Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Second Test - Dhaka

Bangladesh v England
Second Test Match - Dhaka


The approach to Dhaka airport was mostly in the clouds this morning and when we landed there was water, quite deep in parts, across the runway. My driver from the airport told me that the rain has only just appeared and that it may be around for a few days. The forecast, however, isn't too bad but for obvious reasons they do know a bit about rain in Bangladesh and we will see.

I don't think that the weather will have played a part in England's team selection. To some extent this two match Test series is a trial for the Five Tests in India - though that rather denigrates the Bangladeshis who could well have won in Chittagong. Top sport is so intensive these days that for team sports a squad system for the top teams is essential. In football Mauricio Pochettino is a believer in this at Tottenham, to good effect, and it looks like England's cricket selectors are doing the same.

Over the next twelve months the England schedule in all forms of the game looks designed to create burn out. A player like Joe Root will barely have time to draw breath if he keeps his fitness and form. For fast bowlers like Anderson or Broad, neither in the first flush of youth (how time passes!), it is essential to have them available for the big games - and that means Test Matches. We are little more than a year away from the first Ashes Test of 2017/18 and my guess is that Stuart and Jimmy will relish one last tilt at the old enemy.

Dhaka is an important Test in its own right though. My first glimpse of cricket in Bangladesh was in a sports ground near my hotel where what looked to be a T20 match between a couple of club sides had drawn a good crowd. Many were watching through a mesh fence around the ground - security I suppose in this city which has had its security scares in recent times. It is the national sport and my street cred as a cricket nut is high with the Bangladeshis I've met so far. "We should have won in Chittagong" - and perhaps they should.

In this match the England eyes will be on Ansari, who deserves his chance. Gareth Batty did fine in the First Test but really it is an admission of failure to see him in the side at all. No disrespect intended but do we really have a cupboard so bare of spinners that we had to turn to a 39-year-old? Lets see how the previously unlucky Ansari fares. Lets also see which Stephen Finn plays. I wouldn't compare Finn to Longfellow's little girl who when she was good she was very, very good - but when she was bad she was horrid. At least I wouldn't to Finny's face. But you're never quite sure what you're going to get are you? The same with Gary Ballance. There's a bit of the Graham Hick about him I fear. He has the talent and started pretty well in Test cricket. But not much for a while and the Jury is out. It would certainly help our Ashes prospects if we could get him secure and performing at four in the order.

So then if I may conclude with a personal remark. Tomorrow I will complete my ambition of having seen England play at least one Test Match in every Test playing country. The game honestly excites and intrigues me as much as it did at my very first Test (v Pakistan at the Oval in 1962) and watching it overseas adds extra piquancy and interest. It's a privilege

First Day report

The Geoffrey Boycott maxim is to always add two wickets to the current score and see what changes. But here in Dhaka we would have needed to add five to the lunch score of 118-1 to predict the tea score of 205-6. Those five wickets fell for 31 runs between the 42nd and the 56th overs. Did the pitch, which had been benign in the morning, suddenly become a minefield? Did lethargic bowlers suddenly become demons? Not really. It was much more that other old maxim - if you can just break a stubborn and productive partnership then more wickets might well come in a rush. England's body language in the morning session was ordinary, between lunch and tea, it changed completely.

In the morning England, having lost the toss, struck early when Imrul Kayes played an expansive cut of Woakes in the third over and Duckett took the catch at point. There followed a partnership of high quality between Tamim Iqbal and Mominul Haque . The score was 171-1 in the 42nd over when Tamim, who had just reached a fine hundred, padded up to Moeen Ali and was out lbw. Mominul followed for 66 four overs later (190-3) and England had a chance with new batsmen at both ends. It was a chance they took so successfully that the remaining batsmen added just 30 runs and the hosts were all out for 220 having lost their last nine wickets for 49 in 22.5 overs. Ali took 5-57 and Stokes 2-13 in 11 miserly overs. Stokes conceded just one boundary. Ansari had an unimpressive first bowl in Test cricket and there was little of note from Finn or Rashid either - though Woakes bowled well for his 3-30. Bangladesh's collapse should not be allowed to take away from how well Tamim and Mominul batted. They scored 22 of Bangladesh's 26 boundaries between them.

Heavy rain was to stop play before the scheduled close but there was time enough for England to lose their customary three wickets (all to failed defensive shots) for not very many (42 in fact). Bangladesh gave the new ball to spin twins Mehedi and Shakib who removed Duckett after just five balls, Cook, who faced twelve and Ballance who lived for 17 before edging Mehedi behind with his feet stuck firmly in the crease. Before the rain came Root and Moeen survived - but once again it will be a rearguard action if England are even to reach parity with Bangladesh's modest first innings total.

In the Press Conference Moeen Ali expressed pleasure at bowling Bangladesh out so cheaply after they had been 171-1 and whilst happy with his five wickets said modestly that he wants to bowl more maidens and be more consistent and that he is still "nowhere near where he wants to be as a spinner". He was full of praise for Tamim who "hits the ball everywhere" but felt that England "...didn't bowl too well in the first session". Stokes bowled tightly with "good control and pace". The match overnight is "50/50".

Test cricket has days like these - perhaps more of them in the past few years than before. It was entertaining and surprising in equal measure. I think that one or two good innings will win this match. It may be that we have already seen them from Tamim and Mominul. Or maybe tomorrow Root, or Moeen or Bairstow will turn the match in England's favour. As at Chittagong it's intriguing stuff.

Second Day report
One of the oddities of the First Test Match between Bangladesh and England in Chittagong was that all four completed innings were in the 200s. The Second Test in Dhaka could well be following the same pattern. The first day brought 270 runs and 13 wickets and the second very entertaining day 346 for 8. England were indebted to an excellent partnership of 99 between Woakes and Rashid which gave them a slender first innings lead of 22 and then Imrul Kayes and Mahmadullah put on 86 before the latter was dismissed playing a very unwise and ill-executed sweep to what became the last ball of the day. The importance of partnerships to the batting side cannot be overstated – and the fillip that comes to the bowling side when they are broken is equally evident. Chris Woakes said that picking up a wicket in the final over was crucial and that it “Gives a bit of momentum going into tomorrow”.

The Kayes/Mahmadullah third wicket partnership had taken only 107 balls – a run rate of nearly five an over. They attacked from the start and this does seem to be the Bangladesh way. It is as calculated as it is effective. Two wickets down with a lead of only 44 was perilous. To end having extended that lead to 130 is much more promising for the home side.

England had had only one partnership over 30 before Woakes and Adil Rashid came together for the 9th wicket. The benefit of having ten or eleven players all of whom can bat was never more evident. If Woakes is a number 9 he must be one of the best ever! He said that if they had gone into the third innings 80-100 runs behind then “…the game’s almost out of our hands”. Instead to begin bowling with a lead was a big fillip for the team.

The issue of “reverse swing” was again in the forefront in the post match debates. Woakes felt that the ball did not reverse as much today as it had on the first day but he said that “hopefully tomorrow we can get working on the ball and get it reversing again”. “The game”, he said, is “in the balance”.
If England can dismiss Bangladesh for the addition of, say, 100 runs then a target of 230 in the fourth innings will be tough on a turning pitch, but gettable. Much over that and the pendulum would have swung very much in the home side’s favour

Bangladesh has won just seven of their 95 Test matches – five against Zimbabwe and two in 2009 against a very poor West Indies side. To beat England would confirm the progress they have recently made. The first session tomorrow is the key.

Third Day report

After 23 Overs of their Second Innings, at the tea interval, England openers had put on 100 runs together chasing 273 to win. Duckett was playing a One Day type innings, 56 off 63 balls, whilst Cook was a tad more circumspect with 39 off 75. Bangladesh had gone on the defensive around the 16th Over with only two close fielders. England had adopted the aggressive tactics which worked for Bangladesh in their second innings - the hosts had been 113/2 at the same point. (They went on to reach 296 at a run rate of 4.42 an over with Tamim top scoring with 78).

The chat at tea was that "all" England needed to do was press on. There seemed nothing particularly threatening in the pitch and the Bangladeshi heads had been a bit down before the interval. Then this:


That's 64/10 in 135 balls. Let's kill the canard that the pitch was to blame. It was the same pitch that England had just prospered on for 138 balls and Bangladesh earlier. It was entirely a matter of confidence. As the wickets began to fall in the final session Bangladesh's bowlers grew in confidence and England's batsmen collapsed and lost it. Root was clearly out-of-sorts but for Ballance there could be no excuse - a horrible shot to a long hop from Mehedi. Once Cook had gone for 59 in the 34th over there was no further resistance to a bowling attack that was transformed from the first afternoon session.

So a five day Test match finishes in three days - not for the first time in recent times for England away. Another interesting Stat is that in England's last ten series home and away their record in the final Test of the series has been Played 10; Won 1; Drawn 1; Lost 8. Whatever the reason for this oddity if you claim to be a top side you need to keep your foot down even if a series has been won, and especially if, as here in Bangladesh, it is in the balance.

The general view among the "experts" around is that England will be slaughtered in India because they can't play spin. I disagree I think they can play spin - here Root, Woakes, Rashid, Cook and Duckett all played decent innings and at Chittagong Root, Ali, Bairstow, Woakes and Stokes had done the same. If they go out thinking they will fail then they will fail - as we saw in sharp relief today. But if they think that can play - which we saw at times in both matches they can - then they probably will.

My own rather curtailed cricket experience in Bangladesh has been a delight - the people have been wonderfully welcoming and it was been intriguing.

আচ্ছা বাংলাদেশ সম্পন্ন !

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Why Tebbit's "Cricket Test" was nonsense

The only time I found myself in agreement  with Norman Tebbit, that most reactionary of Thatcherites, was when he coined the idea of the "Cricket test". The principle that if you were a British citizen, irrespective of your own or your family's cultural heritage, you should support British teams. If England played India you should support England even if you or your parents were born in Madras. After all Nasser Hussein was born in Madras and he captained England. Obvious innit? Except that it isn't.

Let's say you were born in Southall or Bradford and grew up in a British Asian community. You are British and proud to be so but when you are, say, ten years old you take an interest in cricket. Who is to be your role model? Your world is Asian. That is your culture. Yes your school reflects the diversity of Britain - White, Brown, Black, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh... But in your home it is  (say) the Sikh values of your parents (and theirs) that predominates. Just as in the home of a ten-year old in Woking where there is a dominant White, Anglo-Saxon, Middle Class culture so it is with your home. A distinctive culture and differentiating set of values. Not better or worse than if you'd been a white boy in Woking - but different. 

So back to the role model choice. Here's the offer. On the one hand Alastair Cook. Unlike anyone you've ever met. White, middle-class, independent school, choirboy. On the other hand there's Virat Kholi. Brown, Sikh, Indian (like you are - or at least you're made to feel). His culture and yours are really very similar. To have him as your role model is logical. And the extension to the support of the Indian Cricket team is a very small step indeed. You are not being anti English - when the England football team plays in the World Cup you'll support them and you'll cheer on GB in the Olympic Games. It's just that for cricket you relate more to Kohli than Cook and to India than England. 

When Moeen Ali reached a good half century at Edgbaston last Wednesday I noticed that both the England and the Pakistan supporters rose to applaud him. This was not just good manners! The Pakistan contingent were acknowledging one of their own (Ali who was born close to Edgbaston, is of course of Pakistani heritage). Let's be clear about this. Those supporting Pakistan in the ground were overwhelmingly British citizens and most, like Ali, were born in the UK. Their choice is a cultural one - they identify more with (say) Misbah-Al-Haq than they do with Joe Root. And the genuine support for Moeen Ali further demonstrates that culture is stronger than nationality.

Among our freedoms is that to support whatever sports team we like. There are good reasons for British Asians to support India or Pakistan if they want to. And there are good reasons for them instead to cheer for the country of their birth and nationality (Britain) if that is what they prefer. Norman Tebbit insulted them by saying that they should all do the latter to prove they were British. And I regret having agreed with him!

Friday, May 20, 2016

"Follow the money" if you want to know where cricket is going

American sport and, a bit more recently, Football in Britain, is big business. The Premier League has shown that, as in the US, Business and Sport can successfully mix. But both at a global and national level cricket for a long time eschewed being primarily driven by money and measured by commercial success. No more ! If you want to understand where cricket is going then follow the money.

The success of the Indian Premier League has been the model for most other cricket playing countries and, as England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) chairman Colin Graves says today, England's T20 offer is "mediocre" by comparison. We should have the best domestic T20 contest of them all. Played in the summer months on long light days at a time of the year when little cricket is played elsewhere in the world it should be a winner attracting the biggest stars. The commercial potential is enormous. So why not? In one word - the counties.

Our county-based domestic system was designed in a different age. Cricket was substantially amateur and cricket administrators totally so. A private member's club, the M.C.C. ran the show. The game only had a two innings (three or four day) format. It made little money and the professionals received little. The "Love of the Game" meme was the dominant one. The number of First Class county teams rose over the years until by the time of Durham's ennoblement in 1992 it reached 18. And when the ECB dreamed up Twenty20 for the 2003 season it was unthinkable then that it would be anything but a county competition with 18 participants. But times have changed !

The reality is not just that an 18 team competition makes no sense for T20 in today's cricket world but that a fully professional 18 club structure is unaffordable as well. It is no coincidence that watching international cricket in England is by far the most expensive in the world. Tickets at the ground reach over £100 a day for the top matches at the most popular venues. And if you want to see international matches on television you'll need a Sky subscription at over £600 per year! All this in part to help keep 18 counties afloat - the money you pay to watch international cricket flows in substantial part to the counties most of which would be bankrupt without it.

The need for modernisation in English domestic cricket is clear. An eight-team City-based T20 competition played in high summer with no other professional cricket being played at the same time is the start point. I would create new franchises on the IPL model but that is not the only option. I would also consider non-traditional venues such as the Olympic Stadium or Wembley along with the obvious candidates - the current international venues such as Edgbaston and The Oval. There is no need for the Franchises to be based on the current counties but in order to get them to agree ( County chairmen control the ECB) that concession might be necessary.

The two-innings game is fading. Outside of England and Australia even Test matches are attracting few spectators and declining media interest. Follow the money again. If nobody watches the domestic two-innings game and if Test cricket is struggling against the competition of T20 there will be only one winner. The recent International T20 contest was a big success and the triumph of the West Indies a joy to watch. It was top class sport and there will be no holding it back. Expect it to become an annual event. 

This is the context in which decisions about cricket in England have to be made. There is great nostalgia about the County system but for T20 it simply doesn't deliver. And for two-innings cricket the cost/benefit analysis is completely negative. To have more professionals playing the four-day game in England than in the rest of the cricket world put together makes little sense! It doesn't even deliver consistent success in Test cricket and few in our Test squads play it at all! 

The model for County cricket might be to have a much reduced competition with fewer teams at a much reduced annual cost. This could be a pyramid with many  of the counties reverting to being predominantly amateur (like the current "Minor" counties) and with an elite group of no more than ten being fully professional clubs. The elite group might use the same venues as the T20 franchisees and, indeed, be the same businesses. Warwickshire might have an elite county team and a T20 franchise - the Birmingham Bears. (They county has already anticipated this in their current branding actually !).

Colin Graves is not the first ECB Chairman to find change difficult. His predecessor did not attempt to change the county system but focused, with some success, on the England teams. He was re-elected by the Counties because he looked after them. For Graves that is not an option. He must create a fit-for-purpose commercially-viable T20 competition legally disconnected from the old county system (though with some appropriate links to it). There must be no fudge. Once this is established he can then turn his attention to the two-innings game. But he must not allow cricket's affection for the traditional 18 County-based format of the latter to skew his judgment. As a Yorkshireman he shouldn't worry about the need to "follow the money" !

Monday, January 18, 2016

Saturday, January 09, 2016

English cricket needs to get its act together on T20 - or someone mightdo it for them !

Is T20 the monster that is devouring all other cricket in its path? The success of the IPL and the BBL and other city franchise based annual tournaments around the world suggests that it is. And when English cricket launches a similiar eight franchise tournament (as it inevitably will) in the English summer the process will be unstoppable. From April through September there is little cricket played in the world other than in the British Isles. A tournament involving, say,  six big city teams plus Ireland and Scotland would have the potential to be the best of all attracting all the top players from around the  world and of becoming the new heart of the English sporting summer. The BBL lasts just over four weeks. A similiar duration British tournament in, say, late July early August would boost cricket and provide spectacular entertainment. The matches of the BBL are sell-outs - a British equivalent would do the same. What's not to like ?

Well the problems are twofold. Firstly we play lots of Test Matches in the English summer. Seven this year . To accommodate a four week T20 event this would have to be reduced to four or five. Second there are the counties. The present 18 team (!) TwentyTwenty tournament in England is for the Counties. It has its moments of excitement but it is a poor old thing compared with the BBL and its like. We may have invented T20 in England but others have taken it and created models that work. In all cases these nations started again instead of trying to graft T20 onto their existing domestic cricket structure - structures  which were based on the very different three or four day two innings State or Regional model. England will have to do the same. And if that means fewer Test Matches and no county cricket for a month in the summer then so be it.

If a proper franchise based T20 system in Britain makes sense - but the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) still won't do it - maybe there's a media mogul out there who will? Remember how the rebel Kerry Packer dragged International cricket kicking and screaming into the Twentieth century? And the IPL (official) only happened to forestall the Indian Cricket League (unofficial) who were the innovators. It would be quite possible for a Rupert Murdoch to do the same for English T20. As with World Series Cricket the matches might be played in some non-traditional venues but it could be done. Far better that the ECB gets its act together than that a commercially driven rebel calls the tune. But they need to get a move on !