Archive for May, 2013

Flower fulminates while Joe takes root

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.

Broad blitzkrieg blows New Zealand away

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

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.

Foxes and Lions

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

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?