Saturday, 23 August 2014

How many problems have England actually solved?

Somewhere in the Multiverse is a reality where Ravi Jadeja held on to Alastair Cook's tremulous edge at the Ageas Bowl, the England captain walked off with 15 to his name and failure dark by his side. His team took another beating, and now he will spend the winter 'working on his batting' at Essex while Eoin Morgan leads the ODI side to the World Cup.

Such is the glorious uncertainty of the game. Instead of the fog of war comes the fog of winning, an equally confusing and deceptive state. On our side of the Matrix, the New Era lives, but how well and for how long?

The captaincy and succession
When questioned over a decision he'd made Mike Brearley often used to reply, 'you never know, the alternative might have been worse'. This early iteration of Multiverse theory was a neat deflection, but Brearley, twinkly-eyed, blessed with success in a different age, did not have the weight of scrutiny that has so benighted Cook - it's hard to imagine, say, Richie Benaud, criticising him on air and in the paper so severely that a clear the air phone call is necessary. What the summer has proved is that on-field strategy is simply a focal point for discontent. The problems Cook faced were more fundamental. He essentially had to conceptualise a new team and a way of playing, and he was going to have to bottom out before any improvement came. That improvement is fragile so far, contingent too on India unexpectedly screeching into reverse.

Yet as Cook's reception at Southampton showed, as a nation we love an underdog. That ovation at lunch marked the moment that the public decided enough was enough: on a human level, Cook was being bullied. As well as Jadeja's drop, this was a watershed. Winning helped, but this moment came first. He will cherish it, and it was won through perseverance.

Cook has dug the ECB out of a hole because there is no realistic successor in view yet. The schedule means that the captain will have until the end of the Ashes next summer to answer the question of what an 'Alastair Cook side' actually is.

Problem solved? For now. 

The opening partnership
Like marriages, the true nature of the chemistry of an opening pair is known only to its participants. It partly what makes finding a good one so difficult. Cook began the summer with another divorce, Michael Carberry following Nick Compton and Joe Root onto the list of post-Strauss exes (he's kept in touch with Joe, though - he's a nice lad). Carberry has every right to feel cheated. He fended off Australia as well as anyone, and nobody was grumbling about his age as another Mitch missile shot towards his throat. The cards fell Sam Robson's way, but to have his technique, such as it is, interrogated and then unpicked by India's attack should see him subjected to the same ruthlessness handed down to Carberry and Compton.

To really establish an opening partnership, both parties have to be in form at the same time. Cook's lack of it has impacted, too.

Problem solved? No.

Talent development
Imagine the England organisation's philosophy as a train on a railroad. It goes forwards in a straight line with inexorable logic. By contrast, the rest of the cricketing world are in cars, driving all over the place, sometimes wasting petrol, sometimes finding shortcuts, able to turn off the path when they need to.

Three years ago, before David Warner had made his Test debut - in fact when the idea of Warner playing Test cricket seemed to some hilarious and offensive - Virender Sehwag said that Warner would not only play Test cricket but would be more successful at it than T20, because there are far fewer fielders to hit the ball past in the opening overs of a Test innings. Viru was right, and visionary too: here was a new career path evolving before our eyes.

On the England train, they still get the agonistes about someone graduating from the T20 side to the 50-over team. The 50-over team in turn is a safety-first endeavour filled with Test players, obsessed with the two white balls and what will happen if someone plays aggressively and gets out. The IPL is regarded in the same way that you imagine Martin Amis views Jeffrey Archer. The forthcoming World Cup is already a write-off.

The evolution of the game is actually quite a complex series of call-and-responses that result in an apparent forward motion. England's modern history has gone from the splintered 90s, when the team strategy lurched from match to match, through the creation of Process that led to 2005 and then the number one spot and the T20 World Cup in 2010, to now, where Process is everything. The response has gone too far. It's divorced from the fluid way the rest of the world sees the game.

Andy Flower is a magnificent human being but he needs to ask some deep questions about England's systematic approach. Loughborough's spin department has produced no spinners. Pace bowlers go in fast and come out slower. The maverick batsmen arrive from outside of the system. Ian Bell had to tell Moeen Ali to bowl faster. Middlesex fixed Steve Finn up, and so on.

The T20 World Cup win was a time of glorious risk. There's little sign of such adventure any more, and that's sad. Who wouldn't love to see a 50 over squad with such zest and life, and who would not forgive them if they came up a little short?

It's time to embrace the new world game, to love the IPL as well as the Ashes. Choose hitters and wicket-takers and crowd-pleasers. Choose life.

Problem solved? No.

The wicketkeeper
Superficially this would appear a simple answer. After all, Jos Buttler is exactly the kind of selection discussed in the section above. And yet... As Viv Richards observed, he is some player. But Viv wasn't talking about the keeping. Jos will never be great at that. He is potentially a dynamic, game-changing top order batsman, a number four who could do what KP did, but in his own sweet way. It's never going to happen if he's stuck with the gloves, which essentially mean a career wasted by expediency at number seven.

Like Sangakkara and De Villiers, he should look to give them up. My choice would be Craig Kieswetter, a better keeper and a big-game player who could inhabit the number seven role while Buttler bats much higher.

Problem solved? Temporarily. 

The fulcrum
Replacing Graeme Swann was about more than finding a spinner. Swann enabled England to play in a particular way, with four bowlers and seven batsmen (including Prior). When I interviewed Alastair Cook for All Out Cricket magazine at the start of the summer, he said that blueprints like that can't be planned for, they have to evolve, and I think he's right.

No-one could have planned for Swann, and similarly no-one planned for Moeen Ali, but he has offered Cook's side a new way. He is obviously a high-class batsman. During his century at Headingley and his rearguard at Lord's, his judgement of line was magnificent. You can't coach that. Where he has suffered is in being slightly unclear on how to bat when the match situation is less defined, a choice made harder by the presence of Buttler behind him. He may need some very clear guidance on exactly what the captain and coach want from him as he walks in.

Yet he is certainly a top order player, and his off spin has progressed to the point that England can pick four seamers, thus offering that new way. His bowling reminds me a little of Nathan Lyon's, not stylistically but in the way it has quickly become much better that it first appeared. He's also wonderfully natural with media and fans, a new cult hero.

Problem solved? Yes.

Kevin Pietersen
There was a moment this summer when, had Pietersen opted to play four-day cricket, he could have applied almost irresistible pressure on Downton, Moores and Cook. His decision not to, and the effect that playing once a week has had on his batting, has been his major miscalculation. He has won the PR wars comprehensively: it's a rare moment when someone in authority isn't apologising to him for something or other.

Thus even his biggest fans (like me) have had to question how much he actually wants to play for England again. I don't think it's impossible, but his tacit admission in signing up to a couple of end-of-season champo games for Surrey is that he must respect his talent and the game. Australia and South Africa are to come, and four of England's top five are unproven against bowling of that class. Opportunity will emerge.

The way that Pietersen has receded as an issue this summer shows how short-term modern sport is. His autobiography, when it comes in October, already feels like it is about ancient history. However, Downton, Cook and the ECB may still be vulnerable to its revelations should they be damning, and Pietersen can afford to play the long game here.

Problem solved: Not yet.

The Schedule
Here, insanity lies. After the World Cup, England play Test series against West Indies away, New Zealand and Australia at home, Pakistan away and South Africa away in a calendar year. How has this happened? How can the players be asked to do it? Geo-politics is the broad answer. The ICC takeover that concentrates financial power in the hands of India and its couple of mates compels them to generate that money. The global ratcheting of the value of sports television rights for media giants trying to sign up customers for all kinds of services means that the next round of contracts will see unprecedented sums paid - and an unprecedented number of games and tournaments in return.

Domestically, the deeply flawed system of the allocation of international games to bidding grounds has manifested in a kind of nuclear arms race of development, with stands and hotels and whatever else cramming themselves around the edges of ambitious venues desperate not to be left behind, who then somehow have to rake their money back. Dead pitches and seven Test summers are the visible tip of that.

 Caught in the middle are the players, already away from home 260 nights per year, and now facing a new kind of compacted, concentrated career that will see them retiring not from age and the fractional diminishing of skills, but burn-out in its many physical and mental forms.

Problem solved: No.

Relationship with the fans
Along with winning a couple of games, the reconnection of England and the fans was Alastair Cook's mission and became his greatest success. It's been quite touching to see him try so hard, both with the media and the public. It has not come naturally to him, and even the inflections in his speaking voice, with its upward lilt at the end of his sentences, works against him, but he has been honest and forthright and approachable and it has worked. It's great to see the team walking around the boundary after games - it's a simple thing, but worth its weight. The players, if not the ECB, have moved closer to the public.

Problem solved: For the players, Yes.

Fast, short-pitched bowling
It may seem a peripheral subject on which to end a screed like this one, but I think it is England's major on-field issue. Australia opened deep wounds, and they are unsteady against it. They were bombed out by India at Lord's and have wobbled on other occasions this summer too. If they can't hack it against India and Sri Lanka on slow pitches, then they won't against Australia and South Africa.

Whoever opens with Cook, along with Ballance, Root, Ali and Buttler, are untested by attacks of that class. The New Era is most vulnerable here.

Problem solved: No.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well, that's a very interesting article.

The answer to that sort of schedule which the Aussies are going to suffer through similarly, is more and more injuries to the bowlers and that hated word rotation to rear its ugly head.

Not sure yet that Ali is a long-term prospect with the ball, though he's had the best of starts, but I very much like him with the bat. Judgement will come.

Kieswetter doesn't look a better keeper than Buttler but you may have seen him more regularly than I have.

"the idea of Warner playing Test cricket seemed to some hilarious and offensive." He has improved technically though it may not look it, but what will it make Maxwell's second coming to the test team? And that seems inevitable too somehow. It's a new world. A strange one for test cricket fans. For England, Hales could have a proper run at the top in ODIs, allow him some time and freedom as he can take games away.

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Tim Newman said...

I am still of the opinion that Warner is a fair weather player of test cricket. Australia were good and England were complete crap in the last Ashes, but Clarke won the toss every time and chose to bat first 4 out of the 5. As such, the Australian openers - including Warner - started from either scratch or (in the second innings) a position where they were well ahead.

In the one time in that series where Warner had to bat in order to erase a deficit came in Melbourne, when he was out for 9. In the following series against South Africa, Warner came in to erase a large deficit in the second test and did very well to score 70, so the guy does have something.

From what I've seen, Warner is capable of making huge scores provided Clarke wins the toss and elects to bat in favourable conditions, or Australia are already comfortably ahead in the second innings. This is useful, but the true test of an opening batsman is striding out on Day 3 when your side is looking at a deficit of 450+ and batting for 4-5 sessions. Warner has yet to do this, and Australia cannot rely on winning the toss every time.

ravi said...

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