England On The Back Foot

“I felt it was better to play him off the front foot.”

Those were the words of Nick Compton, who made 95 against Saeed Ajmal and his Worcestershire team-mates last July, when the Pakistani mystery man was turning his arm over for the Pears.

Eoin Morgan

Morgan goes back to a ball from Abdur Rehman and is bowled. Credit: Action Images / Paul Childs Livepic

Somerset racked up 591/9 before declaring and went on to win the game. Ajmal ended with five for 150 from his 51 overs.

“I stood on off-stump and looked to play very straight,” Compton added. “Ajmal’s not a big spinner of the ball and his main weapon is pace through the air, and I felt it was better to play him off the front foot. (He also used the sweep to great effect). The fact that he can skid it on and it might not bounce as much or go the other way, if you sit back I think you’re guessing and you haven’t got as much time to react.”

England might consider those words as they reflect on the wreckage of back-to-back defeats against an Ajmal-inspired Pakistan.

Granted – the pitch at New Road was a good deal flatter than those in Dubai, and particularly in Abu Dhabi. Granted – it was Abdur Rehman who caused the bulk of the damage this time around. Nevertheless the point still stands.

England were rooted on the back foot and seemed loathe to do anything that might be construed as a ‘lunge’ lest they incur the wrath of the traveling press. Gone were the days of Duncan Fletcher’s forward press, the Sky commentary team’s ’beloved’ sweep shot, or the advance down the pitch to meet the ball like a man. Instead we were greeted with the sight of one after another of England’s batsmen giving the impression of being perched on a shooting stick.

Ajmal and Rehman both bowl with relatively low arms, and, for spinners, relatively quickly. The pitches in Dubai and Abu Dhabi are not renowned for their excessive or uneven bounce. The situation cried out for sweep – even the reverse sweep. Instead the Englishmen were paralysed with fear.

When the Pakistanis batted they used the sweep, only sparingly admittedly, but they paid heed to the another of Compton’s well-reasoned points – play straight. Misbah-ul-Haq walloped Panesar over long-on on a couple of occasions, while over-pitched deliveries from both Swann and Panesar alike were drilled down the ground.

Maybe England need to re-think their method against spin. It shouldn’t be too hard. Their coach, Andy Flower, was one of the finest players of spin bowling around and I seem to remember he was rather partial to the odd sweep shot too

A Busy Week In Test Cricket Lies Ahead

It might be cold and dark here in the UK but in warmer climes, we have a busy week in the world of cricket ahead as three Test matches get underway.

In Adelaide, Australia take on India as they bid to seal a 4-0 series clean sweep although on a pitch expected to take turn, could this offer India a chance at reacquanting themselves with a winning feeling and will Sachin Tendulkar score his 100th international century?

Then in Abu Dhabi, Pakistan take on England in high spirits following their ten-wicket win in the opener in Dubai. England must improve on their performance if they are to stay in the series and must play especially well to overcome a well-discplined and well-drilled unit.

Finally, New Zealand meet Zimbabwe in Napier. Having almost produced an upset win in Zimbabwe when these two teams met last year, this match could well be worth watching. New Zealand have named uncapped players Kruger van Wyk and Sam Wells in their squad and they will not be taking Zimbabwe lightly.

Tillakaratne Dilshan

Tillakaratne Dilshan - captain no more

New Zealand’s last outing was a memorable win against Australia and they will hope that victory can be the springboard to further success.

Going one step further than New Zealand with their team selection is Australia. They have named an uncapped player – George Bailey – as their new Twenty20 International captain.

They play India in two T20s on 1st and 3rd February and have also recalled 40-year-old left-arm spinner Brad Hogg. Uncapped James Faulkner also makes the squad as erstwhile captain Cameron White and ‘Mr Cricket’ Michael Hussey miss out.

White is not the only player to become an ex-captain this week after Tillakaratne Dilshan resigned as Sri Lanka skipper to be replaced by Mahela Jayawardene.

For Australia, the road to the ICC World Twenty20 later this year starts here. But what are you most looking forward to watching this week?

Surely After One Loss, England Haven’t Become A Bad Team?

Just as one swallow does not make a summer, so too one heavy defeat does not make Test cricket’s world-leading side automatically a bad one, although judging by the reaction around the world, you could be forgiven for thinking that is the case.

There can be no argument that England were comprehensively outplayed and beaten by the better team during a chastening three days in Dubai and their poor form with the bat contributed to the ground witnessing its first positive result in three attempts.

Several factors have been cited for England’s poor performance including lack of preparation, inability to deal with Saeed Ajmal, a general malaise against spin and the wrong balance in the team.

Pakistan Beat England In Dubai

Pakistan proved too strong for England as they lost their first cricket Test for more than a year in Dubai. © REUTERS / Action Images

For me, their defeat was a combination of these factors and some others. Pakistan were under-rated going into this series and although England certainly wouldn’t have underestimated them I thought that a lot of fans and onlookers probably did. In their two previous series in the UAE, they have beaten Sri Lanka and drawn with South Africa and under the captaincy of Misbah-ul-Haq have formed a tight and well-disciplined unit.

He cops some criticism for the speed of his batting and is by some held personally responsible for Pakistan’s failures against India in the 2007 ICC WT20 final and 2011 World Cup semi-final but under his watch, he has got Pakistan playing solid cricket and, more importantly, winning – exactly what Andrew Strauss has managed with England.

It is no surprise that the Pakistan squad appears to have been galvanised since the spot-fixing cases were heard and three former team-mates were imprisoned. Often in sport this sort of siege mentality brings out the best in competitors and they fight like cornered tigers to prove themselves.

Back to England, though. On their day, they should be more than a match for Pakistan, even taking into account the wiles of Saeed Ajmal and their poor record in Asia in the last ten years (no series wins against India, Pakistan or Sri Lanka). They failed to show enough of the form that has taken them to the top of the world rankings and were ruthlessly punished.

There is a fine balance between playing the right amount of warm-up matches and overdoing it. Ahead of the Ashes series last year, England got it right but critically, they were able to play against first-class teams which offered them serious challenges. In any other country, they might have been able to play more matches against resident first-class teams or an A-side. This being the UAE and not Pakistan, a PCB XI and a Combined Associates & Affiliates XI was about the best they could have hoped for.

The players had an extended break over the Christmas period and that wasn’t so much so that they could hit this series running but as much so that they would be fresh for what is a long season coming up, including Tests against the West Indies and South Africa as well as the defence of the ICC World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka and then a tour of India.

Judge England on where they are this time next year and you’ll have a better idea of whether they are true world number ones, because winning in Asia is the true test, not one Test match against a fired up Pakistan side in Dubai, although it has reinforced the point that if England want to stay at the top, they are going to have to work mighty hard to do so.

What Does 2012 Hold In Store For Cricket?

2011 in cricket was a year of incredible highs – particularly if you were a supporter of India – and incredible lows – but what lies in store for cricket in 2012? Will 2012 be able to match the rollercoaster ride we had last year?

Although not as high profile as the Mohammad Asif-Mohammad Amir-Salman Butt spot-fixing controversy, cricket will be heading to court again shortly when Mervyn Westfield stands trial for the same offence in January. Surely seeing fellow players thrown into jail for their misdemeanours will be enough to prevent any other players attempting to illegaly manipulate games in the future? We can but hope.

On the pitch, the ICC World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka offers India a chance to put their dismal Test form (at least away from home) of late to bed and I expect one of the three top Asian teams to win the tournament. Sri Lanka are a class act at home, India always perform well there and Pakistan cannot be discounted having never failed to reach the semi-finals to date.

The Women’s tournament is wide open – wider than before as conditions should bring India closer to pace-setters Australia, New Zealand and England.

How England go about defending their newly-acquired number one status in Tests will be fascinating. In taking on Pakistan and Sri Lanka away from home followed by South Africa at home – a series all the more poignant following the passing late last year of Basil d’Oliveira, the man whose name is on the trophy the two sides compete for – they have three huge challenges. Win two of those series and they will have done themselves proud.

Lose two – and especially if they lose to South Africa – and it will again be back to the drawing board for Andy Flower’s men but they have never had a better chance to cement themselves as world leaders and begin to work on that legacy that Flower and captain Andrew Strauss are fond of reminding us about.

Talking about world leaders, Haroon Lorgat stands down as ICC chief executive in July. Can we expect big changes once he has gone? Unlikely but it will be interesting to see what new direction, if any, his replacement will go down.

2011 saw the emergence of a number of young cricketers, from Devendra Bishoo to Jonathan Bairstow to Ravi Ashwin on the world stage. The World T20 could offer the opportunity for more stars to be born.

Keep an eye on the West Indies – in the likes of Kraigg Brathwaite and Kirk Edwards, not to mention Darren Bravo, they are bulding a formidable batting line-up and all this without Chris Gayle or Ramnaresh Sarwan. If the stand-off between the WICB and its former captain can be ended, then don’t be surprised if the men from the Caribbean enjoy a strong year.

What are you most looking forward to in 2012? Which teams and players do you foresee enjoying success?

 

Positive Signs For Cricket in 2011

With the cricketing year now over following the conclusion of the two Boxing Day Test matches, it is time to reflect on what the past 12 months have meant for cricket as sport. There have, of course, been low points as well as high, with the spot-fixing trial in October a particularly sobering one that laid bare the stranglehold that corruption has on our sport.

However, a New Year is not usually a time to dwell on past misdemeanours, and this one is no different. While there have undoubtedly been low points, it is my opinion that 2011 has witnessed a record number of high ones. From the increasingly excellent performances of all of the Test-playing nations, through to the positive signs at board level in Pakistan and Zimbabwe, and including the re-emergence of fast-bowling as a force to be reckoned with, 2011 has provided many enlightening moments.

The Test game has shown signs of rebirth, with many of the matches closely fought, as teams such as Zimbabwe – who enjoyed a triumphant second coming in August against Bangladesh; the West Indies and Pakistan - seemingly showing a much steelier resolve under their new captains; New Zealand – who triumphed over Australia; and even Sri Lanka - showing signs of moving on from the Muralitahran era – all combining to make Test cricket more competitive and less predictable. The underlining factor amongst all of this is surely that the game’s administrators have finally grasped the need to produce more ’sporting’ pitches.

The appointment of Zaka Ashraf as PCB chairman to replace the discredited Ijaz Butt is also a positive sign for the administrative side of the game, as is the ICC’s determination to make member boards less political in their make-up. Indeed, Ashraf has already shown an admirable resolve to move on from the isolationism that accompanied Butt’s final months in charge and is already making positive noises about restoring cricketing ties with India and bringing international cricket back to Pakistan by the means of a home series against Bangladesh.

However, for me, the most reassuring sign coming out of 2011 has been the sight of the first shoots of the game’s regrowth in Africa. Zimbabwe’s better-than-expected return to the top table has been well documented, but it is the organisation of that country’s domestic structure that is most exciting for the future of the game. In spite of cricket all but disappearing during the middle of the last decade, it has re-emerged as a more vibrant beast and is now much more representative of the broader Zimbabwean population. The selection, this time on purely meritocratic grounds, of black cricketers such as Keegan Meth, Brian Vitori and Njabulo Ncube, and seeing them playing under a captain such as Brendan Taylor, who clearly understands the weight of responsibility placed on his shoulders, is a sight that should give hope to cricket lovers everywhere.

And it is not just in there where African cricket is thriving. Kenya, led by their talismanic CEO Tom Sears, have finally got around to organising a meaningful domestic competition, while the player/board disputes appear to have finally been resolved; and Uganda has continued its steady, and thus far unnoticed, ascent towards cricket’s top table. Indeed, the two Ugandan teams that were invited to participate in the Kenyan domestic competition more than held their own. Nigeria, Ghana, Botswana and Namibia are also showing tentative signs of growth and are providing a timely nudge to the ICC, which seems intent on forcing cricket on America, as to the where cricket’s future may lie.

Australia Have Had A Poor Year – The Stats

Australia will soon name their squad to take on India in the first Test which begins in Melbourne on Boxing Day and already their cricket fans are predicting the worst.

Michael Clarke

Michael Clarke has mush to ponder ahead of the Boxing Day Test - credit: REUTERS / Action Images

Missing Patrick Cummins and Shaun Marsh as well as having a string of other players nursing injuries, there seems to be little optimism that the Baggy Greens can overturn a seven-run defeat to New Zealand in their previous match and offer India a stern challenge.

New coach Mickey Arthur enjoyed a honeymoon period lasting around seven days before his side unravelled dramatically in Hobart to hand New Zealand a first win in Australia for 26 years.

Using the Cricket World Most Valuable Player ratings, it is even more clear that Australia have had a poor year – the MVPs only take performances from the last 12 months into account to give a true barometer of who is in form at any one moment in time.

Batting: 1 rating point is roughly analagous to an average of 1 run. Aside from the injured Marsh, who is in sixth place with 66.9 points, the top Australian batsman in the Test batting ratings is Michael Clarke, who has 44.1 points at number 22 and is followed immediately by Michael Hussey (43.9) one place behind. That translates to a reasonable year but not outstanding, and Clarke’s figures are boosted by his outstanding form since taking over the captaincy.

Next up for Australia is Usman Khawaja – very much a work in progress – down at 53rd with 29.5 points and you have to drop to 56th to find Ricky Ponting, Phil Hughes is 60th, Brad Haddin 64th and Shane Watson lies 77th.

Bowling: It does not get much better in the bowling rankings although Ryan Harris and Nathan Lyon are top of the pile in 20th and 21st place respectively. Shane Watson is in 29th, Peter Siddle 34th but Mitchell Johnson, to confirm what we probably already know, is down in 44th place just a few places above Hussey (49th) and Clarke (50th).

We wait with bated breath to see just how ruthless the selectors might be but the evidence based on the ratings would only guarantee Clarke, Lyon and Harris a place in the line-up. Time was when Australia dominated the ratings, both as a team and players.

Those days are now gone but can the likes of Marsh, James Pattinson, Cummins and Khawaja launch their team back to the top? India themselves aren’t able to call upon a fully fit squad of players so might the series turn out to be a little closer than Australian fans fear?

Save the date

December 2006:

Test batting top ten: Mohammad Yousuf, Kumar Sangakkara, Ricky Ponting, Kevin Pietersen, Michael Clarke, Mohammad Hafeez, Michael Hussey, Mahela Jayawardene, Alastair Cook, Paul Collingwood

Test bowling top ten: Muttiah Muralitharan, Stuart Clark, Corey Collymore, Anil Kumble, Mohammad Asif, Monty Panesar, Shanthakumaran Sreesanth, Jerome Taylor, Glenn McGrath, Matthew Hoggard

December 2011

Test batting top ten: Brendan Taylor, Tino Mawoyo, Kirk Edwards, Kumar Sangakkara, Tatenda Taibu, Darren Bravo, Shaun Marsh, Ian Bell, Vusi Sibanda, Angelo Mathews

Test bowling top ten: Saeed Ajmal, Pragyan Ojha, Ravi Ashwin, Praveen Kumar, Stuart Broad, Rangana Herath, Shakib Al Hasan, Ray Price, Daniel Vettori, Junaid Khan

The Amazing Anisa Mohammed And Promising Signs For Women’s Cricket

Off-break bowler Anisa Mohammed today starred with career-best figures of seven for 14 as West Indies demolished Pakistan in the final of the Women’s World Cup Qualifying Tournament. This means that she now has the remarkable figures of 30 wickets at an eyewatering average of 5.3 from her nine matches against Pakistan.

Her form in the competition, along with that of her teammates such as Stefanie Taylor, who was named Player of the Tournament, meant that the West Indies continued their march up the women’s cricket rankings.

However, while the West Indies’ progression has been excellent, it is the performances of the Asian sides in the tournament that will most hearten the ICC. Pakistan reached the final and lost only to the eventual champions, while Bangladesh finished in fifth to secure ninth place in the world rankings and earn ODI status. Sri Lanka also performed admirably in defeating South Africa to take third place.

All of this marks a significant shift in the women’s game which, despite having a relatively long history in Europe, was conspicuous by its absence in Asia. Not so long ago the three countries mentioned above didn’t even field a side, as cultural factors meant that women who played sport were frowned upon. Indeed, around the time of the birth of Pakistan’s national team players faced protests and court action from the government if they tried to play.

All of which makes their performances in this competition all the more remarkable. Credit must be given to the ICC, as well as the players and individual boards themselves, for this transformation in their fortunes; a transformation that is surely a step in the right direction for widening the following of the women’s game.

Cricket In Zimbabwe Is Thriving.

Zimbabwe’s descent from the top table of cricket in the first part of the last decade was one of cricket’s most saddening and depressing stories, but its comeback since then is surely one of the game’s most heartwarming. Whilst the country itself is still gripped by political instability, the cricket team is leading the way forward.

They made a successful return to Test cricket earlier this year and won their first match back against Bangladesh, and have since re-established themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the international cricketing arena.

However, without its revamped domestic structure that came into place in 2009, none of this would’ve been possible, and it is to this that attention in Harare will focus tomorrow as the five franchises do battle in the Stanbic Bank T20. The tournament itself is short and sweet and will be completed within a fortnight - perhaps a lesson here for the ECB and BCCI? – and will welcome some of the best players from all over the world.

Chris Gayle is the star signing – he will play for the Matabeleland Tuskers – but several English county players are also involved. Rory Hamilton-Brown, Paul Horton, Tom Smith, Adam Wheater, Ned Eckersley, Ryan ten Doeschate, Phil Mustard, Riki Wessels, Andrew Hall, Phil Mustard and Peter Trego will all be taking one of the four overseas places in each franchise’s starting eleven. There they will rub shoulders with the established Zimbabwe players such as Brendan Taylor and Hamilton Masakadza, as well as mixing with some of the exciting young talent that is emerging from the country such as promising 18 year-old batsman Kevin Kasuza and fast bowlers Nathan Waller and Tendai Chatara.

Four of the teams are closely matched, with Southern Rocks the rank outsiders, but the Tuskers – led by Lancashire opener Paul Horton - are tipped as slight favourites at this early stage.

Matches begin at 0800GMT tomorrow when the Mid West Rhinos take on the Mountaineers, and Cricket World will have a review of the tournament when it finishes on 4th December.

Are The Internet And TV To Blame For Dwindling Crowd Numbers?

Having seen the final part of today’s thrilling Test match play out on the internet and through Twitter, it is quite clear that Test cricket is not dying and is very much alive and well. It received a fanatical following through websites providing live text commentary and on Twitter, from which it is not difficult to see that claims of its untimely, and seemingly unwelcome, death are overestimated.

However, TV pictures of the ground, along with images posted on those very same text commentary streams and social media websites, appeared to suggest otherwise. The New Wanderers Stadium was deserted. All that could be seen was a militant army of grey plastic seats, upturned in their disgust at what was on offer and apparently painting an entirely different picture.

So which tells the truth about the health of the of the purest form of our summer game?

Well in my view the answer to this conundrum is simply that the way we view cricket is changing. Gone are the days when passionate fans would flock to watch matches and huddle under the umbrellas that would have been necessary in Johannesburg today. Instead, today’s fans dip in and out of the action, perhaps while at work, or on their smartphones while out and about, and soak up the action that way. These modern day fans are no less passionate, it is just that, unlike our predecessors, we are in the fortunate position of being able to follow the action in whatever way we choose.

This is where the similarities with English county cricket are startling. It has never had particularly big crowds and those that it did have have dwindled over the past decade or so. However, I would suggest that it has more fans than ever, especially if we are to believe the web traffic data that leading cricket websites routinely espouse. These show that the figures are steadily increasing year on year and prove those luddites that scoff of ‘one man and a dog’ every April to be palpably wrong.

Can the current lack of ground-going fans be altered?

Perhaps, if administrators were to make attending a Test match itself a more convenient and enjoyable experience (day/night cricket anyone?) then things would improve slightly, but it is unlikely to make too much of a difference as it is impossible to stand in the way of a market-led change that sees people power dictate how cricket is ‘consumed’ to an ever greater extent.

Should The County Championship Abandon Two-Divisions?

Essex CCC chairman Nigel Hilliard suggested last week that the County Championship should revert back to a format whereby any of the 18 first-class counties have a chance of winning title in any given year. It was a suggestion that came largely out of the blue, as it is widely believed that the current two-division format, since it was introduced in 2000, has helped raise the standard of county cricket.

Nonetheless, it is a suggestion worth considering, especially as Hillaird came up with an alternative explanation for the rise in standard. He said, “The argument put forward for two-division cricket is that it has improved the standard and has made more competition but, in my view, what has improved the standard is in fact four-day cricket (introduced universally in 1993).”

He went on to back up this argument by outlining how the number of players from the first division that have gone on to represent England is of a roughly similar amount to those from the second division. Indeed all three of England’s current captains learnt their cricket at clubs that played second division cricket in 2011.

However, where his argument begins to fall down is when it comes to the matter of how to implement a system that gives all 18 counties a shot at the title. A change back to the old one-division format is out of the question – Hilliard admitted so himself – as it produces too many meaningless games towards the end of the season. He did add, however, “I have … put my suggestions forward (to the ECB domestic cricket review) as a discussion point as to how this could be achieved but whether there will be any change, I don’t know.”

Now, what these suggested changes entail is open to debate, but they are likely to include something along the lines of the 2008 proposal that wanted three regional groups of six teams with an end-of-season knockout phase. Alternatively, a less dramatic change could see the bottom team in division one exchanging places with the top team in division two at the half way stage in the season. This way the two-tier format, with all of the excitement that it generates, could be maintained, while at the same time any of the 18 counties would have a shot at the title at the start of any given season.

Both of these proposals have their obvious disadvantages. In the former, a team could end up winning the title without ever having had to play certain teams and it could hardly be called a nationwide Championship; while the latter seems somehow contrived and it is difficult to see how the team that was promoted mid-season could carry their points haul forward into the first division, which would mean that the messy system of average points or adjusted totals would have to be used.

All of which means that, mercifully, we are likely to stay with the same system that has served us so well for the past two seasons and produced such exciting finishes. After all, the inherent virtue of the present two-division format is that practically every team has something to play for all the way through the season. Why change something that so obviously works?