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. 

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. 

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. 

Phil Hughes: Hope, Hype and the Slow Death

By any stretch of the imagination, Australia’s tour of India has been bad. A constant diet of bad batting, bad bowling, bad decisions and perhaps worst of all, bad luck. The latest case was Phil Hughes’ dismissal on the final day – an untypically poor decision from Aleem Dar to a ball which, according to the replay, was going down the legside. When things go against you, they really do go against you.

For a man whose previous five scores had been four single figures and a scratchy 19, this was some respite, but he remains a man under seemingly endless pressure and playing like it as well. In an underperforming team, Hughes’ failings have been highlighted mercilessly despite the travails of his other more established colleagues (Clarke apart).

It wasn’t supposed to be like this for him. Just four years ago, Hughes was not so much setting the Test Cricket scene alight as erupting like a firework upon it, becoming the youngest batsmen ever to score two centuries in a Test match against a rampant South African attack containing Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel in only your second appearance will do that.

Just then, when the world was at his feet, the words of Neil D’Costa, Hughes’ mentor, who said “I’ll tell you this; this kid will go all the way”, appeared prescient. An Australian team, lacking a quality young batsman since Michael Clarke burst on to the scene, appeared to have found their era’s Don Bradman, Doug Walters or even Victor Trumper, young Australian’s who achieved extraordinary things.

Unfortunately for Hughes and Australia, history will record something very different. England refused to buy the hype and bounced him out of Test Cricket and put a severe dent in his reputation, and bar the occasional cameo there has been nothing quite to match the giddy heights of his debut. Not so much a Bradman, Walters or Trumper, he appears to be akin to David Hookes – a prolific run-scorer in domestic competitions but one who himself admitted that he struggled technically to cope with the rigorous demands of Test cricket.

But while Hughes’ travails in international cricket remain unrelenting, the question is rather whether Australian cricket can really afford to give up on him.

Domestically Hughes, with the second highest average in Sheffield Shield cricket (behind one Ricky Ponting), has had a prolific season. Bar old heads Ponting and perennial run-scorer Chris Rogers, only Mark Cosgrove and Alex Doolan as potential competitors in first class cricket have performed as well – one unselectable for spurious reasons, the other as yet inexperienced. Nor has his probable replacement, Usman Khawaja, performed as capably. If first class cricket, so often the previous indicator of Test readiness in Australia, is anything to go by then Hughes should by any definition be up for selection.

He almost seems symbolic, symbolic of a system which is failing in its duty to prepare Australia’s players adequately for Test Cricket through an insufficiently demanding domestic competition. Symbolic of a system which glorifies it’s young players too quickly without providing them with time to develop (remember Khawaja-mania?) and a cricketing setup which appears to look unkindly on its players operating their own form of preparation – hence D’Costa’s stinging rebuke against Cricket Australia’s refusal to permit him a one-on-one session with his young protégé.

The truth is that Hughes is what he is, a capable young player who at the age of 24 has the potential to iron out the technical flaws that are holding his game back. He is younger than Mark Waugh, Darren Lehmann and Mike Hussey were when they had scored their third Test Century yet still remains apparently on the cusp of being drummed out of Test cricket for the third time in his young career.

He appears to be a victim of his own success, a prisoner of the heightened expectations which greeted his initial triumphs in Test cricket and the reputation it brought with it. While Waugh, Lehmann and Hussey honed their game in first class cricket, Hughes has been promoted and talked up in international cricket – finding himself having to learn in an environment that is as unforgiving as they come. Little surprise he always bears the look of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

And if Hughes does ultimately fail, Australia have some hard questions to ask themselves. A young player of almost prodigious talent is finding his career strangled by the weight of expectation placed upon him and the realisation that he is not the player he was heralded to be. It has been this reputation which has built his international career, but it could also be the burden which breaks it too.