We’re never sure why people are so averse to comparing apples and oranges. They’re both fruit, after all. It’s not like comparing ox heart and communism. Like apples and oranges, Brendon McCullum and Angelo Mathews are quite different, but also have rather a lot in common.
Why a dual award?
There were plenty of other contenders this year. Kumar Sangakkara couldn’t stop scoring runs and Steve Smith developed a real taste for the Indian bowling, while last year’s Lord Megachief of Gold, Dale Steyn, has become so relentlessly brilliant that people don’t even bat an eyelid when he takes 39 Test wickets at 19.56.
However, Brendon McCullum and Angelo Mathews have been the players who have stood out for us. We have spent the last week or so trying to choose, but their cases are so different that it has been like comparing crisps with ennui. In the end, we decided that as captains of lower profile Test nations who have led by freakish example, they both have an equal claim to the title, even if they have reached this point via entirely different routes.
The highs and lows
We’ll start with McCullum because his case is more obvious. Until recently, he has always been far better in one-dayers than Tests, but in 2014, he averaged 20.33 in one-dayers and 72.75 in Tests. But even that doesn’t really give the full story because between the middle of February and the end of November, he didn’t get past 50 in the longest format.
Truth be told, McCullum didn’t register a single Test fifty all year. He was only an ounce of extra heft away from not having made a score between 100 and 200 either. His 134-ball 195 against Sri Lanka on Boxing Day seemed an almost childishly needless means of pointing out to everyone that he could also score normal hundreds as well as doubles and triples.
New Zealand won that match – their last of the year – just as they’d won against India in their first match of the year when McCullum had made 224. One match later, he made 302 after his side had surrendered a 246-run first innings lead to earn an unlikely draw. You can’t say he doesn’t influence matches and nor can you say that he doesn’t make the most of good form.
McCullum’s crowning achievement came in November, however. Australia had just demonstrated how hard it is to even compete against Pakistan in the UAE, let alone win, and the ‘home’ team had at first carried on in much the same vein against New Zealand. But a Kiwi side hewn in McCullum’s stumpy-but-still-up-for-a-fight image was having none of it. They drew the second Test and then minced Pakistan in the third.
Mark Craig was man of the match, but McCullum made 202 off 188 balls. It’s hard to respond to something like that and Pakistan couldn’t.
The bit in-between
Angelo Mathews has been harder to spot. Not for him the double hundreds. In fact, even the single hundreds feel like aberrations. Mathews’ year has been almost the exact opposite of McCullum’s. He seems to have made 50 almost every time he has gone out to bat.
Only once in 20 Test innings was he dismissed for a single-figure score and despite only two hundreds, he averaged 77.33. If this is starting to sound like a celebration of mediocrity, factor in his one-day knocks and you start to get a feel for the scale of his achievement. Over 31 50-over innings, he averaged 62.20 and even when his team was rubbish, he was good. In five sad defeats to India, he delivered 92 not out after arriving with the score reading 64-3, 75 after arriving at 42-3 and 139 not out after arriving at 73-3.
Quite simply, he never lets his side down. At times in the past, he’s seemed a trifle bits and pieces. But nowadays his bits of bowling arrive alongside some magnificent pieces of batting.
His all-round performance at Headingley must rank somewhere reasonably high in some list or other of good cricket things. We’re not going to define that list or choose the ranking because that could only elicit nit-picking which is surely besides the point.
Mathews had taken 4-44 in England’s first innings when he walked out to bat. His side were 68 ahead with four wickets down and had just expended an extraordinary amount of energy in securing a nine-wickets-down draw in the first Test (a match in which he had made 102). Pretty soon, Sri Lanka were seven down and just 169 ahead. Surely the reservoirs of self-belief were running dry?
At the time, we wrote about how batting with the tail is an amorphous puzzle where your goal oscillates between singles and boundaries with the field waxing and waning constantly. In short, it’s mentally exhausting, yet Angelo Mathews took his side from 277-7 to 437-9.
Even then, he wasn’t done. England fought back through Moeen Ali. When you’ve poured so much into a game and it seems it’s still not enough, you can crumple or you can redouble your efforts. Quite how you accomplish the latter is beyond us, but that is presumably what Mathews managed in captaining Sri Lanka to their first proper series victory in England.
Between them, they’ve got it all covered. Take a bow, Brendon McCullum and Angelo Mathews – the sides you captain are better for your presence. You are 2014’s Conjoined Lord Megachiefs of Gold.21 Appeals
The normal reaction when one of cricket’s biggest stars retires from Tests is a kind of pained collective whine, mourning their departure. Never again will we get to see them do all those things that we’ve only just realised we took for granted. But MS Dhoni is different. Everyone – even his fans – is just sort of saying: ‘Yeah, that makes sense’.
People can be a bit black and white about these sorts of things saying that Dhoni never liked the longest format. That’s rubbish. He played 90 Tests and you don’t do that unless you give at least half a toss. It probably is true that Test cricket is his least favourite format however – and as is the case for all top cricketers, something eventually has to give.
Once upon a time, you could afford to give your all in even your least favourite format, but with today’s fixture lists, enthusiasm has to be rationed; carefully apportioned where it will have the most impact. Does anyone want to see MS cruising through big matches? It’s not hugely satsifactory, but the truth is it’s probably better to replace him with a lesser, but more ravenous player.
It shouldn’t come to that really. Ideally there would be little enough cricket that the top players would be completely full-on in every match in every format. But at present that’s simply unrealistic. Everyday cricket every day is what we’ve found ourselves with.
Some countries have more of their best players retiring early from Tests to prolong their short format careers; other countries will see their best players retiring early from one-dayers to prolong their Test careers. All else being equal, this difference is enough to determine who wins at what. International cricket as one country’s true best eleven versus the best eleven players the opposition can possibly muster is a rare thing indeed. Perhaps we never truly see it any more.19 Appeals
Plenty going on in the various Boxing Day Tests, but we can’t be arsed writing a single word about any of them. We’re far too busy actually enjoying them, if we’re honest. Something would have to make way to give us time to write and these liquids and solids won’t consume themselves, so this is all you’re getting.
We did do something festive though – this piece about some dude born on Christmas Day whose actions appear to have indirectly led to all sorts of bitter conflict. Cookianity – it’ll never catch on.27 Appeals
It sounds like a sherry-related incident, but it’s really just a faintly festive version of our Mop-up of the Day not-quite-sure-what-to-write-about-today feature.
Boxing Day Eve Eve
The most important of the coming days is of course Boxing Day. Few people know that Boxing Day was actually named after the Boxing Day Test, which this year will be contested by Australia and India.
Scoreline-wise, it’s a typical India Test tour – they’re two-nil down after two – but it’s been rather better than that. They had a stab at chasing down 364 in the first Test and then by no means disgraced themselves in attempting to defend 128 in the second. They’ve got some batsmen; they’ve got some fast bowlers. What will Melbourne bring?
The main things it’ll bring are Ryan Harris and Mitchell Johnson. Harris is back from his latest bodily knackage, while Johnson is back from some sort of holiday to ineffectiveness. If he’s left anything behind, perhaps his travelling companion can post it back to him, for Peter Siddle appears to have emigrated there.
Joe Burns will also make his debut (for Australia, we should add, if you’re confused by the fact that he isn’t called Mitch Burns). We know next to nothing about him. He has one of those ‘shouldn’t he have played more first-class cricket by now’ records that Australians seem to specialise in (45 matches, seven hundreds).
It’s also worth noting that this Boxing Day marks the fourth anniversary of one of the greatest days of Test cricket there’s ever been. Let’s embrace mistiness of the eye and think about that for a bit…
Earlier in the year, writing about the Windies’ one-day strategy, we said that a six-seven-eight of Kieron Pollard, Andre Russell and Darren Sammy gave them three shots at death-over carnage. Make that one shot. Pollard and Sammy have been dropped from the one-day side.
With Dwayne Bravo also omitted, the Windies are three all-rounders down. That’s quite a knock when your approach relies on having plenty of batsmen and a surfeit of bowling options.
Glistening Christmas spam
It’s traditional at this time of year for things to go steadily downhill, so it seems right to end on a sour note.
You may have had problems leaving comments on this site recently. After two weeks of investigation, our hosting company finally admitted that they were ‘rate-limiting’ WordPress comments in a bid to combat spam. It seems an oddly callous approach to consider genuine comments mere collateral damage, but we’re not a hosting company, so what do we know? Clearly, if they were in charge of English cricket at the start of the year, they would have sacked absolutely everybody to ensure they definitely got their man and who’s to say that would have worked out any worse?
Anyway, after much to-ing and fro-ing, we have managed to persuade them to rate-limit comments slightly less. This means that comments should at least always go through now, if slightly slower than before. Sorry about that.
In October, the site received over 180,000 spam comments and there have been over a million left this year. While some websites get plenty more, the volume has grown significantly and we do think it needs addressing. The hosting company suggested we add a captcha to the comments form, but we thought that would be annoying. We have therefore decided to close comments on all posts more than a couple of weeks old, considering this the lesser of two evils.
We’d estimate that 99 per cent of comments are left on recent posts, so the change shouldn’t have a big impact, whereas a captcha would be a constant pain in the arse. Closing comments on older pages has already had a big impact and we’d like to think we could get the rate-limiter completely removed – although we doubt we’ll be successful as they say it’s a new thing for everyone and not something targeted at us specifically.
On the plus side, various bits of back-end tidying (oo-er) have hopefully speeded the site up a bit. You probably haven’t noticed.
Is that it?
We doubt we’ll have anything to say tomorrow, so we’ll wish you a happy Festivus now.38 Appeals
In this new Morganian one-day world, with its unexpectedly stumbling approach to a major tournament, we’d like to ask: when should a team start planning for the World Cup?
England have often cobbled together a strategy at the 11th hour, bringing in players with little or no experience of high pressure games in front of big crowds. This is clearly the wrong approach, but for this World Cup, they appear to have gone the other way. Did they commit to plans too early, wedding themselves to a captain despite there being ample time for everything to go tits up? Skyscrapers in earthquake zones are only so robust because they give a little. When does stability become counterproductive rigidity?
Perhaps it makes sense to think of long-term planning in terms of phases. For a four-year World Cup cycle, the first might last two or three years. This is the time for experimentation. Well-established players who are likely to be around for the next World Cup can frequently be omitted from games or even entire tours so that younger players who selectors want to ‘take a look at’ can be included in their place.
Then, with a year to go, things maybe get more serious. You start to settle on your first-choice team and try and give them experience of playing together, performing the roles for which they have been earmarked. One of those roles might be captain. How far out can you commit with some certainty?25 Appeals
Alastair Cook says that he’s doing everything he possibly can to try and turn his form around. This begs a rather obvious question. If you’re practising really, really hard and doing everything you possibly can to prepare, but you’re still not scoring runs – what does that actually say about your ability?
At least if you’re dossing about in practice and turning up for matches half-cut, there’s an obvious way to improve your returns. If you’re preparing assiduously and you’re still crap, it might be that you’re simply not cut out for the job.
A bit of a plodder
Mike Atherton’s doing a good job of not saying ‘I told you so’. That’s possibly because he’s a mature, level-headed individual who has inexplicably found himself in the world of English cricket. Back when Cook was made one-day captain, Athers called him a plodder. A fair assessment, you’d have thought, but when Cook then made a bunch of runs in impressive fashion that summer, there were a few digs.
Verbal battles and wars. Fast forward three years and Cook has spent a hell of a lot of the intervening period being a plodder. Athers was fundamentally right and the case for making Cook one-day captain appears to have been exposed as a poor one. Most of the fans’ anger revolves around what is (and isn’t) happening now, but the real mistake came long ago. It’s strange to say this about such a conservative organisation, but picking Cook as one-day captain was a gamble.
What happened to Cook’s batting?
Is Cook out of form or is this actually the norm? Maybe it’s the latter.
To provide some context, after six months or so as captain, we concluded that Cook was quite possibly England’s best one-day batsman. Crucially, we qualified that with an ‘at the minute’.
In the summer of 2011, he averaged 58 in 10 matches, scoring at a run a ball. The following winter, he averaged 50 in nine matches and while he scored a little bit slower, he made a couple of hundreds and three fifties. Worth his place in the side? Absolutely.
Seems a long time ago, doesn’t it? It was. In his last 20-odd matches, he’s made one fifty.
Maybe he got found out. When Cook took over as captain and made all those runs, he still did it in a rather limited way. His new ‘expansive’ game seemed to hinge almost entirely on the slog-sweep to cow corner.
At the time, we described his use of the shot as being like when a bad husband repeatedly brings flowers. It seemed little more than an apologetic gesture designed to distract from major shortcomings. It was odd that it worked, but even the most flower-loving wife will see through such a shallow ruse eventually.
Unsurprisingly, opponents have taken the slog-sweep off the menu. They’re serving up off-spin in the first over instead. Cook doesn’t appear to like the taste.
Cook has a place in Test cricket’s All-You-Can-Eat Hall of Fame, but he’s picky. He doesn’t like mushrooms ‘because they’re slimy’ and he won’t eat anything with bones in it. You need to have broader tastes in one-day cricket. You need to eat everything because there’s only a finite amount on offer.
Test cricket involves endless courses, so you can pick at dishes you don’t like and gorge on those you do. One-day cricket is more of a taster menu. Miss out on anything and you risk going hungry. In the last year, Cook has basically starved.27 Appeals
It wasn’t so long ago that Australia’s batting was pretty fragile. Since then, David Warner and Steve Smith have joined Michael Clarke as regular run-scorers, providing more than mere gaffer tape solidity. However, while India’s 408 doesn’t look too imposing, nor does Australia’s new-look line-up.
Some players seem underrated by the sides they represent. Others… well, you just feel like you’re missing something. The Marshes are a case in point.
Shaun Marsh makes good hundreds interspersed with a hell of a lot of ducks. He’s played for long enough now that you’d think people would have a fair idea what they will get from him, but the Australian selectors seem far more concerned with what they might get from him.
His brother, Mitch, is looked upon in a similar way. People seem impressed by his bowling, despite the fact that he has only just taken his first Test wicket in his fourth Test, while he finds himself batting at six despite a first-class average of 29.63. By way of contrast, India’s number six averages 58.68 in first-class cricket and recently became the first man to hit two ODI double hundreds – yet still approximately half of his team’s supporters think he shouldn’t be playing.
The middle order Marshes – they sound more challenging than they perhaps are.6 Appeals
If the Gabbattoir is seeing anyone slaughtered, it’s not the Indians but the home team’s bowlers. Ryan Harris was rested because he’s slightly injured and while Peter Siddle was flat-out dropped, he might be back for the next Test because the Aussie bowlers who actually are playing have been attempting to rotate at too great a speed.
Josh Hazlewood and Mitchells Starc and Marsh all suffered in some way on day one of the second Test. A third Mitch – Johnson – only suffered in terms of his bowling figures, which were 0-64 off 15. Hazlewood and Starc should be okay to bowl on day two, but Marsh, in a respectful nod to his absent captain, has done his hammy. They’re even being a bit vague about whether he’ll bat.
All this cramp and nigglage hasn’t done much for the over rate either. Despite 22 overs of spin, only 83 overs were bowled in the day, which is shocking. India still found time to make 311.14 Appeals
Today we’re going to direct you towards two pieces of ours which appeared outside the kingdom.
First up, our latest King of Cricket is Murali. Don’t worry, it ain’t all numbers. It’s about the joints, the graft and the batting really.
Secondly, last week’s Cricinfo piece, entitled English cricket rocked by non-Cook related incident. As an added bonus, that one contains a little bit of Nick Knight.
Almost inevitably, Cook is in the news again today. Paul Downton has given another interview, which basically means Cook’s relationship with the public has dropped another few notches through no fault of his own.
Downtown has an incredible knack for alienating people. When he speaks, what you’re left with is a strong sense that someone has wagged their finger at you and told you they know best.
Apparently he sits in on selection meetings these days. He says he is happy with the selectors he employs (his words) and happy with the decision to continue with Cook as captain, but that the selectors will meet to discuss everything on Friday. Presumably they won’t be jumping at the chance to make their boss unhappy.
Asked about Cook’s form, Downton said: “Yes, he’s in miserable form. But form can change. I’d suggest he’s ‘due’ – wouldn’t you?”
We’ve covered this before, haven’t we?
Another highlight is: “He’s the natural leader of that group of players.”
A natural leader in the sense of being a great orator? A natural leader based on the fact he’s getting great results? What is a natural leader? Is that how leaders are identified; by their nature? Do the ECB do a DNA test? What chromosomes are they looking for?
The ECB really are beyond parody now.
Downton finished by saying: “I want to enfranchise everybody and I want them to be part of what’s happening in English cricket.”
Remember kids, if you’ve been enfranchised by a stockbroker, you should inform a parent, teacher or policeman immediately. It’s not your fault.13 Appeals
One of Alastair Cook’s problems is that he plays every one-day innings as if it might be his last. He positively clings to the crease, grimly trying not to make a mistake. The better approach might be to play as if he doesn’t give a toss, but say what you like about Alastair – tosses he gives.
Bowlers can do what they like at Cook. It’s like bowling at a cone or a cardboard cut-out. He just sits there passively while you prod away at him with something sharp. After the sixth one-day international against Sri Lanka, Cook said that he was hitting them well in the nets. If he hadn’t actually specified that it was balls he was hitting, you’d think he might have meant walls – using his head.
There are no prizes for effort in cricket and in one-day cricket there aren’t even prizes for runs unless you can score them quickly enough. It doesn’t matter why you drop simple chances or miss straight balls, all that matters is that you do. Cook is.
We don’t blame Cook for hanging about in the one-day team. It’s his job to retain confidence in himself in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Half of the battle of international sport involves bullshitting your opponent that you’re something you’re not. The best way to achieve that is to start off by bullshitting yourself. This is why we pay other people to see things clearly: coaches and selectors, for example.
One of the main reasons why Cook was made one-day captain is because they thought it would undermine him to have someone else in charge of the 50-over side ahead of the next Ashes. The same people who reached that conclusion might now want to consider just what effect an endless series of defeats and humiliating underperformance might be having on their boy.15 Appeals