Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Mystery spinner? It's all in the mind, the batsman's that is..

It was always going to be an impossible task. After a handful of first-class matches and one season of IPL, how could we reasonably expect anything special on a Test debut? A debut made against one of the strongest batting line-ups and in conditions which could not be more different to those of Trinidad, the West Indies as a whole or even India. And yet it was impossible not to feel disappointed, maybe even a touch let down, as Kevin Pietersen laid into Sunil Narine's increasingly friendly offerings on Sunday afternoon.

Why should we take it personally? Maybe its because in this age of cynicism the opportunities to dream, to experience awe and wonder seem increasingly fleeting. Perhaps it's why the lure of a great magician remains, even if they must come up with ever greater illusions to grab and retain our attentions. Put simply, people still love a good mystery and in cricket that means spinners.

But a good mystery requires that the intrigue endures. And unless you are a fan of Columbo that means not finding out who did it in the opening scene. On Sunday, it seemed that Narine had been arrested, charged and was awaiting sentencing even before Nick Knight in the Sky box had time to begin his prosecution-by-video. Given that Narine's unveiler was Pietersen, a man who singularly and admittedly failed to solve the riddle of Saeed Ajmal, this was more the equivalent of being caught by PC Plod than Hercule Poirot.

The term "mystery spinner" may not have been coined by Gideon Haigh but it was best and most appropriately used as the title of his wonderful biography of Jack Iverson. Everything about Iverson was a mystery, sometimes even to himself. Deeply insecure about his own special talent, he continually fretted that he had been "found out". Whether this was objectively true of Iverson is another question but Narine's inauspicious debut brings to mind Ajantha Mendis, widely considered to have been "found out" after a promising beginning.

Both Narine and Mendis bowl a "carrom" ball, as nominally did Iverson (although Haigh's description suggests that his huge hands created altogether more vigorous spin) and both have enjoyed success in T20 cricket on the sub-continent. But under polar opposite circumstances, a Test match in England, they have looked anything but mysterious.

Whilst Mendis has currently faded from view, that is not necessarily the fate that awaits Narine. For one thing they are actually quite different bowlers despite their signature deliveries. Mendis' bowling relies on a number of subtle variations and great accuracy. Big turn was never his thing. Narine by contrast is less accurate but really spins it. In a spell littered with short deliveries he extracted more turn with his stock off-break than Graeme Swann had done earlier in the day. And whilst his carrom ball may not have turned at Edgbaston, it only takes a couple of clicks to find evidence of it doing so, and sharply at that. Accuracy can be worked on, the ability to spin the ball hard is talent.

But what about the mystery? Once lost can it ever be regained? If we are talking mechanics, then in the age of video analysis, prolonged mystery is tough to achieve (although Ajmal is giving it a good shot). But mystery is more than mechanics and so is spin bowling. Although never referred to as such, Shane Warne is the greatest mystery spinner the world has ever known. He understood that mystery or deception, which is what we are really talking about, isn't found merely in the act of delivery but can be created anywhere and at anytime. In fact most of Warne's mystery wasn't even created on the pitch but in television interviews and press conferences, sowing the seeds of doubt in batsmen' with claims of new deliveries. He then used his natural talent to compound and reinforce these doubts on the field.

Sunil Narine is no Warne but the lesson remains the same. If he can instill doubt in a batsman's mind and keep it there his mystery will never be solved.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Are central contracts up to the Test?

In the Times last Thursday Mike Atherton argued, that "the whole point of central contracts is to ensure that England's premier bowlers are fit and ready for every Test match." A clear prioritisation of Test cricket therefore and one for which he believes we should be  unapologetic.

Pretty logical I would have thought and entirely fitting with the basis on which the whole expensive idea was sold in the first place. Not only that but with the team ranked number one in the world and with a seventh consecutive home series victory assured, these central contracts have clearly worked.

But as Atherton was perhaps gently implying, does this prioritisation of Test cricket over other international cricket actually exist or more accurately does it still exist? The possibility of England's new ball attack being rested for the last West Indies Test leaves this open to question.

The two cases concerned tell different tales. The first, that of James Anderson, is the more nuanced and thus the more easily defendable from a selectorial viewpoint. Anderson apparently has a niggling thigh injury. According to national selector Geoff Miller, the rest would give Anderson the chance to "overcome several minor injuries" and was "in the best interest of the team and James himself". Now for all I know the selector's have received medical advice that, at the very least, suggests that bowling another 50 or 60 overs would risk aggravating the injury(ies) and risk Anderson's missing the first Test against South Africa on 19 July. If so then fair enough, it is good, professional player management. In last summer's blue riband series, India went into the series with a half fit opening bowler, he took three wickets in the first morning and then hobbled off never to return. We know what happened next. England do not want to make the same mistake.

Anderson, however, seems less than convinced. He claims to be suffering from neither fatigue nor injury. On the contrary he has declared himself fit to play.  Now no player wants to miss a Test match or indeed any international match and so player estimations of their own health must be taken with a pinch of salt. But Anderson is no fool. As has been suggested, somewhat ungenerously, he may have regarded the Third Test as an opportunity to pick up some cheap wickets ahead of bigger challenges, but in fact like all top sportsmen it is for the biggest challenges that he plays the game. The South African series will be only a fraction down on the itensity of an Ashes series and more than a fraction up in terms of quality. Is he likely to risk missing that? One thing's for sure, in terms of preparation he is no Zaheer Khan.

The second and more troubling case is of Stuart Broad, for whom no such injury concerns have been expressed. He is in the twelve man squad but remains an uncertain starter. It is not in debate that Broad (and indeed Anderson) has a busy period of cricket between now and the first South African Test - eight ODIs and one T20 to be precise - but how can that possible justify resting a fully fit bowler who has already been forced to miss one Test match this year through injury? If he is fit, surely he must play. 

But listening to England's Head Coach it seems increasingly likely that Broad will not play. In fact Andy Flower has put forward a strong defence of the policy of rest and rotation. One, however, that dispels any myth of the absolute primacy of Test cricket. "We came into this series with one goal and that was to win the series," Flower said. "We've achieved that goal so our priorities do shift. I'm not intending to demean the importance of this Test but, since we won the series already, our priority on the Test front does now shift to the South Africa series. There is also a slight shift to the West Indies one-day series because that series stands at 0-0. We haven't won that series, we've won this one. Part of our decision making is based around those reasons"

He may not intend to demean the importance of this Test but he does. No matter how superficially attractive some of his arguments may seem (there is merit in his desire to increase the "pool" of fast bowlers as well as in his observation that the selection of Finn and Onions would hardly weaken the team) they just don't stack up. In particular, rationalising the decision in the light of the South Africa series does not wash. If priority had truly shifted to that series then Ravi Bopara, who will surely take Jonny Bairstow's place then, should have played now. But instead Bairstow is rightly retained.

Referencing resting and rotational practices in other sports does not work either. For one thing, in no other national team sport in the UK is the management granted complete control over their players. With centrally contracted players playing virtually no county cricket these days, and with rest and rotation already being exercised in ODIs, do players' workloads still need further "managing"?

If the answer is yes it can mean only one of two things: that this summer's schedule is grossly overloaded or that central contracts are not working. I prefer to blame the schedule, not only because the one-day series with Australia is so palpably pointless but because, as much as I try, it is hard to argue with a number one ranking.


Kevin Pietersen's retirement from all one-day cricket has served only to fling further mud into these murky waters. But whatever Pietersen's motivation it should not be overlooked that one of the superstars of the modern game, and a "great" fan of T20, has made a decision designed to keep him playing Test cricket for for the forseeable future. In these uncertain times let us just be happy about that.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Sri Lankan tour is a test of preparation for English guinea pigs

Despite a 3-0 defeat to the world's fifth ranked test team, it was of little surprise that the England squad announced last week shows only one change to their batting line up. For the optimists it's confirmation that the second half of their UAE adventure put to rest many of the doubts raised by the first; for the rest, it is evidence that the selector's had few real options but to continue with the existing group, who, it must be acknowledged, were being feted as world beaters only six months ago.

Although an optimist by nature, I find it hard to see much credibility in the former view.  It is less than a month since a cumulative and consistent failure of England's middle order resulted in a 3-0 test series defeat. In the aftermath, the management's attempts to fight spin with spin, so to speak, have failed to deceive.

Noble words and sentiments were expressed by captain and coach about progress made. Firstly between the second and third test and then during the limited overs series.  Certainly the batsmen put up a better effort in the last Test, but it was really only Andrew Strauss who made any significant step forward (both literally and metaphorically). Despite employing his legendary work ethic to the problem, Kevin Pietersen never gave off a sign of  permanance or comfort at any point of the test series. Ian Bell was much, much worse. Blame was also deflected towards that ever useful batting scapegoat "the scheduling" - too few matches, the wrong sort of cricket, and this time even the length of break between series. Like all the best lies, they convince because they have elements of truth about them, but they are still lies.

The success in the limited over series is also a red herring. Test and limited overs cricket are like apples and oranges - performance in one is a useless guide to likely performance in the other. The personnel are often different and even DRS is applied differently - one review per innings leaves no margin for error and it was noticeable that Misbah was a good deal more cautious in its use. Instead psychological factors, be it the need to atone for test defeat, or the mental disintegration caused by such a defeat (as was the case with India's tour of England) are often more relevant.

In short, this line-up could have netted every day from September to January, flown out a month before, had six practice matches, played the one-dayers before the main event, had Graham Gooch on hand 24/7 and they still wouldn't have been prepared for the Tests and they still would have lost 3-0. And yet they are quality players, so what went wrong and how do they put it right?

Andrew Strauss hit it on the head when acknowledging "it's hard to prepare without facing them". They lost the series because they had no previous experience or opportunity to replicate what they were about to face. It's not just England, virtually no one has faced Saeed Ajmal on low bouncing asian pitches with full, predictive ball-tracking, DRS in effect. In Sri Lanka, England will not be confronted by anyone of Ajmal's special talent, but all the other elements will be present. 

In some respects England are guinea pigs for this new DRS reality and so their response will closely regarded by their rivals. We know that Strauss and Bell will travel out a week early to Sri Lanka and Andy Flower has promised that preparation will be different for this tour and that of India later in the year.  But is this enough? DRS will not be used in either of the two official practice games, meaning that the players will again enter the First Test without any practice under true match conditions. Its absence is understandable. According to ICC general manager Dave Richardson, it costs $10,000 per day for the use of the cameras and ball tracking technology to operate DRS. A significant cost for international cricket boards, and surely beyond state, provincial or county set ups. And yet, if players only face these conditions in Test matches how are they to train and how are selectors supposed to know whether their techniques will cope?

Much has been made, particularly in England, of the need to replicate international cricket as far as possible at domestic level. Three day games became four for this purpose, two divisions was supposed to raise standards; but without DRS these players are playing a different game. It's a particularly uncomfortable fact because there is no easy solution. In the short term, you could argue that having DRS in place for at least one of those two warm up games may have been as valuable an investment for England as a full time batting coach.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Is cricket ready for Ajmal and his new best friend?

Unless your shoes are covered in red clay from the time you could walk, winning the French Open is likely to be the toughest task in tennis. McEnroe never managed it, Sampras never even made the final and even Federer, regarded by many as the best ever, can count only one victory amongst his 16 Grand Slam titles. Winning a Test series on the sub-continent is cricket's equivalent. It was beyond even Steve Waugh's great Australian side and has proved way beyond the world's current number one team.

The capitulation of the English batting line-up in Abu Dhabi on Saturday made for particularly strange, if compelling, viewing. I had the feeling of witnessing something profound, a changed game. Now of course cricket is always evolving, or indeed revolving, but its essence has always remained the same. Having watched DRS' impact on that last day's play, I am no longer sure.

The general consensus is that the onus remains on the English batsmen. They must sharpen up. On the sub-continent, with DRS, the margin of error is much smaller. They must improve their judgment, particularly of length, and more generally come up with a strategy that will achieve more than just survival. All this being said, has the balance may not have swung back too far in the bowler's favour. Has that margin of error been reduced too much?

The LBW law was first introduced in 1774 for reasons of fairness - to prevent negative pad play. In 1883 the MCC vowed to "discount and prevent this practice by every means in their power". Amended many times, there is now little argument as to its correctness. What has never changed, partly because it is not written down, is the discretion granted to umpires to give the benefit of the doubt. Technology, firstly in the form of the 'landing strip' and then Hawkeye, has however served to reduce this doubt. Umpires, with Darrell Hair very much a pioneer in this regard, have become much more confident in giving batsman out on the front foot, with spinners like Graeme Swann the chief beneificiaries. Nevertheless before DRS, where there was doubt it was still the batsmen who received it. Whilst that benefit remains with the review system, it is the umpire who is now the recipient rather than the batsman - a decision will only be overturned if Hawkeye shows a clear error.

And we are yet to see the full effect of DRS. Even if it has been around several years, it has never been used consistently or uniformly on sub-continental pitches. It was not even used in Pakistan's series victory over Sri Lanka in the UAE less than four months ago. Furthermore in the post Murali/Warne era, even where such conditions have arisen there have been few bowlers skillful enough in terms of accuracy and deception to exploit them fully. In Saeed Ajmal, Pakistan now have such a bowler.

Ajmal is the perfect soldier for a new kind of warfare. Bowling relatively straight to maximise the doosra's effect, Ajmal's subtle and seemingly indicipherable variations have bamboozled the English batsmen. He is not a huge turner of the ball which is to his advantage. LBW is his preferred method of dismissal and for that a bat's width is sufficient - any more than that he risks falling foul of DRS, his new best friend. Eleven of his seventeen wickets in the current series have come in this manner.

In the finest spinning bowling tradition, from William Clarke, to Bosanquet to Warne, Ajmal also uses psychology to throw batsmen off guard - he didn't even coin the phrase 'teesra' (Saqlain Mushtaq did that a few years ago) and certainly there is no clear evidence that he has developed a new ball - which he then backs up with wonderful control to create stiffling pressure and, in the case of England's batsmen, near paralysis. With a batsman's mind so befuddled, a straight ball can be as deadly as viciously turning one, something which has benefited not only Ajmal but his fellow spinners too.

Earlier in the week Mike Atherton suggested that the DRS may actually lead to the teaching of different batting techniques. He was referring to younger players but from an English perspective such remedial work cannot wait till next week let alone until the next generation. As Alistair Cook amongst others has already noted, some techniques, namely those which involve a reliance on pad play, simply do not work any  more. With DRS the pad is more a landmine than protective armour.

The solution though is not simple. Much is made of the skill and success of two members of the England coaching team, Andy Flower and Graham Gooch, in playing spin. Both however relied heavily on the sweep shot, a positive tactic which can serve to disrupt a bowler's rhythm. But that was pre DRS. Playing across the line and across your pad is now a very dangerous tactic as Kevin Pietersen has found. Others advise batsmen to use their feet and indeed this can be very effective - both in negating spin and in disrupting a bowler's rhythm. But it is also very dangerous if you don't know which way the ball is spinning and in any case, unlike Graeme Swann, Ajmal tends to bowl quickly and relatively flat making a chassis down the pitch all the more difficult.

In effect for the first time in cricket's history, DRS is ensuring that the lbw law is properly enforced and batsmen, at least the English batsmen, are struggling to adjust. It is initially tempting to view this as a return to the purity of cricket's origin - a simple game of bat and ball. But cricket is not a simple game and the LBW law is perhaps the least simple aspect of it. The law originated when such definitive judgment was inconceivable and my concern is whether such enforcement, particularly on sub continental pitches, ensures a fair balance between bat and ball. The 16 LBWs in the match was the third highest total in 2032 Test matches. Will this become the new norm?

Of course it is far too soon to come to any reasonable judgment on this, and certainly too early to predict a doomsday like scenario. For all we know DRS may lead to the emergence of more bowlers of Saeed Ajmal's skill and not just in the sub-continent. By consequence, more countries may be encouraged to produce pitches that take spin earlier in the game. Can this be a bad thing? From a batting perspective we may also see a revolution in technique and in particular footwork, with batsmen regularly advancing down the pitch, Trumper-like, attempting to impose their own will on the game. Does this not sound like a glorious future? It may be the reality, but it also may not.