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When is an omission a rotation and when is it a good old-fashioned drop?

Photo by Sarah Ansell

Photo by Sarah Ansell

There’s a subtlety to England’s current approach to one-day cricket which may have passed some by. It’s not about ball-wallopery or -whangery, it’s to do with that other key aspect of international cricket – man management.

Everyone’s agreed that one of the keys to one-day success is a no-blame culture which allows the player to go out and express themselves. Quite why ‘joyous abandon’ is the only thing players are expected to express is beyond us. Players of earlier vintages used to express uncertainty and paranoia incredibly well, but apparently you don’t talk about those as being expressions of self.

Add ingredients and cook on heat for time

There’s a certain alchemy to creating this sort of environment. We’ve said before that as a coach you can’t simply say ‘play positively’ – you have to show, not tell.

England have partly ‘shown’ through picking a whole bunch of players with reputations for cricketing positivity. It’s not just about picking ‘the right players’ – the constitution of the whole also serves as a message to each of its parts. Were any of the individual players in an entirely different squad, they wouldn’t be able to play in the same way. They wouldn’t believe that they could get away with their current approach without being harshly judged. If we had to boil the psychology we’re describing down to three words, we’d go with ‘safety in numbers’.

There’s a certain critical mass that’s necessary for this to work and this gives rise to an interesting academic question as to how players from earlier eras might fare were they dropped into this squad. Encouraged by his surroundings, maybe someone like Mark Ramprakash would have felt liberated enough to play with the devil-may-care attitude that would have allowed him to succeed – no more gritty paralysis with the weight of his entire career bearing down on the innings being played in the here and now.

How to drop someone, how to rest someone

Which brings us to dropping players or ‘rest and rotation’ in the parlance of our times. Trevor Bayliss has thus far employed a neat trick, making it clear to everyone that ‘dropped’ and ‘rested’ are not synonyms.

The traditional way of doing things is that as often as not, you ‘rotate’ the players you’re not sure about. You leave out your third seamer or a young batsman finding his way and you say that they’re not dropped, they’re rested and they’ll be back again soon enough.

However true this is, when it’s always the same players in and out of the side, it blurs the distinction. England have of late operated a different policy. When a player’s been omitted, it’s been the captain or the vice captain or the best batsman. As often as not, it’s been abundantly clear that they haven’t been dropped.

Rather than showing support to those who least need it while undermining those on the fringes, Bayliss has flipped things around. There’s an illusion that he’s been able to rest his strongest players because his squad has such depth, but the squad has depth precisely because he shows support to those on the margins.

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Day-night cricket and the fire in the bin

As a rule, if people aren’t moaning about the thing you feared they’d moan about and are instead moaning about something completely different, you’ve succeeded. The elimination of moaning is of course not a possibility. It’s like a pocket of air under wallpaper. The best you can do is displace it.

Almost all the whingery following the inaugural day-night Test has centred on implementation of the DRS and the suitability of the Adelaide pitch for Test cricket. Being as those are the same kinds of things that people moan about following a daytime Test, we can only conclude that the pink ball experiment was largely successful.

Unless this is the ruse. Perhaps Nigel Llong was entrusted with delivering a rank decision as third umpire as some sort of distraction tactic. It’s a tried and tested technique. Who among us can honestly say that we haven’t got our sums wrong in a quarterly report and concealed this from our superiors by setting fire to a bin and putting our foot through a monitor?

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Night-day cricket should be the next innovation

Those watching the first day of the inaugural day-night Test between Australia and New Zealand will have been sorely disappointed. We were promised slapstick and catastrophe, but got neither. If you asked us to describe it, we’d say it looked very much like Test cricket, only with a pink ball.

The pink ball’s weird. An optical illusion makes it seem bigger than it really is – like a cheat mode of Sensible Soccer that we may well have imagined. But that’s no bad thing. Throw in a large crowd and a beautiful sunset and it was quite a successful day.

If there’s one problem, it’s the names of the intervals: tea and dinner. As Sam points out, this triggers the somewhat tiresome and impossible-to-resolve north-south debate about lunch/dinner, dinner/tea.

To bypass this, we propose night-day cricket. Beginning at 2am and finishing at 9am, the two breaks would be breakfast and tiffin. Playing so early would also allow people to attend the game before work. Don’t worry about the players either. They’re forever complaining about jetlag, so this is no different.

We mustn’t let the traditions of day-night Test cricket hold us back. The pink ball game is crying out for innovation.

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When did Eoin Morgan become England’s short format ‘anchor’?

Photo by Sarah Ansell

Photo by Sarah Ansell

Remember when Eoin Morgan was the exciting one. Remember how you used to shout “Morgan’s in!” when he came to the crease and how the person you were shouting to used to respond: “I don’t care. I don’t like cricket.”

Remember how you used to flaunt your knowledge by telling everyone within earshot that those miraculous rubber-wristed shots were down to Morgan’s background in hurling. Remember how, shortly after, you use to flaunt your knowledge by telling everyone that actually, he didn’t play those shots because of hurling, because he never really played the game.

Good times. Great memories. Different times. Old memories.

Nowadays Morgan’s a middle-order rock. He’s not the flamboyant one. He’s the guy who’ll hold things together with a nuggetty 45 off 38 balls while the guy at the other end switch-hits reverse-ramp maximums and canes it to cow corner.

Reverse sweeps are pass√©. Morgan’s an anachronism. Sometimes, if you squint quite a bit, it even looks like he’s smoking a pipe and wearing a monocle when he’s walking out to bat, as if he’s just set down his glass of port and risen from a Chesterfield wingback armchair.

We’re not even sure that he has any tattoos. Maybe he does, somewhere – but not so many that he looks like a guy who’s going to try and sell you some stilton in a canalside pub in some dark corner of the Midlands.

He doesn’t even keep wicket. Just think about that. Here’s a guy playing short format cricket in 2015 who doesn’t bowl and who also doesn’t keep wicket. Of course he’s the captain – they had to give him something to do other than bat.

WiFi on aeroplanes, paleo diets and Eoin Morgan taking second, third or fourth billing in an England one-day batting line-up. The modern world is a strange and unsettling place.

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Who says Tests are supposed to last five days?

We’ve always been of the opinion that a Test can last up to five days and that if all of that allotted time is required, things haven’t really panned out correctly.

Others see it differently. We often see comments of the oeuvre ‘a Test is supposed to last five days’ in criticism of turning pitches, such as that being used for the third Test between India and South Africa. It seems to be one of the fundamental philosophical differences defining how you view low scoring games.

India were bowled out for 215 in their first innings. Not a great score, but within the bounds of normality to our eyes. Maybe it’s a generational thing with younger cricketer followers accustomed to 560-5 declarations seeing such a total as freakishly abnormal.

This pitch is certainly doing a lot, but without wishing to unnecessarily retread ground, let’s wait and see how the match develops before drawing conclusions on its quality.

We will ask one question, however. Which online scorecard most commands your attention – the one where you’re waiting to see whether someone’s made their double hundred yet, or the one where a bunch of wickets is liable to have fallen?

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Liam Plunkett gets a fractionally undercooked deal

Photo by Sarah Ansell

Photo by Sarah Ansell

Not a raw deal, like Chris Read got, but pretty rare – bloodier than he asked for in the middle.

Plunkett was picked to go on the tour to the UAE and then somehow found himself three places down the pecking order for the South Africa tour despite not having played. From the outside, this seems bizarre. From the inside, it presumably makes more sense.

The captain and coach see plenty of the players in the nets. We all know the meaninglessness of them ‘coming out well’ or ‘being hit well’ in a net scenario, but that isn’t to say that spraying it around like an unmanned fire hose should also be ignored. We’re not saying that’s what Plunkett’s been doing necessarily. Maybe he simply hasn’t impressed. Trevor Bayliss is still fairly new as England coach and perhaps he’s still making up his mind about a few players.

None of which is the point we were going to make. Our point is that in recent years, while he’s been on the fringes of the England team, Plunkett has generally been considered only in unfriendly environments.

Green seamer – stick to the usual guys.

Flat pitch, unhelpful conditions – we need something ‘extra’.

In a sense, Plunkett’s benefited from filling that niche, but it’s also indicative of how perceptions can be skewed when you live your international life on the periphery. We don’t have separate stats for the infamous chief exectutives’ pitches. No-one adds an asterisk and gives you extra points for effort.

Within weeks and months, all that remains are the numbers. Whether or not they’re coming out well in the nets is the only other thing people have to go off.

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Last in the Tin Bath – a review of David Lloyd’s autobiography


Back when we reviewed Start the Car: The World According to Bumble, we suggested that rather than majoring on Lloyd’s zaniness, they might have been better off writing a traditional autobiography. Well this is what they’ve done. The result is indeed a better book.

For those that don’t know, before Lloyd was a TV commentator, he was variously county captain, Test cricketer, first-class umpire and England coach, all while maintaining strong links with Accrington CC in the Lancashire league. If you want a rounded perspective on cricket, he is perhaps uniquely qualified.

That’s very much the strength of the book – the various vantage points on the sport. That breadth of experience combined with Lloyd’s many years in cricket means the book transcends most modern autobiographies in having plenty of subject matter to tackle.

We also prefer reading about eras we don’t know so well. It means you’re less likely to find yourself enduring yet another account of a story you already know too well featuring characters who are all-too-familiar. We’d rather learn something new, like that Vanburn Holder was nicknamed ‘Hosepipe’ due to certain physical attributes.

One concern you may well harbour is that rather than trying to sell this book on wackiness, they’re instead trying to sell it on salt-of-the-earthiness. Look! There he is on the cover in a tin bath! He’s from Accrington, you know!

It’s a legitimate fear and while it’s occasionally justified, the relatively straightforward nature of the book means moments like this are rarely gratuitous. When we learn that he was last in the queue for said tin bath, it really is just to give some sense of what his upbringing was like and you then see how that upbringing informs many of his decisions later in life.

If there’s a flaw, it’s in the tone. For the most part, it reads like any other autobiography, but there are occasional flashes of ‘personality’. Ghost writer Richard Gibson had an impossible task here in our opinion. People tend to think that it would be easier to capture the tone of someone like Lloyd who has a very distinctive way of speaking, but it’s the opposite really. Every time there’s a ‘flipping ‘eck’ or a ‘not on your nelly’ it’s not a natural, casual thing. As a reader, you’re aware that someone else has seen fit to write it and that it’s subsequently been passed by an editor. It makes these turns of phrase kind of laboured and awkward.

We enjoyed Start the Car, but it did manage the somewhat unusual feat of leaving us less certain of how much we really liked David Lloyd. This book redresses the balance a bit. Don’t buy Last in the Tin Bath for the zaniness or earthiness, buy it if you’ve a genuine interest in the career of someone who maybe wasn’t the greatest player, but who has been around and seen a lot. It’s a straightforward autobiography really, but in this instance that’s no bad thing.

Last in the Tin Bath: The Autobiography Р£8.99 in paperback (Kindle and hardback versions also available)

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Jos Buttler and the myth of a batsman’s ‘natural game’

Jos Buttler of England bats during the Royal London One-Day Series 2014 match at Lord's Cricket Ground, London Picture date Saturday 31st May, 2014. Picture by Sarah Ansell. Contact +447860 461617 cricpix@yahoo.co.uk

Photo by Sarah Ansell

After watching Jos Buttler hit over a third of the deliveries he faced for boundaries against Pakistan, it’s tempting to wonder whether maybe, just maybe, he might do well to shelve his watchful, deliberate approach to Test batting. It seems to us that he’s much, much safer at the crease, and far more reassuring for England fans watching, when he’s just standing there spanking sixes, all bionic eyes and adamantium wrists.

The responsible approach

For Buttler, getting down on one knee and ramping the ball over the wicketkeeper is ‘playing responsibly’. When he tries to play the ball on its merits, he suddenly looks all too frail. Forget it, Jos. Most people have to respect the bowling, but you don’t. In fact it’s very much advisable that you don’t. Disregard the merits of the ball, disrespect the bowling. We promise to vilify you if you’re dismissed playing a forward defensive stroke and we’ll overlook all caught-at-cow-corners.

But how you persuade a batsman to employ such an approach is another matter altogether. It’s not like England are telling Buttler not to bat like this. We daresay someone involved with the side’s noticed that he plays rather better when he’s liberated. The problem is you can’t just say ‘play positively’. We’ve covered this before. You somehow need to persuade the person in question that this is what you want and that they will benefit from that approach. Even if those are a given, as they perhaps are in this case, it’s still not an easy matter putting it into practice.

The myth of ‘his natural game’

Test matches are different. The range of possiblities is far greater and your range of options as to how to approach an innings is far greater. One-day cricket – particularly in the later overs – is gloriously simple. There is no batting clarity quite like the batting clarity you have at 300-4 with five overs to go.

People often talk about a batsman’s ‘natural game’. Strikingly, they rarely refer to a deadbatting grinder when they use this term – it’s always the quick-scorer. This leads to many people concluding that when such a batsman isn’t lofting every third ball into the stands, they’re somehow having a different approach imposed upon them.

It happened in the World Cup when many assumed that Peter Moores wasn’t allowing certain batsmen to ‘play their natural game’. This was bollocks. He didn’t tell them not to – quite the opposite – he simply failed to create an environment in which they felt free enough to do so. The gleeful carnage is not the default. It’s only natural in certain circumstances.

Which brings us back to Test cricket

With so many options, so many ways of unpicking the puzzle before you, a batsman can find himself caught in some noncommittal middle ground in Tests (and shortly afterwards, he might find himself caught in a more literal sense.) One of the keys to Test batting is to find a way of navigating all of this; of somehow imposing clarity on your own brain.

The main thing preventing Jos Buttler from taking his one-day batting ability into Test matches isn’t the coach or ‘management’ – it’s Jos Buttler’s brain. If you think that the brain is an unnatural extra element when it comes to the act of batting, then yes, it is indeed preventing him from playing his natural game.

The other way of looking at it is that Jos Buttler isn’t so naturally predisposed to the thought processes necessary for Test cricket as some are. He might bat like some otherworldly warlock in the shorter formats, but he’s naturally confused and awkward when presented with more options. Hopefully he can learn to overcome this. Jos Buttler’s unnatural Test batting would certainly be worth waiting for.

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England retrieve Nick Compton from the freezer

Photo by Sarah Ansell

Photo by Sarah Ansell

Back in 2013, we suggested that England couldn’t refreeze Nick Compton having already defrosted him (this makes fractionally more sense if you read the article). Turns out they did. They stuck him back and now they’re defrosting him for a second time. Nick Compton’s back in the fridge!

At least they know what he is this time. You extract a new player from the freezer – a Sam Robson, say – and there’s always a chance that while they looked like chilli con carne in the frosted opaqueness of the tupperware, they were actually just murky ham stock.

Nick Compton though – you know where you are with him. He’s been taken out once before and he was correctly labelled when he was put back. There’s no mystery. We’re not going to get a wonderful surprise, but nor will we get an unwelcome one.

We know what you’re thinking…

You’re thinking ‘that analogy was tortured and confusing the first time around – please don’t use it again’. Okay, we’ll draw a line under it now.

For all that getting thrashed in Australia in 2013-14 was the low point, we still see the application of boot to Compton’s arse as being the moment when a good England side got too cocky for its own good.

Here we had a new opener, finding his way, who had managed two Test hundreds in nine Tests. For most countries, in most eras, this would be good enough to warrant perseverance. It takes time to come to terms with Test cricket and opening is a tougher task than most.

But England thought they could do better. They thought they could get more. They also thought they could get more from Joe Root, despite the fact he was average 42 after 11 Test innings in the middle order.

So amid a groundswell of enthusiasm for Root as opener, Compton was culled. The decision temporarily knackered up Root and having rushed into what should have been the backup plan all along, England discovered they didn’t really have a viable Plan C. The upshot is that they’ve had a new opener for the start of every summer and winter since.

An alternate timeline

Who knows what would have happened had they stuck with Compton. Maybe things would have worked out worse. Or maybe he would have done well and would now be established in a more stable side.

We can’t know, but what seems clear to us is that the decision to drop him in the first place was symptomatic of a team that thought it could do no wrong; that thought constant improvement was inevitable.

Delusional times. Looking back, treading water would have been quite the achievement

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Ian Bell will not bat like a prince before inexplicably spooning one to cover against South Africa

Photo by Sarah Ansell

Photo by Sarah Ansell

They’ve only gone and dropped him. Dropped him as if he were a cricket ball and they were him standing in the slips at some point in the last 12 months.

There’s a hideous video on the ECB Twitter feed where selector James Whitaker mouths the usual platitudes about Bell taking a break and reassessing before coming back strongly.

But he isn’t going to come back, is he? If he comes back at all, it’ll be in tears and bearing petrol shortly before torching the ECB offices. It would take more than ‘hunger and desire’ to persuade selectors to recall a malfunctioning 33-year-old who publicly floated the idea of retirement earlier in the year. We only hope that they didn’t talk him out of calling it a day back then only to make the decision for him a few months later. That would be cruel.

Then again, it would also be apt. Raising hopes, giving every impression that things are going to be just wonderful before a sudden and unheralded demise – the archetypal Bell innings.

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