This post has been very difficult to write… I started writing it just before the first One Day International between England and New Zealand. I was going to write a rather pessimistic piece. Although England had picked a new and exciting side, which spoke of their determination to play a ‘new brand’ of cricket, most of us battle scarred fans scarcely dared to believe these bold claims, and expected that after a bright and breezy start, with Hales and Roy hitting and hoping, England would lose a couple of wickets and then would enter that horrid period of ‘consolidation’.
But it hasn’t worked out like that. I had written an almost complete piece in dire readiness, yet I can’t post it! Because when England lost those early wickets, Morgan and Root and Stokes came in and carried on with sensible aggressive accumulation. It has been extraordinary, and none of us can quite believe it. Morgan’s stroke play, Stokes’ power, Root’s determination and Buttler’s utter brilliance… Wow! And it hasn’t been a simple matter of trying to be more aggressive, there has been a coherence to the team’s approach that appears to be complete-at least in the batting. It is as if they have been playing this way for years, that their team approach and tactics are battle honed, not just discovered on the back of a fag packet that fell from Brendon’s back pocket!
My first piece, full of doubts, was tempered by the truth that New Zealand are one of the best ODI teams I have ever known. Their captain reads the game and is adaptable. Throughout the World Cup what struck most about Brendon McCullum wasn’t his simple aggression, but rather his inventiveness in the field. That our bowlers are expensive isn’t as much as a cause for concern as it might be. There have only been a couple of New Zealand batsman to really prosper-Williamson and Taylor. And while there is still much work to be done with the white ball attack, the continued form of Wood, and the resurgence of Finn gives us hope. It really has been an epic series thus far…
Talking of epic, I recently sat down with my ten year old daughter and-as a kind of rites of passage, watched the film Titanic. I was struck by young Jack’s determination to save his Rose by any means possible. There was no overriding plan, but an adaptable approach that saw every obstacle as an opportunity for new ideas…
A few years ago, England created a team that won matches all over the world. A ‘Plan’ was hatched and that ‘Plan’ worked. Andrew Strauss and Andrew Flower worked out a formula and suddenly England found themselves number one in the world! I was lucky enough to spend an evening eating a curry with Strauss on his return from winning the Ashes in Australia after the 2010-2011 series. I was struck and impressed by his determination to plan everything out so carefully that, in his words, defeat was unimaginable. He and Flower had a plan, they carried out that plan. The plan worked. Happy days.
The problem with England is that they don’t adapt, or they didn’t adapt until four ODIs ago. They are still trying to replicate that plan, oblivious to the fact that the game and the teams playing it have moved on. They had Trott at number three, so when he went they had to find a new one. People who drift in and out of cricket might not realise that Gary Ballance is not a natural number three. For Yorkshire he plays lower, and is a free hitting stroke playing run machine. Yet England asked him to do a job, and a job he has done. Same with Strauss-when he went we didn’t look for a new opener, we looked for a new Strauss. We won down under with an arsenal of tall fast bowlers, so next time we went down there we only took tall fast bowlers. Different ones, but tall. Which is apparently all that mattered, due to the ‘Plan’. We bowled dry. And that was important. Andrew Strauss wrote in his book that bowling dry was the key to winning matches. They had a bowler called Mr Onions, who had taken so many more wickets than anyone else at a ridiculous average and strike rate, but he wasn’t a giant, so he was ignored. More things, in the victorious T20 World Cup campaign we had a lot of success with a new delivery, the slow bouncer! Worked then, but England have been bowling them ever since in moments of crisis and boy are they not working, at least not when we bowl. England themselves are happy to get out against slow rubbish bowling… There are so many boring incidents that prove that England only see one way of winning-the last successful one! It’s the mark of a terribly lead team, the inability to set trends. Alex Hales spoke of the mentality of the Mumbai Indians. He said that what struck him was their belief that great teams innovate, poor teams follow the trends. I am paraphrasing, but the point remains.
The World Cup. A couple of years ago England reached dizzy heights. We won a T20, reached a major ODI final and were soaring high in the world rankings. Again, we had a formula. After Trott had laid a foundation Kevin Pietersen could develop. So Peter Moores, faced with a bemused press as to why England were losing matches to everyone whined that it was difficult for England to compete because they were missing Jonathan Trott! What planet was he living on? When everyone else in the media was writing about 300 being a minimum score, our national coach was missing having a player who would score a century from 140 balls!
All this talk about a new ‘Brand’ of cricket worries me, because it normally only means playing more aggressively. We DO want a more aggressive game, but crucially we want a more entertaining game. Crowds are falling and our players have a duty not just to win, but also a duty to the game itself. Results matter but if nobody cares, what’s the point?
The brand of cricket that New Zealand is playing is not just aggressive, but adaptable. The innings Brendon played in the second New Zealand innings at Headingley was exemplary. The way he waited before pushing on was a thing of beauty. His only ‘Plan’ was to follow the contours of the game and find a way to win. Just like young Jack on the sinking ship, he was alive and awake to the situation and always managed to find a Plan B. Had Cook and Moores been on that ship, they would have sat down, worked out a plan and gone down wet and gasping in the sinking Ballroom, dressed in the finest livery tails (whatever that means). And that would have been fine, because they would have followed the plan and Team Titanic would be all smiles in the dressing room.
Basically, England are too rigid in their approach, and don’t play the game, they play the ‘Plan’.
Or they were doing so until these last four matches. The way Morgan in particular has rediscovered his form is both wonderful and illuminating. I am an opera singer, and during the rehearsal process us soloists receive a lot of coaching and instruction about how to sing the role. It can be that by the time we sing the first night, our heads are so full of ‘notes’ that we forget how to sing! I fear our players were like that! Sometimes all we need is a ‘Go out there and bloody well sing’!
It’s all very well and good for journalists close to the team to assert that the players were given similar instructions, but Morgan’s form would suggest otherwise. The players loved Moores and tried their best for him, and in the trying forgot the play that got them picked in the first place. I suspect that Paul Farbrace has told the players that they are free to play their natural game, free to get out on the boundary without castigation. It depresses me that some journalists were too soon to criticise the team for being bowled out early batting first-they had already scored over 300! Rather a few missteps like that, than a return to older, more ‘planned’ days.
And so all in the garden looks rosy… Until one ponders the none selection of Adil Rashid for the Ashes warm up in Sunny Spain. It appears that England will once again turn to the spin of Moeen Ali to see them through the Ashes Summer. After the bold new world approach of the boys in blue, this grates. I LOVE Moeen as a player, and would do all I can to keep him in the squad, but his record overall as a batsman is behind many other candidates, and his spin bowling is part time. India flattered him last year, and he-helped by working with Ajmal in the county team bowled better than he is. It took around 8 months for an international team to work him out. The Australians must be licking their lips. And what about later on when we find ourselves in the UAE, or in SA. We will again be having a crisis of being spinner-less.
But he fits the plan. I remember when Shane Warne was in his early pomp, and England, devoid of imagination decided that the only way we could compete was to find ourselves a leggie. Many were tried and many were lost, until we went back to an old reject called Swanny, who actually turned out to be the best spinner we have had for fifty years, and who was there for selection all along! Now we are so desperate to replace him that the very notion of playing a leg spinner who might-shock horror-go for a few is considered in some quarters to be laughable! We would rather play a proper batsman at number 8, rather than a real match winning spin bowler! And let us not forget that Adil Rashid scores hundreds down there (lots of them-look it up), and knows how to score with only a couple of bowlers for support. Moeen is a better batsman, sure. But does he know how to shepherd a tail like Adil? Who does it all the while for Yorkshire with great success?
I doubt it. I honestly think that at number 8, Rashid is a better batsman. And I know he is a better spinner. So what’s the point of not playing him?
Still, after my pessimism of earlier there is much to be excited about. If Cook and Bayliss are watching the current One Day series, and not planning to incorporate this new ‘Brand’ then they will fail. If they don’t see that attacking play is the new bowling dry then they will fail. If Cook doesn’t look back to the days when it was Moores as young Jack lustily painting Cook as young Rose naked in Cook’s cabin as the boat was about to sink, and see that new and different plans were needed then, then they will fail. But I have a nagging suspicion that this ODI series stands for something more than the inevitable 3-2 result, and that we are at the start of something new, something big and something very exciting.
Bring on the Ashes!