Friday, 22 January 2010

It's only twenty wickets

He may have made some handy contributions with the bat for England over the years but under normal circumstances Ryan Sidebottom's wicket would not be a prized one. On this occasion his dismissal on Sunday morning was not only the match winning one but it was the twentieth English wicket to fall. After weeks of trying, South Africa had finally broken through the magical '19' mark.

For basically a statement of the bleedin' obvious, the importance of 'taking twenty wickets' has come along way in recent years. In the hands of players and commentators alike, it has moved way beyond truism, transcended mere cliché and attained a significance only usually reserved for ethereal terms like 'the spirit of the game'. It may even go mainstream one day, instead of 'closing the deal' you could be 'taking the twentieth'.

Aside from limited vocabularies and limitless press conferences there is a good reason why captains and coaches are speaking about it more. Results in Test matches are expected now. With covered pitches, covered outfields, better drainage and even floodlights much less play is lost to rain than fourty years. As a consequence every one of the Test playing nations who were playing then and now have reduced considerably their percentage of drawn games. Pakistan for example, between 1970 and 1979 drew over 56% of their matches compared to only 26% in the last ten years. Most pleasingly, outside the subcontinent the stalemate has become almost a thing of the past, but with it has also gone many a captain's and many a bowler's first excuse.

This has become the era of the 'good draw' or even the 'great draw',  the type of concept that leaves your stereotypical American bewildered. But for all the honest, positive sentiment after games such as Cardiff, Centurion and Cape Town, the truth of the matter is that winning is still almost everything. As an Englishman I celebrated those epic draws, but had I been an Australian or a South African I would only have cursed the missed opportunities.

So why can't teams finish off the opposition like they used to? There are a number of obvious reasons for this, better pitch preparation for one and yes that does include ones of the 'chief executive' variety from time to time. There is also the matter of the players themselves. The lower orders are much stronger than they used to be. When the South Africans returned to Test cricket, by accident or design their numbers 7 to 10 seemed almost as potent as their top order. And of course this was something that Duncan Fletcher brought, most certainly by design, to his England side. (It's interesting to note 'c.f.' on this subject that in the Bodyline series Jardine considered the biggest difference between the teams to be England's superior lower order batting rather than a particular fast bowler that one might more obviously think of..)

The Australians are also responsible. Specifically the Australian side of 1989 to 2007. They are responsible because they have skewed our current reality. Teams didn't actually finish off teams with any greater regularity in the past, certainly not since covered pitches were introduced and timeless Tests abolished. That particular Australian side was a complete Test team, the first in a long time and much more complete than the West Indies of the late 70's and 80's who were one-dimensional by comparison. The Australians had a conveyor belt of high quality batsman, two superb wicket keepers and two of the best bowlers, one fast, one slow that have ever played the game. It would be too easy to say, especially given the theme of this article, that it was Shane Warne that really made the difference. Sure on many occasions it was him that finished sides off, but he only got that opportunity because of the work of the team as a whole.

Cricket is a team game and Test cricket a true test of that team. Where there is a weak link it will be shown up, especially on a good pitch and even against moderate opposition. Unlike Australian, South Africa have always suffered from an overly defensive mentality but like today's Australians they also do not yet have the players. Morkel and Steyn are already very good and will get even better but without the depth battting and the spin bowling to match, they are fated to suffer further frustrations.

Harsh as it might be, a draw doesn't just mean you failed to beat the opposition it means you failed to meet the challenge of the game.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Hussain's lasting legacy?

Being out of the country I was unable to see and hear the Sky coverage of the final day of the Cape Town Test. From a commentary point of view this isn't something that usually causes me too much pain. Whilst acknowledging the quality of Atherton's analysis and the gentleness of Gower's whimsy it is in general a team heavy on Harrises and Ntinis and light on Morkels and Steyns.

On this occasion though, I had a guilty urge to hear the views of Nasser Hussain. For it was a day made for him. Him as a player and captain that is. When he took over as captain in July 1999 he explicitly and unapologetically stated that his aim was to make England 'difficult to beat'. Not for him the gloriously idealistic sentiments of Richie Benaud on Australia's 1956 tour of England where he promised, and indeed delivered, 'attractive cricket even at the risk of defeat'. Hussain's considerations were much more prosaic - it was his primary duty to make England respected again as a cricketing nation. He might have believed they could win ever game they played, but he was also a realist. He didn't have the players to win games consistently, especially against the best teams. According to his immediate predecessor, Alec Stewart, only 'about four' of the side Hussain inherited were of true Test class (one hopes he included his number 3 amongst them!)

Under Hussain's leadership England might win some games, they might lose some but they must absolutely not lose meekly. He was sick of the batting collapses and of the unfavourable comparisons with the mental toughness of Australia and South Africa. He succeeded in changing and improving performances and results quite quickly, winning four Test series in a row. Impressive enough, but the true test and what Hussain really wanted to achieve was to change mindsets, to instill that toughness that he so admired in the Aussies, in the English team side on a permanent basis. We may now have enough evidence to say that he succeeded.

What though, I hear you say, of the collapse at Headingley last year that you describe in your only other blog entry? I submit that this is in fact the exception that proves the new rule. England are not a great team and so against good opposition such as Australia, India and South Africa they are always likely to find themselves in difficulties from time to time. Nevertheless, three times time in less than a year when England have appeared in an almost hopeless position, they have stood firm and instead it is the ability and killer instinct of those same Australian and South Africans that has been brought into question.

Aside from what must now be considered the glorious blip of 2005, England are as far away from being world beaters as every they were. But they can no longer be regarded as the meek, soft touches that they once were either. Hussain deserves great credit for this and he, as much as anybody, must have revelled in yesterday's play.