Category Archives: Features

Investment in Moeen shows way forward for top-order conundrum

The trust and persistence placed in Moeen Ali is how England should approach their top-order conundrum.

After a decade of success, English cricket demands instantaneous results, but this approach has cut off the side’s nose to spite their face.

Selection policy has become impatient and short sighted when it comes to the top order.

Alastair Cook has gone through 11 opening partners since the retirement of Andrew Strauss in 2012, now compounded by more gaps at numbers three and five.

Yet in the midst of chaos, Moeen Ali has emerged as a reliable and increasingly threatening allrounder.

But, it’s easy to reflect on his 25 wickets and over 252 runs against South Africa with rose tinted glasses.

It hasn’t always been plain sailing. Moeen Ali has batted in every position from one to nine, only scored one century in his first 20 Tests, and was averaging more than 50 in 2016.

England stuck with him, because they believed in him. They wanted Moeen because of the potential he offered. Perhaps the biggest seal of approval, was the bringing in Saqlain Mushtaq to assist him. Moeen has now said he wants him there permanently.

Ali has been an investment for England. His form has been changeable, but the concept is right.

The question, is why have England openers not been invested in? They have been tried and trashed. Quickly.

It ultimately lies in trust.

England have picked openers because of county form, with the hope they’d continue that. But they couldn’t, or at least not instantaneously.

But, It takes time to adapt. Keaton Jennings, like Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook scored a century on debut, and now he looks frail. But, no more frail than how Moeen himself looked in the first two years of his career – when he showed inconsistency.

They kept him and trusted him to recover. The investment was seen as worthwhile.

Jennings, and the hoard of other openers, haven’t been trusted to be able to adapt.

Within five or six Tests of his debut hundred, there are calls to drop Jennings and replace him with with yet another cab-off-the-rank from county cricket, with no-doubt, an impressive domestic record.

Why pick them in the first place if they aren’t going to be trusted?

England set a precedent in May 2013 when they dropped Nick Compton for the first time, and they’ve been doubling down ever since. They’ve been too afraid to change course.

Nick Compton had success opening for England. He scored two centuries in New Zealand, and had a good partnership with Alastair Cook. He was experienced, and in form. He needed to work on his game, but who doesn’t?

Dropping him set the ball rolling for England’s opening policy.

Openers are disposable, not investments.

Until a new Andrew Strauss comes along, domestic performers can be used once and thrown away.

This is a ruinous policy. England need an opener. They need one that will work in the long run. They may struggle at first, but Moeen Ali’s progress shows what can be done with hard work.

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Stop the separation of sixes

If Test cricket wants to survive it must claw back its name as a diverse format in which hitting sixes is a vital part of its fabric.

Test cricket has an image problem. It’s image is one of competition with T20, the infant of cricket that’s taking the world by storm.

T20 has successfully branded itself as the home of sixes.

Fans want to see big hits and crashing fours, and will pay big money for it.

This makes the format lucrative, especially as the games are so short. You can come after work to indulge in a short sharp burst of power hitting.

The association has become so strong, that when someone like Ben Stokes smashes a hundred, such as his 258 off 198 balls in South Africa, the murmurings on social media was about the influence of T20 on Tests. And I’ve heard it before when David Warner has batted like that, or when Chris Gayle or Ab de Villiers have.

Instead of it being seen as a rapid Test innings, some were saying it was fundamentally a T20 knock.

They’re wrong. Hitting sixes is as much a part of Test cricket as blocking and leaving is.

Some of the greatest opening partnerships ever have been a mixture of aggression and caution; such as Strauss and Trescothick, Gibbs and Smith, Langer and Hayden, Greenidge and Haynes.

Time is rarely a constraint in Test cricket, so the need to bat aggressively is for a purpose.

Either to accelerate an innings, capitalise on poor bowling, or simply put pressure on.

For that reason, Test cricket has always had a place for aggression, as part of a strategy, not as a prime way of scoring.

It’s part of the fabric of the game, and it give Tests the subtlety that T20 can lack.

The problem, is if aggression and caution separates exclusively in to the T20 and Test forms.

Test cricket must fight ensure it has a space for big hitting. Or at least, that it’s perceived to still have that space.

Especially with the rise of year-round franchise cricket, T20 is shepherded onto younger fans as having to ‘compete’ with Tests. The likes of Ab de Villiers and Aaron Finch are unwilling to dip their toe in the pond of Test cricket, and others like Alex Hales are ignored.

This separation is being formalised by cricket boards and players, and it ultimately it leads to the horrible question nobody wants to ask:

What would happen if a Kevin Pietersen or Chris Gayle.. or Viv Richards, turned up right now?

Would they really, honestly, want to play Test cricket over IPL and Big Bash? It would certainly be a dangling carrot.

If Test cricket starts to lose its aggressive stars, it will lose its subtlety.

It will become one dimensional and boring. If aggression and caution is allowed to separate out into T20 and Test, then cricket’s oldest format will quickly die out.

Post edited and re-published from Jan 4, 2016

Younis Khan: The most underrated great

Younis Khan’s retirement will see one of the last true greats of the last 20-years leave the game, and perhaps the most undervalued and underrated.

Pakistan’s leading Test run-scorer is rarely mentioned in the company of other legends, unfairly.

He’s not got the flair of Brian Lara, so he doesn’t get bums on seats.

He doesn’t have the signature shots of Ricky Ponting, that make you watch hours of footage.

Nor does he have the technique of Rahul Dravid, that coaches study to pass on to the next generation.

Younis is scrappy, hap-hazard, and unorthodox. But what got him through so many innings has been his mind.

His feet might not have been moving.

Maybe he played a missed a few times.

Maybe he nearly ran three of his partners out in a twenty minute period.

It didn’t matter. Push through, and if there’s a landmark to reach, it’s all the more frustrating for a fielding side when he gets there, having given chances.

In some respects, Younis’s game-plan was to lure oppositions into a false sense of security.

He made them think that they could get him out because of the holes in his technique.

It was a clever ploy, and allowed him to be the perfect decoy to other Pakistani greats who were more flamboyant, or perhaps technically sound.

At one end, you had Younis jumping around and flapping outside off stump, and the other end, such greats like Mohammed Yousuf, caressing the ball effortlessly, or Inzamam Ul Haq, and in more recent times, Misbah, crashing the ball to the boundary.

He is the scrappy supplement to aesthetically pleasing batting, but this isn’t meant to be patronising. Nor, is it meant to imply he only had success because of others.

Ahead of the West Indies series, he averages 53 in over 115 Tests, which is phenomenal. Indeed it’s ’s a higher average than Inzamam (50) and Yousuf (52).

Currently, he stands on 9977 Test runs, which means bar a rotten series’, he should become the first Pakistani to reach the historic 10,000 mark.

Younis will also go down as having an exceptional conversion rate and therefore reliability. He scored 34 centuries and 32 fifties. Not many batsmen retire with more hundreds than fifties. Sachin had 51 tons to 68 fifties, Kallis 45 to 58, 41 to 62, and so on. But not only that, on 19 occasions his tons have been in a wining cause.

He scores important runs, and no more so was this apparent in the U.A.E, away from home. In 27 Tests in the U.A.E. Younis cracked 11 centuries and seven fifties.

Oh, and he scored a ton in 11 countries, which is an incredible feat.

All-in-all, Pakistan are going to lose a character.

They are going to lose their leading run scorer, possibly their best ever and most reliable performer.

He, alongside Misbah, will leave a gaping hole in the side, and for international cricket, one of the last true modern greats of a generation will depart.

Cook’s inflated greatness

Alastair Cook is the first English batsman to break into an elite of modern-great players, but his career has been inflated by how much England play.

Without a doubt, England’s captain is one of, if not them greatest English batsmen.

He will no doubt be one of the best Test batsman ever too, by the end of his career.

But, he has had a big advantage, in that he plays more than double the amount of cricket as some of his closest contemporaries.

Of the top 20 batsmen on the ‘most Test runs list’ of all time, only Allan Border, Graham Gooch and Javed Minded retired before the year 2000.

The record books have been redefined in the last 15-20 years, and England missed the boat, with England’s captain one of only two Englishmen in the top 25 top run-scorers ever.

The main reason Cook is viewed with such admiration in world cricket, is not because of his swashbuckling style or awe-inspiring power; but because he’s the first.

He has been playing in the golden age of batting, in the shadows of legends such as Brian Lara, Ricky Ponting, Sachin Tendulkar and Jacques Kallis.

His breakthrough into the top 10 is historic, and is on top of an array of other impressive records he has been piling up.

But he isn’t in the same category of greatness as Lara, Tendulkar or Kallis.

Cook is a grinder, not a genius.

Bowlers don’t fear him.

Out of the top 15 Test run scorers in history, Cook plays the most Tests per year, on average, his is a major advantage when it comes to accumulating runs:

  • Sachin Tendulkar played 200 played Tests between 1989-2013 = 8.3 Tests per year 
  • Ricky Ponting played 168 Tests between 1995 – 2012 = 9.8 Tests per year 
  • Jacques Kallis played 166 Tests between 1996 – 2013 – = 9.8 Tests per year 
  • Rahul Dravid played 164 Tests between 1996  -2012 = 10.25 Tests per year 
  • Kumar Sangakkara played 134 Tests between 2000 – 2015  = 8.9 Tests per year 
  • Brian Lara – 131 played Tests between 1990- 2006 = 8.18 Tests per year 
  • Shiv Chanderpaul played 164 Tests between 1994 – 2015 = 7.8 Tests per year  
  • Mahela Jayawardene played 149 Tests between 1997 – 2014 = 8.7 Tests per year  
  • Allan Border played 156 played 1979 Tests between 1994 = 10.4 Tests per yea  
  • Steve Waugh played 168 Tests between 1985 – 2004 = 8.84
  • Sunil Gavaskar played 125 – Tests between 1971-1987 = 7.8 Tests per year 
  • Younis Khan played 118 Tests between 2000-2017 = 6.9 Tests per year 
  • Graeme Smith played 117 Tests between 2002-2014  = 9.75 Tests per year
  • Graham Gooch – played 118 Tests between 1975-1995 = 5.9 Tests per year 

Alastair Cook played* 144 Tests between 2006-2017 = 140 Tests  in 11 years = 13 Tests per year.

A mind-boggling amount of cricket.

His 31 Test tons and 55 Test fifties are invaluable to England over the last decade, and makes Cook is a great player, of that there is no question.

But he has had, in some cases, double the amount of playing time as others in the same bracket.

If any other batsman on this distinguished list, with a bigger average (all of them) or a more dominating batting style (all of them), had the opportunity to play 13-14 Tests a year, they’d get a lot more runs.

Not for one moment would I challenge Cook’s right to be in the upper-echelons of cricketing greatness.

But if he ends up at the top of the pile at the end of his career, ahead of Sachin and Ponting and Kallis, it doesn’t make him the greatest.

When looking at ‘the best’, it’s not just about numbers. It’s about how. It’s about the rate at which greats accumulated their greatness.

A legacy over a goodbye

Every fan is invested in the career of their favourite players, and I’d rather remember a great legacy like that of Kumar Sangakkara than a grand goodbye like Sachin’s.

I loved watching Brian Lara.

I was upset when Lara retired, not just because he would be no more, but because I felt he went prematurely. He retired in 2006/7, when he was 36, but when I was just 13.

This feeling of being robbed of some sumptuous Lara runs was compounded when contemporaries like Ricky Ponting, Rahul Dravid, Shiv Chanderpaul and others, continued right until they were 40.

The question of when to go is really a dilemma that bugs fans as well as players.

On the one hand, you want to see your favourite players play on and on, but on the other hand, everyone forges a legacy, that must end at some point.

I remember Lara walking off in his final innings, thinking that he could have carried on, but in recent years, I’ve had to change my view.

His abrupt ending was not right, but at the same time, Sachin Tendulkar’s legacy was arguably tarnished by his decision to play on too long.

He played on until 2013, when he was 40. But he had scored just over 500 runs in his last 15 Tests. He was playing for numbers and records, chasing a nice figures, like getting to 200 Tests, 100 international hundreds, and 15,000 runs.

Like the three bears, if Sachin played too long, Lara was cut off prematurely, one batsman got it just right, and is perhaps the model for future great retirees.

Despite being fifth on the all-time Test run scoring list, Kumar Sangakkara is so often overlooked as a true ‘great’.

But, perhaps one hallmark of greatness, is knowing when to quit.

His exit was slow, starting with International retirement in 2015, done at a time when he could have continued. He scored 1,400runs in 2014, averaging over 70. He left us wanting more.

Despite no more international ambition, unlike Sachin and Brian Lara, after retiring Kumar Sangakkara climbed down to domestic cricket. He scored a thousand First Class runs for Surrey, averaged in the mid-forties in List A cricket, and got through 46 T20s in 2016.

He recognised that retirement is a process that requires the sequential relinquishing of responsibilities.

This week, in an interview with Island Cricket, the Sri Lankan Legend shows no regrets. Speaking about his retirement, he said: “..my mind was made up at that time and I was not going to think of reasons that were quite selfish [to continue].

“..in my view, when you know it is time to go, no matter what is in front of you, you have to make a decision and stick to it..”

He fulfilled his desire to carry on in some capacity, whilst not jeopardising the legacy he’d built up.

Sadly, he has got to the bottom rung of the ladder.

He has just been dropped by his Big Bash League side, the Hobart Hurricanes after scoring just 173 runs at 14.41 without a fifty.

Damian Wright, the coach spoke about dropping Sangakkara, saying it “was comfortably the hardest thing I’ve had to do… because of the quality person that he is”. He says: “You could feel he probably knew it was coming. He was pretty apologetic that he hasn’t gone as well he would have liked it.’”

Retirement might be hard, but remembering a batsman’s retirement is the biggest curse a player can have.

I’ll remember Sachin walking down the steps for the last time, and I’ll remember Lara walking off for the last time. I can’t remember Sanga’s last Test.

He showed no regrets about retirement or bitterness from his decline. He showed no greed to carry on for Sri Lanka, but a hunger to continue in another capacity.

Not being able to remember Sangakkara’s finale is the biggest complement one can pay him.

ON THIS DAY: Gooch’s 333

On this day in 1990, England’s Graham Gooch joined the 300 club versus India at Lord’s. 

England’s opening batsman and captain struck 333 of 628, in the first innings of the first Test of the series’. This included 43 fours and three sixes.

He still had plenty in the tank however, smashing a second innings hundred too, with 123 off 150 balls. In total his 456 runs in the match helped England to a 247 run victory. 

This remains a Test record for the most Test runs in a single match

Screenshot 2015-07-25 11.15.18