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Jack Leach and why you should never pick your saviours

England lost to Bangladesh. There has to be a reason for it and it has to be that they picked the wrong players. One obvious area in which England were inferior was the spin department. Last season Jack Leach took more wickets than the spinners who played in the last Test, therefore he is the solution. Get him on the plane to India.

There’s a train of logic there, but there are also a few assumptions. The main one is that there is a way England could have won. The series was close enough that it’s probably true on this occasion, but people tend to conclude much the same thing even when their side is on the receiving end of a complete shellacking. Magic bullets are easy to identify when you can’t go back in time to fire them.

Jack Leach appears to be considered just such a projectile by a number of people, so if you’ll permit us, we’d like to quickly run through the ‘Jack Leach as saviour’ scenario and make a couple of points.

The first point is that even if he performed better for England than Adil Rashid, Gareth Batty or Zafar Ansari, it is questionable whether things would be much different. ‘Better’ does not equate to ‘the answer’.

The second point relates to Leach’s performance in county cricket and his likely impact on Indian pitches. Leach was not actually the most successful spin bowler in the first division of the County Championship last season. He took 65 wickets, but Warwickshire’s Jeetan Patel took 69.

Patel is by almost any measure the superior bowler. Leach had a good season, but Patel has been reeling them off one after another. He is older, more experienced and succeeded in 2016 without quite so much assistance from the surfaces on which he played.

Conveniently, Jeetan Patel has just toured India with New Zealand. He played two Tests and took six wickets at 48.66. R Ashwin took 16 wickets in those two matches.

For this winter at least, it probably makes sense to keep Jack Leach in the freezer. At least then we all get to retain something to cling to.

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Mehedi Hasan extracts turn and respect against England’s will

We all can’t spake.

Uncertainty is the lifeblood of sport and so this series has made for compulsive viewing.

As the Test Match Special Twitter account put it yesterday.

Ah momentum. Fickle, whimsical momentum.

We started watching at tea today. England had pretty much skittled Bangladesh and sauntered to 100-0. It was way, way better than we had expected. 14 seconds later, England had lost 10 wickets and the Bangladesh players were doing a crazy bouncing dance in the outfield.

Bangladesh, Boshladesh, Kapowladesh

Shakib-al-Hasan’s been solid for years, but now that they can have Mehedi Hasan bowling at the other end, Bangladesh have gone up a level. As we said last week, they appear to have reached a tipping point. They’re no longer looking to merely compete. They now see a way in which they can win. Flat Bangladeshi pitches may become a thing of the past.

Mehedi took 19 wickets in the series. That’s the kind of contribution which could easily prove decisive over three matches, let alone two. We likened him to Muttiah Muralitharan last week in terms of his importance to the side and the workload he’s likely to shoulder. This win feels very much like the time Murali took 16 wickets against England in the one-off Test in 1998.

Before that moment, even if England often said the right things about Sri Lanka, their actions (one-off Tests) told the true story. Respect had been not so much earned as demanded at knifepoint.

Throughout this series, pundits have spoken about getting young players into the England side to see what they could do ahead of the India series. The subtext – that the Bangladesh Tests were of far less significance – was obvious.

Now, as the England team exits the country with a draw, there will be a moment of ‘wait, what?’ among some people as they realise what has taken place. You never know, this might even mark the moment at which people stop routinely taking out scores against Bangladesh when presenting players’ Test batting averages.

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England derailed by their own sickening wrong-handedness

With hindsight, maybe England should have picked more right-handers. None of their left-handed batsmen passed 20, while all of their right-handers did, bar Steven Finn. Quite why people think it’s acceptable to do things left-handed is beyond us.

Bangladesh are working their way into a strong position. This is no mean feat when you consider they lost nine wickets for 49 in their first innings. If only the first of those nine had come just a little bit sooner. Tamim Iqbal’s first innings appears to be growing in size by the session as everything else shrinks around it.

Six years on and Tamim remains Bangladesh’s best batsman (against England, at any rate). He is, of course, a left-hander. Maybe England’s cack-handers should have just played better.

 

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Why Gary Ballance’s return to the England side was too easy for him

Photo by Sarah Ansell

First, the match situation for context. Tamim Iqbal and Mominul Haque batted on an absolute road; everyone else took strike on a minefield. The two Bangladesh batsmen are geniuses/the only ones who’ve batted sensibly; all the other batsmen have been absolutely woeful/undone in very challenging conditions.

And now onto Gary Ballance, because whatever the truth of today’s innings, he’s now made one fifty in 11 innings since being recalled to the side.

Batsmen do sometimes have slumps, but you aren’t generally brought back in anticipation of one.

The return

The problem, perhaps, is that there wasn’t really much of a case for bringing Ballance back in the summer. By doing so, England arguably negated the positive effects of dropping him in the first place.

Because make no mistake, dropping someone can work. If a player finds himself bumbling along going nowhere in Test cricket, it’s no good to anybody. The notion that a big innings is ‘just around the corner’ starts to fade as the player in question struggles to inch their way towards that corner, let alone round it. Dumped back in county cricket, they have a bit of a cry and then slowly set about making corrections.

In this situation, we generally hear about some technical change or other, but we’d argue that in most cases it’s just as important for the change to serve as the physical foundations for renewed confidence and certainty.

Batsmen rarely fail because of just one flaw, but “I’ve made a visible change and it’s working,” can provide a major mental boost in addition to the (often small) practical one.

It takes a while for physical changes to bed in

But confidence and certainty will often take longer. You get oddities who will master something in the nets and instantly feel like they’re back to their best, but most players will need to see a few big numbers next to their name to convince themselves that they’re back on an upward curve.

Gary Ballance never got this. His confidence started to slip during the 2015 World Cup and in the English summer that followed, he found himself hanging by his fingertips. Unable to haul him up, team management did the decent thing. They stamped on his fingers and told him to find a way to clamber back up from the bottom. This is what he set about doing.

But he never finished

If England are on the tenth floor, Ballance reached the fourth floor before someone was sent down to get him. Often, a player who fights his way back into the team is shot-through with confidence because it’s been a real struggle and he’s made an unarguable case to return to the side.

Gary Ballance is not such a player. His return was too easy.

As we said about James Taylor in 2014, the optimum moment to select a batsman is not when he thinks he deserves a place in the side; it’s when he’s completely irritated because he can’t quite believe he isn’t getting a game.

There’s an art to timing a recall. You’ve got one guy who thinks: “This is a nice surprise – I was only up to the fourth floor,” and another guy who’s spent God-knows-how-long trying to prise open the tenth floor window. When it’s finally opened for him, he says “about bloody time” with a face like thunder. Which would you want in your team?

The England boot is again hovering above Gary Ballance’s fingers. If he doesn’t have as far to fall this time, that also makes it harder to bounce back.

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Zafar Ansari is almost certainly batting too high

Earlier today, we took issue with England’s willingness to make bold prophecies. However, we rather shot our match-previewing bolt yesterday, so we’re now going to have to commit much the same crime simply so that we have something to say.

We are guessing/predicting that Zafar Ansari will be (a) playing and (b) batting too high in the second Test. We think he’ll come in ahead of Chris Woakes (if he plays) and Adil Rashid (if he plays). We think this is wrong.

Ansari averages 31 in first-class cricket with a large proportion of those runs made in the second division. He has made three hundreds.

Woakes has made nine hundreds and averages 37. Adil Rashid has made 10 hundreds and averages 34. Both have played the majority of their cricket in the first division. You might argue that they’re a bit older than Ansari – but we put it to you that sometimes older players are also better batsmen.

The cause of this anomaly, as far as we can tell, is that Woakes and Rashid have been picked as bowlers, whereas Ansari has been picked as an all-rounder. Team management have therefore understandably concluded that Ansari is the better batsman – even though he isn’t.

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Gareth Batty – the winter bike

Photo by Sarah Ansell

Photo by Sarah Ansell

There seems to be a tendency in some quarters to perceive England’s Test tours of Bangladesh and India as being one long competitive outing.

They are not. They are separate. For all the talk of ‘taking a look’ at players ahead of England’s arrival in India, there is a Test to be lost this week and a series to be drawn.

England won the first Test by 22 runs. That isn’t much of a margin to be toying around with – particularly being as the home side has now played more Test cricket inside the last week than it did in the whole of the previous 12 months. They may improve.

The England management are hopefully aware of this, recognising that this match is not an early salvo, but a decider. We will therefore take it on trust that any changes to the side have been made to improve it, or at the very least to keep it to a similar standard without wearing bowlers out.

Stuart Broad seems likely to get a rest that seems more a preventative measure than a necessary break. If his floppy hair doesn’t slick with sweat and impede his performance, Steven Finn should be an appropriate replacement.

Zafar Ansari is also tipped to be on the receiving end of ‘the nod’. There’s no reason to believe he won’t bowl as well as Gareth Batty did in the first Test and he’s a better batsmen, so again this seems acceptable enough. His quickish left-arm spin could be very important in India too.

Batty seems to be perceived as a sacrificial old bike that no-one’s much interested in looking after. They’ll put some winter miles on him, set him aside to rust, maybe wheel him out again when the weather’s really bad and basically just do whatever the hell they feel like until it’s time to take him to the tip. The Yorkshireman, for his part, is delighted to be getting a bit of fresh air and so seems perfectly happy with this arrangement.

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Unguarded by Jonathan Trott – book review

Sam writes:

My shelves are groaning under the weight of cricket autobiographies.

The best – among them Coming Back To Me by Marcus Trescothick and Nasser Hussain’s Playing With Fire – are well-thumbed.

The others tend to blur together. Tales of pushy parents, age group potential, Test debuts and tearful retirements can almost be written by numbers.

If you’re feeling particularly masochistic, give Michael Vaughan’s A Year In The Sun a whirl. Bet you won’t make it to the end without chewing your own face off.

When Jonathan Trott’s new effort appeared on my doormat, I raised a sceptical eyebrow. Would this tell me anything I didn’t already know?

I needn’t have worried. Unguarded is a wonderfully honest, brutally painful account of how one of England’s most reliable batsmen decided he could bear the pressure no longer.

As a long-time Warwickshire fan, I have followed Trott’s progress since his county debut but never entirely warmed to him.

Regular readers will know all about my obsession with Trott’s middle order colleague, a chap named Ian Bell.

While Bell flashed, dashed, posed and perished, Trott was the guy at the other end. A solid plodder, quietly getting on with the job.

Needless to say, as the years went by he became a firm favourite. He proved you don’t have to be a show-pony to win the hearts of England fans; you just need to score runs. Lots and lots of runs.

Most sportsmen and women sit in press conferences and burp out platitudes about how their chosen discipline has come to define their very existence.

“It means the world to me,” they gush. “I’ve worked so hard to get here.”

This is the story of a man who became so consumed by cricket that it swallowed him whole.

King Cricket once wrote an amusing piece of fiction in which Trott plays his kids at table-tennis for two whole weeks, relentlessly refuses to let them win a game and “feels immense satisfaction with his performance.”

Reading that again now, it takes on a whole new perspective. Living every second for cricket is all very well when you’re churning out the hundreds. When things started to go wrong, there was nowhere else to turn.

The book is structured in an odd way – it might have made more sense to tell the story chronologically rather than jumping around – but there is no disputing its power.

Wisely, he decides not to spend too much time on his childhood and dives straight into the beginnings of what was later diagnosed as situational anxiety.

Unusually for such a self-centered genre, each chapter features contributions from Cook, Pietersen, Ashley Giles, Andy Flower, and Trott’s wife Abi.

The other voices only serve to reinforce Trott’s fundamental character traits: decency, modesty, determination and a hard-won sense of self-awareness which was perhaps lacking during his international career.

You can buy Unguarded from Amazon here.

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What the use of Mitchell Johnson’s head as a toilet brush says about the Australia cricket team

It’s increasingly fashionable for captains and coaches to talk about building culture within their team – shared values and working together and all that crap.

Mitchell Johnson’s autobiography, Resilient, features a colourful anecdote from his time at the Cricket Academy in Adelaide which sheds light on every aspect of the culture that underpins Australia sides.

“Every night we’d pile into the common room and watch Neighbours before dinner. I was always a bit willing as every time there was an ad break there would be an all-in wrestle on the floor until the show started again.

“In one wrestle I was dragged through the door and into the bathroom by a heap of guys and somebody pushed my head into the toilet. I wasn’t impressed and the red mist descended. Somehow I managed to break free and I grabbed whoever it was by the front of the shirt as I got up and someone grabbed mine.

“I raised my right fist and he did the same. Then we looked at each other. It was Watto.”

Hopefully the red mist isn’t the product of a very severe urinary tract infection in this story.

Assuming it isn’t, what we’re left with is: watching Neighbours, wrestling like children who’ve spent too long cooped up indoors and faecal peril.

And afterwards all you’re left with is Shane Watson’s fat face staring back at you as he threatens to hurt you, but doesn’t.

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Why Bangladesh are potentially having a reasonably well-attended party

Bangladesh fan in Bristol (CC licensed by Synwell via Flickr)

Bangladesh fan in Bristol (CC licensed by Synwell via Flickr)

Twenty-two runs – England’s winning margin – is not a lot. You can splice and dice it however you want. It’s a bunch of thick edges to third man. It’s a handful of extra runs from your lower order across two innings because you’ve picked countless all-rounders. It’s less than the value of a dropped catch.

So while they may have lost, it’s clear that Bangladesh’s upward curve has attained credible height. More than anything, they seem to have reached a tipping point where it makes more sense to go for a win than play for a draw.

For most of their Test history, Bangladesh have played on flat pitches to give their batsmen a chance. Their batsmen have usually been worse than the opposition’s though, so this wasn’t really all that productive. For this series, the approach made even less sense. The home team’s one advantage over England is that they appear to have better spin bowlers, so the pitch became a turner and the batsmen were left to make the best of things.

The Bangladesh team as a whole is stronger nowadays. People have been looking out for a special player who could burgle Test matches for them. It’s not gone like that. Where once they relied on a couple of hit and miss players, they now have 11 hit and miss players. A greater proportion of hand-raisers, if you will.

Bangladesh have more potential party attendees. Sooner or later, they’re going to have a knees-up.

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The scope of Ben Stokes

Ben Stokes batting

If you were to look at Ben Stokes purely as a batsman or purely as a bowler, you’d struggle to see what the fuss was about. Averages of 34.04 and 35.64 are still at this stage the wrong way round.

Taken together, you begin to get a sense of his worth. Going off the numbers alone, he’s effectively two fairly mediocre Test cricketers rolled into one. No side would be desperate to find a place for a Wasim Jaffer or an Umar Gul, but if you could have both and field 12 players… well now, that’s an advantage (because you could just ask Gul not to field).

That’s effectively what Stokes gives you. But again, that’s not really the full story. England also have Chris Woakes, whose batting average is not far shy of Stokes’ and whose bowling average is way superior. Why doesn’t he attract quite so much excitement?

There’s just a sense that you know the Warwickshire man’s limits. Future devastating bowling performances seem entirely feasible and you could certainly see him making a Test hundred. Stokes seems to have it in him to do more than that.

The scope of Stokes feels unknown. England made 312 runs in 38.5 overs while he was at the crease in Cape Town at the start of the year. That is, by any stretch, eye-catching. Whatever he did either side of that innings, very few cricketers in history could have done that.

Today, he took 4-26 and then made 85 after England had flapped their way to 62-5. Either of those performances would have earned him post-match interview obligations. He did both.

There’s also just a touch of the Flintoffs in how he seems inclined to contribute when fans want it the most – such as when England are wobbling. We can’t quite persuade Statsguru to give us the figures, but we suspect that Stokes’ when-people-really-give-a-shit averages would be superior to his overall figures.

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