Archive for the ‘new zealand’ Category
Thursday, May 30th, 2013
England’s first Test series of the summer is over, with a 2-0 win over New Zealand.
It seems churlish to cavil about it now, but I’m glad I wasn’t the only one baffled by England’s tactics in the Test at Headingley just gone. Having bowled New Zealand out for 174, Alastair Cook chose not to enforce the follow-on. This was disappointing but not completely unexpected; Cook is of the “safety first” school, and with the series as good as in the bag, the fact that the most the Kiwis could reasonably do was draw this game seemed good enough. The gulf between the sides on England’s home soil was stark after the more close-fought encounters over the winter, and England’s bowling attack seems once again revved up and ready to go ahead of the Ashes: Graeme Swann with a fully-functioning elbow; Jimmy Anderson giving us a refresher course in physics with the marvellous things he can do with a cricket ball through the air at high velocity; Steven Finn with his mojo (and long run) restored; and Stuart Broad in new-found “warrior mode” (sounds like sports psychology bullshit to me, but it seems to work for him).
To bat again was one thing, but by the time England ended the third day on 116-1, with Compton gone and Jonathan Trott at his watchful, guard-taking, crease-scraping best (read: slow) one could be forgiven for wondering what the hell was going on. Bemusement turned to irritation as England batted on the next day till twenty minutes after lunch – setting the visitors a monumental target of 468.
The problem with this is that the thinking behind this approach – to not bat last on a turning pitch and to bat New Zealand out of the game, which is bonkers considering the 220 New Zealand subsequently managed to make was their highest innings total of the series – was the fact it seemed to completely ignore the rain forecast for the last day. “I think if you start believing British forecasters you’re in a lot of trouble,” Swann said, grinning, to a query from Sky’s Ian Ward after stumps on Day 3 as to whether he’d seen the forecast for Tuesday. That may have been the case when Michael Fish was on the job back in 1987 and the night of the 15th of October turned out slightly more breezy than was expected (I slept through the whole thing, I remember, which also seems apropos in light of the tedium of England’s batting on the Sunday) but in the UK it’s generally a rule of thumb to assume that when there’s likely to be some rain, it’s time to start piling sandbags round your doorstep.
Hence, the dawning of a very grey, overcast and wet Tuesday, and a very grumpy Andy Flower remonstrating with the groundsmen to remove the sheeting. Aside from the irony of the England coach being annoyed at the groundstaff for time-wasting, the fact that the win now seemed vastly preferable to the draw England had hitherto settled for also raised the obvious question as to why they hadn’t declared earlier. True, England only needed two 11-over stints to win the game, but the weather was so dire they were lucky to get out there at all (and the second stint was played in light but continuous rain, though by that time even the umpires wanted the game over with).
Cook and Flower said afterwards the fact the game had been won was vindication enough, but in reality it was because the weather gave them just enough of a break. It was Lefty Gomez, pitcher for the New York Yankees, who coined the phrase “I’d rather be lucky than good”. It’s just as well for Andy Flower and Alastair Cook that on this occasion, England managed to be both.
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England have had their fun lately, with watching the fallout from Australia’s recent dressing-room ructions, Twitter meltdowns and missing homework assignments; one suspects that Australia are now running the rule over England for any chinks in their armour. At the moment, Nick Compton seems to be the weakest link. Since his back-to-back centuries in New Zealand, he’s posted scores of 13, 2, 16, 15, 1 and 7 – an average of only 9. At Headingley on Sunday he not only resembled a rabbit in the headlights, but one whose only chance of survival is not to move so the juggernaut’s wheels will pass either side of him. Footwork and balance have deserted him, as has his confidence – the self-fulfilling cycle of failure – and Andy Flower’s glowing praise for the batting of Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow, along with a pointed reminder that Compton now has several opportunities to find his form with Somerset before the commencement of Ashes hostilities at Trent Bridge, will have piled the pressure on even further.
I’d like to see Compton succeed as England opener, not only because a settled side is infinitely preferable to chopping and changing, but also because should Compton get dropped it’ll reopen the debate over the standard of county versus international cricket, and there have been enough slings and arrows – whether rightly or wrongly – directed at England’s domestic system recently. I also suspect that if this was ahead of any other series, Compton would be afforded more leeway, certainly more time – but every decision, be it tactics, or who plays or doesn’t play, assumes greater significance when an Ashes series rolls around. The potential for triumph or catastrophe becomes infinitely greater. I think Compton will take guard against Australia, at least at Trent Bridge, but I also think Joe Root would cope at the top of the order, despite his indifferent record against the new ball at five.
One suspects there isn’t much Root would struggle to adapt to, and this too will probably colour the selectors’ decision. His maiden Test hundred at Headingley was the stuff of dreams – his home ground, family in attendance, cheered on by the Yorkshire faithful and with his Yorkshire teammate Bairstow at the other end to congratulate him as he raised his bat. His future seems bright, his place in the team assured.
The main factor in who’ll be batting at Nottingham, of course, will be whether Kevin Pietersen returns. It probably won’t have soothed Compton’s nerves to learn that Pietersen, a batsman who lights up an Ashes contest like no other, is back in the nets and batting without pain. “BOOM,” as the great man tweeted. For Compton, named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in April, his boom could yet turn to bust.
Tuesday, May 21st, 2013
You have to feel for Tim Southee. You lead your team from the field an hour before lunch on the the fourth day, having bowled your side to a chance of victory and gotten your name on the fabled Lord’s honours board with your fourth five-wicket haul in Tests and match figures of 10-108. You are only the second player in history to have taken ten wickets in a match at Lord’s for New Zealand. England have crashed from 180-6 overnight to 213 all out. The result isn’t a foregone conclusion – with 239 needed, your team will still have to achieve the third highest fourth-innings run-chase at this ground – but victory is so close now, you can taste it.
A little under two hours of play later and it’s all over, your side incredibly and ignominiously vanquished by 170 runs and your bowling overshadowed by Stuart Broad’s dramatic return to form – 7 wickets at the cost of only 44 runs in just 11 overs – after a lacklustre performance on Friday in which it never seemed to twig that bowling short and wide was doing nothing but feeding run-hungry batsmen. How you must wish that particular penny never dropped. You could be forgiven for wondering what the hell just happened.
Southee steams in at Lord’s
Ah, cricket. Test cricket, more precisely. While those who’d paid £60 for a ticket shivered in the stands on a day which saw more cloud than sun, at least the thought that it was miles away from the IPL and its spot-fixing and assorted histrionics could be guaranteed to provide a little warmth; otherwise Day 1 had precious little going for it. Thursday was moribund batting of the dullest kind, self-preservation at its most dour as England, perhaps mindful of underestimating New Zealand the last time round, seemed to regard any run rate faster than a plodding two an over as the height of extravagant negligence, akin to leaving a toddler alone for a fortnight with a supply of oven chips and Haribo while the parents take off for Ibiza. This is what the fear of failure does to you; it wasn’t just the spectators who were frozen.
It was forecast to be a rain affected draw, but only 10 overs were lost on Thursday; a drizzly end to a day that fizzled out when it had never really got going. Expectations for the rest of the match were for more of the same. How wrong we all were.
Each day after that featured a collapse of wickets as the narrative speeded up considerably, giving us episodes of drama and achievement, and records too, as James Anderson found himself only the fourth Englishman to reach 300 Test wickets, just reward for a bowler who is arguably yet to reach his peak. Amongst the clatter of timbers and the wafts to slip there were fine instances of youthful maturity too – Joe Root temporarily steadied the ship with Jonathan Trott in a partnership of 123 and while he failed to get his name on the board this time, bowled by Tim Southee for 71, that he will do so in the future seems a likelihood close to certainty. New Zealand’s Root equivalent, Kane Williamson, showed the type of cool-headed watchfulness familiar to those who’ve seen him already in county cricket. That he is his country’s vice captain shows that New Zealand Cricket are already thinking along the same lines as England are with Joe Root in planning for the future.
Sunday, though, belonged to Stuart Broad. A bowler who some love to hate, who irritates with his self of sense-entitlement, his dogged insistence on following his own wrong-headed strategies and his petulant confrontations with umpires, he’s blown hot and cold over the last couple of years when it comes to his wicket-taking effectiveness. On Sunday, though, he was scorching: you could have been forgiven if you saw curls of smoke rising up from the ripped-up ruin of Bruce Martin’s wicket – stump, camera and all wrenched violently out of the ground by an unplayable delivery.
Like a hurricane, Stuart Broad left New Zealand in ruins. The rebuilding will have to be quick. Daniel Vettori, who played his last Test ten months ago, has recovered from a troublesome Achilles injury and has been called up to replace the injured Bruce Martin. England have already named an unchanged squad for Headingley.
That Broad is back to his best constitutes the laying of good foundations for the start of England’s Ashes defence in June. As far as New Zealand goes, however, they have some serious shoring up to do before their next encounter with Cyclone Stuart on Friday.
Monday, May 13th, 2013
There may not have been many there to see it, but when Joe Root raised his bat yesterday to a gloomy, virtually empty Grace Road on reaching 150 against the touring New Zealand team, there was a significance about it that seemed distinctly at odds with the grey skies and the echoing stands. The atmosphere at Lord’s on Thursday will be very different but, like a concert pianist performing in an empty auditorium, he played with all the concentration of a man who had set himself a task to complete and a high standard to meet in achieving it. Shortly after he was dismissed, bowled by Doug Bracewell, the rains arrived with a soggy finality and the match was drawn. But his 179 was an innings that shone through the murk with its maturity and strokeplay and will have given the few spectators who turned up something to remember as they dashed through the rain to their cars. Summer in England? Don’t you believe it.
Joe Root at Grace Road
Summer it is, though – even if the only summer that matters most to cricket watchers this year is prefixed with the word “Ashes”. There have been entire articles written riffing on the culinary metaphors that the two-Test series against New Zealand brings to mind as a support act to the year’s big draw: appetiser, entrée, amuse bouche. England certainly made a meal of their last encounter against the Kiwis, with Matt Prior saving England’s blushes at Eden Park in a last wicket stand with Monty Panesar after they had been comprehensively outplayed over the five days. That 0-0 series draw won’t have been on the agenda, and a similar complacency will surely will be avoided on home turf, though the visitors, led by redoubtable scrapper and James Cagney lookalike Brendon McCullum, will be no tender morsel easily devoured. On the two occasions McCullum has played a Test at Headquarters, he has narrowly missed out on getting his name on the honours board (96 in 2004 and 97 in 2008). Perhaps, for the man Tim Southee refers to as “a born leader”, it’ll be a case of third time lucky.
Joe Root will of course be at Lord’s, along with fellow-Lion Jonny Bairstow, who will be filling in for an injured Kevin Pietersen. Bairstow also batted well at Grace Road, scoring 68 and forming a partnership of 135 with Root. Root captained the Lions on this occasion, and there’s been the suggestion this is to groom him for the England captaincy somewhere down the line – an exceptional bit of forward planning on the part of the management given that Alastair Cook is only 28, but also a clear indication of how highly they think of the 22-year-old Yorkshireman.
One man also at Grace Road, but who won’t be at Lord’s, is a former Lions captain, and once called Grace Road his home. James Taylor led the Lions in March against Australia A and was one of the few England players to emerge with any credit in a series in which they took a downright hammering, but despite a steady start to his Test career against South Africa last year at Headingley he seems to have been unceremoniously deemed surplus to England requirements.
While Taylor may have defected to “the other lot” (Nottinghamshire, if you’re a Leicestershire fan, and I can only be impartial most of the time) one still can’t but hope for the best for him, that his England career revives, or, at the very least, he makes the case for his selection an overwhelming one, especially now he is playing in the first division. Unfortunately, for the watching England selectors who’d hinted heavily that only runs in county cricket’s top tier would impress them, his grand total of 2 on his return to Grace Road won’t have done much to convince them – despite scores of 112 and 97 so far this season in the Championship, with an average of 57.4.
While considering Taylor’s situation, it was inevitable that thoughts should stray to Leicestershire, who face their own challenges this year.
Crippling financial losses, a washed-out season and the departure of key personnel meant that 2012 was a bit of a grim crashing-down-to-earth after the heady heights of 2011’s T20 success but, happily, there is still talent aplenty coming up through the club’s youth academy and age groups – ten players in the current squad have progressed through this system.
One Fox who many feel should have been a Lion this year is Shiv Thakor. Leicestershire’s youngest ever first-class centurion on début against Loughborough MCCU in 2011, he scored his maiden Championship ton earlier this season when he helped the county secure a draw against Kent. His First Class average is currently 53.11; last year he topped both the First Class and List A averages for the club. A batting all-rounder with talent to spare, he has been an England Under-19 captain and idolises Jacques Kallis. He has “future superstar” written all over him.
Already the parallels with James Taylor are appearing. Early promise, blossoming talent, the pundits sitting up and taking notice, the inevitable questions over whether a move to a first division club to further his career already being raised in interviews. There’s an uncomfortable sense of déja vu about it all.
To his credit, Thakor has played an impeccable straight bat to such queries, but we’re all thinking it, aren’t we – it’s surely a matter of when, not if, a wealthier club come sidling onto the scene with their siren-call of riches and a leg-up on the England ladder.
While the Lions were running the New Zealand fielders ragged, with murmurs of admiration from the few who’d turned up greeting young Joe Root’s silky drives through the covers, Shiv Thakor was plying his trade for the Foxes at New Road with yet another half century against Worcestershire. It felt like a world away; county cricket often does in comparison with its glitzier international counterpart.
The start of this season seemed to be greeted with more criticism than usual of the domestic game; and, to be fair, one would struggle mightily to sex up a drizzle-interrupted day of LVCC action at Grace Road mid-week in April when there are other more important considerations, like school, college or holding down a job, or, if you live in Leicester, other sporting attractions such as football and rugby to demand your attention and ticket money.
County cricket may be mocked as deeply unfashionable and in dire need of an overhaul, but England players have to come from somewhere. The question over whether domestic cricket should exist purely to supply the England team, and whether it is also a worthy endeavour in its own right, does not have to be an either/or issue, but it is.
If the England team represents a Ferrari – prone to the occasional breakdown and often in need of tinkering but a blue-chip brand with historic pedigree – county cricket is the jalopy that sits in the corner of the garage that’s cannibalised for parts. In the case of clubs like Leicestershire, that cannibalisation starts early with the snapping up of home-grown talent by richer, covetous neighbours.
Shiv Thakor has extended his contract with Leicestershire to the end of the 2014 season. After that – in terms of the future for him and for Leicestershire County Cricket Club – who knows?
Friday, March 22nd, 2013
Like the giant statue that supposedly straddled the mouth of the harbour at Rhodes in ancient times, Peter Fulton doesn’t move his feet much.
The six-foot-five batsman, the man they call “Two-Metre Peter”, drafted back into the New Zealand side for this series after a period of over three years away from the Test arena, had a typically nervy start to his innings.
Rather than qualifying as one of the seven wonders of the world, his technique is such that you spend the first hour of his innings wondering why the hell he hasn’t gotten out yet. The feet are resolutely planted; balls wide of off-stump are wafted at with shots that constitute neither attack nor defence, with a lot of daylight visible between bat and body – enough space that you could sail a fleet of triremes through if you were an opportunistic invader intent on plunder. This is how he got out at Wellington and Dunedin, back in his crease and poking at deliveries he really should have left alone.
He is the complete opposite of his opening partner, Hamish Rutherford – broad-shouldered and heavy-footed where Rutherford is wiry and nimble, with an almost lumbering rigidity in contrast to Rutherford’s fluid economy of movement. Certainly Rutherford makes more pleasing shapes when batting – the way he leant into a beautiful drive down the ground off Jimmy Anderson, all crisp timing and high right elbow, was a particularly memorable example. Rutherford might have talent in spades but, in a similar vein to his captain, Brendon McCullum, he is also a scrapper, and has the bruises to prove it.
Fulton goes about his business in quieter fashion, a slight frown on his face that suggests perplexity, as though he is grappling with some insoluble problem but determined to battle his way through it nevertheless. Part of this is no doubt nerves, and the pressure that comes with that need to nail down your place in the side. The England bowlers know this, getting in his ear at the earliest opportunity to try to unsettle him.
Then, someone will serve him up a bad ball and the boundaries will start coming and the confidence will start growing. Straight balls will be clipped off the pads; balls outside off-stump will be left alone or pulled to the midwicket boundary, as he starts using his bulk and his slight tendency to lean towards the off-side to his advantage. His physical strength becomes less a leaden weight than a battering ram.
By the time he went to tea on 95, the transformation was complete. Stuart Broad and Steven Finn could only look on in despair, and it’s to Jimmy Anderson’s immense credit that he managed to sustain the aggression with which he ran in on a wicket that gave him nothing. Monty Panesar too, came in for some fearful stick from both Fulton and Williamson, and earlier on from Rutherford, who was the only wicket to fall all day.
I wondered what was going through Fulton’s mind as he approached his maiden Test century. He’s been around the game for a long time. Prior to this, his highest Test score had come in his second match, against the West Indies at the Basin Reserve back in March 2006. He made 75 that day, and lost his wicket with – yep, you guessed it – a prod outside off-stump, feet going nowhere, an outside edge snaffled by the keeper. But all that seemed behind him now. Wiping the sweat from his eyes, forced to wait nine balls on 99, he could be forgiven for looking a little nervous now that that long wait could be about to end. End it did, with a scampered single off Panesar, and a pumped fist in celebration. Whatever the nature of that insoluble problem, maybe this innings will have provided the answer.
Alastair Cook made the same mistake as Brendon McCullum did at Wellington in choosing to bowl first – he was tempted by the siren call of a wicket that was supposed to seam but didn’t; that was supposed to offer more bounce for his quicks but instead gave them deliveries that, even with the new ball in the evening session, died on their way through to the keeper. The only spin on offer was that employed by Steven Finn who reckoned afterwards England had done a good job in “only” allowing New Zealand to put 250 runs on the board in perfect batting conditions. As an attempt to take the positives from a long, frustrating day, it was a pretty desperate one.
Fulton and Williamson’s partnership is currently worth 171; Williamson will resume on 83, Fulton on 124.
It took an earthquake in 226 BC to finally topple the Colossus of Rhodes. With Peter Fulton, it could easily be another ill-advised waft outside off-stump. Until then, and against all expectation, this is one giant who so far has managed to stand firm.
Thursday, March 21st, 2013
Two Tests, two draws.
There’s something almost reassuring in an England series being ruined by rain, regardless of where in the world they might be playing. Truly, England bring their weather with them.
The first Test was one England managed not to lose, and in the second they were prevented from winning by the obdurate steadfastness of Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor’s third-wicket stand, an 81-run partnership that was unbroken when rain stopped play, much to England’s frustration.
Both sides are bullish going into the final Test at Auckland’s Eden Park tonight. It’ll reflect well on the fighting qualities of Brendon McCullum’s men should this too end in a draw, but it would be a definite blow for England’s pride with an Ashes summer ahead – regardless of the disarray Australia are in right now.
Kevin Pietersen has flown home with a knee injury – Jonny Bairstow is expected to play at 5 or 6 while Ian Bell will be pushed up the order to bat at 4 – and a fresh pair of legs for the home side will come in in the form of Doug Bracewell, recovered from his foot injury. While the 0-0 score gives the impression of parity, in truth England have had only one bad innings so far; signs are that, having got that particular nervous tic out of their system, it is back to business as usual for the former number-one Test side. This impression was reinforced by Stuart Broad battling through a heel niggle and a recent run of poor form to take 6-51 in New Zealand’s first innings at the Basin Reserve before England enforced the follow on. It was a feat Lazarus could be proud of, were he a fast bowler before he took a bit poorly.
Speaking of signs and portents – maybe it’s because I’ve been watching Vladimir Bortko’s excellent television adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita recently, but I was slightly perturbed when this popped up on my TV screen:
Instead of a large black cat signalling the advent of satanic shenanigans in Stalin’s Moscow, I like to think of this chap as an unwitting harbinger of extreme weather conditions, given that Cyclone Sandra swept in the next day, breaking the longest drought in New Zealand’s history since 1947. With all the talk being of flat wickets which don’t break up and have offered little for the bowlers, at least it’s kept things interesting in terms of the overall series result. But gods, it looked miserable for the spectators, cowering under their umbrellas on that last day as they waited for play to be called off. But for the slightly more picturesque surroundings, it could have been Grace Road in April.
Thankfully, the forecast for Auckland is for five days of sun.
Wednesday, March 13th, 2013
Calling it a winning draw, in the words of Simon Doull on commentary, might have been stretching it a little, but England managed to at least salvage their self-respect at Dunedin after a diabolical start.
Their 167 all out represented the fourth consecutive occasion they’ve scored less than 200 in the first innings in the opening match of a Test series on foreign soil. Like lemmings proceeding in single file off a cliff; or a man standing on the edge of a subway platform who feels the irrational urge to jump though every ounce of reason or logic tells him not to; that or first-day-back-at-school recklessness; it’s almost something England feel they have to get out of their system nowadays before buckling down in the second innings and showing us what we know they’re capable of.
Only Jonathan Trott showed the application that was necessary, and if there were any lingering doubts as to the fact the pitch had no demons in it whatsoever, Hamish Rutherford quickly dispelled them as he made the most of the benign conditions with an assured and confident 171 on debut. Whether or not he’d find batting as easy on a subcontinental turner, or a truly green seamer, as he made it look here remains to be seen, but that’s not to take anything away from a knock that was impressive in its strokeplay and maturity. This lad’s got a future.
England may have regained their self-esteem thanks to second-dig centuries from Cook and Compton, and the heretofore-unrevealed talents of Steven Finn as an all-rounder, out lbw for 56, to ensure the draw. But watching that contagion of collapse that swept through their first innings like the batting equivalent of Spanish flu, one can’t help but wish England would rid themselves of this alarming psychological glitch.
Thankfully, on past record, this is unlikely to happen in the second Test at Wellington, which starts tonight. At the very least this should be a more equal contest between bat and ball, the pitch at Dunedin proving so moribund as to kill off any chance of a result once the first day was lost to rain. The Wellington wicket will have more in it for the seamers, something that could present a conundrum for New Zealand should they win the toss: bowling first could bring dividends, but Brendon McCullum’s doughty posse of hard-working quicks, who gave their all so wholeheartedly in the first Test – Neil Wagner deserves special mention – may yet be a bit stiff in the legs after their heroic exertions.
If England have a devil on their shoulder urging them to bat like idiots in the first innings of a first Test abroad, Australia have already pushed the self-destruct button, and we’re all standing back and marvelling at the mushroom cloud.
The suspension of four players ahead of the Mohali Test – James Pattinson, Mitchell Johnson, Usman Khawaja and vice-captain Shane Watson – for failing to complete a written self-assessment after the drubbing they received at Hyderabad has provoked much hilarity on Twitter and, elsewhere, more serious examinations of the sport’s growing professionalism and how this needs to be reflected in “team culture”. Coach Mickey Arthur has said this represents the culmination of “lots of small minor indiscretions that have built up to now… Being late for a meeting, high skin folds, wearing the wrong attire, backchat or giving attitude are just some examples of these behavioural issues that have been addressed discreetly but continue to happen”. He has the full backing of captain Michael Clarke, who referred to “a number of issues on this tour where I don’t think we have been hitting our standards”.
Ultimately, though, this whole shemozzle has been exposed to the glare of public hilarity and derision through four cricketers’ refusal to turn in their homework on time. More seriously for Australian cricket, it exposes the fact that there isn’t a heck of a lot of respect for coach and captain amongst the squad, and that if management are going off the deep end over paperwork, then, like a school teacher screaming hysterically at a classroom full of unruly six year olds, it’s plain they’ve already lost control. With all the talk over Clarke’s at-times tense relationships with players under his watch, past and present, it also shows up the mythical Aussie concept of “mateship” to be just that – a myth. How Australia pull themselves together after this, to the extent where their focus falls once again on the sport’s basic concepts – scoring runs and taking wickets instead of assignments and “wellness forms” – remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, England will be looking to press the reset button in Wellington while licking their lips in anticipation of an Ashes contest that’s looking increasingly like going their way with every day that passes.
Tuesday, March 5th, 2013
England begin their Test series against New Zealand in a few hours’ time. A New Zealand XI have already beaten them in the recent four-day warm-up match at Queenstown, but the noises coming out of the England camp are those of caution, rather than dismay. England, after all, may have had an indifferent 2012, losing their number one status to South Africa, but they capped off their winter with a surprisingly dominant series victory on the subcontinent against India, and having already beaten New Zealand in the T20s and ODIs, the upcoming three Tests comprise a series England are widely expected to win.
But I’m hoping that, as the Kiwis failed to consistently challenge in those shorter formats conventional wisdom tells us they’re more comfortable in, so they may surprise us in the longer version and maybe shove a spanner or two in the works of the England machine.
It would be one hell of a surprise, admittedly – but anything is possible. If there’s one memory of the late Christopher Martin Jenkins that springs immediately to mind, it was the sound of his dolorous tones on a digital radio under the blankets at 2AM on a cold March night back in 2008 as England, set a target of 300 to win, were bowled out for 110 in the first Test at Hamilton. England did pull themselves together and go on to win the remaining two Tests and the series, but nevertheless that Hamilton hammering was an unpleasant wake-up call; England were timid, clueless, and undercooked. “This is awful,” CMJ pronounced as wickets fell with alarming frequency. It was the voice of a man shocked to the core. Had wickets and runs not been involved, one could imagine this tone reserved for the reading out of a casualty list from a foreign battlefield. Marathon, possibly.
Sadly, though – on paper, on the field, whichever way you look at it – New Zealand are the obvious underdogs. Warrior spirit will only take you so far, and there have been too many off-field distractions in the way of player-management showdowns and gifted and promising players being struck down by injury, from the unfortunate but prosaic, such as Martin Guptill’s hamstring strain, to the just plain daft, with Doug Bracewell suffering a cut foot while sweeping up broken glass after a fairly energetic party. Mind your step chez Bracewell, particularly if you’ve had a few.
Of course the real unwanted guest at this party will be the memory of New Zealand’s recent comprehensive demolition at the hands of a rampant South Africa. 45 all out may not plumb quite the same depths of their 26 all out against England back in 1955, but it’s the elephant in the room that New Zealand fans, and those who want a close-fought competition, can’t ignore. The gap in performance between the two sides at Cape Town and Port Elizabeth was glaringly apparent; as mismatches go, that series was the cricketing equivalent of Manchester United versus Shepshed Dynamo.
It’s provoked a lot of debate recently about the current pool of Test nations and whether some members deserve to be there. The idea of a two-tier structure isn’t new – back in 2009, Dave Richardson, then ICC’s general manager for cricket, suggested that Tests fought between sides of comparable ability would provide more closely fought contests, and safeguard viewing figures and attendance: “Ideally, you want to have the top teams playing against each other, and then teams of lesser standing playing against each other, maybe in a second division or a lesser competition such as the Intercontinental Cup. I think that’s the challenge for the ICC, that it can create some sort of context for Test cricket both at the higher level and at levels below that.”
Former England captain Michael Vaughan has said pretty much the same thing, mainly as a way of ensuring against a player exodus to the IPL and other T20 tournaments, especially if there is a financial incentive for reaching the top tier.
I’m sceptical, though, and to be honest, to me that’s not what the sport is about. Ghettoizing weaker nations in a lower division won’t create an incentive for players to turn out for their country if they’re only likely to face lowly opposition, and since the countries in the lower table would likely be those already strapped financially, it’s hard to see how they could develop substantially enough for promotion without some kind of outside assistance. For players from these nations, the life of a freelance T20 specialist will look infinitely more appealing, and in the short term, financially more rewarding, which seems counterproductive to what Vaughan is suggesting.
The gap between the top and bottom-ranked nations wouldn’t incentivise the weaker nations – it’d just turn the current divide into a yawning chasm.
New Zealand cricket may be at a low ebb just now, but playing against teams of comparable ability when you are a low ebb means you will likely plateau at that level, not rise above it. Should you manage to fight your way up and win promotion to the top division, the challenge to stay there might prove insurmountable. There is absolutely nothing to be gained by this in terms of development. Home series against England, India and Australia are big money spinners for New Zealand cricket. Fans want to watch the best players, those overseas stars who wear their aura like a mantle and whose great deeds precede them, and part of the romance of the game – in fact of all sport – is the hope that the home side manages to overcome the odds and make history of its own. These concerns don’t just apply to New Zealand: because everything is cyclical, what’s to say England couldn’t return to the bad old days of the nineties and find themselves relegated to the second tier, with Australia in the top? What would happen to the Ashes then, with a divisional divide between them?
New Zealand Cricket recently received an ICC handout of $2.14 million, which will be put towards development in coaching and their “A” tours programme. There may be a few New Zealand fans and pundits who bridle slightly at what they see as charity, but this is how it should work – the sport looking after its own, the family of Test nations rallying around each other. (There are, of course, those who could be doing more in this direction – that India may be looking to trim New Zealand’s tour early next year in order to host the Asia Cup doesn’t do much to banish the impression that the weaker nations are already seen as expendable.)
Underdogs may lack pedigree, but that doesn’t mean they should be packed off to a Division 2 homeless shelter, subsisting on their own meagre resources and gazing on in envy at their richer cousins even as the latter look down on them in lofty scorn from the high table of Division 1.
The road to the top’s already a hard one. For those in Division 2, just getting themselves onto that road could prove a test too far.
Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011
England: you unpredictable, inconsistent, crazy, mad bastard of a side.
I’d come to terms with the fact they’d be going out of the World Cup in the group stages. I was sad but resigned. Hell, I was even taking a leaf from Michael Vaughan’s book and looking for the dreaded “positives”.
Bowlers who needed a rest. A big summer of cricket to prepare for: Sri Lanka in May, India in July. And England still have the Ashes. ODIs – well, who gives a shit about them anyway.
And yet. Part of the deal that comes with being an England fan is you pretend not to care. You are punch-drunk with continual beatings and shambolic performances to the extent where you find solace in criticism. A good rant can be therapeutic. It’s healthier than turning to drink.
And yet somehow we’ve come through all that, and hope – thankfully – has a habit of springing eternal.
There were a couple of results that needed to go England’s way, but they helped themselves by beating the West Indies in a match which was in turns infuriating, bizarre, topsy-turvy and finally, heart-stopping.
“Do you enjoy captaining this England team?” Andrew Strauss was asked at the post-match presentation. “No,” was his commendably direct answer. Let’s hope England afford Strauss a little more job satisfaction at the Premadasa, where they will face Sri Lanka on Saturday.
And let’s also hope England win the toss, because 66 per cent of the day-nighters that have been played at the ground have been won by the team batting first.
Whether or not James Tredwell and Luke Wright will be retained after their match-winning efforts against the Windies remains to be seen. I’d like to think Strauss’s selection process will be guided more by cold logic than sentimentality, but it would be difficult to drop these two after they saved England from an early flight home.
Nevertheless, Sri Lanka, with dynamic opening duo of Tharanga and Dilshan and double class-act of Sangakkara and Jayawardene, will be the overwhelming favourites. England are more battle-weary than battle-hardened, and while all the quarter-finalists have shown chinks in their armour, England’s looks less like it has chinks in it than it looks composed almost entirely of rusty old frying pans and welded together by some bloke called Dave in a south London chop-shop. Whether this will be enough to see off the likes of Ajantha Mendis, Lasith Malinga and some chap called Muttiah Muralitharan is anyone’s guess – because really that is as accurately as you can forecast an England performance these days.
But, somehow – defying logic, common sense, and the form-book – England have made it this far. Any match from here on could prove to be the final curtain, but given their gloriously roller-coaster campaign, at least they can say they did it their way.
Before that, though, there is much to look forward to. Pakistan versus the West Indies should be gloriously anarchic; we will most likely be waving farewell to the boys from the land of the long white cloud; and Australia will be out for blood against the mighty India in the wake of their defeat by Pakistan and the rumours that say Ricky Ponting’s days as captain are numbered.
It’ll be a surprise if anyone other than South Africa, India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan go through to the semi-finals, but in a World Cup that’s proved vastly more entertaining than its 2007 counterpart, none of this should be regarded as being set in stone.