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.

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?

2013: It’s going to be a big year

Generally the new year brings with it a sense of renewal, the turning of the page so to speak as we look ahead to the year that is to come and try to identify some people for whom 2013 will be a big year for.

Chris Woakes

Having been on the cusp of full international honours for the past two years, it is probably overly pessimistic to describe 2013 as make or break for Woakes. But one gets the feeling that this could be the year for the Warwickshire fast bowler especially given the recent travails affecting Broad and Bresnan’s form which could open up a gap in the bowler-who can score runs market for England. While his bowling is undoubtedly potent at County level, there are still doubts about his pace – though his role model ought to be Vernon Philander – a bowler of similar pace who does enough with the ball to worry opposition.

MS Dhoni

2013 starts with Dhoni finding himself in a position he’s not probably used to: under a cloud. His own form in Test Cricket is patchy, his leadership of the side underfire as he oversees a team which is palpably in decline with it’s aging batting stars fading and a pace and spin attack which has suddenly losing it’s edge. 2013 ought to be a defining one in Indian cricket, and if Dhoni is to remain in charge he must oversee an overhaul in personnel – dealing with the loss of Tendulkar and Sehwag while continuing to promote the Rahane’s, the Kohli’s and perhaps even the Chand’s, while also finding the right balance of wicket-takers in attack. It’s a tough ask for a captain whose own form is under scrutiny, but if he can set about dealing with India’s problems and set them back on the right track this year then it could redefine Dhoni’s legacy as Indian captain.

Phil Hughes

On the face of it, Australian cricket is on the rise again. They’ve just come off a bumper year in terms of Test cricket results, bar the South Africa series where they did most of the running but fell short at the end, have unearthed a battery of potent quick bowlers and have a captain whose own form has practically gone supernova. Yet scratch beneath the surface, and there are real worrying signs in this team, particularly in the batting line-up which will now say goodbye to Mike Hussey. Their openers have enjoyed up and down results, with Cowan in particular needing to find a big score, at four they have Shane Watson whose injury problems make him the Darren Anderton of cricket and who, when fit, still struggles to convert 50’s to 100’s. At five you have the captain, on another level, and at six you have a question-mark – Khawaja or David Hussey. Hence why this year is a big one for Phil Hughes. Technical and temperamental question marks aside, out of all the top four batsman he boasts the best record of all of them in terms of runs scored in Test Cricket, and one thing you can say about Hughes is that he does, despite all the flaws, score runs. And Australia need him to do it now, it’s a double Ashes year for goodness sake, one in which England are the favourites. Upset the odds and Hughes could make himself a hero.

Angelo Mathews

Something ain’t right in Sri Lankan cricket, something is sucking the life out of it. Perhaps it’s administrators, those greedy men in suits who will skim off the top and refuse to schedule enough Test’s for Sri Lanka. Perhaps it’s the domestic competition, which isn’t developing enough Test ready cricketers, perhaps it’s T20 which skews priorities and hinders player development. Or perhaps it’s the players themselves, who have got on a roll of losing and don’t know how to bring it back. It’s a big question to ask, but Sri Lanka need to get something back into their cricket, some fun, some sparkle, some enjoyment. Hence why this is a big year for Angelo Mathews – because he’s the best person to do it and a likely captain long-term. With Jayawardene, Sangakarra and Dilshan all sidling towards the exit, Sri Lanka need a new hero to look up to, as captain and especially with the bat. The most likely man to do that is Mathews. He’s got the talent, plenty of it, but needs to convert it into a consistent run of scores and if he can do that then Sri Lanka’s batting troubles could be eased somewhat and the give the likes of Thirimanne and Chandimal, good prospects for the future, something to work with and learn from.

Kane Williamson

One of my hopes for 2013 is that New Zealand cricket learns to love itself again. All the cricketing neutrals, bar the Australian’s perhaps, would say that of all the teams that play the game New Zealand are the one’s they most want to do well. We know they’ll never be able to compete in terms of resources and players with the big Test nations, but the fact that they used to so consistently punch above their weight and cause some bloody noses along the way made them eminently likeable. Add in the fact that most of their cricketers came across as decent, down-to-earth guys who played the game the right way and you have a cricket team who are hard not to like. But recently there’s not been a lot of love in New Zealand, in fact there’s been a lot of hate. From the coach who can’t manage, to a cricket board which is falling out with it’s captain and best player, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more inept cricketing structure – an achievement given they share a sport with the BCCI. The shame is, if you look close enough, you can see some green shoots of recovery in amongst all the detritus. They have a pace bowling attack which, finally being led by Tim Southee, has lots of promise, and a batting line-up which, when it fires, can be explosive. It also has unearthed it’s brightest batting prospect, arguably since Stephen Fleming, in Kane Williamson. The boy scores runs, lots of them, and having had a progressive 2012 he’s now the key wicket in this batting line-up. 2013 ought to be the year that really launches him on to a bigger stage, hopefully as part of a Kiwi revival – something all us neutrals would really love to see.

Quinton de Kock

How do you improve the number 1 Test team in the world? Pretty straightforward question, to which there is no answer, yet. The best hope for South Africa in terms of improvement could come from the continued development of a batsman who, by all accounts, is the best young player in the world right now. He scored the fourth most runs at the U19 World Cup last year, averages 67 (!) in domestic cricket, played a couple of sterling knocks in the Champions League for Highveld Lions and has already been fast-tracked to the South Africa T20 set-up. To boot, he can also keep wicket and appears to have the right kind of temperament to eventually step up to Test Cricket sooner rather than later. Who knows, he may even fill that troublesome number six position one day, but 2013 promises to be a big year for a young man with the world, apparently, at his feet.

Sunil Narine

For Sunil Narine, a cricketing career which was progressing so smoothly right up until he hit test cricket has suddenly come to a shuddering halt. All of a sudden all the variations, the ability to bamboozle batsmen which are so potent in the shorter form of the game have suddenly unravelled, and his average of 48 (compared with an average closer to 20 in all other forms) becomes a real hindrance. The challenge for Narine is that, with most other “mystery spinners” once they are caught out in one form, generally it tends to unravel in the other forms and Ajantha Mendis – the great spin hope of Sri Lanka five years ago – is a cautionary tale for Narine to be aware. 2013 will be a big year for him because it will either be the year where he asserts himself in Test cricket and becomes a long-term Test regular for West Indies or he doesn’t and becomes a short-form only player whose abilities to keep an end tight and occasionally knock over a couple of batsmen when they look to attack will be crucial to West Indies. For West Indies and Test Cricket as a whole, you have to hope it’s the former, that he can crack it in the longest form and become a potent force. Because West Indies need wicket-takers, and Test Cricket needs entertainers – Narine could fulfil both criteria, 2013 will go a long way to tell us if he can.

Junaid Khan

Junaid Khan ended 2012 definitively on a high. Ripping the heart out of India’s top order for Pakistan is a big thing, for a young Pakistan pace bowler, given the history of fine pace bowlers who have done the same in the past, it’s arguably even bigger. Thus it was no surprise that the Wasim Akram comparisons were wheeled out afterwards, a left-arm quick taking wickets in Pakistan will always be tagged with the Akram comparisons, but the positive for Khan is that in performing as well as he is, he’s stopped people lamenting the loss of another Pakistan left-arm seamer, Mohammed Aamer. His impact on Pakistan’s performances have been mixed, especially compared with the more consistent output from the experienced spin duo of Ajmal and Rehman. But Pakistan are an ageingteam, one who will soon be reliant on their younger players to lead the way and Khan, as he has already shown is more than up to the task. 2013 should enable him to put an even bigger marker down, with Tests against South Africa, current Test number 1, and a Champions Trophy in which Pakistan ought to fancy themselves as contenders.