Sunday, August 31, 2014

Start well in an ODI, but then build!

The idea of building a solid platform on which to build a team innings in a One Day International has a credible logic to it - though it does only seem to be England that obsessively believes this - certainly when batting first. As England keeps losing these matches it does suggest that the tactic is flawed!

At Trent Bridge yesterday England reached 82 before, in the eighteenth over, they lost their first wicket. At that moment the run rate was 4.55 per over. The run rate then subsided and only a brief late assault by James Tredwell restored it to where it had been by the close of the innings.  Chasing a modest total of 228 India reached an identical score to England in their eighteenth over - but then they were chasing and the case for pacing the innings was clear. India knew that only the loss of wickets could lead to an improbable defeat - and they weren't going to let that happen!

Coincidentally at Cardiff India, batting first, was also 82 in the eighteenth over - though for the loss of two rather than one wicket. At Cardiff India had that platform and unlike England at Trent Bridge they used it. 4.50 became just of over 6.00 by the end of the 50 overs. That said it was only in the last fifteen overs that India really charged along moving from 156-4 (4.45) after 35 to 304 after 50.

The point of this is that a platform is only handy if you use it, it is not an end in itself. And also that if your plan, batting first, is to score 300 runs it doesn't really matter how you do it. And up to a point wickets don't matter either. If you are all out for 300 off the final ball that is just as good as being 300-2. So you might as well (a) pace your innings over the 50 overs and (b) not matter too much if you regularly lose wickets. One of the great truisms of cricket is that it "doesn't matter how the runs come, so long as they come". Which brings me to opening batsmen.

In a Test match an opening batsman can bat for ever - and you hope he does. If one of them scores 150 in a day and a half and the players at the other end chip in decent scores rather more quickly you're likely to be knocking on 400 by lunch on the second day - which is fine especially if you haven't lost too many wickets.  One Day games are different. Alastair Cook had a strike rate of 67 when he was out - OK, but no cigar. Even the exuberant Alex Hales took 55 balls over his 42.  Over the innings as a whole not one England player, Tredwell aside, had a strike rate of over 80. Bar Dhawan  all of India's batsmen achieved this. And that is the point. Pacing the innings means pacing it over the full allocation of overs.

In the recent ODI between Australia and South Africa in Harare in which South Africa chased down 328 to win the scores after eighteen overs were Australia, batting first, 92-0 and South Africa chasing 106-2. The Proteas had lost a couple of wickets but they had 14 more runs – not crucial but a signal that they were on for the chase and the loss of wickets could be accommodated.

At Trent Bridge England had a platform at 82-1 and a confident Captain would have said right let’s up the pace a bit and have brought in Jos Buttler or Eoin Morgan at that point. But no - the predetermined batting order couldn't be changed and Ian Bell (ODI strike rate 76.02) came in and predictably batted stodgily for 38 balls scoring 28 without a boundary. Sport is often about symbolism – and about showing your confidence. Would Buttler or Morgan have succeeded up the order – who knows? But it would have showed we meant business and given India something to think about.

The best ODI teams capitalise on good starts and recover form poor ones. They play eleven-man cricket and never assume that the job is done – or lost. Remember that great achievement by India at Lord’s in 2002 when they chased down 326 having been 146-5 at the fall of Tendulkar’s wicket in the 24th over?

The argument here is not not to try and get a decent start – which England had yesterday – but if you do get it to use it! If you are 82-1 after eighteen the opposition will be a bit on the back foot and that is the time not to “consolidate” but to capitalise. That requires confidence and the ability to be flexible – especially in respect of your batting order. Cook was at the crease when Hales was out yesterday. Against Raina (27 ODI wickets in 193 matches) and the novice Rayudu he had the chance to assert himself, but he did the opposite and then got out. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Franchises are coming to T20 cricket

The “Birmingham Bears” won England’s domestic T20 competition yesterday. However if you read some in the Media you wouldn't know. True cricket writers like Scyld Berry in the Telegraph reported the match but he referred throughout in his report to the team as “Warwickshire”. In a way both he and those who used the “Birmingham Bears” descriptor are right. “Birmingham Bears” is a brand owned by Warwickshire County Cricket Club. So ultimately it was the county wot won it. But Warwickshire had chosen to create a “City brand” for their T20 team and it is rather arrogant of those in the media to ignore this – pretty contemptuously in some cases.

What is going on? Are we seeing a bit of raging against the dying of the light going on? I think that we are. That light is, of course, the County system beloved of the cricket establishment – at least insofar as T20 is concerned.

 The Counties

Counties are an historic element in Englishness but for years they have been declining in significance – in part a reflection of the growth of the mega cities like London (of course), Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds and the rest. The old counties (48 of them) are referred to as “ceremonial counties” and some have little or no administrative responsibilities. I live in a “county”, Middlesex, which is little more than a postal region – oh, and of course, a Cricket Club!
In cricket there are eighteen “First Class” counties and a further twenty “Minor Counties” – so 38 historic county clubs covering most of the country. Cricket is the only sport which has professional and semi-professional sport based on counties. Other major team sports such as Rugby (both codes) and of course Football have town or city teams. This is in part a reflection of growing urbanisation and partly a fact of commercial realties. The big teams tend to be in the big cities, build stadia in them and relate especially to the population conurbation of that city. With football, of course, most of the big cities have more than one big team – there is the demand and the financing to sustain this.
Warwickshire County Cricket Club have jumped the gun a bit in creating a city brand for their T20 team but I think they have been prescient. That is because I think that it is inevitable that franchises will come to domestic T20. There is a variety of models which could be considered for this – my preferred one would be something like this:

The Invitation to tender

The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) invites tenders for a new T20 competition to involve eight teams and to be played during an allocated time period in the summer and with a Final at Lord’s. The tender would cover an initial period of three years. The eight teams would be divided into two groups of four and within each group each team would play the other on a home and away basis. That’s a total of 12 Group stage matches in each group (24 in all) to be followed by  by Semi-Finals – winners of First Group play Runners Up of second Group and so on. That would be 27 matches, each of them significant. The competition could be fitted into a maximum of three weeks during which there would be no other cricket. Interest and attendances would be high throughout.

Who could tender?

In theory any commercial entity could tender. They would have to submit a financial bid, confirm which stadium they would hold the home matches at and the broad details of their operation. The open tender would not be confined to existing County cricket clubs although many would no doubt wish to bid. Warwickshire, for example, could propose the team (the “Birmingham Bears”), the venue (“Edgbaston”) etc. Another bid might be from Manchester United Football Club which would propose a  team a venue (“Old Trafford cricket ground”) and would have formed a commercial partnership with Lancashire County Cricket Club to make this possible. The power of that brand (the “Manchester Red Devils” perhaps?) would be considerable! Similarly in London Chelsea FC might bid jointly with Surrey bringing their brand (the “Chelsea Blues” ?) and financial clout together with Surrey’s ownership of The Oval. Another more out of left field possibility would be West Ham making a bid to use the Olympic Stadium as a venue as well as the home of the team (The “London Lions” perhaps). The venues would not have to be existing cricket grounds, providing the pitch dimensions (etc.) met the necessary standards.
One would expect that England and Wales’s major cities would all have teams, though as we have seen not necessarily based at existing County cricket grounds. The long list locations would probably be London (2), Birmingham, Bradford/Leeds, Cardiff, Manchester/Liverpool, Newcastle/Durham, Nottingham, Bristol and Southampton. The eight chosen would be mainly those that could offer the ECB the highest income.


If a County bid one would expect its T20 player squad to be comprised mainly of its contracted  players. Where the bidder was not a County then the squad would comprise players signed on a short term contract for the duration of the tournament – or IPL style bidding could be used. Overseas players  could be included up to (say) four in any squad and three in any match team. The attraction to overseas stars would be considerable as the matches would be held in the English summer, and for a limited duration, with few if any clashes with other cricketing commitments. The tournament could expect to include the world’s best T20 players adding to its inherent appeal. An appeal that would extend, of course, beyond British spectators and viewers to overseas media, sponsors etc.

What about the Counties?

The counties would benefit in three ways. Firstly as the owner of a franchise team – if they chose to bid. Secondly as the owner of a venue for which they would charge the franchisee. Thirdly as the recipient of income streams from the ECB – if that is what the ECB chooses to do with the income generated from the tournament. It is crucial to emphasise that this event is not a County tournament and is not part of the Counties’ programme. It is quite separate, with different teams and uniquely different brands. As I said at the beginning Warwickshire could be the innovators of this change – and I rather suspect that deep down they know this!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Why did nobody tell Jimmy Anderson that you can be competitive without indulging in extreme, foul-mouthed verbal abuse?

There is a good article on Cricinfo today on Jimmy Anderson by Sidharth Monga. In it Mr Monga quotes Burnley Cricket Club Chairman Michael Brown:

"Brown thinks it is also a bit of a northern thing to be so competitive on the field and normal off it."

In my view it is not "competitive" verbally to abuse your opponents, it is cheating. Nor is it "Northern". Mr Brown seems to like regional stereotypes but the idea that Anderson's unacceptable on-field behaviour is a function of his Burnley roots is pretty offensive. But that's by the by. What we should be condemning in the strongest of terms is the obsessive and demeaning sledging that Anderson delivers. Let's be clear. This is not a bit of banter on the pitch. This is not a bit of humorous "chirping". This is foul-mouthed, threatening abuse. 

That James Anderson decided to incorporate verbal abuse into his game is regrettable. That nobody stopped him doing this much more so. Presumably coaches - Fletcher, Moores, Flower knew what was going on. Presumably Captains - Vaughan, Strauss, Cook could hear it from close to. Presumably Umpires could as well. And yet none of them had the courage and the decency to stop it. 

The "Spirit of Cricket" is, in the view of this long-standing cricket fan, a load of hokum. But the fact is that it is written into the Laws of the game. Anderson has clearly transgressed against this spirit by a country mile. He is a folk hero, a rich man and a role model. He is a wonderfully talented, hard-working, determined, aggressive cricketer. England's best. But he has a fault in his character that makes him cheat on the pitch. Monga says:

"There is unconfirmed talk that one of the ECB's behaviour tests might have revealed that Anderson the bowler is at his best when he is grumpy and fired up. Alastair Cook has more or less said as much, without alluding to the test."

Verbal abuse is not an automatic consequence of being "grumpy and fired up". You can be competitive without breaking the rules. I want England to win, and I want James Anderson to continue to be successful. But not at any price. I want Jimmy to be remembered and honoured for the right things. Not for being a foul-mouthed cheat.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Not what County cricket is for, Michael !

On Test Match Special yesterday Michael Vaughan was discussing the tribulations of the Indian batsman Virat Kohli. He said that one of the reasons that Kohli, prolific on Indian wickets, had struggled badly in this series was that he was unfamiliar with English conditions and English wickets. This is surely true, but Vaughan's solution ought to have caused some furrowed brows at the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB). Vaughan suggested that Kohli should come and play a season in County Cricket. He was not, I think, joking - it was a perfectly serious suggestion. There then followed a discussion with fellow commentator Ed Smith on the subject with the latter saying how much a young Rahul Dravid felt that his game had benefited from his one year with Kent in 2000!

Now County Cricket has a long tradition of welcoming overseas players into its ranks. Indeed my biography subject the Bajan John Shepherd was one of the earlier examples with Kent and Gloucestershire in the 1970s and 1980s. Stars like Shep, Viv Richards, Richard Hadlee, Garry Sobers, Asif Iqbal and many others enriched our game. There was mutual benefit. But In those days there was loyalty as well. It was customary for an overseas player to commit himself to a County for many seasons. Mike Procter was so much part of Gloucestershire that they renamed the county "Proctershire"! 

What Rahul Dravid did, and what Vaughan is suggesting Kohli should do, is quite different from these examples from long ago. He is suggesting that Kohli should have a season (no more) at a "Northern County" to teach himself about the English game. There would be some mutual benefit, no doubt, if he learned quickly and scored well for (say) Yorkshire. But Vaughan was not arguing the case from Yorkshire's perspective but from the Indian batsman's. Is that what the County system is for? To help struggling foreign batsmen improve their game?

Every match that a Virat Kohli appeared for Yorkshire he would be taking a place from an England qualified player. Would Joe Root or Gary Ballance or other young English players have progressed if they had had a place in the Yorkshire batting order blocked by a Kohli? 

Finally it's worth pointing out how the employment of Virat Kohli by a County would be financed. None of the Counties has a viable business model without the substantial subsidy it  receives from the ECB. Cricket fans pay for these subsidies via the highest International match ticket prices in the world and via our Sky subscriptions - mandatory, and expensive - if we want to see live cricket on television. So in effect we England fans would be paying for Virat Kohli to improve his game so that he can perform better against us next time India tour! As Fred Trueman would have put it "World's gone mad"! 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Time for Cook to stand down from England's One Day captaincy

Part of the rationale for the sacking of Pietersen was the imperative to build the England team around Cook. This lacked logic on the back of an Ashes tour during which his poor batting, uninspired captaincy and woeful general leadership were major factors in the debacle. Since then I have seen little to change my mind that Cook is far from an automatic choice as a batsman and, at best, no more than the least worst of the Test captaincy options. I do, however, think that he should continue in this role until one of the younger players, probably Root, is ready to take over. Maybe on the South African tour 2015/16? 

As far as the One Day side is concerned change can and should happen now. Cook's One Day batting record is decent, but the likes of Hales, Lyth and Roy deserve their chances in the run up to the World Cup. And Eoin Morgan is the type of Captain who could just break England's long run of dismal failure in the 50 Over tournaments. Cook should stand down from the One Day captaincy in his favour. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Moeen Ali–an extraordinary prospect for England


The genuine allrounder in cricket is worth his weight in gold. He offers at least a player and a half to the team but only takes up one place in the XI ! They are mostly “Bowling allrounders” – that is they are worth their place in the side for their bowling alone but they are also invaluable batsmen as well – usually at or around Number 6. In modern times we think of Ian Botham, Andrew Flintoff, Imran Khan, Richard Hadlee, Shaun Pollock, Mike Procter. Batting allrounders are much rarer, Jaques Kallis certainly and Garry Sobers, Ravi Shastri, Tony Greig. But what about the player who would make the side as a batsman, even if he couldn't bowl, and as a bowler even if he couldn't bat. Of the above I would say only Imran, Kallis and Sobers make that cut. Which brings me to Moeen Ali!

Moeen was I think picked for his first test as a batsman who could also perform decently as an off-spinner. In six matches he has scored 272 runs at 34.00 and taken 22 wickets at 28.04. His batting has been, perhaps, a slight disappointment. Just one score over 50 in nine innings – but that innings was a quite outstanding 108* off 281 balls in a rear-guard action at Headingley. That was a marvellous innings and though he may have failed, comparatively, in his other Test knocks to date that one innings at Leeds shows that he is potentially a Test class batsman. Work in progress for sure and vulnerable to the bouncer. But I am sure that he will work at that and my guess is that as a Test cricketer he should average at least 40, maybe quite a bit higher. Which brings me to his bowling.

Initially it seemed that Moeen was far short of Test standard as a bowler. Too expensive, bowling a bit too slowly and a bit short too often and with no real control. Well in the last two tests he has disproved that completely. I watched from an excellent position at Old Trafford and thought he bowled very well indeed. His 4/39 in 13 overs did not flatter him at all.And in the previous match at the Rose Bowl he took 2/62 and 6/67. These are quality performances of which Graeme Swann would have been proud. And his Captain clearly has confidence in him as well.

It’s early days of course but if he works as hard on his batting as he apparently has on his bowling then he will not only be worth his place as an allrounder. He could join that very small group who could get in a Test side either for batting or for bowling. And that really would be something wouldn't it?

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Anderson's behaviour is wrong, but the England coach's endorsement of it is the real scandal.

As a long time supporter of England, and commentator on cricket I deplore Jimmy Anderson's approach to the game - his bowling, batting, fielding and commitment aside of course! But there is no place for verbal abuse in sport, and indeed cricket is the only sport which continues to tolerate it. The so-called "Spirit of Cricket" is pious nonsense ignored by 99% of professional players.

Whatever Anderson may have done at Trent Bridge is not now the main issue. That is such statements as "Jimmy plays it hard on the pitch, I think that is what international sport is” from Peter Moores in response to the ICC decision The England coach clearly equates "playing hard" with sledging it seems. The Laws of the game preclude unsporting behaviour. And England's coach endorses someone who ignores these Laws. That's the real scandal here.