Sunday, January 26, 2014

New Zealand v West Indies, T20, The Cake Tin, Wellington, 15 January 2014

There is a gap in these columns where the report on the final two days of the second Test between New Zealand and the West Indies should be. A pleasant weekend at the Basin was cancelled because the West Indies had folded like the Himalayas in the Late Cretaceous Period halfway through the third afternoon.

To see a team struggling so in the colours worn by Sobers, Lloyd, Richards, Marshall and so many other great players is unbearably sad for someone whose interest in cricket was sparked by the joy and skill of the great West Indian teams of the sixties and seventies.

New Zealand won the Test series two-nil. It would have been three had somebody in the home camp had the sense to keep an eye on the rain radar in Dunedin and given the batsmen the hurry up in their pursuit of a modest target of 112. The ODI series was shared 2-2 (just enough to keep New Zealand ahead of Bangladesh in the rankings) and New Zealand won the first T20 game by 81 runs.

The West Indies won the toss and chose to bat on an evening when the absence of cloud persuaded spectators unfamiliar with the Cake Tin’s penguin-friendly micro-climate to leave their jerseys and jackets at home, a mistake most make only once.

A feature of international one-day and T20 cricket in New Zealand this summer has been the NZ$100,000 on offer at each match for spectator catches. There are strict conditions: catches have to be one-handed and the catcher has to be wearing the sponsor’s gaudy tee shirt ($25 a throw) and lanyard. As a purist I might be expected to be sniffy about this, but it’s great fun. It also makes people watch the cricket more; the Mexican wave did not start until the game was almost over. Only one prize was claimed in the five games against the West Indies. The sponsors have banked on greed-inspired confusion to reduce the chances of their having to cough up; with 100,000 grand at stake, cries of “yours” are rare. At the Cake Tin today a catch was taken, by a man holding chips in his other hand, but he was not wearing the shirt. The best chance was foiled by another spectator hurling themselves in front of the guy poised to take the catch. Entertaining as it is, I predict that there will be trouble before long. Either someone will hurl themselves over the edge of a stand or they will biff someone else who gets in the way.

My Khandallah correspondent was keen that I should invest in a shirt and had an alarmingly high expectation that I would return to My Life in Cricket Scorecards Towers pockets stuffed with cash. I explained that the nearest I have come to taking a crowd catch in almost half a century of spectating was at Mote Park in the eighties when a six was heading straight for me in my boundary deckchair, in which I became unfortunately entangled as I rose to take the catch. Only by dropping to the ground at the last moment did I avoid a serious head injury. I did not buy a shirt today.

Lendl Simmons got the West Indies away to a decent start with 29, 26 of which came from boundaries. The best batting of the innings came at the end from Dinesh Ramdin who bustled along intelligently to an unbeaten 55 from 31 balls, taking his side to 159, about par it was generally thought. Nathan McCullum was outstanding, conceding just 17 from his four overs. The pace of Adam Milne—150 kph or thereabouts—was also effective, and most encouraging for those of us who hanker for the days when Shane Bond put the wind up batsmen across the globe. Milne has been injured subsequently, of course.

At 79 for five it looked as if New Zealand were missing the boat, but a partnership of 68 in seven overs between Taylor and Ronchi took them to the brink of victory. This was the new Ross Taylor with added contemplation, and he has gone cold turkey on the slog sweep. The big hitting was left to Luke Ronchi, who not only hits, but hits straight. Readers should wipe from their memories my recent call for him to be replaced by BJ Watling.

The fielding was the difference in the end. New Zealand’s performance was almost flawless and at times—Corey Anderson’s contortions to knock back a ball that was in the air at least a foot over the boundary—astonishing. The West Indies missed four chances, none easy, but any which might have changed the result.

It was a good game of cricket, within the constraints of T20 at least. There were ebbs and flows and the result was in doubt almost throughout. It will be back to the Cake Tin in a couple of weeks for an ODI against India.


Friday, January 10, 2014

The Case for a Specialist Captain

It has to be acknowledged that My Life in Cricket Scorecards is not renowned for its topicality. Match reports appear weeks after the matches they describe have been played. Events of significance pass by without comment or acknowledgement. My considered views on the great issues of the time—Packer, Bodyline, whether Dr Grace is a true amateur—remain in formulation. I’ll get back to you any year soon.

But I have an idea. It is about the England captaincy. The ECB has let it be known that Alastair Cook will remain as England captain despite England’s five-nil loss in the Ashes. The patient is well, the post mortem superfluous. At the SCG over the past few days Cook has appeared hollowed out, bewildered by the situation, one of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author.
I was put in mind of David Gower in 1989, a similar series which began with England as favourites and ended in a drubbing. By midway through the fifth Test, at Trent Bridge, England found themselves three-nil down and following on 347 behind. Captain Gower suddenly seized the moment and promoted himself to open, brushing aside young Martyn Moxon who had come all the way from Leeds for that very purpose. Gower was bowled by Geoff Lawson for five.

The same degree of desperation to do something, anything, however ill-advised, was evident in Cook’s batting at Sydney. In the first innings he padded up to be lbw and in the second flailed away uncharacteristically and briefly. It is fortunate that England’s next Test is not until mid June, against Sri Lanka. This gives Cook (who should be excused the pointless ODI/T20 visit to the Caribbean next month, and who is not involved in the T20 World Cup) time to recover his equilibrium and enthusiasm (Gower was omitted completely from West Indies tour that followed the ’89 debacle).
But what if he doesn’t? If the burden of the captaincy neutralises Cook as a batsman? If he is not actually a decent captain? Nobody is suggesting that the defeat was down to tactical errors in the field, though a number of commentators have questioned his understanding of the needs of his bowlers in terms of the fields he sets them. There is no question that the tempo of England’s cricket has slowed since he took over. In their now vulnerable position England need a captain who will make the best of the resources available, nuture the fresh talent and inspire the troops. It is not clear that Cook is this man.

Of course Cook, along with almost every other international captain these days, has the disadvantage of not having had the opportunity to learn to be a captain before assuming the role. Until twenty years ago it was unusual for the England captain not to be (or have been) a county captain. Mike Atherton was the first modern exception to this rule. Since the expansion of England’s international programme in 2000 international players have had little opportunity (though that may not be the word they would use) to play county cricket, so the captain will almost inevitably lack experience in the role.
This disadvantages the incumbent, but also means that there are no proven captains in the team ready to take over. Part of the reason for sticking with Cook appears to be the lack of an appropriate successor.

Stuart Broad seems to be the most popular alternative. That would involve overcoming the widely held prejudice against fast bowlers being captains, one that I have to say I share (two words: Bob Willis). Broad does seem too volatile to be captain. For a start, the DRS referrals would be used up in the first 20 minutes of every innings.

Ian Bell, for reasons unexplained, is not seen as captaincy material. Michael Vaughan has called for Kevin Pietersen to be made vice-captain: It is a surprisingly persuasive piece, but it would be like recalling Trotsky from Mexico. Andy Flower would almost certainly prefer the deft application of an ice pick. Prior and Trott are both out of consideration, so Cook it is. Unless…

Ask “who are the best England captains over the past fifty years?” and a debate about the respective merits of Mike Brearley and Raymond Illingworth should ensue. Both were specialist captains who would not have played nearly as many Tests as they did had they not been captain. Tony Lewis, Keith Fletcher, Mike Denness and, ludicrously, Chris Cowdrey were other, less successful, specialist captains of England.

The option of picking a captain from outside the squad, or the central contract system should at least be considered. Who would the contenders be? People who follow the county game more closely than I am able to these days will have their own ideas, but a look through the list of current county captains throws up three contenders.

Paul Collingwood led Durham to the County Championship last year. He has a distinguished international record and has learned more about captaincy since being unimpressive in the role in ODIs a few years ago (though he did lead the winning T20 England side in 2010). Collingwood would not have credibility with the players from the start, unlike other candidates who would have to earn it. His batting has deteriorated; he averaged under 30 for Durham in 2013. But he would still be one of the best fielders and could still produce nuggets of innings from No 7.

Rob Key resumes the Kent captaincy in 2014 after a season’s sabbatical. He has the reputation as one of the county game’s best skippers, is well-liked and is the same cosy shape as Darren Lehmann, the coach who has put the fun back into the Australians. Key is still batting well and could contribute usefully at No 6.

James Foster remains one of the finest wicketkeepers around and averaged in the mid-30s last season. He would fill a Prior-shaped hole in the team (by the way, why is it widely assumed that Prior should return after two shocking series; it’s very odd?). Foster has captained Essex for four years and deserves to have more caps to his name, though I would like to know more about how good a leader people think he is.

If they stick with Cook, another option is to ask Essex to permit him to be captain in the Championship for the five or six games that the England players could play before the international season begins, thanks to the absurdly early start to the domestic season.

A rushed decision into reappointment would be foolish; there is a rare gap of five months in England’s Test schedule providing the opportunity for considered decisions about captain and coach.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Wellington v Central Districts, Plunket Shield, Basin Reserve, 7 – 10 November 2013

The holidays are here at last, providing the opportunity to catch up with unfinished business. Here’s an account of the final two days of a Plunket Shield game earlier this season.
The southerly was back at the Basin like a secret policeman enforcing a ban on summer, and kept me away until lunch on Saturday, the third day. In my absence the Wellington batting had collapsed from 149 for two overnight to 217 for eight, 72 behind Central Districts’ 289.

But a fightback was underway, and I took my seat just after the ninth-wicket partnership of Jeetan Patel and Andy McKay passed 50. Patel hit ten fours in his 76-ball 62; he is back to his best batting form this season, aggressive but rationally so. McKay has always looked better than his perennial last-man status would suggest. Even so, 35 against his name on the scoreboard can turn a tailender’s head and have him believing in false deities like the God of Knowing Where Your Off Stump Is. So it was with McKay, who made the usual sign of veneration—lifting his bat high above his head—and had his off stump removed by Doug Bracewell. Even so, the ninth-wicket partnership of 76 gave Wellington a two-run first-innings lead.
It is unusual these days for neither side to pass 300 in the first innings at the run-happy Basin, so I was keen to work out why. By the end of the afternoon I was none the wiser but able to state with some certainty what the reason was not. Wellington’s strategy at the start of Central Districts’ second innings consisted completely of short-pitched bowling, unusually with both the boundary fielders behind square on the legside fine of 45 degrees. This was spectacularly unsuccessful. After 15 overs Central Districts were 68 without loss, and the men in the deep might as well have kept their hands in their pockets so undeployed were they.

When Brent Arnel pitched the ball up he was immediately rewarded by trapping Jamie How leg before. Thereafter, Wellington concentrated on containment and waited for the declaration. Ben Smith scored a competent maiden hundred, Arnel took four wickets and Patel was the pick of the bowlers, conceding just 51 from 28 overs.
The declaration came at lunch on Sunday and, left Wellington 310 to win in a minimum of 64 overs, which seemed just on the generous side of about right. It would have been less munificent had Jesse Ryder still been a Wellington player. Josh Brodie was run out after a mix up and Michael Papps was bowled by Bracewell, but the afternoon was one that will make members of the Central Districts team wake screaming in the night years hence.

It was as inept a defence of a target in a run chase as I have seen in many a day. For a start Doug Bracewell, leader of the Central Districts attack, was terrible. Some have expressed surprise that Bracewell is not in the international team at the moment; they wouldn’t if they had seen him bowl that day. His line and length were all over the place, and he gave the batsmen far too many safe scoring opportunities. And dear God, the no-balls. Ten of them in 17 overs.
Tarun Nethula was even worse in this respect, bowling eight no-balls in 11 overs, from which he conceded 74 runs. And he’s a leg spinner! Murdoch was bowled by one of the illegal deliveries. Given that Wellington reached their target with just three overs to spare, the no-balls alone were decisive. That very morning I had heard Craig Cumming, a sound judge, touting Nethula for selection for the Test team. Again, nobody at the Basin for the fourth day would have selected him for anything.

The captaincy of Kieran Noema-Barnett was also odd. Early in the innings pacey Andrew Mathieson had caused some problems for the Wellington batsmen and had forced Stephen Murdoch to retire hurt on 30 with an egg-sized swelling below his eye. Yet Mathieson was kept out of the attack as Pollard, Franklin and Woodcock scored at liberty off Bracewell and Nethula. When a change was made it was Weston-super-Mare’s finest, Peter Trego, who was brought on to bowl a few overs of assorted nonsense, mostly down the legside, that did nothing to staunch the flow.
When Mathieson finally returned—into the wind, mark you— he removed both Franklin and Colson, but it was just too late to make a difference. Also, despite an economical early spell, left-arm medium-fast bowler Ben Wheeler was left in the outfield for most Wellington innings, being brought back with only 15 needed.

Noema-Barnett’s handling of his attack was unimaginative and inflexible. His field placing was no better. With fewer than 30 needed there were no close catchers for Woodcock even though by that stage there was no question of Central Districts being able to restrict Wellington in the time remaining. Jeetan Patel was aggressive and, despite numerous edges and lbw appeals, along with Woodcock he took Wellington home.

Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket

In the same package as this year’s Wisden , there arrived Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket , co-authored by Stephen Fay ...