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. 

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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.

 

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.

The era of the super-keeper

“He completely changed the way we looked at wicketkeepers. After his ascent, specialist wicketkeepers started taking a back seat and wicketkeepers who could contribute big runs with the bat came into prominence.”

Of all the great things which Adam Gilchrist achieved in the game, there can be few more influential things than the change he wrought in the role of the wicket keeper. As Kumar Sangakkara, one of Gilchrist’s contemporaries and a close friend noted, he completely changed the way we look at wicket keepers.

The measure of Gilchrist’s influence has been thoroughly evident recently. In South Africa AB De Villiers has continued to step seamlessly into the shoes of Mark Boucher behind the stumps with 17 catches in the series against Pakistan. It helps when you have bowlers as good as Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and in the final match Kyle Abbott to make the chances but De Villiers is snaffling them well. More importantly for the balance of the team is that his form with the bat has been unaffected, as he finished the season with two centuries, an average of 88 and a place at number five secured.

Meanwhile as South Africa were finishing off against Pakistan, MS Dhoni was compiling what was surely his finest ever innings as he scored his maiden double century and put India in a dominant position from where they can beat Australia. Dhoni’s qualities are well known, particularly in the shorter form, but here was a controlled, powerful display with the bat as he thrived against seam and particularly spin where he took apart Nathan Lyon repeatedly.

If Dhoni is considering giving up Test Cricket, which has long been mooted as a possibility, it would be a bitter shame because this was a captain’s knock of the highest calibre, riding to the rescue as his team tottered and then, Gilchrist-esque, turning the tables decisively.

What both these two and England’s Matt Prior (average 43, six centuries and general heartbeat of the team) have done, is made this the era of Test cricket the era of the super-keeper. It’s easy in a game with as rich and wondrous a history as cricket to fall into a “things ain’t as good as they used to be” mentality, but the truth is that in terms of wicket keeper-batsmen, “things have never been better” is a more fitting statement.

Of all the keepers with the highest average, these three occupy places within the top ten list who have played more than 20 innings as wicket keeper, headed by Andy Flower with Gilchrist, Les Ames, Sangakkara, Clyde Walcott surrounding them. Yet the point is that Test Cricket has seldom had the consistency of quality keeper-batsmen as we have now.

Flower and Gilchrist’s contemporaries included Junior Murray, Mark Boucher and Moin Khan, mainly wicket keepers than batsmen while Ames and Walcott both played at a time when few wicket keepers were expected to bat. Intriguingly two of the next three names on the list are recent wicket-keepers, Brad Haddin and Brendan McCullum, further underlining the point.

And it shows no sign of stopping. Australia have Matthew Wade playing for them, already a very accomplished batsman and a young player who ought to develop capably, while Tim Paine – also a capable batsman – also lies in wait providing he can keep his fingers free of damage. England have recently introduced Jos Buttler, more a batsman than a keeper, into international limited overs cricket while South Africa have done the same with Quinton de Kock.

In time we may come to view Gilchrist as something of a symbol of what was to come, a prototype. Because whereas once such batting exploits from wicket-keepers were something unique, judging by recent events, they have fast become the norm for his successors.

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.

Ramnaresh Sarwan: Fade to Black

A tour to Australia once was something to behold for a West Indian. It was here that Clive Lloyd suffered the humiliation at the hands of Lillee and Thomson which spurred him to world domination, where
Mike Holding and Viv Richards ruled World Series Cricket. It was where Curtley Ambrose and Courtney Walsh rocked on spicy pitches and where Brian Lara didn’t so much signpost his greatness but unveil a fifty foot placard stating: “I rule” as he smashed Australia’s bowling attack to all parts.

Their latest incursion, an One Day International series shoehorned into the back-end of the winter is an inglorious continuation of this tradition, a filthy image of a glorious history. And, it’s been a miserable tour to boot.

The defining image of this tour has been the sight of Ramnaresh Sarwan groping around for semblance of form – two ducks, a hell experienced at the hands of Mitchell Starc – a redemptive tour of duty this most definitely has not been. Watching him play now is akin to what people must have felt watching Colin Cowdrey or Brian Close were recalled from nowhere to return to international cricket. The difference was that while those two were in retirement, Sarwan is just 32 and still conceivably, capable of a return.

Sarwan remains a curiosity, a strange curiosity. Here is a man who four years ago was in the form of his life. If England’s tour of the West Indies was famous for Sabina Park and Jerome Taylor, the other noteworthy point of the tour was Sarwan. His 291, the second highest score scored against England in the past 5 years, was his definitive peak. He was untouchable, in the zone at a highpoint which few batsmen can reach.

Yet nine Tests later, Sarwan’s international career seems over. His last Test was in 2011, he has been ostracized by Ottis Gibson and the West Indian management resulting in a successful legal challenge in the mean time. He is only 32, the same age as Kevin Pietersen, and yet his form has disappeared. If his recent form is a barometer of where is game is then he should be concerned, his recent form for Guyana is inconsistent, he has two ducks in two matches when he should have been pressing his case for recall.

It will be a curious end if indeed it is the end. Sarwan emerged as a prodigy, stuck around for ten years as an indicative boom-bust batsmen in a boom-bust team, not as gritty as Chanderpaul but easier on the eye, yet not as stylish or consistent as Lara. He was a mix of the two, a gritty batsmen who when on form could score big runs stylishly. He was the youngest West Indian to 5,000 runs, has more Test centuries than Chris Gayle, George Headley or Frank Worrell and an average of 40.

In a West Indian team which is still very much in a developmental phase, and with Shiv Chanderpaul aging, on record alone he would surely be a certain pick in a side lacking genuine experience but for his own battles to rediscover the game which made him such a capable batsman in the first place.

In a strange way, his career’s rapid decline has parallels with that of another West Indian right hander of repute, Lawrence Rowe. Rowe’s decline was exacerbated by an eye condition, Sarwan’s are less obvious. Perhaps it is just a decline in form, in fitness or perhaps a mental realisation that maybe at 32 he is no longer that batsman striking with a touch of grace, a flourish and plenty of poise. That is how he would prefer to be remembered, as the boy from Guyana who at times batted like a king. If his final moments in a West Indies team are dark one’s, thankfully they will not be defining one’s.

Brad Hodge: The Last Hurrah?

Brad Hodge: Not why, but why not?

It’s a strange kind of symbolic irony that a new tournament such as the Big Bash League should start dominated with talk of a comeback of an old Victorian hand and end with it too. The film may have been called “No Country for Old Men” but Australia still continues to be an exception. But while Shane Warne’s bark was proved to be worse than his bite, for Brad Hodge it was definitive proof that he remained, as ever, a class act.

And then, with Australia’s retirement brigade growing larger with the exits of Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey comes the next part: The Ashes. As Australia cast their net wide for the next brigade of batsmen, it was interesting to see Hodge put his name forward again with rumours of a first class return for Victoria. It’s a strange and unexpected move, but a complete write off? Never say never.

Sure, there are question marks – lots of them in fact. Hodge hasn’t played First Class cricket in years, gave it up because he got too bored and wanted to hit boundaries. He’s semi-retired, playing club cricket and travelling the world as a Twenty20 top order specialist, a still-headed flayer through the offside who still glistens while capably dismantling the fast and the slow. And then there’s the age, the detrimental impact on Australia’s next generation and the fact that he last played Test Cricket nearly seven years ago. In terms of selection precedents, it’s up there with England in the 1970’s recalling Colin Cowdrey from retirement to face Lillee and Thomson, or Brian Close to face Holding and Roberts.

But, ask yourself a question. Take out age, it’s just a number anyway, and rank Australia’s top ten eligible batsmen and ask yourself if Hodge wouldn’t be part of it. Sure, you have Clarke, Warner, Watson et all, but it gets hard to put him below the rest. And besides, there’s the other factors – flip the youth argument on its head and ask yourself what Australia’s next generation could learn from Hodge, and whether they’d benefit from having an experienced head to guide them through a tricky Ashes summer which, as it stands, looks like it’s a year too soon for their younger batsmen.

Then there’s the motivation argument. Hodge is 38, but judging by the interviews and the talks of Ashes comebacks then it seems something still burns inside him. His Test career remains a curiosity. An average of 55, including a double century, and yet he was dropped after a couple of wobbly Tests against South Africa when Australia’s batting stocks were never stronger.

And yet, as those stocks got thinner and thinner, he was never considered as an option. Without re-writing history but would they really have fared worse in 2009 or 2011 with a middle order which swapped Hodge for say, Marcus North or Steven Smith? And, unlike those bright young things who have been burnt by England already, Hodge remains an icon from a better age in Australian cricket, a man born and raised when Australia ruled the cricketing world and they could use some of that attitude, that confidence, that reputation in a key Ashes year.

Sure, it’s a big call, but Australian cricket was seldom one to shy away from making them when it was at its peak. But if it’s about Australia putting their best XI on the park; regardless of age and reputation, then the question becomes why not Brad Hodge?