Tag Archives: Joe Root

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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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. 

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. 

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. 

How to sort out English T20

Although the english cricket season started on April 10th the season starts for real this week. Tomorrow the first Test of the summer – England v Sri Lanka at Headingley – begins. While on Friday the  English domestic 20 20 competition – the T20 Blast –  starts. So where does the England Test team and the English domestic T20 competition stand at the start of the season?

England’s Test team come into the summer in good heart after their 2-1 win in South Africa in the winter. They play Sri Lanka in a three Test series followed by Pakistan in a four Test series. England are favourites to win both series but they cannot underestimate Sri Lanka after Sri Lanka ‘s famous series win in England in 2014. However back in 2014 England were still in turmoil after the Ashes series whitewash the previous winter while Sri Lanka still had the experience of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara. But now Jayawardene and Sangakkara have retired and England are in a far stronger position than they were in 2014 they are clear favourites. What worries me about England is still the batting. Three of the top five – Alex Hales, Nick Compton and debutant James Vince – have played just 17 Tests between them. If England are going to keep improving and build on their South African success at least one of these batsmen must break out and establish themselves as Test class and reduce the dependency on Alistair Cook, Joe Root and allrounders Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes. The fast bowling attack of James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Stokes and Steve Finn is the team’s strength and should lay the foundation for Test victories. England should aim to have an unbeaten Test summer which in recent years England have only achieved in 1990, 2004 ,2011 and 2013 but with Sri Lanka and Pakistan ‘s batting both fragile looking England have a chance of going through the Test summer unbeaten.

If only English T20 cricket was in such good health. On the field it is. Had Stokes bowled a better last over England would have won the World T20 in India last month. But England’s domestic T20 competition is a mess. First of all it goes on far too long. It starts this Friday (May 20th). The group stage does not finish until July 29th! We will have had an EU referendum, two Grand Slam tennis tournaments, five England Test matches and the whole of Euro 2016 happen before this bloated yawn fest of a group stage finishes. It takes 126 games to reduce 18 teams to 8…and seven to reduce those eight to one champion. Plainly nonsense…and it must change.

Some people want franchise/city teams in English T20 cricket but as I explained before (see previous post “Why the Big Bash Won’t Work in England”) city teams (for population reasons) and franchises (for reasons of tradition) won’t work. If you were creating English cricket from scratch you would not have 18 counties. But the fact is you do. We have to work with what we have.That doesn’t mean English T20 cannot be improved. It is a shambles. And to quote Adam Blampied of What Culture WWE “And I can do it better”.

First thing first. Reduce the number of games. Currently there are two groups of nine teams who play six teams twice and two once. Which makes fourteen games a team. Which is (a) too many and (b) an uneven and unfair schedule as some teams will play the best team twice and the worst team once or vice versa. The logical thing to do is have the nine teams play each other once which makes eight games per team (as in the Big Bash). It would mean that the total number of qualifying games would fall from a bloated 126 to a more sensible 72.

Secondly T20 has to be played in a single block in the season. India, Australia, South Africa, West Indies and New Zealand all do this. England do not. This causes two problems. It is hard to attract T20 specialists to England when the tournament is so long and there are long gaps between games. It also means that players have to switch from four day cricket to T20 cricket and vice versa which is ridiculous as they are totally different forms of the game. It is like playing tennis on clay, then grass, then back to clay then back to grass and here we go round the mulberry bush…

Some might say when do you play the T20 block? Easy. T20 is meant to bring to cricket the whole family especially school children. So why not hold T20 when school children are on holiday? They do this in Australia – the Big Bash is played in December/January which is summer holiday time down under – and England should do the same. In which case T20 would be played in late July/August (the T20 Blast group stage this year, as you might recall finishes on July 29th just as the school holidays are starting – genius by the ECB!)

Another problem is TV coverage. T20 in the UK is only on Sky Sports – a subscription channel. In Australia the Big Bash is on Channel Ten – a free-to-air (FTA) channel. Now one problem in the UK is that the five main FTA channels – BBC 1 and 2, ITV, and Channels 4 and 5 – will not alter prime time schedules of soap operas and reality TV in favour of cricket. But there is a way round this. Sky has a FTA channel – called Pick. If I was running the ECB I would encourage Sky to show one T20 game per round (a total of eight) on FTA Pick. In return Sky would be allowed to show all 72 games on their subscription service Sky Sports. Subscribers would be able to press the red button and choose which game they want to see – as Sky and BT Sport do with football ‘s Champions League. This gives cricket a FTA platform while also giving people an incentive to subscribe to Sky.

A T20 tournament played in a short block where children can watch and some games are on FTA TV is far better than the convoluted shambolic mess we have now. If they have the sense to get rid of Finals Day – when the Semi Finals and the Final are played on the same day which is far too long for the attention span of children who I repeat again should be the target audience of T20 – and replace it with a best of three Final series – that would be even better.

T20 cricket will never be as big as it is in India or Australia simply because the UK cricket fan prefers Test cricket plus the fact that unlike India and Australia cricket is not the number 1 sport here. But we can do better than the shambles of a tournament we have now. My plan would both preserve the current 18 first class counties while giving England a better chance of attracting the elite T20 specialists and producing a game that children – who I repeat should be the targeted audience – can watch during their school holidays. It is not perfect. But it is far far better than what we currently have.

Thoughts on England’s African Safari

The England Test team’s 2015 has resembled one of those gauntlet matches Mr McMahon used to put wrestlers he hated through where the wrestler would fight five men in succession with each opponent getting progressively harder. England’s schedule has also involved five opponents and has got progressively harder. Their year started away to the West Indies, then went on to a home series against New Zealand. The challenge got harder with the home Ashes series against Australia and harder still with an away series against Pakistan in the United Arab Emarites. And while the rest of us are recovering from the Christmas festivities England will be starting another challenge. And in theory this series is the toughest of the lot. On Boxing Day England will start a four Test series away to South Africa the World’s number one ranked Test team. It should be their toughest test yet.

And yet there is hope for England. For South Africa start this series in total disarray. Their last Test series was a complete disaster. The Proteas were humiliated 3-0 in India. Their batting was an absolute disaster. In the four Test matches in India South Africa’s batsmen produced totals of 184, 109, 214, 79, 185, 121 and 143. The brilliant AB de Villiers – arguably the best batsman in the world – coped reasonably well with India’s spinners – averaging 36.85 with two fifties. No other South African who played two Tests or more could average even 20, or score fifty in an innings. Captain Hashim Amla only averaged 16.85 in India and has not scored a Test century in a year. The opening partnership struggled horribly. Stiaan van Zyl and Dean Elgar were hopelessly out of their depth so much so that van Zyl was dropped and replaced by Temba Bavuma even though he is usually a number five. South Africa are struggling to replace Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis both of whom have retired since the Proteas easily beat England 2-0 in England back in 2012. Since then South Africa have lost two great batsmen – Smith and Kallis – and one good one (Alviro
Petersen) while producing only one good batsman (Faf du Plessis). The batting is vulnerable and James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Steve Finn must fancy their chances. Plus the disastrous batting perfomance of South Africa’s A team against England in a warm up match suggests there is not a queue of young batsmen waiting to break into the Test team.

South Africa’s bowling is still formidable however. Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel are arguably the best new ball pair in the world and although Vernon Philander will miss the first two Tests Kyle Abbott and 20-year-old Kagiso Rahada offer useful back up.

This means the key for England will be their batting line up which has not exactly been reliable – Alistair Cook and Joe Root apart. After the UAE series the selectors took action dropping Ian Bell – probably for good – and recalling Nick Compton and Gary Ballance. But for some reason they look like opening with Alex Hales who is a 20 20 specialist who looked out of his depth against Australia’s fast bowlers in fifty over cricket never mind Test cricket. They should open with Compton – who had some success as a Test opener in 2012-13 and was probably dropped prematurely. England’s best batsman Root should bat at three, James Taylor at four and Ballance should bat at five where he bats for Yorkshire. Add Jonny Bairstow and fit again Ben Stokes and it is probably the best batting line up England can field.

It is still not reliable though. Like South Africa’s batting it is horribly dependant on two players (Cook and Root for England, Amla and de Villiers for South Africa). The key will be if – and for how long – the other players give them support plus which “big two” fires the most.

England do have a chance. But they must hit the ground running. South Africa struggle on Boxing Day – one home Boxing Day win since 2003. Plus their confidence must be in tatters after the trauma of India. If England get stuck in early they can keep South Africa’s wounds fresh. I reckon England must be ahead by the end of the Second Test in Cape Town. The precedent of England’s last South African tour in 2009-10 suggests South Africa will get better as the series goes on. Plus South Africa do better in the Highveld altitude venues of Johannesburg and Centurion and Philander – a formidable bowler – could be back by then.

Back in 2009-10 England were 1-0 up after two Tests but South Africa fought back to draw 1-1 and but for number eleven Graham Onions they would have won the series. This suggests if England don’t start well they will have no chance. But on the eve of the series it is clear England do have a chance away to the best Test team in the world. And when England started this gauntlet in Antigua back in April no one would have given them a hope of winning in South Africa.

Finally I would just like to wish everyone who reads me a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Thanks for reading me!

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.