Afghanistan haven’t scored too many runs, but that’s not really the point at this stage, is it?

The Afghanistan cricket team in Jersey (via YouTube)

Remember Out of the Ashes? It’s a documentary about Afghanistan’s journey “from war to the World Cup”. We reviewed it here and thought it was rather wonderful.

It strikes us that it could do with an update because Afghanistan are a Test team now. This is a highly astonishing state of affairs.

If you’d asked us 15 years ago how likely it was that Afghanistan would become a Test team by 2018, here is a list of things that we would have rated as being more likely.

  • Pretty much everything

They’re not an especially good Test team going by the scorecard for their inaugural Test, but then Afghanistan’s rate of improvement is so steep that you wouldn’t bet against them were this a five match series.

It isn’t of course, but they’ll play more Tests and at some point they’ll win. We know this because Afghanistan’s superpower is that losing games gives them strength.

For now, it’s enough that they’re playing at all. As Afghanistan’s then minister of finance, Dr Omar Zakhilwal, said back in 2016 ahead of their first one-day international: “There is nothing that can touch cricket in popularity or as a force for good in Afghanistan. There is absolutely nothing else that mobilises our society in the same way.”


Why aren’t the big teams embarrassed about losing to smaller teams?

Scotland beat England (via Sky Sports)

Scotland’s obvious delight at beating England at the weekend was in no way matched by the anger of the England fans or the embarrassment of the players. It’s not an exact mathematical thing, but normally in sport you’d expect similar sorts of weight on both sides. Why was that not the case?

If you could boil the England fans’ reaction down to a jus, it would taste something like: “Bit disappointed, but happy for Scotland – it’s great for them.”

This is in no way appropriate and absolutely 100 per cent not what anyone from Scotland wants. Those guys want tears and this sort of phlegmatism really undermines their celebrations.

As for the opposition, when the final wicket fell, Trevor Bayliss stood up and flattened out the pocket of his hoodie. You could argue that by Bayliss standards flattening out the pocket of his hoodie pretty much amounts to dropping to his knees and roaring at the heavens, but we’d argue that it more accurately amounts to flattening out the pocket of his hoodie.

Eoin Morgan said: “It’s not the end of the world for us. It was a really good run out and good to have a practice coming into the series against Australia.”

That pretty much sums up the whole problem: There’s nothing riding on it. There are no consequences. Scotland’s big game is just a warm-up for England. The two sides viewed the game completely differently.

England’s one-day side hasn’t been together recently, yet they only met up the day before the Scotland match. They barely practised. The match was their practice.

That is dismissive and insulting and if you think that being beaten will make them act differently in the future, think again. It is a get-out. So long as games against Scotland are viewed as warm-ups, defeats can be shrugged off.

“Onwards to the proper stuff – we’ll be playing properly come the proper stuff,” will be the gist of any comments after a defeat.

Scotland are of course not invited to the one Proper Stuff event that is supposed to be about celebrating and encouraging the spread of the sport. The ‘world’ cup is currently a closed shop reserved only for the made guys.

People do seem to be a bit sick of this and we get the distinct impression that the 10-team format of the 2019 World Cup will be a one-off. Nevertheless, even when Scotland did get a World Cup invite, the format was generally rigged to the extent that there were still no real consequences unless the big teams suffered a whole series of poor results.

There have to be consequences. Consequences are what piss losing fans off. A guarantee that one way or another there will be a whole bunch of pissed off fans makes any cricket match infinitely more exciting.


Will Jos Buttler prove that the best Test teams contain the best T20 players?

That’s a terrible headline. It labels Jos Buttler a T20 player when a key aspect of the point we’re about to make is that players shouldn’t be categorised.

Over at Wisden, we’ve picked up almost exactly where we left off earlier in the week, arguing that England’s Test team would do well to draw on a wider range of experiences.

Take a look back on most of the recent Test debutants and first-class performances have generally been trumping international white ball performances as a selection criterion. The team has become more specialised and more focused and while that may seem like a positive, we’re saying that it also makes it homogenous and that homogenous means worse.

In recent times, adaptability and innovation have come to be seen as being synonymous with ramp shots and reverse sweeps because these things are ‘new’ and easy to identify.

But that’s not the case. Flexibility, improvisation and lateral thinking are not the sole preserve of T20 cricket. The truth is that the shortest format is the one in which players face the narrowest variety of conditions and match situations, whereas Test cricket is the one in which they must adapt the most.

Successful Test teams need people who can come up with solutions to problems on the fly and if all the free thinkers are drifting towards T20, Test teams would do well to try and reclaim a few of them.

Here’s the Wisden link again so that you can read similar sentiments expressed in a greater number of words.

 


Australia redefine “the line” (again)

Langer and Paine (via YouTube)

We always do our best to keep you updated on the exact whereabouts of “the line,” according to its official custodians, the Australia cricket team.

In news that will be hugely reassuring to everyone, Australia’s new captain and coach say that they are well aware of the location of the mythical “line” and have revealed that it is currently what separates “banter” from “abuse”.

Justin Langer said: “If I play Uno with my daughter there’s lots of banter. We sort of sledge each other, but we don’t abuse each other.”

Justin Langer’s daughter may know the difference between banter and abuse but it’s been a blurry divide for some Australian cricketers in the recent past – just as the difference between “cheating” and “not cheating” has at times escaped them.

Fortunately, captain Tim Paine can reassure us all.

“We know what’s right and what’s wrong, so it’s pretty simple.”

Well that’s a relief.


How Jos Buttler has brought a bit of culture to England’s Test team

We’ve always said that Jos Buttler seems much, much safer at the crease – and a far more reassuring presence for England fans – when he’s just standing there spanking sixes, all bionic eyes and adamantium wrists.

We wrote about this in 2015 and Buttler himself seems to have been paraphrasing us all week when explaining his recent Test competence.

Bat like Buttler

Buttler’s unique selling point is surprisingly reliable irresponsible batting. For most batsmen, risk increases exponentially with every attempted step up in scoring rate, whereas for Buttler, the relationship appears to be more linear.

When Buttler scores twice as quickly, he is perhaps twice as likely to get out. If anyone else tries to do the same, they’re about ten times more likely to get out.

Jos Buttler’s version of risky batting isn’t really all that risky when weighed against the likely returns, so it’s best if he feels that it is a legitimate and acceptable option.

“Fuck it”

During the last Test, TV coverage gave us a glimpse of the message “fuck it” on the top of Buttler’s bat handle.

We can already sense the meaning of the message being subtly twisted as people hear about it second and third hand.

What the message isn’t: Jos Buttler is not a carefree T20 specialist who doesn’t give a shit, expressing to the world how little he cares.

What the message is: Jos Buttler cares slightly too much and the message is a reminder to himself that only when he feels liberated can he give a proper account of himself.

(The ‘fuck it’ thing has been covered in loads of place this week. Our favourite piece was Ali Martin’s, because starting a mainstream media article with ‘Fuck it’ really unbalances any readers who don’t know why you’re saying it. An article that starts ‘Fuck it’ could go in a very surprising direction. Every time we’ve read ‘fuck it’ in one of these articles, we’ve heard it in a John Goodman voice in our mind’s ear. It’s funny to imagine that the full message might be ‘Fuck it, dude. Let’s go bowling,’ because bowling is one cricket thing that Jos Buttler has very rarely done. (Career record: two overs, no wickets for 12 runs.))

No, really – bat like Buttler

The other thing that happened in the last Test was that other people started batting like Jos Buttler.

That isn’t to say that Alastair Cook started ramping yorkers through his eyelashes. It was just that everyone started batting way out of their crease to negate the Pakistan bowlers’ swing and seam.

The results were ostensibly unspectacular, but most batsmen got some runs – which isn’t something you’ve often been able to say about England in recent times.

It strikes us that having a diverse batting line-up is very healthy as it means the team as a whole has access to a wider variety of ideas about how to score runs in any given set of circumstances.

As the divide between England’s red and white ball teams has become more pronounced, the Test team in particular has become a sterile monoculture of first-class specialists. Test cricket is the format in which you must be most adaptable and having different voices and different ideas within the team cannot be a bad thing.


Sam Curran is almost the right choice

Sam Curran (via YouTube)

If Sam Curran could bat a bit better or bowl a bit better, he would definitely be a good addition to the England team.

If that sounds dismissive, it’s only because it made for a better opening sentence. Scurran is close. He’s just not quite there.

Strengths

  • Left-armer
  • Swings it
  • Only 5ft9in – (if all the other bowlers are 6ft-plus, this provides variety)
  • Bats a bit

Weaknesses

  • The usual fast-medium sort of pace
  • Doesn’t have a spectacularly good career record (but it’s very good this season (but that comes with the obligatory early season asterisk (although The Oval has been less seamer friendly than most grounds)))
  • Only bats a bit

If Sam Curran plays instead of Ben Stokes, England’s batting becomes a hollow nightmarish thing.

If he plays instead of Mark Wood, the attack starts to look a bit fast-medium (but at least they’d have a left-armer).

We guess his opportunity could be instead of Dom Bess if Stokes can’t bowl and England want four seamers. But that scenario would mean England aren’t playing a spinner.

All in all, we’d quite like him to play but don’t like any of the circumstances in which he would play.


England’s batsmen are insecure and complacent

Ben Stokes (via Sky Sports)

England’s batting is bad. England are bad at batting. Bad batting is a thing that England’s batsmen generally do.

Before we get into the ins and outs of the badness, let’s contextualise it with the players’ career Test averages because that way we can really get a sense of the exact strength of the current of this river of badness.

  • Alastair Cook – 45.65
  • Mark Stoneman – 27.68
  • Keaton Jennings – 24.50
  • Joe Root – 52.34
  • Dawid Malan – 29.04
  • Jonny Bairstow – 38.60
  • Ben Stokes – 34.85
  • Jos Buttler – 32.03

Those are mostly bad averages.

What exactly is going wrong?

In the headline, we’re claiming that England’s batsmen are insecure and complacent. Is it actually possible that they can be both of those very different, seemingly contradictory things?

Yes, they can, because England’s batsmen are different people.

You will have heard a lot of broad, sweeping explanations for England’s bad batting. Upon witnessing universal badness, it’s of course tempting to assume there’s one root cause that must be applicable to all involved. This fails to account for the sheer mind-blowing breadth of the badness being exhibited by England’s batsmen.

England’s batsmen are being bad in all sorts of colourful exciting ways – often veering from one extreme of bad batting to the opposite within the same innings.

So what’s the ‘insecure and complacent’ thing?

It’s kind of a… well, it’s not a joke exactly. It’s two generalisations that highlight contrasting problems while still being generalisations themselves. Basically, we’ve tried to sum up the specifics and generalised ourself.

Let’s generalise!

The way we see it is England’s batsmen fall into one of three categories.

  1. Relatively new specialist batsmen
  2. Established batsmen with other jobs
  3. Alastair Cook

Let’s look at what might be going wrong for each of these categories of batsmen while simultaneously holding in the back of our minds the very true knowledge that this sort of generalising is not really a very good way of critiquing slightly broader generalising.

Relatively new specialist batsmen

Everyone knows who’s most likely to get dropped from the England batting line-up. It’s the new guys who don’t make runs and England have had such an extraordinary run of new guys who don’t make runs that it almost seems to have become a self-sustaining thing. It’s as if whoever’s picked instantly takes on that identity and loses all confidence and competence.

Stoneman, Malan and Jennings have often seemed tense and uncertain. They’ve mostly needed to chill out and think calmly, but the closer they edge to the exit door, the less that’s likely.

We have no idea what these players are being told by the coaching team, but it probably shouldn’t be the same thing as the…

Established batsmen with other jobs

Tell you who’s not likely to get dropped any time soon: Joe Root, the captain.

Tell you who else: Jonny Bairstow, the wicketkeeper.

Tell you who else: Ben Stokes, the all-rounder.

These guys have double safety cushions (what’s a safety cushion?). One is the fact that they have an additional role in the team, but the second and larger safety cushion is that there are even shitter batsmen who are going to get dropped before they do.

Complacency is a grandiose and damning word, but maybe the solidity of these players’ positions means they’re a little too carefree at times.

If the coaching team are telling these guys to relax and loosen up, maybe that’s the wrong message.

Alastair Cook

England’s opener hasn’t been the worst opener in this team for quite some time, so no matter how badly he plays, he’s never in any real, actual danger, despite what someone-or-other may have written in some column somewhere-or-other.

It would be hard, however, to accuse Alastair Cook of complacency, or of playing loose shots, or of feeling too confident in his position or anything like that. There is no possible combination of sounds that a human being can make that would dissuade Alastair Cook from his lifelong obsession of accumulating runs in a low-risk manner.

Alastair Cook is impervious to emotion and as a coach there’s no point saying anything to him really. You just leave him to it and if he asks you a specific thing about bat grips or his stance, you can maybe provide an answer.

Alastair Cook is the exception

And so is Jos Buttler at the minute. Maybe he’ll score loads of runs and become super-confident and then complacent. Maybe he’ll have a run of low scores and start feeling jittery. Those are two obvious paths he could take. Anything could happen really.

Conclusion

England’s batsmen are rattling around doing all sorts of crazy stuff. They should probably avoid listening to all the criticism and nebulous advice and overarching philosophies and instead find some sort of nondescript middle way of going about things.


Who’s been your favourite ineffective opening partner for Alastair Cook?

If we were to ask, ‘who has been your favourite England Test opener since Andrew Strauss retired?’ the answer is obvious. If you say anyone other than Alastair Cook, you are either (a) a contrarian hipster (b) not an England supporter or (c) mental.

That’s an easy one. A far more interesting question is who’s been your favourite opening partner for Alastair Cook since Andrew Strauss retired, because here we have a veritable smorgasbord of very similar options.

  • Maybe you’re a Nick Compton man
  • Maybe you admired Alex Hales’ flakiness and emotional fragility
  • Maybe you’re all in for Haseeb Hameed
  • Maybe you can distinguish between Adam Lyth and Sam Robson
  • Maybe you were paying attention that time Ben Duckett opened and actually remember that
  • Maybe you want to stick with Mark Stoneman

There were a bunch of others too. All-in-all, none of them were much good, which makes this a very challenging question to answer.

Who’s been YOUR favourite ineffective opening partner for Alastair Cook?


What the hell is up with Hasan Ali’s hand?

We honestly haven’t got much left to say about England’s batting, so let’s instead turn our attention to Hasan Ali’s hand and whatever the hell is up with it.

Here’s Hasan Ali’s hand midway through delivering the (apparently) fiendishly tempting wide one that did for Joe Root.

Hasan Ali strapping (via ECB)

Strapping is a form of injury treatment/management that has always mystified us and this might just be the most mystifying example of all.

What the hell is wrong with Hasan Ali’s hand that he needs two bands of elastoplast around his hand at the top and base of his palm?

To be clear, this isn’t some coded attempt to accuse him of Bancroftian nefariousness because every cricket team is about eight per cent strapping anyway. Strapping is everywhere. The only thing striking about this strapping the way it’s been applied.

What is happening with Hasan Ali’s hand that this is necessary? Is it constantly trying to explode? Is the left of it being tethered to the right of it so that they don’t part ways? Did he trip while playing trains and brace his fall by planting his hand on the miniature track?


AB de Villiers finally picks a cake

Photo by Sarah Ansell

AB de Villiers spent rather a long time desperately trying to engineer a cake monopoly. He wanted to retain and eat The Cake of International Cricket; he wanted to retain and eat The Lucrative Cake of T20 Franchise Cricket; and he also wanted to retain and eat The Cake of Having a Little Bit of Time Off.

Sometimes a man’s desires are impractical and AB finally seems to have accepted that the world isn’t organised how he wants it to be. He’s therefore taken the decision to forego The Cake of International Cricket.

It seems odd timing with a World Cup not so far away. Maybe David Warner and Nathan Lyon broke his spirit.


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