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.

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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.

Joe Root call shows England have learned from Australia and India

One of sport’s great modern perfectionists, Roy Keane, summed up one of the key parts of his approach to footballing success, when he said: “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.”

Keane should know a thing or two about sporting success, and also the importance of making big decisions at the right time to benefit the continuation of success. He worked for Sir Alex Ferguson for over a decade, a man who has built three great teams at Manchester United, and who knew when to cut his losses and make the key calls, which once included getting rid of Keane himself when the time was right.

Preparation is a key part of Andy Flower’s philosophy, he ensures his team play as many warm up games per series than Sri Lanka play Tests annually. He also likes his side to be well drilled, organised, and meticulously prepared for whatever awaits them on the field. No doubt he’d fully endorse Keane’s philosophy, as it was the things which England failed to prepare for – a captain’s form failing, your star man texting the opposition and spinners, damn mystery spinners – that have derailed his team.

What he would also recognise is that two of his side’s biggest wins to date, in Australia in 2010 and now in India, came against side’s who ignored Keane’s mantra and found themselves caught in transition and unprepared to cope with what awaited them.

Australia in 2010 were a shadow of the team which had previously crushed English spirits at will. A group of ageing players such as Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey were required to keep a group of young, inexperienced players and others who were plainly erratic or incapable together in the face of a well drilled unit executing their skills expertly. The sight of Australia throwing in Michael Beer, Usman Khawaja and Xavier Doherty was a joyous one for an Englishman but painful for an Australian. Whereas once Australia prepared a young prospect for Test cricket with baby steps, such was the mismanagement of the departure of their great players one-by-one that they were forced by necessity to push inexperienced players too-far, too-fast. It was a shock they even won a match.

Now India in 2012 have fallen into the same trap. India are a team who have fallen on hard times from their peak of 2010 when they topped the world rankings. Their team are aging, their side disillusioned and their best players are past their peak. The sight of Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar and Zaheer Khan being wheeled out in a hope they could reignite their dying light was at the same time, both painful and awkward. Their futures are the elephant in India’s room.

The transition has again, scarcely been managed. India have two gaps in their middle order following the departures of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, taken by Pujara and Kohli – both of whom who were among the more successful batsmen in this series. But beyond those two, the replacements for Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag will lack experience of Test cricket, while the replacement for Zaheer Khan is still waiting to be found and the mid-series selection of Harbhajan Singh was hardly a ringing endorsement for the young spinners coming through, though if that group is headed by Ravinder Jadeja it’s hardly surprising.

If England’s two successes tell Flower anything beyond the strength of his own team, it’s also that if he wants to ensure their continuing success, then they must manage these scenarios better than those two countries.

This is a lesson which seems to resonate with him. While England’s success under Flower has been built on a cycle of players capable of adapting well to most conditions, he will be well aware that cycles will eventually end, and while the generation of Pietersen, Cook, Trott, Bell, Anderson and Swann are currently in the middle of a cycle of success which has carried them to the top of the world. But in time, and perhaps not too distant a time, this cycle will end and replacements will be needed. Hence why it was noticeable that Flower took time out in a post-series interview to praise the work of the English academy in preparing young players to be ready for international cricket. He also ought to praise the work of his predecessor, Peter Moores, who was integral in setting up the academy, because the work he has put in is reaping rewards.

English cricket has seldom produced as many multi-talented young players, but Flower has shown a keenness to expose them to international cricket which will ultimately be to England’s benefit. Joe Root’s successful debut at number six is the latest in a line of young English batsmen to be exposed to Test cricket. Jonny Bairstow and James Taylor have also performed noticeably well in difficult circumstances in Test cricket – which should boost their development further and prepare them when they permanently need to make the step up. Developing these players, and even younger, yet equally promising, players like Shiv Thakor, Daniel Bell-Drummond and Sam Billings will be high on the agenda for the next two years.

Furthermore the oft-stated intention of Flower to build a pace bowling squad which should enable England to rotate, will be used to prepare the next generation. The likes of Chris Woakes, Stuart Meaker and James Harris have all been integrated tightly with the squad and drip-fed international cricket, and all ought to be considered for the New Zealand tour. While the spin bowling cupboard is slightly barer, Flower has already exposed Scott Borthwick and Danny Briggs to international cricket and Simon Kerrigan has been part of the Performance Programme for the past two winters.

While these may seem like small steps right now, they are all intrinsic parts of Flower’s long-term plan for England, and his plan to expose as many of these younger players to international cricket as early as possible to aid their development. If England’s recent successes have taught him anything, preparing for the future is as important as preparing for the present, as both Australia and India can testify as they underwent their own, tricky, transition.

Ian Bell: The new Daryll Cullinan

In 1935, sports writer Grantland Rice famously coined Gene Sarazen’s albatross on the 15th hole on his way to winning the Masters as “the shot that was heard around the world”. In 2012 against India at Ahmedabad, walking out with his team 69-4, Ian Bell played a shot that was also probably heard around the world – as much because it’s sheer ineptitude caused 10 million England fans to cry out in anguish at the same time.

Andy Bull on the Guardian’s OBO commentary probably described it best: “I cannot believe this. I mean really, really, that may be the single most idiotic, pathetic, embarrassing, humiliating, disgraceful, desultory, excruciatingly awful dismissal I have seen from an English batsman in five years of writing over-by-over cricket coverage.”

I actually feel some degree of sympathy of Bell, his dismissal was that of a man who knows he has a problem and is trying to overcompensate for it by doing something out of his comfort zone in an attempt to display a sense of authority and control, Also, having spent last Winter trying and failing to establish some credentials against the spin of Ajmal, Rehman and Herath, firstly by getting on the front foot and attacking selectively and secondly through staying on the back foot and defending, what other option did he have left?

His dismissal was that of a man whose ordinary gameplan is frazzled, as is his brain. He thought to be aggressive, overly so, dancing down the pitch and trying to hit over the top has long been his release shot against the spinners, but this was too much – a disaster of his own making. It was the shot of a desperate man, and desperate men don’t generally do well as Test batsmen.

His travails against high class spin have now reached a point, arguably where you wonder whether he can ever get it right. His early problems picking Shane Warne become famous, and much-talked about, but then having established a reputation as an attacking player of ”orthodox’ spin or Bangladeshi one’s, came the trauma of last Winter. He has the game, but you can’t help but wonder if he’ll ever get it right against spinners who he can’t pick.

These problems against spin are now so pronounced that they look eerily similar to those of another high class batsman who struggled against a high class spinner – Daryll Cullinan. Cullinan has almost become the prime example of a player who cannot cope, ‘a bunny’ as he was famously called against Shane Warne.

Cullinan, like Bell, was a stylish batsman who was capable of thriving against spin or seam, averaging 44 across his Test career, yet whose famous struggles against Shane Warne became so bad that they dogged him for his entire career – as he was technically equipped to cope but psychologically continually caught in the trap Warne laid for him, no matter what he tried. He admitted, after he retired: “Warne was too good for me. I, only caught on towards the end that I did not do the simplest of things well – and that is watch the ball out the hand. But by then it was too late.”

From one bunny to another the message is do the simple things well before it is too late, and its a message that Ian Bell should remember the next time he takes his guard against a spinner he can’t pick because after today he cannot afford a repeat. Because if he can’t change this record or his own gameplan, his career could well end up looking like this generation’s “bunny”, the English Cullinan. A successful one in some respects, but one where the nature of it’s failure threatens to overshadow it all.

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.

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.