Category Archives: Cricket

My squad to defend the Ashes

There is no doubt that Joe Root’s first summer as England’s Test captain was a succsess. Both touring teams were beaten in their respective Test series – South Africa 3-1 (England’s first home series win over that country since 1998) and West Indies 2-1. An overall record of 5-2 in Test matches in 2017 must be regarded as a successful summer. 

But no season is perfect and 2017 was no exception. The biggest disappointment was that the weak links in the batting order – Numbers 2,3 and 5 – are no nearer to being resolved than they were at the start of the season. Keaton Jennings, Mark Stoneman, Gary Ballance, Tom Westley and Dawid Malan have all been tried in these positions and none of them have established themselves as Test batsmen. This is still the Achilles heel of this team. Too often Alistair Cook and Joe Root have had to carry the burden of top order run scoring.

And it is definitely NOT going to get any easier for Root and England. For next on the Test team’s agenda is the toughest asingment in Test cricket – a five Test Ashes series in Australia where England will try to defend the urn down under for only the third time since 1979. So with that in mind who would I take to Australia for this toughest of all Test tours? Well I’ve come up with sixteen names that I would take to defend the urn. Most of them will definitely be on the plane to Australia some are marginal choices and one is an uncapped “bolter” that I don’t think the selectors will pick but I would. So without further ado here are the sixteen men that I would pick to try and defend the Ashes this winter. 

Joe Root (captain) – No surprise here. All he needs to do is convert more fifties into hundreds like his opposite number Steve Smith does. And hopefully he won’t have to come in at 30-2 every innings….

Ben Stokes (vice-captain) – Again no surprises. His career trajectory is on the up – his batting average is now above his bowling average a key statistic for an all rounder. Two worries. Will he stay fit and can he cope with Australian provocation? He is one demerit point away from a one game ban a fact that the Aussies will doubtless remind him of. A lot….

Moeen Ali – Incredibly even at the start of the season England were saying that Liam Dawson not Ali was England’s number 1 spinner. They got that wrong. He, Stokes and Jonny Bairstow are the engine room of England’s team. One request : He should not bat at Number 8. Someone with five Test centuries should not be batting that low as too often he has to bat with the tail and try to slog. He is very good at that but he is a proper batsman and his position in the order should reflect that reality. 

James Anderson – A national treasure who has now reached 500 Test wickets. On his last tour of Australia hopefully his bowling average is nearer that of 2010-11 (26.04) than 2006-7 (82.40) or 2013-14 (43.92).

Jonny Bairstow – The only English batsman who has improved since the last Ashes series in 2015. An improving wicket keeper too. Hopefully batting at No 7 he will remind the Australians of their own famous wicket keeper-batsman Adam Gilchrist. 

Stuart Broad – Another automatic pick who was not at his best this summer. Hopefully he can produce one of those devastating spells he is famous for. Like the Oval 2009, Lord’s and Durham 2013, Trent Bridge 2015, Johannesburg 2016….

Alistair Cook – Another automatic pick who needs to contribute for England to win. A repeat of his 2010-11 average of 127.66 is unrealistic but he needs to do better than his 2006-7 average (27.60) or his 2013-14 average (27.60).

Mason Crane – One of two uncapped players in my squad. I nearly went for Adil Rashid who was unlucky to be dropped after the India series last winter but Crane was picked last winter to play for New South Wales in the Sheffield Shield. And bad players do not get picked for the Sheffield Shield. Plus it gives him the advantage of local knowledge….

Ben Foakes – And here is my second uncapped player. I’m not picking Joss Buttler for this tour as I think he has lost his enthusiasm for red ball cricket. Foakes has been called the best wicket keeper in England by former player Alec Stewart and averages over 40 in first class cricket. That is good enough for me.

Alex Hales – I would recall Hales but not as an opener. I’ve always thought he is more suited to the middle order where he is now batting for Nottinghamshire. His aggression could be useful in the middle order and I have picked him as a back up batsman ahead of Gary Ballance who has already been recalled twice and failed twice. 

Haseed Hameed – The big “what if?” of English cricket. Had he not got injured during the winter tour of India he might have continued his promising start and booked his place in the England team. But he has struggled this season not scoring a century for Lancashire. But he has started to show better form and his ability to “bat long” could be vital for England. A risky selection but a risk I would be prepared to take. 

Dawid Malan – Has not established himself in the team during his five Tests but I would still have him on the Ashes tour – just ahead of Tom Westley. He would not be in my first Test XI but would be a useful reserve. 

Toby Roland-Jones – Made a sensational Test debut against South Africa albeit in helpful conditions. Whether or not he can emulate that performance in Australian conditions is debatable but he deserves the opportunity to try. 

Mark Stoneman – Like Malan he hasn’t proved himself in his three Tests but he has made a couple of good scores and I think he has something about him.

Chris Woakes – Missed most of the season with injury which at least has the advantage of being fresh for the Ashes. One of England’s most improved players he has a key role to play with both bat and ball. 

Mark Wood – In my opinion he is a vital part of England’s Ashes challenge. One weakness of England’s bowling attack is a lack of pace. Wood is the fastest bowler available to England. Unfortunately his fitness record is not good and he struggles with back to back Tests. England will hope to get two good Tests out of him while praying for more. 

And the XI I would pick for the first Test at Brisbane starting on November 23 : Cook, Hameed, Stoneman, Root, Ali, Stokes, Bairstow, Woakes, Broad, Wood and Anderson.

Are England good enough to defend the Ashes in Australia? Time will tell…

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Girls are still being banned from sport – because they are girls 

I’ve mentioned in past posts the 1978 Theresa Bennett case in the UK – where a 12 year old girl wanted to play for a boy’s football team and the Football Association (FA) in its infinite (lack of) wisdom banned her from doing so. Theresa Bennett went to court for her right to play football and initially won. The FA would not give up, appealed the verdict and won because the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 had a clause saying banning girls from competing with or against boys in sports where the average woman is at a disadvantage to the average man (this is still in UK law – in the 2010 Equality Act – today). Then Master of the Rolls Lord Denning actually said this in his judgement : 

Women have many qualities superior to those of men, but they have not got the strength or stamina to run, to kick or tackle, and so forth.

Oh dear, what would he have made of Euro 2017 if he had lived to see it? It was an absolutely terrible judgement which the current standard of women’s football has rendered ridiculous. But that was in 1978. A 2017 Theresa Bennett would be able to play in her boy’s team as the FA allow mixed football until the age of 18 (there should not be any restriction except on grounds of ability but that is a different issue). 

You would think that in 2017 no girl would be banned from a sporting event simply because she was a girl. And guess what? You would be wrong. I have just discovered a case that occurred last month where a girl had to go to court for her right to play in a male team – and she lost. In 2017. To make matters worse as there is no girls team it meant the girl in question could not play in the event at all. 

The sport is cricket and the event is the Maccabiah – colloquially known as the Jewish Olympics as it brings together Jewish athletes from all round the world. 14 year old girl Naomi Eytan was picked for the Israeli junior team at the Maccabiah – but the organisers of the event refused to let her play. Like Theresa Bennett 39 years earlier she had to go to court for her right to play and like Theresa Bennett 39 years ago she lost. A Tel Aviv District Court ruled that Eytan was ineligible for the Israeli team because of her gender. Therefore – and despite being selected for the team on merit – she was banned from the youth team and even worse she was unable to take part in the Maccabiah at all as there is no female cricket competition at the Maccabiah. 

Even more extraordinary the same arguments that stymied Theresa Bennett in 1978 were still being used 39 years later. The Maccabiah citied a passage in the International Cricket Council (ICC) Gender Recognition Policy that basically said that because of significant advantages in size, strength and power enjoyed (on average) by males over females from puberty onwards it is necessary to have separate competition categories for males and females in order to preserve the safety, fairness and integrity of the sport”. 

But the hole in this argument in regard to Eytan is – as I mentioned above – the Maccabiah did not provide a separate competition for girls and women. Surely in that case a girl like Eytan should have the right to try out and be selected for a boy’s team. The Maccabiah also used safety as an argument saying that people can be hit in the head in cricket therefore it would not be safe for Eytan to play. I always find it fascinating that the powers that be in sport so often have more concern for the safety of girls/women than boys/men. Boys and men can be hit in the head too. If the sport is too dangerous for girls and women it is too dangerous for boys and men. 

And here is the clincher. Israeli Cricket Association chairman Steve Leigh said that Eytan had been selected on merit and could stand up to it. “There was absolutely no worry on our part regarding Naomi’s safety – not in the slightest”. Surely that should have swayed the court. There is no sane team that would select someone who was not up to it. Teams want to win. Teams will not select players that are not up to the job as that would hinder their chances of winning. Plus the Maccabiah does not get much publicity outside Israel so there was no danger of Eytan’s selection being a publicity stunt. There was no reason to ban her and it is incredible that 39 years after the Theresa Bennett case cases like this can still happen. And the Maccabiah are hopelessly out of touch with the rest of the world. 

The photograph above shows how ridiculous the Maccabiah banning Eytan is. The little girl in the number 10 shirt is Jackie Groenen – one of the stars of Holland’s recent victory in the women’s Euro 2017 tournament. At the time that this was taken Groenen was twelve years old. The boys she was playing with and against were 14-15 years old. As can be seen from the photograph they were far bigger than Groenen but the Dutch allowed her to play. In fact according to her father – who took this photograph – she “embarrassed” the boys. The boys in the opposition team look absolutely terrified of her. Despite the age and size disadvantage Groenen faced no one seemed concerned about her safety despite the fact that there is physical contact in football (unlike cricket). Nor did the fact that the average man has a strength advantage over the average woman matter as it is clear that Groenen – as anyone who saw her at Euro 2017 knows – is anything but average when it comes to football. It was clear that she was in the team on merit and therefore deserved to be so. The Dutch – unlike the dinosaurs who run the Maccabiah – realised that.

Surely the first rule of sport is that it is a meritocracy – if you are good enough you should be in the team. Ten years ago with Jackie Groenen (who is now 22) the Dutch realised that. Today even the FA realise that. The organisers of the Maccabiah did not realise that. The ban on Naomi Eytan playing in the youth cricket tournament was a disgrace. To ban someone from playing the sport she loves because she is a girl is shameful. You would think that in 2017 this would not happen. But you would be wrong.  The organisers of the Maccabiah should be ashamed of themselves. 

England’s Root ahead starts here

Some people would say that the toughest job in sport is the captain of the England cricket team. And they are probably right. Since Mike Brearley retired in 1981 fourteen men have been appointed England captain* and on Thursday Joe Root will become number fifteen. In 36 years! For comparison there have been fourteen different UK Prime Ministers since the war! The nadir was reached in 1988 when England had four captains in six Tests that summer. No doubt about it this job does not have long term security. Even in recent years the captain tends to have a shelf life of four or five years before the pressure of the job gets to them and they end up as broken men as anyone that saw former captain Alistair Cook on last year’s tour of India will testify.

So how will Joe Root fare? The fixture list has not helped him. In a normal summer the weakest of the two touring teams (this year West Indies) would have toured first in May/June and the stronger team (this year South Africa) would have toured in July/August. But because England hosted the Champions Trophy in June this year the fixture list has been reversed with South Africa touring first – still in July/August – while West Indies have been moved to August/September. So instead of the luxury of a debut against a poor West Indies team he has been plunged into a tough debut series against South Africa. 

South Africa are so tough that the last three times they have been here the England captaincy has either changed hands mid series (2003 and 2008) or immediately after the series (2012). At least we know this won’t happen this time – Root has only just been appointed so he won’t be removed after four Tests regardless of what happens – but only an Ashes series or a tour of India could have offered a tougher debut. 

The remarkable thing about South Africa is they will be without argubaly their best batsman – AB de Villiers – and their best fast bowler – Dale Steyn. Had one been told a year ago that South Africa would be without these players one would have anticipated an easy win for England. But it won’t be. This past winter South Africa won 2-1 in Australia, 1-0 in New Zealand and whitewashed Sri Lanka 3-0 at home to climb to number 2 in the World Test rankings. De Villiers did not play in one of those nine Tests and Steyn only one – and he broke down after two days in that match. The fact is South Africa have moved on from the Steyn/de Villiers era. 

Their strength is still the pace bowling. Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander were key parts of the team who won in 2012 to which can be added the best young fast bowler in the world today Kagiso Rabada and another youngster in Duanne Olivier. They also have the best counter attacking wicket keeper batsman in the world in Quinton de Kock – who is as dangerous coming in at 80 for 5 as 300 for 5 –  a promising spinner in Keshav Maharaj who was their leading wicket taker in the New Zealand series and who could make England pay if they fall into the trap of underestimating him – easy to do as he will seem like light relief after the fast bowlers. And another strength is Faf du Plessis’ captaincy which is so impressive that South African fans wanted him to stay captain even if previous captain de Villiers was fit and available. 

But there are weaknesses too and I think South Africa’s batting could be vulnerable. Only Hashim Amla of South Africa’s top seven batsmen has played Test cricket in England before – even captain du Plessis hasn’t. Plus they have never really replaced former captain Graeme Smith in the opening position. Dean Elgar is a solid opener but they have struggled to find a partner for him. Stephen Cook has been dropped and Elgar’s new partner will either be a debutant (Heino Kuhn or Andre Markham) or a player with only one unsuccessful Test (Theunis De Bruyn). Add to that Duminy and Temba Bavuma could be vulnerable at no 4 and 5 respectively and there is plenty of hope for the England bowlers. 

But England have their problems too. One good thing to come out of a dreadful tour of India was that England had appeared to solve their opening batting problems with the emergence of Haseeb Hameed and Keaton Jennings. Unfortunately Haseeb has had such a nightmare season so far that he has not scored a first class fifty for Lancashire never mind a hundred. Unsurprisingly he has not been picked but I’m surprised that the selectors have recalled Gary Ballance who has been picked and dropped twice in three years and is in danger of being this era’s answer to Grahame Hick or Mark Ramprakash. Yes he is averaging 100 for Yorkshire but has he sorted out his technical flaws? We’ll only find out when he steps back into the Test arena…

But the main worry for England is their pace bowlers – or rather their fitness (or lack thereof). James Anderson and Stuart Broad have missed parts of the season, Chris Woakes and Jake Ball are out, Mark Wood is fit at the moment but cannot be relied upon to last a full series and all rounder Ben Stokes is struggling with a knee injury which only affects him when he is bowling apparently.  Because of these injuries England are likely to go in with four pace bowlers plus Stokes which is really too many but the selectors are probably thinking that if we play five pace bowlers at least three of them should last the game! As for spin Liam Dawson is a depressing safety first selection when they should have kept faith with Adil Rashid or more bravely picked Hampshire youngster Mason Crane who got AB de Villiers out in the recent T20 series between the countries. 

Both teams are not going into this match in great form. England had a nightmare tour of India and have only won three of their last twelve Tests while South Africa might be undercooked having had only one (rain affected) first class warn up match plus captain du Plessis might not make it back to the UK on time to play in the first Test because of the difficult birth of his first child back in South Africa. 

This series could go either way. But in English conditions I would say England’s batting line up might be marginally less incompetent than South Africa’s. England have already beaten South Africa 2-1 in both 50 over and 20 over series this summer. It would not surprise me if England completed a hat trick of 2-1 wins in a hard fought series that would mean England’s new “Root” in Test cricket gets off to a good start…

*I have not counted Allan Lamb or Andrew Flintoff in the number of England captains as although both did the job they were never officially appointed as England captain. Both only captained when the appointed captain (Graham Gooch for Lamb, Michael Vaughan for Flintoff) were injured. 

Today’s history making event is unnecessary. 

History has been made today – unlike the bogus history of last week’s WWE Women’s Money in the Bank Ladder match genuine history. For the first time in history a full round of English County Championship matches started at 2pm instead of 11pm, will be played under lights ( even though we are only a week removed from the longest day of the year !) and with a pink ball. Revolutionary change ( unlike the so called WWE “Women’s Revolution) but unlike that so called “revolution” totally unnecessary. There was no demand from the English counties for the change.

So why was it done? Simple. England are playing a Test match under lights and with the pink ball against the West Indies starting on August 17th at Edgbaston so this round of County Championship matches is being played under lights with a pink ball in order to prepare England’s elite players for this match. But there was no demand from England’s players or fans for a floodlit pink ball Test in England. So why is this Test taking place?

The answer is because of a spineless, pathetic capitulation by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) which could cost England dear in this winter’s Ashes series. In November 2015 (see previous post “Test Cricket Joins the 21st Century”) Australia played New Zealand at the Adelaide Oval in the first ever floodlit/pink ball Test. The next year Australia played South Africa and Pakistan in floodlit/pink ball Tests at Adelaide and Brisbane respectively. The Tests were great successes all won by Australia and all attracted bigger crowds than the day only Tests played previously in the same cities. So Cricket Australia (CA) asked the ECB to agree to play a floodlit Test in the 2017-18 Ashes series and shamefully they agreed so the floodlit Ashes Test will be played at Adelaide starting on December 2nd. But the ECB should not have agreed to this. And here’s why.

The only raison d’être for day/night Test cricket in my opinion is to increase attendences. But the Ashes always sells out – regardless of whether it is played in England or Australia. If the Ashes always sells out why have a day/night Test? The answer is that CA have laid a trap for England and the ECB have walked straight into it. Australia are used to playing with a pink ball – they have played and won three home Tests with it. So if they could lure England into accepting the day/night Test it would give Australia a big advantage. And the pea brains at the ECB did just that.

But of course they could not send England to Australia this winter without any experience of pink ball cricket hence the Test against the West Indies in August and hence why they had nine pink ball County Championship matches starting today. But again there was no demand for pink ball day/night cricket in England.

So in summary to appease Australia the ECB have agreed to two unnecessary pink ball Tests – as day/night Tests are unnecessary in England (where Test cricket has always been well supported). Because the ECB was too spineless to tell Australia where to go. Playing a floodlit Test in England in August is asking for trouble. And it is so unnecessary…

PS – if you read previous post “Test Cricket Joins the 21st century” you will know I am in favour of day/night Tests.  But – and this is the caveat – only as a way of boosting attendences. Ashes Tests – plus Tests in England generally – do not have problems attracting spectators. Plus the climate in the UK is not suitable for day/ night pink ball Test cricket. Therefore these Tests are unnecessary.

Cook must stay for a year – or go now 

England finally won a game on their Indian tour yesterday -at the eighth time of asking. Having lost the Test series 4-0 and also lost the one day series by losing the first two matches they finally scraped a five run win in the dead third match. 

Still at least the one day team was competitive. The Test series was a complete disaster with England reaching a nadir when in the last two Tests England batted first scored 400 (Fourth Test) and 477 (Fifth Test) and yet managed to lose both by an innings. In the Fifth Test India scored 759 for seven declared the highest score ever conceded by England in 139 years of playing Test cricket.

Unsurprisingly there have been rumours about captain Alistair Cook’s future. Since the end of the Test series he has met with England managing director Andrew Strauss to consider his future but no descion has been made. Cook has time on his side – in a ludicrous piece of scheduling England’s first Test of 2017 is not until July 6th against South Africa – so we don’t know what he will decide. At the end of the Indian debacle he seemed a demoralised man and when he mentioned that he considered his vice captain and almost certain successor Joe Root to be ready for Test captaincy most people thought he would go. It hasn’t happened yet – but it still could. Or maybe being back in England with his friends and family has reinvigorated his appetite for Test captaincy.

One thing is certain in my opinion. If Cook wants to carry on as Test captain he must agree to stay in post at least until January 8th 2018. This is the last scheduled day of the 2017-18 Ashes series in Australia where Cook – if he is still captain – will be trying to avenge the 5-0 humiliation inflicted on his team in 2013-14. If he wants to captain England in that series fine. He has done enough for England to deserve to choose his own departure date. If he wants to resign now hand the captaincy over to Root and give him the summer’s Tests against South Africa and West Indies to bed him into the captaincy job that is fine too. But it’s a possible third scenario that worries me.

I think it’s fair to say that if Cook decides to stay in the job he will be under more pressure post India than he was pre India. So imagine that the home Test series against South Africa does not go well – not an impossible scenario after South Africa’s impressive 2-1 away win against Australia last year. If England lose to South Africa under Cook’s captaincy will he want to carry on or will he want to give up? The last three South African tours to England have seen the England captain either resign during the series (Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan) or immediately afterwards (Strauss). This is the doomsday secenario for England. If Cook did resign after the South African series Root is left with just three Tests against a poor West Indies team to gain captaincy experience before the Ashes series starts in Brisbane on November 23rd. Not enough time in my opinion. 

I hope that Strauss during their meeting told Cook that if he wants to keep the job that he is in it for the next year (he can be reassessed after the Ashes series). It would be a disaster if another England captain was seen off during or immediately after a home series against South Africa. England cannot afford to change the captaincy midway through a pre Ashes summer.

For that reason though I wouldn’t mind if Cook stayed my preference is for him to stand down in favour of Root now. It would take the pressure off Cook and the team as he will be under huge pressure after India (as he was after the 2013-14 Ashes shambles). In contrast Root will be a new captain enjoying his honeymoon period in the job. With the captaincy issue settled there will be less pressure on the team with the result that they might play better. 

One thing is certain. If Cook wants to remain captain – and Strauss wants to let him –  he must committ to the whole year. If he stayed in the captaincy then changed his mind during the summer it would be a disaster. Cook must be told that he must either stay in the captaincy for a year – or go now. 

Australia are now like 1990s England 

On July 26th the Australian cricket team started a Test series in Sri Lanka as the number one Test team in the world – at least according to the ICC rankings. Since then they have been whitewashed 3-0 in Sri Lanka, whitewashed 5-0 in an ODI series in South Africa and have lost the first two Tests at home to a South Africa team whose best batsman AB de Villiers is out injured and whose best bowler Dale Steyn disappeared from the series on its second day. The defeat in Hobart was pathetic – Australia were bowled out for 85 and 161 and they lost in two and a bit days playing time. Only David Warner, captain Steve Smith, Usman Khawaja, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazelwood looked Test quality. 

Watching this current Australian team reminded me of the dumpster fire that was England in the 1990s when failure was expected by England cricket fans and the team supplied it. Here are the ways in my opinion that the Australian cricket team resembles England in the 1990s.

Batting collapses. England in the 1990s were notorious for batting collapses. The nadir was probably 1994 when they were bowled out for less than 100 three times – for 46 by West Indies in Port-of-Spain, 99 by South Africa at Lords, and 92 by Australia at Melbourne. The current Australia team have been bowled out for 88 against Pakistan at Headingley in 2010, 98 by England in Melbourne also in 2010, 47 (after being 21 for nine) by South Africa at Cape Town in 2011, 60 by England at Trent Bridge in last year’s Ashes, and 85 by South Africa in their most recent Test. In fact in their last three Tests they have lost all ten wickets for less than 100 runs in an innings. 

Injured bowlers. England in the 1990s had good fast bowlers – Devon Malcolm, Angus Fraser, Darren Gough, Dominic Cork and Andrew Caddick for instance – but they were never all fit at the same time. The current Australia team has Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazelwood. Pat Cummins, James Pattinson and Peter Siddle but again they are never all fit – in fact Cummins has only played one Test five years ago because he is always injured. 

Picking all rounders who are not good enough. Between the Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff eras England kept picking players who both batted and bowled but we’re not Test class in either discipline – Mark Ealham, Ronnie Irani and Adam Hollioake being the best examples. Today’s Australia team has picked players like Mitchell Marsh, Moises Henriques and Glenn Maxwell who can bat and bowl but can do neither to Test standard. If Australia recall Maxwell for the next Test they are making a dreadful mistake. If you don’t have an all rounder of Test class don’t pick one. South Africa have learnt this in the post Jacques Kallis era so should Australia. 

Not making their minds up about players. England in the 1990s kept dropping and recalling the same players the two best examples being Mark Ramprakash and current Australia batting coach Graeme Hick. Again Australia keep dropping and recalling players like Shaun Marsh and Usman Khawaja. They should make up their minds. If they are good enough persevere with them. If not drop them for good. 

An over reliance on old players. England in the 1990s kept recalling veteran players even when they were past their best – Graham Gooch, Mike Gatting and John Emburey being the best examples. One amazing statistic will show how much Australia has relied on old players. Of the Australian XI who whitewashed England in the 2013-14 Ashes only four have played a part in the current South Africa series. Six of that XI have retired from Test cricket and that is a series that finished less than three years ago! In contrast of the England XI that played in the fifth Test of that series six are on the current tour of India yet England were the team that lost that series 5-0. You would think more Australians than Englishmen would be still playing but its the other way around. Australia have kept going for short term options like Adam Voges -who averages 162.28 against West Indies and New Zealand and only 20.52 against good teams like England, Sri Lanka and South Africa. 

It’s as if the countries have swapped roles. In the 1990s Australia picked young players like Ricky Ponting, Michael Slater and Damian Martyn while England picked veterans. Former Australia captain Ian Chappell was able to reply to an MCC member who asked him “How come you Australians always produce good young batsmen?” by saying “We play them.” But now it is England who pick their young batting talent as the participation of Hassem Hameed and Ben Duckett on the current India tour shows while it is Australia who pick old players like Voges and 31 year old debutant Callum Ferguson. 

I think it is clear that Australia are now England in the 1990s. For that to change Australia need to go back to basics. Australia historically have always given youth a chance. They need to go back to that. There is hope for Australia. Cricket can change suddenly. They need only look at their current opponents for an example of this. As recently as January this year South Africa were bowled out for 83 by England in Johannesburg lost the series and were totally humiliated. South African cricket was in crisis. Now they have won a series in Australia with a Test to spare. And two of the main contributors to this success have been Quinton de Kock (age 23) and Kagiso Rabada (age 21). Both proving that good things can happen if you give youth its head. And this is something Australia have to do. The “make do and mend” policy of picking old players has failed and must go. It cannot get any worse than Hobart. And take it from me you do NOT want to be like England in the 1990s….

England are in danger of a humiliating spinwash 

The England Test cricket team will end 2016 the same way they started it – in a tough away series against the world’s number one Test team. But unlike their famous 2-1 win against South Africa back in January the chances of England winning their five Test series in India which starts on Wednesday are very slim and they are in serious danger of suffering a humiliating 5-0 series defeat.

England’s warm up in Bangladesh did not go well. Before this tour England had won eight out of eight against Test cricket’s minnows. But they only won the first Test by 22 runs because of a mixture of the heroics of Ben Stokes and Bangladesh “bottling it” under pressure. In the second Test England needing 273 to win collapsed from 100-0 to a pathetic 164 all out to lose by an embarrassing 108 runs. The batting was clueless against Bangladesh’s spinners while England’s four spinners Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid, Gareth Barry and Zafar Ansari bowled far too many bad balls and struggled to contain the Bangladeshi batsmen.

And in India they will face far better players than they did in Bangladesh. India’s spinners Ravi Ashwin and Ravi Jadeja are far superior to their Bangladeshi counterparts who humiliated England and their seam bowlers are far superior. While Bangladesh collapsed from 171-1 to 220 all out in the Second Test India’s batsmen will not be so obliging. All in all England face a daunting task.

To show how daunting the task is since England’s 2-1 win in India back in 2012, four non subcontinental teams have toured India – Australia and West Indies (both 2013), South Africa (2015) and New Zealand (September/October this year). They have played a combined thirteen Tests in India between them losing twelve and drawing one. Australia, West Indies and New Zealand lost all their Tests in India and but for rain in Bangalore South Africa would very probably lost all their Tests as well. Between them in 25 innings Australia, West Indies, South Africa and New Zealand could muster only two totals of over 300 and only one century was scored – despite batsmen of the calibre of Michael Clarke. David Warner, Steve Smith, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and Kane Williamson being in the visiting teams. All four struggled against India’s spinners especially Ashwin who took a total of 99 wickets in those thirteen Tests. It is clear that England’s task is daunting. 

But why is batting in India so tough? Former England captain Tony Lewis (who captained an England tour to India in 1972-73) has the answer. He said this (in “The Innings of My Life” by Jack Bannister (pages 144- 145)).

“It doesn’t take much for Indian spinners to dominate and, once they are on top, they never let go. It makes for exciting cricket of a type we never see in England. Each time the ball does something, the bowlers and fielders get more wound up -as do the crowd to whom every ball is life and death. Batsmen can hardly hear themselves think – communication with your partner has to be at close quarters – and it seems as though the pair of you haven’t got a friend in the world. 

You lose wickets in clusters, so you are never safe, and the dressing room is always teetering on the edge of a combined nervous breakdown. For instance, in our second innings at Eden Gardens, we went from 17 for four to 114 for five, and then 138 for nine. In Madras we lost our first five wickets for 98, but then got to 242, and in the second innings we were 30 for three, 97 for four, 152 for six and 159 all out. It is an emotional rollercoaster you can laugh at when you have retired, but it is so easy for players to become demoralised when it is happening”. 

Apart from the fact that the crowds for Tests in India are nowhere near as big as in 1972-73, everything Lewis said about batting in India is as true now as it was in 1972-73 (apart from neutral umpires and the Decision Review System (DRS) – which India have finally accepted). It is especially tough to start an innings in India with world class spinners a sharply turning ball and fielders round the bat. So if an English batsman gets to say 50 in India he must go on to at least 100 or even 150 as once a wicket falls the Indian spinners can go “Bang bang bang” and take two, three or four wickets very quickly. As the two batsmen most capable of producing innings of 150+ this puts huge pressure on captain Alistair Cook and Joe Root. But Australia, New Zealand and South Africa also have world class batsmen and they failed in India. Can Cook and Root do better? They have to. Also England’s spinners must improve. Spinners should put pressure on batsmen by bowling maidens but England’s spinners bowled a lot of garbage in Bangladesh and if they do the same in India Virat Kholi and company will feast on the easy pickings.

Is there any hope for England? Only in the past. In 1976-77, 1984-85, and 2012 England were in terrible form before they went to India. But on all three occasions England won famous victories – 3-1 in 1976-77, and 2-1 – after losing the first Test – in both 1984-8 5 and 2012. But in 1976-77 England had a world class spinner in Derek Underwood and in 2012 they had two – Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar. The Indians were hoist by their own petard. In 1984-85 the Indian team were divided among themselves. 

None of this applies today. England’s spinners – as was painfully obvious in Bangladesh – are poor. And Kohli leads a strong, confident rampant Indian team who aim to win all thirteen home Tests this winter (they already have beaten New Zealand 3-0, and after England play one Test against Bangladesh and four against Australia). Frankly this is as pessimistic as I’ve felt about an England Test series since the 2002-3 Ashes – which I thought they would lose 5-0 and if Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne had stayed fit they probably would have lost 5-0 instead of 4-1. Frankly considering England’s form in Bangladesh and the dominating performances of India at home I fear it will take a miracle – or rain – for England to avoid a humiliating 5-0 spinwash.