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ECB’s flawed era asks too much of Cook


I feel sorry for Alastair Cook.

After a torrid winter, the ECB have invested all of their egotistical capital into backing Cook – rightly or wrongly – to the extent that any failings of this irritatingly named “new era” will appear to be his fault, rather than that of the team as a whole. More pertinent is that the ECB will absolve themselves of any responsibility, despite creating and persevering with an administrative structure that hinders rather than helps the national side. Their emphasis is on commerce, and shaping their own narrative. Picking the 11 best individual cricketers seems peripheral to them, as long as the people they do pick “are from the right sort of families”.

Its been one endless spiral of misery since the boat sailed to Brisbane in November 2013. As a supporter, time invested in the team was rewarded with nothing but abject misery. A 5-0 drubbing was extremely galling to sit watching through the night. Inevitably, people wanted there to be repercussions – a large amount of scrutiny was placed on the position of Cook as captain. As we know, the ECB backed him with all of their worth, and instead decided to take their chance to exile Kevin Pietersen from the side, despite his match-winning ability.

Leaving aside the debate over He Who Must Not Be Picked, the problem with this strategy was that the ECB had managed to make the success or failure of the “new era” rest on the shoulders of Alastair Cook.

Cook has had some remarkable success as captain. Leading the side to a win in India is one of the finest victories an English leader can achieve, and he also won a home Ashes series 3-0. However, his style of captaincy is not the same as that of Andrew Strauss before, who had a brilliant motivational ability. Strauss was no quirky tactician, but England had a clearly defined plan, which he had confidence that his side could implement. The 4-0 whitewash of India, and the resounding victory in Australia where England won three matches by an innings, demonstrated the fighting qualities of Strauss. England had the plans, and the players to carry them out. Cook’s problem in this regard is that some of these vital players have declined, but also that he does not seem to have the ability to lift his side when things go wrong.

The fourth day at Headingley was dreadful. There were undoubtedly issues related to Cook’s leadership and tactics: The plan to give Mathews a single every over, and not even attempt to get him out, was mad. He settled in and brilliantly punished England. Cook’s lack of faith in his spinner, his insistence on bowling his main seamers lengthy, tiring spells, and his lack of an alternative strategy meant he warranted criticism. Worse, though, was that the team appeared rudderless. There was no direction, no inspiration. However, the bowlers didn’t get their lengths right, England dropped chances, and senior players who so often could be relied on to drag the team back into the game shrank into the shadows. It was a collective failure, but scrutiny inevitably centres on the captain. That Moeen Ali played a sensational rearguard knock that nearly saved the game showed that there is great hope for the future, but it still doesn’t hide the huge cracks that remain in the England set-up.

Cook doesn’t appear to have the motivational abilities of those that have gone before him. He is a captain who has to led by example – success in India was a direct consequence of him scoring a mountain of runs. Unfortunately, when form deserts him, his contribution to the side diminishes with it. If you ignored the ECB narrative, and their heavy investment in Cook as captain, you’d think that the best thing for him to do as an individual would be to relinquish the captaincy and focus on his batting, which at its best is a seriously important component of this England side. Unfortunately, its all got too political for that sort of simple solution.

The first problem, as I keep mentioning, is the ECB: They have thrown everything behind Cook. He is not a natural leader, but he’s being made out to be one. Because of this investment in him, the problems inherent in the system – focus on ‘team ethic’ rather than picking the best players, employing a coach who has failed before – are tied up with his position as captain. Why can’t we sack Giles Clarke for his career of slimy bureaucratic bullshitting, and his ability to continuously make decisions that are detrimental to cricket? Cook shouldn’t be totally absolved of any responsibility – after all, he did agree to sacking Pietersen in alliance with the ECB – but he is in a position which attributes more culpability to him than it should. Far too many egos are on the line for Cook to be free to take the simple decision to stand down in order to focus on his own game.

The second problem is the absence of a clear alternative leader. Ian Bell has been mooted as an alternative, and despite not really being much of a tactician either, it might be useful to freshen up things. It certainly won’t worsen the side – unless it has a significant negative impact on Bell’s batting. When members of the press are suggesting that Eoin Morgan could come into the side and take the captaincy, you know that the cupboard really is bare.

Thirdly, its impossible for a man who has been captain and admitted shortcomings in that department to return to being a rank-and-file member of the team without the memories staying with everybody. Previous long-term captains – Vaughan, Strauss, Hussain – all retired either shortly or immediately after they announced the end of their tenures. Cook is only 29, and ability to score heavy runs at the top of the order means he still has a number of years left in him. It is a shame that someone who is destined to become England’s all time top run-scorer, and already the man who has a record number of Test centuries for England, will have his achievements tarnished by the association with captaincy difficulties. Those memories sadly won’t just disappear.

My current sadness about this malaise England are in is not that people are criticising the team – they warrant significant scrutiny, and really need to find a way to improve – but that genuine, passionate fans are turning on Cook and co, hoping that England will lose to kick-start some kind of revival. It might do England good to lose this series, but to see the fans so angered by the team is chastening in itself. Watching England lose has always been a part of the game, but it feels that in 2014 everyone has an agenda that has to be furthered, every game and stat another arrow to be fired at those who disagree. The ECB’s hopeless management over recent months has played a significant part in that, with all their media speak “new era” bollocks. England cricket almost has to be de-politicised before we can all just enjoy watching us win or lose once again.

England were very close to winning at Lord’s, at which I was present for the last day of play. Cook set good innovative fields and rotated his bowlers adequately. The problem is not whether he can set a silly field – anyone can – but how he leads the side as an individual. The Headingley day four debacle has exposed a number of serious flaws that remain, chief among which is Cook’s ability to motivate a side. They looked rudderless. I think it would be best for Cook to stand down and just focus on regaining his form. He still has a huge role to play at the top of the order for a number of years. Ultimately, I don’t think Cook is a particularly bad captain, but he isn’t a man who seems able to inspire or innovate when things go against England.

To ensure that writing this piece has been a complete waste of time, Cook spoke after the late defeat at Headingley to say that he never quits, and he’s “in it for the long haul.” Good luck to him. The absence of any standout alternatives, combined with the immense amount of pie that would smash them in the face, means the ECB won’t move to change anything either. There is too much on the line for that to happen.

I am not one to call for people to be sacked. I don’t have faith that the ECB would do such a thing even if it were the right decision. I just think that Cook needs to relinquish the role in order to offer more to the side. The desertion of his form and series defeats in Australia and now at home to Sri Lanka have brought his position under intense scrutiny. The vultures are circling.

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Test Match Diary: Here We Go Again


Brisbane was a shambles. England were comprehensively outplayed, being bowled out twice for under 200. No prizes for guessing where England need to improve at Adelaide. 

From the view of us nocturnal English supporters, Brisbane was horrendous. A great start with the ball followed by two batting collapses, the first of which left us stunned. Watching England lose 6 wickets for 9 runs at 4:15am was not something I wish to repeat. The performance served to puncture the bubble of optimism that this series had come with. The pre-series excitement has been replaced by a fear of failure and humiliation. Adelaide matters, as does the rest of the series. The added spice between the two sides means that there is an even greater desire than usual not to lose to the Australians. England have the chance to silence the Australian crowd/media by fighting back and showing why the summer’s 3-0 scoreline was reflective of the quality of both teams.

England’s batting needs to improve a great deal, but they’ll be forced to shuffling the order due to the loss of Jonathan Trott. Despite his poor form, losing him is a huge blow. He brings stability at three, and without the stress related problems that have sadly forced him to leave the tour, we’d have backed him to find a solution and return to scoring runs. Alas, it is not to be. A lot has been said about Trott’s situation, much of it without the required sympathy and understanding of what exactly his illness is, but what is clear is that he was no longer able to manage his situation without it affecting his form. He made completely the right decision to fly home and be with those who are most important to him in life, and I for one wish him a full recovery so that he can once again stride out at number three and amass a lot of runs.

Warner’s comments about Trott were blunt, but ultimately he did not know of the real situation going on behind the scenes. They were reflective of the symptoms of Trott’s stress-related illness, and not a direct cause. It is too complex an illness for it to be that simple. In any case, the comments are part of a wider narrative this series which has seen the Australian team, media and general public combine forces to create a hostile atmosphere for England. The main moment of controversy this has given rise to was when Michael Clarke thought it necessary to threaten Jimmy Anderson with his side on the verge of a huge innings victory. The atmosphere in the middle at that point was fractious, but Clarke’s threat to give Anderson a “broken fucking arm” was taking it too far. Despite Shane Warne’s best attempts to justify it as a response to Anderson threatening Bailey, its a rather unsavoury comment for which he should have apologised. It represents a sad trend in these contests nowadays, where Australia in particular put hostility above integrity. Whilst sledging has always been part of the game, abuse to create an unpleasant environment is something that no Test side should have to resort to. That the media have decided to go to such ridiculous lengths to be hostile is ridiculous. The likes of Malcolm Conn have ditched any idea of balance, instead turning to propaganda. It is a situation that is crazy, but England must just accept that they are under siege, and deal with the pressure.

England will have to cope with what Australia throw at them, but hopefully they will let the cricket do the talking. After their first Test win this year, suddenly the home nation believes they are once again a great side. But the frailties remain, and a good England performance with the ball at Adelaide can expose that. The pressing issue, though, is the batting. With Root likely to bat at 3, and the potential inclusion of Ballance at 6, means that England not only have to deal with the short ball much better, but also cope with the re-shuffle of the order. Ballance is the best option, as Stokes is not a good enough batsman to slot in at 6.

It is not beyond this batting unit to score more than 400 or even 500, but since the previous tour in 2010/11 they have not scored that amount nearly enough times. It highlights a more worrying issue – apart from the series just gone, England’s successes have been built on the foundations of Alastair Cook scoring a shed-load of runs. England’s win in India was largely down to his runs at the top of the order, and those 766 runs in 2010/11 were decisive. That he has averaged twice as much in England victories than he has in defeats since the start of the 2010/11 series shows just how important his runs are at the top of the order.

Mat Inns NO Runs HS Ave BF S/R 100 50 0 4s 6s
Won 18 30 3 1919 294 71.07 3952 48.55 7 5 0 212 3
Lost 9 18 0 638 176 35.44 1674 38.11 2 2 2 66 2
Drawn 11 19 1 958 235* 53.22 2156 44.43 3 4 1 108 1
Cook has been vital for England, but other players need to score big in the absence of top-order runs.

Cook has been vital for England, but other players need to score big in the absence of top-order runs.

This is not a criticism of Cook, but more a criticism of the rest of the team. Ian Bell’s summer heroics aside, the batsmen have rarely been able to compensate for when Cook has fallen cheaply. Australia have found a way to nullify Cook for now, and whilst his form should well return, the rest of the England batting line-up need to fire. Bell showed signs that he has the ability to play the short ball in the second innings at Brisbane, but the whole top order need to do so. Furthermore, soft dismissals (such as those two painful bat-pad wickets gifted to Nathan Lyon) need to be eradicated. England need to stand firm as a batting unit, make few errors, and score runs. Cook is likely to be key to that, but if he doesn’t score a hundred, others needs to.

Calls for a 5-man attack are not illogical given the flat nature of the Adelaide surface, but the 5th bowler needs to be good enough. Woakes showed at the Oval that a poor spell can let a dangerous player like Watson score freely, thus they need to be able to contain. Stokes is pacy but inexperienced. The return of Bresnan will be welcome, as he is a good tight bowler that can get reverse. Tremlett bowled some good spells in Brisbane, but the desertion of his pace has meant he is not viewed as the threat he once was. Suggestions that Monty may play, with Bresnan at 7, are wild. It would be unlike this England set-up to respond to a double batting failure by bringing in an extra bowler, however helpful a second spinner may be by the fifth day.

This match becomes vital, as England’s historically poor record at Perth gives reason to believe they will struggle to win there. A defeat at Adelaide makes a series win a nigh-on impossibility. This Test really matters. The irrepressible smugness of the Australian press needs to be dealt with, and I’m hoping that England will be able to use a siege mentality to inspire a victory, or at least a respectable draw. England haven’t become a bad side overnight, but they need to show that they are confident enough to deal with the hostility of both the short ball, and the Australian slip cordon…

The Australian win at Brisbane, and subsequent gloating, sets this series up nicely. England have a huge task ahead of them.

Bring on the cricket.

Test Match Misery: An Abject Late-Night Collapse


England were rattled by pace, and failed to cope with the pressure.

England were rattled by pace, and failed to cope with the pressure.

England’s bowling performance was quite good. The pitch looked to flatten out after the new ball, and after the summer of struggles, there was widespread support of the theory that England’s batsmen would be back on form this winter. They were back on form alright – the form that typified the patented middle-order collapses of the 1990’s and early 2000’s.

The collapse itself:

The second day performance gave me a stark and unpleasant insight into just how miserable following English Ashes tours must have been 10-15 years ago. England started well enough, but the worry began with Trott’s dismissal on the stroke of lunch. Johnson’s first short ball was played terribly, and from that moment on his body became a target. Trott’s attempt to jump across his stumps and waft at the ball backfired, as he nicked one down the leg-side. A really bad innings. Even so, two down is not the end of the world.

Pietersen joined Carberry, and Australia applied the squeeze. KP was dropped by Siddle off his own bowling, before clipping a juicy half-volley on leg stump straight to Bailey at mid-wicket. The wicket came after him, and Carberry especially, had become bogged down. Pietersen’s poor execution acted as the trigger for one of England’s classic middle-order collapses.

Carberry had played very well, leaving pretty much everything outside off stump, and working anything leg side for runs. He looked a bit tentative against Lyon, which helped to build the pressure, but he continued to protect his wicket, which was no bad thing. The issue came when Johnson switched to round the wicket. Carberry’s trusted technique was now thrown into doubt, as he couldn’t adapt to the new angle. A couple of play-and-misses off short pitched deliveries was followed by an edge to slip off a fuller one. From over the wicket, he’d have left all three, but the change in angle shrouded his mind in doubt. A clever tactic, and Johnson was starting to look menacing after what had been a loose opening spell.

Bell was joined by Root. Time to steady the ship boys. But when the middle-order collapses get going, the side sinks faster than the Titanic. Lyon was getting a bit of turn and bounce from around the wicket. Bell went onto the back foot and defended softly, only edging it onto his pad, allowed Smith at short-leg to take the catch. Prior came in next ball and played the same ball with the same lapse in judgement, Smith having to dive to take the ball. Two painfully soft dismissals, and now England were well and truly up against it.

Root was panicked by the situation, and aimed an expansive drive at a ball well outside off, only managing to edge Johnson to third slip. Swann was caught at bat-pad off the same bowler soon after. Tea came with England having lost 6 wickets for just 9 runs in a mad spell of batting, where the runs had dried up and the confident techniques had completely deserted the batsmen.

Broad batted well after tea, but there was only so much respite he could give to England. 136 all out represented a woefully poor effort, with England having cracked under the pressure of tight bowling and genuinely quick short stuff. That said, the consecutive dismissals that fell to Lyon were the most painful. And it all started from Pietersen’s poor execution when England were on 82/2…

Australia had bowled really well indeed, and the atmosphere inside the Gabba was absolutely explosive. It was a session to show just how exciting Test Cricket can be. But all that was lost on me. I cared little for the excitement and the drama, because it had left me in a state of physical and mental chaos. The heart had been ripped out. Hope had turned to despair. And it was four in the morning…

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Staring at these numbers at 5:30am was not pleasant at all.

Witnessing the carnage:

I’ve seen some collapses in my time. The best of which was at the end of 2012, when I’d travelled to Cardiff in the hope that Kent might win and gain promotion to the first division of the county championship. From 137/3, we lost 10 wickets for 40 runs, which included the beginning of our follow-on attempt. Witnessing that was pretty bleak.

But 6 wickets for 9 runs in an Ashes Test? That trumps it. And that’s not the worst of it. As wicket after wicket was tossed away, the real thing that brought the desperate misery of it all home was that glance at the clock. Having watched most of the first day, and had minimal sleep, I’d stuck with England throughout the second night, only to be rewarded at 04:15am with one of the most abject collapses I can remember. Any technical proficiency or skill in coping with quick bowling had disappeared, and replaced with the incompetence demonstrated so often these days in the first innings of an away series.

Having invested so much time and effort to stick with your side, seeing the clock read 04:15am made the carnage at the Gabba even worse. In a number of crushingly relevant ways, it was our darkest hour.

Once it’s started, you can’t escape. I was left sat there in a daze right up until the close of play at 07:30am. I’d wanted to go to bed to avoid seeing Australia rack up the runs, but the tiredness had deserted me. All that was left was a feeling of resignation at the ridiculousness of the cricketing spectacle, and the hour of day at which I’d witnessed it. I am still shaking my head right now thinking about that collapse.

That was the first full-day, all-night Ashes vigil I’ve managed to achieve in my fledgling life thus far. I was born in the 90’s, so it was only fair that I got an overdose of what it was like watching England down under in that decade. Misery, despair, and overwhelming tiredness.

And yet I’ll be watching day three. Cricket, bloody cricket.

The Official Ashes Non-Drinking Game


Given the non-alcoholic nature of my university exploits (shocking), and the necessity to actually be able to function to do a bit of work the next day, a collaborative effort has been made to create a variation on a drinking game. The “Ashes Crumpet Fund” will impose a series of fines in order to pay for the snacks consumed through the night.

If you wish to transform this into a drinking game, I take no responsibility for the carnage it may cause.

Ashes Crumpet Fund:

Offence Value Bonus Points
Commentary (pence)
Bumble says ‘start the car’ 20
Holding bemoans the decline of third man 10
Siddle is described as having a big heart (variations thereof) 10 Double if he’s called an ‘Australian hero’
Botham criticises England for insufficiently attacking fields 5
Hussain mocked for inserting Aussies in 2002 5 Double if not Botham
Warne praises Clarke/criticises Cook’s captaincy 5 Double if simultaneous
Knight asks a rhetorical question 5
Gower gets mocked for being posh 5
Atherton criticises DRS/technology 5
Charles Colville has a row with a pundit 5 Double if Cork retaliates
Willis looks grumpy 5
Strauss speaks in cliches 5 Double if someone notices
Trott’s guard-marking routine brought to viewer’s attention 5
Carberry’s space-age helmet mentioned 5
Action
Hat-trick 100 Double if Siddle (again)
Shane Watson is out lbw 50 Double if he reviews it
Missed stumping 20 Double if Bairstow
Ryan Harris gets injured 20
Wicket off a no ball 20
Mitchell Johnson bowls a wide 10 Double if it goes for 4
Dropped catch 10 Double if described as sitter/shocker/dolly
Clarke gets hit on head 10 Double if Broad
Pietersen/Warner caught on boundary 10
Golden duck 10
Swann gets wicket in first over of spell 10
Warner caught/run out/dismissed by Root 10
Stuart Broad review 5 Double if correct
Interactive
Fall asleep 100
Causing England wicket to fall 50
Miss wicket 50
Score at interval (furthest away) 10
Moaning about commentators 10 Double if Russel Arnold; Exempt if its Warne
Lbw decision called incorrectly 5 Increases with number of counts on which it is wrong (height, line etc.)
Crowd
‘Bob Key Fan Club, On Tour’ flag spotted 100 (First person to exclaim ‘We Are Kent’ exempted)
Catch taken 10 Double if one-handed; triple if holding beer (unspilled)
Barmy Army shown singing Mitchell Johnson song 10 Double if commentators heard giggling
Kent flag/shirt spotted 10
Streaker 10
Fan gets kicked out 5
Merv Hughes sighted in cheap seats 5

There is a distinct possibility that we may become skint by the end of the series, but if it means we survived the nights thanks to having large food stocks, we won’t mind that much.

Further suggestions welcomed.

Bring on the cricket!

The alternative TMS version essentially amounts to ‘Boycott Bingo‘. Click the link to a list of his favourite quotes. 

Thoughts from a chairlift


Sunday 12th February: A day in the Alps completed, and an evening that needs some substance to it. So I’ve decided to answer any questions submitted to me by the cricket-loving twitter-sphere. Despite a slow start, a late burst has seen a flurry of wickets/snow fall here, so there are plenty of questions to get through. Where shall we start…

Did England get to No 1 in the world because they were good or the teams they played in the last 18 months (Australia, Sri Lanka, India) were playing poorly? – submitted by Paul Lewis, via email.

The King Pair for Sehwag was undoubtedly a moment to savour for England fans

England reached world number one following the whitewash of what can only be described as an abject, clueless and disinterested India side. They’d previously beaten a fairly disorganised Australia side (though any victory on Aussie soil should not be taken lightly). There is undoubted quality in this England side, but are they a side comparable to the great West Indies or Australian World-beaters? In short, no. The bowling attack that England possess is one of the best they’ve had in decades, and in my view is the best in the world. But are they comparable to the world-beating attacks of old? Not quite. Also, as the Pakistan debacle showed, the batting is still very fragile, and limited in anything other than pleasant batting conditions. Flat-track bully is a term widely used these days, but I do think England house a few players who suddenly become very average when the going gets tough. So by my reckoning, I think England beat two fairly poor teams to claim the number one slot, and failed to perform adequately in defending that position. That said, they’re still a good side, but I don’t think there is a team equipped to beat any side on any soil these days. A lot of competitive teams, but no world-beaters.

At what stage does Andrew Strauss’s undoubted captaining ability not make up for his lack of runs at the top of the order? – submitted by Paul Lewis, via email. Also similarly asked by Stephanie, via Twitter (@booktrunk)

A very interesting question, this. The other day I stated that Strauss has probably got another couple of years left in him. Fearing the worst, an Ashes failure in 2013 summer could see him depart, before Cook takes over for the visit the same winter. Either way, by the end of that tour, I think Strauss will have stepped down and retired. He’s struggled throughout the past year, and his pursuit of runs is starting to draw more attention. I think that a captain can last for as long as the media let him. If his poor run continues (which I don;t think will happen, knowing Strauss’ resilient character) then it is a matter of time before the press start asking him those awkward questions. Once that doubt about a captain’s authority is called into question, it is the first step towards the exit door. So, in answer to the question, if the captain is winning games but not scoring runs, then questions won’t be asked. But if he still doesn’t score runs, and the team starts losing, don’t expect the media to sit patiently and wait for things to improve.

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