Monday, 28 January 2013

Taylor, Bates and the future of keeping

Ashley Giles' first move as England's white ball supremo, or at least the first that cannot be cloaked in the fog of rotation, has been to ditch a keeper in favour of a county team-mate who is second-choice with the gloves back at home. "It has been slightly awkward," admitted Jos Buttler, gamely.

Choices on tour are limited, and Kieswetter's abject form left him with little credit in his account but it feels like a pivotal time for the position itself, so secure in the Test side, so fluid everywhere else.

It's a matter of philosophy, the future of keeping in the post-Gilchrist era, and Giles appears to be thinking quite conventionally about it. Someone like Butler is the acme of this approach, a guy who is essentially a batsman with a second string to his bow. England have a raft of them that they can argue over, from Bairstow to Kieswetter, while they apparently lack the desire to solve the conundrum of their one true thoroughbred, Matt Prior.

But, as this blog has long held, 50 over cricket is dead; it just hasn't finished threshing about on the hook yet. It's in the T20 game that Giles' approach will have longer term implications, and there's an emerging argument (well from me at least) that a complete reappraisal of the wicketkeeper's role is coming.

Like Duckworth Lewis, it's simply an equation of resources. T20 is a game for specialisation, because unlike Test and ODI cricket, those resources are rarely exhausted in the time allocated.

The maths goes something like this: at the start of each game, the wicketkeeper is the only specialist position guaranteed to be able to affect a minimum of 50 per cent of the match while using their primary skill (the 20 overs for which they keep). A bowler has ten per cent (four of 40 overs), the two opening batsmen an unlikely maximum of 50 per cent, the other batters a sliding downward scale from there.

Accepting that almost everyone can field well, and that all-rounders increase their overall percentages by batting and bowling, it's easy to see that the most valuable player in these simple terms of opportunity would be an opening bat that can bowl (Chris Gayle, perhaps), although the occasions on which even the transcendent Jamaican carries his bat occur infrequently.

The wicketkeeping position can therefore be reimagined as an attacking option for a fielding side. It's an opportunity to reduce the effectiveness of the batsman by keeping him in his crease against seam bowling, thus reducing his scoring options. While it's hard to quantify exactly how many runs might be saved by a gloveman capable of standing up to the seamers, it is a move that would challenge many of the techniques of T20 batting. It might not be fanciful to guess that the score might be limited by 20-30 per innings, at least until batsmen adjusted in turn.

It first suggested itself in the performance of Michael Bates in the CB40 final last season. It's easy to go into some kind of reverie when watching him keep; he brings back memories of Bob Taylor standing up to Ian Botham, of the impish skills of Knott, the silken hands of Russell. Hampshire have choked many a side with a combination of skiddy medium pace, spin and Bates behind the dollies.

Taylor, Knott and Russell were a different shape to the gym-produced, identikit bodies that burst forth from the tight-shirted present. The demands of the job mitigate against the physique needed for power hitting, and a specialist keeper might have to be regarded a little like a bowler, with his main contribution coming in the field. But without running the stats, it would be interesting to know how often the seventh batter in a line-up has done the job when six others couldn't.

Bates is an obvious choice for Giles and England. A less immediate but nonetheless intriguing selection for a county side might be Sarah Taylor. She is lithe and athletic, attributes that are evident in her keeping. The debate about her lack of power as a batter has rather blindsided the fact that it is motor skill and movement, rather than strength, that make a great wicketkeeper. It's in circumstances like these, a short game where a single skill can have a disproportionate effect, that a cricketer like Taylor might one day fit.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

One word: Akram

Brian Lara was answering some questions on Twitter today. At least, it seemed to be Brian Lara. It's a verified account, and not an obvious parody. Told by one inquisitor that Harsha Boghle had just called him the best exponent of the sweep shot he'd ever seen, Lara responded lightheartedly by asking what Boghle would know about it.

It transpired that Harsha hadn't made the comment at all, rather it came from Sunny Gavaskar, and it led to Boghle questioning the legitimacy of the Lara account (in fairness to Harsha, he was hearing all of this in Twitter's louche, second-hand style). There was though, almost conclusive evidence, beyond the verification tick, that it was indeed the authentic voice of Brian Charles, prince of the Port of Spain. During the same Q&A, he was asked who the best bowler he'd ever faced was, and he answered with a single word: Akram.

From a man who encountered them all in the last great era of bowlers - Donald, Waqar, Warne, McGrath, Murali, Kumble, Imran, Bond, McDermott - who debuted in a team with a pace attack that consisted of Marshall, Bishop, Ambrose and Walsh, and who was dismissed in his first Test innings by Abdul Qadir, it was a worthy and genuine answer. For Wasim, that wicked magician, it was the highest of compliments.

Like Marshall, the sheer range of Wasim's gifts, the bewildering nature of his style, seems somehow to register less with the arbiters of status than it should. The players, though, they know. Boycott yielded to no-one in his appreciation of Maco's genius, and Lara has followed suit with Wasim, who in many ways was Marshall's mirror image, the short run, the whirring arm, the lethal inventiveness.

Wasim's record still carries the power to astonish, a combined 916 wickets at 23 in international cricket, more than 1,900 at 21 in first class/list A. He was simply too good for all but the very best, and often too good for them too. Akram dismissed Lara just twice in Test match cricket, nothing, it would seem,  compared to McGrath, who got him 15 times, Andre Nel, who got him eight, or Warne and Gus Fraser, who dismissed him on seven occasions. That is until Lara's average against each of them is taken into account. He averaged 41 against McGrath, 54 against Warne, 47 against Fraser, 103 against Nel. Akram got him out twice in 29 deliveries. Lara made exactly four of his 11,953 Test runs from his bowling.

During England's tour of India, there were several discussions about how many Test hundreds Alastair Cook might make, given that he already holds the English record. The Akram generation is one of the reasons that the record is so comparatively low. A look at Mike Atherton's dismissals by bowler reveals the following list of those who got him on the most occasions: Waqar Younis, Shaun Pollock, Shane Warne, Alan Donald, Courtney Walsh, Curtley Ambrose and Glenn McGrath. Good luck scoring 30 hundreds against that lot...

NB: Wasim got Athers four times for an average of 25, which puts him above Wasim's overall mark.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

The mysteries of Michael Hussey's retirement

Like David Bowie's single, it came out of nowhere, and like David Bowie's single it picked up almost universally good notices, partly because it has been unhyped and untelegraphed, old-fashioned in its disdain for anything other than the issue at hand. Michael Hussey has retired from international cricket, but why?

It's the question that no-one is asking, and what's more it is a question that no sane Englishman should whisper, so far does it skew the advantage in Ashes year. But, nonetheless, why is Mike Hussey retiring, and why isn't Australia up in arms about the apparent lack of effort to stop him?

Consider this: Hussey played his 79 Tests consecutively in the rush of the last seven years, making 6,235 runs at 51.52, with 19 centuries. Three of those have come in his last ten innings. His average, having dipped as low as 47 in 2009, has been going back up ever since. The last 12 months have brought him 898 runs at 59.86, his best year since 2007. He is 37 years old, but he is not 37 years old in the way that Ponting or Dravid or Tendulkar were 37, with the weight of all of those awesome miles on the clock. Hussey's eyes are bright and sharp, his hands uncommonly safe, his throw a bullet. He glows with fitness and vigour. Looking at him is almost like inspecting a thoroughbred racehorse, designed for one purpose.

What the numbers or the public image cannot offer is the inner man. Whatever is inside Hussey has long been concealed by the Mr Cricket persona, a handy thing for a player who is obviously not the boofhead kind nor the tortured genius. Hussey tried to show something of it when he spoke about the 'easy life' that lies ahead of him now, away from the 'sick feeling in the stomach before every game', and he has hinted indirectly that he feels the urge to play has waned: if it has, he has disguised it well.

Geoffrey Boycott, who loved the game so much he was unable to keep a bat in his house once he had laid it down for the final time, so deep was the longing it stirred in him, has called Hussey's decision brave. 'He loves [cricket] that much, he doesn't want to hurt himself or the game by just turning up to play when the buzz has gone.'

Hussey's integrity is rock solid, and there's no reason to dispute the logic of his position. Rather, this is an argument about the length of a comet's tail. Bucking the trend of modern retirement, his has not been flagged up, and amid all of the backslapping and the handing on of the team song (Nathan Lyon? really?) its effect on Australia in an Ashes year is its most serious undertone. If Hussey's announcement was a surprise, then Australia's reaction to it was even more so. In the era of 'succession planning', it has come too soon after Ponting and at a time when the Australian batting order is at its least settled for decades. There's is not a team that can easily overcome the removal of 20,000 runs. With the exception of Clarke, Hussey is better than all of them, and better than all of his potential replacements too.

So to the comet's tail. Hussey may have sensed the end, but plainly it has not yet arrived, not as it had for Ponting, perhaps even for Tendulkar. History shows that from those first intimations that he is feeling, there are still games to be played, runs to be made. Even if his returns slipped by 10 per cent from 2012, he would still average 50.

It's possible, that after his years of selflessness, of being on the edge of greatness, of being third-wheel to the legends, something in Mike Hussey just wanted to be wanted. That would hint at an ego he has never let show, but no-one bats like he does without one. The game as a whole has taken Hussey's love for granted. It's hard to accept that it could slip away so suddenly.

Had someone sat him down, refused to accept his decision, told him his country needed him, that his true greatness could be proven in this one last haul, would Mr Cricket really have said no? That's Australia's loss, and Mike Hussey's. India and England will just be happy that he's not there.