Sunday, 28 September 2014

Days of Grace

After one of my worst seasons ever with the bat last year, I began 2014 by scoring one run in May (compadres for all-time, me and that run; a prod to extra cover for a harassed single...) Something had to give. Maybe it would be me. I just wasn't sure any more, and batting has always demanded a kind of certainty - of footwork, of judgment, of many things that I was no longer certain about.

Yet the game has a habit of turning round to face you for no reason other than it sometimes does. It's not so much fickle as implacable, neither for you nor against in the long run. It happened for me at Sheffield Park in deepest Sussex, where Grace once turned out for Lord Sheffield's XI and hit an old oak that stands by the pavilion on the full (the square's been turned around since then, but it's a good eighty yards, perhaps more, and it was nice to stand in the middle and have a sense of his power).

It was a shimmering summer's afternoon, with clouds of midges glinting in the soft air by the edge of the woods, and we were facing familiar and friendly opponents. I'd made a few - well more than one, anyway, which was an improvement - when a ball going down the leg side brushed my heel on the way through to the keeper. There was a half-hearted appeal for a catch and the umpire gave it.

'Oh come on...' I said.

It was out of my mouth before I could stop it. I felt bad about that, but not as bad as I did about the decision. I was trudging away when Matt, the opposition skipper, asked me if I'd hit it.

'No,' I replied, completely honestly, and he withdrew the appeal and called me back. It was a generous act on his part, and something that's never happened to me before. I got an unlovely fifty that day, and for whatever reason everything changed. Oh I didn't suddenly become Brian Lara, but my mind cleared. In the dreaded vernacular of the sports psychologist, I got out of my own way. I forgot about the plan I had to stop worrying and play more freely, because I do worry, and I don't play freely, at least not until I've been in for a while (and even then it's debatable.) I started worrying again. It felt good, or at least it felt normal.

Ultimately, the most important thing in the mental half of batting is self-awareness. You can yearn to be the player you're not, but it's more purposeful to embrace the player that you are. I had a few matches in my old position as an opener, and it helped me to realise what I was okay at: reasonable defence; good judgement; I can be hard to get out; I know my scoring shots. It's not the glorious vision of cricket that I carry in my head, but it's something.

And I had the noble Kudos in my hand. Newbery offered it to me at the start of the season (not that I took much persuading) and thinking about not batting with it is already giving me the horrors. It's been a while since I had a bat that I've really bonded with, but me and the Kudos, well... is there language to describe our love?

What a thing it is, played in now and bearing its scars - a hairline crack running horizontally across its slender shoulder, the bite marks from the seam of the ball that did it just below, the blade blushed with the remnants of dye from red leather.

I can still remember the first time I found its true middle, that deep, sweet spot where you feel only a suggestion of contact in your hands. It was a full toss from the opening bowler that I managed to hit straight to mid-off - no run, but a defining moment for me and that bat: the ball left the blade with a throaty crack and rocketed away. I got a few runs that day, but that point of pure connection with the absolute centre of the bat remained something rare and wondrous, a quest worth chasing.

I stopped wearing a thigh pad too. What a revelation that was. My team-mate Hoggy tipped me off to it.

"What's it going to hit?" he said. "Just your muscle. And there's no-one quick enough for it to really hurt..." So I rid myself of the cursed thing and gambolled around like a spring lamb.

It's my final tip to anyone that wants one. Ditch the thigh pad. Let it go. Run free, my friend, and be yourself. Worry, mither, chip them runs out however you can. Let it flow, baby, let it flow...

Saturday, 6 September 2014

England: Jumping The Shark Since '79

In June 1979, I went with my dad to Lord's to watch England play West Indies in the World Cup final. It was the second edition of the tournament, West Indies having won the first with a hundred from Clive Lloyd. They would win this one with a century from Viv Richards, but their total owed its impetus to Collis King, who played one of the great forgotten innings in the history of the game, 86 from 66 deliveries.

That total? West Indies made 286 from from their 60 overs. It seemed then, at the halfway point of the 74th one-day international ever played, a vast score, a forbidding, ice-laden mountain that England could not climb, indeed that no team might scale. And so against Roberts, Holding, Croft and Garner, England's openers, Mike Brearley and Geoffrey Boycott reached 129 in 38 overs, leaving the other frontline batsmen, Randall, Gooch, Gower, Botham and Larkins, 158 from the remaining 22.

It all feels like a long time ago, the images of both sides all in white - Packer's 'circus', with its 'coloured clothes' and its vulgar floodlights, was still a dirty phrase around these parts - as Joel Garner established the eternal value of the yorker, pinging England out for the addition of just 65 runs. The Almanack sounded vaguely gobsmacked too, describing Collis King's innings as 'an amazing display' and Richards as 'the hero of the day'. We went home in the haze of a warm evening and didn't really worry too much more about it. Was it 'proper' cricket or not? No-one seemed quite sure.

Turns out it was, and England were already up against it. Although the maths and stats of that day seem arcane - 158 from 22 overs with nine wickets in hand? The WASP would be buzzing - the ambivalence towards it all remains. As players, pundits and punters tear each other apart after India's 3-1 win, now, as much as ever, we look at the limited overs game through the eyes of those who existed way before it.

A win in Friday's final match was welcome, but as meaningless as any in the 3,451 ODIs that have followed that long-ago day at Lord's. England's current methodology is from around the mid 2000s of that number; they're still quite excited to score 290, and still quite daunted by the pusuit of it. The rest of cricket, meanwhile, roars on into a future that is being written from the bottom up - through T20 into the 50 over game - rather than the top down.

The arguments don't need repeating: you can read them anywhere. It's interesting though to consider exactly how much England have changed since 1979, psychologically and philosophically. The answer is, not as much as you'd think. I'll believe they are serious about winning any kind of ICC tournament when they clear a window for the IPL and join in with the rest of the world at last.

NB: That window doesn't need to undermine the primacy of Test cricket, which will become greater by becoming slightly more rare. Seventeen Tests in a year post-World Cup is less about commitment to form than to TV deals, cricketing realpolitik and finance.

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.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Zaltzman's Over

I have been playing in cricket matches since I was eleven years old. During that time I have seen most things, and seen them often enough to realise that the game's genius lies in its quotidian variations, its subtle, almost infinite changes to a grand and familiar theme.

And yet last week at Wormsley I was on the field for an over that will live in the memory, and that quite probably will never be repeated - at least not by another bowler. It was delivered by Andy Zaltzman, cricinfo's polymath statistician who runs a parallel career as a stand-up comedian and another as a writer. These duties mean that he doesn't play often, and when he does it's usually as a rather elegant left-handed batsman who - he is quick to remind us - has apparently plundered untold centuries in an obscure Sussex Sunday village league.

He was called on to bowl as a run chase heated up, and he immediately marked out a 40-yard approach to the wicket that began in the shadow of the sightscreen. Most club cricketers have seen this done, usually by a batsman, and usually during a practice match or as a game peters out into an unavoidable draw. The same thing happens every time: they begin their run at pace, dipping into a Bob Willis impersonation a third of the way in, before the realisation that they are still nowhere near the stumps dawns and they start to slow down and worry about what will happen when they actually arrive. The result is either that they stop and deliver a gentle off-spinner or chuck down one that bounces twice and is called a dead ball.

Zaltzman, who sports something of Bob Willis hairdo of his own, did not disappoint on the first part, almost immediately spearing his bowling arm behind him and bobbing his head as he ascribed Willis' semi-circular approach. Yet having gone early with the Bob, and faced with another 30-odd yards before the stumps, he began a remarkable series of leaps, like a cat jumping through tall grass. Each one ate at the distance between him and the crease. His momentum was now unstoppable, perhaps catastrophically so, but somehow he arranged his feet into a delivery stride and slightly off the wrong foot conjured a perfectly acceptable medium-paced outswinger that the batsman, less surprisingly, missed.

Alone this performance might have been enough, but after another couple of outswingers from a truncated run, he announced a change of bowling action from right arm over to left arm round, and proceeded to pitch and turn both of them.

He continued to bowl with both actions throughout his spell, taking a couple of wickets right-arm, and almost one with his left. He has, he said later, bowled an over featuring all four actions: right arm over, right arm round, left arm over and left arm round.

Perhaps more predictably for a comedian, he's given to sledging, but only his own team-mates and only by means of inverse flattery - "like a young Glenn McGrath," he may shout at a veteran medium-pacer who somehow lands a couple in the same spot.

Imagine my delight when I discovered, halfway through writing this, that his first ball was captured on film. You can see it here, now and forever...

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Arlott at Words And Wickets

I think of John Arlott as cricket's quiet conscience, a man with soul. He was equally at home with Ian Botham and Dylan Thomas; a wonderful writer and an unforgettable talker: 'in through the eyes and out through the mouth,' as he used to say. One of the most resonant things he ever wrote was a single word, when he arrived in South Africa in 1948 and was told to fill out a landing card. In the box marked 'Race' he put simply, 'Human'.

It is his centenary this year. It's hard to picture him in the current media culture but I think he would have liked some parts of it at least, the great clamour of voices that now comes online. It's democratic in its way, and as the son of a cemetery keeper from Basingstoke who began his working life as a records clerk in a mental hospital, he would appreciate that.

His life, which had its burdens of personal tragedy along with its brilliant, sometimes boozy highs, and which was suffused with cricket and poetry and wine throughout, is being celebrated on Saturday at the Words And Wickets Festival at Wormsley, a ground with enough beauty to have many who see it attempting a stanza or two of their own. Arlott's biographer and friend David Rayvern Allen leads the way.

The idea of the festival is to unite cricket with its literature, and it's almost certainly the only place where you'll get John Arlott and Jarrod Kimber on the same day. Check it out.

"I had a lucky life," Arlott said once. "Well, lucky in some ways..."

Perfectly put, as ever.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

The New Era: player by player

England's new era is so new that its landscape shifted not just day by day but session by session during the series loss to Sri Lanka, a nation destined to be forever underestimated here. Their intent was obvious from the moment Kumar Sangakkara arrived early to play for Durham. Here was an object lesson from a man with a Test match average of 58: never settle, never get comfortable. Durham was uncomfortable, and cold. He appeared briefly on Sky, swaddled in more knitwear than Christmas, and duly made nought. Not much was going to stop him after that. His team had been on the road for months, but they proved that road-weariness can lead to road-toughness too.

So this appraisal should be read with due deference to Sri Lanka and their captain Angelo Mathews, a formidable cricketer. They won the series more than England lost it, and England's faults must not be taken as detracting from their quality.

I've rated the prospects of each player remaining in the side on a scale of excellent to poor, for both the short term (the India series) and long-term (through to the end of next Summer's Ashes).

Alastair Cook
Short term: Good. Long-term: Moderate*
It has been frustrating to hear the debate over England's future polarised around Cook's captaincy. This is not football, where the single, lumpen answer to failure is to sack the manager. The threads must be separated out: the wider, deeper and more pressing problems are systemic and will continue to exist whoever leads the team. Sacking Cook will not produce a Test-class spinner; that is the job of the spin department at Loughborough, who have failed. It is the single biggest threat to Cook and to England. It has brought about a four-seamer strategy through necessity, and that has chilling implications in a seven-test summer. After just two of them, Anderson and Broad are limping, and now they face five matches in 42 days on chief exec pitches against a stellar batting team.

Sacking Cook will not stop the reverberations from the removal of Kevin Pietersen, either. Instead it has become a lightning rod for discontent and division under which Cook or his successor will labour. This is the fault of Paul Downton, who swaggered out of a job in banking to say he'd never seen a more dispirited team that England at Sydney (perhaps that's because he'd been in a bank for years). It was a piece of grandstanding that did not address the wider reasons for England's decline (the backbreaking schedule; the 300 nights a year in hotels; the bubble; the grind; a generation of players growing old at the same time, and so on). Pietersen wasn't actually the issue but now he is. This single decision has warped everything else Cook has tried to do. The rapid reappointment of Peter Moores, "the outstanding coach of his generation" in Downton's view, added to the feeling that we are back in the days of how well a face fits.

Cook is by nature a conservative cricketer and that will not change. He leads best by example, as his record shows. When he scores runs, England tend to win. His future hinges more on this than on any funky fields or genius bowling changes. There's nothing wrong with it per se: Waugh and Ponting were great attritional captains. The almost unconditional  backing he has been given by the ECB has, I think, made him feel that he is responsible for everything. If he can forget about some of that and just bat, he'll be okay.

*As captain. He will be opening for England long after  the armband's gone.

Sam Robson
Short-term: Fair. Long-term: Moderate
As I blogged here, evidence is so thin that any prediction is mostly guesswork. However, however... Robson's dismissals so far suggest that he is vulnerable in the most destructive way for an opening batsman: he can be beaten on both edges of the bat around off stump. His slightly odd set-up, with a split grip and stiff, hard hands, mean it may not be an easy problem to solve. A lot of top golfers compensate for fundamental faults in their swing with quick and instinctive corrections at the point of impact. Robson has the hand-eye co-ordination to do the same in a cricketing sense, so when everything is working well, he makes runs. The key will be what happens when he is slightly out of sync. I'd guess he'll survive India, but perhaps not the Ashes, but a guess is all it is.

Gary Ballance
Short-term: Good. Long-term: Good
Ballance also has a very obvious flaw in that his trigger movements set him so far back in the crease that even when he then goes forward, he's not much more than three feet from the stumps. Any lefty is prone to late inswing, and Ballance's position will magnify that. A move to number three will also expose him to high-class bowlers early in the piece, but he appears to have a natural sense of tempo, and he hits the ball hard. There's a bit of Yorkshire dog in him too. He's more Graeme Smith than David Gower, and there's nowt wrong with that.

Ian Bell
Short-term: Excellent. Long-term: Excellent
Bell's only problem at the moment is that he is batting so well it's making him loose. He was bowled twice almost walking at the ball (though both deliveries were killers, flicking the top of off stump). There seems to be no real will from Bell or anyone else for him to replace Cook - he is too diffident a character.

Joe Root
Short-term: Good. Long-term: Moderate
I'm in a minority in being unconvinced by Root, but the Sri Lanka series showed only what we already know. He gets big scores at Lord's and almost nowhere else. That might be unfair (okay, it's a cheap shot) but he was worked over with short stuff in both games, and his survival against it seems to be down to chance rather than method. It's unusual in a back foot player, too. He needs to solve it, or his career will deviate from its apparently pre-ordained course.

Moeen Ali
Short term: Fair. Long-term: Good
Ali's prospects don't reflect his game, rather the problems that England have in trying to balance their team. At the moment he's being used as a spin-bowling all-rounder, when actually he is a high-class batsman who can send down some useful overs. Of the new intake, he has the best technique and looks the most naturally talented. I think he is potentially a top order player. His discipline at Headingley shows that he could probably open, so fine was his judgment of line. That would probably require a mental reboot (although it hasn't stopped Shikar Dhawan), but he could bat at four right now. It would be a great shame if his career stalls because of his bowling, but it could certainly happen.

Matt Prior
Short-term: Fair. Long-term: Poor.
His recall was understandable given the callow nature of England's newbies, but he has had some woeful moments already. Most worrying are the two dismissals to short-pitched bowling directed at his body. Is he a shot fighter? His fitness was tested in the field, and by his erm, prior standards, he fell short.

Chris Jordan
Short-term: Poor. Long-term: Excellent
Jordan will add sunshine to any team. He's exactly the kind of player who will lighten England's mood because he has a natural joy in his game - he's like a young Flintoff, swinging the bat, running in hard, catching flies at slip. The problem is how to fit Jordan, Stokes (and Moeen) into the same team, so he may have to endure a few Bresnan-style rotations before he secures a permanent place. At the moment, neither his bowling nor his batting is quite potent enough to demand inclusion. It would be good to ask a really experienced fast man - a Lillee, a Gillespie - to look at his run-up and see if there is a way to produce more pace without breaking him down in the way that Anderson and Plunkett were broken by the bio-mechanists.

Liam Plunkett
Short-term: Excellent. Long-term: Good.
After an early bout of nerves, Plunkett's return was impressive. Thanks to Jason Gillespie and Yorkshire, we are finally seeing the bowler that Duncan Fletcher thought he would be. It could easily have gone the other way, as it did for Saj Mahmood, so it's good to have someone bowling at almost Mitchell Johnson pace for England. He should be given the new ball at some point, and used in the way that Clarke used Johnson, but that will depend very much on England's other bowlers, speaking of whom...

Stuart Broad
Short-term: Poor. Long-term: Good.
Broad doesn't seem to have recovered from his injuries, and was down at 80mph by the end at Headingley. It's hard to see him making it through five Tests against India, and I hope that England will consider the rest of his career. Players like Broad and Anderson always want to play and push themselves on, but Graeme Swann's fatal breakdown should be taken as a warning. All three have bowled themselves into the ground over the past four years.

James Anderson
Short-term: Good. Long-term: Good.
Caricatured by his great pal Swanny as England's grouch, his tearful post-match interview at Headingley showed the emotional pitch at which he and most international players are asked to operate. Within it was the real story of the Ashes loss: imagine the turmoil that brutal defeat brought about. We all forget this side of the game, and yet it is always there. I was critical of Anderson in Australia. Often his opening spells would begin at under 80mph, whereas Johnson was coming out and bowling full-pelt from ball one. It transpired that Jimmy was injured but felt he had to fight on. He must have trained very hard to be bowling in the high 80s again now - the first time he's been that quick for a while. He was limping by the end of the Headingley Test, and with Broad also struggling, his workload doesn't look like declining. The inevitable will happen at some point - who knows when. At least the first Test against India is at Trent Bridge...

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Sam Robson and the rush to judgment

Geoffrey Boycott was on radio commentary when Sam Robson went to his first Test match hundred. It was an interesting moment because Boycott, in common with almost every expert pundit, had been dubious of Robson's credentials at Lord's. In fairness it was hard not to be: the lad had a horror of a match with the bat, and looked almost as adrift as Simon Kerrigan had with the ball at the Oval last Summer.

Before the applause for Robson had died down, Boycott was asked about his grip, left hand high on the handle, right hand low.

'I don't look at all that, how he holds the bat, whether he picks it up over gully, I just watch his feet, his head and where the ball goes.'

Geoffrey went into a long reverie about technique, taking in Bradman, who had brought the bat down to the ball in a semi-circle - 'no-one's done it since, but he did alright' - and then George Hirst, who had arrived at the Headingley nets from Kirkheaton and immediately started slogging the ball into the rugby club grand stand.

'Now then lad, tha better stop that...' said the coach.

'Look where the ball is...' replied Hirst.

'Everyone's different aren't they,' Boycott went on. 'The good players find their own way.'

It tied in with something I've been thinking about for a while, probably since I blogged this about the golf coach John Jacobs, and the wisdom of sixty years that he had distilled into a single sentence: 'you can tell everything you need to know about the golf swing from watching where the ball goes'.

This, especially in batting's new age, is surely becoming the defining criteria in coaching. The game and its methods are now too diverse to begin from anywhere else. Yesterday, West Indies needed to chase 93 in the fourth innings of their Test against New Zealand and Chris Gayle scored 80 of them from 46 deliveries, walking at the bowlers and baseball-batting consecutive sixes out of the ground from somewhere near the middle of the pitch. 'Look where the ball is,' you could almost hear him say.

England's new intake are symptomatic. Robson has a laundry-list of quirks from a low crouch and heavy head to that odd grip; Gary Ballance plays from so deep in his ground he's often driving with his front foot just past the popping crease; Chris Jordan's decelerating run-up is one of the great mysteries of modern times. Plunkett, who is almost new, has had to reinvent himself having been ruined by the era of bio-mechanics. Only Moeen Ali wears the air of a classicist.

As a credo, 'look where the ball is' means something else too, and that's not to rush to judgment. As poor as Robson appeared at Lord's, he has a Test hundred a few days later. Neither should have too much weight attached to them. Robson hasn't yet offered enough for there to be certainty as to whether he'll make it as a Test opener. If I had to, I would guess that he'll fall short against better bowlers than Sri Lanka's, when his methods get pushed out to their limits, but then I might well have been one of the idiots telling Bradman to bring his bat down straight too. For a while, we'll just look at where the ball ends up.

There is a wider point to be made about the mixed bag that is the nation's top five, and it it comes down to watchability. Cook, Robson, Ballance and Root are an offbeat combo of unspectacular grinders and/or accumulators, with only Bell to break them up. They won't empty bars, and they won't necessarily sell tickets either. It seems odd to say so, but there may be a commercial dimension to their future prospects.