Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The first test passed

A thumpingly convincing start to the series for England can only give us confidence going into Friday's second test. The fact that we've only been bowled out once in the last 4 test matches really has to be looked at positively.

Of course, India struggled with fitness/injury issues but I've said before, fitness is part of greatness - it's not unlucky that Zaheer pulls a hamstring if he's hardly played for 6 months and India haven't had a proper and thorough preparation. It amazes me that in an era with such detailed expertise on sports psychology, nutrition and preparation, cricketing schedules still seem to be put together poorly so frequently. Take England's post-Ashes timetable for a prime example. 

A comparison of the two teams shows how similar they are and yet how England were simply the superior team at Lord's:

Strauss - Mukund: Two left-handed openers, Strauss scored 54 runs, Mukund 62. Pretty similar games I'd say. 4/10 for them both
Cook - Gambhir: Two more lefty openers. Both absolute test match run machines who performed poorly at Lord's. Cook scored 13 off 63 balls - he only gets 2/10. Gambhir, with an injury in the second innings did OK, with 37 in total. He gets 3/10
Trott - Dravid: The parallels between these two hard grafting, battling number 3's are obvious. Awesome test match averages and an ability to hang in there matched in modern cricket only really by Chanderpaul. Trott put in 70 and 22, while Dravid was 103* in the first innings and a nagging 36 in the second. They score 7/10 and 9/10 respectively. 
Pietersen - Tendulkar: Two explosive, devastating and incredibly skilled batters. Two greats of the game - one has a long way to go to prove his true greatness, but took a massive step here. One has no critics to answer but bluntly put, performed poorly in this match. Sachin is of course the legend but in this contest, it was Pietersen who was the match-winner. KP 10/10, ST 4/10
Bell - Laxman: Another pair of remarkably similar batsmen, with beautiful stroke-making and a stylish and crowd-pleasing technique. Yet both are prone to a lapse in concentration and such was the case at Lord's. VVS threw away a strong start in the second innings with a lazy swipe, fitting that it was his opposite number who nonchalantly plucked it out of the air. Bell 4/10, Laxman 5/10
Morgan - Raina: Two lefties who have made their name in limited overs cricket and have serious potential in the test arena. Raina showed good form in the second innings (and particularly benefited from India vetoing DRS on LBW decisions). Eoin played an important role in stopping the second innings rot but contributed only 19 runs so scores just 2/10. Suresh gave India hope for a while but his 78 proved to be in vain but for scoring him 6/10 with me.
Prior - Dhoni: Another easy comparison, two aggressive wicketkeeper batsmen. Only this time out, it was only Matt Prior who dominated with the bat, as well as being the better keeper. 178 runs, including an unbeaten century in extremely difficult circumstances, compared to a mere 44 from MS means the Sussex gloveman scores 10/10 and the Indian captain takes home just 3/10 alongside his excuses.
Swann - Harbhajan: two top-class off-spinners who can bat aggressively. Swann did a great job, adding 24 quick runs in his only innings, Habhajan looked thoroughly uncomfortable with the bat and scored just 12 across his two innings. With the ball, Swann returned only 114/2 but his Indian equivalent took just 208/1, at nearly 2 runs per over more as well. No question who wins this match-up. The best spinner in the world 6/10. The Turbanator just 1/10.
Broad - Zaheer: I know I've played about with the order but these two top class bowlers came into the game with question marks over their heads. One off form and the other unfit. Broad returned to form, Zaheer most definitely did not return to fitness. Even if ZK makes it to Edgbaston officially not injured, he is certainly not going to be at the height of fitness. Broad played exceptionally, with bat and ball, so scores 9/10 while Zaheer's brief bowling spell in the first innings earns him a 4/10. May seem harsh but there's no prizes for  bowling a couple of early strikes before leaving the alley.

Tremlett - Sharma: Two tall bouncy pace bowlers that had mixed games. Tremlett was somewhat overshadowed by his colleagues' feats but 124/4 isn't exactly a poor performance. Especially not when you see that Ishant took 187/4 - one good spell can win you a match but apparently not this time. Tremmers 7/10, Ishant 6/10
Anderson - Kumar: The two swing bowlers (I know, I've really played with the order but it's their bowling that matters). Both found their names engraved on the Lord's Honours Board for 5 wicket hauls - Over the two innings, Kumar took 176/6 but the new world number 2 bowler came home with figures of 152/7 and a truly match-winning display on day 5, taking the not insignificant scalps of Dravid, Laxman, Tendulkar and Raina (total test match average if you're wondering, 194). Jimmy scores 9/10, with Praveen a very decent 8/10. 

I'm sure the Will Huntings among you have worked it out already but this leaves the total scores, out of 110 of course as follows:

England = 70
India = 53

There's been a lot of talk about India being slow starters, and I know well enough how England can collapse after an early good performance (see Perth 2010 vs Aus, Headlingley 2009 vs Aus, The Oval 2010 vs Pakistan), but there's every reason to be confident. If the batting can keep up its recent consistency, I can only see one winner. England by 100-150 runs or by 5-7 wickets

Monday, 18 July 2011

The (multi)national pastime of choking

I am an avid English sports follower, in all three of the following senses:
a) a follower of English sports
b) an English follower of sports, and perhaps most pertinently, 
c) an English follower of English sports

So, when, in my imperial arrogance, I assume that we should be capable of winning every sporting event we enter and am subsequently let down but abject unlucky failure, I can't help but wonder why.

Links golf proving tough for Donald
I was most recently prompted to think about it by the entertaining British Open Championships. Well done Darren by the way. If we glance at the current world rankings, one can't help but notice positions 1 and 2 being held by Englishmen. Yet neither Westwood nor Donald seems able to perform much better in Majors than their slightly less orthodox namesakes may have been able to.

Westwood hits the decks
The last time an Englishman won a Major was Nick Faldo at the 1996 Masters so perhaps we're just chokers - even when we're the best in the world we can't win the biggest tournaments. When was the last time an English football team won a seriously tough match at a major tournament? You could say , Argentina 2002 with Beckham's so called redemptive penalty but that's a Tina that went out in the groups after failing to beat Sweden, certainly not Germany during Euro 2000 as they were eliminated with just a single point (against Romania) - so how far back do we need to go? Spain on penalties in Euro 1996, maybe the Dutch 4-1 during the group stages? Italia '90 it must be, we got to the Semi's, but played Cameroon (aet) and Belgium (aet) in the knockout stages. I am going to suggest the following:

England have not won a genuinely difficult and significant match in a major tournament since the World Cup Final of 1966.

As true as I believe that statement to be, it wasn't really the purpose of this blog. Rather than the typical English-sport-slating of every journalistic outlet in our green country (I mean literally, lots of grass & fields, not inexperienced, or jealous, or even environmentally friendly), I am going to suggest that a mental frailty or predisposition towards choking under pressure is no more of an English trait than football or tea are originally English inventions.

Who did Faldo beat in the '96 Masters? Greg 'The Shark' Norman - an Aussie. Famous for their determination to win, competitive mentality and strength of self-belief. Yet, leading by 6 shots going into the last round, he managed to play one of the worst final rounds seen until Rory's own version earlier this year. How could an Aussie choke like that?

In cricket, South Africa have consistently one of the strongest ODI teams, combining aggressive but reliable batters with economical but wicket-taking bowlers. They always have good numbers of all-rounders and are always among pre-tournament favourites. Yet they are always labelled chokers and always live up to their label as the tournament unfolds.

What about New Zealand? The All Blacks strike fear into the hearts of their opponents, and not just because of the Haka or Jonah Lomu - they are the strongest, fastest, most powerful and technically gifted rugby union team in the world and have been ranked No 1 in the world for nearly 3/4 of the entire time the rankings have existed. Yet every four years they somehow conspire to fail to win the tournament. We can only dream that this autumn will be the same old story.

USA's women were overwhelming favourites to win the World Cup a record 3rd time, but twice threw away the lead before producing 3 awful penalties to hand the tournament to Japan. Apparently "choke" is the wrong word so perhaps we'll just say that they bottled it.

Asafa Powell, one of the fastest men in history, regularly putting in incredible times, doesn't produce the goods when he's up against Tyson Gay or Usain Bolt - is he choking under the pressure of the big occasion? There innumerable occasions when other individuals or teams have collapsed at crucial moments. And, until only recently, the Spanish national team were routinely ridiculed for underperforming at major tournaments.

So my list of choking nationalities thus far includes the following: England, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, USA, Jamaica and Spain. This blog is already too long so I won't go on but I think we can safely say, it's not just an English thing. Is it about a bloody-minded, winning drive? Let me ask you... is that what this picture says to you?

Perhaps I'm sporting romantic (that's not a romantic person who's sporty by the way) but I reckon that in the end, talent will win. Spain are easily the best team and now they win everything. Rory choked massively at the Masters but proceeded to dominate the USPGA like no-one since Tiger had done. I'm no sports psychologist but it seems to me that if you are capable of winning, you most likely will.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Crossing the Gulf of Mannar

Not always convincing and certainly not always consistent but an unquestionably successful series against Sri Lanka, in both test and ODI formats. 

A shame that the test matches were so disrupted by rain because the utter dominance of England's batting could have easily forced a whitewash rather than the washout it turned into. Only the amazing collapse of the Sri Lankans gave England a victory at all, despite only being bowled out once in their 4 innings. We scored 496/5d, 486, 335/7d and 377/8d - an average of about 55 runs per wicket. You're not likely to lose a test series doing that. If Bell can keep up his series average of 331 (he was not out 3/4 times), we should be well set. A more telling average is that of Alastair 'Bradman' Cook, who added to his 127.66 average in the Ashes with a somewhat mediocre 97.50 here. If his form keeps tumbling like this I expect he'll be dropped and we can maybe get Ravi opening the batting?

At least the series had various other incidents to keep us interested, Sangakkara's rant/speech (delete as appropriate) about corruption in Sri Lankan cricket and its higher powers; Matt Prior breaking a window at the home of cricket with his bat, oh wait no his gloves, no, his gloves ricocheting into his bat, no I've got it now, he "rested his bat against the wall and it bounced off his other bat and into the window"; and even Aggers attempting to rival the famous "the bowler's Holding the batsman's Willey" with a discussion of the challenges of putting a rubber on.

If we just pretend that the Twenty20 match didn't happen, which I think would be for the best, we then had a fascinating ODI series. Two talented but extremely inconsistent teams made for a real see-saw series. Four crushing victories (two apiece) led to a grand finale at Old Trafford a lot more thrilling than the Champions League final at its namesake. It was positive to see that in a game that ebbed and flowed, England held their nerve to get the result. Defeating the World Cup finalists on a flat, spinner-friendly pitch is not to be taken lightly and should give us a lot of confidence for the rest of the summer.

And so with Sri Lanka finished off and sent packing to the Gaelic countries, we turn our attention across the Gulf of Mannar to another level of challenge. India arrive on our shores for 4 tests and 5 ODI (as well as a twenty20 and a bunch of tour games) looking to inflict on England their first defeat in 9 test series. Then again, the last time we beat India in a test series was in 1996 with Hussain and Atherton in the runs. More than half of their second innings runs came from one man, a little master if you will. At least 15 years later, there's no way he can still be playing to torment us, and I'm sure he'll be pretty rubbish by now even if he is still giving it a go. 

Although there are lots of things to work on, England can definitely be competitive against the ODI World Champions and top ranked test team, India. Cook and Kieswetter are showing very positive signs at the top of the order in one days, we have an extremely strong test middle order with KP, Bell, Morgan and Prior, Graeme Swann has just overtaken Vettori to become the official best one day bowler in the world and there is stronger competition to bowl alongside Anderson than ever, with Broad, Bresnan, Finn, Dernbach and Tremlett all trying to prove themselves. 

I reckon Strauss ought to look ahead with confidence. If he can show some form himself then this could be a massive chance to demonstrate to the world that the Ashes was no flash in the pan and that we're serious about being the best in the world. 

Early prediction, with lots of variables yet to be seen, 2-1 England.