Familiar England failings exposed again

It is an all-too-familiar tale for England in the One-Day arena.  Conservative batting, unimaginative bowling, a general lack of pragmatism and inventiveness – I could go on.  Time and again they are getting schooled by teams who are playing a brand of cricket which is light-years ahead.  Against an India team that were comprehensively outclassed in the Test series, England are finding that revenge is a dish served pretty chilly.  Losses by 6 wickets, 9 wickets and 133 runs are not close encounters; they are absolute thrashings.  So why is it that a team which triumphed 3-1 in the Test series be so totally outplayed not three weeks later?

            England have historically been ambivalent at best towards One-Day cricket.  Players are rightly brought-up to view Test cricket as the ultimate goal, and pyjama cricket as an added extra.  In this country especially, One-Day internationals are usually tagged on the end of an intense Test Series where interest is waning from both players and spectators alike.  I am yet to meet any serious fan who prefers the shorter form of the game.  Overseas however the One-Day arena is treasured, not least on the subcontinent where crowds are much larger than for Test cricket.  Nevertheless, England should be commended for preserving the popularity of the 5-day game over the crash-bang-wallop of limited-overs cricket.

            Yet it is the lack of any crash-bang-wallopesque cricket which is currently hindering the national side.  No one loves orthodox cricket shots more than me, but there is a time and a place for them – the test arena.  One-Day cricket has moved on.  No longer can one patiently build an innings at a leisurely strike-rate.  The requirement is that batsmen attack the bowling from ball one.  As scores of 300 become commonplace at a rate of one run per ball, a conservative approach is doomed to failure.  Yes there are situations where a pragmatic approach is prudent, but the time when pottering along to set a target of 250 has passed.

            So how do England escape the mire and become realistic challengers for the World Cup in just 6 month’s time?  With great difficulty.  As long as Alastair Cook is at the top of the order England will continue to struggle.  Get off to a fast start and the middle-order can relax and play their shots knowing that a competitive total is almost guaranteed – and this puts pressure on the bowling team.  If, like England, the openers do not take advantage of the fielding restrictions in the first 10 overs, the team is always playing catch-up.  It is not a recipe for long-term success.

            I don’t necessarily think there needs to be wholesale personnel changes to the team.  The basic spine of Root, Buttler, Tredwell, Bell, Anderson and Broad (if fit) is strong.  I like the introduction of Alex Hales at the top of the order who, if he stays in for 20-30 overs, can take the game away from the opposition.  Steven Finn is another who I rate very highly and who causes batsmen real problems whatever form of the game he plays.  He is key to England’s prospects of success in the future.

            Two selections baffle me.  Eoin Morgan must have some very incriminating photos of James Whittaker because his continued presence in the England side is perplexing.  He has not played an innings of substance or significance for at least two years and often wastes valuable balls scratching around for form.  Gary Ballance would be a much better alternative in the middle order.

Equally, Ben Stokes has never convinced me as player of international class.  With bat in hand his recent form has made Chris Martin look like Sachin Tendulkar – he has also been expensive with the ball.  The team’s all-rounder should be able to contribute in at least one facet of the game but Stokes is doing neither and is currently a waste of a position in the team.  I feel he is still living off his exploits over the winter in Australia.  Ravi Bopara’s international experience of almost 10 years has been bizzarely jettisoned and I would like to see him back in the fold as soon as possible.  His batting is far superior to Stokes’ and he can also bowl troublesome cutters that opposition batsmen find oddly difficult to hit.

In an ideal world England would have a player like Surrey’s Jason Roy or Nottinghamshire’s James Taylor in the side.  Both have been selected for the one-off T20 international and, after his exploits in the Natwest T20 Blast, it will be interesting to see how Roy fares on the international stage – he will certainly improve the strike-rate.  Taylor has merited his place in the squad through sheer weight of runs in the domestic 50-over competition and he is certainly knocking on the door of both the One-Day and Test squads.  After bursting on the scene so spectacularly earlier this year, Chris Jordan’s star has waned slightly.  His bowling is still too erratic but he remains a useful lower-order batsman and I think he is worth persevering with.

Not even the most optimistic England fan could envisage Alastair Cook’s men lifting the World Cup trophy in Australia in March.  Even though the team has some class operators, they don’t produce the goods often enough when it matters.  If one were to look at the best teams in the world, they all have a plethora of match-winners and usually at least one player steps up to the plate and performs.  England currently lack this (apart from possibly Anderson), and consequently, although it pains me to say it, they won’t win the World Cup.

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England wrong to jettison Pietersen so soon

England’s dismal display at the recent T20 World Cup re-inforced the view that they have made a massive error in ditching Kevin Pietersen.  With someone of KP’s class and experience in the side one doubts whether England would have suffered that humiliating defeat to the Netherlands.  But it is not even in the crash-bang-wallop of the one-day arena that Pietersen’s absence will be felt most strongly.  With the Surrey man out of the picture, only two of the top 7 are nailed-on certainties for the first Test against Sri Lanka in June.  Pietersen himself has admitted that he still has the hunger and desire for Test cricket, and with England’s top order in disarray, it seems like an absolute no-brainer to keep him.  Even at 33 years-old he still has two to three seasons at the top level left in him.  So why did England feel the need to dispense with his services?

 

All this talk from Alastair Cook, Andy Flower and various ECB bigwigs of the team wanting to move in a new direction seems like a load of dog-turd to me.  The fact is that Pietersen didn’t fit in to the authoritarian atmosphere that Flower had created.  He had the audacity to question certain things and, god-forbid, speak his mind.  Because of this, he created tension within the management and the team too.  My concern is that Flower and co. refused to adapt to Pietersen’s single-minded nature.  You hear talk in football about coaches having great man-managing ability.  Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho are two such examples of managers who could mould a group of superstars into a coherent and ultimately successful team.  Why was this not the case with Pietersen?  I have no doubt that he could sometimes be difficult to manage, but therefore why wasn’t he treated a little differently so as to coax out of him maximum performance and commitment to the cause?  Every team has a maverick who doesn’t necessarily fit-in.  The challenge is to embrace this and enable them to maximise their rare talent, not to try and supress it.

 

I have a little theory about this whole saga.  Pietersen was born and raised in South Africa and despite his ‘English’ nationality, has a very ‘South African’ approach to the game.  The culture is highly competitive – aggressive even, and there is a huge will to win at all costs.  Pietersen embodies this culture.  He is a winner, believes he is the best and wants to show everyone he’s the best.  He was often criticised for giving his wicket away to needless attacking shots, but in his world, he wanted to dominate the bowling and grind the fielding side into the ground.  It was not enough to simply occupy the crease and stay in.  It is an approach that, despite the criticism, brought him 23 Test centuries and over 8,000 runs.  Now Pietersen has a very similar record to England captain Alastair Cook, but you don’t hear people chastising Cook for giving his wicket away.  This is because Cook accumulates his runs in a very unassuming fashion.  He rarely plays extravagant shots and likes to score methodically and ‘correctly’ – in short, in a quintessentially English way.  KP by contrast liked to score his runs with authority, taking on the bowling with unorthodox strokeplay and with an air of brashness and arrogance – namely, a more ‘South African’ approach.  I think this insistence on playing his natural game combined with his intense ‘winning’ attitude off-the-field jarred somewhat against England’s more traditional and conservative values.  There has also been a nagging feeling, and I include myself in this, that Pietersen didn’t quite make the most of his extraordinary ability.  The truly great batsmen of the era; Kallis, Ponting, Lara, Tendulkar, Dravid, Jayawardena, Sangakkara, all average above 50 in Test cricket.  Pietersen’s average of 47, whilst very impressive, does not place him in that exalted category.  There is a frustration that, with the talent at his disposal, he should have achieved slightly more than he did which could have contributed to his eventual downfall.

 

Pietersen’s ‘sacking’ is not a first.  A recent example is the John Terry/Rio Ferdinand saga of 2012, when, despite clearly being good enough, the Manchester United man was not selected by Roy Hodgson for the Euros squad because of the personal differences he had with Terry.  Ironically, a few months later, Terry himself was told he would no longer be selected for England, yet finds himself in a similar situation.  Arguably he is one of the four best centre-backs in England but cannot go to the World Cup in Brazil this summer.  The difference between these cases is that whilst Terry and Ferdinand were good players in their own right, they were not the best in the team.  Pietersen is palpably still the best batsman England have at their disposal, yet they refuse to pick him.  One can’t imagine Steven Gerrard, for example, being dropped just because he isn’t that popular in the dressing-room.  The whole saga has been conducted in a very childish manner.  Someone needs to sit Flower, Cook, the ECB and Pietersen down and just bang their heads together.  I’m still hopeful I will see KP in an England shirt again (as a Surrey fan I will hopefully get to watch him a fair amount), but with all that’s happened, it unfortunately doesn’t look likely.

 

The timing of Pietersen’s removal is made all the more bizarre in that there is no ready-made replacement waiting in the wings.  Obviously, players of Pietersen’s class and style come round once in a generation, but I have high hopes for James Taylor, who has been on England’s radar for a number of years.  He played a few Tests in 2012 against South Africa and looked solid but since then, Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow have jumped ahead of him in the queue.  If he can overcome his fitness problems, Samit Patel is another who has oodles of talent, but time is running out for the podgy Nottinghamshire player to make a mark in Test cricket.  Eoin Morgan has pulled-out of the IPL in an effort to force his way into the England side but I think he is vastly overrated and will never be a Test regular.  Bairstow is another who has a good county record but doesn’t have the requisite technique to succeed at the highest level.  He has had enough chances to stake his claim and has never really convinced.  Aside from those mentioned, the early county season is a chance for someone to force his way into the selector’s reckoning  given that there are no fewer than four places in the top 7 up for grabs (Jonathan Trott has to earn his re-call to the side à la Graham Thorpe in 2003).  Whoever is picked as Pietersen’s replacement against Sri Lanka in June will have some enormous shoes to fill.

England’s batsmen need to improve

England’s 170-run victory on Sunday was seriously impressive but it papered over the obvious cracks in the batting order.  Totals of 232 and 213 don’t really cut the mustard at international level and they needed their bowlers and some very injudicious shots from New Zealand to get them out of jail.  Against better teams they would have come unstuck and they cannot afford to repeat these batting collapses in the Ashes.

            England’s batting, especially in the first innings was worryingly pedestrian.  To score 160 in 80 overs is even slower than Geoffrey Boycott’s pet tortoise.  True, the outfield was overly lush which limited boundaries and the New Zealand bowlers were very accurate with the swinging ball, but England seemed to go into their shell instead of looking to rotate the strike with singles.  One man who was particularly guilty of this was Nick Compton; not naturally the quickest scorer in the world he scratched around for a painful hour and a half for 16 paltry runs.  Equally, his opening partner, captain Alastair Cook took two and a half hours for his 32.  Now there is nothing wrong with slow scoring as long as one is positive in one’s intent.  It was the first innings of the international summer so it is totally understandable that the batsmen were not at their most fluent but it seemed that at points, England were just aiming to survive instead of making the bowler think; for instance by batting out of the crease to disrupt the New Zealand attack’s length.

            The batsmen were much improved in the second innings until a wonderful spell by Tim Southee put the brakes on England’s total.  Joe Root and Jonathan Trott looked in good nick.  Root in particular has a very solid technique which has helped him flourish in the international arena.  He has a knack of making the bowler bowl to him so consequently he can manoeuvre the ball around the ground almost at will.  His mentality is impressive too – he is not afraid to knuckle down and build an innings patiently, as he demonstrated over the winter in India and New Zealand.

            However, England cannot rely on a rookie to score their runs.  It worries me that when Alistair Cook fails, the rest of the batting order looks vulnerable.  Trott is not scoring the volume of runs of old and Ian Bell, though often delightfully fluid, never inspires total confidence.  The brittleness of the batting was exemplified by Matt Prior’s pair at Lords.  England have relied heavily on his runs in the past 18 months but as a wicket-keeper, he cannot dig them out of a hole every match.  His two failures more than anything exposed England’s shortcomings.  I’m not convinced at all by Jonny Bairstow either.  He scored a fighting 95 against the South Africans at Lords last year and contributed 41 in England’s 1st innings last week but his technique for me still looks a little loose and he is yet to dispel the rumours that he is susceptible to a bit of chin music.  The Yorkshireman has a very good eye but for me that is not enough to thrive at international level.

            Various ‘experts’ have been suggesting that the return of Kevin Pietersen would solve all the problems.  There is no doubt that Pietersen is a wonderful cricketer and any team would be boosted by his presence, but even the Surrey man is not always a safe pair of hands.  Apart from his amazing hundred in India, he contributed relatively little in the four tests in the sub-continent.  Everyone waxes lyrical about his talents and rightly so, but time and again he throws his wicket away far too cheaply for a man of his undoubted ability.

            A lower order with the likes of Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann does not contribute often enough with the bat.  Broad in particular has a wonderful technique but lacks the application required to build an innings.  He needs to realise that he cannot just thrash the bat an anything outside off-stump.  Patience and judgement are required to score runs, not just a good eye.  Broad has more than enough ability to become a test number 7 – his century against Pakistan in 2010 is evidence enough, albeit against a supremely dodgy Pakistan attack.  At least he made a timely return to form with an entertaining, run-a-ball 26 in the 2nd innings.

            My criticism of England’s batting is doing a major disservice to the Kiwi’s bowling attack.  The seam trio of Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Neil Wagner bowled with no lack of skill and accuracy which were at times too much for the England batsmen.  Not since the likes of Chris Cairns, Dion Nash and Shane Bond have the New Zealanders had such a probing pace attack.  Boult impressed me, giving Compton a torrid time, exposing the flaws in his game.  He has the ability to swing the ball both ways and bowls that nagging Andy Caddick/Glenn McGrath length that is so difficult to score off.  Southee is also no mug with the ball.  His devastating spells on the third evenings and fourth mornings brought New Zealand within sight of a famous victory and he thoroughly deserved his 10-wicket haul.  I like his aggression – he is a tall man and is not afraid to mix it up with odd bumper and keep the batsman guessing.

            One thing that flummoxed me was Kiwi skipper Brendon McCullum’s decision not to have a fielder at point.  Instead he had a gully and a cover point in front of square, and this cost his team a mountain of runs, particularly in the 2nd innings.  Root and Trott were scoring at will through that area and yet McCullum stubbornly refused to change his field.  For me, point is an indispensable position; he not only stops boundaries and catches loose drives, but he can stop the singles too.  It is a no-brainer.

            Bruce Martin’s and Daniel Vettori’s injuries have left the Kiwis with a bowling vacancy for today’s test at Headingley.  It could be a blessing in disguise because the ground is traditionally a seamer’s paradise and the conditions are not dissimilar to back in New Zealand.  Doug Bracewell may well find himself thrust into the fourth seamer role.  He proved in March against England that he is not to be taken lightly.  Moreover Kane Williamson is more than handy as an occasional off-spinner and can be relied upon to bowl an extended spell if required.

            Before this series everyone was brazenly predicting an England walkover.  Did they not pay attention to the matches a couple of months previous?  New Zealand came within a whisker of winning that series.  This Kiwi side is not as soft as everyone thinks.  They do have a worrying propensity for a batting catastrophe (as well as Sunday, they were steamrollered for a sub-100 score in South Africa over the winter) but they also have some talented young cricketers who on their day and with a bit more experience can be a match for any side.  I wouldn’t put it past them to surprise England over the next 5 days.