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Monday, August 29, 2011

Having a look at Australia's bowling attack


 As the Australian think-tank consisting of captain Clarke, the coach Nielsen and co. sit around on a table to discuss about the bowling combination for the upcoming test series against Lanka, they will have to think long and hard about what can be the best combination to play Lanka in their own den.

Gone are the days of Australian bowlers choosing themselves on the morning of a test match. When Australia had McGrath, Warne, Dizzy, Lee, Macgill and company, all an Australian captain needed to do was to think about whether anyone of them wasn't fit enough to play in the test match. Now though, Australia have a set of inexperienced fast bowlers, led by the enigmatic and unpredictable fast bowler Johnson. In the spin department, the Australian captain can't call upon a cricketer by the name of Shane Keith Warne to bamboozle the best of batsmen with his bag of tricks, instead he has to think of couple of hard-working, but journeymen spinners. Now, it doesn't mean that Australia have a weak attack as the likes of Johnson, Siddle, Harris and Copeland can still bowl out sides, but they no more have the aura of the great Australian sides of the past. So, it becomes important for the Australian think-tank to pick the right combination for the upcoming test series in Lanka.

If I look at present set of bowlers, first and foremost, I would say that they should play to their strengths which is in their fast bowling. Both spinners are greenhorns and the likes of Lyon and Beer are rarely going to trouble class batsmen against spinners.  I would pick three seamers, one spinner, who in the side will have to take up the mantle of doing a holding job with Watson as the batting all-rounder.

A few may argue that Srilankan conditions offers nothing for the seam bowlers. I beg to differ with them, as over the years, most Lankan tracks have offered a bit of help for the quicker bowlers early in the morning. It is just that wickets are slow and whatever help is there for the quicker bowlers will disappear after the end of the first session. I just don't see anything wrong in a team picking three seam bowlers and one spinner for a test match to be played in Lankan conditions provided, the three seamers hunt as a pack and utilize the helpful conditions on offer in the first session.

So who are the bowlers Australia can play in the first test against Srilanka? can they pick a steady seamer, but someone who lacks pace in Copeland? In this article, I would just look at all the bowlers in the Australian squad and finally list out the bowlers, who in my opinion should play the first test. 

Seam bowlers

Johnson- When the enigmatic Johnson gets it right, he is the most devastating bowler going around,  but there is also another side to Johnson, as he can lose his control very easily and bowl like a club level bowler. In short, you never know what you will get with this unpredictable bowler, as he can occasionally be an out and out match winner, but can suddenly lose his control and bowl utter tripe.

Johnson also depends on pace and bounce as he can get awkward bounce. Johnson isn't a swinger of the ball, so he can struggle on wickets when it doesn't have pace and bounce. Yes, he swung it very late at WACA against England, but for me, I still can't fathom how he did it, as the seam was all over the place wobbling on a diagonal line yet, it swung very late. For me, it defied logic.

I am not sure about whether Johnson will bowl well on Srilankan wickets. He bowled well in the onedayers in Lanka, but Johnson usually does well in One-day cricket. Australia though, will need the unpredictable Johnson to fire on all cylinders in the test series. 

Siddle- If I am the captain of a side and I have a bowler like Siddle, he would be one of the first names on my team sheet. As a bowler, Siddle doesn't do much with a ball in hand. So why do I rate him  highly? The fact is, here is a bowler, who runs in all day and bowls at good pace. It seems like even if there is a brick wall in front of Siddle, he will still be ready to run into it and bowl! Siddle doesn't have the talent of Mitch or even Harris, but more than makes it up with his effort. 

Copeland- I have to confess that I have seen Copeland only once and that too in a warm-up match against England before the Ashes. From whatever little I saw of Copeland in that One-day match, I was impressed by his bowling.  England's batsmen took him apart in that One-day match, but I believe it was more due to the fact that Copeland comes across as a bowler, who can be predictable with what he does, so it wasn't surprising to see him leaking runs in that match. In the longer format though, Copeland is perhaps the bowler, who can just do what Australia needs the most, someone who bowls with good control. In that match against England, Copeland was bowling steady stuff and moving the ball just enough either way which is why I feel that he can do well in Lanka.  Copeland bowls at just about medium pace, but on slow wickets of Lanka, Australia can select Copeland as he bowls line and length and would likely utilize whatever little bit of movement, the Lankan pitches may offer in the first session of the test match.

Actually, it is great to see that Copeland has done exactly what I thought of him by taking a five wicket haul in the warm-up game. It is now up-to the selectors to pick him and for Copeland to perform well not just in warm-up games, but also in test cricket. I would like to see more of Copeland, but he seems to be a bowler, who isn't over coached and that is why his brain isn't muddled with millions of theories. He just sticks to the basics of running up straight and hitting the top of off-stump. Now, it doesn't require rocket science to understand that if a bowler runs up straight and hits top of off-stump he will succeed. 

Ryan Harris- Harris popularly known as Rhino is more talented than Siddle, as he can swing the ball and when cracks develop in the pitch, he has the ability to just sit on it all day yet, I may just go for Siddle over Harris. The only reason I am looking at Siddle is, because he is fitter and it requires a bowler to be really fit to bowl in those hot and humid conditions of Srilanka. I was also impressed by what I saw of Pattinson in the final onedayer against Lanka, as he was generating good pace and extracting a bit of bounce, but he is perhaps not yet ready to play test cricket. 

Spinners

The two spinners Australian selectors have picked are Beer and Lyon. Among those two spinners, I have seen Beer bowl in a test match, but to be honest, he didn't impress me. The problem with Beer is, he seems to think that flighting the ball means to bowl as slow as you can which is just the wrong way to go about bowling spin. I have also not seen Beer bowling the arm ball and he struggles to make subtle changes in pace. He may have improved in the last six months or so, but from what I saw of him at Sydney against England, I would say that he isn't the spinner that Australia should play in test matches. The only left arm spinner who looks ok is Keefe, but Australia seem to pick everyone but Keefe.

I am surprised that Australia have shown faith in SLA in recent times, as they have picked both Doherty and Beer for test cricket. I have watched a lot of Australian cricket in the last twenty years and I can't remember a single SLA playing for Australia in test cricket. Australians usually look out for wrist spinners, but at present, they don't seem to have any decent wrist spinner in their ranks. In-fact, wrist spinners like Brad Hogg, Bob Holland, or even Peter McIntyre would have walked into the present Australian side. As far as the other spinner in  the side is concerned, I have heard a few good things about the off-spinner in the side Lyon, but his first class record is poor and has played only five games.

If I was the selector, I would have gone for Hauritz as the main spinner, as he is a steady bowler and can occasionally get bounce.  He is perhaps the right sort of bowler to bowl on Lankan tracks. As the selectors haven't picked Hauritz, I may look at Lyon, as I just wasn't impressed by what I saw of Beer at Sydney. From Australia's point of view, I fear that likes of Mahela and Sanga will milk Beer for runs. So, for the first test against Srilanka, my bowling attack would be Johnson, Copeland, Siddle and Lyon with Watson as the batting all-rounder. Australia though, may pick Harris and a second spinner in Beer.

The fact is, whoever bowls for Australia in the upcoming series against Lanka, they will have the daunting task of bowling  on slow wickets and against batsmen, who are born and bred by playing on slow wickets in Lanka. The likes of Sanga, Jaya and Samaraweera are outstanding at converting their starts into big scores when they play in Srilanka. So, as a cricket connoisseur, I am waiting with bated breath to see how the new crop of Australian bowlers will bowl in Srilanka.

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.