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How many Tests before you can fairly judge a batsman?

Photo by Sarah Ansell

Photo by Sarah Ansell

Based on their returns in this series, many are calling for some combination of Alex Hales, Nick Compton and James Taylor to be dropped. Then again, based on their returns in this series it’s equally valid to suggest that Alastair Cook and James Anderson should be dropped.

It’s almost as if four Tests aren’t quite enough to fully gauge the worth of a cricketer. You might be forming an opinion about each of them, but why the need to commit to deeming that particular shade of grey to be either black or white? It seems like firm opinions are everything these days. You have to commit to a position.

After four Tests in a series against England in 2004, AB de Villiers had made just the one fifty – the same as Hales, Compton and Taylor have managed. De Villiers then made 92 and 109 in the fifth Test.

While there’s no universally agreed upon acceptable timespan for gauging the worth of a Test cricketer, it’s also worth noting that Steve Smith and Kane Williamson averaged 29 and 30 respectively after 11 Tests. The former wasn’t even considered a batsman.

Hashim Amla, another one of the best batsmen in the world, was averaging just 25 after the first 15 Tests of his career (and had generally looked a great deal worse than that). That’s a sizeable sample, but he got better. He’s great precisely because of how he responded to what confronted him, adapting his technique and approach based on his experiences.

Can you react and adapt within a four-Test series comprising two sets of back-to-back Tests? For once we’ll spurn grey areas and say no.

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The incompetence deception – England’s greatest ruse

Truly, it is the best of times. England have hit upon a quite brilliant ploy whereby they disguise themselves as a crap team and yet still win Test series. Expectations remain low, meaning every win is a glorious and uplifting surprise for fans.

After the fourth day’s play, Rob Key was keen for England to play positively and go for an unlikely win. Bob Willis thought it would be wiser to block the shit out of it for the day. The team took a third path. They decided to fold like an OS map.

What possible purpose could this serve? Well by playing so badly in what is after all a dead rubber, they are hoodwinking future opponents into believing them to be a fragile side. They did the same against Australia, don’t forget.

Series won. Reputation intact.

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Hashim Amla – the other best batsman in the world

hashim-amla

Photo by Sarah Ansell

Cricket loves to rank things. You’d think the whole point of a cricket match was to determine which of two teams was the better, but apparently that’s not enough. Cricket also wants to know how the teams involved compare to all other current sides and how each of the players compares to his contemporaries.

But if you’re going to make judgements based on more than what’s happening in the here and now, what timespan should you use? Many of the sport’s stupidest arguments revolve around a refusal to comprehend this one simple variable.

‘How can South Africa be the top-ranked Test side?’ people asked midway through this series. ‘Look at them. They’re clearly not.’

Well, if rankings were taken over just the last six months then no, they wouldn’t be top. But the rankings don’t work like that. Over South Africa’s previous 29 matches, they had done enough to secure first place.

We’ve also heard people saying that there is ‘no way’ England are the fifth-best side, even though they’ve lost to Pakistan and drawn with both New Zealand and the West Indies inside the last year. We’ve no idea what timespan people are using to gauge England. Both incredibly short-term and fairly long-term only without the bit in between, presumably.

There’s similar disagreement regarding the individual rankings

Only the rankings themselves seem just as uncertain as everyone else. Of late, the best batsman in the world has been Steve Smith, Joe Root, Kane Williamson or AB de Villiers, depending on the time of day.

But what of Hashim Amla? He had a terrible year in 2015, but with captaincy and duckmaking responsibilities handed to de Villiers, he seems to have recovered that dreamlike state where he can combat tough conditions while simultaneously ensuring that every single poor delivery is slapped to the fence.  When he was out for 109 in the first innings of this Test, we genuinely felt like England had secured a pretty decent outcome.

In the short-term, Amla has made 201, 109 and 96 – three innings which aren’t done justice by numbers alone. In the long-term, things are similarly rosy. His longevity gives rise to a record that surpasses all the young pretenders, while he has 25 Test hundreds to de Villiers’ 21 from 14 fewer matches.

So Hashim Amla’s the best batsman in the world then?

We’ve rather been dragged into comparisons here, which wasn’t our intention. We merely wanted to point out that while the rankings are currently recognising some fantastic, relatively new young batsmen who have done well in the medium-term, Amla has been at something approaching the same level as them but for many more years.

Nor does that tell the full story, for the challenge evolves. Amla’s been around long enough that the world’s bowlers have had plenty time to pick apart his game. They’ve picked and they’ve picked and they’ve picked and he has not been found out yet.

Hashim Amla remains one of the best batsmen in the world. We don’t really care about his specific ranking.

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England – select patient

This would be the slogan of England under Trevor Bayliss if they went to a crappy marketing company and paid them a billion pounds for branding.

That’s how you do slogans these days. You make them grammatically jarring. That’s the old rope you get for your stacks of cash.

Here’s just a few recent examples we’ve spotted.

  • Live colourful – Bulmers
  • Drive confident – VW Polo
  • Breathe happy – Febreze
  • Play beautiful – Fifa 16
  • Find your happy – Rightmove

Great system, guys. Worth every penny.

In England’s case, the meaning behind the wrong words is Bayliss’s stated belief that you should always give a player one too many matches rather than one too few.

Just as well really. The fourth Test against South Africa has thus far been characterised by all the more marginal selections doing just about nothing to secure their places.

One wicket for Chris Woakes, 15 runs for Alex Hales, 19 runs for Nick Compton, 14 runs for James Taylor and a bunch of dropped catches by Jonny Bairstow. Just as well for their sakes that England select patient – although it would be nice if at least one of them did a bit of something in the second innings.

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Shivnarine Chanderpaul – the last great West Indies cricketer

Photo by Sarah Ansell

Photo by Sarah Ansell

The world’s coaching manuals can breathe a sigh of relief because the greatest dissident of modern times has officially called it a day. No-one who remains will question them quite so persuasively. Cricket’s lost a lot.

The start and end

When Shivnarine Chanderpaul made his Test debut, he did so in a team containing Desmond Haynes, Richie Richardson, Brian Lara, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh. When he played his final Test, he came in after Marlon Samuels, a man who continues to be selected despite averaging just 33.

We’ve worked in a company like that. At the start, it was a vibrant place full of expertise. By the end, a guy who was found to have sold company data was retained because he cried when he was caught and seemed like he was sorry about it. The IT manager discovered a dead bird in the server and thought the best way of disposing of it would be to try and flush it down the toilet. The company was dying and these were by no means the least-qualified people remaining. The guy who spent the morning reclining on his office chair with his foot in the bin almost certainly was.

Imagine finding yourself in that situation. Imagine the impact on your motivation and professionalism of being surrounded by a confederacy of dunces. Do something well and most wouldn’t even be qualified to recognise it. We get a sense that was the world in which Shivnarine Chanderpaul eventually found himself. But yet where most of us would rush to the exit, Shiv ploughed on – the last great West Indies cricketer.

The last?

Hopefully that won’t prove to be the case, hopefully there will be a resurgence, but it seems unlikely at present. At best, Shiv’s retirement snaps the last thin thread to what is now undeniably a previous era.

Excuse us if we resort to a series of links to mark his departure, but we’ve already invested a lot of time in writing about him. Even if he himself rarely got any kind of payback for the long hours he invested at the crease, we’re not keen to pay tribute by doing likewise.

He deserves better than the written equivalent of a frenzied T20 knock, so here are some of our long form innings about him.

The man who wrote his own textbook in illegible handwriting

Rickets, Chomsky, Shane Watson talking bollocks and the art of persisting for long enough that eventually the world changes shape to accommodate you. Shiv was our final King of Cricket for All Out Cricket.

The eternal watchfulness of Chanderpaul

A tribute in the wake of his 10,000th Test run, written for Cricinfo. It’s basically just 11 different ways of describing that magnificent technique of his. Also includes a Sopranos quote.

Lord Megachief of Gold 2007

The highest honour in international cricket.

Grand Lord Megachief of Gold 2008

The only man to win the highest honour in cricket two years in a row.

How to mark this occasion

How should we should pay tribute to this most magnificent of cricketers? Perhaps we should adopt one aspect of his technique and employ it in our daily life. Today, in honour of Shivnarine Chanderpaul, try and do something – anything – unexpected with your elbows. Let us know how you get on.

Shivnarine Chanderpaul.

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Stephen Cook takes care of the present

There was a classic Bob Willis moment during the third Test when Charles Colvile asked the lugubrious pundit about South Africa’s then opening batsman.

“Well you know my opinion on Stiaan Van Zyl, Charles,” responded Bob – because having repeatedly voiced that opinion throughout the series, he no longer needed to state it explicitly. After a pause to let the implied criticism sink in with the audience, he followed up with: “He can’t bat.”

So blunt, so needless, so perfectly, wonderfully Bob Willis. And as ever, the effect was magnified by his unhurried delivery and a general demeanour that gave the impression  he was personally insulted Van Zyl had had the temerity to accept an offer to play Test cricket.

Bob Willis.

We commented earlier today that middle-order batsmen are ten a penny. Good openers are not, as England have been proving for the last couple of years.

With the Van Zyl experiment a failure, South Africa have now been reduced to picking the man widely accepted to be the best opening batsman in the country. It’s a strange thing to be reduced to, but it’s largely an age thing. At 33, Stephen Cook isn’t a long-term solution, However, on this evidence he will at least buy them some time.

Stephen Cook is of course the son of Stephen Cook, who thoughtfully planned ahead and ensured he made use of the name Jimmy from an early age to avoid confusion. Those of a certain age will remember Jimmy Cook as being a guy who was generally at the top of the county batting averages each season.

Stephen isn’t that good, but he didn’t make a duck on Test debut, like his dad did. He’s also better than Stiaan Van Zyl, which is the main thing.

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James Taylor at short leg

Sky just broadcast a slow-mo of James Taylor plucking the ball out of his arse. That’s what it looked like anyway. Kneeling down, he reached behind him and lo, there it was.

South Africa were doubtless already wary of Taylor’s short leg fielding after a couple of shots ended up in his hands off the face of the bat in the previous Test. Apparently it’s not just his hands you need to worry about though.

On this occasion, Taylor saw Dean Elgar shaping to clip the ball to leg and, predicting the path of the ball, scuttled across to cover it in the style of Doctor Zoidberg. Presenting his disproportionately massive cojones as some sort of target, he then took the catch via thigh, midriff and possibly even ankle as his legs clamped around the ball. He then retrieved it from its fleshy prison between his legs as a final flourish.

Taylor may be small, but as we all know, things seem much larger when they’re up close. He’s hard to ignore at short leg and as an opposition batsman, it must be tempting to simply rule out the quarter of the field that lies beyond him.

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Happy birthday to King Cricket

One of our old logos.

One of our old logos.

Our first reader got in touch with us this week – a man who once went by the name of The Scientician. Some of you may remember him from his shocking exposé of Jaffa Cakes as a sports snack.

The Scientician pointed out to us that we’re 10. We don’t mean in the ‘your mental age is 10’ kind of way – although people do say that kind of thing to us as well.

No, he meant that this website is ten. We started it in January 2006 (albeit at a different web address). That’s ten years ago. The site’s so old that people actually arrived at it via Ask Jeeves.

As The Scientician said in a follow-up email, which we’ll reproduce in full.

“Time…”

He’s got a point. On this domain alone, there’s been over 3,000 posts, over 40,000 comments and well over a million deleted spam comments (genuinely). We also knocked out over a thousand posts on the old Blogspot site in little more than a year. Them were the days.

So how did it all begin?

Er, we’re not entirely sure actually.

We’ve a vague notion that we’d sent The Scientician an email, or quite possibly even an actual letter, and that this had led him to utter the immortal words: “You should write.”

We’ve no real memory of what that particular missive was about. We’re pretty sure it included curlews, but beyond that it’s anyone’s guess. The important thing is that he told us to write and we listened to him.

We asked what we should write and where. He told us to start a website because that was what someone semi-famous had done and they’d got a job out of it.

So we started a website and soon enough we got a job and arguably even what passes for a career out of it.

The end.

Except it isn’t, because we’re just going to carry on the same as always.

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Why Nick Compton is failing

Photo by Sarah Ansell

Photo by Sarah Ansell

When England dropped Nick Compton last time around, did they drop him for batting slowly and ineffectively or did they drop him for how he responded to pressure?

George Dobell has written what basically amounts to a plea for Compton to ‘dare to be dull’ over at Cricinfo. The term ‘natural game‘ is generally employed when yearning for something explosive from a batsman, but it applies here too. The confidence to play in the most appropriate way appears to be deserting England’s number three. He’s becoming weirdly skittish, which isn’t what England want, expect or need.

Back when Compton was gently eased out of the Test team in 2013, we wrote about the possibility of one day picking him again:

“Technically, you can go back, but you’d be going back to a player who’s basically been told he’s not good enough and who will therefore be a rather insecure imitation of the batsman you previously had in the team. You’d be settling for a player, rather than picking them and people pick up on that kind of message.”

Perhaps there’s something in this. Dobell alludes to his being more sensitive to criticism than most and Compton may currently be overreacting to Trevor Bayliss’s admission that he would ideally like a more dynamic top order.

It’s debatable whether or not the coach’s words were intended as a personal challenge to Compton and even if they were, he appears to have gone too far with it. This could well be overcompensation after he was dumped from his previous relationship after succumbing to paralysis, making seven off 45 balls against New Zealand when England had already secured a large first innings lead and were looking to rush to a declaration.

But that shotless batting was just a symptom. Arguably, what concerned England more was how he had responded to pressure. Sometimes you need to play shots, sometimes you need to block and leave, but a Test batsman is always, always under pressure.

Feeling himself under pressure again, Compton now seems to be going to the opposite extreme. The blocking isn’t the problem, the swishing isn’t the problem, it’s the fact that he seems easily swayed towards these extremes by outside influences.

What to do? What to do?

Compton needs to somehow find the self-confidence to plough his own furrow and we’re not sure whether this is possible. If you’re easily swayed, it’s an awful long journey to what you might call The Jonathan Trott Extreme.

Trott was a man who could plough a furrow perpendicular to all the other furrows on the field and then tell everyone else they were going the wrong way. We rather suspect you can’t teach that. Trott was quite magnificently sure of his own approach and if he was sometimes wrong, that’s a small price to pay for certainty.

Certainty is what tethers a batsman down in the storm of Test cricket. When the winds of public, media and opposition opinion roar, you need to be anchored or you’ll be dragged into behaviour that doesn’t work for you.

So if we’ve a message for Nick Compton, it’s this. When you’re feeling under pressure, don’t listen. Play your way. Sometimes you’re right, sometimes you’re wrong – but uncertainty will always equal the latter.

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Chris Gayle SLAMS Flintoff, Rogers and Watson

Photo by Sarah Ansell

Photo by Sarah Ansell

Where do you go for your right to reply these days? Instagram, apparently.

Chris Gayle made a 12-ball fifty in the Big Bash this week and as ever with sportsmen, you get the impression he thinks this proves his fundamental rightness about everything; like he could napalm an orphanage but it wouldn’t be wrong if he got crucial runs at a decent lick the following day.

He doesn’t say that explicitly, but that’s the vibe.

“My idol & the person who I look up to and also want to be like when growing up as a kid is in the picture” he begins – about a picture of himself. After that, he thanks a load of people, including ‘the haters’ – a term which pretty much always signposts unrepentant wrongdoing.

After bemoaning all the players who smiled in front of his face but didn’t publicly stand up for him (it’s because they didn’t really support you, Chris), it’s on to the people he doesn’t thank – principally Andrew Flintoff, Chris Rogers and Shane Watson, in that order.

“The past cricketer who say I make myself look like a chop, the other who claim I was no good to the youngsters while playing for the thunder, the next one who said he expect that sort of behavior from Chris – Y’all can kiss my ‘Black Rass'”

That counts as a slamming, right? We’ve always wanted to use ‘slams’ in a headline.

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