Quadruple detention

So, he CAN write...

So, he can write…

Seen through the lens of a partially interested observer, the suspensions meted out to four Australian cricketers for not completing their “homework” initially felt like a huge overreaction. An arbitrary deadline for delivering a written or verbal assessment on how to recover from the first half of what is shaping out to be the most humiliating tour in Australian sporting history was missed by the vice-captain, leading fast bowler, maverick match-winner and great future batting hope (and multicultural icon); now they’re sat on the sidelines, unable to contribute to what looms as the biggest test for the team for a generation.

But that’s the point.

What were the players thinking if they felt like they could take a ride on this? What does that say about a team that is already hugely reliant upon the exploits of its star batsman and captain? They are professionals in the spotlight performing for their country and the sport which has provided them with a very healthy living.

The proliferation of coaches and other support staff in cricket has been a marked feature of the past 20 years. It’s of no coincidence that the opprobrium over the stance taken by Mickey Arthur and Michael Clarke is most vocal from ex-players from the early 1990s. To them, it’s another example of coaches overcomplicating issues which would, in the past, have been settled (one way or another) in the bar. Players of today are labelled as robots as they’re expected to follow the strict plans devised by staff eager to justify their pay packets. Autonomy, individuality, resilience and innovation are supposedly sacrificed.

Actually, in this instance at least, the coaching staff were giving the players their head. They were given responsibility to pitch in ideas on how to improve; an opportunity to take responsibility has been scorned and it speaks to a deeper sense of drift in this Australian team. For sure this isn’t an isolated incident.

The focus for both Australia and England in the past few months has been too heavily slanted towards the impending 10 Ashes Tests. Perhaps performances on both sides have suffered. Of more importance, I think, is the much longer back story of Australian cricket.

The era of world domination is far behind them. Australian cricket is struggling to adjust to a period – who knows for how long – of middle-ranking stagnation. The Argus report pointed to the thinning of the grassroots and hollowing out of structures to support the game. To recover will take time and no longer can they hope for epoch-defining cricketers like Warne, McGrath, Ponting and Gilchrist to emerge at once. At the moment they’re lucky to have Clarke and he’s fighting a very lonely battle.

The culture in the team has been identified as lax; too comfortable due to the fame and fortune established players without pressure on their places can command. The world dominating team in the late 90s and early 2000s was almost more notable for the players unable to regularly force their way in – Darren Lehmann, Stuart Law, Stuart MacGill, Brad Hodge, etc – than for those making the headlines in the baggy green. Today, average players in Shield cricket are failing to push underperforming ones in the Test side.

This issue will sure as hell jolt the players. It may even be a turning point; forcing them to understand that they reap what they sow. It must also act as a time which helps the public recalibrate their expectations for the team. The period of domination is over and it can be hard to adjust. Just ask England football fans before a major tournament whether they believe their team to be an average side. The memories of past glories feed a sense of entitlement. Instead they should feed a fierce hunger to return to the top.

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Ricky Hughe?

A new generation of Aussie fans must get used to seeing a lot of Phil Hughes

Older readers may remember the great Australian batsman Ricky Ponting. It is easy to forget the contributions of the former captain as his heir to the dashing no.3 spot Phillip Hughes piles on the runs against the mighty Sri Lankans.

The selectors’ faith in Hughes’ abilities has led him to be dropped on three occasions in his 19 match Test career, only welcoming him back this time after openly sparing him from the fierce South Africans – where poor Bobby Quiney acted as Hughes’ human shield, picking up a pair in Adelaide.

What inspired management. Hughes is now back and duly filling his boots against the second string medium pacers of Sri Lanka, on his home SCG pitch [at the time of writing he’s just given his wicket away for 87].

With this sort of Ramprakash-esque momentum behind him, Hughes is bound to prosper in the alien conditions of India and, afterwards, in back-to-back Ashes series. If there’s anyone in the top 7 who’s less comfortable against the moving ball than PJ Hughes then Jimmy Anderson et al are going to have a gay old time.

Back in the day, it used to be that Australians raised their games against the old foe while the English wilted under the strain of facing a supremely competitive, chips-on-their-shoulders team from Down Under. Now, it’s more likely the other way round. Mitch Johnson, Shane Watson and Hughes have all grossly underperformed in the Ashes spotlight. More and more, the opposite is true of England; even Ian Bell had one of his Bangladesh type series in Australia in 2010/11. That same series arguably rescued Ali Cook’s whole career.

With Hussey retiring and Ponting long gone, the baton charge against the English must be led by the captain, Michael Clarke. And the bowlers. They’re the Aussie trump card right now. Jackson Bird, James Pattinson, Pat Cummings, Mitchell Starc and the new, improved, Peter Siddle are all likely to prosper in English conditions, as well as back home. When you consider how many runs they may be asked to bowl at in 2013, the selectors’ eagerness to rotate their pack and prevent burn-out is entirely understandable.

Are we there yet?

The ICC mace: not to be confused with a weapon used to subdue wanted war criminals

No. Not yet. Sure, England’s win in India was remarkable given its historical context: 28 years of hurt, as well as the more recent comic failings on the subcontinent. Above all else, it demonstrated their strength of character to come back from the drubbing in Ahmedabad to clinch the series on the back of patient, skilful batting and probing, accurate spin bowling. Oh, and Jimmy Anderson. How good was he?!

But before we get carried away let’s not forget that recent incarnations of the team have risen higher than this level before, only to drastically fall away soon after.

The summer of 2005 is commonly held to be the high-water mark for England teams that anyone still alive can remember. We all know what happened after that. Hubris and complacency contributed to their undoing as the newly MBE-ed players got a pummelling in the Ashes away leg.

Even more recently, England claimed the ICC mace as The World’s Best Team. Rather than being complacent, the team kept doing the things they did to get them to that level, but even more rigorously. More complicated fitness drills and tactical analysis was used to incrementally raise the small percentages of team performance that saw them to the summit in the first place.

This was, and is, necessary for a team with no great players to rally round. But it wasn’t enough to keep them Number 1. Not with the South Africans around. For the Saffers have even more ‘very good’ players than England, and a great one too: Jacques Kallis. The nearest England have to a great player (Anderson, Ali Cook, IJL Trott, Matt Prior and Graeme Swann are all very good – not great) is KP, but he has merely flirted with greatness in his career; he’s yet to cross the Rubicon. Next summer he’ll be 33 years old.

After retaining the Ashes in Australia, smashing India at home and claiming the top spot, Stuart Broad (only ‘average-to-good’, since you ask) talked openly of this England team creating a dynasty to rival the Steve Waugh-era Australians. Oh how we laughed. Back then, a series win in India was proclaimed as the final frontier which would assure the team of greatness. Having achieved that goal, it no longer feels the case. On the back of the 3-0 loss to Pakistan and the drawn series in Sri Lanka (thanks to KP for the save), beating a flawed India can no longer be seen to guarantee the players OBEs in the New Year Honours list.

Ball Control would suggest that England can only aspire to greatness when there are other great teams to beat. India, Australia, even South Africa, would need to raise their games to levels approaching the standards of their former selves before England can vanquish them – home and away – and draw epochal satisfaction. Unfortunately, you can only beat what’s in front of you. And, without wishing to labour the point, England have so far struggled when faced with any teams featuring even one current great player, i.e. Pakistan (Saeed Ajmal) and those darn Saffers.

But until such a time as the post-Argus Aussies, quota-driven Saffers and the naked Emperors of India get their funk on; England can get themselves battle ready. Here are three issues to sort out:

1. Fast bowling

Can anyone name a great team from the past which didn’t have a terrifying fast bowler leading the line? Nope, me neither. Clearly, I’m not just talking about a canny operator in the Jimmy Anderson (who averages 30 runs per wicket, lest we forget) mould, I’m talking about a Joel Garner-esque 90mph plus-er; someone who can strike the fear of the Almighty in opposition batsmen. Even Brett Lee did a good job for the great Aussie sides in this regard. Maybe Stuart Meaker is the one for England. Perhaps Steve Finn. He’s got quicker in the last 18 months, but he’s also breaking down a lot more.

2. The opener’s slot 

England need a reliable Sous-Chef to operate with Alastair Cook at the top of the order. Perhaps Nick Compton is that man. The evidence thus far points to him being an adhesive cricketer who can help blunt the new ball. I’d like to see a bit more of a dasher up front; a Matty Hayden or Marcus Trescothink-type to complement the orthodox Chef. With Trott at three England would seem to benefit more from someone willing to take risks and advantage of the gaps in the field during the first 15 overs. Joe Root is an opener by trade and may grow into this role for the Test team. He’ll be waiting for Compton to slip up in New Zealand.

3. The middle order

This will remain a problem for as long as England suffers from chronic Bell-itis and the number 6 position remains up for grabs. Strange to say that PD Collingwood has left a big hole in the middle order and the aspirants who’ve auditioned so far – Eoin Morgan, James Taylor, Ravi Bopara, Jonny Bairstow and Samit Patel – have been in and out of the side. It’s now Root’s to lose but, as stated before, he may well be earmarked for another position. Thank Heavens for Matt Prior.

Over the next few years the team will inevitably also lose some of its bigger names. KP, Swann and Trott will all be 35 (Andrew Strauss’s age) before England next tour India in 2016. Bell, Prior and Anderson will be 34. That’s not meant to sound alarming; other players will come through off the county conveyor belt to continue the good work of their predecessors. Whether or not this England side ever lay claim to greatness, they can already proudly boast of remarkable achievements: winning in Australia and India, and holding that precious mace. Snuffing out the twitching corpse of Australian cricket next year would be nice, too.

In praise of portliness

An early lunch for Big Sam

Get in there, my generously proportioned son! Ball Control admits it has a soft spot for Samit Patel. Which is rather fitting, as young Samit has rather a lot of softness about him too – around the midriff (sorry, I had to). Having notched his first ton for England, and getting among the wickets, against India A yesterday, he looks a shoo-in for the number 6 slot in the first Test, which for some time has been the Achilles heel in England’s batting order. Rumours that the Barmy Army’s trumpeter is taking up tuba lessons in anticipation of Samit’s inclusion await confirmation.

As accomplished a player of spin as you’re likely to find on the British Isles, Samit has been earmarked to play in the subcontinent-phobic England side for many years. He was fast-tracked into the ODI side in 2008 due to his very nu-cricket attributes: hard-hitting and tricky to read SLO. Offsetting these desirable qualities was his unfashionable representation of the über modern cricket characteristic: muscular athleticism. He has since been in and out of the limited overs sides as he battles ongoing “fitness issues” in what, for a long time, seemed to be a vain attempt to impress his dedication upon Andy Flower.

The England Team Manager is clearly a big fan though and made known his wish to take Samit to the 2011 World Cup, naming him in the provisional squad, with the expectation that he would respond accordingly. “All we were saying was ‘get into reasonable shape’. It didn’t have to be perfect”, he said afterwards. In private, one can imagine him laying down the law to Samit in terms of: “Look, if Tim Bresnan can fit himself into an airline seat then so can you, buster.” Alas, it was not to be. James Tredwell went instead.

That he has gotten to this point–the cusp of consistent Test selection–without looking noticeably lighter seems, on the face of it, a victory for traditional skill sets over waist measurements.

The undertone to Samit’s travails was always that his corpulence betrayed a lack of desire to get fit; therein his copious puppy fat was a symptom of indiscipline. Thus, without shedding a few pounds, how could he be relied upon to contribute to the cause in an era of obsessively interdependent dressing rooms? This always struck me as a bit unfair. Patel never came across as an Inzamam-ul-Haq type, eschewing working up a sweat and falling back on sublime natural talent. By all accounts, he worked hard in the nets and diligently shuttle-ran with the rest of the team.

That is not to say that the link between a roly-poly appearance and unruliness is entirely without foundation. Also in the world of cricket, the big-boned Jesse Ryder has certainly got himself into a few scrapes. Meanwhile, Freddie Flintoff shed the weight but tales of unprofessionalism continued to follow him till the end of his career.

Similarly, football is littered with barrel-chested heroes who were adored for, not in spite of, their heavy frames; which allowed fans to imagine themselves squeezed into figure-hugging strips and wheezing heavily on the field of play. Frequently, these players were uncoincidentally fond of ‘off-the-field activities’, principally chugging down pints in the boozer.

Those with rotund physiques also often carry the stereotype of being ‘jolly’ and ‘larger-than-life’. Gazza personified this perfectly. In fact, he played up to it and it undoubtedly did him little long term good to continue to ‘perform’ on and off the pitch when behind the façade his life was falling apart. Sorry, this just got dark.

Samit, though. Well, he is a jolly little fellow! The potbellied little scamp is crashing through the glass dessert trolley and on to cricketing stardom! And, with Owais Shah no longer anywhere near the England team, I welcome the prospect of comically slapstick run outs returning to the international stage.

Teeing up the T20

Craig Kieswetter, taking guard

Your correspondent has been an early supporter of the World T20 Championship, having travelled to the first event, staged in South Africa in 2007. Way back then, England showed the seriousness with which they took the competition by selecting Chris Schofield and Darren Maddy in their squad.

India, too, were none too enamoured with a format they deemed as subordinate to 50-over cricket. Winning the inaugural competition – with Yuvraj smacking Stuart Broad for six sixes in one over along the way – changed their perceptions somewhat. Now we’ve had five seasons of the IPL.

As current World Champions, England are forced to take 20-over cricket seriously. But it would be a major surprise if Team Director Andy Flower were to claim that T20 supremacy doesn’t rank third in their list of priorities. The cricket administrators on the subcontinent may also claim this, though their actions speak louder than words.

That international T20 cricket currently plays second (or third) fiddle amongst the players is part of its appeal. It is a ‘hit and giggle’ format which allows for greater freedom and innovation from batsmen and bowlers alike. Tactics evolve year-on-year; England were clearly ahead of the game two years ago and have maintained a cutting-edge approach to strategising success. Gone are the bits-and-pieces players and T20 specialists; orthodoxy reigns, as demonstrated by Hashim Amla in the recent three match series between England and South Africa.

Carrying the hopes of a nation

As the stock of ‘traditional’ style skillsets have risen in T20, the avant-garde strokeplay and bowling deliveries trialled in the short game have increasingly been adopted in ODIs and Tests. Switch-hits are no longer the preserve of T20 and slower ball bouncers have been released from bowlers wearing whites. This crosspollination of approaches has come thick and fast and adds to the spectacle on show in all forms of the game.

And while strategy can play a large part in success, there’s really little a captain can do if an opposing player smashes a 10-ball 32 to completely alter the momentum of the game, as England’s Jos Buttler did this week against South Africa. In a 120-ball innings fine margins will sway proceedings. In Test cricket, captains talk about winning sessions; in T20 teams look to win overs. Though that can lead to one-sided affairs it equally means that upsets are more likely. Beyond single games, natural orders can be reversed. Form fluctuates wildly. For instance, Australia are below Bangladesh in the ICC rankings. Predicting what will happen over three weeks in Sri Lanka is therefore a fool’s errand. Best just to sit back and enjoy the big hitting as you try to silence the voice in your head telling you that T20 will lead to the death of Test cricket.

Group A

England

World Ranking: 1 | Captain: Stuart Broad | Danger Man: Jos Buttler

India

World Ranking: 7 | Captain: MS Dhoni | Danger Man: Yuvraj Singh

Afghanistan

World Ranking: N/A | Captain: Nawroz Mangal | Danger Man: Mohammad Shahzad

Group B

Australia

World Ranking: 9 | Captain: George Bailey | Danger Man: David Warner

West Indies

World Ranking: 4 | Captain: Darren Sammy | Danger Man: Chris Gayle

Ireland

World Ranking: 10 | Captain: William Porterfield | Danger Man: Kevin O’Brien

Group C

Sri Lanka

World Ranking: 3 | Captain: Mahela Jayawardene | Danger Man: Angelo Mathews

South Africa

World Ranking: 2 | Captain: AB de Villiers | Danger Man: Albie Morkel

Zimbabwe

World Ranking: 11 | Captain: Brendan Taylor | Danger Man: Hamilton Masakadza

Group D

Pakistan

World Ranking: 6 | Captain: Mohammad Hafeez | Danger Man: Saeed Ajmal

New Zealand

World Ranking: 5 | Captain: Ross Taylor | Danger Man: Brendon McCullum

Bangladesh

World Ranking: 8 | Captain: Mushfiqur Rahim | Danger Man: Tamim Iqbal

Blame it on the kabaddi

Too popular by half

The blog has lightly dealt with the sporting underperformance of India on the global stage before. The level of analysis you come to expect from this source was again on display with your correspondent’s flippant explanation that “too much cricket” was the cause of India winning one medal per 190,198,333 adults at the 2008 Olympics. As 2007 Twenty20 World Champions, the Indian public probably didn’t mind too much. However, despite being the current ODI World Champs, there was a reported dissatisfaction with being left in the shade by Grenada et al at the recent London Games.

In winning only six medals, none of them gold, India again grossly underachieved. A country on the rise is no longer willing to tolerate such humiliation. Cricket, clearly, takes up the focus, time and attention of a large swathe of active Indian youngsters. But, could other – non-global – sports also be to blame for absorbing potential Olympic talent? As I rack my brain for answers to that conundrum my mind dredges up what, at first, appears an obvious explanation: it’s all the fault of kabaddi.

A failed kabaddi player, earlier

Back in 1992 the Channel 4 programme (imaginatively titled Kabaddi) impressed upon this pre-teen that the sport was the pre-eminent time-filler for young men all across the vast nation on India. There were no barriers of entry to a populace often without the means to invest in sporting equipment. Sport in its purest form; may the best man win (actually, kabaddi is hugely popular amongst the fairer sex too).

1992 was a halcyon period for Channel 4, with their renowned Football Italia transmitting the exotic Serie A to a football public largely starved of live action in the wake of Sky hoovering up the rights to the English top flight. But, for some, the Sunday morning Kabaddi was the pinnacle of foreign sporting fare; the heavyweight clash of West Bengal Police versus the Punjab more than matching Lazio versus Sampdoria, etc.

For a sport which seems to closely resemble the Olympic event of wresting (freestyle and Greco-Roman) India won only one silver and a solitary bronze at the 2012 Games. Surely this is an avenue for further exploration by the Indian Olympic Association in its pursuit of more metal. Either that or outlaw it altogether and give the nation a chance to produce world class sailors and gymnasts.

Olympinomics

This morning I wasted my time in the office crunching some numbers in Excel. The futility of me quantifying Olympic success against socio-economic indicators is underlined by the existence of so many similar analyses already, i.e. this Olympic Medal Count by Population and GDP.

However, I wanted to see how success (measured by all medals, not just gold) could be weighed against adult population and their purchasing power parity (PPP) – often cited as a more accurate descriptor of countries’ relative wealth than the more standard GDP per capita.

Hence this post, timed two weeks before the London 2012 opening ceremony. I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of the data analysis. All you need to know is that it would in no way stand up to the rigours of an independent audit, not least as I’m comparing data from different years (medals from 2008; population and PPP data from various latest figures).

Firstly, Graph 1 shows the top ten medal winning countries from Beijing 2008, ranked (conventionally) in order of total medals:

Graph 1: Top ten medal rankings from the 2008 Beijing Olympics

Secondly, Graph 2 shows the top ten ‘medalling’ countries from Beijing divided by the total adult population in each country. The numbers beside each country are the overall ranking across all medalling countries. The top three (not shown in the graph) are: Jamaica (one medal per 134,364 adults), Iceland (194,000) and New Zealand (297,556). India came 78th and last with one medal per 190,198,333 adults. A bit too much cricket, perhaps.

Graph 2: Top ten medal winning countries from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, in order of adults per medal

Graph 3 shows quite clearly how big populations can equate with Olympic success. Sorry, India.

Graph 3: Adult populations of the top ten medal winning countries from the 2008 Beijing Olympics

Graph 4 shows the number of medals per adult purchasing power parity (PPP), in US dollars. Though China was bottom of Graph 2, here they’ve shot to the top and are ranked no. 1 overall. So, while China underperforms relative to the size of population, they make up for it in their ability to translate wealth into Olympic success. We can summise that if they can distribute their resources across the whole country they will be an unstoppable force.

Graph 4: Top ten medal winning countries from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, in order of PPP per medal

It’s often suggested that wealth (and population) are key determinants of Olympic success. Just glancing at the top ten countries list seems to support this, with nine of the G20 represented (Ukraine being the gatecrasher). However, Graph 5 plots these ten countries’ PPP in order of their placings in the top ten medals table, and no clear correlation is found from this (imperfect) sample:

Graph 5: PPP in order of overall medal rankings from the 2008 Beijing Olympics

As already demonstrated in Graph 4, China, Russia and Ukraine punch far above their weight (as measured in PPP).

Right, back to work.