Sunday, August 14, 2011

Well done England!

Thirteenth of August 2011 is a red letter day for every fan, who supports England cricket team, as after years of watching the team trudge from one defeat to another, one can finally feel proud of a team that ruthlessly dismantles every side they play. Yes the opposition they faced during the English summer didn't seem worthy of being called the number one team, as every-time the England team put pressure on them, they crumbled like a house of cards.The simple fact though is, the present England team play a brand of aggressive cricket that usually makes the opposition look worse than they actually are.

Couple of years ago, on a sunny bright day at Kingston though, it looked all different as up against a bowler, who was just bowling fast and straight, England's batsmen crumbled without even a trace of fight. The critics were laughing at the team by calling them all sorts of names. For a cricket fan like me,  it seemed like the side was divided and there was no unity among the players. At that time, I even thought that there was no light at the end of the tunnel, as it can't get much worse than losing to a weak side like West Indies and that too getting bowled out for just 51 runs. Two men though didn't give up on England; one was a former Zimbabwean cricketer, who seemed to have the spirit of Toledo steel when he played for Zimbabwe. The other one was a captain, who always comes across as a very good man manager. Both the coach Flower and the captain Strauss step by step have taken England to the number one position in test cricket.

The seeds of success were sown in the series in which England were bowled out for 51 itself. Flower and Strauss decided it was high time to build a team made up of players, who don't play for themselves, but play for the team. Players who looked disinterested when they toured, or were injury prone, were soon phased out. A set of new bowlers, who were hungry for wickets and success were given the chance to play test cricket. The backroom staff worked hard on fitness of the players and as a result, the cricketers became more athletic. It is unbelievable but true that in two years, from World Chumps, England have become World Champions of test cricket.

In this article, I would like to list out a few factors that have helped England to become a successful test side.

Attack leader- Any team needs a pace bowler to lead the attack. If I think about England's team, Jimmy Anderson is no doubt the leader of the attack. Even when he was down in the dumps, I had lots of faith in Anderson's ability as here was a bowler, who could swing it late and that too both ways with no discernible change in his action. Nowadays though, he bowls with good control as well, which makes him a real handful.

Yes last year, many were questioning about whether Anderson can succeed in Australia which looked rather funny, as it was mainly based on how he performed in the Ashes 06/07. Comparing Anderson of 06/07 and the present day Anderson is like comparing chalk and cheese. In 06/07, Anderson didn't have a repeatable action as the coaches kept tinkering with his action and at that time, he had just comeback from an injury. In 2010/11 though, Anderson was a thoroughbred swing bowler as he had developed a smooth action and he could bowl with good control. On expected lines, he kept taking wickets in Australia and his critics had to shut their mouths. These days, Anderson sometimes even reminds me of what I saw of Hadlee in a few highlights package. Yes, he still doesn't have the control, nor the patience of the great man Hadlee, but Anderson's great exhibition of swing bowling on the fourth day at Edgbaston reminded me of Hadlee at his peak. Anderson was moving the ball both ways at respectable pace, he kept guessing the batsmen with regards to which one will swing back into the righthander, he was using the crease to create subtle changes of angles and even used the bouncer well. The only thing that Anderson may have to improve is to show a bit more patience, when bowling to the lower-order batsmen.

Back up bowlers- We all now that cricket is a team game, so a single pace bowler can't do much if other bowlers in the side can't take wickets. With England though, it is different, as it hasn't just been Anderson who has looked a real threat against India, but Anderson along with Broad, Bresnan/Tremlett have hunted like a pack of hungry vultures about to pounce on a set of clueless batsmen.

To be honest, it was a pleasant surprise to see Broad bowling full in the series. I do hope he keeps bowling full and doesn't again try to test middle of the pitch by thinking that he is the reincarnation of Larwood.  When Broad bowls full, he gets just enough movement and bounce to take wickets. As far as Bresnan is concerned, I have already said in one of my previous articles that he is the unsung hero of the side. Bres can run in all day, bowl line and length, get awkward bounce and more importantly, bowl at good pace. There are bowlers, who lack fitness and can't bowl reasonably quick throughout the day, but Bres is a different kettle of fish, as he can bowl at about 85-87 mph at 10 'O' clock in the morning as well as bowl at a similar pace during the last session of a day's play. CT just played in one test, but his ability to get awkward bounce from a good length would always make him a threat. If I think about the lone spinner in the side Swann, he has had a poor series, but I don't remember too many spinners doing well against the Indian team. I am sure he will do well against Pakistan in UAE as they can't play spin.

Settled batting line-up-  In my twenty years of watching cricket, I have never seen England having such a settled look to the batting line-up. When I used to watch cricket in the 90's, I used to sometimes bite my nails as it looked like England's batsmen may get out at anytime. It changed a bit with the likes of Tres, Vaughan, Thorpe and later on Strauss, KP doing well, but the present batting line-up looks even better than the one that played in the Ashes 2005.

At top of the order, Cook has shown great prowess of concentration  and has constantly got big hundreds. His knock of 294 in the third test at Edgbaston just proved that point again. Yes, I realise that Cook can get better, if he starts scoring more runs between mid off and cover region, but I feel that he doesn't need to do it. The fact is, he has great prowess of concentration which helps him in leaving deliveries that are full and just wide of off-stump. Strauss has struggled for form in recent times, but looked in decent touch at Edgbaston. The biggest plus for England though, has been the emergence of Trott. In the past, one of the major problems for England was the number 3 slot. To an extent, Butcher and Vaughan did well at that position, but Trott has taken it to another level by getting big hundreds. Trott with his batting brings a calmness to the side that wasn't seen before. My favourite batsman KP too has regained form which is great to see. Last year, it looked like KP was caught between whether he should continue with his old style of live by the sword, die by the sword attitude, or should he look to only defend which in the end, it  didn't help him. In this series though, KP has mixed caution with aggression which is the right way to go as the conditions haven't exactly been batting friendly, but at the same-time, a player like KP should play his natural game. One more batsman, I would like to talk about is Bell. There was a time, when it seemed like he didn't believe that he belonged to the big stage, but nowadays, you look at Bell and you feel that here is a cricketer, who believes in his undoubted ability.

Lower-order grit- More than anything else, it has been a pleasure to watch how well the lower order batsmen have played for the last couple of years. There was a time when Mullaly, Tufnell and co. used to gift away their wickets, but if I look at the present batting line-up, it is completely different as Broad, Bresnan, Swann and even Anderson can score valuable runs lower down the order. One could notice that lower order batsmen were showing far batter application in the Ashes 09 itself, as Anderson and Monty helped England to escape from defeat with their gritty batting at Cardiff. Onions showed it yet again in the Safferland by playing couple of gritty knocks and helped England to draw both those matches. I have always maintained that when lower order batsmen show grit by hanging around with a bat in hand, it is a sure sign that there is unity in the team.

The two Andy's- Of course, how can I not talk about the two Andy's; Andy Flower and Strauss? When Flower was appointed as the coach, there were many people who were skeptical about his appointment as they thought that he neither had the experience to run a national team, nor he had succeeded as a batting coach of England. Flower though, has silenced his critics by helping England to become the number one side as well as helping the team to finally win a ICC tournament in the West Indies.

So what makes Flower tick as a coach of the side? First and foremost, he comes across as a honest man, who won't try to praise his team just to keep himself in good books of the players. He also keeps the cricketers grounded. For Andy Flower, every success is viewed as just another stepping stone in a bigger picture which is to dominate world cricket.

Flower's never say die attitude as a player has also rubbed on his players. Who can forget some of his epic knocks during his playing career? There was a series in India in 2000/01, when he scored more than 500 runs. In that series, in the first match Flower got a vital half century on the last day, but as expected, the weak Zimbabwe team still lost the test. Flower though, always looked for excellence and in the next test, he played even better as he played for couple of days, scored a double hundred and saved the game for Zimbabwe. England team too play in a similar fashion as each player keeps getting better and during a crisis situation, someone will perform well. Along with Flower, I also have to say a few good words about other coaches like Saker, Gooch, Mushie and company, as they too have played their part in helping England do well.

If Flower has been great for England, then what about Strauss? He too has played a major role as a captain to help England reach its goal. Strauss may not have the tactical nous of Taylor, or Brearley, but he is no doubt a very good man manager. It can be seen by the fact that Strauss has helped Anderson to fulfill his potential. Before Strauss, captains like Vaughan, KP, and to a lesser extent Freddie never believed that Anderson's brand of attacking swing bowling can help England to win matches. Strauss though, has shown great belief in Anderson which in turn has helped Anderson to grow as a bowler.
Now a question may arise about whether England can win overseas? So, in future can we see a famous test match victory  at Colombo, or Nagpur? Only time will tell whether this team can do it or not, but at present, I can safely say that England deserve the number one position in test rankings and it is nice to be a fan of England  cricket team at the moment!

On the other hand, what about India? In simple words, the much vaunted batting line-up crumbled like nine pins and the bowling hasn't been consistent enough. Less said the better about India's fielding. In-fact, there were times when it looked like men were playing boys. Let me make it clear that I am not trying to indulge in schadenfreude just because I don't like BCCI, but you expect a team consisting of players like SRT, VVS, Dravid and co. to at least show a bit of fight.

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