Chris Nash: Bargain of the winter?

The news that Sussex had agreed to release Chris Nash a year early from his contract was probably one of the most surprising pieces of news on the County circuit and after the departure of Graham Onions from Durham to Lancashire, the second case of a County stalwart moving on after many years in the last two months. Rumours suggest it relates to his failure to get the captaincy when Luke Wright stepped down last year, but even so the loss of an experienced and capable player will leave a large hole (arguably improbably large) to fill. Furthermore given the strong suggestion that at 34 he’ll join another county, he could be an excellent signing for an ambitious team next year.

On a personal note, Nash has always been a player I’ve had a soft spot for across all formats. Technically adept, aggressive and capable of scoring consistent and quick runs he’s been regarded as one of the better players in County Cricket for a few years and that’s borne out in the numbers.

Indeed no-one in all formats has scored more runs than Nash since 2010 and he ranks 3rd for runs scored in T20 cricket, 5th in F/C cricket and 16th in List A cricket which is a noticeable achievement for a player who largely operates under the radar.

Runs since 2010

Given the quality of the respective company at the top of the lists, particularly in T20 cricket (given his companions at the top of the list all boast England caps), it’s a surprise his name hasn’t been mentioned as an England option before.

But that’s been a positive for Sussex and his record over the last few years for them is remarkably consistent, with relatively few fallow years with the bat and a consistently high strike rate particularly in f/c and T20 cricket.

Chris Nash Bat

All of which underlines just how hard a time Sussex will have replacing him. Indeed, comparing their team over the last two seasons and Nash tops the rankings for total runs scored across all formats which only demonstrates how big a hole this will leave for them to deal with.

Sussex Bat

When you consider the loss of Ed Joyce to Ireland duty, the retirement of Matt Machan and the release of Craig Cachopa last year, the batting ranks of Sussex have been thinned considerably already with only Stiann Van Zyl stepping up to cover all of which has already increased the pressure on Luke Wright and Luke Wells to provide big runs to cover for the growing gaps.

The question then is how can they cover for Nash’s departure and in short, it’s challenging within existing ranks to see credibly how they can do so bar relying on stellar seasons from Wells, Wright and Van Zyl. The likes of Finch and Burgess may improve while Laurie Evans and Angus Robson have decent pedigree in limited overs and first class cricket respectively. Otherwise Delray Rawlins has a great reputation but is unproven at county level while Archer and Jordan could both kick on further as all-rounders with the bat but beyond that options are short unless a signing is made and even then it would probably have to be from overseas as players of Nash’s pedigree are in short supply domestically. His are big shoes to fill.

As for Nash you can’t imagine he’ll be short for suitors. Somewhere like Kent, a good young team probably needing some experience to supplement it, would be a good fit but given his record you’d imagine most Division 1 sides would probably be taking a long look and you’d be hard pressed to bet against him thriving. Sussex’s loss could well be someone else’s gain.

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Time to unleash the Jonny

Two nil down and facing the prospect of a second successive away whitewash, whilst once again being both out batted and out bowled (save for James Anderson) by Australia, it’s clear that something needs to change for England in the Ashes.

Given the injuries to Toby Roland-Jones, Steven Finn and Mark Wood, the travails of England’s bowling arguably couldn’t be helped but England’s batting problems are arguably harder to explain away beyond the simple point that the quality doesn’t exist. When only four of your batting picks average 40+ in first class cricket (and you clearly don’t trust one of them in Gary Ballance), you can’t expect the personnel to average much more in Test Cricket and thus put up sufficient scores to win games. Which then brings us to the question that England ought to be asking of themselves as they seek to get back into this series: Do we need to pick Bairstow purely as a batsman?

The reality is that for anyone who has followed County Cricket over the last four years, Bairstow is a giant in terms of domestic batsmen. His returns for Yorkshire dwarf anyone else in the County game including some hugely big names. Over the last three years his form has been nigh on ridiculous whenever he’s stepped back into the County ranks, topping the averages with an average of 82 and a century percentage of 35% (plus a healthy conversion rate). The below table highlights the leading run scorers over the last three years in County Cricket (minimum innings 20) and Bairstow averages over 15 more per innings than his closest rival.

Batsmen (Min 20 inns) Inns Runs Ave SR 50s 100s Conv Cent%
JM Bairstow 20 1649 82.45 0.79 5 7 1.40 35.00%
AG Prince 22 1478 67.18 0.68 5 5 1.00 22.73%
AN Cook 22 1445 65.68 0.53 4 6 1.50 27.27%
KC Sangakkara 54 3400 62.96 0.67 10 14 1.40 25.93%
SA Northeast 61 3522 57.74 0.64 16 9 0.56 14.75%
RN ten Doeschate 49 2648 54.04 0.67 17 5 0.29 10.20%
AC Voges 24 1241 51.71 0.53 8 2 0.25 8.33%
BM Duckett 59 2988 50.64 0.77 10 11 1.10 18.64%
JWA Taylor 20 991 49.55 0.57 5 2 0.40 10.00%
LS Livingstone 33 1618 49.03 0.58 9 4 0.44 12.12%
S van Zyl 21 1023 48.71 0.52 4 2 0.50 9.52%
AD Hales 30 1459 48.63 0.66 4 4 1.00 13.33%
AN Petersen 43 1995 46.40 0.62 7 6 0.86 13.95%
MJ Cosgrove 76 3484 45.84 0.64 15 11 0.73 14.47%
RJ Burns 70 3204 45.77 0.51 20 5 0.25 7.14%
WL Madsen 65 2974 45.75 0.55 14 9 0.64 13.85%
T Westley 56 2560 45.71 0.54 13 6 0.46 10.71%
CDJ Dent 71 3199 45.06 0.50 20 8 0.40 11.27%
JL Denly 65 2921 44.94 0.55 16 7 0.44 10.77%
GJ Bailey 20 894 44.70 0.59 5 3 0.60 15.00%

He also had one of the great County seasons in recent years in 2015 (though second only to Sangakkara’s epic 2017 in terms of recent efforts) as the below table of top 10 highest County season averages (min 8 matches) indicates:

Player Mat Runs Ave Year
KC Sangakkara 10 1491 106.5 2017
MR Ramprakash 14 2211 105.28 2006
MR Ramprakash 15 2026 101.3 2007
NRD Compton 11 1191 99.25 2012
NV Knight 10 1520 95 2002
DJ Hussey 12 1219 93.76 2007
JM Bairstow 9 1108 92.33 2015
SG Law 16 1820 91 2003
MR Ramprakash 11 1350 90 2009
MEK Hussey 14 1697 89.31 2003

And of the active England eligible players (if we ignore the bloke the ECB ask us to) he is the only one with a 50+ average in County Cricket (min 20 innings).

Batsmen (min 20 inns) Sum of Runs Ave
KP Pietersen 5031 59.89
JM Bairstow 5937 51.63
LS Livingstone 1618 49.03
ME Trescothick 13729 48.51
AN Cook 6465 47.54
GS Ballance 5396 47.33
JE Root 2679 47.00
NLJ Browne 3831 44.03
BM Duckett 3748 43.58
JM Clarke 2656 43.54
RJ Burns 5711 42.30
DW Lawrence 2072 42.29
IR Bell 8174 42.13
RS Bopara 8844 41.52
NRT Gubbins 2317 41.38
JC Hildreth 13344 41.19
H Hameed 1968 41.00
CT Steel 899 40.86
WL Madsen 8602 40.58
NRD Compton 9186 40.47

So, as we can see. of all the options available to England in terms of batsman to bring in, no-one even comes close to matching Bairstow in terms of output. If this scenario feels familiar, it’s probably because it mirrors the same such debates England were having in the mid 90’s about Alec Stewart and the wicket-keeper position.

Which then brings us on to what are the downsides?

Firstly Bairstow himself doesn’t want to do it and is committed to keeping for England, which is understandable given his keeping improvements over the last two years and the obvious kick he gets from being the focal point in this team. Yet there is a point where England management need to intervene and point out that to truly fulfil his potential greatness as a batsman and help England where their need is greatest, Bairstow ought to drop the gloves. Few wicket-keeper batsmen thrive in Test cricket if their top order cannot post scores (see Quinton De Kock for South Africa this summer gone). England need Bairstow the batsman to make this happen. Plus, unlike for England in the 90s, England have a mean batsman in Ben Foakes as their backup keeper. He may potentially be the best keeper in the world, but he also averages 40+ himself over the last three years in County Cricket.

Secondly, Bairstow’s Test form as a batsman alone is patchy. Which is a fair point

Grouping Span Mat Runs HS Bat Av 100 Wkts BBI Bowl Av 5 Ct St
Keeper 2013-2017 30 2179 167* 44.46 3 113 7
Not Keeper 2012-2015 17 753 95 28.96 0 10 0

Yet Jason Gillespie in 2015 remarked that a key part of his form turnaround was based on allowing Bairstow to dictate his technique and avoiding confusion in his approach.

In reality, given these considerations, the likeliest option available is a move up the order to 5 enabling Bairstow to keep and bat higher up the order (as he does very well for Yorkshire). Yet few keepers in Test history have combined excellent top to middle order batting, particularly in a struggling team, which suggests Bairstow could always be slightly compromised by two roles.

WKTKEEPER

Ultimately given the situation in the series, although there are risks and England will be reluctant to disrupt their fielding and batting by changing their keeper halfway through an Ashes series, desperate times call for desperate measures. With quality batsmen lacking, England should be thinking hard about giving one of their best ones  every chance to shine.

Postscript – Mark Butcher eloquently states the case for this move here. It’s worth a listen. 

Warwickshire: When batsmen fail, you can always blame the bowlers

For Warwickshire, the 2017 County Championship season was something of a disaster and ended in a disappointing relegation to Division Two. Ashley Giles, Director of Cricket, the winter ahead promises to be challenging and he has acted quickly by announcing the start of a “backroom restructure”.

To look at how they matched up in terms of averages for Batting and Bowling in Division One, it’s clear to see where Warwickshire’s problems lie both with bat and ball, although their batting arguably stands out with only Jonathan Trott having anything close to a decent season:

Warwickshire

Even with the arrivals of Adam Hose and Dominic Sibley mid-season, their batting ended scoring the lowest average in the division and scored the joint lowest number of centuries in the Championship. Meanwhile their bowling averages, weakened through losing Chris Woakes for much of the season, was third highest in the Division but below Surrey and Hampshire.

Like, their batting, they’ve struggled to get an experienced unit of players to perform at the level required (none of Chris Wright, Boyd Rankin or Keith Barker broke an average of 35 and had 54 wickets between them) but they were buoyed by a couple of breakthrough bowlers in Ryan Sidebottom (not that one) who averaged 22 for 23 wickets and Sukhjit Singh (2 5fers in six innings) after coming in.

So, who of their specialist coaches was the one who got the chop first? You guessed it, it was Alan Richardson their bowling coach. It’s certainly a twist on the logic that when batsmen fail, it’s usually the bowlers who get dropped.

England: A lament for Jade

There are two images, each nearly four years apart which best demonstrate the predicament which Jade Dernbach and England find themselves in. The first is in 2010 and is of a shattered set of stumps and a Somerset batsman, a certain Jos Buttler, completely bemused as Dernbach bowls a slower ball at the end of an innings which he fails to read. Dernbach reels away in triumph, delighting in another scalp gained courtesy of his miraculous slower ball.

The next image is Dernbach striding away from his mark, chuntering away to himself having conceded 44 runs from his three overs as both David Miller and AB De Villiers have tucked into him like he was a club bowler. No matter what he tried, both the batsman read him like a book and treated him with like he was a club bowler. It is, suffice to say, also a familiar image.

The truth about the two images is that they tell a story. Dernbach was at one time, arguably the most exciting young fast bowler coming through in England, with Mick Newell (coach of Ryan Sidebottom and Stuart Broad at the time) hailing him as the premier pace bowling talent in County Cricket.

Capable of bowling 90 mph with a yorker he had perfected in limited overs cricket and a variety of slower balls which were frequently proving too much for County batsmen. England, a team lacking a quality death bowler since Gough’s retirement and fresh from watching their bowlers get thrashed at the death in the 2011 World Cup, were salivating at the prospect.

However if England were hoping to get their own version of Malinga, the reality at times is that it has seemed more like they have brought in their own version of Mick Lewis. Over the past three years, for every glimpse of the dazzling talent which Dernbach possesses, there are two or three reminders of just how large the gap is between domestic cricket and international cricket – a gap which has proved too much for far too many.

Dernbach’s supporters argue his figures are distorted by the fact that he bowls at the death, and there is some truth to that. Bowling at the death is one of the hardest arts to specialise in, it is a time when a minor mistake will be punished ruthlessly as batsmen seek to attack. It is a tough art to perfect, but one which Dernbach was brought in to do but one which he has so far predominantly failed at – with the worst economy rate in both ODI and Twenty20 cricket to his name.

It is easy to blame the player, as fans are wont to do, and Dernbach himself is hardly the shy and retiring type – as David Willey pointedly remarked in the T20 Final last summer – and at times it appears that Dernbach has lost control and been rattled by the situation and by the slightest hint of a batsman getting the best of him, a marked contrast to the cool confidence of a Malinga or a Bracken – two of the finest death bowlers of the past decade.

Yet England should also accept some of the blame – no-one likes to see a bowler so visibly struggle so often and Dernbach has endured too many hard days, too many hammerings that what little confidence and spark he would have carried in with him has undoubtedly taken a hit. While the management may consider it supportive to stick with a player through the tough times, continually exposing a player in such a way seems counterproductive at the very least. His latest hammering, appears to have been the final straw, but the reality is that England have continually exposed him to the toughest aspect of cricket with little sense of protection and the result has been a very public humiliation.

Yet now as they appear to be parting ways, the saddest part is the what might have been. Dernbach, a talented bowler who appeared to have the world at his feet, stands on the brink of being cast into the wilderness – joining the likes of Ajmal Shahzad and Graham Onions in international purgatory. While some may rejoice at the thought, you can’t help but feel a bit of regret about Jade Dernbach and the sense of what was, what is and what might have been.

 

The Ashes: a captain’s reckoning

If Alastair Cook and Michael Clarke want to understand just how the Ashes can redefine a captain’s legacy, then they needn’t travel far. The Oval, in fact, would be a good place to start – at the door of Ricky Ponting, whose reputation as a captain suffered so greatly as the loser of two Ashes’ series to the English that it tends to overshadow the fine work he did as a leader of a fine Australian team and leading some of the finest cricketers of any generation. Yet that is what the Ashes can do, make or break captains.

One senses that Michael Clarke was aware of that fact, when he opted to tackle the issue head-on in his press conference, summising: “I’ve read it will make or break my reputation as a captain. Personally, I don’t feel like that.”

He may not, but as the great Vince Lombardi opined: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”.

The history of the great and good of English and Australian captains have been shaped by the Ashes. Allan Border’s reputation as a captain is forever forged by the “Mr Grumpy” persona which emerged during his team’s all-conquering 1989 tour. Or could an Englishman name any other opponent which the great Len Hutton or Ray Illingworth defeated in a series, yet the Ashes remain indelibly linked to their name and their successes in those series are writ large in their reputation.

Or consider a recent example – Andrew Strauss. The former England captain, who has entered retirement with his reputation as a leader of high standing still intact, has largely found his greatness built upon the back of his statesman-esque turns in two Ashes series, whilst ignoring the fact that he couldn’t topple the best Test team in the world and found himself at loggerheads with his finest batsman. If the assessment of Strauss’ captaincy is a little harsh in pointing out the (few) wrongs, it only goes show how Ashes success can overshadow all flaws, however small, and forge reputations.

Yet while reputations can be made, they can easily be broken. Nasser Hussain’s captaincy career was fortunate to survive that call on the first day in 2003, and while his tenacity and tactical nous as captain were seldom disputed, his misfortune in coming up against a rampant Australian team means he may never quite get the respect afforded to his predecessors, nor too Michael Atherton, a respected captain of England, but one whose career could never quite conquer the Everest that was winning the urn. Then consider Kim Hughes, a young man, a young captain, but one for whom the Ashes and Ian Botham would haunt quite remarkably and whose repute as a player and as a leader, is forever associated with those events of 1981.

What history tells us is that both Clarke and Cook should be wary of what the Ashes may bring. Both are new to this (ignoring Clarke’s one Test in 2010), and both will soon realise that if playing in the Ashes is very different to every other Test match, captaining in one is a whole different matter altogether.

Clarke, unlike Cook, has had time to forge a considerable reputation as a captain – a sparky, exciting, aggressive captain perhaps like his mate Shane Warne could have been, he has been a bastion of excellence in Australia’s era of ordinary, and at times singlehandedly kept them standing. But Australian’s love winners, and Clarke has yet to prove definitively that his method can bring them victories and that he can make this team a winning one.

He is hardly helped by having a team weakened considerably with the departures of Mike Hussey and Ricky Ponting, but nor has some of the disciplinary issues dogging Australia’s tour of India and now of England, been a positive reflection of the man management within the camp. Cricket Australian may have believed it was Micky Arthur who was at fault, but it is hard to imagine such matters occurring so damagingly on the watch of a Border or a Waugh.

While for Cook, it is a different matter. His reputation as a captain is in it’s relative infancy, and while he appears to be akin to his predecessor, Strauss, in being a man who puts great store in patience and plans without great innovations. He appears to be well respected, capable of leading the way with word but mainly by deed in letting his bat do the talking, yet on the field his method has yet to show the spark of genius which inhabits Clarke’s captaincy modus operandi. And such an approach can, if it doesn’t yield results, can quickly cause the critics to turn. More importantly, unlike Clarke, Cook’s must also cope with that great captaincy killer – expectation. He is succeeding a serial Ashes winner, with a team which is clearly fancied as the favourites by the fans, the pundits and the bookmakers (who normally know better than most), and yet if the wins do not come as many expect, then the pressure inevitably will grow on a young captain with an awful lot to lose.

The reality for both is that the next 10 Test matches will do more to forge their reputation as a captain than any other they play for the rest of their career – Michael Clarke, winning captain of the Frank Worrell trophy, doesn’t quite have the same ring as Michael Clarke, winning captain of the Ashes. Given the limited lifespan of current international captains, it is not inconceivable that come the next Ashes series in 2015, both England and Australia could have new captains in post.

Thus for both, the next 10 matches become even more critical. Whatever the outcome, one man will win, and the other will lose, and their reputations could well be determined by the Ashes, a captain’s great reckoner.

England: For the love of leg spin

Leg spin, the purists will tell you, is the hardest skill of all, yet when it’s done well there are few more beautiful sights in the game than a quality leg spinner turning his arm over and ripping a few past a batsman’s outside edge.

Sadly, such sights are becoming increasingly rarer. If the turn of the century was leg spins equivalent of Woodstock with Shane Warne and Stuart Macgill featuring for Australia, Anil Kumble wiling away day after day for India, Shahid Afridi and Danesh Kaneria coming through for Pakistan, then the current scene is more equivalent to a 16th century puritan party – no flair, no fun.

Leg spin has scarcely gone through harder times with the demise of Kaneria and Afridi, the demolition of Imran Tahir and Amit Mishra, the unravelling of Adil Rashid, Steven Smith, Piyush Chawla and Fawad Ahmed, then the false dawn that was Devendra Bishoo’s brief international career. Internationally, it has gone the way of the orthodox off spinner.

Thus it was heartening to see a young leg spinner emerge almost from nowhere and give England’s test line-up a jolt. Tom Craddock may have scarcely elicited much of a mention in County Cricket’s dispatches but in dismissing Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell and Matt Prior on a sunny afternoon in Chelmsford, he didn’t so much announce himself but stand screaming his own name at the top of a mountain.

It was also a reminder, or more a rekindling of memories from years gone by, of what we have always missed – the love which comes with watching a leg spinner basking in his art. England has hardly been a hot bed for leg spin bowling, but it was heartening to watch a young’un strutting his stuff. Nor is Craddock the only one, leg spinners have been emerging slowly among the County scene, perhaps inspired in their youth by watching Shane Warne destroy England batting line-ups for over a decade, like butterflies emerging from respective chrysalis’.

Yet history tells us to preach caution – Craddock has scarcely played for Essex this season and still has to make himself a regular in the first team. Adil Rashid’s recent struggles with the ball along with Scott Borthwick’s lack of bowling are a reminder of how difficult it is not to develop the art. Meanwhile, those with long memories may remember the names of Michael Munday and Mark Lawson, both promising leg spinning talents who have had an impact on the County game yet fallen away far too soon.

Whatever he goes to achieve in the game, be it being the next Shane Warne or perhaps the next Ian Salisbury, at least we can savour Craddock’s day in the sun. The day when he reminded us that leg spin is something to love after all.

Pakistan: Whither Umar Akmal?

It’s a credit to Pakistan bowlers and their erstwhile captain Misbah Ul-Haq that they even managed to make a game of it against the West Indies. Posting a paltry 170 in the first innings meant Pakistan were always going to be up against it, especially when five of your top seven make single figure scores.

The crying shame for Pakistan is that this was a game they could easily have won with 20-30 more runs, especially with their varied and potent bowling attack. Saaed Ajmal remains arguably the best spinner in the world right now, but he can hardly be at his most potent with just a small target to defend, and while Mohammed Irfan and Junaid Khan are capable of posing problems to most batting line ups but without the runs to support them, they will always be dragging themselves back into games.

Ultimately Pakistan’s batting line-up at the moment is a dead weight dragging the side down. Their bowling attack is up there with the best which Pakistan has had over the past decade or so, pace and height with the quick bowlers, spin and subtlety with the spinners – they have seldom ticked both boxes so effectively. Yet their batting line-up is probably among its worst.

Yesterday’s aberration was the latest in a long line of failures, since the turn of the year they have passed 300 just twice in international matches. The batting is plainly malfunctioning, a line-up reliant upon Imran Farhat, Kamran Akmal and Shoaib Malik – three players who have seen far more of international cricket than their returns would suggest – is poor fare especially compared to the previous vintage of Pakistan line-ups.

How this team could use a Javed Miandad, an Inzamam Ul-Haq, Mohammed Yousuf or Saeed Anwar, the golden standard of Pakistan batting capable of deeds of greatness in even the most trying circumstances. Even an Afridi-esque figure, capable of shifting momentum and turning matches, would be a welcome addition to a line-up stained with an ordinariness which does not befit Pakistan’s rich history.

Given the dire need for some quality batsmen, it makes the absence of its finest batting prospect, Umar Akmal even more perplexing. His star may have waned somewhat, given some poor domestic performances, yet he has a rare quality akin to Inzamam before him in his ability to strike a ball powerfully straight and to rise to the occasion when the occasion demands.

While Pakistan may still view him as a man of the future, given the current line-up, you’d be hard pressed to argue he shouldn’t be a man of today. Pakistan, on recent evidence, could certainly do worse than welcome him back.