Friday, 19 December 2014

Selectors' notes

Yesterday in (or is it at?) the Big Bash, Kevin Pietersen stepped back deep in his crease to make an angle and hit a delivery from Shaun Tait timed at 149.4kph over wide mid off for a one-bounce four, using a full swing of the bat.

Not a lot of people can do that. And not a lot of the people that can do it are eligible to play for England. Such is our loss.

Today the England selectors are 'debriefed' on the tour of Sri Lanka. Should that take no time, or a long time? It's hard to know. On the one hand, it was entirely predictable. On the other, a few weeks from the climax of another four year 'cycle', almost nothing, from the captaincy downwards, seems certain.

The internal debate has become circular. English ODI cricket is isolated from the rest of the world in the way it's played and the way it is thought about. There's lots of introspection and lot less looking outwards. Partly this is ego and attitude: richly financed and one of the 'Big Three', English cricket feels it can work out the answers for itself. And yet in the series just gone, they faced one man with 434 ODI appearances, another with 390 and another with 300. You can't buy experience like that, and you can't replicate it with statistical analysis. The most matches a single England player has ever appeared in is 197. Big Three? It is the only Test-playing nation not to have capped an ODI player 200 times.

That first Big Bash game was instructive. It may have been a T20, but one side knew how to bowl on the Adelaide wicket and one didn't. The side that did conceded 148. The side that didn't conceded 149 in twelve overs, 83 of those in the first five and a half.

The Melbourne Stars, who lost, knew how they were supposed to bat, they just couldn't do it, or at least most of them couldn't. The two that succeeded to a point were both England players, Pietersen, who made 66 from 46, and Luke Wright who got 45 from 37. Pietersen, who was miked up throughout his innings, sensed after nine or ten deliveries that a big score was needed. He knew they were already falling behind. Wright, dismissed in the twelfth over and interviewed immediately afterwards, admitted he should have scored more quickly. Both tried to react but were constrained by thoughtful bowling, and constant changes. When the Stars bowlers couldn't do the same, carnage ensued.

Luke Wright is the third highest scorer in the history of the Big Bash, yet neither he nor Pietersen will merit much discussion in the England selectors' room.

There are two types of market that judge the worth of England players. One is run by the selectors. The other is decided by the various franchises across the world. Wright, Hales, Morgan, Lumb and Pietersen are part of a fairly small group that are valued by the latter. It's true that some of England's centrally-contracted regulars may work their way onto that list were they to be more available, but equally, plenty haven't.

It's one example of how England value different skills to everyone else. They go to this World Cup with their statisticians having convinced them that totals of 220 may win matches on wickets like Adelaide and Melbourne, which can be low-scoring in certain conditions. They must be the only nation that is factoring this information into their thinking.

England also seem vaguely astonished by how many runs teams now score in the last ten - and certainly the last five - overs of their fifty. This is the impact of T20, of the kind of knowledge that players like Wright and Pietersen have built and been immersed in.

Superfically, the strike rates of England players stack up reasonably well, but perhaps strike rate has now become as blunt a tool for analysis in white ball cricket as average is in the longer game. A batsman like - for example - Pietersen may have a strike rate of 86 in ODIs and 140 in T20s, but that's over the course of an innings. What also needs measuring is the difference between the two (because this indicates how much faster he can score in a different mindset) and his fastest rate of scoring across say 18 deliveries (because this shows his 'top speed' or maximum potential).

Stats like these would offer a guide to the explosiveness that any team possesses, and in Australia, explosiveness will probably be the decisive quality over a long tournament.

I would wager that it's the players that England consider 'fringe' - Hales, Wright, Roy, Taylor, Lumb - that possess it, along with Moeen, Morgan, Jos Buttler and Ravi Bopara. They can probably afford one of the Trott/Root/Ballance type alongside them, but certainly not more.

What they truly lack of course is the fully-rounded, genuinely World class, totally seasoned and proven player. They have no equivalent of de Villiers, Kohli, Sharma, Sanga, Mahela, McCullum. There's only one Dhoni, of course, and one Gayle, one Warner.

The selectors can talk for as long as they want and no-one like that will appear, so England set off with limited expectations, which may be their only advantage. Their best bowlers are the Test specialists Broad and Anderson. The white ball doesn't seem to be swinging, which may render Anderson toothless, and Broad is returning from long-term injury, which almost always means another niggling strain or pull while the body re-toughens itself to competition.

The rest are much of a muchness. The pacemen are erratic and inexperienced. The spinners are ordinary. Pick which ones you like, because they ain't going to scare anyone.

It's another area of deep concern. A generation of promising quicks, from Finn to Meaker to - yes - Dernbach and more, have withered on the vine, victims of coaches telling them to do too much. An outside view is needed. The suspicion of any kind of unconventional spin seems irresolvable too.

As a country, in the development of bowlers, England are reaping what they have sown.

So roll on the squad announcement. Roll on the arguments and the handwringing. When it's all over, we can start the whole process again.

NB: My squad - Morgan (c), Pietersen, Hales, Moeen, Taylor, Root, Bopara, Wright, Buttler, Broad, Finn, Tredwell, Woakes, Jordan, Plunkett.

Monday, 15 December 2014

The Blaming of Alastair Cook

Don't blame Alastair Cook for having ambition.

Don't blame Alastair Cook for wanting to captain his country.

Don't blame Alastair Cook for believing he can play one day cricket.

Don't blame Alastair Cook for trying to take the opportunities that he's been given.

Don't blame Alastair Cook for keeping faith in himself.

Don't blame Alastair Cook for being stubborn.

Don't blame Alastair Cook for wanting to appear at a World Cup.

Don't blame Alastair Cook for being seduced by dreams of winning it.

Don't blame Alastair Cook for worrying about what the effects of not being ODI captain may be on his Test captaincy.

Don't blame Alastair Cook for getting out. He's not trying to.

In short, don't blame Alastair Cook for doing what he's doing, because in all honesty we'd probably do the same thing too. Or at least those with the mindset of an international cricketer would. Many of the qualities that irritate in defeat are the same ones that are essential to success.

Cook and his captaincy are a lightning rod for the frustration of watching England play ODI cricket, something that they have been reliably average at since about 1992. If Cook is not fit for purpose  then the attention should be on those who are enabling him to stay in place.

What's going on with Peter Moores? How well is he doing? Is his vision for this England team any less prosaic than last time?

What about Paul Downton, iron-man decision-maker? How clear have the reasons - long-promised - for his big decisions become?

Both can give thanks for the crumbling of India last summer - and in fairness, the brilliance of James Anderson in toppling them. Without that series win, their reign would look grim indeed. A poor World Cup a year into their plots and plans would contextualise their efforts further.

No-one likes the sound of a stuck record, but the support of Alastair Cook as ODI captain has its roots in the post-Ashes meltdown. Blaming him for stubbornly believing he should be captain is like blaming Vince Neil for having a good time: it's simply the nature of the beast. Cook is there to compete, and that is what he is doing.

England's problem is not that Alastair Cook is ODI captain. England's problem is the thinking of those that have kept him there. They're the ones that see English ODI cricket in that way, distinct and distant from the rest of the world.