Jos Buttler: 21st Century Twenty20 Template?

For those who haven’t seen much of Jos Buttler before, and are marvelling at the cameos which he has already delivered in his brief spell in international cricket, then you’ve missed out. Anyone who has watched Somerset play over the past three years will be ahead of the curve already because in the murky world of County Cricket, Buttler stood out like a beacon.

Even from an early age, he was unveiling the ramp shots he plays with remarkable ease, hitting full balls over the boundary rope for fun and keeping up with Somerset’s other notable big hitters – Trescothick, Pollard, Kieswetter and Trego. He has always played, as Scyld Berry notes here, a 360 degrees game with no limit to his ability to lift the ball over the boundary from any angle. All the while, he has executed with an icy veined veneer, giving little away to the opposition about which way he is about to hit the ball, eerily reminiscent of the best finishers. The only question was whether his talent would transfer to the international stage and so far, while the returns haven’t been particularly big, the signs are looking very good.

England has rarely seen a player capable of doing what he, potentially could do. English players have always previously trended towards the orthodox, leaving innovation and audacity to the other Test nations; few have ripped up the coaching manual and displayed such a range of stroke as Buttler. In that regard, he could well be a template for what is the future for English batsmen in the age of T20.

He was only 12 years of age when the first Twenty20 match was played in June 2003 so it’s no exaggeration to say that he’s grown up with cricket’s shortest format everywhere.  His generation is the first which will have developed from an early age with Twenty20 as their possible raison d’etre. Whereas in the past, young players would have been developed with first class or Test cricket as their sole career option, Buttler’s generation live in a very different world.

The ultimate question remains whether he will make the step up in Test cricket in the future, his domestic first class record is inferior to his shorter form one and questions have been previously raised about the robustness of his defensive technique. Nor is there much precedent for the great finishers of one day cricket stepping up successfully in Test cricket. But unlike his predecessors, who knows whether Buttler will even need to step up anyway such is the prevalence of T20 cricket.

But those are questions which will be answered as his career unfolds. For now, we must simply enjoy him for what he is: a young player capable of playing audacious strokes and hitting powerfully around the wicket and finishing an innings with a flourish. England have seldom had few players like him before, though one wonders if he is simply a sign of things to come; a template for how young players will play in the years ahead.


Sussex find a fine line in second chances

In his acclaimed book “What Sport Tells Us About Life” the former England and Middlesex opener Ed Smith discusses the nature of talent and sporting success. The point of Smith’s article is that occasionally failure, and how you deal with failure, can be as important to sporting success as talent.

He wrote: “Formative defeats are usually a central strand in any successful sportsman’s story – because failure, for almost every athlete, is written into the script. The important question is not whether you will fail, but when, and, above all, what happens next”.

The notion is relatively simple, yet also, potentially powerful – writing off talent on the basis of failure is foolish, providing it with a platform to be nurtured and thrive is arguably the key. The notion itself is hardly revolutionary, Billy Beane’s Moneyball is a powerful example of it in practice, but remains a hard thing to pull off consistently.

Watching England play this week though was to see the benefits of such an approach in practice, as their success has been helped by the performances of two men whose careers have thrived following their own second chances, Matt Prior and Monty Panesar.

Prior, lest we forget, was once a cursed man for England. His batting unravelled quickly as his keeping made him a liability, just ask Ryan Sidebottom. He was so bad he was dropped for Tim Ambrose (!), and returned to Sussex with a chip on his shoulder and a lot to think about. Four years on, and you’d be hard pressed to get him out of your all-time England XI.

Panesar was dropped by England when people worked him out. He needed help, but Northamptonshire couldn’t help him. He went a season where he couldn’t get anyone out, found himself below Swann and James Tredwell (!) in the England pecking order. Two years on, one move to Sussex and plenty of first class wickets later and a more confident, assured Monty has emerged.

While both their stories are about two men who find answers to some tough questions, it is also about those who kept asking the question time-and-time-again so they can find the answers. For that Mark Robinson and his Sussex staff deserve huge credit for helping both players along the way.

It’s a recurring theme with Robinson and Sussex, the redemptive “second chance” story. Take a look at their signings this summer – Rory Hamilton-Brown and Chris Jordan – two men with abundant talent, but needing answers to some questions about how to harness it properly.

Hamilton-Brown has had a troubled time since the tragic death of Tom Maynard, which has understandably affected him given their closeness. His game at Surrey when he returned appeared to be falling apart, and he desperately needed a change. Sussex will provide him with that change, and hopefully put his game back together. He remains, in this writers view, a probably one day opener for England in a year or two, given his ability to strike the ball cleanly and his excellent ability against spin. It’s a potent package, it just needs putting back together.

Chris Jordan is a different tale. His talent is clear, as are his attributes, but his struggles with fitness and form have made him infuriatingly inconsistent. He should be a dream for a coach or captain, how many players in English cricket can hit sixes and bowl 90mph? But at times he looks more like a nightmare. He has all the talent in the world, but has yet to show he knows how to harness it. At the time of his release from Surrey, he looked like another bright young thing consigned to the scrap heap. Sussex though, realise the potential, and given their track record know how to cultivate it, so that Jordan’s career could yet hit the heights once envisioned in his youth.

They are in good company in this team. Ed Joyce appeared to be stagnating at Middlesex having been burned by England; he joined Sussex and became one of the most dangerous one day batsmen in England again. James Anyon was a bright young thing gone wrong at Warwickshire but joined Sussex and has become the true heir to James Kirtley as their pace bowling spearhead. Joe Gatting was convinced to pack in a floundering football career for another one as a middle order nurdler.

In a county circuit which, through tightened finances and increased domestic regulation, is finding its player pool getting smaller by the year, unearthing bargain buys from other’s castoffs is a tough business. But Sussex is developing a healthy reputation as the club which thrives on second chances.

Jonny Bairstow: England’s latest contender

An old saying goes: “One man’s loss is another man’s gain”, for England’s prospective batsmen this saying will ring truer than most – chances come rarely, so be ready when they come.

So after Jonny Bairstow was named as England’s latest man to take up the mantle to fill the troublesome number six position which they have yet to fill following Paul Collingwood’s retirement it was hard not to imagine what Eoin Morgan and Ravi Bopara were filling at seeing themselves overtaken by a younger contender.

Morgan’s travails are well documented, and the comparisons with Michael Bevan – invulnerable in one format, vulnerable in the other – now have a real edge as his technique outside the offstump has been unravelled. As for Ravi Bopara – English cricket’s equivalent of Peter Pan – injury strikes at the wrong time, just as he appeared set for his third crack at Test cricket. He offers the best balance with bat and ball, plays aggressively when he backs himself but despite three Test centuries has never established himself with certainty in the side. He appears to be almost a relic of the Hick/Ramprakash generation – a talent unable to ever find his feet at the highest level.

Yet while those two find themselves on the outside looking in, it is worth reflecting on the rapid rise of Bairstow from young prospect to prospective number six. It is a brave call from the selectors who have ignored Michael Carberry’s experience, James Taylor’s potential and Nick Compton’s form, but on the basis of Bairstow’s career thus far, they ought not to be fearful that he could find the step up a difficult one.

As the son of former England international David Bairstow, cricket runs in the genes along with the red hair and some skill behind the wicket, but it is for his batting that he has been picked and in this regard, Bairstow junior has shown a prodigious ability from a very early age – even being named Young Wisden Schools Cricketer of the Year award after scoring 654 runs at an average of 218 as a 17 year old.

Two years later he was thrust into the Yorkshire first team as a 19-year old, forced to replace Michael Vaughan from injury, yet he was not fazed by the rapid promotion and responded with a battling 82 in the second innings as well as taking over the gloves from regular keeper Gerard Brophy.

Having shown he could make the step up, and with Michael Vaughan retiring, Bairstow was a permanent fixture in the side – scoring 592 runs at an average of 45.53. The following season, was even more prodigious – 918 runs at 41.72 as wicket-keeper batsman – and his lower order exploits helped power Yorkshire’s push for the title, twice scoring half centuries as Yorkshire chased down targets that summer against Warwickshire and eventual champions Nottinghamshire.

Though he was having issues regarding conversion, continuing his rapid development he put that right in only his second full season as a County pro, scoring two centuries including 205 against Nottinghamshire, and finishing with 1015 runs at 46.13 in a side which was relegated from Division One and struggled all season long.

England were alerted to his potential and he responded with a fine match-winning cameo on debut against India, and despite struggling on the ODI tour in India in the Autumn, he responded in customary fashion with a couple of sparkling knocks for England in Abu Dhabi and he now appears to be a fixture in both the Twenty20 and ODI teams moving forward, now only the Test side remains for him to conquer.

Expect his batting to be tested, first by the pace of Kemar Roach and Ravi Rampaul for the West Indies and later the battery of South African quick bowlers, but Bairstow’s game is well-built to survive the tests ahead. He scores his runs quickly and with a wristy flourish which recalls Mahendra Singh Dhoni, allowing him to muscle decent length deliveries over the leg side in limited overs cricket, while never appearing ill at ease against either speed or spin and more importantly as continued to iron out any kinks in his technique during his rapid rise.

But he also has a mature head to him, suiting him at key moments for County and Country where others have failed, and which ought to suit him well in the pressure cooker environment of Test cricket and particular to the peculiar demands of balancing attack and defence at number six which Collingwood in his prime did so well.

Next Thursday if England’s selection policy remains consistent then it will be Bairstow who will get his chance at the highest level of international cricket, and while he may be the next cab on the number six rank for England, judging by his career so far Bairstow certainly won’t be phased when the time comes.

Michael Clarke and Chris Read: The Two Sides to Captaincy

Captaincy, as Richie Benaud once said, “is ninety percent luck and 10 percent skill, but just don’t try it without the ten percent”. In an era where the captaincy brain drain is felt more keenly than most both at a domestic and international level, this past week has shown that Benaud’s sentiments still remain true today.

Firstly in the Caribbean there was Michael Clarke’s bold declaration for Australia against the West Indies, setting Darren Sammy’s team a target of 215 to win with little more than 60 overs, was a carrot worth dangling with rain in the air and a fragile batting line-up to prey upon. In the end rain curtailed the contest, but it was Clarke’s declaration which gave us one in the first place.

It was a bold move, especially given the history of West Indian sides chasing against Australian ones in the past decade, but was a fitting symbol of Clarke’s captaincy which has not so much defied expectations as completely redefined them. About 18 months ago Clarke was losing popularity polls to Marcus North and Cameron White (look what’s happened to those two) in the race to succeed Ricky Ponting but it’s hard to imagine anyone else being as comfortable in the role as Clarke has.

He has carved out his own niche as a captain. His bold and daring field placing suggest that his friendship with Shane Warne has rubbed off on him, and unlike many of his peers he seeks to take wickets first and foremost rather than opt for containment – ask yourself how many international captains would have set such a daring target? While the leadership has elevated his batting to a new level – he averages 58 with the bat, as a cricketer it has made him complete. In an era where few dare, Clarke does.

Yet while Clarke’s sparky contribution suggested a captain at the peak of his powers tactically, it was the contribution of one of the more underrated cricketers of this era which was a true embodiment of one of those other qualities befitting the finest captains – the ability to lead by example. While Chris Read and Clarke may make unlikely kinfolk, they share one thing in common: captaincy appears to have brought the best out of both of them.

Read’s abilities are well known and brought with them England recognition, but there was always a questionmark about his capacity to cope mentally with the rigours of international cricket (normally voiced by Duncan Fletcher) which dogged his quest for a regular spot as England wicket keeper. Yet if there were any doubts about Read’s capacity to perform under pressure, his performances as Nottinghamshire captain ought to have alleviated them – not least his latest effort against Somerset.

Read’s reign has not just been wildly successful both in terms of silverware and accolades – County Championship and Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 2010 – but like Clarke it has raised his game to another level as he frequently plays the role of finisher or saviour depending on circumstances. Yet for all the previous efforts, he will be hard pressed to play a more impressive lone hand for the rest of his career.

While his much vaunted top order fell to a series of injudicious strokes, it was left to Read to save the day and after striding out at 5-34 he scored a magnificent 104* in a total of 162 where only one other batsman on his team reached double figures. But for that effort, Nottinghamshire could have crumbled and ultimately it allowed them to escape with a draw on the final day, which was scant reward for Read’s efforts, which even the great cricketing leaders-by-example like Graeme Smith or Ricky Ponting would have been proud of.

And perhaps that is what both he and Clarke have shown this week. That there are two sides to captaincy – a tactical side and a temperamental side which both have a role in their ability to lead, but according to Benaud that’s 10% of it, the rest is luck. Fortunately for both, luck, or the capacity to make their own luck is something they appear to have in spades with bat or brain – a lesson for all captains perhaps.

Phil Jaques: Australia’s Forgotten Man

The last act of a forgotten man?

Australia has had more than its fair share of cricketing hard luck tales. You only have to think back to the likes of Martin Love and Stuart Law who both have first class records the envy of many yet could not get anywhere near selection, or more recently to Brad Hodge and Chris Rogers whose records perhaps merited greater opportunities at a higher level.

Yet while failing to get a chance is just plain unlucky, actually taking that chance and then having it ripped away from you by fate is far more of a hard luck story. In that regard Yorkshire’s newest overseas arrival Phil Jaques probably has the hardest luck of all.

Given his current status way off the radar for Australia’s new selection team it seems hard to believe that just over three years ago it was Jaques who was the man charged with leading Australia at the top of the order when Justin Langer retired. With a fine record of almost 50 in first class cricket, a cameo in Langer’s absence against South Africa in 2005 and consistent ODI progress to fall back on he was the obvious choice.

Indeed such was expectation regarding him that as early as 2005, Steve Waugh said: “In the long term, Australia is lucky to have a player like him coming through. He has the ability to win a match. He is the prototype for young players who want to play for Australia.”

Full-time promotion however did little to stem his run scoring as his maiden Test series contained two hundreds in the series with Sri Lanka, and he followed that with three fifties in the hotly contested series with India before finishing the West Indies series with another century.

Then fate, or rather a problematic disc in his back, intervened. While on Australia’s tour of India he succumbed to it after years of careful management and found himself unable to get up out of his chair. Operation was followed by operation when a replacement disc was inserted, enabling him to be back playing cricket after 12 months out.

Yet when he returned he found an Australian team which had quickly moved on, with Watson and Katich opening after the rise and fall of Hughes, while Jaques had lost his Cricket Australia contract and out of favour because, as he put it: “It’s hard to be remembered when you’re out injured for a year.”

Now over two years on from his return, he remains very much on the outside looking in. Despite the continued decline of Australia’s form particularly in Test Cricket, Jaques has barely registered despite the continued travails of Hughes and Watson at the top of the order and a Test and first class record of 47 and 49 respectively which puts him near the top of Australia’s current list of batsman playing the game.

In part that is reflective of his own troubles to fully shake off the effects of the injury he sustained-his average per season has never risen above 40 since his injury-but also of Australia’s own desire to look to a brighter, younger future with NSW team-mates Hughes and David Warner just two of the players above him in the pecking order for openers despite their inferior records.

Not that Jaques himself is giving up on his dream of returning to play Test cricket just yet, and earlier this year he stated: “I wouldn’t be playing if I didn’t think I could get back there. I enjoy playing first-class cricket, but I love to play in Test cricket and I’d love the opportunity to play again.

Returning to County Cricket, and Yorkshire in particular where his record of 2,477 runs at 61 is formidable, is the next natural step in his progression. Though a recall remains a long way away, with an Ashes summer looming, a prolific County season could yet stick in the selector’s minds.

At a time when Australia’s batting resources have seldom been weaker, Jaques will hope to remind the selectors just what he has done before, and what he hopes he can achieve again.

Michael Carberry: The light at the tunnel’s end

Sometimes cricketing stories are about a little more than just runs and wickets. Sometimes they can be about serious issues such as life and death. For Michael Carberry, his story was a matter of life and death.

Last November, after another prolific summer with Hampshire which helped cement the progress he made over the winter when he was capped by England, Carberry was diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs as he prepared to fly to Australia as part of an England Performance Squad.

The condition was serious enough to prompt fears for the 30-year old’s life let alone his future as a cricketer, but thankfully following  close medical attention and rehabilitation he managed to recover bit-by-bit.

As he said in an interview with BBC Radio Solent in April:

“It’s been a rollercoaster winter, and I’m gutted not to be starting the season. More importantly, I’m just pleased to be alive.”

So as he raised his bat today when he reached his century en route to a battling 140 not out it was understandably an emotional moment for him, and for those who have worked with him during his recovery.

It was a key sign that he was on his way back, that his game was back in decent shape, that his mindset had not been affected by his traumas but also a sign that he could return to the heights which he had touched before his enforced layoff.

Lest we forget that this was a cricketer who little more than 18 months ago was capped by England in a Test Match in Bangladesh and was considered to be the Test openers understudy prior to the Winter tour Down Under.

Here’s hoping that today is the first of many good moments he enjoys as he seeks to make up for lost time and put himself back into a similar position to challenge for international honours once again.

Though the number of contenders for an opening berth have swelled in the past six months, the claims of a fit again Michael Carberry should not be underestimated, especially after the challenges he has faced and overcome to get back to where he is today.

Lancashire: Hail to the Hogg

If Lancashire and Peter Moores want to find a way to make that elusive title victory a reality then they could do a lot worse than find a means of extending Kyle Hogg’s purple patch after the Lancashire bowler again wreaked havoc upon an unsuspecting county batting line-up. It has been an unlikely, and welcome, coming of age for a bowler who has always appeared to boast great promise without delivering conclusive results. Indeed, such was his promise that it once was Hogg who appeared to be destined for greatness alongside his County compatriot James Anderson back in 2003 when on the back of a decent performance in the under-19 World Cup and some promising form for Lancashire he was named in England’s provisional World Cup squad. Yet while Anderson made the grade and promptly went on to put in some eye-catching performances, Hogg was dispatched back to Lancashire where he not so much fell off the radar as disappeared from it altogether.

Injuries haven’t helped, and he has had more than his fair share of them over the years, nor has the competition for places among the burgeoning numbers of seam bowlers at Lancashire which has often meant he has struggled to get into the County Championship line-up which means he has often struggled to put together a consistent run of form and has meant that he has only featured in 69 games, hardly the number of games of someone who has been in first class cricket for almost a decade. Yet this season has not been so much a renaissance as a reminder of what he can do. While he has never had express pace, he always been lively and like most Lancashire pace bowlers he is adept at making the most of conditions when they suit. Though he has never quite mastered the art of orthodox or reverse swing like an Anderson, or boasted the miserly economy of an Chapple though few do.

But as he has shown this season, when he hits his straps he can be a match-winner. 29 wickets in 5 games at an average of nigh on 15 is an eye-catching return for someone who has never really been trusted in first class cricket, while his haul against Hampshire: 7-28 and 4-31 gave him the best figures of the season so far with 11-59, it was symbolic that his seven wicket haul was the first time since 2002 he had taken five or more wickets in an innings in first class cricket. His latest efforts of 5-62 against Yorkshire were probably more important given the status of the opponents and had he not taken quite such damage from the tail enders then he could have easily have had figures to match those he scored against Hampshire.

Admittedly he was as much as fault for Lancashire letting Yorkshire get off the hook as any of their bowlers this was still a hugely successful, and symbolic performance for a bowler who has stuck with Lancashire despite the possibilities of better chances elsewhere. For this has been the season which has been so much of a renaissance for Hogg, than a reminder of what he could have been but for his cursed luck with form and fitness and perhaps a sign that there may be better things yet to come for him.