Thursday, 6 September 2018

England's number one spinner is...?

The fortunes of the two leading candidates for the title of England's best spinner could have hardly have shifted more techtonically over the past week. One now stands proud on terra firma, 9 for 134 in the bag, a beard once again to be feared. The other appears to be cast adrift like a polar bear on a shrinking iceberg, also unshorn but forlorn.

So it's Moeen then, yep? Hmm, short article this one.

Well, except, no. It's absolutely not as simple as that. This is Test cricket, so it's complex and there are multiple variables.

Firstly let's look at the statistics. Now they're not definitive, even Ed Smith doesn't think that, but they can inform and in Moeen's case they enlighten.

Firstly they show a bowler far more successful on the pitches of England than abroad. At home he has take 91 wickets @ 31 with a strike rate of 50. Abroad, encompassing the varied conditions of the sub-continent (including UAE), Australia and South Africa, and of New Zealand, he has 51 wickets at 52 with a strike rate just shy of 100.

Speaking immediately after the last game, Nasser Hussain in response to this article's burning question, came out in favour of Moeen but with one proviso "number one in England".

So that's caveat number one. But pardon me Nas, I think there's even more to it than that.

Secondly, and not unusually for a spinner, Moeen's figures are superior in his opponent's second innings and far superior in the fourth innings of the match. What is striking is the discrepancy. From first innings to last his average drops from 56 to 50, 35 to 21.51. The latter figure is impressive, the former disquieting.

His economy rate is also informative. A rate of 3.77 and 3.2 in the the third and fourth innings of the match are not low but also not terribly significant. Those innings are about taking wickets, and as we have seen above Moeen does that pretty well. More instructive are his figures for the first two innings where he averages 3.98 and 3.5 respectively. Herein lies the weakest part of Moeen's game, he simply has not shown the control, or as yet the guile, to be effective on hard, true, flat wickets. And by effective, I mean offering his captain control.

We saw this most notably in Australia in the winter, but that was not an isolated incident. Batsmen bat differently in the first innings of the game, there is less or at least different pressure, it is psychologically easier to take on a spinner and hit him out of the attack when you don't have the established match situation to consider. When the attack has come, Moeen has rarely been able to respond. As a result, he has been consistently unable to perform the job that Graeme Swann did for a number of years - bowl tightly, pick up important wickets but most importantly tie up one end and allowing the captain to rotate seamers from the other. With Moeen in the side, the quicker bowlers must be pick up his slack. Of course to be fair we should note that Graeme Swann bowled as part of a four man attack rather than the five that Moeen would operate in today, and thus there is less slack to pick up but nevertheless Moeen's role and effectiveness is more limited. 

So that's candidate No.1 Moeen Ali - a leading candidate on spinning pitches in England. Evidence of ability to get good players out, and a potential match winner on fourth/fifth day pitches.

Speaking of limited roles, Adil Rashid. Brought back into the side on the basis of one-day performances (to be now known as Buttlering) he has at times, cast a lonely figure shuttling from fine leg to fine leg (Trotting), forever on the periphery of the action. But to judge his value, we must first understand the context of his selection. Rashid was picked as part of a five not a four man attack, he was not being asked, nor expected to bowl many first innings overs, nor to keep things tight when he did bowl. What he was expected to do was to take wickets, not necessarily a hatful, but important wickets at important times, and to turn the ball on pitches where a finger spinner would not.

If his current role appears at times to be nothing more than that of a high-class partnership breaker then that is not his fault. That, along with rolling over the tail, was essentially what he was picked to be. And, judged by this criteria, he has enjoyed some success. Summoned by Joe Root to remove the stubborn Ishant Sharma at a critical and tense moment at Edgbaston, Rashid did so expertly. On a Trent Bridge pitch offering little turn to the conventional spinner, and with the world's best batsman approaching a hundred, Root turned to Rashid. Kohli was soon on his way. This may be cherry picking, but Rashid's selection is a very particular one, unlike Mooen he can't so easily be judged by strike rates or averages. He must instead be judged by how well he performs the role he is asked to take on.

A last point on Rashid. He may have been picked to perform a very specific task in English conditions, but we only have to go back two winters for evidence of his ability to handle a far more complete role. In India he comprehensively outbowled Moeen Ali, taking 23 wickets at 37 compared to Moeen's 10 at 64. And the figures don't tell the whole story. Rashid began that series uncertainly but by the end cut a far more assured figure, one who at last seemed to believe he belonged in the Test arena. Poor and naive selection last winter denied him the opportunity to build on that success and surely was a decisive factor in his decision, however misguided, to focus solely on white ball cricket this year. Nevertheless, if Moeen is the number one in England, should Rashid not have a similar claim on the sub-continent at least? 

So that's candidate number 2, Adil Rashid - a limited value selection in England but will turn the ball on anything. He has the outstanding record of all the candidates on sub-continental pitches.

Lastly there is, Jack Leach, the unproven classicist. It is possible that had Leach not fractured a thumb in early May, both ruling himself out of the Pakistan series and leaving him short of bowling prior to this current Indian series, this entire spinning debate could been rendered mute. Prior to that injury, Leach was a shoo-in for the spinner's spot for the Pakistan series, his place taken by Dom Bess who performed admirably, particularly with the bat, but who does not yet merit close consideration here. Leach was the man in possession. A competent if unspectacular performance in his debut in New Zealand gave rise to hope that here, finally, was a bowler capable of filling Swann's shoes. One can only tell so much from the performance in one game but an economy rate of 2.21 is significantly lower than what Moeen or Rashid can generally achieve. A rate of 2.66 in all first class also points to Leach as bowler who can offer a captain control.

But Leach is unproven. Can he prove to be to Joe Root what Swann was to Strauss and Cook, a provider of first innings control with wicket-taking potential and a second innings threat?  The promise is there, but the evidence is not.

So that's candidate number 3, Jack Leach - unproven but promising. Has shown control and wicket taking ability at county level, did nothing to disprove this reputation on his Test debut. 

So there we have it, three candidates each with different strengths and weaknesses. One a proven match winner at Test level; one with special skills and good record in the sub-continent; another, perhaps the most complete, but as yet untested.

My conclusion is, unsurprisingly, that there is no clear winner. Moeen currently holds the upper hand but pitch conditions should still be an important consideration. In the short term I foresee more horses for courses selecting from Ed Smith both on this particular issue and generally. On flat pitches in England, logic might dictate Leach or Rashid as the best option. On turning pitches perhaps Moeen and Leach. Abroad, Rashid deserves greater consideration and in the sub-continent with Moeen likely to bat in the top 6 there is the option to play all three. A lot will depend on Leach's development, if he can prove himself to be that multifaceted Swann-like spinner then it will benefit the team and I think Moeen but not Rashid. The productivity of Moeen Ali's batting will also play a part. If he can justify selection on the basis of that particular string of his bow, then the decision making changes again. Once again Rashid, in England, would be the most likely casualty.

Oh and one finally thought on all this? My wasn't Graeme Swann a good bowler!

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Alastair Cook - a tangible great and an intangible loss

Had Alastair Cook retired five years ago the loss to England would have been very different than it is today. It would still have been very significant, but it would have been more tangible.

Back then he was at the centre of everything - scoring runs, taking catches and providing dependable if not hugely imaginative leadership. There was Trott and Bell and Pietersen and Prior and Swann and Anderson and Broad, it was a fine side with a solid back bone of experience, but it was on Cook's axis that the team revolved. Remember India in 2012? KP's brilliant hundred in Mumbai, maybe his best, maybe one of THE best, and Swann and Panesar outbowling the Indians in their own backyard. Well that epic series victory was founded firmly and squarely on three outstanding if not instantly memorable captain's centuries. The first, in the face of almost certain defeat, was a defiant statement not only that his team still had the fight for the contest but they had the skill to win it. How quickly we can forgot. We really should not.

We also forget how great players force opponents to modify their strategies and tactics. For years Cook feasted on bowlers who could land the ball in the right spot five balls an over, but who would then either drop one a little wide and get scythed to the point boundary or, frustrated by the batsman's judgement outside off stump, would be drawn into delivering something a little straighter, only to see the ball clipped with minimal effort but maximum efficiency to the mid-wicket fence. Cook may only possess three shots (or four if you count the leave) but when he played them as well as he did (particularly the fourth) it seemed more than enough.

But faced with this conundrum bowlers have smartened up. They have embraced Cook's mantra and like an Aikido grandmaster are now using his great strength against him. On his second Ashes tour in 2010-11, the Aussies fed him a veritable feast of short and wide stuff on which he gorged handsomely and in record fashion. Since then he has found it tougher, as more disciplined bowlers probe relentlessly on a full length outside off stump. Patience was always Cook's game but now there are two players playing and the bowler holds most of the cards.

In response Cook's game has not unravelled but he has been unable to find a consistent answer to these new questions. On helpful surfaces and particularly against right arm bowlers such as Ishant Sharma and Morne Morkel who move the ball away from around the wicket he has looked a little lost. Whether it is, as Graham Gooch suggests, that the appetite to improve has finally left him (and frankly after 160 matches who can blame him) or that he has the lost the hope that he can improve, only he knows. Whichever it is, he has earnt the right to keep that truth to himself.

And what of the team, of English cricket, in the post-Cook era. Sad to say the runs and catches of recent times will be all too easily replaced but what of those intangibles, the things we, the public, are too far away to clearly see and that they, the players, are too close to fully appreciate: the experience, the calmness, the stubbornness, the dedication, the stamina and the will to succeed over and over again.

They say we never know what we have until it's gone. But in Alastair Cook's case it seems like we really do know and that it is an awful lot. Really how much more could there be? I guess we are about to find out.

Friday, 1 December 2017

England benefit from 'mental integration' but Root's runs remain the key

There are 10 wicket defeats and 10 wicket defeats. They can be chastening, demoralising and even humiliating. England's defeat in Brisbane was not of that order. Disappointing yes, concerning sure, but not more than that, not really.

There is no comparison with the defeat at the Gabba four years ago. Then, they were shaken by the Australian agression, this time they appear merely stirred. Four years ago they were accused of being 'weak' this time focus is on their supposed agression. In Australia this probably counts as progress. England won't care too much. They have done the right thing: in public they have responded cautiously but firmly; in private they appear to have stiffened their resolve and re-whetted their appetite for the battles ahead. A sort of 'mental integration' if you like.

A further silver lining is that the squad has faced fewer cricketing questions than it might have expected following a heavy Ashes defeat. The form of Alisdair Cook has largely escaped comment, the fitness of Mooen Ali likewise (and the wisdom of the initial squad selection). There is also legitimate cause for concern regarding the change bowling. And then there is the biggest issue and the biggest difference between the sides: the runs being produced by their best players and respective captains.

Joe Root's batting is symptomatic of his team: attractive and free flowing but ultimately short of runs. Only twice in eight Tests this year have they passed 400, both times Root made hundreds and both resulted in wins. A first innings total in excess of 400 may not be necessary to win Test matches in England but it makes it a lot easier. In Australia it is almost essential. The template is there, England's three wins in 2010-11 all had their foundations in opening totals in excess of 500.

Cook made 700 runs in that series and is here again, but he is not the player he was then. It is now Root's responsibilty, both as captain and leading player to play Cook's role. It is not as an inventive, imaginative captain that he will win this series but as a world class batsman. He must be the focal point, as Steve Smith has become for Australia, and allow the lesser players (be it in ability or experience) to play around him. Cook can probably be relied on come good at some stage, Jonny Bairstow too, but anything less than 500 runs and at least two centuries from its captain and this English side simply do not stand a chance. 

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Stoneman must accelerate where Carberry stalled

For England cricketers there is nothing tougher. Playing and travelling on the subcontinent may still have its moments, but for intensity and hostility nothing beats an Ashes tour. If anything it has got harder. Gone are the leisurely trips up country ostensibly to  'spread the game' but really to escape, to spend some time in quiet reflection, consolidation or recuperation away from direct spotlight. Now those games have gone and the spotlight is everywhere; social media points its searchlights into every nook and cranny of their lives.

But these are professionals. They don't do difficulties, only challenges; if they see a wall or a barrier its merely an invitation to jump over it or run through it. It is why they do what they do and why the best of them thrive under such conditions. It's all about character you see.

Given all this, one might imagine that any personal success, even only relative success, on an Ashes tour would stand a fellow in good stead, for his future career and all that. A casual observer might think that, so might a so-called expert. But sometimes it doesn't quite work out like that. Just ask Michael Carberry.

On the 2013-14 tour, Carberry scored 281 runs in 10 innings. As raw statistics they are not going to impress anyone and certainly not our casual observer. But context is everything, or at least it should be. If he was not a shining light, or a beacon of hope, Carberry was at least a token symbol of resistance on that miserable expedition. He fought hard at Brisbane and was still fighting at Sydney. Had other shown the same resolve, well it would probably still have been 5-0 actually, but you get my point..

It wasn't just Carberry's mental strength. He left the ball better than any of his colleagues, better than Cook, Root or Bell. In doing so he faced more balls than any other English batsman. No one spent more time on the front line. It is true that he did get tied down from time to time, and would have been deeply disappointed not to have cashed in on a number of good starts but he was hardly alone in that. Not once did he look out of his depth, not once did he look overawed in the face of the unrelenting onslaught. We shouldn't forget, not only were Johnson and Harris fast, agressive and nasty they were startling accurate too, especially Johnson. If you got through them Siddle, Lyon and Watson were parsimonious in the extreme. There was no respite.

And what was his reward for a winter dodging 90mph bullets? Well firstly he was dropped from the  squad for the 50 over and T20 series to follow. A decision which must have been hard to take given his 63 had secured England's only win in the home series four months earlier. But it got far worse. When the selectors convened to pick the Test side for the following summer, Carberry was nowhere to be seen. They had seen what he could do and decided to move on.

It was cruel certainly but more than that it just seemed damned unfair. Not perhaps in the Larwoodian echelons of selectorial betrayals but not entirely removed from it either. Were the selectors right? For once the raw statistics don't lie. Alastair Cook's latest opening partner Mark Stoneman is his nineth since Carberry. In four years.

Stoneman may actually be the most promising prospect since Carberry to partner Cook. Like Carberry he has courage and skill, hopefully he has more luck.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Forget batsmen and bowlers, England must find their best eleven

Edgbaston was a game and a finish that satisifed only the most partisan and the most short sighted.  England were ruthless (which is to their credit as they have not always been so) but the West Indies were so utterly toothless that any satisfaction was blinkingly ephemeral.

 Over the past thirty years there has been no sadder sight than the seemingly endless decline of Caribbean cricket. This was another sorry chapter. Just when you think they have reached rock bottom someone comes along with a shovel and proves otherwise. The announcement of their rebranding - no longer West Indies, simply Windies (or is it WIndies?)  - seemed as desperate as it was apt. Where there was fight there is now only flight; where once there was great substance there now seems only hot air.

 While no doubt sympathetic to the West Indian plight (Windian??) one small group who will been equally exasperated by the Birmingham stroll are the England selectors. With only this short three match series before they must pick an Ashes squad and with at least three batting places to fill they must have been desperately hoping that this First Test would bring some clarity and insight. Unfortunately as an academy of learning Edgbaston was more Do-The-Boys' Hall than Warwick University.

 As a result (and how England batsmen from the 1980's would laugh or cry at this) the failure of Mark Stoneman, Tom Westley and Dawid Malan, to prove themselves, has cemented their places for these final two Tests. Simply more data is needed. Each now has a golden opportunity at Headingley tomorrow to secure their positions for the winter (for a Test hundred is always a Test hundred) and yet each in their own way has as much to prove.

 Of Mark Stoneman, nothing can yet be judged, having received a ball of which even Malcolm Marshall would have been proud. Stoneman by name, he at least looked light and nimble in comparison to the statuesque Keeton Jennings.

 Tom Westley is an altogether more difficult nut to crack. He falls into the category of a number of recent players that have "looked the part" without ever convincingly playing it. Stylistically there is something of John Crawley, although a little less elegant in my view and certainly not in the same class in the playing of spin. Westley's tendency to hit balls on a fourth stump line through mid-on has already led to his downfall on several occasions and this, along with a tendency to play loosely at wider length balls (in the manner of James Vince) will  have been noted Down Under. As Mike Atherton has pointed out, with the Australian sure to target him in this area, he will need to employ the cut shot effectively.

 Meanwhile Dawid Malan's 68 merely takes him past Go and with it the right to receive two more Test caps. You can give him credit for surviving the second new ball as it swung compliantly under the lights but a closer examination would show that he only actually faced 21 balls from pace bowlers under these most testing conditions. So only a small credit and one quickly cancelled out by his failure to cash in fully the following day. Malan, unlike Westley, is at least on upward curve as Headlingley approaches.

 There is however, a very strong possibility that these issues will not be resolved in the next two games. Perhaps one of the three will make an unanswerable case, but any more than that is surely wishful thinking. On this basis the selectors' should already be working on Plan B. Only in my view Plan B should really be Plan A; and Plan A means picking your best eleven players. Carrying one player into an Ashes series is unwise, more than that is suicidal.

 In an ideal world this would mean choosing the five best batsman followed by Stokes, Bairstow and Ali and three other bowlers.But in England's case the aformentioned Stokes, Bairstow and arguably Ali are also amongst those five best batsmen. On the hard, bouncy Australian wickets Stokes is in the top three with Bairstow close behind. The fact that we don't have five other international class batsman need not be a weakness, picking substandard ones would be.

 Continuing the best XI principle and the option of Chris Woakes, who made his England debut at number 6, would strengthen this middle order yet further. Do the selectors believe that Dawid Malan is likely to make substantially more runs than Chris Woakes? Enough to offset Woakes' all-round value? If they do then he should play. I have my doubts though. If they decide otherwise the selection suddenly becomes a little simpler. And simpler becomes almost straightforward if Mark Stoneman were to nail down the opening position and prove a reliable partner to Alistair Cook because  this would surely encourage Joe Root to return to his best position of number 3.

 Ian Chappell argues that it is the best place to bat because you can establish the pattern of play. In his view it is best suited to a skilled stroke maker capable of launching a counter attack, rather than "the technically sound player who fights his way out of trouble after an early loss".  But there is a caveat - a player must be mentally prepared to face the second ball of the innings "otherwise number 3 isn't for you". Root has all these attributes, however there is a big difference between being mentally prepared to face the newest ball and it being a matter of course. Nevertheless with Root back at 3, Stokes at 5 and Woakes at 8, suddenly it is a side with few weak links and many strong ones. Westley and Malan or even Ballance (for balance) would now be fighting it out for one spot instead of two.

 There also remains one bowling spot left alongside Broad, Anderson, Stokes, Woakes and Ali in what would be a six man attack. It is often said that six is too many, if they duplicate yes, but not if they complement. In Mark Wood, Mason Crane (or why not still Adil Rashid?) they have the option to include someone who can do something a bit different.

 One issue that still needs clarifying is Moeen Ali's role. The first or second spinner question is misleading. His all-round ability means that he will always play, therefore he is by definition the first spinner. Where Ali falls short, and the selectors were not wrong to highlight this, is when the pitch starts out flat. If there is help for the seamers, his first innings workload should be light, and if it turns from the start then he has the attributes to threaten all but the very finest players of spin. But if there is nothing much doing (as will often be the case in Australia after twenty overs with the Kookaburra ball) he lacks the control to to tie down an end, as Graeme Swann was often able to do.

  At Lord's against South Africa the selectors strayed from the 'best XI' principle in picking Liam Dawson, succumbing in my view to the overly normative assumption that the containing role must fall to a slow bowler. In a five man attack maybe but with six, it need not be the case. Chris Woakes (not fit for the Lord's game to be fair to the selectors) would be equally capable. Fitness permitting, he should be be back in the team this week, bringing England in the process another step closer to that best XI.

 Overall, there is much to play for over these last two Tests, both for individuals and for the English team. For the West Indies it is all about pride.    

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

A Last English Summer by Duncan Hamilton (Book Review)

In cricket, seemingly nothing ever stays the same. The times are always a changin' and seldom, so goes the prevailing view, is it for the better. From the Golden Age to Bodyline to Packer, from run rates to over rates to the Old Lie itself - the 'spirit of the game', cricket has been forever heading on a one way journey straight to hell.

Duncan Hamilton's particular snapshot in time is the 2009 English season. Unashamedly invoking the spirit of J.B. Priestley's English Journey and the style and substance of Geoffrey Moorhouse's The Best Loved Game (chosen, incidentally, by Michael Atherton as his favourite cricket book), he guides us on what feels like a valedictory tour around England (and Wales), from Lord's to Ramsbottom, from Headingley to Hambledon, from Cardiff to Canterbury.

Hamilton is an unapologetic traditionalist, taught to love the game by his grandfather over leisurely summers days at Trent Bridge in the late 1960's.  To Cardus, Nottingham was a 'lotus land' where the score was always 360 for 2. It is no less special to Hamilton whose prose may be a slightly darker shade of violet and more resistant to hyperbole but who is a no less eloquent, honest or heart-felt observer. Whilst his recurring themes may claw with some readers, they merely resonated with this one.

At Trent Bridge, he eavesdrops on a debate over the number of overs bowled in the previous season by the somewhat injury prone Ryan Sidebottom.  On cue, a Playfair Annual, still the essential companion for any self respecting country cricket watcher, is produced. The issue is resolved but self-righteousness and disbelief pervade. It is a scene so familiar as to be almost cliche. At Old Trafford in the late 80's the "three bores", as we came to refer them, frequently (and with disturbing precision for a 25,000 seater ground)  installed themselves and their reference libraries directly behind my father and me in the Ladies' Stand driving us to seat-shuffling distraction with their curmudgeonly chit chat whilst simultaneously enveloping us in cigar smoke. Looking back now with older, hopefully wiser eyes, I wonder whether they too were not simply in mourning for their own halycon days when Brian Statham bowled unchanged from the Stretford End and the opposition were always 36 for 4. Even now it only takes one whiff of a cigar to transport me back to those carefree, oh so innocent times.

The author's major gripe, unsurprisingly, is with the rise and rise of T20. His argument, and it is a strong one, Is that T20 is simply an inferior game, not simply a pared down version of the first class one but one stripped of the qualities that make cricket great.

He takes particular issue with its brashness and superficiality in general and the IPL in particular with its music, gimmicks and incessant, screeching commentary. There is an element of chicken and egg in all this though. Is T20 a mere reflection of today's Snapchat society or have we as a society been simply reprogrammed by modern media to accept that instantaneous, unthinking gratification is the reward most worth seeking?

Despite his disquiet Hamilton never descends into mean-spiritedness, a trap into which other 'traditionalists' like Michael Henderson frequently fall. He writes with sadness rather than bitterness on the changing shape of the English summer and the future of the first class game. However, as he rightly points out much the same arguments were being made when the 40 over Players' League started up in the late 60's. It was supposed to be the beginning of the end but instead it improved standards particularly in fielding and raised the incomes of struggling counties. Sounds familiar? Lessons from history need not always be warnings.

Sometimes though, lessons are simply just not learnt. In mid-May, the author visits Durham as England face the West Indies. For financial reasons the Test series has been crammed into a fixture list bloated by the World T20 Cup which will begin in early June. Unsurprisingly the crowd is pitiful, the lowest in recent memory. Prior to the game, the then West Indies captain Chris Gayle comments that he "wouldn't be so sad" if Test cricket died. The two events sit in uncomfortable juxtaposition.  The author ponders how such scheduling could have come about.

Far worse, however, has been the failure to learn from such mistakes. Another poorly conceived and even more poorly attended Test match in May 2016 exacerbated Durham's already dire financial situation. Cruelly, the 2013 champions started the 2017 season consigned to the second division, punished for their financial failings with relegation and a 40 point penalty.

There are also sobering reminders of tragedy's shadowy presence over cricketing life.  At Worcester, Phillip Hughes, battles with form and footwork on his first Ashes tour whilst at Colwyn Bay, Tom Maynard, cocksuredly predicts and delivers a spectacular hundred. Both exceptional talents, both now gone. Meanwhile at Scarborough, James Taylor plays a stylish cameo for England Under 19s, blissfully and perhaps thankfully unaware of the congenital heart problem that will end a promising international career seven years later.

Hamilton has rightly avoided disrupting the natural flow of the text with too many statistics and instead the book ends with an annexe of approximately 60 pages encompassing almost every conceivable fact and figure along with pen portraits which follow up on the fortunes of the book's  key protagonists. It's questionable whether such detail adds much to the work as a whole and indeed when contrasted with the mellowness of the previous pages this chunk of raw data feels particularly rough, like being awoken from soothing dream by a hotel fire alarm.

I first read this book back in 2010, it was good then but time has given it an extra dimension. Beautifully written and sympathetically observed, it stands and will continue to stand as an historical piece, just as Moorhouse's did for 1978, proving once again just how quickly things can change and yet how much they stay the same. As Cardus once mused " the golden age is always well behind us; we catch sight of it with young eyes when we see what we want to. ."

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Timing's right for Bell's return

Ahmedabad, November 2012. Kevin Pietersen lurches forward to the left arm spin of Pragyan Ojha, bat and pad divorced and estranged. He's beaten in the flight and his hands grope for the ball like a drunkard searching for a candle in a blackout. But it's to no avail - the ball beats the outside edge and he's comprehensively bowled.

His dismissal leaves England in real trouble, tottering at 69 for 4 in reply to India's 521. Alistair Cook is still there but the next partnership will be crucial, it may even decide the game. Fortunately replacing Pietersen is a man with more than 5000 test runs, a man possessed with an unnatural degree of talent and a consumate player of orthodox spin. We are in safe hands.

His first ball is a slow, floated delivery. There's a chassis down the pitch, a full swing of the bat and the ball floats gently into the hands of mid off.  Ian Bell c Tendulkar b Ojha 0.  Horrid. Not ugly, never ugly, just horrid.

For many such dismissals will always define Bell. Soft and self-inflicted, seemingly proving that deep down he just isn't made of the right stuff. It's nonsense of course. This is a man who now has almost 8000 )Test runs and 22 hundreds. Only Cook and Pietersen have more. This is the man who almost single-handedly ensured that England won back the Ashes in 2013. You don't do that by being soft. Of course when you stop scoring runs as well (Bell averages less than 30 and is without a hundred since those 2013 Ashes) then you are in trouble. The decision to drop him following the 2014 series in the UAE was tough and I would argue mistaken given the weakness of the alternative candidates, but hardly unfair.

Ironically he now stands on the cusp of an unexpected comeback in part because of a succession of 'soft' failures by what we might call his aesthetic successor, James Vince. Currently England's top order is hopelessly shaky. Alex Hales and Gary Ballance have done little to settle doubts about their long term suitability although it is likely that at least one will survive to tour this winter. In this context the return of Bell seems essential, he might not be in the greatest form but it is not form that this top order is lacking. It is class.

If nothing else, Bell's return should immediately relieve some of the pressure that has piled up on Cook and Joe Root. Despite decent looking figures neither will be entirely happy with their summer's work with promising starts too often failing to result in match changing scores (and dare I say it one or two rather flaccid dismissals too), But these are clinical, pragmatic reasons. Important for selectors, irrelevant for cricket lovers. I just want to see Bell back. For me, for you, for the game. We should all want him back.  In these power obsessed day where bats have sides rather than edges there is a special joy in witnessing a player defined not by muscles but by grace and timing. Like so many things you don't appreciate it until it is gone. I know I didn't. This time I'm just going to sit back and enjoy it.