Saturday, 31 August 2013

Feature - Review: The Ashes

Published on cricketweb:

While the men were competing in the 2013 Ashes (Part One), the women were partaking in a similar though revolutionary competition. In many senses, the contrast serves to highlight the differences between where cricket has come from, and where it is going.

The men slogged through a five-match series over many months. The women trialled a version that the men may soon be forced to adopt. This version combines cricket's trinity - Test, 50-over, T20 - and places them in one contest. Six points are gained for winning the sole Test match (or two for a draw); and two points for each of the other games, with three T20s and three ODIs being staged. The marginalisation of longer Test series (just two over three matches in 2013 so far), and the domination in most parts of the subsequent ODI series, leaves this option as significantly preferable to the inexorable slow death of Test cricket.

That death is, unfortunately, occurring outside of the Ashes, which is unique in retaining a five-match structure. And, currently, we are merely half-way through a 10-match epic that resumes on 21 November.

So far, this series has hardly equalled its billing. This is, primarily, for two reasons. First, all Ashes in the near future fall in the shadow of 2009 and in the even greater shadow of 2005, series that offered the profound competitive cadences that can make only cricket so gripping. Secondly, this current England side is too good for Australia to handle, but not good enough to inspire the awe that watching truly great teams, even when thrashing the weakest opposition, can bring.

This series had good moments, but too many came in the earlier stages of it; 2005 and 2009 both had a great crescendo to the final Test - with exciting contests interspersed - that left the entire Ashes on the edge of a huge, sharp knife. 2013's stellar moment came immediately, in Nottingham.

We weren't to know that Ian Bell's 109 in England's second innings was to foreshadow his decisive contributions. We had even less of an idea about Ashton Agar, a 19-year-old who smashed his way to 98 at number 11 and constructed a tenth-wicket partnership of 163 with Philip Hughes. Many records were broken. Not that it fazed him, according to his dad, John: "We went for an Italian meal and Ashton's attitude was that it was just another game to him." Just another game? Really?

Nor were we to predict the tense conclusion to the first Test. Ultimately, England won by just 14 runs. The wicket that clinched victory owed to a DRS (Decision Review System) hot-spot that was barely visible on the edge of Brad Haddin's bat. The crowd erupted. One down, four to go.

Indeed, DRS was the biggest loser of this series. Incorrect decisions were reached on review: overturning a correct decision brings the game into farce. Yet whilst certain parts of the system remain in the judgement of the umpire this is inevitable. The hot-spot equipment is not infallible, and more importantly the umpires interpreting it most certainly aren't, but its use increases the percentage of accurate decisions. Some dislike the questioning of an umpire's decision, but anyone has a right to question a decision if it is demonstrably wrong. However, as DRS is there to remove the howler, the number of reviews should be reduced to one an innings per team so captains only employ DRS when they are sure an umpire has made a mistake. Two challenges allows for speculation on tight decisions, and the farce that follows.

The excitement of the first Test was not continued at Lord's. Bell sustained his form with a second century, and Joe Root placed himself on the Lord's honours board by scoring an impressive 180, though could not replicate this again; Root averaged 37.66 for the series, which does not fulfil the unmerited expectation placed on him but does show an impressive consistency of run-scoring even amid the pressure of an Ashes debut. He did not crumble as Ravi Bopara did four years ago. England eventually won in Lord's by 347 runs, which stimulated expectation of further overwhelming dominance that, perhaps surprisingly, did not arise.

At Old Trafford and at the Oval Australia made huge first innings totals (of 527 and 492 respectively), that England had no reply to. In Manchester, England were fortunate that rain intervened on the last day just after lunch; at 37-3 the situation was perilous. Though they retained the Ashes, and completed this task in the quickest time possible (after three matches) for just the second time (the other was the 1928-9 series), it was a disappointing manner in which to triumph.

In London, at the final Test, Shane Watson and Steve Smith both scored glittering hundreds in the first innings. Both were significant: Watson's in that it signalled number three may be his most prosperous position; Smith's in that it showed the selectors were correct in sticking with him and also that Australia's depth of batting is not quite as shallow as many had thought.

England, in response, were lethargic and painfully slow: the top five scored 228 runs off 960 deliveries. It was only owing to Michael Clarke's desire to win, leading him to declare and set a gettable target mid-way through the final day, that England's lethargy was mitigated. Incidentally, England drew on the two occasions they lost the toss.

Punctuating these two matches was Stuart Broad's scintillating performance at Chester-le-Street in Australia's final innings. He removed numbers seven, eight, nine and 10 in a six-wicket haul that saw England win by 74 runs. Ryan Harris had claimed seven wickets to prove that, when not injured, he is superb.

Ian Bell made another century but, interestingly, again fell early-on after passing the 100 mark, this time for 113. When at their peak two years ago, this England side - motivated by the doctrine of batting coach Graham Gooch - were ruthless in their pursuit of "daddy hundreds". Only Root scored one, at Lord's. This suggests that England have lost this ruthless streak. The reason for its decline is unlikely to be complacency; it could just be down to a group of cricketers many of whom are old and deteriorating, or perhaps a result of Andrew Strauss' departure. It certainly gives succour to Australia and their hopes of performing better later this year.

And while Anderson was brilliant for the first half of the series, and Broad and Swann for one match each, the bowling - like the batting - was hardly the cohesive, penetrating combination that visited Down Under last time. Indeed, the decision to call-up Chris Woakes and Simon Kerrigan - neither of whom impressed - for the final Test demonstrates a lack of reserves beyond an underperforming front three. In contrast, Australia will hopefully welcome back James Pattinson and - though perhaps more doubtful - Pat Cummins. Both have shown talent far surpassing England's youngsters, further magnified as Steve Finn has experienced a disappointing year.

Perhaps as a result of an underwhelming series on the field, individual moments were scrutinised more than usual. We have already discussed DRS; thankfully, the aftermath of David Warner's punch on Joe Root had subsided once the action began. But two incidents in particular caused a flurry of comment during the series. Both have profound implications for the game and warrant further exploration.

The first is the decision in the final match to end the game owing to 'bad light'. As the umpires had previously called players off early, notably on the fourth day of the third Test which halted Australian momentum, the law dictates that the same had to happen even with the game in the closing stages, England requiring 21 runs with just 24 balls remaining. This shows a fundamental problem at the heart of cricket: it has forgotten about the customer, who should be its primary focus.

The main point is that there is no such thing as 'bad light' when multiple, high-voltage, super-beam floodlights illuminate the ground - sufficiently, indeed, for numerous day-night games to be played. For a game to be just cut off (in both instances) when thousands of spectators watching and listening to the game around the world want it to continue is utterly ridiculous and fatal for Test cricket's future, which must do more to satisfy a dwindling customer base.

Many have argued the solution is to hand the decision on bad light to the batsman. But what if, in the same circumstances, Australia had had one wicket left and the English bowlers had been closing in with a few overs left? The Aussie batsmen would have chosen to finish the game, despite all the Oval spectators wanting it to continue. The answer is for floodlights to be mandatory for all international grounds and to keep playing until the allotted 90 overs per day is completed, even if it means playing under floodlights (which demonstrably does not compromise a batsman's safety, the only credible reason not to play). This is what the customer, who is the absolute and undivided priority, deserves. It is a lesson cricket needs to learn, and quickly.

The second incident was Stuart Broad's refusal to walk despite edging the ball clearly off the gloves of Haddin and into the palms of Clarke at first slip. The umpire was unmoved. Broad should have walked, as every batsman should if he knows he is out. This was about right and wrong. It was damning indeed that the vast majority of ex-players failed to recognise this fact. It poses severe challenges to maintaining basic levels of decency at the youth level when those at the top fail to, especially as much of sport's societal worth surrounds instilling values of respect, honesty and fair play that can be transferred to everyday life.

Some professionals retain this belief, including Graeme Swann, who complained of Dilruwan Perera's decision not to walk in March last year by calling him a "cheat". He said of Perera's non-walking: "It was very difficult to take because it was so blatantly out ... The thing that annoyed me was that the batsman stood there knowing 100 per cent he was out but chose to cheat.

"It was just cheating but we live in an age where cheating is accepted in our game. If you don't walk and get away with it no-one seems to say anything. I don't agree with that. I understand when people say they will leave it to the umpire but again I question their morality to be honest. The same people who say 'leave it to the umpire' will then say you have to take their word if they catch it. It's horrific double standards and it's against the spirit of the game. If you know you're out then you walk off the field in my view. This is an ideal world I'm talking about." It shouldn't have to be.

The numerous apologists, including many reading this now, will continue to assert that the end result is more important than the way in which it is achieved. Martin Samuel, the chief sports writer of the Daily Mail, puts it well in defying this zeitgeist: "There is such a thing as basic, common decency. Being a good sport, being a straight up guy. Golfers, snooker players, call penalties on themselves. Why not cricketers? It is not as if we are at war here. These are ball games. If false information can save several thousand lives in battle, that is justified. If you have edged it to first slip in a game of cricket, just go. It really isn't that important. Indeed it is remarkable, quite preposterous, that there should even be a debate...

"Yes, there will be grey areas. Times when the fielder isn't sure whether the ball was grounded or not; super fine edges that may have come from the bat or the pad. This wasn't like that. Stuart Broad knew what he had done, so did everybody on the field, bar the one man with the power to act - umpire Aleem Dar. [Dar] was made to look a fool and he did not deserve that. It should not be that referees, umpires and judges are left embarrassed by honest, inadvertent, human error...

"Some of the caveats are simply irrelevant. It does not matter that Australia used at least one of their referrals unwisely. Maybe they will not chase specious lbw decisions in future and reserve their challenges for moments of utter certainty. This is a sub-plot though, not the main event. This is not a test of the DRS system but of the basic principles of right and wrong ... England would have beaten [Australia] fair and square. They [will] just have to settle for square, instead."

Thursday, 22 August 2013

The Ashes: Poor England give Australia Confidence

Reports from the Kia Oval

Australia      492-9d (Smith, 138)
England        32-0

Jonathan Trott was introduced half an hour before the tea break on day two of this series-closing Ashes Test. It was, perhaps, a sign of desperation that Alastair Cook had to plumb these depths. This sense was heightened considering England opted – against their recent steadfast convention – to play five bowlers. Two of those, Chris Woakes and Simon Kerrigan, possess combined figures of 149-1 off 32 overs in the first innings, hardly an heartening endorsement of England’s young talent.

But Trott, good old Trotty, with his gentle medium pace, claimed the wicket of Brad Haddin, who chopped onto his stumps for 30. It was, we ventured, a turning point. James Anderson had already removed night-watchman Peter Siddle clean bowled. In another apparent turning point, Stuart Broad had punctured the seemingly inexorable innings of Shane Watson, for 176, deep into yesterday evening.

Yet this was not a turning point: not of any description. Steve Smith, a young, bludgeoning batsman with bright blonde hair, was to go on. He had already hit a six over long-off to reach his first century in Test match cricket. Some had questioned his ability to transfer his aggressive one-day game into the Test arena and his failings in the series so far – a batting average before this match of only 25 with just two fifties in eight innings – would substantiate that claim.

Yet he was undefeated at the end, on 138. Crucially, off 241 deliveries; this was a first signal that he can orchestrate an innings with the focus required at Test match level. His doubters will continue to chirp but this was not only a statement of determination and mental strength, but a key indication of the start of a maturation process all youngsters must now undergo in the intense environment existing at international level, bereft of the easing-in period at county/state level enjoyed by past generations.

As is orthodox in modern cricket, numbers eight, nine and 10 added 69 runs between them, dragging Australia up to a total of 492, a mass of runs that places this game beyond England, especially as rain is forecast on Saturday.

Perhaps most disappointing was the lack of urgency in England’s play. Would the great Australia team of the recent past have sacrificed an Ashes Test match by picking two inexperienced and, frankly, unmerited youngsters while coupling this was an inexcusable lethargy? In the 2007 Ashes series that great team won the final match at the SCG to clinch a whitewash. And they did so with all the greats present: Langer, Hayden, Ponting, Warne and McGrath. They selected their best team. For England to not do the same is a damning indictment on their mind-set coming into this final Test, and one reason why they cannot be described in even vaguely similar terms. At least Australia take the Ashes seriously.

England managed to survive unharmed until 7.30pm, an extended day owing to morning rain that postponed the start until 2.30pm. Of course, considering upwards of 20 overs were lost, why the players couldn’t keep playing until it became too dark, even with floodlights, for play to continue is a question that would consider something Test cricket never does: the paying customer.

This match, and England’s performance, felt as if these Ashes are over. In reality, we are only half-way through a 10-match epic that continues Down Under later this year. Not a great time, therefore, for the hosts to give Australia the confidence they will gain from finishing on a high, confidence they will surely carry with them on the plane home and into the first match in Brisbane. England, of their own injudicious volition, may just have kicked life into this Australian team.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Mourning the Loss of Dignity in Modern Sport

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.
- WB Yeats, The Second Coming

What does cricket have to do with poetry? Well, Yeats was here mourning the loss of innocence in a world that would, he predicted, be ruled by individualism, a world stripped of honour and dignity – values that, we once believed, were treasured as supreme. Indeed, dramatically, Yeats states that “innocence is drowned”; this seems pertinent when considering cricket’s current state.

Perhaps we saw this last Friday, at Trent Bridge. Ashton Agar ran up and bowled to Stuart Broad. The ball deflected heavily off Broad’s bat, and bounced off the keeper’s gloves into Michael Clark’s hands at slip. Aleem Dar, the umpire, remained unmoved. Broad, equally, remained unmoved. The edge was so obvious that, initially, the Australians barely moved, presuming Broad was out. He was, and yet he remained.

Broad should have walked. He was out and he knew it. The right thing was to go. But he didn’t. What does that say about Stuart Broad?

That is a question some have been asking, but it is the wrong one. Really, we should be asking: what does this say about modern-day cricket?

That moment, Broad’s refusing to walk, showed what Yeats had predicted. Innocence, honour, dignity has vanished; it is “drowned”, submerged, suppressed. Suppressed, indeed, by ruthless commercialism.

This is the doctrine that pervades modern-day sport. Its manifestation in cricket is the Indian Premier League; this has grown through the Big Bash and other incarnations, and its influence has permeated through international cricket. It was here before the IPL, but the infiltration has accelerated as a result.

Adam Gilchrist would have walked. He did in 2003, when he edged Aravinda de Silva to Kumar Sangakkara. The umpire gave it not out. Gilchrist, by his own volition, walked off the pitch. But, of Broad’s decision not to walk, Gilchrist said: “Stuart or anyone who has stood before has not broken any laws of the game. He’s just simply waited for an umpire to make a decision and then accepted that decision. That’s up to him. In this day and age it is no surprise to see a batsman not walk.”

In this day and age, self-preservation matters more than dignity, more than fair play. In this day and age, the end result matters more than the way in which it is achieved. The IPL is symptomatic of a shift to commercial interest; these ventures take cricket even further away from its roots and, consequently, even further away from the honour that once governed its play.

We still treasure rare moments of dignity. Wisden commented of Gilchrist’s decision to walk: “This was Gilchrist’s match, not for what he did with bat or gloves but for his decision to walk, which astonished everyone unused to such Australian magnanimity.” We still cling on to those rare moments. We do so as it revives the (false) hope that respect may supersede all else.

These moments of dignity remind us that, ultimately, cricket, all of sport indeed, is just a game. And yet it is so much more nowadays. And that price – the price of commercial interest, of money, of stardom – means that we are stripped of innocence.

Some of us wish sport would value pride and self-respect, but that is unrealistic. Yeats wrote that the “best lack all conviction”, and the “worst/Are full of passionate intensity”. Unfortunately, the worst have won; those focused on success over fairness have triumphed. If you walk, you lack conviction, you put what is right over what is paramount – victory. That is unacceptable.

We do not have to accept this; we – the brigade who treasure playing sport not only for the end result, but for all the values it once instilled and encouraged – we can continue to champion the idea that sport, cricket especially, can soar above commercial values. But, dispiritingly, this pursuit seems increasingly futile. As one commentator noted of Stuart Broad’s actions on Friday, the old refrain that you win fair and square has lost a key component: in modern professional sport, we simply have to settle for square.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Stage One of the Fletcher Revolution is Almost Complete

It is only in 2013, two years after he took over as coach of India, that we are starting to witness the first results of the Duncan Fletcher Revolution. Fletcher was tasked with the very tricky objective of maintaining success amid instability. India’s exclusive power-base that had been constructed over many years of mixed achievement was moving on. Sehwag and Dravid and Laxman are the main men so far to have been toppled from the Indian team, replaced by a swathe of potential equals. Their young substitutes are not burdened with the assured complacency brought about by past accomplishments.

Indeed, anybody who watched that old guard’s humiliating attempt to play England in the 2011 Summer of Discontent – when the highest score they could muster was a mere 300, and largely off the bat of Rahul Dravid (146 not out) – would surely have arrived at the rather forlorn conclusion that, as is so often said, “something must be done”.

There were murmurs of disquiet growing among an Indian crowd who had been plunged rapidly from World Cup winning jubilation to the nadir of a Test whitewash, the equivalent of which had not been inflicted upon that so fervent fan-base since January of 1968, 45 years back.

Indeed, the urgency of those cries became ever more apparent when that nadir morphed into an abyss just six months later: another 4-0 loss, this time in Australia. Again, only one innings reached, and this time surpassed, 300. That innings, of 400, came in the second Test in Sydney. That innings, though, requires revelatory contextualisation: the Aussies managed 659, Michael Clarke declaring nonchalantly no doubt when he himself was unbeaten on a mere 329. Yet again, India’s power-base had failed. Yet again the calls came: “something must be done”.

The fact Fletcher, the new coach, had presided over these losses was somewhat dispiriting, considering that a new boss is supposed to revitalise, not stimulate regression. The unfortunate juxtaposition with his wildly lauded predecessor, Gary Kirsten, was made at every miserable juncture.

Yet Fletcher maintained clarity of vision that soared beyond these defeats, a vision of bringing the youngsters through, of concentrating not on the expiring pensioners but on the future of Indian cricket. So the big overhaul came. Dravid and VVS Laxman have retired; Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir have been axed indefinitely. Despite Sehwag maintaining in only March that he will refuse to retire any time soon, his return is increasingly unlikely.

This sense is heightened when considering the success of the new team, of Fletcher’s India. It was not the old guard that reversed those whitewashes in thrashing Australia 4-0 earlier this year. No, it was Vijay and Pujara and Kohli and Rahane. These are Fletcher’s boys; they have grasped his doctrine of tenacity and commitment with unfailing determination. They have reversed India’s fortunes in the Test game and sustained their success in the shorter formats.

When India won the 2011 World Cup the average age of the squad was 29years 216days. It contained five players over the age of 30. The 15-man party for the current Champions Trophy – where India look as dominant, if not more so, than in 2011, being the only side to possess a 100 per cent record – this new side has just two players over the age of 30. The average age is two-and-a-half years younger, at just over 27, than two years back. Just four out of 15 players remain in 2013 from the ODI squad of two years ago – Ashwin, Kohli, Reina and Dhoni. Crucially, only one player over the age of 24 was retained from that 2011 squad. And he is MS Dhoni, after all.

This team is radically changed and yet it is successful. It seems Duncan Fletcher has achieved his task, so far at least. Indeed, the traits of the Fletcher ethic have been visible for all to see. The fielding, for one, has been markedly improved. Anyone fortunate enough to witness Virat Kohli’s run-out of Junaid Khan on Saturday can vouch for that. It seemed to justify MS Dhoni’s subsequent claim that India “is the top fielding side in world cricket”. That this claim is even taken seriously is testament to the shift in fielding focus inculcated under Fletcher’s tutorship.

This should hardly be surprising. Former Wisden editor Scyld Berry tells a story that highlights this fact. Fletcher told Berry that, during the breaks of that fateful 2011 tour to England, a few of the young players present, including Kohli, worked him harder in fielding training than any team the Zimbabwean had coached previously. As the older players were relaxing, Fletcher was concentrating on the youth, and the youth were responding in return – that process is now bearing fruit.

More generally, discipline has improved. If the amount of extras conceded is a reliable indicator of how successfully the Fletcher doctrine of precision and concentration is being implemented then the signs are positive. Before Fletcher took over in April of 2011, India’s extra count as a percentage of total runs conceded was 6.3 per cent. Under Fletcher it has dropped to 5.0 per cent. The youngsters are embracing Fletcher’s mantra that all parts of the game matter and that only hard work will improve these parts.

The improvement has been marked. In the last 11 official games played (comprising of both ODIs and Tests) India have lost only once. They have won all their Champions Trophy matches and quite rightly lie as favourites for the title.

We should not forget the one constant in this transition: MS Dhoni. His leadership has been as considered, as brilliant as ever. Yet when Sanjay Manjrekar commented upon Fletcher’s appointment, “It does not matter so much to me who the coach is, as long as Dhoni is the captain,” it was a gross miscalculation of Fletcher’s influence.

Perhaps Fletcher has just one remaining problem to resolve: Sachin Tendulkar. He has departed from the ODI arena, and surely should from the Test one also. Under Fletcher’s leadership, whilst his young compatriots have improved and continue to improve no end, Tendulkar has averaged just 31.80 in Tests, compared to a career average of 53.86. The first man to hit 100 international hundreds has failed to score a single Test hundred under Fletcher’s stewardship – in 37 innings. Tendulkar’s decline owes not to Fletcher’s influence but to his age: Tendulkar is superannuated at 40.

Indians will continue to pine for their old legend, when really he is best to observe from the side-lines. When he does become the last of the old guard to depart, however, the first stage in the Fletcher Revolution will be complete. And how exciting the next instalment promises to be.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Timeline: Six Months of Turmoil for the Tourists

Published in The Independent and the 'i' newspapers. Also featured on The Independent online: (skip to bottom of main body)

29 December 2012
Mike Hussey makes the surprise announcement that he is to retire from Test cricket following the New Year Test against Sri Lanka after 79 Tests – leaving a hole in Australia's middle order in Ashes year.

5 March 2013
Australia are thrashed by India in Hyderabad, going down by an innings and 135 runs for their 10th-heaviest Test defeat. The last seven wickets go for 56 runs.

11 March
Team tension is exposed after Shane Watson Mitchell Johnson, James Patterson and Usman Khawaja are suspended for third Test against India for failing to provide "homework".

24 March
India complete a 4-0 Test drubbing of Australia inside three days in Delhi as Watson takes over from the injured Michael Clarke as captain. It is Australia's worst series result in 43 years and just their fourth whitewash.

20 April
Weeks after labelling the captaincy "a dream come true", Watson resigns as vice-captain of the Test side, saying he wants to focus on his batting and bowling.

18 May
Batsman David Warner is involved in a Twitter spat with Australian journalists Robert Craddock and Malcolm Conn, for which he is later fined £3,700 by Cricket Australia.

4 June
Ashes preparations take another knock as Australia are bowled out by India for just 65 in a Champions Trophy warm-up match in Cardiff, losing by 243 runs. Clarke misses out again owing to his back complaint.

8 June
With Clarke still out, Australia slump to defeat in their first match against England on this tour, losing by 48 runs in their opening Champions Trophy match at Edgbaston.

12 June
Warner is dropped from the Trophy squad to face New Zealand after he punches England's Joe Root in an "unprovoked" attack in a bar last weekend.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Feature: England: Where to from here?

Published on cricketweb:

If English cricket had received a surprising but jolting kick up the backside from New Zealand on those distant shores, Andy Flower’s pre-eminent team restored the faith of the England fan in the return leg, faith that had been held so confidently just two years back. A home whitewash of New Zealand surely marks the beginning of England’s resurgence?

Yet they are still faced with problems that will not be resolved by the Ashes later this year. They will, easily, skip past the mediocrity offered by the enemy in retaining the urn; they will invoke the calm superiority displayed in dispatching New Zealand when faced with similarly substandard opposition later this summer.

This should not obscure the objective of this England team. This objective soars above the walloping of such opposition as Chris Rodgers and Ed Cowan. It goes to the heart of all of sport’s aims: being, and beating, the best. A decade ago, when the Aussies possessed Warne and McGrath, not to mention Hayden and Langer and Ponting and Gilchrist, that great team sought that very objective. That included facing the tough test posed by England towards the denouement of that marvellous side: destroying Trescothick, Vaughan, Flintoff and Hoggard was not as simple – note 2005 – as England’s reciprocal task is today. Yet while the Ashes should be taken seriously owing to its historical significance and the fact Australia can never be that bad even if they’ve rarely been worse, unlike in the past the Ashes should not be the benchmark towards which this England team aspire.

This benchmark should be the zenith of cricket’s rankings, and the beating of the world’s best sides, of which Australia is not one. We should not forget that this recent victory merely returns England to their gloriously effective strength of 2011 – unbeaten, winning in 75 per cent of matches. These sky-high achievements were punctured as if slicing through a hot air balloon while up in the air: England tumbled inexorably. The team lost all three matches against Pakistan; could only draw against Sri Lanka; and then were humiliated by the best, South Africa, at home. Admittedly, this nadir was mitigated if not reconciled by an irrelevant, early-summer triumph over the West Indies and then a somewhat more significant toppling of India in November and December. Yet the typical paucity of 2012 was promptly resumed by the three drawn Tests – fortunately not recorded as losses – away in New Zealand at the start of 2013.

Therefore, this victory is representative of a revival, not a continuation of dominance. Equally, we should not judge the success of this revival totally on the results of back-to-back Ashes series. It was the loss against South Africa that exposed the baselessness of the various positive platitudes England had received; it meant they were dethroned as world number ones, a crown they have not recaptured. This is, partly, on what England will be judged; any future tours to South Africa will also take on a heightened significance. However, because we have reached the conclusion that England’s success will be marked by the long-term attainment of this side, there are a handful of difficulties to resolve that will, hopefully, not be disguised by the indifferent thrashing of a weakened enemy later this year.

We might as well begin at the beginning and with Nick Compton. As a follower of Compton’s domestic home, Somerset, I was as enthralled by his stoic batting in 2012’s county Championship as I was underwhelmed by his previous exploits since joining from Middlesex – who, in Division Two, had dropped him. Indeed, it was only owing to numerous injuries that Compton made the Somerset side; if not for Marcus Trescothick’s injury, Arul Suppiah would not have been partnered by the grandson of Dennis at the top of the order. Nick has transferred his mechanical, restrained style – accentuated by an upright stance that produces a laborious movement towards the ball – into the Test arena. In praising his successive centuries in New Zealand, it would be foolish not to acknowledge alarm at his evident discomfort against the spinning ball in India – four Tests; one fifty – and his perhaps more serious shortcomings against the prodigiously swinging fast ball in English conditions, especially in this series when coming from the hand of the talented Tim Southee. As an opener, Compton will face these conditions, and a far greater quantity of right-arm swing bowling, when up against Australia in the summer. Few believe he will succeed.

I am inclined, as will the England selectors, to retain Compton in the team for the very immediate future, though for different reasons. Geoff Miller and his gang unwaveringly embrace the doctrine of selection continuity. I am unable to see a better option for opener that does not entail an unnecessary injection of either instability or risk. Some will argue that Jonathan Trott should be forced up a position, though his consistency at number three is both valued and vulnerable by shifting. The same can be said for Joe Root, who played so magnificently for his century at Headingley, with a flair and decisive movement so lacking from Compton’s game. Yet, despite his precocity, he is in such a nascent stage of his career that to plunge him into the intense pressure of the opening position could compromise his development towards the future occupation of that position of which he will surely attain. I am most tempted by placing the returning Kevin Pietersen at number two. Yet beyond entertaining that delightful prospect it is neither likely nor judicious – he was hardly inspiring as opener in the World Cup and already thrives in his middle-order position. The returning Pietersen will instead supplant Jonny Bairstow, who will be placed back on the cab rank of future prospects for the foreseeable future. Compton will stay, but only momentarily.

Opener is a troubling position in the immediate future, therefore, though Root seems a long-term solution. Yet it is the age of England’s batsmen that is most concerning considering England’s dynastical ambitions – Trott is 32, Ian Bell 31, Pietersen 32, Compton (if he survives) 29 and Matt Prior 31. These will need replacing. It is likely that England will be plunged suddenly into a need to fill these spaces with inexperienced players, especially as these middle-order batsmen are all of similar age. There is simply no space to try out potential other than Root. The prudent but gentle introduction of youngsters into the batting line-up is England’s most pressing but seemingly unworkable objective. Not only will these batsmen be chronically inexperienced but who will they be? The England Lions middle-order is formed of James Taylor, Ravi Bopara and Bairstow, all of whom looked distinctly unconvincing at Test level. Indeed, the openers Michael Carberry (who is 32 anyhow) and Varun Chopra are even more so. Ben Stokes hardly displayed the kind of committed attitude required in being expelled from the Lions tour of Australia for heavy drinking. Further, is it likely that Eoin Morgan will stop his slide towards Test obscurity? Root has disguised a shortfall in suitable replacement batsmen for the England Test side, replacements who will be needed very soon as England’s wearied journeymen retire in succession.

Fast bowling is far less of a concern. James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Steven Finn are all indelible and outstanding names on the starting line-up. The latter two are young and England possess esteemed back-up options – Graham Onions and the two Chrises, Tremlett and Woakes. In the latter, as well as Toby Roland-Jones and more inspiringly James Harris, England have a swathe of young fast bowlers to continue the destruction of the complementary incumbents – the swing of Anderson, the pace of Finn and the bit-of-both offered by Broad was lethal against New Zealand. In the much longer term, the Overton twins – especially Jamie – from Somerset are a sparkling delight to watch and promise real potential with both bat and, perhaps more so, with ball.

However, in the department of spin England have most to worry about. Graeme Swann is the world’s supreme spinner behind Saeed Ajmal; his deputy, Monty Panesar, is almost as excellent. Yet Swann is 34 and Panesar 31; neither twirleymen will be operating for England in the near future. Who will replace them? Lancashire’s Simon Kerrigan is good but hardly befitting of a side with world-topping ambitions; his average of 27.92 with 131 wickets in 42 games is creditable though not sparkling. Kerrigan is best described as a poor man’s Ashley Giles, hardly an awe-inspiring comparison. Equally, another slow left-armer Danny Briggs is praiseworthy but not Test-worthy; an average of 32.33 with 132 wickets in 43 matches is best kept for the domestic game. James Tredwell is neither good enough nor young enough, at 31, to be a long-term option. England’s spinning credentials beyond Swann and Panesar are a profound concern.

This is not to dismiss England’s outstanding achievements, which will surely continue this year. It is merely to point out that if a side with such lofty ambitions have designs on further and, most crucially, sustained domination, not recognising the serious challenges ahead would quash those aims. When the great Australia team left, in their place was a squad woefully below their standards; a similar regression inflicted the West Indies after their magnificent team of the 1980s departed. England should not and need not let this occur. So while this victory over New Zealand has returned Flower’s men to a position from which they can launch their assault against the Aussies, when that assault is successful it will be easy to neglect the pursuit of a solution for when the majority of England’s Golden Generation move on. And, as any observer knows, complacency is the most poisonous substance in sport.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

IPL: Cricket's Future

Published on cricketweb:

The Indian Premier League is, currently, the future of cricket. Its ‘brand’ is estimated at $2.9billion; it attracts the world’s premier cricketers; and its high viewing figures merely accentuate the dwindling popularity of the Test game.
IPL 2013, that spectacular beast, is currently roaring. The glamour and energy have returned. The passionate crowds so absent from England and Australia’s Test visits to India have suddenly re-emerged from the villages, swarming en masse to fill huge stadiums. Twenty20 is the modern way: the opium, to misquote Karl Marx, of the people.

This functioning T20 juggernaut of rational commercialism threatens the prevailing attitudes within cricket. Test cricket is not a priori superior; it is not indelibly written in cricket’s constitution that five-day games take precedence.
Some people think Test cricket is more intriguing, its intricacies so minute as to make it irresistibly compelling. Yet they are in an ever-shrinking minority. Unfortunately for them, they haven’t hitherto realised it.

This is not to dispute the case for Test cricket. As Amol Rajan writes, “What is at stake here is more than a sport; though the sport itself could hardly be more worth saving. Of all the pastimes invented by men too restless to endure boredom, none is so beautiful as Test cricket. Lovers of this sport understand that the slower the game, the deeper the action. They take pleasure not in bursts of power and speed but in long periods of patience and quiet accumulation. Test match history is a precious fund of emotional knowledge, in which all manner of human virtues are archived and expressed.”
Yet the value placed by Rajan is not shared by sufficient numbers any more. For when the IPL worries about an 18.7% slump in viewing rates in the opening matches of last year’s tournament (figures not available for 2013), over 90 million fans still choose to watch the fixtures. Sony gained a 10-year licence to broadcast the jamboree for a staggering $1.6bn.

Meanwhile, when New Zealand played a Test match against England in a stadium with just 6,000 seats, still half remain empty. Long format cricket, whether domestic or international, is in crisis.
The train of T20 cricket, driven by the IPL but with numerous passengers, is about to move out of the station. Test cricket has two options: get left behind and die a quick and ignominious death, or jump aboard.

Many seem to choose unwitting suicide. Michael Vaughan, now a venerable voice on cricketing matters, commented, “…it is unfair that someone such as Jonathan Trott, a fantastic player, is not rewarded like the Twenty20 big guns such as Kieron Pollard, who can smack the ball out of the ground. Trott is a more skilful cricketer than Pollard but does not earn the same money. If the incentives do not change then Test cricket in 15 years’ time will be under huge threat.” 15 years? It is this failure to realise the immediacy of Test cricket’s problems that is obstructing salvation.
Further, it seems entirely fair that Pollard earns more money that Trott, when Pollard attracts millions of viewers and the huge revenue generated from that and Trott can’t even half-fill a small ground. Vaughan believes it unfair because he believes Test cricket is by definition superior. But it isn’t.

Rajan argues, “To let the ruthless commercial logic of Twenty20 dictate cricket’s future would be to impale an entire sport on the altar of market fundamentalism.” This is a perverse way of viewing cricket’s future. Test cricket requires precisely the same brutal logic of the IPL chiefs to save it from itself. It must follow football, golf, tennis, baseball, basketball, American football and all major sports or be condemned to a lifetime of obscurity, or worse.
Test cricket is in an especially perilous position because it has no credible domestic structure to subsidise it, like the English Premier League and La Liga does the football World Cup. Instead, it must compete with those domestic leagues, such as the IPL and similar tournaments. Subsequently, the product of international five-day cricket has to be attractive in and of itself. It is currently failing, and should as a solution replicate the successful IPL approach; it must purchase a ticket on the T20 train.

How to make Tests more popular? Fundamentally, it must be accessible to the customer. Day-night Tests would enable this, as would tickets for individual sessions to allow spectators to visit after work.
Test cricket, like the IPL, needs the world’s greatest players to win in the fierce marketplace of competitive sport. I proposed a ‘window’ for Test cricket just a few years after the IPL’s inception. It was written off as unnecessary. With so many leagues copying the IPL, a free space to ensure the best players’ presence is vital to sustain Test cricket’s future. (Already we see those from smaller nations – the West Indies, New Zealand – choosing IPL over representing their country, something that will soon extend to the larger sides.)

Much like T20 survives on an unequal contest between batsman and bowler to ensure maximums and boundaries, Tests survive through an equal contest to create the shifting rhythms that provoke such profound engrossment. Pitches, especially in the subcontinent, must be prepared to facilitate this. But don’t let the bowlers bowl too slowly, because then the fans tune out.
Further, we must axe underperforming teams by creating a two-tier system. Test cricket can no longer be seen as a charity: we must be ruthless. Nobody watches, say, India against Zimbabwe because it is a grossly unequal duel and consequently boring. Some have proposed Ireland’s addition to the Test elite. That would compound the problem by augmenting the amount of dull games.

Many despise the rapacious commercial exploitation of the IPL. The “DLF maximum”; the “Citi moment of success”; the “strategic timeout” disguised as an advertisement break. Yet this generates money, which allows for the tournament to sustain its existence and improve its product. Pecuniary interests should be at the heart of all of sport’s governing bodies. In Test cricket they are not.
So as Chris Gayle hits the fastest century on record, as he electrifyingly did two weeks back for Royal Challengers Bangalore, some of you will sneer from the sidelines. “The Indian Premier League,” the self-righteous will say, “is just bish, bash, bosh. It’s not cricket; not proper cricket.” But they ignore the IPL’s success at their peril. If Test cricket doesn’t replicate its ruthless approach, they won’t be sneering much longer.