Tag Archives: England Cricket team

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. 

England need to play without fear 

Well that did not go well (to say the least). Last night England crashed out of Euro 2016 after a humiliating 2-1 defeat to little Iceland a country with a population of just 330000 (to put this into perspective Wayne Rooney has 13.2 MILLION Twitter followers 40 TIMES the population of Iceland!) After this horrific defeat manager Roy Hodgson – like UK Prime Minister David Cameron after his defeat in the country’s EU referendum last Thursday – promptly resigned. Unlike Cameron he is going at once.

Predictably the reaction was hostile with players like Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling being crucified by fans and in the press and the number of foreign players in the Premier League and the high wages in the League. But the fact that another UK team Wales are still in the tournament should debunk the first argument – if foreign players in the Premier League were stopping England from being successful it would also stop Wales but it has not. If high wages in football was the reason England underachieved well Wales star player Gareth Bale is on high wages at Real Madrid but no one has suggested that he is not trying.

To my mind one of England’s problems is fear of failure. English fans and press expect so much of their players – god knows why as for most of their post war history they have not been good. But this expectation can cripple players with fear. If you are scared of failure you don’t take risks. But if you don’t take risks you won’t win – ever heard of the saying “fortune favours the brave?”. But England’s players are scared to take risks as risks can cause mistakes – and if they make mistakes they will get slaughtered. If I had a pound for every time someone on Twitter called an England player a “cunt” I could afford to buy Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo! Frankly if I were an England player I would not play international football. Why play extra games and get grief from the fans when you could stay with your club and be a hero? 

In contrast Wales and the two Irelands have adopted a “we’re happy to be here” attitude and have played without fear. And coincidentally – or maybe not – they have played better. Even when the Republic of Ireland were beaten 3-0 by Belgium and outclassed they were not criticised by their fans. The same also applies to Iceland. They are happy to be there, enjoying themselves and playing without fear.And they are playing well.

Another England team in another sport is an example of what I mean. Last year the England cricket team were pathetic in the World Cup. They got knocked out by Bangladesh – a less embarrassing defeat than the one the football team suffered yesterday but still humiliating. And like the football team the cricket team were safety first and scared of failure – which in a self fulfilling prophecy promptly happened.

But it is what happened after the World Cup that is significant. Since the World Cup the England one day team has been encouraged by coach Trevor Bayliss to be more aggressive and play with no fear. The result is a team playing exciting cricket, playing without fear and actually looking like they want to play international cricket. Ironically their results in one day cricket have been inconsistent – their record since last year’s World Cup is only 11 wins and nine losses which is nothing to write home about but a big improvement on what had gone before. Plus the team is a pleasure to watch and is prepared to take risks in order to win. Neither of which applies to the England football team that played in France last night.

England do have promising young players – they were the second youngest team in Euro 2016. But until England start playing without fear and start taking risks in order to win they are going nowhere. The England team are being crippled by both a fear of failure and traditional british conservatism (manager Hodgson’s selections were very safety first and it is interesting that the England player who played with least fear was the youngest member of the squad Marcus Rashford who came on too late to make a difference against Iceland).

Until England become like the cricket team and play with no fear they are going nowhere. Leicester City won the Premier League last season with the slogan “Fearless”. If you play with a fear of failure guess what? You fail. Until England change they are going nowhere. Playing without fear can lead to defeat. But guess what? England are losing already. So at worst playing without fear means they still fail. But it could very well lead to better results. Fortune favours the brave. And surely England fans must agree it can’t get worse than last night….

Where 2015 ranks in Ashes history

Well hardly anyone predicted that England would regain the Ashes did they? I didn’t (see previous post “Ashes to Ashes?” for evidence). And no one predicted they wold regain them with a Test to spare as they would have to be two matches up with one to play to do this (Australia as holders would have retained them with a draw so if England had been 2-1 up not 3-1 the Ashes could still have been salvaged at the Oval) but it wasn’t to be. Congratulations to Alistair Cook and his team for a magnificent achievement that no one predicted as recently as July 19th when England were humiliated at Lords.

But where does 2015 fit into Ashes history? England have regained the Ashes seven times in post war history (1953, 1970-71, 1977, 1985, 2005, 2009 and 2015) so I decided to rank the seven in order of what I think is the best achievement with the top one coming first. I should say at this juncture that regaining the Ashes is always a magnificent feat but some Ashes retentions are harder than others. So here we go with where in my opinion England’s seven post war Ashes regains rank in history.

1.1970-71(won 2-0) This one in my opinion easily tops the list. First of all it was the only one of the seven where England regained the Ashes away from home.  The Ashes have changed hands thirteen times since the war but only on this occasion and Australia’s win in 1989 was the feat done by the away team. That alone earns 1970-71 big points. Also England had not held the Ashes since 1959. Add to that the fact that captain Ray Illingworth had to deal with tour manager David Clark who wanted vice captain Colin Cowdrey to get the job (Illingworth had got the job by accident back in 1969 when Cowdrey got injured and a lot of people thought Cowdrey should have got the job back once he was fit) so the manager and captain did not get on well to put it mildly. Also England did not get a single lbw decision from the Australian* umpires in the whole six Test series. But England thanks to Illingworth’s captaincy and a fine team effort lead by Geoffrey Boycott with the bat and John Snow with the ball overcame the odds – but still won the final seventh** Test when Boycott wasn’t fit to play and Snow got injured halfway through. Illingworth called it the highlight of his career. It is also the highlight of England’s post war  Ashes history. (Guy Fraser-Sampson’s book “Cricket at the Crossroads, Class, Colour and Controversy from 1967 to 1977” – pages 127-168 – has excellent writing on this series).

The next two are far harder to separate and no 2 beats no 3 by a short head.

2. 2005 (won 2-1) Often called the greatest Test series ever and with some justification. The middle three Tests – Edgbaston (which England won by 2 runs) Old Trafford (draw with Australia having only one wicket left) and Trent Bridge (England won by three wickets after threatening to choke a la Australia in 1981) must be the greatest trio of Tests ever. Three things rank this series highly. First England had not held the Ashes since 1989. Secondly the excitement of the cricket and the outstanding individual performances of Andrew Flintoff, Kevin Pietersen, Simon Jones, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath among others. And thirdly this was a great Australian side – yet England inflicted only their fourth series defeat in 21 years (and they would not lose another one for three more). Only the fact that it was in England stops this being number 1.

3.1953 (won 1-0) So many similarities between this series and 2005. Again England had not held the Ashes for a long time – they lost them in 1934 – and (like 2005) this series captured the nation’s imagination as it was the first series a large number of the country could watch on TV (TV only really became popular in the UK in June 1953 when a large number of people bought their first sets to watch the coronation of the current Queen). There were great performances from Trevor Bailey, Willie Watson and in the last decisive match spinners Jim Laker and Tony Lock. The reason this is no 3 is that there was a lot of rain and defensive cricket. As Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2003 (page 59) put it “the slow batting, and all the rain, means that 1953 cannot be ranked as the greatest Ashes series of them all”.

4. 2015 (lead 3-1 with one to play) Always hard to judge a current series but mid table is fair. It has ben a great feat for Cook to overcome the trauma of the 5-0 disaster in Australia back in 2013-14 and the stick he got for the axing of Pietersen last year and for his own poor form of most of 2014.  For long spells he was more hated than UK Prime Minister David Cameron! It also took courage to change his team’s dour defensive approach for a more attacking one which I thought (see “Ashes to Ashes?”) was beyond him. The performances of Joe Root and Stuart Broad in particular will go down in Ashes folklore. 2015 can only be ranked fourth as Australia’s batting has been awful and after all England held the Ashes as recently as 2013 (unlike the three occasions above where they regained them after long periods of Australian dominance). Still a very pleasant surprise in a year full of surprises.

5.2009 (won 2-1) The luckiest of the seven. England’s series batting average was 34.15. Australia’s was 40.64***. Australia scored eight centuries to England’s two. Yet somehow England won. This was due to the heroics of Paul Collingwood, James Anderson and Monty Panesar in turning certain first Test defeat into a draw the batting and captaincy of Andrew Strauss and inspirational bowling spells from Flintoff, Broad and Grahame Swann. But the fact that this came so soon after the Lord Mayor’s Show of 2005 plus the luck that was involved sends this down the list.

6. 1977 (won 3-0) Similar to 1953 in that the Ashes was regained during a summer of Royal celebration – the Queen’s Silver Jubilee this time – it loses points because the Australians were divided among themselves  between those who h had signed for Kerry Packer’s World Series cricket (thirteen of the seventeen man squad) and the minority who had not.  Dennis Lillee then the best bowler in the world and former captain Ian Chappell  had according to Wisden 1978 “left their flannels at the cleaners until the Packer fortunes became available” thus weakening the team. Plus the fact England only lost the Ashes in 1975 made this feat less remarkable. It is still memorable for the batting of Bob Woolmer, the fast bowling of Bob Willis and two significant events. Boycott scored his 100th career hundred on his home ground of Headingley in the match where the Ashes were regained and a young all rounder called Ian Botham made his debut during this series took five wickets in an innings in both his first two Tests and went on to have a reasonably good career!

7.1985 (won 3-1) Similar to 1977 in that Australia were weakened by the loss of sixteen of their best players to a rebel tour of South Africa and that England had only lost the Ashes in 1983. Captain David Gower was outstanding scoring 732 runs and Botham took 31 wickets in his last great series as a bowler. But the fact that Australia’s bowling apart from Geoff Lawson and Craig McDermott was as awful as their batting has been this year means that it is the least impressive feat of the seven times that England have regained the Ashes in the post war era.

However it is still a great feat. Anything that has only happened seven times in sixty years is always impressive. But some are more impressive than others. I should say the list above is subjective my opinion and I suspect not everyone will agree with it.

*Ridiculous as it must seem to fans of other sports all cricket umpires (there are two on field umpires in cricket) were from the host country until 1994, and it wasn’t until 2002 that two neutral umpires became the norm. Some dinosaurs still want home umpires to return but we don’t want umpires who are perceived to be biased even if they are not. I’m not saying the Australian umpires in 1970-71 were biased (I wasn’t even born) but that lbw statistic is suspicious to put it mildly.

**The 1970-71 series was scheduled to have six Tests. When the third Test was rained off the two cricket boards agreed to add an extra seventh Test to the schedule (over the heads of England’s players who disapproved of the idea). That explains why there were six Tests played but seven in the series. It is the one seven Test series in Ashes history and means England will have a 100% record in seventh Ashes tests for ever as a seven Test series has never been – or ever will be – scheduled.

***As in baseball the higher the batting average the better the performance is.

Ashes to Ashes?

The 2015 Ashes begins tomorrow. In the wrong venue and at the wrong time. Apart from that it is perfectly timed! The cricket event between England and Australia is usually held every four years in each country (2001,2005,2009,2013 in England, 2002-3,2006-7,2010-11 in Australia for example). But to prepare England for their pathetic World Cup campaign the last Australian Ashes took place in 2013-14 instead of last winter (which meant there were back to back Ashes series a disaster for England). It also meant that the next English series was brought forward to this year instead of 2017. To my mind after 2013 the next Ashes should have been in 2015-16 – this winter – and the next English one should have stuck to 2017.

This is relevant because I’ve never known an Ashes series to get less publicity. The unexpected success of the Women’s Football World Cup has not helped but three Ashes series in two years is one too many. It might have worked in the 1970s where they were three in two and a bit years (1974-5,1975* and 1977) but the Ashes was far less hyped in the press back then and there was less sporting competition (no women’s football World Cup in the 1970s for example). This series could be “a series too far”.

Of course if England played well one suspects the country will get interested again. Problem here is that the First Test is in Cardiff which is not even in England has no tradition and the ground only exists as a Test quality venue because it was paid for by money from the devolved Welsh Government (thanks Tony Blair for the constitutional hooliganism!) As England have only ever played two Tests there for all practical purposes England have very generously given up home advantage for the First Test. Would Australia ever play the first Test of an Ashes series in say Darwin? Er no..

That said how will the series go? Again England are the victims of their own incompetence. The England team is rebuilding after the trauma of the Ashes whitewash of 2013-14 and the awful World Cup this past winter. They have a new coach in Australian Trevor Bayliss. Australia did the same before the 2013 Ashes when they sacked Mickey Arthur and appointed Darren Lehmann. It didn’t improve Australia at once – in the second Test of 2013 it was probably the worst Aussie team I’ve ever seen – but as there was a home Ashes for Australia later that year Lehmann could use the 2013 Ashes to improve his team. By the end of a 3-0 defeat they had improved and with the help of 95 mph demon bowler Mitchell Johnson and English complacency the 5-0 whitewash of 2013-14 occurred. But as the next Ashes series is not until 2017-18 in Australia England cannot use this series to improve – as they could have done if another country was here and the Ashes was not until this winter. They must hit the ground running now.

And if they are to do so the captain Alistair Cook must get runs. He has only had one good series against Australia – in 2010-11 when he averaged 127.66. In four other series against Australia he has not averaged more than 27.20. Since the strength of Australia is their fast bowlers- Mitchells Johnson and Starc, Josh Hazelwood and Peter Siddle – and Cook is England’s senior opener he must see off the fast bowlers with the new ball and get hundreds. Especially as his opening partner Adam Lyth and no 3 Gary Ballance have played one Ashes test between them (a sign of how much England have been rebuilding as this as mentioned above is the third Ashes series in two years). Also if Cook gets runs it sets up England’s counter attackers at numbers 5,6 and 7 – Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Joss Buttler – to hammer tiring fast bowlers. I’ll go as far to say if Cook does not get runs England struggle to compete in this series never mind win it.

Cook is important in another way too. His captaincy is far too safety first and conservative and it must change. For example England must target Australia’s off spinner Nathan Lyon. Captain Michael Clarke will aim to use Lyon in long spells to give his fast bowlers a rest. If he gets hammered he has to bring the fast bowlers back on they do more work and they get tired. In a series that sees five Tests between July 8th and August 24th tired fast bowlers could very well be a factor. Cook’s county Essex hammered Lyon in a warm up match and England must do the same. He also must attack when England are fielding especially when aggressive Australian opener David Warner is batting. Warner can take a game away from you very quickly and in my opinion the only way to contain him is to get him out and stop him batting. At some stage in the series he will run riot and England must stay calm don’t panic and don’t fall back on defence.

Sadly I think Cook is incapable of doing this. We will know tomorrow. If Moeen Ali is still in England’s team and Adil Rashid is not we will know fear has won. Why is Moeen in the team? It is not for his batting or else he would be higher than no 8 in the order. It is not for his bowling or else Cook would bowl him more. Rashid is a risk but he takes wickets and Australia struggled against leg spin on their recent tour of the Caribbean. You need to take 20 wickets to win a Test. Australia will target whatever spinner England play. Both could well get hammered but Rashid could get wickets. Besides England have Joe Root who can bowl off spin but no leg spinner. And leg spin could baffle Australia’s lower order – who made too many runs in 2013 and 2013-14 and must be dismissed quickly for England to compete.

Is there hope for England ? Yes. Australia have not won here since 2001 and no member of this current team has won a series in England. Plus Australia struggle away from their own fast bouncy pitches as defeats in India in 2013 and the UAE in 2014 (against Pakistan) show. Pitches in England are not fast and bouncy and the fast bowlers (none of whom apart from Siddle have a good record in England) could be neutralised. If they are and England target Lyon there is a chance. Plus go after the weak link. Wicket keeper Bard Haddin was a key player for Australia in 2013-14 but has barely made a run since and is past his best. Since the wicket keeper is a key player in a team if England can get Haddin struggling it could rub off on the whole Australian  team.

That said I fear this series has come too early in England’s rebuilding phase. They are not as good as in 2013 while Australia are better. If I was to predict the result I would say either 2-1 for Australia or a  2-2 draw (there has not been a drawn Ashes series since 1972 so you could say it is overdue) which would mean Australia as holders would keep the Ashes. Which would mean England would pay the ultimate price for their administrator’s incompetence.

*And the 1975 Ashes was not meant to take place. It was arranged as a replacement for a South African tour which was cancelled due to that country’s apartheid policies.

KP for England? No way

Can someone be sacked even before they start their job? Probably not – which is a pity. For Colin Graves the chairman-elect of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) – who starts his job in May – has made a terrible start by suggesting that Kevin Pietersen could return to the England cricket team.
As cricket fans will know (and even a lot of non cricket fans) Pietersen was sacked from the England team in February 2014 after the awful Ashes tour. The reasons for his sacking still apply. The guy is an egomaniac who fell out with most members of the team in Australia. Now some – including Pietersen himself – blamed other members of the team notably Matt Prior and Grahame Swann who are now out of the team. That would be fine if that was the first team he has ever fallen out with. It is not. In his career Pietersen has fallen out with Natal in his native South Africa (2000), Nottinghamshire (2003), and Hampshire (2010) plus two England coaches (Peter Moores and Andy Flower) and two England captains (Andrew Straus and Alistair Cook). You get the picture. The guy is in the wrong sport. Actually it is a non sporting person – UK chat show host Graham Norton – who summed it up best. When Pietersen appeared on his show in October last year to promote his book – Norton said “Reading the book it strikes me that maybe, just maybe, team sport’s not for you?”
What annoys me about Pietersen is this myth promoted by his mouth piece Piers Morgan, that he would be the messiah that improves England’s struggling World Cup team. First of all the England team lost their latest World Cup game not because of the batting but because of hopeless bowling that let Sri Lanka score 312-1 in 47.2 overs with embarrassing ease. It was men against boys. Pietersen is not a bowler. He couldn’t have changed that result. Secondly England have suffered two 5-0 Ashes whitewashes (2006/7 and 2013-14) and two dreadful World Cups (2007 and 2011) and Pietersen was in the team on all four occasions! What makes people think he – and he alone – could improve England’s World Cup team?
Add to that the fact he is 34 years old. He has a history of knee injuries. And he hasn’t batted well since 2012. In his last year of Test cricket he scored 767 runs at an average of 33.35 in 12 Tests with one hundred. This compares to his career average of 47.28. In One Day international (ODI) cricket in his last year he scored 256 runs at an average of 28.44 with no hundreds compared to a career average of 40.73. There is no reason for putting him in the Test team as young batsmen Gary Ballance, Joe Root, Jos Buttler and Moeen Ali are beginning to make headway and need more experience. Why should one of them be dropped for KP?There is no reason to put him in the ODI team either. If as seems likely the current World Cup campaign ends in a flop England should start preparing for the next World Cup – in England in 2019 – at once. By 2019 Pietersen will be 38 years old and is unlikely to be playing anyway. So the only justification for picking him would be for this year’s Ashes. I know the Ashes is important but to pick a guy for one series? A series that England last time were humiliated in despite Pietersen being in the team?
Another problem with what Graves is saying is that the ECB chairman does not pick the team the selectors do. Is he trying to undermine the selectors? There are rumours he might sack National Selector James Whittaker and England team managing director Paul Downton but as they have only been in post for a year that is very unfair. You need more than a year in a job to prove yourself. I suspect coach Moores might get the sack but as this is his second spell in the job that is a different case. He should never have been appointed anyway. His first spell was a disaster. The guy was out of his depth and fell out with most of the team – as well as Pietersen. Nothing seems to have changed. He is still out of his depth.
The last thing the England team needs is the return of the KP circus as it was an over hyped unwanted distraction from the team’s real job – winning cricket matches. Ironically Graves tries to justify opening the door to KP by saying “what happened in the past is history”. But that is the point. KP represents English cricket’s past. It is time to move on to the future.