Monday, 7 February 2011

A silver seam to the English ODI cloud?

A few days ago I had every intention of writing an upbeat blog about the irrelevance of the current ODI series looking ahead to the upcoming ICC Cricket World Cup. Fortunately I was away for the weekend and thus had the chance to consider this ill-fated series' final match before expressing an opinion.

Why should one last failure make such a difference? Perhaps it doesn't, but somehow the last vain shred of optimism that I was clinging to for the showpiece of the one-day game disintegrated inside the first 2 duck-filled overs of England's innings.

A cursory glanced over the statistics does not exactly inspire one to find the nearest bookies and place a wager on our Ashes-winning heroes. Here are a few particular highlights:

1) Most runs - 4 of top 5 were Aussies (Trott our lone stalwart)
2) Most wickets - all of top 4 were Aussies
3) Batsmen with strike rate of 95+ :
- England: 2 Davies (102), Finn (130)
- Australia: 7 (Watson (102), Johnson (96), M Hussey (140), Lee (103), Bollinger (106), Voges (111), Krejza (150)

But anyone who has followed the series at all will surely have heard that after the 06/07 Ashes debacle, we actually won the ODI series (despite Aus winning more games than us). That time round there was a triangular series with New Zealand, we scraped through the "group stage" to have a best of 3 final with Aus, and promptly beat them 2-0. 

Aus then lost Chappell-Hadlee trophy to New Zealand. (Ian) Bell-ringingly, the Aussies' batting and bowling never 
performed on the same day (the exact problem with England currently). In the 1st match they were bowled out for 148, in the second match they posted 336 but NZ chased it down and in the final match they racked up a huge 346 only to again fail to defend it (these two NZ victories are the 3rd and 2nd biggest ODI run chases in history respectively- incidentally 4 of the top 5 chases are Aus failing to defend big totals)

So Aussie form going into the WC was relatively poor, especially for such a golden generation of players. How did this affect their performance? Well here is a summary of their 11 matches:

Won by 203 runs
Won by 229 runs
Won by 83 runs
Won by 103 runs
Won by 10 wickets
Won by 7 wickets
Won by 9 wickets
Won by 7 wickets
Won by 215 runs
Won by 7 wickets
Won by 53 runs (in a shortened match)

On an individual basis, they had 2 of top 3 in both bowling and batting (McGrath/Tait (26/23 wickets) / (Hayden/Ponting 659/539 runs). Additionally Matthew Hayden scored more than twice as many 6's as anyone else (29 - Gibbs was next closest on 14)

It was an utterly devastating and dominant performance, crushing every opponent they faced, including South Africa and Sri Lanka twice each. It was seemingly such a pinnacle of Australian cricketing dominance that the Australian Cricket team Wikipedia article is mysteriously lacking in any detail of any match since. Perhaps even more curious is the almost complete absence of any mention of a particular recent Ashes series, in either the main article or one of the links it provides. Remarkable.

Australia are currently undefeated in 29 consecutive WC matches - and I think it's unlikely their 1st match this time round, against Zimbabwe, will break that (Heath) Streak

But who knows, maybe our beloved captain Strauss is right and there is hope after all. Group B opponents, you have been (Shane) Warned. 

I remain unconvinced...

PS - I hope you enjoyed the introduction of the odd pun, so long as I keep it down to an average of only 3 puns an over, I could probably open the bowling for England

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Murray, we will see you again, but not yet, not yet

Congratulations to Novak Djokovic for a thoroughly convincing and deserved Australian Open victory.

He has been highly impressive throughout, dropping just a single set on the way (a tie-break to Ivan Dodig in the 2nd round) - overcoming some extremely good opponents along the way. Indeed it seems, as previously discussed, that a tougher route through is no disadvantage to an eventual finalist.

So what of Murray? There is no question that he is better than Henman ever was but is getting to 3 GS finals and never winning really preferable to getting to 6 GS semis and never further? Of course it's better but I doubt getting one round further but still falling short is exactly the improvement British tennis is looking for. Henman gets a lot of bad press but I believe he achieved appropriately for the level of ability he had - he maybe should have won a GS (particularly thinking of Wimbledon '01) but in 5 of his 6 semi-finals he lost to the eventual winner, and not a bad list of names (Wim '98 Sampras, Wim '99 Sampras, Wim '01 Ivanisevic, Wim '02 Hewitt, US '04 Federer).

Murray on the other hand, clearly has the ability, fitness and desire to win a major tournament. His record of 6-1 in Masters 1000 series finals says that he knows how to win a final. And the 3 GS finals he's lost have been against awesome opposition in Federer (x2) and Djokovic, not that that's an excuse - you can't hope to win a major tournament without beating the best.

That is what sets Grand Slams apart. The added pressure, expectation, tension - the tennis is only a part of what it takes to win. It'll only get worse for Murray the longer it goes on.

He committed 47 unforced errors (UFE), bringing his total for the tournament to 204. A massive 110 (53.9%) of these were in his last two matches - if this doesn't suggest someone tightening up and making mistakes as a result, I don't know what would.
Compare to Djokovic, 181 UFE for the tournament, 68 of which came against Federer and Murray, only 37.6%. In other words his UFE count was hardly up at all compared to his earlier matches (30% of the sets he played were in the last two matches, so 37.6% is only a marginal increase).

Djokovic of course has already won the big things - a Grand Slam (Aus '08), the Davis Cup ('10), the World Tour Finals ('08) - so that pressure is eased and there is a confidence, a knowledge that he can do it. All he had to focus on was his extremely high standard of tennis.

A lot of the BBC commentary following the match discussed Murray's need for a coach or someone in his team who could help him with this mental side of the game. They may have a point. He's certainly no choker but let's face it, he hasn't even been competitive in any of the 3 finals he's lost and that's not just a question of ability. He beats these guys regularly - perhaps he loses sight of that when it comes to the crunch.
I'm sure there'll be plenty more Slams for us to see what he's done about it...