desperate run chase today. Attempting a reverse sweep, Misbah made an absolute horlicks of the stroke, tying himself up in knots and looking rather ungainly in doing so. Of course, Shahid has never played an outrageously ineffective stroke, has he?

And Finally: Fielding
Fielding is given greater importance in the modern game than ever before, but Twenty20 cricket in particular is highlighting just how much of a difference it can make. Pakistan were actually much improved in the field today, taking their catches and exhibiting glimpses of individual excellence. England, though, take fielding to a whole new level.

Despite two drops a whole handful of exceptional catches were taken, and it would be interesting to know just how many runs the superb ground fielding of England saves them. In tight games I genuinely believe that fielding can have as much effect on the outcome as the batting and bowling of a side, and England are leaving nothing to chance in that respect. Having three wicket-keepers on the field simultaneously appears to be a sound tactic, given the stunning catches taken by both Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler in the deep that had almost left the Earth’s atmosphere.

On a side note, James Anderson made an appearance as substitute fielder when Jos Buttler briefly left the field. As far as substitute fielders go, that’s not a bad one, is it?

Off we go then to Abu Dhabi for the third, final and decisive Twenty20 fixture of this series. If I was a betting man, I’d get some money down on the side winning the toss winning the match. 

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Have England learnt to play limited overs cricket?

England and ODI cricket are rather akin to politicians and honest expense claims; they rarely go together, are liable to embarrass and typically result in somebody getting the axe. Until now, that is.

From being perpetual whipping boys on the Indian sub-continent a mere three months ago, Captain Alastair Cook appears to have engineered a transformation that would earn a satisfied nod of approval from Optimus Prime himself.

Captain Cook - the right strategy
A cause for such a dramatic shift in the fortunes of this England ODI side is somewhat difficult to fathom; after all, it is almost the same set of players, and in similar conditions. Even more remarkable is the point that England entered the limited overs format on the back of a 3-0 hiding in the preceding Test series; an episode of cricket where each and every batsman appeared to be holding a HB pencil in place of a cricket bat, such was their ineptitude against the spin bowling of Pakistan.

Some will point to the fact that India are indeed world champions in the ODI format of the sport, in stark comparison to the middle of the road ranking currently held by Pakistan. Others will suggest that the absence of senior bowlers James Anderson and Stuart Broad throughout that forgettable tour drew England’s sting.

But what of strategy?

Much like Haile Gebrselassie deciding upon a whim to try and compete with Mr Bolt in the 100 metre sprint at the London Olympics, England have for years now attempted, rather fruitlessly, to adopt the philosophy of some of their adversaries when it comes to limited overs cricket. A new breed of big hitting opening batsmen, utilising brute strength to clear the in-field and indeed the boundary rope during the initial powerplay overs has seen the likes of West Indies’ Chris Gayle and Australia’s David Warner prove exceedingly destructive. Countless combinations of opening batsmen were tried and tested by England, ranging from the wild yahoos of Luke Wright to the current number six batsman Craig Kieswetter. None succeeded.

The whole tumultuous saga was akin to a twig being used as a battering ram: essentially made of the same stuff, but pathetically ineffective at emulating the real thing. Just as Gebrselassie is of insufficient build to harbour any hopes of competing in the 100 metre sprint, the same very much applies to England’s hopes of bootlegging a similar big hitting policy.

Indeed, it was perhaps for this reason that the appointment of Captain Cook was met with a fair degree of scepticism by the brainwashed cricketing public. After interminably being told that the key to success in an ODI was to get off to a flying start with big hitting batsmen leading the way, questions were inevitably asked as to why England’s selectors had appointed an opener with a distinct lack of flamboyancy as captain, thus making his inclusion inevitable.

How times change. Since that moment Cook has scored runs aplenty, with an overall strike rate not too far shy of a run a ball; and all with conventional cricket shots, too. No slogging from this opener, he is an Englishman, he will play cricket how Englishmen should play cricket, not in this uncouth anti-establishment manner being so distastefully demonstrated elsewhere on this planet. Huzzah!

In all seriousness, Captain Cook has indeed steered the good ship HMS England clear of the rocky waters of brute strength bay, guiding her in to the rather more serene harbour with a firm hand, and always leading from the prow. On the proviso of making a steady start to an innings, keeping wickets in hand and looking to gradually increase the run rate as the innings progresses, England have finally stumbled upon a strategy that they actually appear comfortable implementing.

It might be ‘old fashioned’ and somewhat less entertaining to the modern cricket fanatic, but sport is mostly about winning, right? By reverting to the more traditional method of setting about building an ODI innings, have England finally got their limited overs tactics right and resurrected what has historically been an abysmally inconsistent outfit to put them in with a chance of winning the next World Cup, or will they find themselves left behind by their rather more adventurous rivals? Or am I just being typically English and getting ludicrously carried away by one small dose of success?

Monday 20 February 2012

The most respectable of foes...

Just a quick word, then, on the axing of former captain Ricky Ponting from the Australian One Day International squad. 'Punter' is due to hold a press conference in Australia today, one in which the cricketing world will be hoping that the Tasmanian doesn’t decide that the time is right to bring the curtain down on the most illustrious of careers.

Australia’s most successful captain, highest run scorer, highest century maker, Ashes winner and twice world cup winner; the list of honours is exhaustive.

Ponting had, until recently, endured the most rotten spell in his lengthy cricketing career over the past 24 months. A string of failures with the bat and a comprehensive defeat on home soil to arch-enemies England led to a resignation of the captaincy, handing over the reins to long-time understudy Michael Clarke. Away from the burden of captaincy the lean patch continued; a situation that saw many an observer calling for his removal from the side entirely.

As far as cricketers go, Ponting is of the old school. A more tenacious character you would be hard pressed to find, and it was by this very virtue that one of Australia’s favourite sons clawed his way back in to something resembling the Punter of yore. It wasn’t easy, in fact at times it was all rather excruciating, but run by insipid run the old master compiled a painstaking 138-ball 62 during the fourth innings of the final Test against South Africa in Johannesburg to perhaps save his ailing Test career, and simultaneously prove any doubts to have been a touch premature.

In Australia’s most recent Test series, a sound 4-0 thrashing of the hapless India, Ponting confirmed that the old adage of ‘form is temporary, class is permanent’ does indeed still ring true when returning a remarkable series average of 108.80. Punter was back to his infuriating best (from an Englishman’s point of view, at least).

Yet it is this irritating, waspish persona that us ‘Poms’ have grown to begrudgingly love. Yes, there have been the expletives aimed at the England balcony following his run-out dismissal by the infamous Gary Pratt during the 2005 Ashes and the foul mouthed tirades aimed at umpires when things haven’t quite gone Australia’s way, but we saw beyond all that. What we saw was an incessant will to win in what is the greatest event on the cricketing calendar – The Ashes. What we saw was an opposition captain that epitomised the true spirit of the Ashes, that utilised every ounce of his brilliance both as a masterful batsman and resplendent fielder to provide us with cricketing memories to last through the ages.

Few batsmen are akin to Ricky Ponting. Whether it be that trademark lunge at the ball as he began his innings, that gunshot sound as he pulled a ball to the boundary in dismissive fashion (one of the finest purveyors of the pull shot in living memory, I might add) or that rare ability to almost always provide when his country was in need; I’m thinking back to that incredible 159-ball 143 to complete a tight run chase against South Africa at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 2006, here.

As an Englishman, I can only hope that Ponting’s announcement later today is purely to inform us of his decision to retire from One Day International cricket forthwith, and that he plans to continue his epic journey inside the Test arena up to the 2013 Ashes series and perhaps beyond. I realise that may sound a little daft, given the seemingly endless occasions on which the flashing blade of Ricky Ponting has put England to the sword, but should he announce his retirement from all formats of cricket this evening one thing is for certain: the sport will be a lesser place for it.

Should he retire, he will have gone out on scores of 221 and 60 not out in his ultimate Test match; perhaps a fitting finale for a batsman of such genius. Whatever the outcome may be,  thanks for the memories Ricky, and I hate to admit it but us Poms didn't just respect you, we actually liked you.

Saturday 18 February 2012

A rare treat for English spectators!

English spectators were handed a treat about as rare as a steak tartare chilled by the trailing ice of Halley’s Comet out in Dubai today. Scratch that, two treats: a Kevin Pietersen One Day International century, his first since November of 2008, and an English run chase that allowed fingernails to remain fully intact.

Losing the toss for the first time in this four match series, England captain Alastair Cook saw his opposite number Misbah ul-Haq opt to bat first, leaving England with a potentially tricky run chase that evening under the ‘ring of fire’ of lights in the Dubai Sports City stadium.

Despite a flying start from Mohammad Hafeez and Imran Farhat, it was once again the 22 year old Steven Finn that proved the scourge of the Pakistani batting line-up, removing both openers in convincing fashion either side of Stuart Broad seeing Azhar Ali caught behind by Craig Kieswetter when playing a ghastly stroke away from his body as a mini collapse ensued. Misbah came and went, presenting Graeme Swann with a sharp catch at first slip off the bowling of Broad, before Asad Shafiq suffered a rather unfortunate run-out as his grounded bat rebounded off the surface following a desperate dive for safety right at the moment that Craig Kieswetter whipped off the bails. A cruel blow for Pakistan, and due to perhaps the harshest rule in the cricketing book.

At 97-5 Pakistan were teetering precariously on the brink of capitulation, but a measure of serenity was to be restored by the unlikeliest of candidates. Umar Akmal, a youngster of prodigious talent and perhaps too low in the order at number six, combined with the impulsive Shahid ‘Boom Boom’ Afridi to put on a measured 79 runs for Pakistan’s sixth wicket and leave them with a fighting chance of staying in the series. Afridi had his moments, as ever, hoisting an enormous six in to the stands off the bowling of Swann, but proceeded to construct a mature innings few observers perceived the modern Afridi capable of accomplishing.

With Pakistan having passed 175 with ten overs remaining in the innings, hopes were rekindling of posting a competitive total; the destructive Akmal and Afridi waiting to go ballistic at the death. England’s two senior pace men, Stuart Broad and James Anderson, soon returned to put paid to such optimisms however, removing the Pakistani duo within two overs of each other to reduce Pakistan to 180-7. A late cameo from the big hitting Umar Gul took Pakistan to 222 all out from 50 overs, a total looking significantly sub-par given the way the pitch had played throughout the innings.
KP - First ODI ton in 37 innings

In response, England’s opening pair arrived at the crease amidst vastly different circumstances. Talk of Alastair Cook becoming the first England batsman to hit three successive ODI centuries met the captain’s arrival, whilst rumour of his place in the England ODI setup being under threat greeted the entrance of former captain Kevin Pietersen. Such aspersions were soon cast aside, as something resembling the Pietersen of old utilised deft footwork combined with powerful strokeplay; the highlight being a monstrous straight six off the bowling of off-spinner Hafeez, deposited well beyond the sightscreen. Despite being dropped on 45 as Azhar spilled a hard, flat pull in the deep, the intent never wavered.

Captain Cook played a blinder of his own, cutting and pulling with emphatic majesty as he scored heavily square of the wicket. Hopes of making history with a third successive century were dashed when on 80, however, as Cook feathered the thinnest of edges through to Adnan Akmal off the bowling of Pakistan’s destroyer-in-chief Saeed Ajmal. The fall of the first wicket, with England handsomely set on 170-1, saw the promotion of the recently hapless Eoin Morgan to number three ahead of Jonathan Trott; a ploy no doubt for the unorthodox left hander to regain a modicum of confidence following a rotten run of form. Utterly bamboozled by the trickery of Ajmal at first, Morgan eventually found his feet, hitting straight boundaries that included a sumptuous maximum over long on off the bowling of his tormentor Ajmal.

The moment of the match, though, was reserved for Pietersen. Under pressure and without a ODI century in over three years, England’s ‘gun’ player looked back to his best as he moved effortlessly through the nervous 90’s before tucking an Aizaz Cheema delivery off his hips for the two runs that saw him reach three figures. Cue an extravagant fist pump and a flourish of the bat to all corners of the ground; the big man was back in business. Finishing the innings 111 not out with a powerfully driven boundary, thus giving England a nine wicket win and rare series victory in Asia, Pietersen silenced many a critic that felt his place in the England ODI setup to be undeserved.

Remarkably, with Pietersen opening the innings in ODI cricket, England have seen opening stands of 68, 91, 1, 57, 67 and 170. After umpteen opening partnership combinations in recent years, perhaps in the stoic Cook and the flamboyant Pietersen England have stumbled upon a pair in which success can be found.

A 3-0 Test series ‘greenwash’ hurt England, but some solace will doubtless have been found with this convincing series win, one that they will be looking to make a whitewash of their own when the sides meet again in the same stadium on Tuesday. That their batsmen appear to be learning how to play spin properly so late in this tour will come as little comfort for the Test series humbling, but it does make one wonder if the Test series result would have been the same had the ODI series been scheduled first. Either way, what odds would have been given for a Pakistan Test series clean sweep and an England limited overs brushing, I wonder?

Wednesday 15 February 2012

MasterChef bucking the trend...

Admittedly, the finished product is more beans on toast, perhaps with a sprinkle of Lea & Perrins, than the comparative basque piparade likely to be served up by many of his opposite numbers, but this chef’s dish of choice requires only a small glug of water to help it down before you realise that it satisfies every bit as much.

In the age of the swashbuckling, gun slinging limited overs opening batsman, the appointment of Alastair Cook as England One Day International captain was met with a fair degree of scepticism by a number of fans, members of the media and former players alike. Not only was Cook too much of a plodder himself, at that time averaging a shade over 30 with a ponderous strike rate of 68, but the thought of a mid-powerplay partnership involving he and Jonathan Trott was considered to be akin to a sign of impending apocalypse; the type of dreary bore fest that may even see one Geoffrey Boycott calling for a switch hit.
Cook has adapted to the ODI game

With significant onus on ‘Chef’ to prove them wrong, the Essex opener has proceeded to do so in a manner that even the most ardent of Cook aficionados could never have envisaged.

Disparate to football, the garb of a cricket captain sees no embellishment of rank, yet the physical and mental changes wrought in Cook’s limited overs batting since presiding over the ODI captaincy have revealed abundantly more than a mere gesture of status ever could. Most importantly, his statistics whilst captain show a far more impressive average of 55.93, with an adventurous strike rate comfortably in excess of 90 runs per 100 balls. Secondly, Cook has shown that the crash bang wallop model of opening batsmanship, a prerequisite for Twenty20 cricket, is not necessarily applicable to the 50 over format. Knowing your strengths, subtly manoeuvring the field and playing risk free strokes can still lead to success, it would seem.

On his way to becoming the first England captain to score successive ODI centuries whilst plundering 102 runs against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi today, a fixture which England won by 20 runs to take an unassailable 2-0 series lead, Alastair Cook must surely now have silenced those rather more vocal doubters. Showing that there is still most definitely room for the more classical opener in ODI cricket, Captain Cook will have pleased a few purists along the way.

Thankfully for England, the side in world cricket most notorious for their failure to clear the ropes inside the first ten overs of an ODI powerplay, that old adage of building a platform before hitting out late on with wickets in hand can perhaps still prove to be a successful strategy, particularly with a batsman of Alastair Cook’s considerable class at the helm.

Monday 13 February 2012

You'll not see nothing like the mighty Finn...

Steven Finn began his England career back in March of 2010 at Chittagong, taking a wicket in each innings on his way to match figures of 2-97 against lowly Bangladesh; an unobtrusive international bow by any strike bowlers standards.

As a tall, rangy fast-medium seamer clocking speeds in the mid-eighties the Middlesex youngster didn’t prove much of a revelation for an English cricketing nation that was on the lookout for their next serial speedster. Despite his rather more impressive returns in two home Test matches against the same opponents of 15 wickets at an average of 17.87, Finn remained a raw talent with wicket taking ability but a tendency to lack control.

In the aftermath of those series, opinion on Finn was split. A genuine wicket taker that is worth the additional runs he would concede, proclaimed some; a tad too expensive for Test cricket, contended others.
Steven Finn - The real deal?

England's selectors, it transpires, sided with the others. Nevertheless, no secret was made of the faith that was held in the promise of this 6ft 7” seamer, and the precautionary measure of safeguarding an earmarked future star against the type of stress injuries that so often plague a young body put through the rigours of fast bowling was henceforth adopted.

Off Finn went, tasked with undertaking a strength and conditioning programme made to measure by England's fitness gurus, and as a result being declared unavailable for upcoming ODI series against Bangladesh and Australia, just as it seemed he might be finding his size 12 feet on the international stage.

When questioned as to the benefits of such a programme, Finn responded saying “it makes you more robust.” Cue jokes from England’s inexorable jester, Graeme Swann, leading to the off-spinner even holding a Twitter competition for his followers entitled ‘what is Steven Finn as robust as?’ Rather amusingly, the winner’s entry answered ‘relatively robust compared to Humpty Dumpty in a mosh pit.’

Jokes and criticism of his removal from the front line aside, however, Finn was soon to show that this was no yarn, with the discernible change in pace and accuracy wrought since undergoing the strength and conditioning regime proving nothing short of remarkable.  Accuracy, it can be argued, comes with experience and endless practice, but to have reached a point where speeds of 95mph have been recorded from his bowling fully vindicates the decision made by England’s management.

Following England’s resounding clattering of India in the late English summer of 2011, a Test series where he was overlooked in favour of Tim Bresnan, Finn might have been forgiven for wondering when his next opportunity in an England shirt would materialise. He wasn’t to wait long however; with James Anderson being rested for the subsequent ODI tour of India Finn played in all five defeats in what was a disastrous series for the tourists.

Ironically, it was that very trouncing by the world's then number one ODI side that was arguably the announcement of Finn’s true arrival on the world stage. Emphatically waving goodbye to the fast-medium mediocrity with too many a ‘four-ball’ thrown in, the reinvented Finn bowled with express pace, hostility and consistency on batsmen friendly pitches, ultimately leaving India as perhaps the one England player to emerge with their reputation enhanced.

Finn’s latest act of speed induced carnage saw Pakistan on the receiving end this afternoon, blowing away their top order and almost single-handedly reducing their run chase to mere rubble in the Abu Dhabi desert, on his way to career best ODI figures of 4-34 as England romped home to a resounding 130 run win.

A true measure of Steven Finn’s progress will ultimately be taken inside the Test arena, as and when his next call arrives. After acquiring a pronounced deal of control to compliment his new found wheels, such an opportunity should not be long in coming, and the addition of a genuinely fast bowler to the already sublime England bowling ranks will not be welcomed by their rivals, one would imagine.

English fans have heard a fair bit of noise from their Australian adversaries of late regarding their own young speedsters in Pat Cummins and James Pattinson, but based on recent performances England have a future superstar to match them all in the mighty Finn.

Saturday 11 February 2012

Inter-Galactic Test

Observing the recent Test series between Pakistan and England, taking place at Pakistan’s ‘home away from home’ on the slow turning pitches of the United Arab Emirates, highlighted amongst other things that the renascent spin bowling gravy train has resumed its journey after a couple of years in the sidings and is approaching something resembling full speed once more.

Not since Messrs Warne and Muralitharan were relentlessly depressing batsmen’s averages the world over has the spin bowler been such a prominent protagonist in Test cricket. A whole heap of spin induced batting woes in the aforementioned series in particular appeared to be the sum of two parts: the Umpire Decision Review System (UDRS) and downright poor technique.

Indeed, it could be argued that the inclusion of the UDRS in to Test cricket will in time see a visible change in the way batsmen approach spin bowlers; developing a means to combat the exponential increase in lbw decisions being awarded to spinners that we are now witnessing.

Whether it is UDRS that is the main driving force behind this spin revival is a topic that has already been extensively discussed, but certainly in terms of technique there have always been those that stood out from the crowd. Watching over some clips of the epic battles between Shane Warne and Brian Lara recently got me thinking: who are the greatest players of spin in the history of the game? Further to that, on a turning wicket, what is the best all time XI that could be assembled?

Sir Jack Hobbs - masterful
Leaving the realms of reality behind then, we travel to the Planet Teesra, light-years from Earth. As you might guess, the conditions are a spin bowler’s paradise; crumbling dust bowls with a dearth of moisture in the wicket, and many a delivery causing chunks to explode from the surface.

The Planet Teesra resident cricket team have challenged us Earthlings to a one-off Test match, to be played in their home conditions, of course. They represent a fearsome prospect, boasting a selection of the finest spin bowlers the universe has ever seen; difficult to read from the tentacle and with the ability to turn it on space ice. Their batsmen are equally masterful players of spin.

Such aliens are not the usual kind one would expect from the movies. They're similar in stature and form to human beings, so we shouldn't be facing anything too out of the ordinary, or likely to see our batsmen 'retire hurt' through alien induced savaging. They're a sporting bunch, and to counter their home advantage they have offered us the following terms and conditions:

  •  An atmospheric dome will cover the venue, where gravity is equivalent to that on Earth (otherwise there would have been some serious six hitting!)
  •  The aliens of Planet Teesra have offered use of their advanced technologies; allowing any cricketer from any era on Earth to be resurrected in their prime years in order to participate in this one-off Test match.
  • The current ICC rules will apply, restricting the degree to which the alien spinners can use their flexible tentacles when bowling a delivery.

As selector, who would you pick? Remember, we must assemble the very finest side that Earth has had to offer in spin friendly conditions. Here is the Silly Point(s) XI:

Sir Jack Hobbs – whilst seldom batting on ‘dust bowls’, Sir Jack played many an innings on ‘sticky’, spin friendly wickets that others could only marvel at. His mastery in 1909-10 of South Africa’s leg-break bowlers when playing on the matting wickets then used in South Africa where, according to Wisden, “South African spinners were at their most viciously angular” adds further weight to the selection of cricket’s original ‘Master’.
Virender Sehwag – an extremely aggressive opening batsman that rarely lets a spinner settle. Sehwag has had his critics for his technique against the seaming and swinging ball, but his dominion of spin bowling in his home conditions of India, perhaps the nearest thing on Earth to ‘alien’ conditions, sees him selected as an opening partner for Sir Jack Hobbs. Plus, as Wisden tells us, “the sight of a spinner brings the savage out in him.” Let those aliens be scared of us, for once.
Sir Don Bradman - the greatest batsman that ever lived has to have a place, doesn’t he? Perhaps slightly weaker against spin than seam, but still outrageously effective against it; you would always back The Don to score runs.
Sachin Tendulkar – perhaps the most complete batsman of his time, ‘The Little Master’ has prolifically scored runs in all conditions. Possesses a vast array of strokes along with the perfect balance and poise at the crease that proves so effective on a turning pitch, and holds a very strong record against the greatest spinners of his time. More than capable as a back up spinner.
Brian Lara – quite simply amongst the best players of spin bowling that I have seen in my lifetime. Sublime footwork and plenty of aggressive intent that never let a spinner settle. Notable success against Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan makes his inclusion a certainty.
Sir Garfield Sobers - the finest all-rounder in the history of the sport slots in well at number six. A magnificent batsman against any type of bowling, and a very good left arm spinner in his own right, adding further variation to the Planet Earth XI spin attack, not to mention being one of the great leg-slip fielders; a key position in these conditions. 
Andy Flower (wk) – as perhaps the one Zimbabwean batsman of true Test quality, Flower consistently proved himself to be one of the finest players of spin in world cricket, enjoying tremendous success on the turning wickets of India. Will have a hard task keeping wicket in such conditions, but makes it in ahead of Alan Knott for his excellent technique when combating spin bowling.
Wasim Akram  - picked as the solitary out and out fast bowler for this Test. One has to imagine that such a pitch will be particularly abrasive, lending itself to the reverse swing of Wasim as the ball gets scuffed. More than handy with the bat for some late order runs.
Shane Warne (c) – possessing every variation in the book, including a few that existed only by name, the leg-spin of Shane Warne would be expected to play a pivotal role. Prodigious turn, accuracy and with that all-round ‘X-factor’, the greatest captain that Australia never had takes his place at number nine as captain of the Planet Earth XI. Has the ability to add further late order runs.
Sydney Barnes – sharing the new ball with Wasim, Barnes would utilise his mixture of medium pace and both off-spin and leg-spin deliveries to devastating effect on a crumbling pitch. As Wisden say, “Barnes was creative, one of the first bowlers really to use the seam of a new ball and combine swing so subtly with spin that few batsmen could distinguish one from the other.”
Muttiah Muralitharan – the record holder for the most number of wickets in Test cricket is a certain pick at number eleven to complete the Planet Earth XI line-up.  A mystery bowler whose stock off-break delivery would perfectly complement the leg-breaks of Warne, Muralitharan’s variation and lethal doosra would prove a nightmare for even the finest alien batsmen to contend with..

Perhaps our team strip will involve black suits and dark sunglasses, too.

Over to you.