England’s Test Match Identity Crisis

Trevor Bayliss quickly moved to quell talks of a crisis after England were beaten comprehensively by South Africa to square the series at 1-1. This is England’s 6th loss in 8 tests and inevitably the question marks around the side, which were still very large after last weeks’ win, will grow even larger. The decision to recall Gary Ballance and to bat him at number 3 seem to be the issue that is dominating most of the discussion however the issues run deeper than just that selection. England have a full-blown identity crisis in test cricket, and it is this that Joe Root must sort out first and foremost, for this talented yet deeply flawed side to move forward.

Firstly, England must move Ballance down to 5 in the order. I am a firm believer in class showing through and he has scored his runs for Yorkshire at 5. This would mean moving Root back up to 3 which would be perfect and a seamless transition for him. I understand he wants to bat 4 but with no other stand out 3 in the team or in county cricket then he must put the team first and bat 3 like his contemporaries; Kohli, Williamson and Smith. Gary Ballance has not suddenly become a bad player and whilst his technique has been found out against the moving ball I foresee him scoring runs with that technique down at 5. He bats very similarly to Paul Collingwood but just a left-handed version, Collingwood was successful at 5/6 and that’s were Ballance should be. We should not forget he has scored runs at this level, something which no other player who’s come into the side has managed to do.

Secondly England must move Bairstow down to 7 and pick a genuine batsman at 4, in my opinion that should be Tom Westley as he has been terrific for a few seasons now and scored a 100 versus the South Africans for the Lions earlier this summer. If you look at all the truly great sides over the years, they have never been with their keeper batting at 5. Bairstow batting at 7 after Stokes at 6 gives England the opportunity to take the game away from the opponents in the same way Hussey/Clarke and Gilchrist did with Australia in their great sides. The key is for the top 5 to set the game up for these brilliant attacking players, and if England are in trouble they can counter attack with less reprisals.

My final point on the batting order is the second opening slot, I would go with Stoneman he averaged mid 30’s on some difficult pitches up at Durham, since the move to Surrey he averages over 50, this proves he has what it takes to do the job in the international game. He is also a good positive player which will help take the pressure off Cook and set the innings off to a good start. The man has worked hard for his chance and has been in and around the team for quite some time. This is his time and I feel he is ready to take that opportunity.

On the bowling side, I would leave Mark Wood out for the foreseeable future, he should go to Australia in the squad as he is an excellent tourist and is still up there with one of the better bowlers in England. However, he has looked poor in the first two tests. His pace is down and he is not swinging the ball either in an orthodox fashion or reverse. England have options in this position for The Oval they can either pick another spinner in which case I would pick Crane, however if they feel he is not ready or they want 4 seamers then Liam Plunkett would be my choice. He’s bowled beautifully in ODI cricket and looked a real threat every time he has bowled.

England must also decide how they want to play. This positive cricket mantra is nonsense unless the underlying basics of test cricket are there. You must soak up pressure, bowlers will bowl well and you can’t score at 4 an over all the time. England are a team that seem unable to handle 10/15 overs of 2 an over. They do not have the patience to grind out a difficult session of 70-1 in 30 overs to really kick on later in the day and later in the innings. All the players these days can accelerate so why would worry if you’re 10 off 35?! You’ll catch up and score a 160 ball 100 if you just stay at the crease. The mentality is wrong and that needs changing.

This England team has the potential to be great and their bowling attack looks potent (particularly when Woakes returns). They must somehow overcome their batting woes and really dig out scores when they need to. They must also understand that they don’t necessarily need to score 500 at 4 an over to win test matches and series. All they need to do is not lose the game for the bowlers and crucially give them a rest, the bowlers would be delighted if England scored 300 in 110 overs twice and I would wager if England did that they would win more test matches than they lose. England must discover this grit in order to be a real force in this format, which they surely can be given their talent.

Glenn Maxwell is a No-Show not the Big Show

The Big Show has there ever been a less appropriate nickname for a player. Once again today he scored 0 in the big match when his team really needed him. Don’t get me wrong he’s a very good 20/20 player, he’s precisely the man you would want to walk in at 130-3 off 14 overs but when you’re 30-3 off 5 and you need a sensible 50 off 40 balls, the Big Show becomes the No Show. This is why he is vastly overrated people talk about him as one of the best in this format. The best do it when the pressure is on and Glenn Maxwell has never had that ability. This is why I say he is overrated.

Let us look at Glenn Maxwell’s 20/20 record as a player, not just the statistics but in actual trophy wins with him in the side. He has zero trophy wins in either franchise or international 20/20 cricket. This is a man who is paid over a million dollars to play IPL and nearly a million on an Australian Central Contract. He was captain of the Kings XI Punjab in this tournament, probably one of the most ridiculous decisions in recent IPL memory considering they had the best current white-ball captain in the world Eoin Morgan also on their books, a man criminally underrated as a batsman and captain. But you reap what you sow and so it is that a talented Kings XI side has ended up out of the play offs again. They have some good Indian talent in the 3 Sharma’s; Ishant, Mohit and Sandeep, along with Manon Vohra, Wriddhiman Saha and Axar Patel, allied to some excellent overseas players in Amla, Miller and Morgan. This is a team that really should be challenging for semi-finals. However, as we saw today the man at the head of the side is one of the biggest shirkers in world cricket when the going gets tough. He has never played an innings of note in a game of importance and that is purely down to the fact he doesn’t have it upstairs to produce when the lights shine brightest and the pressure is at its most intense.

I don’t want people to think that I believe Maxwell is a bad player in 20/20 cricket he is a very good one, but he simply does not deserve the hype that he is afforded and it is not his fault he has an over-inflated salary. But if I was a team-owner or a coach of one of the sides I would not be building a side around him. He is a luxury player and luxury players do not win your tournaments. Maxwell needs to follow the example of his fellow Australian David Warner who has gone from inconsistent dasher to a well-rounded player capable of adapting to the situation of the game and is now a well-respected captain in the 20/20 format. I do hope he does because he has the talent to do it but an average of 24 in all t20’s shows of a man that is right now over-hyped, overrated and all in all more of a “No-Show” than the “Big Show”.

Joshua in the same league as Tiger?! Give me a break?

What a fantastic week for Anthony Joshua. He won the biggest fight of his career against a bona fide legend in Wladimir Klitschko, he was rocked for the first time and came back to win. He has become one of Britain’s most famous athletes, and now one of its most marketable. He seems to have become a decent young man who respects his sport and the people within it, this no doubt is helped by the fact he has a very shrewd operator in Eddie Hearn in his corner. However, I am not someone given to hyperbole and I have read some respected journalists compare him to Tiger Woods……Tiger Woods!!! To me this is sporting blasphemy. I grew up with Tiger on my screen and I can honestly say there hasn’t been anyone before or since, bar Federer at his absolutely glorious best, that can excite and wow in the way he did from 1997-2008.

My point is that Tiger Woods was, and still is to some extent, a transcendent talent. A man who was bigger than his sport. He changed the way golf was played, and brought it into the 21st century with his emphasis on gym work and being a pure athlete. Every player that is making a living out of golf on any of the Tours owes their continued prosperity to Tiger. He brought more sponsorship money, higher prize money and most importantly huge audiences which took golf from a game for middle-class white men, to a game with huge wide reaching appeal. Tiger Woods broke down the race barrier in golf and changed the game as I’ve said for the better. Anthony Joshua hasn’t done and will not do any of those things. He is a fine athlete and a good heavyweight champion, how good we won’t know until he fights Wilder, Fury & Parker. Boxing has long made money and boxers of yesteryear have made similar money to what he is earning and will earn now. He is not saving the sport or creating a new audience. Boxing does not need Anthony Joshua in the way golf needed Tiger Woods, nor has AJ done anything that hasn’t been seen before. He is not transcendent he is simply very marketable.

He is nice, well-spoken, young and black. A sports company’s wet dream, he will undoubtedly make whichever company he advertises for a lot of money and will make a lot of money for himself in the process enough to retire a very content man. But he is not a superstar, and unless he significantly improves his skills he never will be. So please until that moment can we please refrain from the hyperbole and look at the cold facts. Stop insulting one of the greatest sportsmen of all time by comparing him to AJ and please stop unnecessary pressure on AJ. If he’s going to be a superstar then let it come naturally, don’t anoint him just because we are desperate for a British superstar, let him grow into that tag if and when he’s ready.

The ICC Champions Trophy Preview: England start as favourites but must be wary of tricky group

The ICC Champions Trophy is almost upon us. The most underrated tournament in the cricketing world as it pits the best 8 teams in One Day Cricket against each other. No room for error and no easy fixtures. Nearly all the sides have named their squads and here we will analyse the chances of all 8 sides:

Group A:
Australia
Bangladesh
England
New Zealand

Australia: One of the favourites for this tournament and justifiably so as the world’s number 1 ODI team, they boast a formidable battery of pace bowlers headlined by Mitchell Starc who is probably the world’s premium ODI bowling threat. The return to fitness of Pat Cummins is a huge boost as is the return of James Pattinson. However, there are chinks in the armour of their batting, they need Aaron Finch to return to his best form as I do not hold out much hope that “the no-show” Glenn Maxwell will score runs when needed. Matthew Wade has not set the world alight since his reintroduction to the team and Australia have generally struggled to score runs in England in recent tours. They will rely on that nuclear arsenal of quicks to keep the totals down if they cannot then it could be an early exit. They are the wild-cards of this competition capable of winning it as well as not making the semis out of the Group of Death. I’m inclined to say the latter.

Prediction: 3rd in the Group          Player to Watch: Pat Cummins
 

Bangladesh: They have made huge strides in the white ball version of the game and have earned their way into this competition with some excellent results. However, they still lack the ability to score consistent wins outside of Asia and will be found lacking in what is a very tough group. They are also no longer a surprise package and will be taken seriously by the other sides in this group. Their batting is very strong though and if Tamim and Imrul Kayes can score runs at the top of the order their lower/middle order of Mushfiqur, Shakib & Mahmudullah can be very destructive. They will fancy their chances of causing an upset particularly if they find a pitch that has a little bit of turn in it and “The Fizz” is back to his best. Unfortunately, they will not make it out of this tough group but will have a good chance of pulling off an upset somewhere.

Prediction: 4th in the Group               Player to Watch: Mustifizur Rahman

 

England: The home side will be favourites due to a complete shift in their ODI mindset masterminded by talismanic captain Eoin Morgan. Their batting line-up is full of power, is proven ability, and is settled which is what makes them so dangerous. The presence of Ben Stokes who is fresh off an excellent IPL with both bat and ball means they have a fantastic balance. Their lower order hitting has real promise as Moeen Ali, Plunkett, Willey, Woakes are all more than useful players down the order and the pressure to score runs that the batting line-up will undoubtedly help their bowling which is the weaker of their 2 suits. Whilst home advantage is tempered by the ICC preparing the pitches they will still use their local knowledge to win their group. Moeen Ali will be key as his ODI bowling is actually very good as it is generally very miserly and allows Adil Rashid to attack at the other end, whilst his batting is invaluable asset at number 7. England will be disappointed if they do not win this tournament to justify their recent optimism.

Prediction: Winners              Player to Watch: Ben Stokes

 

New Zealand: The perennial over-achievers in world tournaments will again come very well prepared by the coach/captain tandem of Hesson & Williamson. They have an exciting blend in their batting with Guptill, Taylor, Anderson & Ronchi providing the power with the ever-present and brilliant Kane Williamson anchoring the innings they will always compete very well. Their biggest strength however will be their bowling attack in England with Boult, Southee, McClenaghan as their main seamers mixed in with all-rounders Corey Anderson, James Neesham and Colin De Grandhomme. However, their best bowler could be Jeetan Patel, the Warwickshire stalwart has great experience in England and with some of their games being at Edgbaston he is sure to play a huge part. I see them as a real threat as always in major tournaments and will certainly be making the semi-finals.

Prediction: Runners-Up          Player to Watch: Trent Boult

 

Group B:
India
Pakistan
South Africa
Sri Lanka
 

India: They have yet to announce their squad however I do not expect them to spring too many surprises. They have a sneaky pace attack that is actually better than most give it credit for. Shami, Bhuvaneshwar & Yadav are very good white ball bowlers and will be a test for all sides in this tournament. However as always India will live and die by Ashwin & Jadeja. If they can navigate the English pitches in June then India as always are a real threat. As stated in recent blogs their batting is what concerns me, they have little to no experience of English conditions and they will be in for a shock in a group with 2 sides who will have very good pace attacks. If they can score runs and their spinners aren’t fodder as they have been away from home in the past, they have a great chance of winning this tournament. They will definitely make it through this easier group regardless but they will need a little bit of luck with pitches and weather to make it further in my opinion.

Prediction: Semi-Finalists          Player to Watch: Mohammed Shami

 

Pakistan: The mercurial talent of the Pakistan team may be more likely to spring a surprise in England than anywhere else; however, their batting is just not strong enough to mount a serious challenge in a group where India and South Africa have better talent. They will beat Sri Lanka who will be the whipping boys of the group but will be beaten handily by both the other sides. Their only hope is that their bowlers can swing the white ball and Wahab can have the consistency so lacking in his game thus far. Shadab and Yasir Shah will possibly be neutered by the pitches so their seamers have to take early wickets. As I said earlier though their biggest problem is their inability to score 300, they are playing the old style of ODI cricket where 270/280 was a big score it won’t be enough in this tournament.

Prediction: 3rd in the Group         Player to Watch: Shadab Khan

 

South Africa: Prodigious talent but lack of squad depth is the story for South Africa. Their political issues are well-known and whilst this has weakened the squad their 1st XI is still as good as any in the competition. Quinton De Kock is the best young player in World Cricket and that allied to De Villiers, Du Plessis, Amla, Duminy and Miller means they have a power packed line-up. They also have the most exciting fast bowler in the world in Kagiso Rabada, Imran Tahir is the world’s best white ball spinner, Chris Morris is an excellent death bowler and Wayne Parnell offers them a left-arm option. They appear to be the most well-rounded team and if their greats fire with the bat they could be the team to beat. The only question mark is whether putting the captaincy back in the hands of AB De Villiers will have an unsettling effect on them, Du Plessis has been magnificent in the role since taking over and should’ve kept hold of it. They also need to shake off the choker tag, I believe this may not be the tournament for that as they will face a really tough semi-final whoever makes it through the Group A and this may be one-step too far for them. But they could win the whole thing and finally break their hoodoo.

Prediction: Semi-Finalists        Player to Watch: Kagiso Rabada

 

Sri Lanka: A team in transition led by the underrated and excellent Angelo Matthews whose bowling may be needed more than he would like in this tournament. They will play with a lot of passion as they always do, but will need to find someone to take some wickets otherwise they could be cannon-fodder in a group with 2 sides who are packed with power in their batting line-ups. They also don’t have enough in their batting to chase the big scores they will be set. Their only chance to win would be against Pakistan but even then, I feel their batting could be too fragile against a good Pakistan bowling attack. I hope they prove me wrong and are very competitive but I fear that they could be the whipping boys of the tournament.

Prediction: 4th in the Group        Player to Watch: Kusal Mendis

 

Joey Barton: The Unlovable Rogue

Ah Joseph Anthony Barton, a man I’ve seen called ‘controversial and complicate’ too many times. “Footballer. Question Time Guest. Philosophy Student. Future Coach. Fluent French Speaker. What Has Become of Me?” as his website states (Seriously it does) and now, not for the first time, a very naughty boy. See Joey Barton is the sort of bloke that doesn’t seem to understand that just because you have a couple of millions twitter followers, they don’t all like you. He also is of the opinion because he’s read a couple of articles in the Guardian and a couple of philosophy/political books that he’s a credible philosopher and political commentator on the plight of the working class. As I said Joey Barton man of the people. What a world we live in where Joey Barton, a man convicted of assault, a man who also assaulted his own team-mate on the training ground, and now a man who to my mind could be found guilty of match-fixing (a criminal offence) could possibly represent the left as a man of the people on Question Time. Question Time!! Let that sink in Joey Barton has been on Question Time as a serious guest. Before I go any further I must say just for balance that he has been, at times a decent footballer. He has an England Cap and whilst in recent years those have less value than previously (see Jay Bothroyd & David Nugent) this is no mean feat. However, this was in the Steve McLaren era and the less said about that the better.

My main issue with Joey is that he portrays himself as some sort of victim, the heroic outcast footballer fighting for what is truly right in the world. The ‘I’m an intelligent footballer’ act belies his innate selfishness and pure malice. This is a man banned 3 times for violent conduct, one against his own team-mate during training! A man who’s been to prison a violent Assault against a member of the general public on a night out. But it’s all okay because he throws out some philosophical tweet every now again when he’s been an idiot and that, in his own mind, justifies his actions. Basically, young Joseph finds any sort of way to blame others for his own stupidity, malice and general lack of charm. Take his statement to his latest selfish act. “I think if the FA is truly serious about tackling the culture of gambling in football, it needs to look at its own dependence on the gambling companies, their role in football and in sports broadcasting, rather than just blaming the players who place a bet.” Let me get this straight football which is a business, one which you have profited greatly from, is the issue here. He also goes on to say the culture he grew up was always one of gambling, so it’s also now your family’s fault. Lovely bloke that Joey Barton, blames the family that raised him and supported him, then blames the game that has served him so well and allowed him more chances than any other sector would ever allow him. Only in sport can a convicted man earn £2m a year. Can you imagine the uproar if a senior banker had been found to be guilty of assault and breaking the FCA rules?!

Hopefully this is the last we see and hear of a deeply average footballer and a deeply average, narcissistic bloke who thinks he speaks for the people. Fortunately for the average man and woman he certainly does not.

We need to start criticising Spurs like the Big Boys or they will never improve.

On a personal note the only problem I have with Tottenham right now is the way they have been given an easy ride by the press. I like a lot of people don’t always agree with Alan Shearer but his argument with Jermaine Jenas on Saturday showed the exact double standards that are coming with Spurs right now. Had Pep’s Ground Half Empty XI lost in the way Spurs did Saturday afternoon we would have been hammering their inability to defend against the top teams in the big games. However when it’s Spurs they were simply unlucky young, not overpaid, plucky, heroic English players, I was delighted to see Shearer put Jenas in his place on this hypocrisy.

The main issue I have with Pochettino’s boys is that they simply do not seem to turn up when the lights are brightest. Take their Champions League campaign, an appalling effort from a team that were supposed to be England’s best hope in the competition. Dele Alli & Harry Kane were non-existent, as they were for England last summer, and Tottenham were unceremoniously dumped out of the competition at the group stage despite having a relatively friendly group. Then there is the less than spectacular away record against the rest of the top 7; 3 losses and 3 draws. You cannot win a league with an away record like that against the other title challengers. The best defense in the league hasn’t kept a clean sheet in any of these games, and Kane & Alli have only scored 1 goal each in those 6 games. If they want to be seen as world class then they have to do it in these big games, not at home vs Sunderland or Burnley.

The secondary issue Spurs and Pochettino have is their squad depth, something which Pochettino and Daniel Levy have to take some blame for, they had a great chance to really push on this summer with the Champions League money and the new Premier League TV deal providing them with what should’ve been a war chest to really push on and win trophies. Instead they signed Moussa Sissoko, N’Koudou and Janssen for £57.8m all of whom have been underwhelming to say the least. For all the praise Pochettino deserves for his work this season has been a poor year for recruitment for Spurs and him. All the other major sides (bar cross-London rivals Arsenal) have added 2 quality starters. While we are on the subject of Arsenal it must be made clear that despite their obvious problems Arsenal still made it out of the group in the Champions League, have reached the FA Cup Final and are still in with a shout of top 4 for the 20th consecutive season. It shows the difference of standards that Arsenal are held to compared to Spurs. Spurs have to class this season as a failure if they do not win the league which, despite a recent wobble from Chelsea, looks unlikely.

We have to start holding Spurs to the standards of the rest of the Top 6, if you want to play with the big boys you have to be held to the same standard as them, not be treated like a slightly better Leicester. You cannot class players such as Dele Alli world-class until they start proving that they are not the bridesmaids’ that choke when it comes to the crunch. If they can do that and win a trophy then we can give them all the accolades that their talent undoubtedly deserve but until then this side and its players can only be described as very good, not great.

The BCCI’s Elephant in the Room

The IPL is in full swing and like many millions of cricket fans around the globe, we are watching on at this amazing spectacle. We can debate the pros and cons of the tournament but it is undeniably the biggest, brashest and most successful 20/20 tournament our game has to offer. The packed grounds heaving with humanity, making more noise than I thought possible at a cricket game. Whilst the Big Bash and 20/20 blast are possibly, in terms of quality, a similar standard the feel and intensity is much different, packed grounds and rampant commercialisation of the star players make it a more prestigious tournament to play in than any other, and of course it is the only tournament the Indian superstars play in therefore in the minds of many it makes it the best.

However, has the BCCI reluctance to allow their talent to play abroad in other 20/20 competitions helped the Indian Team? In the late 2000’s and early 2010’s India were the white ball kings winning both the 20/20 world title and the 50 over world cup, granted the latter was in India but many pundits in the media touted (those of an English persuasion) the IPL as one of the main reasons that they were so consistently successful in the format. This allied with the fact that India was already playing more white ball cricket than most anyway, due to the appetite within the country for it, then you had what was deemed an unstoppable juggernaut. The rest of the world were behind because of this it was said, this was backed up by a number of prominent former players and pundits all extolling the virtues of the IPL.

A quick glance at the records though reveals an unhappy quandary for the BCCI, outside of sub-continental conditions the Indian 20/20 side has not made the final of the World T20. It also became apparent that in sub-continental conditions sides were catching up as their experience in the IPL (the mercurial and brilliant West Indies sides of 2012 and 2016 being the finest examples) meant they had the ability to score runs and take wickets in conditions that were previously alien to them. In contrast India seem to be unable to adapt to foreign conditions in major tournaments. Since 2013 of India’s superstar only Chesteshwar Pujara has played abroad for any length of time, mainly in red ball cricket, and this has coincided with sides that have not even threatened to win a major tournament in white ball cricket. Whilst this is no drought it shows of a team in transition and most noticeably of a team unable to adapt in white ball cricket away from their native pitches. Indian cricketers are now in danger of becoming very similar to English Premier League footballers. Playing in the best competition in the world but not gaining the experience of other cricketing cultures leading them woefully unprepared for major tournaments outside of their home country. With home advantage becoming even more prevalent in the last 2/3 years the BCCI must look at their policy of not allowing their best players to play in other countries otherwise they run the risk of being left behind in this increasingly global game.