Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Are England Over-Cooked?

The last five years or so of English cricket seem to have installed incredibly high expectations of our national team. We thrashed the Aussies, won in India, climbed to the top of the test rankings and became genuinely top quality. Then the signs began to appear to suggest that the foundations were a little shaky and suddenly it all collapsed spectacularly one winter down under. 

The changing of the guard
The true strength and depth of our squad has now been revealed and we're facing a period of rebuilding and struggle. In some ways we've paid the penalty of having such a successful and stable squad for years. The team of Strauss, Cook, Trott, Pietersen, Bell, Prior, Bresnan, Swann, Broad, Finn, Anderson pretty much picked itself and didn't really require the blooding of young talent, particularly in the batting. Suddenly we're finding ourselves needing Robson, Ballance, Root, Moeen and now Buttler all at once. With Bell and Cook in such abysmal form, is it any wonder we've struggled against a relatively mediocre India team?

The fact that we played utterly dismally yet got within 100 runs of winning suggests that perhaps we're not too far from competitive but is that really what we're aiming for? After such an era of success a lull was inevitable but is no harder to accept. 

So what of the 11 men we have now? It's seemingly the end for Prior, and although Buttler is not yet up to test standard, there is no real alternative. There is little point in bringing back Foster or Reed - a lot of people seem to think that decent county form will translate to test match form but these are players who have had a go at test level and were found wanting. How many times did Hick, Crawley and Ramprakash have chances for England? 

And what of our under-fire and under-performing captain?

No question, Cook needs a break and to find his form again but changing the captain mid-series is not the answer. Criticised for being too dull & boring with his captaincy but not praised for inventive fields in the 1st test or bowling Moeen to Jadeja when we all wanted Anderson. He is stubborn and gritty and on a dismal run of form but he is still outstandingly talented. Despite not scoring one for over a year, he still has two more centuries than any other Englishman in history. 

Four years ago Cook was having similar struggles (although not as captain of course). Look at his averages in the home series before he came good so spectacularly in Brisbane:

2009 vs Australia - 5 matches, series average 24.66
2010 vs Bangladesh - 2 matches, series average 19.66
2010 vs Pakistan - 4 matches, series average 23.85 (9.4 in the first 5 innings)

Hard to imagine scenes like these
again any time soon
If it hadn't been for the gritty and extremely lucky century then Cook would probably have been dropped and England's greatest Ashes success for years may never have come about. Take a read of this article and it's hard to believe it's not written about his current situation. 

Much like with replacing Prior, there is no viable alternative to Cook, as an opener and certainly as captain. If he cannot turn things around by the end of the series then I've no doubt he will go, but for now he needs to remain grittily determined and work hard to turn things around, ideally with at least some support from the ECB, the media and the public.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Who's Daring to Dream?

Among the many things I love about the World Cup is the huge variety of opinions, articles, talking points, disagreements and perspectives it provokes. Go on any decent website and there are as many different articles as you could hope to read, discussing every possible aspect of the tournament. You can read about the teams, players, previous tournaments, the infrastructure, the impact on the hosts, impact on previous hosts, basically anything.

But without doubt the best thing (possibly including the matches, that remains to be seen) is the debate (yes I mean arguments). Who's in your All-time XI, who's in your fantasy team, who will win the Golden Boot, do Messi/Ronaldo need to win to be considered among the best players ever, who should start for England and how far will we get? There is virtually nothing on which you'll find yourself in complete agreement with someone else. If you do, the only thing I can recommend is you debate things a bit more.

Of all the contentious issues, there is one that most clearly identifies the optimists, pessimists, realists and idiots. How will England do? 
A couple of years ago I wrote a post about England's chances going into Euro 2012. Before the tournament, there was a genuine sense of realism about the England football team and our chances in such a way that there was no huge feeling of devastation when Diamanti tucked home the decisive penalty. Winning the group failed to inspire any genuine hope and rightly so given the insipid performance produced against the Italians.

So with it all kicking off on Thursday evening, how are we feeling this time around? There's a certain satisfying symmetry with England starting where they left off in the Euros, aiming to avenge that defeat and put right the dour and lacklustre style of play from 2 years ago. Lots has been made of the exciting young talents of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sterling, Lallana and Barkley but whether they're quite enough to inspire blind optimism in a naturally wary nation remains to be seen. Surely it will be the same old story. Surely warm up draws against the might of Ecuador and Honduras tell us all we need to know. Surely...

I can't help myself, I'm going to put it out there that by 1am on Sunday morning, there'll be the faintest of glints in the eye of even the most cynical of England fans. 

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Testing Times for England and South Africa

Interesting times in the cricketing world. A year and a half ago I wrote a piece about the end of an era as Strauss retired from international cricket and handed the reigns over to Alistair Cook. In truth, it was more of a stage 2 in the Andy Flower era, with the majority of the team remaining the same and a similar feel about the whole set up. The last couple of months however are a totally different kettle of fish. The unceremonious dumping of Kevin Pietersen, the withdrawal of Jonathan Trott, utter collapse in
form of Steven Finn and Matt Prior and sudden retirement of Graeme Swann left an England squad in tatters. Coming off the back of a successful series might have meant you could buy time and put things together again slowly. However, as it was it was unquestionably the most embarrassing and dismal tour in English history, wholesale changes were inevitable - including the departure (or at least slight shuffling) of Flower

A brief limited overs tour against an equally dismal West Indies won't do much in terms of rebuilding for the test arena, but it's a start at least. Getting a couple of wins (however unconvincing) is positive and certainly there are good signs from Broad and Root in particular. 

Buttler and Taylor could have big
roles for England in the coming years
The truth is that teams go through phases, and no side ever remains on top indefinitely. The Aussies dominated world cricket throughout the 2000s, but then became decidedly mediocre and are only coming out of that slump now (although they're doing it spectacularly!) England have had a real good run of it over the last 5 years or so, and it looks like a bit of spell on the sidelines. As a fan it's hard to take but accepting the reality of blooding youngsters and letting faithful servants go is necessary for having genuine success again in the future. It's only a shame that we had to be murdered down under to shock them into realising it. A big series against a young and confident India team this summer could be fascinating.

The other major storyline in world cricket at the moment is the retirement of Graeme Smith. One of the mainstays of the last 10 years is going to leave an almighty hole in the South African set up. Following so quickly on the heels of the departure of Jacques Kallis, one of the greatest players in history, is going to make it extremely difficult for them to stay on top of the test rankings. A home defeat to Australia is their first series loss for 5 years and could spell a slipping in their domination of the test arena. They still have top class players such as Amla, De Villiers, Steyn and Philander but no team can lose Smith & Kallis and not feel the ill effects of it. 

Incidentally, I don't really think that fact that Australia have gone to South Africa and won adds any level of consolation to our humiliation. Perhaps a small amount of perspective and vindication that this is a genuinely strong Aussie team, but the reality is that England played dreadfully and with no pride or fight. Hopefully those days are behind us 

Cricinfo provides a fantastic page showing the upcoming series of all the international teams.