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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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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.

Stick to your season

Time was that in August the only international cricket that was played was in England. All the other Test countries – mainly in the southern hemisphere – were in winter hibernation unless they were touring England.

That started to change in 1992 when Sri Lanka – where the climate was suitable for cricket most of the year – hosted Australia in August. The main reason they did that was the traditional winter months of November to March were overcrowded and countries found it hard to fit in tours to Sri Lanka in that time. For a long while after 1992 Sri Lanka hosted Test series in August and September but they were the only other country to do so (apart from England obviously).

But that has totally changed. This August – apart from England v Pakistan and Sri Lanka v Australia – there have been Test series in Zimbabwe (v New Zealand), West Indies (v India) and South Africa (v New Zealand). Of the ten Test teams only Bangladesh have not been in action this month. To think that twenty five years ago in 1991 the only Test teams that were in action where England, West Indies and Sri Lanka and the only country that Test cricket was played in was England! 

But there are consequences of doing this. This past week saw Test matches scheduled between West Indies and India in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and between South Africa and New Zealand in Durban. Both Tests were the first played in these cities in August and both were total disasters. In Port-of-Spain only 22 overs were bowled-all on the first day – while in Durban only 99.4 overs were bowled-all in the first two days. So combined the two Tests lasted for 121.4 overs – lees than two days – and seven of the ten scheduled days were completely washed out. A total mess.

And an avoidable mess. The game in Port-of-Spain was arranged for Trinidad’s rainy season. So is anyone surprised when it rained? And although Durban has below average rainfall in winter the numbskulls that run South African cricket obviously don’t know that when it does rain in winter it is heavier than in summer. An example : Between 1899 and 2007 there were 135 floods at Worcestershire’s New Road ground – which is on the banks of the River Severn – but only nine occurred during the prime cricket months of May to August. And sure enough Durban was hit by record floods in late July and the wet weather continued into early August.

And another problem with playing out of season is that the grounds are not prepared for rain because they usually play in the summer where there is less of it. In Durban’s case the outfield was relaid recently which made the outfield soft and harder to dry. It was relaid at the end of May after the Comrades Marathon – soon enough if the cricket season stuck to its normal time but too late for a Test starting in August. This meant although there was no rain after overnight on the second day the combination of a soft wet outfield and a weak sun – again Cricket South Africa should know the sun is weaker in winter meaning it takes longer to get rid of water – meant that despite three dry days the outfield could not dry and the Test limped to a watery grave.

And the same thing happened in Port-of-Spain. Again a spell of rain again the outfield could not cope. Again the reason is the people that run the ground are not used to rain since they usually play in the summer when it doesn’t rain so when they were moved to what is normally the off season they were not prepared for it. The rain in Durban and Port-of-Spain is mother nature’s way of telling cricket to stick to its season. 

There is another reason not to play in your off season. The public is not interested. The attendances in both Durban and Port-of-Spain were tiny. Hardly surprising considering cricket was competing with the Rio Olympics where both the West Indies (Jamaicans Usain Bolt and Elaine Thompson) and South Africa (Wayde van Niekerk and Caster Semenya) had significant athletic successes and in South Africa’s case the start of the Rugby Championship featuring the Springboks, the Wallabies, the All Blacks and Argentina – a big deal in rugby mad South Africa. The public were not ready for cricket. Again the authorities should know this. When Australia tried playing winter Tests in 2003 and 2004 the public didn’t want them and the attendances were tiny so Australia had the sense to abandon them and go back to playing in summer.

The fact is cricket has an off season for a reason. In most countries the weather in August is simply not suitable for cricket. Playing cricket in South Africa and West Indies in August is about as sensible as playing baseball at Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium in January. The weather and the attendances in Durban and Port-of-Spain should convince the cricket authorities in both countries that off season cricket is a disaster. Cricket has been a summer sport throughout its existence. It needs to stay that way. It needs to stick to its season.

Test cricket finally joins the 21st century

History will be made at the Adelaide Oval on Friday when the third cricket Test between Australia and New Zealand begins. The match will be played under floodlights with a pink ball instead of the traditional red ball. It will be the first day/night Test match in the history of Test cricket and the only question for most people is: Why has it taken so long?

It will not surprise people to learn that cricket lags behind other sports. The first floodlit baseball match took place on May 24 1935 when the Cincinnati Reds played the Philadelphia Phillies at Crosley Field. Floodlit baseball is now so common it is taken for granted. The last All Star game not played under floodlights was 1969 – and that was only because of rain on the previous evening – while the last World Series game not played under floodlights was Game Six of the 1986 series. The Cubs were the last non expansion franchise to play a home game under floodlights – in 1988. (Even to this day the Cubs are the only franchise to play home games on Friday afternoons rather than Friday evenings).

British sport of course lagged behind. Arsenal’s progressive manager Herbert Chapman installed floodlights in the West Stand at Highbury in the 1930s but the dinosaurs of the English Football League refused to sanction their use for competitive games. It was not until the 1950s that the League relented and the first floodlit Football League game took place on February 22 1956 when Portsmouth hosted Newcastle United. Again like baseball it is hard to imagine football not being played under floodlights.

Cricket was even later. The first day/night cricket match was literally an accident. In 1977 Kerry Packer signed 35 of the world’s best players for his World Series Cricket (WSC).The Australian authorities banned him from using their grounds so he had to use Australian Rules Football grounds which had floodlights. As WSC was struggling to attract crowds and because it would offer Packer – who owned the Channel Nine Network in Australia – a prime time TV audience on December 14 1977 the world’s first day/night cricket match took place. But if the establishment had let Packer use their grounds it could not have happened. Ironically it was day/night cricket that led to WSC becoming a success and forced the Australian authorities to capitulate to Packer. The first official day/night cricket match in Australia took place on 27 November 1979 when Australia played West Indies. Day/night matches gradually spread round the world but needless to say it took ages to reach England – until July 6 2000 to be exact.

And now it is Test cricket’s turn. But why has it taken so long? Fear basically. People fear it would be harder to see the ball in the dark. They have not been able to find a white ball that can last 80 overs (unlike the 50 overs needed for a one day international) which is why they are using a pink ball. Also it is the fear of change that affects cricket generally. Even a progressive player like Kevin Pietersen has come out against the idea saying that it risks “messing with the greatness” of Test cricket and that “Wickets change at night”.

Apart from the fact that his views show that current and former players should not be allowed to run a sport as they are far too conservative and stuck in the past there is a contradiction in Pietersen’s argument. Because in Test cricket the wicket is meant to change and one of the complaints about modern Test cricket is that the wickets do not change over the five days. Remember that this is a sport that until 1980 in the UK was played on uncovered pitches   which were exposed to rain and when that happened batting became a lottery (the “sticky dog”). Even today in the UK batting conditions vary depending on the weather. It is easier to bat in sunshine rather than cloud because the latter is reckoned to help the ball move about. Cricket is also the only sport where the toss of a coin can decide a result. If a pitch starts easy to bat on and gets worse it is a big advantage to win the toss and bat first. England captains from Len Hutton (1954) to Mike Denness (1975) and more recently Nasser Hussain (2002) have all been criticised heavily for making the wrong decision on winning the toss. This would not happen in football or rugby.

The point being of course that even if wickets do change at night as Pietersen suggests using fairness is a dodgy argument in a game so dependant on varying pitch and weather conditions. Besides in a five day/night match it is highly likely that both teams will bat at night which would even the game up.

But there is one fundamental reason why the day/night experiment is worth trying. Everywhere outside England attendences at Test cricket are going through the floor. Hardly surprising when most Test cricket takes place during the day and on weekdays when people are at work. Other countries also don’t seem to have the culture of “taking a day off work to watch the cricket and have a drink” that we in the UK have.

The fundamental truth is that sport needs to be staged when people are available to watch it – either live at the ground or on TV. It is not rocket science. As Rob Steen put it (in the article “And Lord’s said “Let There Be Lights””…in “Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack 1998, page 31) “Nothing can match the cultural significance of the pylon. Here is sport freed from the tyrannies of the working day”.

And football, rugby, baseball – even tennis in some countries – have freed themselves from the tyranny of the working day. Steen wrote that “the advent of Tests with supper intervals cannot be far away”. It shows how conservative Test cricket is that it has taken seventeen years for Steen’s prediction to come true. Now whether day/night Test cricket boosts attendences we will have to wait and see. But surely putting it on when people can see it at least gives it a chance. Despite what the likes of Pietersen thinks it is a case of “adapt or die”. Day/night Test cricket may not save the sport. But at least it gives it a chance….

Who will rule the World?

The first if the three major sport World Cups played this year starts tomorrow (actually today in the UK because of the time difference) namely the Cricket World Cup which is being held in Australia and New Zealand. The first point is that the tournament’s format is terrible. A 14 team event lasts 44 days (the FIFA World Cup last year had 32 teams and lasted 32 days) and it takes a month to reduce the number of teams from 14 to 8 (and it is highly likely that we know who the last eight will be). With that said how will the tournament go?
A key feature of One Day international (ODI) cricket in recent years is that scores have been rocketing upwards. Two examples of this from this winter were Rohit Sharma’s 264 for India and AB de Villiers’ amazing 31-ball century for South Africa last month. Paradoxically that makes bowling more important. It is clear that unless a fielding side can take early wickets with the new ball, have a wicket taking spinner and have good “death bowling” then they will be hammered. Since the top eight sides all have destructive batting the sides that do well will be the ones that have the bowling to stop these strong batting line-ups.
So let’s take a team-by-team look at the teams in the World Cup.

Group A – Australia – The hosts are the favourites and rightly so. Aaron Finch, David Warner, Shane Watson, the vastly improved Steve Smith, captain Michael Clarke(when fit) and six hitting machine Glenn Maxwell make up a scary batting line up even by this tournament’s standards. And the fast bowling is formidable. Mitchells Johnson and Starc plus youngsters Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood. Two weak spots. They don’t have a wicket taking spinner. Maxwell’s bowling is far less scary than his batting and Xavier Doherty is average at best. And will the hype get to them? They flopped in 1992 as hosts. Could history repeat itself?

England – When England left Sri Lanka last year with their tails between their legs their World Cup chances looked slim. But the sacking of Alistair Cook and his replacement by Eoin Morgan has produced some improvement. Probably not enough. They were outclassed three times by Australia in their warm up tournament. There are signs of an exciting batting line up of Ian Bell, Moeen Ali, James Taylor, Joe Root, Morgan and the explosive Joss Buttler. However they are inconsistent. The bowling is a worry. If James Anderson and Stuart Broad don’t take wickets with the new ball and Steve Finn does not bowl quick it is very batsman friendly. If England can get to the Semi Finals – and they haven’t done that since 1992 – it will be an achievement.

New Zealand – New Zealand are usually the Oakland As of cricket. A team of underdogs punching above their weight. Not this time. This New Zealand team is seriously good. Three world class batsmen in captain Brendon McCullum, Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor, plus big hitters Corey Anderson and Luke Ronchi make a formidable batting line up. The bowling has depth in pace with Trent Boult, Tim Southee, Adam Milne and Mitchell McClenaghan plus a vetran spinner in Daniel Vittori. If they cope with the pressure this is the best chance New Zealand has ever had of getting to the Final.

Sri Lanka – One man holds the key to the 2011 Finalists chances. The batting is strong and experienced lead by Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardane and captain Angelo Matthews. They also have a reliable spin attack. But Sri Lanka in order to perform well need Lasith Malinga the best death bowler in the world to be fit and firing. He is just coming back from injury and went at six an over in both Sri Lanka’s warm up games. If he is at his beat Sri Lanka could get to the last four at least. If he is not they will not get beyond the last eight.

As for the other three teams in the group Bangladesh could cause an upset – but only one – the fact that Afghanistan are here at all is a fairy tale – in 2008 they were in Division Five of the World Cricket League playing the likes of Jersey – but they and Scotland probably have no more realistic hope than to win the game against each other.

Group B – India – the holders have a strong batting line up led by Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Shikar Dhawan and captain MS Dhoni but the bowling (especially the fast bowling) is not as good and their form is awful – they haven’t won an international match on their tour to Australia and confidence is low. If they lose their first two games to Pakistan and South Africa they will be under huge pressure from a demanding public(India is as fanatical about cricket as Brazil is about football and over a billion people in India will be watching them). Could get to the last four but unlikely to go further.

Pakistan – What Winston Churchill said about the USSR – “A riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped inside an enigma” – could well apply to Pakistan. They could win the whole thing – or suffer a humiliating defeat by Ireland and go out before the last eight. One suspects they will struggle this time. Apart from two recent games in New Zealand they haven’t played outside Asia since 2013 and will need experienced players like captain Misbah-ul-Haq , Younis Khan and Shahid Afridi to fire to have a chance of a last four place. Still they beat England in a warm up match and can’t be written off.

South Africa – based on talent this team should be in the Final. AB de Villiers – the best batsman in the world – Hashim Amla , Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander are a world class core, Quinton de Kock, Rilee Rossouw and David Miller are exciting young batsmen and Imran Tahir is a wicket taking – if sometimes expensive – spinner. However they have a reputation for being “chokers” – not performing well in big games. A reputation is very hard to get rid of. South Africa could yet again win all their group games look unbeatable and then blow up when the pressure of knock out sport comes in the last eight (perhaps even losing to England?).

West Indies – Oh dear. From 1975 to 1983 they were the team every one wanted to beat. Now they could be the team everybody beats. For some reason best known to themselves they appointed a 23-year old rookie Jason Holder as captain and left out Dwayne Bravo and Kieron Pollard – probably because they lead a players’ revolt in India last year. They still have world class batsmen Chris Gayle and Marlon Samuels but the bowling is awful – as de Villiers showed in South Africa. There is a chance they don’t get out of the group. If they get beyond the last eight I will be amazed.

Of the other teams in the group Ireland humiliated Pakistan and England in the last two World Cups and if anyone is to stop the last eight comprising of the “big eight” it will be them. Zimbabwe beat Australia last year and could cause another upset while the UAE are probably the weakest team here and are unlikely to win a game.

So who will win? If I had to predict I would say that the Semi Finalists will be Australia, England, New Zealand and Sri Lanka with the Final on March 29 in Melbourne being between the hosts – Australia and New Zealand – with the Aussies favourites to win. But it is not a certainty by any means. Let the cricket begin…