Thursday, 31 March 2011

Tendulkar's remarkable turnaround

There’s a lot to admire about Sachin Tendulkar: the grace of his batting; his longeveity; his fundamental decency as a human being despite being more scrutinised than perhaps any other sportsman in the world. And then there are all the runs. Yet almost as impressive as anything else is the way he has revived a career that, after the last World Cup, looked like its denouement would not befit such a great player.

Weeks away from his 38th birthday, there can be no doubt Tendulkar’s wicket is the most-cherished in world cricket. So it’s fashionable to say that his apparent ‘decline’ of the mid-2000s was grossly exaggerated, the product of media hyperbole. After all, there’s nothing like an ‘Endulkar’ headline to sell Indian newspapers.

But the truth is there was rather a lot to those headlines.

Over a period of three years from April 2004, Tendulkar averaged less than 29 from 21 Tests, if run-gorging on a Bangladeshi attack lacking any venom is discounted. In an era of flatter tracks, inferior bowlers and shorter boundaries, those are grim figures indeed.

In the same period in ODIs, culminating in the 2007 World Cup, Tendulkar averaged 30 in ODIs against Australia, England, New Zealand, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and South Africa. India were no longer sure where he should bat, explaining his demotion to four on the verge of the 2007 World Cup. The joy in his cricket appeared to have vanished. In that World Cup, his only two innings against Test-playing opposition were a torturous 26-ball seven against Bangladesh, and a third-ball duck in India’s must-win game against Sri Lanka.

Ian Chappell has since been derided for saying Tendulkar should consider retirement but he was far from alone. Tendulkar appeared the victim of injuries, chiefly to his shoulder, and cricket fatigue – which was hardly a surprise considering he’d been playing continuously at international level since 1989. His batting was declining in fluency; he was increasingly easy for bowling attacks to contain, as a notably diminishing strike-rate in both forms of the game reflected. His decline was not a fallacy.

The 2007 World Cup appears both Tendulkar’s nadir and the catalyst for his astonishing revival. Tendulkar could easily have retired then – he turned 34 just after the tournament, after all. Yet he decided not to and, perhaps, remembered why he played the game in the first place.

He has batted with more of a sense of freedom since his miserable three years. That is not to say he doesn’t bat with responsibility, but that he has rediscovered his relish for dominance. Between 2004 and 2007, Tendulkar thought of himself as the mature elder statesman, aiming to grind the opposition down. In the process he sought to eschew risk, notably cutting out the pull and hook. But the result was he became ordinary in a way he is not; it became possible to choke him. After making one off 21 balls in a Test defeat to England in 2006, an innings defined by timidity, Tendulkar was even booed off by a section of the crowd. He wasn’t being true to himself.

Shane Warne once confessed to having nightmares about Tendulkar repeatedly hitting him for six: that is what Tendulkar is capable of doing to even the world’s best bowlers. Australians have always inspired Tendulkar, perhaps because the way in which they attack forces him to respond in kind. It was on the 2007/08 tour there that Tendulkar made it apparent he could still make ruins of international attacks, as a strike rate of 65, perhaps even more than an average of 70, showed. On the fast Australian tracks, the pull and hook returned, along with the √©lan in his batting. Opposition bowlers once more feared he could destroy and embarrass them, instead of merely accumulating unobtrusively – to the degree that it is ever possible for Tendulkar to be unobtrusive, anyway.

Tendulkar’s form since has been nothing short of magisterial, as eight Test hundreds since the start of 2010 are testament to. In addition to the poise, elegance and range of his shots – expanded as Tendulkar has embraced the paddle sweep - his batting has been characterised by a remarkable ability to adjust his tempo depending on what circumstances dictate.

To see Dale Steyn bowling to Tendulkar during India’s recent Test tour to South Africa was to see Test cricket at its most captivating; it may not have been Harold Larwood to Sir Don Bradman in 1932/33, but it wasn’t that far off. Steyn justified his number one ranking with raw pace aided by swing and clever use of bouncers and yorkers. Yet Tendulkar was up to the not inconsiderable challenge, combining his aesthetic extra cover drives with upper cuts to bouncers, as well as a stoic acceptance some short balls would hit his body. Two centuries in the three Tests were the result.

In lauding Tendulkar’s turnaround, the role of the Indian management must not be forgotten either. They have displayed an admirable pragmatism regarding Tendulkar’s ODI appearances – to the extent he went 11 months avoiding the one-day merry-go-round after his record-breaking 200* against South Africa last year. The aim has been for Tendulkar to focus upon Tests and this World Cup. He has succeeded magnificently, and now has the chance to secure that denouement.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

England World Cup player ratings

So, another England World Cup has ended with a humiliating defeat. However, England thrillingly defeated South Africa and the West Indies, as well as tieing with India. The ignominious ending notwithstanding, this has been England’s best World Cup performance since 1992. Here’s how all 17 players used rated:

Andrew Strauss 7/10
For so long regarded as a batsman too limited for modern ODIs, Strauss’ 158 against India was a stunning riposte: seldom has an England batsman scored at well over a run-a-ball without taking obvious risks. Yet thereafter Strauss struggled, failing to score a half century in the last five innings, and ending with a horrible innings; his first-over dismissal to Robin Petersen against South Africa appeared to weigh on his mind against Tillakaratne Dilshan’s offspin.

As a skipper he both impressed – letting Swann bowl his last over with Sarwan on strike appears a masterstroke with hindsight – and disappointed, as when appearing clueless against Kevin O’Brien and Shafiul Islam. Perhaps this simply reflects the vagaries of his bowling attack. No one would be surprised if he now resigned as ODI captain.

Kevin Pietersen 6
Pietersen’s promotion to opener, whilst an indictment of England’s lack of World Cup planning, was certainly not without promise. In three of his four innings he made starts, with his 22-ball 31 against India suggesting a man who could adapt as well to opening in ODIs as Mark Waugh. But there are now very real questions over whether he will play another ODI.

Jonathan Trott 9
Extraordinarily, Trott was both England’s most consistent player, by far, and amongst their most criticised. Yet in a tournament in which the regular 300+ scores at Bangalore were not matched at other grounds, Trott was little short of exceptional, able to score runs relentlessly, seemingly immune to the struggles around him. For a number three, whose job it is to bring solidity, an average of 60 was quite phenomenal. It wasn’t enough to impress a lot of people, especially Bob Willis, but the England management will appreciate how well Trott played his role. They simply wouldn’t have made it past the group stages without him and, by the end, he was the only Ashes winner still performing at his best, testament to his unremitting professionalism. And to this who lambast his selfishness, what of Ravi Bopara, whose strike rate was 66 against Trott’s 81?

Ian Bell 5
Forced to learn to play in the middle-order despite having a good record in the top three, Bell fared reasonably but no better. His manoeuvring of the spinners was dexterous in the tie with India, yet his form slipped badly thereafter, with innings against South Africa, Bangladesh and West Indies evoking the timid ’05 model, as opposed to the newly battle-hardened one. Promoted to open in the quarter final, where he probably should have been as soon as Pietersen flew home, he began brightly but was dismissed rather tamely. Sadly, it encapsulated his tournament as a whole.

Eoin Morgan 7
Morgan’s fleet-footed 63 against Bangladesh in his first game back was a reminder of his immense skill as a one-day batsman, and confirmed the feeling him replacing Pietersen in the squad was probably a net gain for England. Another 50 followed against Sri Lanka, albeit with some outrageous luck, and the great shame was that those around him didn’t share his penchant for using their feet.

Paul Collingwood 4
Watching Collingwood bat in this tournament, and the winter as a whole, has been a rather sad sight. He has never been attractive to watch at the crease, but it is plain for all to see that the conviction of his willow has gone, as his demotion to number 8 against Bangladesh further illustrated. Cunning wicket-to-wicket bowling helped prolong his career a little but, unless England are guilty of great sentimentality, he will remain stranded on 197 ODI caps.

Ravi Bopara 6
Originally a replacement for Morgan, Bopara’s 60 against South Africa was the sort of mature, under-pressure knock England have spent years worrying would never be seen on the international stage, but this only made his later painstaking knocks the more frustrating. With the ball he was a revelation, especially against the West Indies (2-22 off 8.4 overs), bowling as if he had absorbed all Collingwood’s experience.

Matt Prior 4
Drafted into the World Cup squad ahead of Steven Davies, who did little wrong but was felt to be deficient on slow wickets and behind the stumps, Prior has sadly not justified the faith. Tried as a finisher in the middle-order, he utterly failed to display the necessary nous. So he was then shunted back up the order – only to be dismissed brainlessly against Bangladesh – before a reasonably successful return to the middle order against Sri Lanka.

Luke Wright 6
Seemingly not trusted, Wright was given a chance when England had no more wriggle room against the West Indies – and with a mature 44 and four decent overs, he surpassed everyone’s expectations. May have been a trite offended that Swann was promoted to exploit the batting powerplay against Sri Lanka, ostensibly Wright’s great virtue.

Michael Yardy 3
Though he did very well in the World Twenty20, Yardy is a throwback to the days of Dougie Brown, Matthew Fleming and Mark Alleyne: clearly deficient with bat and ball alike. It said it all that he was comfortably outbowled by Pietersen against South Africa, but he has much more important things to worry about.

Tim Bresnan 7
Bresnan continued his fine winter with some consistently impressive performances, the highlight being a magnificent 5-48, belying unhelpful conditions, against India, though he faded somewhat in the last two games. Crucial runs against India and the West Indies also helped to prolong England’s place in the tournament.

Graeme Swann 7
At times in the group stage Swann looked like a man who had had enough travelling, but his performances held up, particularly in the crunch wins against South Africa and the West Indies. His struggles against Sri Lanka weren’t sufficient to undermine his status as the world’s best spin bowler. With bat in hand, Swann needs to learn that the switch hit is most effective as a surprise shot.

James Tredwell 7
Brought in to face the West Indies after months of drinks carrying, Tredwell was superb. Daring to flight the ball, and with some clever variations, he claimed four wickets and the man of the match award. It was inevitably tougher against Sri Lanka, but it was always going to be.

Stuart Broad 6
After consecutive five wicket hauls in the warm-ups, much was expected of Broad. But he proceeded to leak 138 runs against Netherlands and Ireland, missing the India game through illness in between. Yet against South Africa he produced a phenomenal spell of reverse-swing, winning the game with a spell of 4-15 – only to be ruled out the tournament straight after.

Ajmal Shazhad 6
Three superb deliveries should have won England the game against Bangladesh, but, those aside, Shazhad was too often erratic. Nevertheless, his reverse swinging prowess, aided to a big-match temperament exemplified by that six, all suggests we will see a lot more of him in an England shirt.

James Anderson 4
Oh Jimmy, Jimmy. What to say about a campaign in which he has averaged more than 70, leaking runs at nearly 7 an over? Just that his sterling contribution to England’s Ashes triumph should not be forgotten.

Chris Tremlett 4
Though he took an excellent catch against the West Indies, Tremlett’s World Cup was a fairly miserable affair. He seemed to quite lack the variety needed for limited overs cricket, though he was probably England’s most threatening bowler against Sri Lanka.

(England tournament averages can be viewed here)

What are your thoughts? Leave a comment

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

A routemap for Irish cricket

Watching Ireland play in this World Cup has not felt much like watching amateurs. There has been a tangible chasm between their performances and those of Canada, Kenya, the Netherlands and even Zimbabwe. And what India would give to have fielding as athletic, and prone to conjuring up direct hits, as Ireland’s. Having built on their progress since 2007, you would think the ICC would be doing all they could to help Ireland continue their upward trajectory.

But if the ICC do not ensure there’s a fair qualification process for the 2015 World Cup, they will undermine much of cricket’s growth in Ireland. It is World Cups that inspire players, like the 14-year-old George Dockrell in 2007. Ireland’s genuine ambitions for growth should be rewarded. Think of plans to build a large new ground in Dublin, and tireless work to increase the takeup of the sport, rewarded with some highly encouraging performances in U-19 World Cups.

The relationship of Irish and English cricket is a curious one: England are both their biggest friends and foes. England are essential if the Irish side is to improve, and Dockrell’s development can only be aided by him signing a contract with Somerset, becoming the seventh Irishman to have a county contract. But there is axiomatically a limit to how much Ireland can improve whilst their best players are continually stolen, and few would disagree that at least one of the games against Bangladesh and West Indies could have been won with Eoin Morgan in the side. But how can this be stopped? Given how much better Dockrell looked than Mike Yardy in this tournament, what’s to stop him going the way of Morgan and Ed Joyce?

Ultimately the answer is simple. Ireland must be given more one-day internationals against the major sides. As Brian O’Rourke, the Lenister Development Manager, says, “We now deserve regular games certainly against teams close to us in the rankings.” He is absolutely right to say, “We have proven ourselves to be the best associate nation in world cricket” – Ireland’s performances in this tournament have been much closer to those of Bangladesh, England and West Indies than those of the minnows Ireland are still viewed as part of. Accordingly, they should be included in the future tours programme for ODIs – after all, Zimbabwe already are, and they are ranked below Ireland.

O’Rourke also says that “the ICC are looking at our country to potentially be the next Test playing nation”. It is all well and good the ICC making positive noises about Irish cricket, but they need to put their words into action and help the sport move to the next level there. The alternative is to risk the progress of cricket in Ireland being undermined, as the collapse of the sport in Kenya after 2003 is a warning of. Only in cricket do sporting governing bodies actively prevent countries who want to play the game from doing so; as Peter Roebuck says, “cricket is altogether too precious about Test cricket. In every other sport it is possible for strong and weak to meet without the game getting into a palaver about it.” When we think of sides being awarded Test status, we need not think of Bangladesh, who suffered from playing the very best constantly, and, accordingly, constantly being thrashed. There should be a different model for Ireland and, indeed, other sides that display similar levels of progress to them in the future.

There should be an official timetable for Ireland to be awarded Test status, which should be possible with five years. This need not be the same as putting them on the future tours programme and insisting they regularly play Test series in Australia – an exercise in futility. Rather, Ireland should have a schedule that involves regularly playing Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, and often New Zealand and West Indies too. Whenever sides tour England, they should play a Test in Ireland before (and four-day games in the meantime). This would appeal both to the tourists, who would get genuinely useful practise ahead of the Tests rather than facing under strength and demotivated county sides, and obviously Ireland themselves. A Test against Australia every four years would be a good indicator of their progress, as well as helping increase interest in the game – and, if they did well, it could even lead to more in the future. Fundamentally though Ireland would play against sides of similar ability. At a stroke, too, the threat of players switching to England would be lost.

The issue of Ireland’s domestic structure has often been held up as a reason why they are not ready for Test cricket, and obviously steps must be taken – as they already are – to improve it. Yet, looking at football, the top division in both the Republic and Northern Ireland are roughly analogous to the English conference; but this doesn’t stop success being enjoyed, like the Republic reaching the World Cup quarter-finals in 1990. There is no reason why Ireland’s players can’t continue to play in the county championship.

Ireland’s ambitions are such that, in spite of defeating England, they will leave the tournament with a strong sense of disappointment that they didn’t claim at least one more Test scalp. They deserve better than for their progress to be undermined by what their chief executive Warren Deutrom labels the ICC’s “closed shop” mentality.

Home with honour XI

Now the 42-game group stages are over, here is an XI from the best players whose World Cup is over, featuring at least one player from the six knocked-out sides.

Imrul Kayes
Whilst Tamim fired only briefly, his less obtrusive opening partner was the nearest Bangladesh had to a reliable batsman. Seldom over-adventurous but with a good range of shots deployed sagaciously, Kayes provided the backbone for their successful chases over England and the Netherlands, winning the Man of the Match award in both games. In his own words,”I believe in the idea of hanging in there instead of making a 10-ball 30” – making him almost the antithesis of Tamim.

Ed Joyce
His long-awaited return to Ireland colours was a disappointment in many ways – how Joyce will rue his soft dismissal against Bangladesh. But his 84 against the West Indies, which begun with consecutive boundaries, was testament to his class: he is surely the most aesthetically pleasing batsman any of the associate nations possess, with his cover drive evoking that of David Gower.

Collins Obuya
He is remembered for his sharp-turning leg-spin in the 2003 World Cup, when he took 5-24 in the victory against Sri Lanka. Obuya’s bowling has since subsided, but he has reinvented himself as a top order batsman of genuine quality, as 243 tournament runs illustrates. It was a great shame he ended 98* against Australia, after he had handled Tait, Lee and Johnson with the assurance of a Test player.

Niall O’Brien
O’Brien will be extremely frustrated reflecting on this World Cup: he made starts in every innings but only once past 50. O’Brien’s relish for a challenge was illustrated by hitting Morne Morkel for six over long-on, one of the shots of the tournament, and an average in excess of 40 shows the quality of this most industrious of cricketers.

Ashish Bagai (wicket-keeper)
Bagai was one of the best wicket keepers on display in this World Cup, keeping with poise and vivacity to seam and spin alike. And with the bat he was easily Canada’s best player. Elegant and never overawed, he took them to victory over Kenya, and then scored a commanding 84 at almost a-run-a-ball against New Zealand.

Ryan ten Doeschate
Ten Doeschate came into the tournament with a reputation as the best associate player in the world, and, with a century that fused brawn and finesse against England, he quickly went about justifying it. Though runs proved harder to score thereafter, he chipped in with a half century in difficult circumstances against Bangladesh, before ending the tournament with another magnificent hundred. His wicket-to-wicket bowling also troubled England.

Kevin O’Brien
Critics will say he only played one innings of note, but what an innings. O’Brien 113 against England – including 45 off 15 balls during the batting powerplay – was a knock for the ages. As a display of brutal, calculated hitting it was phenomenal: and it was fitting he ended Ireland’s tournament with the six that sealed victory over the Netherlands.

Shafiul Islam
Belying his ODI average of under 6, and three ducks in five innings this tournament, Shafiul proceeded to smash Swann and Anderson down the ground en route to raiding England for a match-winning 24*. His pace and reverse-swinging venom previously claimed 4/21 to clinch a tight victory over Ireland. But, like his team, Shafiul was damagingly inconsistent, leaking 124 runs from 14 overs in Bangladesh’s three defeats.

George Dockrell
Dockrell’s control and big-match temperament – remarkable for an 18-year-old mark him out as a special talent. In the intense pressure of the opening game in partisan Dhaka, Dockrell’s wonderful 10 overs, in which he returned 2-23, ought to have secured Ireland victory. Thereafter, he only continued to impress, with the only shame that his skipper didn’t trust him to bowl to Kieran Pollard. What odds him representing England in 2015?

Ray Price
The man with the most theatrical expressions in world cricket illustrated his guile and skill with some admirable performances, notably 2-21 of eight overs against Pakistan, and was equally effective opening the bowling or bowling in the middle overs. Nine wickets at less than 19 deserved better support from his disappointing compatriots.

Harvir Baidwan
Canada’s bustling seamer was impressive throughout, making up for a lack of express pace with nagging consistency and a touch of late movement. He will be rightly proud of his haul of thirteen scalps – three more than any associate bowler managed - which included Brendan McCullum, Shane Watson and Younis Khan.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

England hope to continue momentum

If England's performances at the cricket World Cup continue their upward curve then Ireland should be annihilated on Wednesday in their Group B encounter

That, of course, won't happen but after two shaky warm-up games and an equally nervy opening game win against the Netherlands Andrew Strauss' men stepped it up a gear (or two, three) against tournament favourites India to match them toe-to-toe and secure a point in a thrilling tie on Sunday.

They will hope that isn't their peak in this month long competition and will go a long way towards preventing that by avoiding embarrassment against Ireland.

Despite being a non-test playing nation the Irish still contain a number of county players and even an ex-England player in Ed Joyce, so they are no mugs when it comes to handling bat and ball.

The will be looking to bounce back at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium following their disappointing opening game defeat to Bangladesh, a game they had perhaps targeted to cause a shock.

If England fail to take the game seriously then a surprise is definitely possible – just ask the Pakistan team who were humbled by the Irish at the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean. Fans will no doubt be keeping a nervous eye on the live match score.

England will hope main strike bowler James Anderson will finally find some form in the competition. The leading wicket taker during the Ashes series has been disappointing so far, taking 1 for 91 against India, the equal second-most expensive figures ever by an England player in an ODI. Anderson had also cost 72 from his ten overs against the Netherlands in Nagpur. If he does that again, Ireland could be on for one of their higher cricket live scores.

With Stuart Broad battling illness the pressure is on the Lancastrian to hitting the ground running at the top of the order. But as long as England are getting result Strauss won't mind his players feeling their way into a tournament that still has over a month to run.