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.