Thursday, 26 January 2012

The Future of Australian Test Cricket - the batsmen.

Having seen the way he's batted over the last couple of days, it's hard to believe that Ricky Ponting is approaching the end of his career. Crunching drives down the ground, searing pull shots through mid-wicket, his majestic 221 at Adelaide, during which he became only the third man to manage 13 000 runs in tests, was a showcase of his endless flair, style and talent. With no plans of immediate retirement, we can enjoy watching the great man for at least a little longer, but what does the long-term future hold for Australian cricket?

Phil Hughes:

Phil Hughes is one of those players who I always want to do well. At his best, Hughes pounces on any sort of width, crashing unsuspecting bowlers through the off-side with ease. At his worst, his aversion to the leg side is horribly exposed, sometimes looking out of his depth at the highest level. Sadly, his erratic performances to date, have left him uncertain of an extended run in the team, recently losing his place to Ed Cowan after a string of failures against the Indians. This is not to say, however, that his short career hasn't yielded a number of memorable moments. Labelled as the 'new Matthew Hayden' as he debuted against South Africa in Johannesburg, as he bravely took guard to face the first ball of the test from Dale Steyn, it seemed that at least his confidence matched that of his predecessor. As he traipsed back to the pavilion 4 balls later, whether that confidence was justified, came into question. Given another chance in the second innings, a classy 75 gave his doubters something to think about, but after smashing back-to-back hundreds in the second test at Durban, and a prolific spell playing 4 day cricket for Middlesex in the run up to the Ashes, Hughes was Australia's next big thing.

After looking horribly outclassed by England's bowlers at Cardiff and Lord's however, Hughes found himself watching the rest of Australia's Ashes campaign from the sidelines, and has been in and out of the side ever since. His struggles have continued in the home Ashes series, and his 126 in Colombo was the only beacon of light in an otherwise poor tour of Sri Lanka. Indeed, Hughes has shown shades of true brilliance, most notably his scorching unbeaten 86 in a run chase against New Zealand. However, his lack of consistency means he's never managed to concrete his place in the test side. Whether it's a technical issue, or a mental issue, i'm not sure. I'm inclined to think it comes down to technique. Hughes does very much favour the offside, and whereas he can perhaps get away with it in domestic cricket, the top bowlers at test level have had no problems with exploiting it. Personally, I think that Hughes has a long future in the game. He obviously has bags of natural talent, and with a bit of work with the staff at NSW, i'm confident he can re-emerge a more complete player, and forge a long and successful career.

David Warner:

Having never previously played first class cricket, Warner announced himself with a 43-ball 89 in a T20I against South Africa, and has been a permanent fixture in Australia's crash, bang, wallop XI ever since. Prolific in the IPL, dynamic in the field, a more than handy leg-spinner and capable of batting both right and left handed, Warner's aptitude for the game is undeniable. For a long time however, questions were asked over his ability to transform his aggression and success in the shorter form, to a more measured but equally fruitful approach in the longer form. The truth is, Warner has stuck two fingers up to patience, and proceeded to score a mountain of runs at his own natural tempo. After an outstanding first-class season with NSW, in only his second test, Warner carried his bat in a breezy 123 against the old enemy New Zealand. Add to this a blistering 180 against India on a tricky wicket at the WACA, and it's clear that Warner has taken to test cricket like a duck to water. The fact that his 383 runs at an average of 63.83 have come at a strike-rate in excess of 85, makes his achievement all the more impressive. Warner's potential is undeniable.

Without wanting to take anything away from Warner's efforts however, in my opinion, a couple of good knocks, against a couple of average bowling attacks, don't define a player. My judgement as to his longevity will come when he has battled Steyn, Morkel and Philander of South Africa, played the Indians (or even the rejuvenated Pakistanis) on the sub-continent, and opened the batting in an Ashes test as Lord's against England. If he comes through these challenges unscathed, then Warner will definitely be one for the future. Judging by his record, Warner has both the attitude, and the aptitude to rise to the challenge and forge a successful career at the top of the order for the Aussies. We hope..

Usman Khawaja:

Khawaja's first 11 test innings haven't exactly set the world alight. Apart from the one well constructed innings of 65 against the South Africans, a series of 20s and 30s hasn't done justice to his abundance of talent. In fairness, I've never watched Khawaja bat for a sustained period of time, but his first class record for NSW suggests that he has much more to offer to the Australian team. As a central contract holder, he needs to seize any opportunities he gets to prove his talent at the highest level. Until then, he needs to score runs, more runs, and then after that, a few more runs, to force his way into a team flourishing against India, and awaiting the return of the irreplaceable Shane Watson.

Ed Cowan:

Perhaps the most ambitious man in Australian cricket, Cowan has made clear his intention to force Watson down the order. After a solid, but not spectacular start to his test career, i'm afraid he'll have to score plenty more runs to have a hope of achieving this. He has shown a degree of class and strong temperament in his 4 innings at the top level, with two impressive half centuries, yet I feel that he has much more to prove if he hopes for an extended stint in the first XI. In the short term, I do see him ahead of the struggling Shaun Marsh in the pecking order, yet if Watson is determined to open the batting, would Cowan be capable of batting at number 3? With so much talent in and around the Australian set up, I fear that someone with the ability of Cowan might not get the opportunities he deserves.

Shaun Marsh:

Currently occupying the number 3 position in the test team, Marsh, despite his solid performances in one day cricket, has had a torrid time recently in test cricket.  His career did kick off in spectacular fashion, with a calm, mature and well judged 141 against the Sri Lankans at Pallekele. The mastery with which he negotiated his first innings, was followed by an equally well grafted 81 at Colombo. 'Blimey, this is easy', he must have thought..

His more recent outings however, have not been as fruitful. His last 5 innings against the Indians have yielded, wait for it... a breath-taking 17 runs. Breath-taking because a man who has shown so much promise, has at times looked simply clueless. At the moment, he's the only Australian having any trouble against a lackluster Indian attack. Warner, Clarke, Ponting and Mr. Cricket all have tons (or doubles) in this series, Cowan has two fifties, whereas Marsh has nothing. He's in serious trouble. With another innings victory looming for the Aussies, a chance for him to knuckle down and play a real innings looks slim. Indeed, he would be very lucky to have earned a place on the plane to the West Indies later this year based on his recent performances. Perhaps a short sabbatical from the international scene would serve him well - a chance to collect his thoughts, work on his game, and aliment his hunger to wear the Baggy Green for his country. It worked for Ponting and Clarke, it may just work for him...

Monday, 23 January 2012

The end of Simon Katich - a necessary evil?

Simon Katich is probably one of the unluckiest cricketers around. 2928 runs at an average of 50.48 since his return to the test team in 2008, and he must have felt certain of a Cricket Australia central contract for 2011. Warner, Hughes, the Husseys, Khawaja all got them. Katich did not.  After a short vow of silence, Katich spoke out about his 'unfair' treatment, slamming the Australian selection process and the pressure put on him to play test cricket despite a broken thumb and a torn achilles tendon.

Katich's situation has split the cricketing world into two camps: those hoping for change and a new era of Australian cricket, and those who believe his consistency and prolificacy merited a continued place in the Australian test set-up. Katich's former captain, Ponting, has spoken in Katich's defense, saying that his treatment came as a 'shock' and that Katich was right in labelling the decision as 'ridiculous'. Watson too lamented the loss of his opening partner, ruing 'year or two of good cricket left in him' that Katich would miss out on. Outside the the team, Australia legend Michael Slater joined his defense, claiming that he has been 'appallingly hung', and going on to say that his treatment would have only been acceptable if Phil Hughes, his replacement, 'came in scoring hundreds' (something which hasn't happened). On the other end of the scale, the great Shane Warne argues that the cuts should not stop at Katich, but go on to displace the aging former captain Ponting, wicket-keeper Brad Haddin and the talismanic Mike Hussey. Warne wants to throw the youngsters in at the deep-end and give them the incomparable experience of international cricket. 'Keeping the same players, but saying 'we're in transition, doesn't work', argues Warne.

Time running out: How long until Ponting, Hussey and Haddin get the boot?
It would seem however, that the simultaneous exodus of three of Australia's most experienced players would lead to a crisis similar to that of 06/07, after the retirement of Warne, McGrath and Langer. Perhaps the cut of Katich was a necessary evil. Of the three players most in the firing line, that is to say, Ponting, Hussey and Katich, the latter would always be the most vulnerable. Having served Australia for 15 years, as a record breaking captain and batsman, Ponting was always going to be given a bit of latitude despite his poor form in tests. Moreover, the selectors were probably hoping for an 'Indian summer' from the great man, who, having relinquished the captaincy, may feel more at ease to express himself at the crease. Hussey too, was one of few shining beacons in Australia's dire Ashes campaign, and still plays a key role in the one day set up. It seems that one of them had to go, and it seems that Katich, despite all his grit, determination and fecundity, was the unlucky man.

Hughes and Warner: The future of Australian cricket?
I'll be writing a piece soon on the future of Australian cricket, so stay tuned..!

Saturday, 21 January 2012

On this day - George Headley, David Gower and Water Balloons.

A quiet day for cricket today, so I thought i'd do a short 'On this Day' post.

21st January 1948 - George Headley. 

The 21st January 1948 made cricketing history, as George Headley became the first black player to captain the West Indies. Headley led his team to a draw against England at the Kensington Oval, Barbados, falling to Jim Laker in the first innings for 29. For reasons unknown to me, he batted at 11 in the second innings, making an unbeaten 7, before declaring on 351-9, setting England 394 to win. England were 86 for 4 when the match was brought to a close. This test was the 20th of Headley's 22, in a war-interrupted career spanning 24 years. Headley, hailed as 'The Black Bradman' accumulated 2190 runs at an average of 60.83, with 10 centuries, 8 of which came against England. 

Headley was never meant to be a cricketer. Whilst waiting for his passport to go to the United States to study dentistry, he was selected to play against a visiting English team led by Tennyson. After 78 in the first innings, and 211 in the second, Headley never looked back. Making his test debut in Bridgetown in 1930, his second test innings yielded 176 runs. This was followed by 114 and 122 in his 3rd test, and a marathon 224 in his 4th. A true genius, Headley destroyed attacks all over the world, and knowing his team's hopes rested on his shoulders, loved to play the big match-winning innings. Headley served as a beacon for West Indies cricket, with former Jamaican president  Michael Manley hailing him as 'black excellence personified in a white world and a white sport'. One of the West Indies' true greats, it's a shame he didn't get the opportunity to showcase his endless talent in more than a handful of games. 

21st January 1991 - David Gower and John Morris.

Less significantly, 21st January marks the anniversary of David Gower's and John Morris' infamous Tiger Moth prank on the 1990/91 Ashes tour to Australia. Annoyed at losing his captaincy, and oppressed by strict regime of Graham Gooch,  Gower suggested hiring a Tiger Moth biplane to buzz the match between an England XI and Queensland. Having smashed two centuries earlier in the series, Gower, assured of his form, got himself out cheaply, feeling the game to be a waste of time. Gower and Morris took to the skies, buzzing the game with Robin Smith and Allan Lamb at the crease. They had intended to drop water bombs on their teammates, but luckily, for those on the ground anyway, the pilots managed to talk them out of it. Both players were fined £1000 and banned from the following summer's tests against the West Indies. 

Friday, 20 January 2012

The Big Bash League - how's it doing?

Everybody loves a T20 tournament. The new monikers, bright coloured kits, music, fireworks, sixes, and of course, the overseas superstars. The IPL has been afflicted by political turmoil and the worries over owners' finances. The English T20 system has led to complaints of 'over-burn' from players. Could Australia's overhaul of their domestic one-day system succeed?

When a crowd of little more than 12 000 showed up to the SCG to watch the tournament opener, the organisers must have had a few nervous thoughts. Despite the empty seats in the stadium however, couches and armchairs all across Australia were occupied, as the first game's ratings dwarfed those of last year's final! Since then, both ticket sales and television views have gone from strength to strength, with Shane Warne's debut for the Melbourne Stars generating the fourth-highest audience in television pay-TV history, and the semi-final at the WACA between the Perth Scorchers and the Melbourne Stars selling out in just half an hour.

The tournament so far has provided some scorching entertainment, namely in the form of blistering centuries from Luke Wright, David Warner and of course, Chris Gayle. Will it however, rekindle the interest of Australians in non-Ashes test matches? Only time will tell!

More to come! Stay tuned...

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Sri Lanka in disarray - My thoughts.

Sri Lankan cricket has had a huge shake up today, with its selection panel dissolved by the minister for sport, and replaced by another headed by Duleep Mendis. Following a poor performance against South Africa, coach Geoff Marsh, and captain Dilshan face losing their jobs, with Mahela Jayawardene in line to become the new captain. It seems strange that the government take such an interest in the national cricket team, with the Sri Lankan minister for sport, Aluthgamage, saying it is 'responsibility of the Sri Lankan government and the Sports Ministry' to take 'stern and appropriate action' to ensure that Sri Lanka becomes 'the number one team in the world'. 

To me it all seems wrong, Sri Lanka don't need short-term change. Making Jayawardene captain is a short sighted move. What will happen when he retires? Much like India, Sri Lanka are coming to the end of an era of great players. Jayawardene, Sangakarra, Dilshan, Samaraweera are all 34 or older, and passing the captaincy around these four players will get Sri Lanka nowhere. Sri Lanka have already suffered through the retirement of Murali. With nobody prepared to fill his shoes when he retired, Sri Lanka have lacked that prolific wicket taker. Murali monopolised the primary spinners' spot for years, meaning that when he retired, nobody was sufficiently capable or experienced to take his place. Sri Lanka risk the same with their batting. 

When i think of Sri Lanka, it's hard to think of a solid or established XI. Outside the big four, how many players have played regularly over the last few years? Not many. Sri Lanka have been extremely short sighted with their selection. A few bad performances and a player loses their place in the team. They're not thinking about the future; but the present. It's a case of 'who'll score runs today?' rather than 'who'll be scoring runs in five years?'. 

3 poor matches for Kaushal Silva and he's gone. A few average games for Upul Tharanga and Chamara Silva and they're dropped. A test average of 33 for Paranavitana and he's not good enough. And i think we all know what's gonna happen to Thirimanne... Sri Lanka are trying to find instant solutions, rather than thinking of long term development. Look at England, every single one of England's top 5 (except Trott) have been in dreadful form at times. Imagine if England had dropped Ian Bell after the 2005 Ashes. Imagine if Andrew Strauss was never given another chance in New Zealand in 2008. Imagine if Cook was dropped before he went on to massacre the Aussies in the 10/11 Ashes. England have persevered, and thought about the future, and look where they are now; number in the world rankings. Where are Sri Lanka? 6th, and with 1 win in 18 months. And this is with the big 4...

The future of Indian cricket.

With Sachin, Dravid and Laxman all nearing retirement, what does the future look like for Indian cricket?

Indian domestic cricket is bursting with young talent, but do any of them have the substance to make an impact and forge a successful test career?

Virat Kohli:

Maybe the most obvious candidate to take a slot in the middle order. Kohli made an immediate impact in the one-day format, smashing 7 centuries before his 23rd birthday, and currently has an average in excess of 45. He has shown his mettle under pressure - a century in the world cup opener and a valuable 35 to help guide his team to victory in the World Cup Final. Prolific in the IPL, he has emerged as one of India's most promising and exciting players. His performances in his fledging test career however, have left much to be desired. Averaging only 27 in his first 13 innings, with only 3 50s and a pitiful 73 run return in a three test series in the West Indies, the Indian selectors will hope he can come to terms with the challenges of test cricket - and fast. As a lively and enthusiastic character, he has lots to contribute in the dressing room, but he has found himself in trouble over his on-field antics. Fined 50% for his match fee after gesturing to the crowd with his middle finger on the second day of the SCG test in Australia, Kohli is also remembered for shrugging off a mistake in the field with the words 'sh*t happens' whilst 'on-the-mic' to the commentary box.

Suresh Raina:

Another Indian player who has failed to carry his prolificacy in the shorter format into the test arena, Raina waited 5 years, and played 98 ODIs, before making his test debut in 2010. After a blip in his career in 2007, Raina re-emerged a changed man, his swashbuckling flourishes destroying unsuspecting bowling attacks game after game. A left hander in the mould of Yuvraj Singh, no ground seems big enough when Raina is on form. On scoring a hundred on test debut against Sri Lanka, and going on to record 2 50s in his next 3 innings, the Indian selectors must have thought they'd found a new backbone for their aging middle order. Since then, Raina has failed to recapture the magic, with a string of solid, but not extraordinary performances, culminating in an embarrassing tour to England. With his aversion to pace, swing there for all to see and most importantly, his fear of the short ball evident, Raina lost his place in the test team. He looked completely lost against anything short of a length, and his pathetic wafts at chin-high deliveries were laughable. This is an area Raina will need to work hard on if he hopes to have any further success in the international arena.

Rohit Sharma:

With 72 ODIs under his belt Sharma has had a decent taste of international cricket.  He is yet however, to grace the test arena, and has yet to really exploit the endless pools of talent he has at his mercy. Averaging a gargantuan 63.52 in domestic cricket, including a marathon 309*, his ODI average of 34, with only two centuries (coming back-to-back against Banglandesh and Zimbabwe) doesn't seem to reflect his powerful wrists, his pin-point accuracy in splitting the field and his exquisite timing. His lack of consistency saw him left out the World Cup winning team, but his man-of-the-series performance on his return to the team against the West Indies is very encouraging. Many have called for him to replace Kohli in the number 6 spot in the test team, whilst others have suggested he replace Laxman, as the first phase of phasing out the golden generation of Indian cricket. Indeed, India should learn the lesson of Australia, who suffered a severe decline upon the near-simultaneous retirements of Warne, McGrath, Langer, Gilchrist and Hayden. Given Sharma's problems in one day cricket, perhaps now is not the time for him to make the step up to the 5 day game. 

Cheteshwar Pujara:

Another young player who has been prolific in the domestic game, Pujara had a short stint in the test team towards the end of 2010. Still only 23, he averages over 54 in the longer format of domestic cricket, with an equally impressive average of 53, showing that despite his years, he has developed into a competent and consistent performer. Coming into a team depleted by injuries, Pujara's test debut, for some strange reason, has always stuck in my mind. Coming to the crease at number 5, after a 100 over wait, during which Dravid and Murali Vijay had amassed a partnership in excess of 300, Pujara was greeted by a flat pitch and group of dejected Australians. As he cracked his first ball in test cricket through the covers for four, Pujara couldn't have wished for a better start. Two balls later, he was traipsing back to the pavilion, undone by an absolute rip-snorter of a delivery from Mitchell Johnson. The second innings was more fruitful for Pujara, as his well constructed 72 guided his team to the 207 required for victory. In his next three innings, he managed a meagre 31 runs, and was cast into international wilderness, sent back to domestic cricket, where he has been prolific ever since. 

There is no doubting that India have plenty of options for the future, all with an abundance of natural talent. Only time will tell if these youngsters can transfer this natural aptitude to the international arena, and establish a long and successful test career. 

England slump to heavy defeat.

So, England were completely annihilated today by a Pakistan team who look to be on top form. With Trott the only man in the top 5 to reach double figures, there'll no doubt be some head-scratching in the England dressing room as to where it all went so wrong!

With Pakistan finishing on a well-constructed 338, England started their innings 146 runs adrift of their opponents, with a solid start from openers Andrew Strauss and Alistair Cook absolutely necessary. When Andrew Strauss departed with a waft at a leg-side delivery from Umar Gul with score only on 6, surely a repeat of the dire batting performance of the first innings wasn't on the cards? It was. Cook scratched around before a poorly executed pull found its way to the Pakistani wicket-keeper Adnan Akmal, whose glove-work appears far superior to that of his brother Kamran. With the score 25-2 surely this was a moment for Kevin Pietersen, a man known for his performances under pressure, to stand up and save his team? Not quite. His hatred to being on 0, led to him falling into the age-old bouncer/man on the fence trap, hooking Umar Gul to the fielder at deep square leg. Ian Bell, for the second time of the match, fell to Ajmal's doosra, a delivery he'll have to learn to pick if he hopes to have any success this series.  Morgan edged behind off Rehman, Trott, chasing his fifty, chased a wide one off Umar Gul, and when Prior fell LBW to Ajmal, the score was 87-7; a far cry from the 400 England needed to keep the game alive.  Token resistance was offered from Swann, Broad, and James Anderson, with the latter carting Ajmal over cow-corner for a huge six. England finished 160 all out, just 15 ahead of the Pakistanis, who chased the total down in a matter of minutes and with no real scares.

So, what's going on? Well, Pakistan seem to have taken a far more measured approach to their game. Since Misbah has taken over the captaincy, Pakistan's average per wicket has risen from a meagre 32 to a solid 42, with a fall in average run-rate indicating a more mature approach to their batting. Moreover, the Pakistan attack seem to have far more fire power than the average bowling attacks of India and Australia, against whom England have had so much success recently. Umar Gul provides a hard-hitting pace option, with Cheema showing promise, and Ajmal, a top-class spinner, backed up by the parsimonious Rehman.

Was it however, not just a case of Pakistan's power, but England's weakness on the sub-continent? In short, no. The pitch in Dubai seems similar to the likes of those you would find at the Oval or Edgbaston, and in the words of Nasser Hussain 'it wasn't Colombo'. England's dire performance it seems, probably stemmed from their rustiness after an extended break from cricket, and Pakistan's new-found approach to batting, their firepower in the bowling department, and their confidence in the field.