Month: June 2014 (page 1 of 3)

The New Zealand team is a sperm whale

Sperm whales have pretty small brains. If you saw one, it would look massive, but they’re small brains in relative terms because sperm whales are massively massive.

In Moby Dick, Herman Melville makes the case that the small brain is compensated for by the whale’s giant vertebrae, the first few of which are almost the same size as the skull and filled with the same brainy gloop. Needless to say, this rather odd argument made us think of the current New Zealand team.

It’s not that the Kiwis are brainless. It’s that they seem lacking up top. For as long as we can remember, New Zealand have struggled to find openers and this has contributed to a batting fragility which for a long time saw the lower order outscoring the specialist batsmen on a regular basis.

It’s reached the point where it just seems futile to hope for much up top, so New Zealand are compensating for this with the first few vertebrae. It’s going rather well for them. In Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, Brendon McCullum and Jimmy Neesham, they have a cracking spine.

New Zealand have had one or two decent middle-order batsmen in recent years, but having four makes a lot of difference. With four, it seems likely that at least one of them will score in any given innings and suddenly the lower half aren’t being asked to do all the running. Anatomically-speaking, you might think that running ought to fall under the lower half’s jurisdiction, but New Zealand are a sperm while, so they don’t run.

Kane Williamson has made 161 swims without being dismissed in the second innings of the third Test against the West Indies.

Performing away from home

A bit of housekeeping. We’ve had some of our articles published on other websites.

First up, The Shire Horse, our fortnightly thing for All Out Cricket. This week’s edition makes fun of some things that England players have said, has a bit about Lancashire’s batting and then there are the regular segments ‘Collapse of the Week’ and ‘Dot of the Week’.

We also didn’t get round to linking to the previous instalment. It makes fun of some things that England players have said, has a bit about Lancashire’s batting and includes the regular segments ‘Collapse of the Week’ and ‘Dot of the Week’. Never let it be said that we don’t plough a furrow.

Over at Cricinfo, we’re looking at England’s new era and pointing out that eras don’t actually have to be good.

Finally, Cricket Badger went out today. You’ve missed this week’s, so sign up now in time to receive next week’s. If you don’t, you’ll be missing out on what critics are calling ‘an email’.

Alastair Cook v Shane Warne – who’s the bigger idiot?

Will Alastair Cook learn his lesson? Most people know that it’s incredibly unwise for the England captain to demand that critics be less critical.

But not Cook, apparently. He recently said that “something needs to be done” about Shane Warne’s relentless criticism of his captaincy.

The headline of Warne’s latest column?

“Alastair Cook’s captaincy was the worst I have ever seen.”

Over to you, Alastair. Which highly inflammable material are you going to use to try and extinguish the flames this time?

Fatigue is cumulative – so bowl Moeen Ali

Sorry that we keep harping on about that period of play when England got caught in fast-medium purgatory, but it really was when the game got away from England. A number of factors conspired to create the horror. As well as poor bowling and limp captaincy, tiredness played a part. Anderson and Broad, in particular, looked shattered and Liam Plunkett lacked that tiny bit of extra pace which is essentially the sole reason he’s in the side.

Was it a fitness thing?

Not really. Everyone has their limits.

England were bowling last Monday, pushing for a win in the first Test – an intense effort – and then they were bowling again on the Friday at the start of the second Test. By Sunday, they were tired. By Monday, they were spent. Back-to-back Tests are tough and this is why it’s so important to field five bowlers to share the workload.

Only the workload isn’t currently shared. If it’s the new ball, Cook looks to Broad and Anderson. If he’s pushing for a win, he looks to Broad and Anderson. If he desperately needs to break a partnership, he looks to Broad and Anderson. Plan B is to use Jordan and Plunkett and if that doesn’t work, it’s back to Broad and Anderson.

Fatigue is cumulative and Cook steadily invested throughout this series. Day four at Headingley was when it all came back to haunt him.

Spin bowling is a little less physical than fast bowling, so spinners can tolerate greater workloads. That’s really useful and yet how much has Moeen Ali bowled in comparison to the quicks?

Moeen Ali’s bowling workload

Here’s how many overs Moeen Ali bowled versus the seam bowler who bowled the least in each innings over the course of this series.

  • First innings at Lord’s: 16 overs versus Chris Jordan’s 27.4
  • Second innings at Lord’s: 12 overs versus Liam Plunkett’s 16
  • First innings at Headingley: 3 overs versus Stuart Broad’s 15
  • Second innings at Headingley: 21 overs versus James Andersons’s 25.5

It’s also worth noting that the last one is totally misleading. Moeen may have bowled 21 overs in the end, but this was only because the quick bowlers were spent. His second over came when Broad already had 16 overs under his belt and his 11th over was the 110th of the innings – even though he had 2-32 at that point.

If Alastair Cook doesn’t trust Moeen Ali’s bowling, either give him a spinner he does trust, or slap him across the chops and tell him to belt up.

Moeen Ali and Jimmy Anderson – kings in defeat

Jimmy the bat

The final pole was taken with just a cherry to spare. But just as a snatched draw wouldn’t have erased England’s shoddy cricket from the previous day, so falling short shouldn’t negate the efforts of Moeen Ali and Jimmy Anderson. Jimmy was basically in tears when Mike Atherton tried to interview him afterwards, but he can comfort himself with the fact that most of us will remember his efforts just as fondly as if he’d seen the job out. Sometimes it’s about how you lose.

Jimmy played 55 balls in making the best duck we’ve ever seen. Moeen Ali played 281 and hit a hundred in the process. As first Test hundreds go, it was just about as good as you get.

Moeen batted proactively to lubricate a partnership with Joe Root that would otherwise have seized up, he marshalled the tail and he did it all with such profound unarsedness that you can’t imagine he’s ever been nervous about a single thing in his entire life. To take England from where they were in the morning to within two balls of a draw was immense. If you were wondering how he might respond to pressure, this provided a pretty clear answer.

The finish

It’s hugely annoying when people describe cricket in football terms, but in this instance it’s instructive (and also pertinent being as the action played out concurrently with a deathly dull World Cup match).

In football terms, the situation was this. There were going to be 60 more shots on your team’s goal, they had an outfielder between the sticks and if they conceded even once, it was 10 days’ play and 10 days’ efforts flushed down the khazi.

That puts the tension in perspective. In short, it simply could not have come about in ‘the beautiful game’. You might get 10 minutes of tension in football. In cricket, you can get an hour or more. As the minutes tick by, it becomes more and more intense until you start wondering whether it’s even safe to watch; whether there might actually be a physical risk to subjecting yourself to this.

Your hopes could be dashed by any delivery and being as number 11 will always be at the crease in these situations, the fragility of it all is even more pronounced. There are no short cuts to these sorts of finishes and that is precisely why Test cricket can never die.

Angelo Mathews pulls off skin and something special

Just because it’s only a two-Test series, it doesn’t mean you’re playing Bangladesh. This Sri Lanka side is a good one. If anything, it’s their achievements that are being devalued by the quality of the opposition. But they can only beat what’s put in front of them.

In this Test, it’s Angelo Mathews’ hundred that most stands out. Even when you’re only up against an ever-changing cast of toothless fast-medium bowlers, batting with the tail is difficult. It’s an amorphous puzzle where your goal oscillates between singles and boundaries and the field waxes and wanes constantly.

Working out what to do is exhausting if you’re in this situation for even a handful of overs. Angelo Mathews took Sri Lanka from 277-7 to 437-9. If that’s not enough, consider that up until now, Sri Lanka’s tail has been pretty damn wafty and ineffectual.

It was a titanic achievement. Mathews got the better of England for so long and so profoundly that they were beaten in ways we couldn’t even see until they came out to bat. While he was at the crease, we thought he was merely skinning the home team alive. Not so. It turned out the skinning had been carried out one-handed. Out of sight, his other hand had been violently whisking inside English heads, whipping up a veritable brain meringue.

“Mmm, that looks delicious,” said his bowlers.

And verily, they tucked in.

One of our worst nightmares

Our worst nightmare was probably the one where we had toothache and when the tooth came out, it turned out to be a kind of keystone for our entire skull. With a groaning, creaking sound akin to falling timber, our entire head split in two – ONLY WE DIDN’T WAKE UP.

Instead, we wandered around like that, noggin cleft in twain. We would occasionally reach up and run our finger across the shards of fractured skull, nervous that we might inadvertently gouge part of our own brain.

Today’s play has been worse than that.

It’s been worse than that because it’s been real. Ever-changing faces bowling the same fast-medium to partnerships that just go on and on and on. We’ve been here before – a long, long time ago – and we hoped never to return. Can you have endless permutations of the same thing? That’s what it’s been. This is why you should always play a spinner.

You could argue that England are playing a spinner, but unless the captain agrees with you, it’s a moot point. Alastair Cook was the very last person at Headingley to feel like maybe it was worth giving Moeen Ali a bowl. Apparently, he had a better plan, which was to just keep on persevering with the same old thing in the hope that finally, one day, something might change.

The doughy tenacity of Gary Ballance and why he makes Test cricket feel more significant

We’re a day late with this really, but maybe it’s taken that long to fully sink in. Gary Ballance is our new favourite batsman.

We know Sam Robson scored a hundred, but we’ve not yet warmed to him in quite the same way. There were too many edges. Ballance, despite scoring fewer runs, seems infinitely more reassuring.

He just has a doughy tenacity about him and an expressionless way of going about things that makes you think he has absolutely no perspective in life; that everything’s about scoring runs. Clearly, that’s massively unhealthy and probably sets him up for a massive fall later in his career, but as a fan, sitting at home, willing your team to do well, it’s clearly a positive.

Cricketers have too much fun these days. If they’re not joking around in the field, grinning at each other, they’re laughing with their batting partner about the outrageous four they just hit. But Test cricket seems a serious business for Gary Ballance and that’s excellent to see, because Test cricket is a serious business. When everyone’s stony-faced and earnest, acting like it’s a life or death situation, watching at home, the game seems more important.

Yesterday, the ball found the edge but went wide of Gary Ballance. He made much the same face as he ever does, but his body language said: “That could have been a catch. That could have been a Test catch. Someone could have been out in Test match cricket.

Everything suddenly seems very, very important when Gary Ballance is involved. It’s the way Test cricket should be.

Liam Plunkett bowls some good fast-medium

Liam Plunkett inaction

There was a period, just after tea, when England started looking decidedly fast-medium. Fortunately for Alastair Cook, it was a day when persisting with right-arm fast-medium wasn’t actually the worst ploy imaginable and Kumar Sangakkara’s wicket precipitated a sudden flow of wickets that gushed so strongly that most people didn’t even notice Stuart Broad’s hat-trick.

The hat-trick was spread over two overs with a Liam Plunkett wicket tucked away inside it – but you should always notice three in three. A hat trick ball is one of the great panto moments in cricket and it only really works with the proper comedy build-up. Sadly, Broad’s third will look like just another wicket on the highlights.

Plunkett bowled well. It seems he had been given the famously unproductive ‘enforcer’ role at Lord’s simply because he is the fastest of the four right-arm fast-medium bowlers England have fielded in these two Tests. He probably would have bowled more like he did today if left to his own devices. This raises the possibility that England’s bowlers will all be striving to become second-fastest so that they get to bowl how they want to and aren’t just a forlorn stab at ‘variety’.

Defining the proactive batsman

It can be hard to read your own words. We don’t mean because of the quality of your handwriting (our penmanship has atrophied to the point that we’re reduced to using block capitals now). We mean that it’s impossible to read something you’ve written for meaning; to see the words with fresh eyes, without being aware of all the invisible thoughts that weren’t expressed.

This is why we have editors. They keep you honest. They point stuff out. This site doesn’t have an editor, of course. Instead, the role’s kind of fulfilled by those who leave comments. This is actually hugely useful in helping us clarify ideas which we may then use for pieces written as ‘work’, so thank you.

Lack of clarity

As a rule of thumb, if absolutely no-one know what the hell you’re going on about – that’s your fault, not theirs. Such was the case with our recent post about England’s reactive batting.

With hindsight, we made two major mistakes in that article. We described Gary Ballance as being “pretty meat-and-potatoes, three-an-over” and we also referred to Kevin Pietersen. Combined, these probably gave the impression that we wanted some reverse-sweeping six-hitter in the middle order, but that isn’t really the case.

Reacting to restrictive bowling

The thing we’re concerned about with England’s current batting line-up is that almost all of them are predisposed to playing the ball on its merits. This is almost universally regarded to be ‘a good thing’ when it comes to Test batsmanship, but it also results in passive, reactive batting.

This is okay, up to a point, but if the opposition adopt a restrictive bowling approach, it can lead to the kind of stagnation we frequently saw over the winter. Every ball is played on its merits and every ball merits either a leave or an honest, respectful defensive stroke.

Memories of the winter revolve around Mitchell Johnson’s assaults, but that’s largely because Mitch is a lot more fun to talk and write about. The rest of the time, Peter Siddle, Ryan Harris, Shane Watson and Nathan Lyon all adopted an essentially restrictive approach. It takes a very good attack to deliver such a thing properly, but when achieved, it ties a passive, reactive batsman down and, being as he is reactive, he will remain tied down until the bowlers change tack. If few runs are being scored, this might never happen.

Taking the initiative

This stagnation doesn’t happen against all sides, because more often than not, the opposition can’t rely on every single one of its bowlers – there’s usually a weak link. In such times, you can field 11 passive batsmen and still make a score. However, against better bowling attacks or against mediocre attacks on good days, every partnership can seem like a dead end.

The problem is that the only kind of counterattacking people seem to understand these days is the kind that involves huge swings of the bat. Against tight bowling, that’s a terrible approach. The runs are drying up precisely because these sorts of shots are high risk. What you need is a batsman who can find a way of scoring that is unlikely to result in the loss of their wicket. It still involves playing the ball on its merits, but with just a little bit less respect.

Some examples

Sticking with the Ashes, Brad Haddin tends to play proactively when wickets had fallen. However, Haddin’s approach is far more weighted towards chancing his arm for a period before settling down once the field is spread.

Ordinarily, his English counterpart, Matt Prior, is a proactive batsman. However, his approach is perhaps better suited to upping the run-rate, turning ones into twos and so forth.

Paul Collingwood fits the bill to some extent. He would often continue scoring singles even when supposedly better batsmen were struggling to get the ball off the square. However, he also become synonymous with the non-scoring rearguard for many people and so isn’t perhaps the best example.

The best example

That’s when we thought of Graham Thorpe. To us, he epitomised the proactive batsman. Crucially, he was not a slogger, so there can be no misconceptions that we mean ‘counterattacking’ in the narrow, modern sense.

Instead, when a partnership showed signs of stagnating, Thorpe would look to take the initiative using one of the approaches outlined above. He would seek out scoring areas, he would run hard and, if he thought it made sense, he could also spread the field with some big hits. The bowlers would be forced to change their approach and the partnership between Thorpe and his more passive partner would emerge from the cul-de-sac unscathed.

When we criticise England’s current batting line-up, these are the qualities we feel it is lacking. It’s not a weakness that will always be apparent (and perhaps one of the players will yet show that they have it in them to play proactively). However, when these shortcomings do become apparent, you can bank on a collapse.

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