Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Australian first test ratings

So what of the Aussies? Arriving on these shores, they were strong favourites to clinch a second consecutive series win, and their first away win since 2001. Ever since the arrival at the crease of Joe Root, Australia have been on the back foot, falling further and further behind in the game until the same man took the catch which wrapped up the increasingly inevitable result. So where did it go wrong for the green and gold? Where are their weak points and who do England have to keep an eye on?

Chris Rogers - 95 & 10: Rogers had a great game, setting Australia off to a solid start and making big inroads into England's first innings score. Came up against Broad & Anderson on top form at the start of the second innings. Will no doubt continue to be reliable, determined and hard to dislodge all series long. 8/10

David Warner - 17 & 52: The explosive opener hasn't really got going yet but still has the potential for a game-changing innings. England did a good job of stifling his desire for rapid scoring and this will definitely be the best way forward to keep him quiet 6/10

England will be hoping for more of this
Steve Smith - 33 & 33: The 2nd best batsman in the world certainly didn't look like it in the first match of the series. With so many similarities to Joe Root (matches played, incredible last 12 months, current average, part-time spin), it was the Englishman who won the first battle. Perhaps suffering from over-confidence and an impatience to dominate the bowlers so far, Smith will prove his class soon enough. 6/10

Michael Clarke - 38 & 4: Australia's captain faces a difficult task to get his guys up to scratch for the second test, both mentally and performance-wise. How he achieves that might be a reflection of how he can manage it for himself as well. He underperformed as both captain and senior batsman in Cardiff so will need to up all aspects if Australia are to get back into the series. 4/10 batting 4/10 captain.

Adam Voges - 31 & 1: Like Chris Rogers at the top a couple of years ago, Voges has been brought in as a reliable and consistent batsman with experience of English conditions, to add some solidity to the middle order. On current evidence, he's done anything but. Australia appear to need someone more in the Mike Hussey/Simon Katich mould to frustrate and resist, braking the momentum and atmosphere generated mid-collapse. Bowlers like Broad thrive on momentum (as seen in each of the last 4 Ashes series) so a gritty 60 off 150 balls or similar would be perfect to counteract. Voges just isn't that man. 4/10

Poor old LBWatto
Shane Watson - 30 & 19, 24-0 & 23-0: Watson is a curious case. Utterly brutal aggressive and dominant batting, relentlessly accurate and miserly bowling at his best, he so often seems to be lacking confidence or interest in the game. For someone with such indifferent body language he appears to have allowed the LBW thing to really get to him. What should be an outstanding number 6, offering a very useful bowling option, he's more of a burden than a blessing currently. Australia would take Stokes at 6 in a flash right now, but might have to make do with Mitchell Marsh instead. 4/10

Brad Haddin - 22 & 7, 5 catches: Age catches up with us all and the counter-attacking wicketkeeper-batsman role is not one that can be sustained forever. When Matt Prior realised that his time had come, we had Jos Buttler ready to come in immediately; it does not appear that there's a natural successor just yet. Haddin may well have a couple of decent knocks and I'm sure the infamous Joe Root drop was just one of those things, rather than a sign of things to come, but the reality is that Brad isn't the force he once was. 3/10

Mitchell Johnson - 14 & 77, 111-0 & 69-2: One of the central figures of attention prior to and during the game, Johnson had an evidently mixed game. On a pitch that didn't suit his natural bowling style he failed to adjust and as a result ended up with his worst ever figures in what wasn't that high a total from England. The ball that got Bell in the second innings gave England due warning against complacency and dismissed any thought this might be 2010-11 Mitchell. Similarly, his futile but impressive 77 demonstrated the damage he could do in a closer situation. 6/10

Mitchell Starc - 0 & 17, 114-5 & 60-2: The world's best ODI bowler will be quite pleased to look back and see 7 wickets against his name for what was a pretty mediocre performance by his standards. At this stage it looks like he'll be fit enough for Thursday and will continue to be a serious threat when he gets it right. Waiting for the odd bad ball works against most bowlers but Starc is as likely to rip your off stump out as throw in a half-tracker. 6/10

Josh Hazlewood - 2* & 14, 83-3 & 49-2: Could very well emerge as Australia's premier test match bowler by the end of the series. Everything we'd heard about his control of line and length was true and was easily the biggest consistent threat to the English batsmen. Would be surprised if he doesn't pick up 25 wickets in the series. 8/10

Nathan Lyon - 6 & 0*, 69-2 & 75-4: Lyon has made a solid place for himself in this Aussie attack. He is consistent and gets slightly surprising levels of turn and bounce, particularly with his overspin. He's no Shane Warne but he's certainly the more complete and
accomplished spinner between himself and Moeen. Both sides should be able to get on top of the respective spinners but with measured rather than pre-determined aggression. 7/10

Australia have more areas to work on than England but that just means more areas of potential improvement for the next game, which I would imagine most are expecting to be a lot closer and more competitive.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

One up and four to go

In a week of white-clad sportsmen vying for the attention of the British public, it was to Wales that our eyes turned as Scottish hope was eliminated from dreams of glory. A combination of Murray falling at the penultimate hurdle and England's relentlessly strong performance meant that success was to be found in the Welsh rather than English capital. It's hard to imagine how things could have gone much better for Alastair Cook and his team kicking the Ashes off, especially given the low expectations prior to the series. Those few glimmers of hope and encouraging signs against New Zealand came to fruition in four surprising and immensely enjoyable days.

With universal agreement that England as a team outplayed their Australian counterparts, how did the individuals on each side perform, and what does that mean for the rest of the series?

Adam Lyth - 6 & 37: Relatively mediocre performance and a significant part of England's top order issues. Took a couple of catches as the Aussies fell apart at the end but needs a big knock to put questions over his place in the team to bed. Performing when the chips are down, that will be the real challenge. 4/10

England's main area of vulnerability
Alastair Cook - 20 & 12: Actually seemed reasonably comfortable in both innings but evidently still not recaptured his best form or indeed confidence. A brilliant and critic-defying display of captaincy played a big part in the match win but to secure the series it's hard to imagine England not needing some runs from their senior opener. 4/10 batting 9/10 captain

Gary Ballance - 61 & 0: Like Cook, is still lacking the form which has seen him such a relentless run accumulator in the past. An impressive and gritty 61 in the first innings was exactly what England needed, especially as a foil to the more aggressive Root. A big innings may not be far off. 6/10

Ian Bell - 1 & 60: England's 2013 hero has been on such a dismal run of form that even a pressure-off 60 will be seen as a significant positive step. Hopefully more to come from the classy number 4. 6/10

Joe Root - 134 & 60, 28-2: The new 4th ranked test batsman is by far and away England's best, and most inspirational player. Digging England out of a hole in the first innings then piling on the pressure in the second, as well as chipping in with two wickets to finish it all off. Now has the 11th highest batting average in history (min 50 wickets) and will surely be an England great for years to come. 9/10

Ben Stokes - 52 & 42, 51-1 & 23-0: Went somewhat under the radar but played two very important innings without which England's totals would have been much less dominant. Is a solid rather than inspired bowler still at this stage but has such potential and I would expect there'll be at least one point in the series where he has a Flintoff-esque impact on a match. 7/10

Jos Buttler - 27 & 7, 3 catches: Bit of a nothing performance from Buttler really, decent enough with the gloves, never got going with the bat. England's need will be greater another day so it remains to be seen how he produces when that day comes. 5/10

Moeen Ali - 77 & 15, 71-2 & 59-3: A great all-round performance from Moeen who continues to improve in both aspects of his game. Australia had obviously decided to go after him so he'll need to tighten up when his role is just to contain but for now he functions well when Cook basically needs to buy wickets. Classy, occasionally explosive and brimming with potential batting-wise, this could be a defining series for the bearded spinner. 8/10

Stuart Broad - 18 & 4, 60-2 & 39-3: Broad appears to be back to his best with the ball, having great control and discipline, as well as intelligence and threat. Having plans for batsmen and then executing well, particularly with fuller-than-natural lengths. Still underperforming with the bat which could yet prove significant given how much of a contribution tailenders often make these days. 8/10

Mark Wood - 7* & 32*, 66-2 & 53-2: What a brilliant addition to the squad he's been. A genuine character and another who seems to genuinely enjoy his cricket and bring a bit of life to the team. A good back-up to Broad & Anderson, as well as apparently some skill with the willow as well. I hope Steven Finn enjoys county cricket because he won't be playing test matches any time soon. 7/10

James Anderson - 1 & 1, 43-3 & 33-0: Much like Broad, Jimmy appears to be right at the top of his game. The second best test bowler in the world has such control over the ball it's amazing he didn't take more wickets. On what was supposed to be a doddle to bat on, Anderson still had the Aussies guessing. 7/10

With England naming an unchanged squad and surely an unchanged starting 11, the signs are positive but the question will be how strongly Australia bounce back at Lords.

PS Australian team ratings to follow

Monday, 6 July 2015

What Hope for an Ashes Upset?

Let the captain battle commence
So here we are again. The Ashes start again this Wednesday, with England looking for their fourth consecutive home series victory for the first time in 120 years (when they won the first 6 home series). Australia go in as firm favourites, clearly ahead of England in the rankings and having won 4 of 5 series since they last visited England (we've won 1 of 5 in the same time). Perhaps one of the most telling indicators is Australia's convincing 2-0 victory in the West Indies, so soon after England battled to a 1-1 draw against the same mediocre opponents. 

How different from two years ago, when England almost underachieved in winning the series 3-0. This time around it's the hosts who enter with an inexperienced and potentially fragile line up, couple with decent but not spectacular bowling attack. The concern at having no stand-out spinner the main point, but we've also had trouble restricting heavy scoring, maintaining discipline against tailenders and finishing off collapsing opponents. This was such a feature of the 2013 series, with Haddin / Agar standing out in particular. 

Perhaps a smaller trophy
in a couple of months?
Both sides are now without their best bowlers from 2013 - both Swann and Harris retiring and each team needing to find 25 wickets from elsewhere. Whether Moeen and/or Rashid can step into that breach remains to be seen and I must say I'm not convinced either is the full package. In contrast, Australia have a good range of pace bowlers vying for a place, with Josh Hazelwood and the left-armed Mitchells likely starting ahead of Peter Siddle. The fact that Nathan Lyon is a solid rather than world-class spinner may not matter too much if England don't survive until the 5th day. Their bowling averages against West Indies don't make fun reading for an English battling line up who had more than one shaky moment against the Aussies' neighbours.

There are signs that things might not be all baggy green, with England experiencing a new lease of life and optimism after some of the performances against New Zealand. If players like Broad, Anderson, Bell and of course, Cook, can find anywhere near top form to provide the backbone to exciting talent of Root, Buttler and Stokes, it could yet prove to be a closer series than anticipated. 

But why can't we have 10 reviews
an innings?
One thing which doesn't seem too likely at the moment but that we could seriously do with is a bit of weather like two years ago. Things we can do without this time - DRS controversy, England failing to reach 400, England batting at about 2.5 runs per over for the entire series, Mitchell Johnson actually bowling well and straight. Oh and Australia winning, I could definitely live without that.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

What Now for Tennis' Big Five?

It's hard to know what to do with yourself on the days after a weekend of sports like that. French Open finals, Champions League final, Women's World Cup, NBA finals, Ireland - England friendly, Canadian Grand Prix, Gemili running sub 10 seconds and the Epsom Derby, as well as the ongoing FIFA and Salazar/Farah controversies. You get to the Monday and the only consolation is that we don't have to endure any more England friendlies until November. 

With so much sport, we might have hoped for a few upsets to keep us on the edge of our seats but instead of a few little ones, we got just one big hit. Sunday's blistering performance from Stan Wawrinka has shaken up the tennis hierarchy. He has of course shown his capability before but this was something new. Beating an injured Nadal on hardcourt is nothing compared to toppling Djokovic on a 28 game unbeaten run in a Slam final. So where does it leave the big 5 of the men's game?

Djokovic - unquestionably the dominant player of the tennis world and clearly ahead of anyone else. His consistency and quality will see him atop the rankings for a long time yet and most likely favourite for every major for the next two years. Still some mental frailties when things are against him but he's so good that it rarely matters in the end. Currently on 8 Slams, it's hard to see him getting to Federer's mark of 17, especially as he's so far only ever once (2011) won more than one in a season.

Federer - appears to be in a strange place now in his career. Retains the class and style of his younger years but lacks the consistency to genuinely threaten at the business end of slams. Losses to the likes of Seppi, Cilic, Gulbis, Robredo and Stakhovsky in the last 2 years suggest that he is likely to have to settle for 17 Slams. With nothing more to prove or achieve, but still world number 2 for now and still capable of beating anyone, he does genuinely appear to just enjoy being on the tour and playing tennis. Of course he'd love to win another big one but he's content enough making a mockery of those who say he should retire just because he's no longer the best.

Murray - what could prove to be a very significant spring for Murray, with a breakout claycourt season. Winning two clay titles, beating Nadal in Madrid and looking thoroughly comfortable on the dirt. In significant tournaments (Slams/1000 series) this year he has only lost to Djokovic. Likely to overtake Federer for No 2 in the world later in the summer and almost a certainty to add to his 2 Grand Slams at some point in the next year or so. Definitely worth a flutter on him to build on a high level of confidence with a second Wimbledon title in a month's time. Probably won't have quite enough to overhaul Djokovic to top the rankings but he may well run him close soon enough. 

Wawrinka - simply one of the best individual performances I've ever seen. Devastating striking of the ball on such a regular basis. We've seen success from the likes of Del Potro and Soderling in the past just thumping it as hard as possible but nothing like what Stan produced. He will continue to be a threat, particularly at Slams where he turns it up a notch but such high risk tennis will never lead to a very top ranking. 

Nadal - ah Rafa, what are we going to do with you? One of the most physical, powerful and dominant players in history is something of a shell of his former self. So often throughout his career he has been held back by injuries and at some point it might need to be considered that he's not going to recover fully. Few players define competitiveness as much as Nadal but does he have it in him to beat Djokovic and Murray, especially from a current ranking of 10th? I hope so, but I fear not. 

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

All-round Success

Simply astonishing stuff. Truly one of the most remarkable games of cricket, with records falling, reputations being restored and stars being born. The match itself ebbed and flowed with England's initial collapse (30-4) sparking all the Pietersen chat before the ridiculously long batting line-up proving its value. New Zealand's batting display then demonstrated how blunt and one-dimensional our bowling attack was. Early wickets in our reply left the Kiwi victory simply a matter of time until Cook's infuriating stubbornness put itself to good use and Stokes batted like he'd got confused with the IPL final happening at the same time. The blunt bowling attack which we all know is so reliant on Anderson then came good, with wickets coming from all over the place. 

As outstanding and dramatic a game as it was, the end result unquestionably papers over a few cracks. With all of the attention on Stokes' remarkable performance, there remains a few questions over the opening partner for Cook, the feasibility of Moeen as a genuine spin-bowler and the genuine threat posed by the fast bowlers when the going gets tough. That being said, there are a lot of positive signs and just an outside glimmer of hope now that we might not get totally obliterated in the Ashes. 

To the matter at hand; the Ben Stokes bandwagon. A brilliant performance from an exciting prospect with undoubted potential but a long way to go before being a top quality performer. He has talent, desire and a fiercely competitive spirit but what he'll need to learn from players like Cook is application. Two outstanding and destructive innings could each have been big hundreds. Am I being too harsh or is it good to expect big things? Certainly if Stokes is hoping to be the next big thing, he has a whole host of a way to go. 

Widely accepted as the greatest all-rounder in history is Gary Sobers, with the likes of Jacques Kallis, Ian Botham, Kapil Dev and Imran Khan knocking on the door. The great measure of an all-rounder is of the differential between their batting and bowling averages. The below table shows test all-rounders with at least 100 wickets at less than 40 AND 3000 test runs at greater than 30

GS Sobers (WI)
JH Kallis (ICC/SA)
Imran Khan (Pak)
KR Miller (Aus)
SM Pollock (SA)
TL Goddard (SA)
AW Greig (Eng)
IT Botham (Eng)
CL Cairns (NZ)
W Rhodes (Eng)
N Kapil Dev (India)
MH Mankad (India)
A Flintoff (Eng/ICC)
DL Vettori (ICC/NZ)

Miller, Sobers, Kallis, Khan & Dev
The results demonstrate what we'd expect to see, Sobers and Kallis with incredible batting averages and very solid bowling stats, with the likes of Khan and Pollock the other way round. Here are Stokes' figures at the moment:

Bat Av
Bowl Av
Ave Diff
Ben Stokes

Evidently a long way to go! But of course how can you compare him so early in his career to those more established? Have a look at their stats after 10 test matches of course:

GS Sobers
JH Kallis
Imran Khan
SM Pollock
IT Botham
N Kapil Dev
A Flintoff 

What can we learn from this? The same as with a lot of statistics, especially with such a small quantity of data to look, they're meaningless. Stokes' career could go either way.

A side note is that if we simply look at the difference between batting & bowling averages then it becomes clear who the real best all-rounders are in history:

Bat Av
Bowl Av
Ave Diff
DG Bradman (Aus)
AN Cook (Eng)

Statistically the best two all-rounders
in all of test cricket history