Sunday, February 22, 2015

New Zealand v England, World Cup, 20 February 2015, the Cake Tin

The other day Corey Anderson said that the New Zealand team was a “juggernaut”, which in Britain describes a large truck. That makes England the rabbit transfixed by the headlights, unable to evade the inevitable squashing.

It was sheer joy at the Cake Tin yesterday. For a start, it was sweltering, a word we use sparingly in Wellington. My Khandallah correspondent, who has spent her life under the scorching sun of the upper North Island, passed the first two hours charting the approach of the shade towards our seats.

And I saw the best one-day bowling that I have ever seen; the most spectacular innings I have ever seen; and captaincy so rich in innovation and imagination that it moved me.

McCullum’s field-setting was worth the price of admission. He makes Mike Brearley—who once stationed a helmet at short extra cover—appear cautious and unresourceful by comparison.

The New Zealand captain is in the process of rewriting the one-day captaincy manual. There were three close catchers, then four, then five, then—for Morgan—six. It was breath-taking. McCullum rejects orthodoxy as if it were carrying the plague. His strategy is to restrict scoring by taking wickets. Ross Taylor could play for another 20 years if he can stand at first slip all innings.

McCullum’s conception of cricket’s possibilities is different and exciting. If all captains would commit to attack as he does, all fears about the future of 50-over cricket would be allayed. My Life in Cricket Scorecards is no musician, but watching Brendon McCullum lead a cricket team must be what it would have been like watching von Karajan at his peak conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. A little louder from the piccolos, a second gully. Slightly slower cellos, third man move squarer.

Regular wickets kept the pressure on England in the first part of the innings. Eoin Morgan looked as scratchy as a flea-ridden tabby, but is a good player who could relocate his form at any moment. At 104 for three, Morgan and Joe Root seemed to be close to restoring parity. Who would have guessed then that the game had fewer than 20 overs left to run?

They were a bit slow, mainly thanks to a miserly spell of six overs for 17 runs from Daniel Vettori, who reminded me of Derek Underwood. This was partly because Vettori is a highly skilled and very clever slow left-armer, but also because the batsmen were playing his reputation as much as his bowling. Time and time again I saw batsmen retreat into caution against Underwood because of the years they had spent watching the consequences of failure. Joe Root and his generation cannot remember a time when Vettori was anything other than a one-day tourniquet and it shows in their approach.

England appeared to have decided to play Vettori out, but Morgan’s resolve broke and he went for the big straight shot. My correspondent and myself had a perfect view of the ball coming towards us. It appeared to be about to pitch safe just short of the long-on boundary. But Adam Milne lengthened his last couple of strides before leaping full length, taking the ball in two hands in mid-air and landing safely. That was the moment the game turned on.

McCullum struck with the certainty of a lioness stalking a wounded wildebeest. Southee was brought on at once and immediately bowled Taylor with an outswinger so beautiful that Mark Antony would have spurned Cleopatra to kiss it.

Of course, other captains might have brought back their strike bowler against a new batsman, but fewer would have resisted the temptation to save some of that bowler’s overs for the death. They would have settled for 210 for eight. Only McCullum would have also bowled his other strike bowler out at the same time. 123 all out.

Seven wickets fell for nineteen runs. As an overseer of collapses Peter Moores could arrange a job swap with the Greek finance minister. Joe Root barely faced a ball during these overs, an example of the lack of intelligence that characterised England’s day.

Tim Southee was brilliant. Seven for 33 was the best performance for New Zealand in ODIs. His control of the ball and use of the crease could not have been bettered by Alderman, or even Hadlee. Four of the seven were bowled, all with a graze of the off stump (love the flashing bails by the way). The swing was not huge, but with such precision it did not have to be.

There was no doubt that McCullum would go after the bowling. His name and “steady accumulation” are antonyms. But the ferocity and accomplishment was beyond prediction, best recorded in his scoring sequence: 160044444016404606666401W. It was slugging not slogging, the quickest fifty in World Cup history (previous holder: B McCullum). As in every other aspect of the game, McCullum incinerates the text book and does it his way.

Anderson, Finn and Broad are seasoned international bowlers, but the experience of having an opening batsman rampaging down the pitch in the first overs appeared new to them. There was no plan. They didn’t know what to do.

The four consecutive sixes were off Steve Finn in an arc between cover and long off. One worries for Finn for whom, even more than most bowlers, confidence is the glue that holds his game together. Half an hour in the public stocks would have been no more humiliating.

On a desperate day for England, one member of the team deserves special mention. A woolly resident of any field in New Zealand selected at random would have brought more brainpower to the game than Stuart Broad managed. Who knows why, coming in at 110 for seven, he thought that the best way to deal with Southee (five for 28) was to try to belt him over long on? His first ball to McCullum fed the batsman’s signature lofted cut, and the rest of the over allowed the New Zealand captain to set off flying. That Broad should finish the game with a high-wide bouncer that flew over Buttler’s head to the boundary was somehow fitting.

I can barely express how much I enjoyed this game. New Zealand pushing back the boundaries of what is possible. England gloriously hopeless. Just when you think that cricket has given you all it can along comes Brendon McCullum who says “let’s make it a little bit better”. 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Two ODIs at the Cake Tin

New Zealand v Sri Lanka, 29 January 2015

The Sri Lanka game was the seventh (seventh!) of a series already won by New Zealand. Everything now is part of the World Cup phoney war.

The World Cup will define how we remember this season, but for me “the summer of Sangakkara” would be fine. After the test match double hundred at the Basin, the great man treated us to a sumptuous century here, a Shakespearian vocabulary of shots making his bat loquacious. Only after he passed three figures did he depart from the orthodox, and it was somehow unfitting, like discovering Darcey Bussell line dancing.

Sangakkara put on 104 for the second wicket with Tillakaratne Dilshan, at which stage Sri Lanka looked set for a total well on the sunny side of 300, but they lost their puff during the powerplay and mustered only 99 runs from the last 15 overs.

As it turned out, that was plenty.

The Guptill question currently troubles New Zealand as the Schleswig-Holstein question perplexed the diplomats of mid-nineteenth century Europe. The question is “Is he any good?”. I think that he is, but continues to be unfortunate in that the only place for him is as opener. A run in the middle order or as a finisher at some point and he would be established. Here, he was out first ball.

That the World Cup squads had to be announced six weeks or more before the first ball is bowled is obviously ludicrous, redolent of an age when the teams would travel by steam packet, but it works in Guptill’s favour. It removes the question of whether he should be in the squad; he has tenure so will be given every opportunity to get into form. Even so, if I were Guptill I’d make sure that I didn’t have a selector behind me when I walked downstairs for the next couple of weeks or so.

Wickets fell regularly until, at 141 for six, the deal appeared done. But Ronchi and Vettori put on 74, including 52 in the powerplay, to bring New Zealand back into the game. However, Kulasekere yorked Ronchi off the last ball of the powerplay and that was that.

It was good to see Vettori back at his crease-wandering, angle-inventing best, but he went for six-and-a-half an over. I hope that the nagging feeling that it is a tournament too far for him proves off beam.

Forty-eight hours later we were back, Sri Lanka’s pleasant blue kit replaced by Pakistan’s luminescent Close Encounters of the Third Kind green for the first of two match series (though series isn’t quite the word for two matches).

While the other cricketing countries have been playing each other in a bewildering number of ODIs, Pakistan have remained in their tent. It showed.

Having been put in (McCullum’s probability-challenging sequence of toss losses has finally abated), only a thoroughbred half-century from Misbah-ul-Haq was other than negligible from the top order, and the final total of 210 was a hundred short.

Yet the Pakistan innings brought us the most memorable cricket of the two matches. Shahid Afridi scored 67 of the 76 runs added while he was in, and took only 29 balls about it. Of course, he’s been peppering the stands for the best part of twenty years, but I had not seen him do so in the flesh before, so had never appreciated the high degree of intelligence and science that he brings to the task. It’s great that there are still some things that you have to be there to appreciate.

This was as far from slogging as Gershwin is from the Eurovision Song Contest. He was not as premeditated as many less successful practitioners of the crash-bang arts. Most shots were a response to the ball as bowled. Setting a field to Afridi when he is firing as well as this is chasing shadows, he finds the empty spaces round the boundary so well.

Mohammad Irfan is Pakistan’s seven foot one left-arm opening bowler. He caused a few problems with height of release and the angle of delivery, and could be lethal on grounds where they have been economical with the height of the sightscreens. But he is 32 and has played only 40 ODIs and four tests, so as a secret weapon is hardly Area 51 material. As a batsman, any aspiration he has to be promoted to No 10 appears about as unrealistic as one to be an astronaut, and he is a liability in the field.

Not that he is alone in that. There was a difference of 30 to 40 runs in the fielding of the two teams. Shahid Afridi’s fury when a boundary fielder declined the opportunity to dive to save a four was as forceful as his hitting had been.

McCullum was McCullum and had a strike rate of 141 when he got one wrong and was out for 17. Another nagging feeling says that McCullum’s golden run is near its end, but we New Zealand supporters are known for our persistence in seeking black edges to silver clouds.

An unbroken stand of 112 for the fourth wicket between Ross Taylor and Grant Elliott settled the matter with more than ten overs to spare. Taylor is making runs again without looking at the top of his form, which only a very good player can do.

Three weeks ago, Elliott’s selection for the World Cup was greeted with disbelief; now, a century, a world-record partnership and a string of good performances with bat and ball (he took three wickets here) and he is the nation’s favourite.

Where does this leave us? People will try to build up a sense of excitement about the group stages, but few would put any money on any other than the top eight teams comprising the quarter finalists. Do away with the quarters and it would be a much more interesting competition.

Sri Lanka, despite the series loss, could well chalk up the three wins in a row needed to take the trophy home. Pakistan look much less likely to do so, but they have the group stages to raise their game. No Waqar or Wasim though.

New Zealand is relishing the World Cup. We do this sort of thing very well and enjoy the attention we get. We also think that we stand a chance. There is more quality in the team than we have had since Hadlee and Crowe, and there is a balance about it too. The selectors can afford to leave out decent players who would have walked into previous World Cup squads, such as Matt Henry, Doug Bracewell and BJ Watling.

I will blog and tweet from two group games and the Wellington quarter-final.

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 ...