Thursday, 13 October 2011

Test cricket can't be left at the mercy of the free market

Another ICC meeting and another disappointing retreat by the powers that should-be.The continued flip-flopping on the DRS issue could have been predicted but the likely postponement of the first World Test Championship, considered by some as a key means of re-invigorating the greatest form of the game, is altogether more serious. As so often before, financial considerations appear to have trumped all others.

To be fair, this is not a broken promise - under their long term planning the Champions Trophy 50 over competition was originally scheduled for 2013 and that is what now looks like happening. To all intents and purposes, however, the Test championship had been pencilled into to replace it. Indeed Lord's was awarded, or decided to bid for, only one Test in 2013 on this assumption. The MCC must have received some fairly strong assurances to have gone along with this.

Of itself, this would not be the end of the world, indeed I would question whether such a championship is absolutely necessary. The point is though, that it was put forward as an example of the importance the ICC placed on Test cricket and how seriously it was about protecting it. Instead it looks like another case of the ICC failing or being unable to provide strong leadership.

Chief Executive Haroon Lagat may argue that the Board has to balance several objectives. Fair enough, as is his point about the financial implications for the game without broadcasting support. The problem is broadcasters are not just influencing the agenda, they are setting it and that is the ICC's job. It is not a broadcasters job to care about the future of the game (although they would be unwise to ignore it entirely), their job is to make money. And the fact is, that if it was left to the free market to decide, international cricket would probably be dead in thirty years. Test cricket, with the exception of the Ashes series in Australia, would probably cease to exist outside England in the next ten. And with no one else playing how long can it survive there? The 50 - over game wouldn't survive much longer either. T20 would be okay for a while, particularly on the subcontinent, but it is hard to believe that even Indians won't eventually get bored with its formulaic monotony.

Avoiding such a scenario requires a greater, wider and deeper vision than the ICC currently seems capable of providing. The revenue and exposure from international competitions such as the World T20 and the World Cup are clearly essential to the game's future. But what broadcasters, such as ESPN the Board's broadcasting partner, would like to do is to pick and choose the tournaments they cover, to take off the cream and leave the rest, which in the case of ESPN's main market includes Test cricket, to go sour. When it comes to the next negotiations in 2015, the ICC must back up its words with actions and ensure that Test cricket is an integral part of the deal.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

England v India 3rd Test Preview: Broad and Bresnan's rise gives headaches all round

At the beginning of the week both teams had selection headaches but of very different sorts. England's was strictly a 'two paracetamol' job, and akin to deciding whether the next bottle should be Dom Perignon or Krug. India on the other hand had a full blown 'in bed with the lights out' migraine. Their wine list currently looks blanker than the edges of VVS Laxman's bat and and they appear entirely out of stock in three sections: 'leading fast bowler' 'top class wicket-keeper/batsman' and 'high class spinner'. As Wednesday arrives, England's selectors have unburdened themselves of even this minor discomfort (via the genuine discomfort felt in Chris Tremlett's back) whilst India's steadfastly remains.

It is premature to write off the Indians at this stage and yet there is nothing to suggest a resurgence, certainly nothing that occurred during their two day match at Northampton. The return of Virender Sehwag may raise their spirits but it is asking a lot, even of Wisden's Leading Cricketer in the World in 2008 and 2009, to produce his best after so little practice and against such a confident and in-form England attack.

The roles played by Bresnan and Broad in the previous game were particularly interesting. Six months ago, Broad was portrayed as 'the enforcer', pitching short of a length, literally and figuratively getting in the batsman's face at every opportunity. Bresnan by contrast was considered to be something of a classic English seamer and one who 'hit the deck hard'. Whilst each retains an element of these characteristics, neither truly fit these descriptions. At Trent Bridge, the vast majority of Broad's wickets came from full length swinging deliveries with the bouncer used as an occasional surprise variation, whilst in the second innings India had no answer to Bresnan's fierce and well directed short pitched deliveries. The England team may regard Broad as having the best bouncer in world cricket but the Yorkshireman's, with its wider angle of delivery, brought greater reward.

Broad's bowling has undergone a true revolution for which both himself and David Saker must take great credit. He is unrecognisable from the Sri Lankan series in style and effectiveness. It seems impossible imagine him going back to his headstrong former ways. Bresnan's game by contrast seems merely have evolved. He is now a significant threat, capable of causing batsman difficulties on any surface. Overall, taking into account their batting, you now have two serious Test cricketers.

Today, it is not only the Indian batsman who will be casting the two a nervous glance. With Jimmy Anderson and Graeme Swann undroppable and England seemingly committed to a four man attack outside the sub-continent, Chris Tremlett, Steven Finn, Graham Onions et al should be looking on anxiously. These two are here to stay.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Zaheer injury reinforces the folly of a one month Test series

Barring calamity beyond any review system, the Indian Test series was always going to be, and still should be, the highlight of the season. The First Test certainly did not disappoint. Although not a great match - England dominated too consistently for that - it did live up to the hype, and that is never a mean feat. It's a shame then that not only has the series arrived about a month too late in the season but, like the English summer itself, it will come and go so quickly that indulging in anything beyond an extended forty winks and you are likely to have missed it.

The great joys of individual Tests are their slowly twisting tales, their shifts of momentum, not to mention the swings and roundabouts of outrageous fortune (or misfortune such as India suffered at Lord's). That applies equally to any series of matches. It is why no series should ever be less than three matches and why series such as this one should always be of five. Nor should such a series of games be crammed together so tightly that players are effectively playing virtually one game a week. The last game of this four match series begins on 18 August, twenty-nine days after the first began. Even Thursday starts have had to be abandoned to provide sufficient rest time for players.

The attraction of a concentrated burst of matches is initially compelling. Interest is built continually through the series, there is in fact no time for it to be lost, even for those with the lowest of attention spans. But to me this is just the point, the schedule speaks not to the lover of Test cricket but to the impatient child for whom Twenty20 was invented. Presented with a bag of sweets to last the week, he or she will devour the whole contents in the space of one Zaheer Khan over (around five and a half minutes by current standards). Test cricket teaches patience and rewards you handsomely for it, scheduling like this ignores the value of that lesson.

Even putting aside the spectator's viewpoint, not something which usually taxes administrators anyway, the effect on players should make such an arrangement a non-starter. The evidence has already presented itself in this series. Zaheer, India's best bowler, will miss the game at Trent Bridge with an injury that with four days gap he had no chance of recovering from. If it is a hamstring injury, (and possibly even an aggravation of an existing one judging by the way he was shuffling around the outfield from the start), he will do well to play again this summer.

Whilst one might argue that this serves to highlights India's lack of strength in depth, certainly in comparison to their opponents, the fact is that the series and India's chances in it, are severely weakened as a result. Even England, considerably luckier with injuries so far, are unlikely to be spared. Andy Flower indicated that it was highly unlikely that the Anderson, Tremlett, Broad and Swann would make it through the whole series given the intensity of the workload.

Clearly we will not, and should not, go back to the days of three/four month tours: the mental strain on players more than offsets any physical gains in recovery or practice time. Nevertheless the balance currently struck does not serve the interests of anyway genuinely concerned for the future of Test cricket. This current series should be the pinnacle of the game, rivalling the Ashes if not for history then for quality and passion. If it turns out to be so, it will be in spite of not because of the administrator's hand.


Events at Lord's last Thursday, served only to reaffirm my belief that spectators are the lowest element in cricket's food chain. Arriving at the ground around 9 there was some light drizzle, but it had stopped to all intents and purposes by 10. Groundstaff activity was at a minimum with nothing more than a rope being used to remove some surface moisture from the outfield.

With optimism (and the evidence of my own eyes) outweighing many years of humbling experience I confidently expected a prompt start at 11. It was somewhat surprising therefore to hear that following one pitch inspection at 10.30 there would be a delayed start and another inspection at 11. That inspection elicited an 11.30 start. The decision defied credulity. The conditions had not changed one iota between 10 and 11.30, no rain had fallen to warrant the further delay nor had there been any significant sun or wind to aid the 'drying' process. But with pitiful over rates assured and rain forecast (accurately) for later the umpires decided that a half hour delay was the way to go. The result: spectators who had paid up to £90 per ticket were treated to less than half the play promised.

In the TMS box it was suggested, half-jokingly, that it was to allow time for the on field presentations for the hundredth test. Clearly neither they, nor the umpires, nor the wider administration of the game are too concerned at ripping off the paying spectator. They should be.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Second Test Preview: Stumbling Sri Lanka v An unbalanced England

I can't help but agree with Nasser Hussain. It pains me to say it because his default method of point making - hammering away over and over again like a demented woodpecker - leaves me firstly reaching for the paracetamol and secondly, decidly illdisposed to his arguments. However, his observation, that the Sri Lankans were simply not mentally up to the demands of five days of Test cricket (even when about half that time had been spent watching the rain come down) seemed undeniable in view of Monday's ingnominous collapse.

The Sri Lankans themselves seem to have admitted as much. To be fair the situation they found themselves in on Monday is one of the toughest in Test cricket. Going out to bat without anything really to play for requires the strongest mental discipline. With no victory to seek or rearguard to fight, the intoxicting power of adrenaline is in short supply. A team primed on and for high octane limited overs games, came out flat as chapatis and were then further reduced to mere crepes following a superb spell from Chris Tremlett.

Tremlett's stock has risen to the point where he will lead England's attack in Jimmy Anderson's absence. The question of who should replace the Lancastrian at Lords tomorrow has provoked some strange thinking in my view. Prior to the second innings collapse, the general view was that a like for like replacement was required rather than the Tremlett/Broadesque Steven Finn. However, an excellent spell from Tremlett where he mixed up the odd short ball with those on a fuller length and lifters from Broad at the tail seem somehow to have changed the view. Finn seems set to play ahead of the more Anderson-like Jade Dernbach.

This seems just the sort of plan destined to bite one squarely on the backside. You throw all your eggs in one basket and it turns out to have a hole in the bottom. It just makes no sense. Even Mike Atherton seems in favour (et tu Bruti?), he argues that whilst variety is good, picking the next in line is better.

No value it seems is placed on the special skill of the swing bowler. Had Graham Swann been injured, would Finn been next in line then? The question is, I hope, rhetorical. If Dernbach is good enough to be in the squad, and being picked ahead of Shahzad suggest he is, then he must play.


Amongst the praise for Jonathan Trott there were, however, some slight rumblings about his pace of scoring. Batting so much with Alastair Cook probably hasn't helped this impression, but it is nonetheless true though that he is exceedingly well named. Nonetheless, as "Nas" pointed out once or seven times, five days of Test cricket is a long time. If you score 600 in two and half days, at a Trott like 2.2 an over, then, weather permitting, you still have that same amount of time again to bowl the other side out twice. Put simply, bat once and the speed of scoring becomes much less significant.

Cardiff was something of a freak result, but it is still the third match in a row, and the fourth in five games, that England have won whilst batting only once. In the process they have scored 620,513, 644 and 496. It may not be exciting cricket, and nor am I am advocating it as my preferred strategy, but it is, at the moment, demonstrably winning cricket.


The use of the UDRS was again a talking point at Cardiff. Overall third umpire Rod Tucker had a good match, showing a surprising and admirable willingness to do his job and make the big calls.

Kevin Pietersen was unlucky - pre UDRS he would have survived - but Tucker got the decision dead right. In the case of Prasanna Jayawardene, caught off the glove down the leg side, the evidence appeared less than conclusive at first. Tucker, however, trusted what he saw and what he heard (the sound was apparently clearer and easier to place in his box than on tv) and, after being made to confirm his judgement by the on field umpire, made the call, again correctly.

In the Sky commentary box, Nas questioned whether Tucker could be "100% certain" and suggested that if he wasn't, the batsman should get the benefit of the doubt. This is absurd. To reject an appeal on that basis would be to impose a ridiculous standard of proof. Men are routinely sent to the electric chair on less demanding grounds. Fortunately Billy Doctrove only required that he was sure. He didn't add "beyond a reasonable doubt" but we can take that as implicit. Perhaps it should be made explicitly so.

The only blot on Tucker's copy book came with his failure to uphold Andrew Strauss' low slip catch on the second day. We have seen such catches routinely rejected on replay and even though this was probably the most "out" one I have ever seen, it was hardly a great surprise to see Tucker follow a long line of third umpires in chickening out. As the honour system seems now to be a utopian dream, this issue could again be rectified by considering the burden of proof.

Countless tea-time demonstrations have shown that catches that look to have bounced haven't, for reasons of camera forshortening and two dimensional imagery. On this basis I propose cricket takes a leaf from rugby's book and allows the on field umpire to ask the question "Is there any reason I can't give this out". The third umpire would then have to find conclusive evidence, such as was the case with Phillip Hughes in the winter, to reject the claimed catch.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Too good for the Aussies but Cook's technique is still not convincing

With over 5000 runs at an average of 47.50 and a triumphant Ashes Tour behind him, Alistair Cook has little to prove in the Test series against Sri Lanka starting tomorrow. Or does he?

A closer examination of his stats reveal an increasing gap between his performances in England and abroad. Whilst he averages 54 from 31 matches overseas, it drops to a still reasonable but hardly startling 41 from 34 home games.

Even without knowing these statistics, or even having witnessed Cook's performances, this is not a real surprise if you look at his technique. A predominantly back foot player, strong square of the wicket, he is likely to do well on the faster, harder pitches of Australia and South Africa. And even though the lower bouncing pitches of the sub-continent force him forward there is little lateral movement to worry about.

By contrast in England, his often leaden and stiff legged footwork has been shown up against the moving ball. When out of form he becomes at once an lbw candidate to the one swinging back in and, in particular, vulnerable to late movement in the other direction. In fact, as is often the case, his attempts to compensate for one problem seemed to exacerbate the other. Last summer, on admittedly not the best pitches, he struggled terribly.

It is clearly only a small problem - his first innings at Brisbane against a moving ball was an awful scratchy affair but, aided by some relatively placid pitches, we know what happened after that. But I am not yet convinced that the problem has been solved definitively.

No one can expect him to score 700 runs every series but the Ashes have raised expectations on England's new one day captain. No one doubts his temperament but if the ball moves around at Cardiff, Sydney may suddenly seem a long time ago.


Whilst I am dissecting batting techniques, a little word on Jonathan Trott. Although he is much sounder than Alistair Cook, the strategy of the Australians in bowling to him, particularly early on, played into his hands. Believing that they could trap him leg before as he moved across the crease they instead fed his strength and built his confidence. The lesson was actually there in the First Test at Brisbane.

For such a restrained, disciplined player Trott shares one trait with Kevin Pietersen, the desire to feel bat on ball at the beginning of his innings. And Trott is not content with the tip and run single, no he likes to feel bat solidly on ball, even if it is a little wide. In the First Test he was very nearly caught in the gully from a wide, full delivery. Several further times during the series he drove early on in the same manner, albeit more successfully.

The Australians missed a trick there. My advice to Tillikeratne Dilshan: post a couple of gullies and get your bowlers to throw it up and out there. My advice to Trott: leave it alone, one on your pads will come along soon enough.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

KP: One last shot at greatness?

It seems that each of the last six or so series have been 'career-defining' for Kevin Pietersen and each time he has done just enough to defer a definitive judgement. During the winter one destructive double hundred against a demoralised attack papered over a series where he was well and truly overtaken as England's leading batsman and as the opposition's prize wicket. The KP that we hoped would emerge after 2005 would have taken the Aussies to the cleaners in Melbourne and Sydney. Instead this week, in the lead up to the first Test of the summer, he received another vote of confidence from the selectors. Time and patience are rapidly running out for one, who, for a time seemed destined for greatness.

There was a point when that greatness seemed within his grasp. I discount his epic 2005 Ashes innings because it was too early in his career to judge and, rather like Botham's Headingley knock, it owed a little too much to luck to be considered of the highest class. To my mind that point occurred at Mohali in 2008, ironically his last game as England captain. Responding to a dramatic defeat in the previous game and to an Indian first innings of 453, he smashed 144 off 201 balls. The innings included a trademark switch hit six over extra cover off Harbhajan.

If we really have seen the best of him then this was the game he should have retired on. In the previous match, he had had got out to Youvraj's left armers and the Indians were not slow to reintroduce him here. But having dismissed him verbally as a bent-armed purveyor of less than clean pies, Pietersen then played him with according disdain. It was impossible to imagine the kryptonite-like effect that such bowlers would increasingly have. Perhaps it is this fallibility more than anything else that has taken greatness, in the eyes of most, out of his reach.

Even if the majority view is wrong, it must also be asked whether he still seeks that greatness. Back in 2008, there was no doubt. In my view, however, he never really worked out what was necessary to achieve it. There have been many unorthodox batsmen capable of great innings but few great batsmen who have been unorthodox. Like Virender Sehwag, Pietersen seems destined for the former category rather than the latter.

Viv Richards should have been his role model - an unorthodox, destructive batsman who shared Pietersen's love of the leg side. Rarely, however, did he seem give his wicket away softly and little did he seem to care for personal landmarks (although I'm sure he did). Richards also exuded ultra self-confidence, unlike KP, however, he never appeared to care what anyone thought. Andrew Strauss in his recent book says of Pietersen that "You get the impression he wants desperately to be liked but does not know the best way go about it.” It is a telling statement. Great people don't care about being liked or loved, which is probably a good thing as many are not. It is harder for the average person to associate himself with a great person, therefore he tends to be admired instead. Adoration is saved for more agreeably flawed characters such as Andrew Flintoff. As it stands today, Pietersen is neither loved for his flaws nor admired for his greatness.

On the positive side it seems at least that Andy Flower has not given up. Instead he has challenged KP to become the best batsman in the world. We await now the response. Does he still want to be great? With retirement rumours too regular to be easily dismissed, it is his hunger for the game that is now most in doubt. All cricket lovers should hope that he can find that desire within, because at only 30 his best years may still lie ahead. Whilst Pietersen will never be loved, he may yet be admired.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Overstepping the mark: DRS must go farther

It may have gone through more updates and revision than Windows but the current version of the referral system (DRS) shows little sign of having ironed out the bugs of its earlier editions. Like space travel, our ambitions for the technology continue to outweigh what it can currently supply. That is, of course, if you consider a world where every decision is guaranteed 100% correct to be an utopian rather than Orwellian one.

The Indian cricket board last week announced that it would not accept the use of the referral system in any bilateral series in the foreseeable future. (It will, however, be forced to accept it during the forthcoming world cup.) The BCCI stated quite plainly that it doesn't trust the accuracy of the technology. The Ashes series just finished, hardly disproved this point but it did provide compelling evidence for its extension in one particular area.

To my mind the value of having no-balls reviewed was proved beyond question, with two wicket-taking deliveries voided for overstepping.  I have mentioned previously that line decisions are technologies' bread and butter, the logic of using it for no-balls is obvious and undeniable. So why do we continue to adopt such a half-baked approach? Are we really to believe that the only two deliveries in the entire series where an umpire was unsure as to where the front foot landed were those that took wickets. Of course not.  You can't blame the on field umpires. Mitchell Johnson's radar was typically askew when he argued "If the umpires know it's a no-ball I think they should call it, instead of waiting to call it," Well I guess they would have if they were sure Mitch...

The fact is, umpires are in no position to make an accurate judgment - they are often stood two or three metres back from the stumps (at the request of the bowler no doubt) and besides which they have more important things to do.  I also wouldn't criticise them for not making more referrals, over rates are funereal enough as it is. Instead full responsibility should be given to the third umpire to review each delivery. There may not have been many tight finishes in this particular series, but one doesn't have to go too far back to recall matches won or lost by the odd run. 34 no-balls were called during this past series. But how many more went unpunished?

Bringing back distant memories of Perth, Johnson did eventually find his line and length when adding "  "I suppose it's not a bad thing, but it can be frustrating. I suppose you've just got to get your foot behind the line." Well, yeah.