Monday 26 September 2011

Should Shane Watson still be opening for Australia: a nation wonders

Post-empire, Australia's self-examination was more lacerating than anything that came from the outside, and now Shane Watson has written an autobiography. It is titled, numbingly, 'Watto'. There's plenty of stuff in it about bowlers who were 'shitting themselves' during the Ashes, but does the book address a more central question: should Shane Watson be opening for Australia?

There is an easy answer for white-ball cricket: he is a man who can induce a queasy kind of awe. But as a Test match batsman, he moved there out of expediency and his decline has been camouflaged by the entropy all around him. Australia's future definition may be hazy at its edges, but focus should sharpen at the top. Shane is just not cutting it.

Watson's batting is a kind of brutalist modernism, as heavy as concrete and about as subtle. In the Summer of 2010, during the warm-ups before an ODI at the Rose Bowl, he came to the boundary edge for some throw-downs, wearing a single pad and a pair of gloves. He began belting the ball back past the coach like the school bully slapping a fat kid's neck. It was impressive, superficially, until Ricky Ponting came over to do the same thing. Ponting didn't strike the ball quite as hard, but he played each shot differently, angling the blade of his bat in such a way that a graph of his shots would have looked like the lines drawn on a protractor. It was the difference between putting a wrecking ball through a wall and undermining its foundations.

Incrementally, Watson's methods have failed him. His Test average is declining and is now below 40. He has made two hundreds in 54 innings. Phil Hughes, his much-maligned partner, averages half a run more - 39.73 to 39.43 - and his average is climbing. He has three centuries from 24 innings.

Those stats are blunt yet revealing, and need digging into. Watson's last Test before he began opening was at Brisbane against New Zealand in November 2008. He went in at number seven behind Hayden, Katich, Ponting, Hussey, Clarke and Symonds. He scored one and five, and his average hit its lowest point, 19.76. He had made one half-century in 13 innings.

He opened for the first time at Edgbaston in the third Ashes Test of 2009. He averaged 48 in that series, with three half-centuries, did even better against West Indies and Pakistan the following Australian summer, averaging 52.60 and 69.20 and making his maiden hundred. He slipped in New Zealand, averaging 38.50 in a single Test, then again against Pakistan in England, averaging 16.00, before playing wonderfully in India, with a second hundred and an average of 67.75 in two Tests. He averaged 48.33 in the Ashes of 2010-11 but with no century, and then made 87 runs at 17.40 in Sri Lanka. His overall average peaked at 42.11 against England in December 2010, and has slipped away since then.

Of his 2040 Test match runs, 1164 have come in boundaries, and he has been dismissed between 50 and a hundred 14 times in 49 innings. These are the stats of a player who has been worked out. When the field is up, he can score in boundaries. Once he is set, and teams are less attacking, he struggles to work the ball around and becomes frustrated.

Australia, with two openers averaging under 40 and with five hundreds between them, compare badly to the sides ranked ahead of them. India have Sehwag - 52.26/22 100s, and Gambhir - 48.34/nine 100s; South Africa have Smith - 49.71/22, albeit paired of late with the mystifying Peterson - 33.64/1; and England have Andrew Strauss - 41.98/19 and Alastair Cook - 49.72/19. And Australia, let's remember, dropped Simon Katich - 45.03/10 and who as an opener alone averaged 50.48 with eight centuries - figures better than Watson and Hughes combined.

Not every great opener qualifies as a great batsman, but every truly great team has had a great opening partnership. Hughes has the capacity to score big hundreds and bats unfathomably; he is an outlier in terms of technique, and there is an X-factor about him. Watson carries none of that, and yet he is a potentially devastating all-rounder if deployed more conventionally.

It may dent his ego to move, as he spends a lot of his time talking about how much he wants to open, but at heart he is a beta-male, deferential, scared of ghosts. Pitched as a Gilchrist figure who bowls instead of keeps wicket, all of that can be dealt with, and as a cricketer he can be fulfilled. At the top of the order, by the highest standards, he is an also-ran.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

How easy is it to get Jacques out, and other stats...

When Rahul Dravid set the record for the most deliveries faced in Test cricket this summer, it brought to mind a quote from Bob Woolmer's majesterial The Art And Science Of Cricket.

'To review the split-second data of what happens when a batter executes a shot,' he wrote, 'is to wonder how any batsman survives more than one delivery'. Woolmer was considering the complex physiological process that the body goes through when facing an individual ball, but it did pose a simple question: what is the percentage chance of any one delivery dismissing a great player?

It's a blunt stat, as blunt as a batting average, but it is revealing too. By adding together the number of deliveries faced in Tests and ODIs, and then subtracting the number of completed innings, it's possible to produce a percentage figure.

Jacques Kallis balls faced: 41,664 dis'd: 455 % chance per ball: 1.09

Rahul Dravid
b/f: 45,374 dis: 519 % chance: 1.14

Sachin Tendulkar b/f: 48559 dis: 667 % chance: 1.37

Ricky Ponting b/f: 37,966 dis: 553 % chance: 1.46

Brian Lara b/f: 32,839 dis: 483 % chance: 1.47

The number of not outs offer another expression of the value a batter might put on his wicket:

Jacques Kallis inns: 546 not outs: 91 % chance of a not out: 16.6

Rahul Dravid: inns: 591 not outs: 72 % chance: 12.18

Ricky Ponting: inns: 620 not outs: 67 % chance: 10.80

Sachin Tendulkar: inns: 740 not outs: 73 % chance: 9.86

Brian Lara inns: 521 not outs 38 % chance: 7.29

Jacques still king of the red-inkers, then...

Thursday 15 September 2011

'This is it, then'... The sense of an ending

It’s the last day of the first-class season, and for a few it will be the last day as a professional cricketer. Some will go willingly, some even gladly, most less so. More will be sensing that the end is not yet, but is not far away; the fine edge is ebbing from their game, sliding away bit by bit.

I’ve just re-read the pages on Geoffrey Boycott’s final seasons in Leo McKinstry’s tour-de-force biography, Boycs. The fading of Boycott’s power manifested itself in a particular way: he became almost strokeless even by his standards. In 1984, as McKinstry records, he made 60 in 52 overs against Somerset, 53 in 51 overs versus Derbyshire, 17 in 26 overs against Leicestershire, 77 in 67 overs against Sussex, 33 in 32 against Northamptonshire, and perhaps most grievously, 25 in 27 in a one-day game against Shropshire that Yorkshire lost. In all he made 1567 runs that summer at 62 per innings, but it took him 1200 overs.

Astonishingly, the following season, aged almost 45, he made another 1657 runs at 75.31, leaving him second to Viv Richards in the averages. Playing against Hampshire at Middlesbrough, facing his old friend and rival Malcolm Marshall – Macco loved to bowl at Geoffrey – he made 115 even as Marshall took 5-48 to rout the remaining Yorkshire batting.

It was still going though, and he could probably feel it. In his final season, in his last match, he needed 69 runs to make a thousand, something he’d done every year since 1962. He was playing against Northants at Scarborough. Jim Love ran him out for 61 in the first innings, and after Boycott had advised his skipper to enforce the follow-on, Northants survived and timed their second-innings declaration in such a way that he was not able to go in again.

More than a decade later, he remembered the day in an interview with the Telegraph: ‘Something had come to an end, something wonderful. I just thought, this is it then. I waited for the ground to clear. Then I wondered around on my own, among all the newspapers and food wrappers and tin cans’.

That’s how things ended for Geoffrey, because that’s how things end sometimes, alone, among the wrappers and the tin cans. It’s no less glorious in its way.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Summer of four captains v Summer of five captains

It was Gore Vidal, I think, who said that satire died when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. If it didn't then perhaps it waited until Mitchell Johnson was voted ICC Cricketer of the Year in 2009. Yet for sheer unlikeliness the story of England's summer goes beyond both.

Jonathan Trott is the new ICC Cricketer of the Year, Alastair Cook the Test Player of the Year, England are on the verge of a clean sweep against India, and their fifth captain of the season will take charge in a couple of Twenty20 games that didn't even exist when the fixture list came out.

Yet such is the upward curve of England's reversal of fortune, the awards are deserved and hard-won; the captaincy issue has been resolved with such force of logic that continuity and victory have become seamless. It's all so un-England, isn't it...?

The summer of 1988 was the last when the captaincy changed hands as regularly, and it's a story worth retelling, because it sets in context the happy daze that now surrounds long-time England followers.

They were playing West Indies at the time, a team entering the last moments of their glory era but that still bristled with big guns: Greenidge, Haynes, Richards, Marshall, Ambrose, Walsh and Patterson.

England were captained by Mike Gatting, who, the previous winter, had the on-field spat with Shakoor Rana. The first Test was a draw, with Gooch and Gower batting well to save it. Before the second, Gatting was sacked following an alleged fumble with a barmaid in a hotel room, an incident generally regarded as flimsy cover for revenge over the Pakistan debacle. Such was the small-mindedness of the time, Gatting's autobiography was banned from sale at cricket grounds.

John Emburey took over for the second Test. Gatting was dropped and replaced by Martyn Moxon. Phil DeFreitas was replaced by Gladstone Small. West Indies won by 134 runs. Emburey remained in charge for the third match, for which Gatting and DeFreitas were recalled, and John Childs, who was 36, and David Capel, given debuts. Derek Pringle, Paul Jarvis and Chris Broad were dropped. West Indies won by an innings and 156 runs.

Emburey was sacked and dropped. The new captain was Chris Cowdrey, who had played briefly for England in India three years previously. Cowdrey, who was as surprised as anyone, was the son of Sir Colin, a man England often turned to in times of crisis, and the godson of the chairman of selectors, Peter May. May had been on the selection panel that chose three captains for the West Indies series of 1966, one of whom was Colin Cowdrey. Paul Downton, Martyn Moxon, Mike Gatting, David Capel, Phil DeFreitas and John Childs were dropped. Derek Pringle, Neil Foster, Bill Athey and Jack Richards were recalled, and Robin Smith and Tim Curtis made their debuts. Cowdrey got nought and five and didn't take a wicket. England lost by 10 wickets.

Chris Cowdrey incurred a slight injury in a county game and was quietly moved aside. He never played for England again. Graham Gooch was appointed captain for the final Test. Allan Lamb was also injured and was replaced by Rob Bailey. Cowdrey's place went to Phil DeFreitas, and David Gower was dropped and replaced by Matthew Maynard. West Indies won by eight wickets.

The Almanack thundered: 'The morale and reputation of English cricket has seldom been as severely bruised'. But then even Wisden can't predict the future. 1988 was just the foundation for the entropic decade to come.

Mike Gatting now works for the ECB and Graham Gooch is England's batting coach and a mentor to Alastair Cook. Last week, Chris Cowdrey had a heart attack whilst in hospital to have some stitches in his knee. 'People always said I was lucky player – well, if you're going to have a heart attack anywhere the middle of a hospital is probably it,' he said.

Get well soon, Chris. Perhaps you were lucky after all. His is an odd role in England's history, but four captains or five, he knows life's not so bad.

Saturday 3 September 2011

Would David Gower get in this England team, and other arguments

David Gower is, I think, the first cricketer whose entire international career I was able to watch. I don't quite recall Botham's debut, but I do Gower's, which began, as no-one needs reminding, with a first ball pull for four off a bowler called Liaqat Ali, whose sole contribution to cricket history this seems to be - an unfortunate quiz-question of a career, that.

All of the rest of that era - Willis, Gooch, Boycott, Knott etc - were already playing, but Gower, yup, I was there for the lot. It came to mind when reading Andrew Miller's piece at cricinfo on how good the current England side are. The general feeling seemed to be that this is a workmanlike team profiting in an era of flat tracks and non-lethal bowling, and it's a valid view to have. How many of those Indian pies would Goochie have gorged himself on? Loads, probably, if he could have got the strike off of Geoffrey and his stick of rhubarb.

But whenever these arguments emerge, two things happen, one obvious and one not quite so. The first is that we are remembering men in their prime, at their best, and sometimes with that lovely, melancholic air of what the Portuguese call 'saudade', which is a kind of nostalgia for something that never really happened. The second is that the older set of men have the advantage of being judged on the whole of their time, rather than the cross-section of the current team.

So taking a kind of composite, early 80s England XI that may never have actually taken the field together [I would check, but, you know...] which of them would have got into the current team? Beginning with the non-arguments: Ian Botham would get into any England side of any era, first name on the sheet. Disregarding the captaincy for now, Boycott would displace Andrew Strauss. As much fun as they were, Mike Gatting and Allan Lamb, with Test averages in the 30s, would not crack this middle order. John Emburey would yield to Graeme Swann; Geoff Miller would make it only as a selector [at which he is very good] and Phil Edmonds could tough it out with Monty Panesar for the non-playing spinner's role. Mike Hendrick, who never took a Test five-fer despite his niggardly ways, and Chris Old, with his legendary propensity for an injury, could not survive in this day of bowling units. Alan Knott and Bob Taylor were sublime glovemen, but this is the modern era, and Matthew Prior is a far superior batsman to both, even Knotty, with his pre-Chanderpaul, crab-like efforts.

Which leaves Willis, Gooch and Gower. The Goose had the one thing that the current attack lacks - out and out pace, and so could displace Bresnan. And Gooch and Gower would walk in, right...?

Er, well... Gooch is a leviathan of English batting, remembered as much for the first-class runs he scored - a figure no current player will approach - as anything else. But his Test match career was one of two halves, and we don't yet have the benefit of Alastair Cook's second half. Cook has played 72 Tests, scoring 5868 runs at 49.72, with 19 hundreds and 26 fifties. After 72 matches, Gooch had 4714 at 37.41 with eight hundreds and 29 fifties.

And would Gower bat at four or five? At four is KP, with 6361 runs from 78 matches at 50.48, with 19 hundreds and 25 fifties. after 78 games, Gower had 5523 runs at 45.27 with 12 hundreds and 26 fifties. Pietersen already has more hundreds than Gower would go on and make.

At five is Ian Bell, with 5027 runs from 69 matches at 49.28 with 16 hundreds and 28 fifties. At a similar moment, Gower had 4543 runs at 42.06 with nine hundreds and 23 fifties.

These are not definitive comparisons but are more even than looking at the completed careers of one set of players against the incomplete records of others. Now the main argument for the records of the older players being reassessed: the quality of bowling. Gooch and Gower, you can argue, faced one of the most daunting attacks of all-time in West Indies. Here, Gooch is impressive, with an average of 44.83 as opposed to his overall mark of 42.58. Gower though averaged considerably less - 32.82 against a career 44.25. Gooch's weak point was against Australia, where he averaged 33.31, having encountered Lillie and Thomson early on.

Now consider Kevin Pietersen, who has played against one of the great Australian sides, plus in Warne and Murali, the two most productive bowlers ever. Against Australia he averages 52.71. His low comes against South Africa, at 'just' 42.71.

Cook and Bell can't claim to have competed as well against the very best around, yet their records are both on a sharp upward curve, and their scoring of hundreds is relentless.

Ultimately, if you're choosing on aesthetics, Gooch would come in for Cook, and Gower for Pietersen. However, Pietersen is, I think, better than Gower, and the rest of his career will prove it. An aesthetic choice between Gower and Bell is tougher, but I would suggest that Gower is the more hardened player. His ratio of hundreds to fifties though, 18 to 39, would weigh against him in the mind of a pragmatist like Andy Flower.

It's a daft argument in the end, but here's another: the real choice should perhaps be between the sides of 2005 and 2011. That would be a far closer contest.

Thursday 1 September 2011

Being hit in the face, and other good times...

It's funny how a small and insignificant incident in a game can send you off into a reverie, a time-trip back into the long-lost, half-forgotten past to a moment when something similar happened, a distant event that somehow triggers another sense-memory which surfaces from that place in the brain where it has lingered and never quite left...

There I was watching Kevin Pietersen bat in the Twenty20 when he wandered off to the edge of the pitch, outside the line of the ball, and managed to top-edge it into the grill of his helmet, a sort of vertical flip-sweep that would have cost him his pearly-whites had it not been for the lid, and I felt a little tingle in my bottom lip, where there is an inch-long, pale-white scar from many years ago when the same thing happened to me... It wasn't exactly the same sort of shot - how could it be - but it was a sweep, played to a gentle off-spinner who I didn't think could get me out, so I got down on one knee and swept hard, but the ball must have just popped a little from the dry midsummer wicket and taken the edge of the bat before flying up into my mouth...

...There was a bit of gash, but it didn't seem like much and it didn't really hurt, just stung a little, so I carried on... I have no memory now of how long, or how I got out or how many I scored or whether we won, or any of those things... what I remember is getting home and trying to eat a chinese but giving up because by then it felt like I had a tennis ball in my mouth, and of the next time I played when I noticed that there were some bloodstains on the inside of one of my pads that stayed there for years [loved those pads, had to retire them gently in the end, like laying down a favourite shield]...

...That sent me off to another match on the same ground, fielding at slip to another off-spinner and watching the batsman go for a cut and then coming round on the ground because a top edge had flown up and hit me in the forehead, to the great hilarity of everyone that saw it - no health and safety in those days - oh, the embarrassment of that... and then another game, again on the same ground, where I got done by an outrageous slower ball that seemed to take forever to get down the pitch and bowled me - another laugh then, that time from their wicket-keeper - and then yet another game when I almost got shown up by a dolly catch at mid-off that I got too far underneath but just managed to grab with a jump and a fingertip...

All things that I'd forgotten, or thought I'd forgotten, but that came back in an instant after KP flicked that ball into his face, and then he laughed and the bowler laughed too, and we all thought yes.... this is the game... this is the game...