Tag Archives: Pakistan

England face a true Test

In a summer dominated by Euro 2016, Wimbledon and Brexit it is fair to say cricket has struggled to make much of an impression on the nation’s conciousness. It has not been helped by the fact that although England’s victories over Sri Lanka in Test, one day and 20 20 cricket were impressive, the visitors were too poor and the series were too one sided to make much of an impression on the public. Add to that a yawn of a T20 Blast group stage that started back on May 20th and won’t end until July 29th and it is no wonder cricket is struggling for publicity.

However with a window in the UK sporting calendar until the Olympics and the Premier League start in August cricket has a chance to regain its place in the sporting spotlight. And the start of England’s four Test series against Pakistan should allow cricket to take this opportunity. For one thing usually guaranteed in England v Pakistan series is drama. Not all of it is good to put it mildly. In past Pakistan tours of England there has been cricketers found guilty of spot fixing and sent to prison (2010), a team refusing to play a Test match because they were penalised for ball tampering (2006), pitch invasions  (2001), ball tampering allegations (1992), controversy about umpiring (1987 and 1982), controversy about intimidatary bowling (1978), and even a row about rain getting on the covers at Lords (1974). Only in 1996 did a Pakistan tour pass off without controversy in the last 42 years.

The main tour controversy this time is a relic of the spot fixing controversy of 2010. Three Pakistani players Mohammad Said, Salman Butt and Mohammad Amir were banned by the International Cricket Council (ICC) for five years. The bans expired last year but only Amir (who was 18 when he was banned) has been picked for this tour. Now I mentioned Amir in an earlier post (“On the hypocrisy of sport”) but let’s just say I reckon if he was guilty of rape or domestic abuse and white he would have got a far friendlier reception than the one he is likely to get on Thursday.

But fortunately series between England and Pakistan are not just famous for controversy but also exciting cricket. For some reason the combination of England and Pakistan in english conditions rarely  produces dull cricket and it won’t this time either. Pakistan are a cricketing miracle. Unable to play at home since the Sri Lankan team’s coach was bombed in 2009 Pakistan have none the less risen to number three in the Test rankings above England. This is mainly due to the remarkable captaincy and batting of the 42 year old Misbah-ul-Haq who took over a team on its knees after the 2010 turmoil and turned them into a team that punches above its weight especially in Test cricket. Pakistan have a proud tradition of producing world class bowlers and this team continues the tradition with Amir, Wahab Riaz and Yasir Shah who is probably the first world class leg spinner to visit this country since Shane Warne’s last tour in 2005.

This bowling attack will provide a severe examination for what is still the weakest part of the England team the batting. Even against an outclassed Sri Lanka England’s batting was still unreliable. In only one of the five innings where England scored over 100 did the team reach 100 with fewer than three wickets down. The selectors have taken action again. Nick Compton withdrew from first class cricket citing exhaustion but his form was so poor he would certainly have been dropped anyway. Gary Ballance has been recalled and most interestingly Joe Root  indisputably the team’s best player will bat number three. Root at number three and Ballance at his county position of number five gives England at least the appearance of solidity although James Vince who failed to get runs against Sri Lanka and Alex Hales who did have still got to prove themselves against Test quality bowling.

England also have problems in the bowling department. Their leading wicket taker of all time James Anderson is out of at least the first Test with injury while all rounder Ben Stokes can only play as a batsman and thus has not been picked. This means that either Nottinghamshire’s Jake Ball or Middlesex’s Toby Roland-Jones will make his Test debut. Ball really should have been given his debut in the dead third Test against Sri Lanka to give him experience but instead he will be thrown in at the deep end.

England’s bowling is a key in this series as Pakistan’s batting especially in English conditions could be seriously vulnerable. In 2010 Pakistan were bowled out for scores of 80, 72 and 74. It goes without saying that Pakistan must bat better this year but most of their batting is unproven in England. Even Misbah has never toured England before. The experienced Younis Khan who has been a success in England before has a key role both with the runs he can score and also he needs to mentor the other batsmen.

Because of this batting vulnerability England must start the series as favourites but Pakistan are capable of putting England’s batting under pressure. One hopes this series will produce excellent cricket and more importantly will be the first England v Pakistan series in twenty years – and only the second in 45 years – not to be marred by controversy over match fixing, ball tampering or umpiring decisions. But judging by the history of England-Pakistan cricket on the last forty years that could be wishful thinking….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Time to get Test cricket out of the dark ages

After four of the dullest days of cricket one could imagine – on an abominable pitch that rendered all bowlers useless – the first Test between Pakistan and England dramatically came to life yesterday when a mixture of complacency and the bowling of debutant Adil Rashid who recovered from harrowing first innings figures of 0-163 the worst figures ever recorded by a Test debutant to take five second innings wickets caused Pakistan to collapse to 173 all out leaving England to score 99 runs in 19 overs to win. They had reached 74-4 off 11 overs but could not go any further. The umpires took the players off for bad light and the game was left drawn.

People reading this who are not cricket fans will wonder “what is bad light”? A stoppage for bad light happens when in the umpires opinion it is too dark to play cricket safely. Fair enough one might think. But the ridiculous aspect is that the stadium in Abu Dhabi has floodlights. The purpose of floodlights is of course to enable sport to be played in the dark. How on earth can it be too dark to play a game under floodlights? Imagine that happening in football or baseball. It can’t unless the floodlights fail.

Now until fairly recently England would probably have won yesterday. That is because the umpires would not have taken the players off the field. Instead they would have asked the England batsmen if they wanted to go off for bad light. With England on the verge of victory they would have refused to go off stayed on the field and gone on to win. This is how England got their last away win against Pakistan back in 2000. The umpires offered England the light but they refused stayed on the field and won a famous victory which they would not have got under today’s rules as the umpires would have taken them off.

So why did the International Cricket Council (ICC) change the rule? Because bad light was being used as a tactical strategy. If a team was winning they batted on – the classic example being the Karachi Test in 2000 mentioned above. But if a team was in trouble they would take advantage of the offer and go off. The best example here was South Africa against England in 2004. The Proteas were 290-8 and heading for certain defeat when the umpires offered them the light and the batsmen gleefully accepted. Had South Africa been winning the game they would have stayed on. So the ICC removed the decision on bad light from the players to the umpires.

But this had made the situation for spectators and TV viewers even worse because they are losing more cricket than under the old rules because on those occasions where the batsmen would have stayed on the umpires are taking them off. Yesterday being a classic example. And the reason this is happening is that the ICC got it wrong. The problem with bad light is not that teams were using it as a tactic to get out of trouble but that it exists at all.

I am struggling to think of another sport where bad light is a factor. Only the Wimbledon and French Open tennis championships come to mind. The ridiculous thing being that only Test and first class cricket are effected by bad light. Fifty over and 20 20 cricket involving the same players goes on regardless of light and weekend amateur cricketers play in far worse light than professional cricketers do!

The main problem with bad light is the damage it does to the image of Test cricket. Test cricket is fighting to survive outside England and Australia where the people prefer fifty over and 20 20 cricket. The sight of the game being stopped because of bad light in a floodlit stadium will not help Test cricket’s image. Frankly it makes it look pathetic and out of date. No wonder the public outside England and Australia prefer short form cricket.

So it is time for the ICC to take action. They should order umpires that play must go on in any light regardless of how dark it gets. Play should only stop when it is raining or if there is a risk of lightening that could strike a player. Otherwise the show must go on. It is 2015. The idea of sport bring stopped because it is dark is ridiculous. It is time for Test cricket to get out of the dark ages get in line with the 21st century and play in all light. There is a saying called “Adapt or die”. If Test cricket does not begin to adapt to the modern world and get rid of bad light stoppages it will die. And frankly it would deserve to.

Beyond the Ashes

You would think that after regaining the Ashes in August the England cricket team would get a well earned break. They don’t get one. In fact their winter is going to be even tougher than the summer was with two tough away series against Pakistan – in the UAE* – and in South Africa.

Both series are important. England are hard to beat at home – only South Africa (twice) and Sri Lanka have won here since 2007 – but away from home they are poor. Take away no hopers Bangladesh and England have won just two of their last fifteen away series. And to be a great cricket team you must win on tour and in unfamiliar conditions as well as at home.

But the omens are not good. Both historical and current. This is the tenth away series since the war that England have played after retaining/regaining the Ashes at home. Of the previous nine they have won none. After a successful Ashes summer England ( perhaps subconsciously) relax. The classic case being a 0-2 defeat in Pakistan in the first series after the magnificent 2005 Ashes win.

The current situation is not promising either. England are being plunged into alien conditions with only four days of practice cricket as preparation. How alien conditions? The weather forecast for the first Test in Abu Dhabi is sunshine and for the temperature to reach 98 degrees. Not conditions that are normally seen in the UK! Nor can England’s seam bowlers expect the green pitches and swinging conditions they got at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge during the Ashes. Instead they will be slow low and help spin. England do not play spin well nor – since Graeme Swann retired and Monty Panesar fell by the wayside – do England have good spinners to exploit these conditions.

Also Pakistan are formidable in the UAE. The last time England played there in 2012 they lost all three Tests. Likewise Australia lost both their Tests in the UAE last year. Pakistan may not have their 2012 destroyer Saeed Ajmal – not the same bowler since he had to remodel his action after it was declared illegal – but new spinners Zulfiqar Babar and Yasir Shah embarrassed Australia last year and will aim to do the same to England. Their batting relies on the experience of captain Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan who scored five centuries in the two Tests against Australia last year but they also have opener Mohammad Hafeez and Azhar Ali who scored two centuries in one Test against Australia last year.

As for England not for the first time they look like picking the wrong team. It looks like Moeen Ali will open the batting in the first Test. This shows they have learnt nothing from past mistakes. They opened with Moeen in Sri Lanka last year. He did quite well but failed in the subsequent World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. This will happen again. He might do well in the UAE but will I fear be easy meat for Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel in South Africa. Nor should they open with Alex Hales who Australia’s fast bowlers exposed during the one day series as a 20 20 slogger. They have dropped Adam Lyth too soon. Whoever opens in this Test will captain Alistair Cook’s seventh Test opening partner in three years. Lyth scored a century against a good New Zealand attack and deserved another chance.

I hope James Taylor gets a chance. Kevin Pietersen in his autobiography (page 168) said “His dad was a jockey and he is built for the same gig”. Taylor is 5ft 6in. Sachin Tendulkar is 5ft 5in and he proved tall enough so that is more tripe from this egomaniac. Taylor is good at using his feet to play spin which you must do in order to play it well (and too many English batsmen are leaden footed).

If England emulate South Africa and New Zealand’s performance in the UAE and draw this series they will have done well. To win would be a great achivement. This series in as alien conditions as England will ever find will be a big test in the development of this young England team as we look beyond the Ashes.

*Pakistan have not played Test cricket at home since a terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team in 2009. They play their “home” matches in the UAE – in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah.

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…