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.

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Ricky Ponting: Symbols, Cycles and the Old Ways

Great players often leave great holes behind them

As with anything regarding Australian cricket past and present, Gideon Haigh summed it up best. He once wrote: “Great players often leave great holes behind them; it is a very rare great player who effectively renders himself redundant”. Haigh was writing about Allan Border, but the sentiment could so easily be applied to one of Border’s successors Ricky Ponting, whose final day of test cricket leaves Australia facing a great hole to fill.

When cricketers become symbols of their age, their exit also becomes symbolic. Ponting’s exit is a symbolic moment in Australian cricket, not for what he was but what he represented. His cycle was a golden one, spanning 17 years of (mostly) unprecedented success, but also of turbulent change as cricket has straddled the demands of valuation and values as the rise of the shortest form has posed a challenge to its longest.

And in amongst the cacophony of hyperbole and exaggeration, Ponting was a voice of reason who often stood up for the game’s finest traditions despite being the captain of the world’s most commercially driven and powerful cricketing country.

He frequently spoke of his fondness for his old days of club cricket, retired from Twenty20 such was his disdain for the format and argued long and loud for the protection of Test cricket and Shield Cricket. He even devoted his Bradman oration to a recollection of his youth growing up playing cricket in Launceston and listening to the old pro’s at his cricket club Mowbray.

It’s hard not to feel his passing is significant. Australian cricket finds itself increasingly at the mercy of the game’s shortest form, with the rise of the Big Bash and the IPL enriching a generation of ordinary Australian cricketers, while it’s form in the longest form suffers. It is at a crossroads and Ponting’s traditional values may themselves soon become increasingly obsolete.

Indeed Ponting was very much in the mould of much of the Australian traditions. He was as competitive as they came, a prodigious talent who seldom took a backwards step against any opposition and who fielded with the enthusiastic energy of a greyhound. His aggression at times overspilled, but it underlined the fiercely competitive streak which made the likes of Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson, Allan Border and Steve Waugh real Australian heroes. If anything Ponting was a product of his upbringing.

Yet there are few like him left. Australian cricket needs heroes, people it can identify with, and while it’s technical purists have always attracted purrs of delight. Hard-nosed competitive bastards have always been popular down under, Australian cricket has lost that edge. If the recent examples of Mitchell Marsh and Luke Pomersbach tell us anything, it expects it’s players to be saints rather than sinners. Ponting could be both, but importantly, everyone knew he could easily be the latter if a win was at stake.

Australia will miss that. Ponting was a winner, regardless of the failings of the past three years, and a master batsman to boot. He was symbolic of the age he played in – a winning cricketer in an Australian team which was utterly devoted to it.

He was the golden son of a golden age, and with him passing closes a chapter in Australian cricket which will probably go down as it’s greatest. Ponting led his side to victories, delivered defining innings when it really mattered-too many to count-and at number three dominated opposition bowlers in a style unlike any Australian right hander.

While his place in the side became more and more based upon sentiment as his failures began to stack up, it was a sentiment borne of his standing in international cricket and the nagging fear that one day it would click and the old magic would return and be unleashed on an opposition again.

Nor was his place in the side completely without merit – his form in Shield Cricket where he topped the early run scorers chart – demanded his place in the side, but his failures this summer have merely reinforced the growing gap between the two and confirmed to Ponting that he could no longer continue kidding himself.

Perhaps now neither can Australia. Ponting’s place in the side was a last reminder of what Australia were until recently, a great and dominant side. His departure, and the manner of his decline, are symbolic of the reality of the situation facing them now. The sad reality is that Ponting’s place was as much on merit as reputation such is the dearth of options which Australia have.

Whereas the likes of Border and Waugh could retire safe in the knowledge that they were being pushed for someone else to come in, Ponting has tried to hang on until someone possible came along, only retiring once he no longer felt capable of carrying on.

More ups and downs than a soap opera

The options facing them are scarce. Usman Khawaja, Callum Ferguson and Phil Hughes sit atop the run scorer charts in Shield Cricket, but all experienced as many ups and downs as a soap opera character.

Mark Cosgrove remains an option, but a weighty one unconsidered by the selectors while the likes of Chris Rogers and David Hussey ought to deserve consideration on experience alone but won’t get it. As solutions go it hardly bodes well for the future.

So as Ponting moves into retirement, Australia must confront themselves with the reality of the situation which they have been able to hide from for too long. That great hole the great players leave behind could prove to be an especially great one for Ponting’s successor. Australia may be about to learn just how great the hole really is.

If Ponting’s career was symbolic of the successful Australian team he was part of, his exit in defeat could be equally symbolic of the Australia team which will follow his departure. Competitive, capable but ultimately bereft of the inspiration or never-say-day attitude which Ponting himself embodied more than anyone.

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.

South Africa: Rory Kleinveldt’s Rocky Reception

Sometimes the hardest thing about doing anything is simply getting started at all, and in Test Cricket even seasoned Test veterans will probably tell you that their first one was probably the toughest.

It’s a cut-throat business, playing against a calibre of player who are better, faster and stronger than any you’ve ever faced in your career, with a crowd and audience larger than any you’ve ever experience before and, to top it all off, you’re expected to perform above all expectations. In short, good luck.

So as Rory Kleinveldt marked out his run to begin his first over in Test Cricket, you can only imagine what was going through his head. Nerves, memories, perhaps the memory of the kind words of the well-wishers, supporters and coaches down the years who have helped him reach that point so far. Perhaps it was the words of his fellow bowlers, Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander, both of whom experienced debuts of very differing success.

Earlier in the day, he had enjoyed himself, hitting a couple of sixes and enjoying the creative liberties which are generally afforded bowlers who can hit a long ball, but by contrast, this was the serious business was getting started. His side were on-top, their opposition three wickets down, and the onus was on him to keep up the pressure and perhaps even chip in with a wicket or two.

Sometimes debuts can go like that, Graeme Swann took two wickets in his first over in Test Cricket, Damien Fleming got a hat-trick on his debut, Sajid Mahmood grabbed three quick wickets in fading light against Sri Lanka (at least one a full toss). As Mark Nicholas would call it “the wheel of fortune turned in their favour”.

The batsman facing him was hardly the most daunting. Ed Cowan will hardly go down as one of cricket’s great intimidators. If it was David Warner or Ricky Ponting who was marking their guard then perhaps you could forgive some real nerves. And so as he started on his run, more a gentle amble than a Holding-esque pelt into the wicket, and then turned over his arm, with a fast arm action and unleashed the first ball of his Test career and promptly earned his first ever dot ball in Test cricket. Deep breath, back to your mark, repeat.

In truth, this was about as good as it got. His next ball was a no ball, his fourth was his first boundary conceded, his fifth was his second boundary conceded. His seventh and eighth brought the same results, his twentieth was a boundary, a no ball and a first glare from the captain while his twenty-second was his last ball of the day.

His first spell in Test cricket finished with figures of three overs, twenty seven runs conceded, zero wickets, zero maidens, five fours, four no balls and one glare from the skipper. As starts go, it wasn’t quite on the nightmare-ish levels of Bryce McGain, Gavin Hamilton or Mick Lewis but it made for difficult viewing, except for those who have sung “Waltzing Matilda”.

But, for Rory, there was probably a sense of relief. It was over, the Test debut was out of his system, and while it was a tough first day at the office, it was one day more than before. And he will watch it back, reflect that he was too short, too wide, too often. He made both Cowan and Clarke look like Adam Gilchrist and Mark Waugh.

If this was Twenty20, he’d almost be out of chances, three overs means one to go, but part of the beauty of Test cricket is that players get the time to adapt and perhaps recover once or twice in a single match. Tomorrow is another day, and maybe the day that Rory Kleinveldt’s Test career really begins.

West Indies: Devendra Bishoo and the new hope

Darren Sammy has scarcely had a reason to celebrate during his time as West Indies captain yet as Pakistan crumbled and a procession of batsmen came and went in the afternoon he was beaming from ear to ear.

Perhaps it helped he’d played his own significant part, taking two key wickets, bowling a tight economic spell which helped crank up the pressure will put a spring in anyone’s step but it could have had something to do with what was happening at the other end.

Because it was pretty special. A young leg spinner gripping the ball, ripping leg break after leg break, beating batsmen with flight and guile time and time again.

Good batsmen, experienced players of spin looked like they were facing hand grenades being thrown from a soldier not a young debutant making his first steps into Test cricket. It was one hell of a way for Devendra Bishoo to say hello to the longest form.

Sure it helped he was on a raging bunsen rather than the type of flat deck more commonly witnessed around the world, sure it helped Misbah Ul-Haq got his footwork all wrong and UDRS saw off two of them. But leg spinners tend to have as many bad days as good ones so this was one of those days.

Quite what it means now is anything. Debutants are a tricky one to gauge, particularly leg spinners. Some do well, some do badly, and some do a Bryce McGain. West Indian has had its fair share of false dawns down the years so they more than any will be caution against hype.

But it’s a start for him at the very least. How he progresses will depend very much on how he is handled by the West Indian selectors. Their history with selections is mixed but with spinners it is dire.

The last promising leg spinner the West Indies produced burst onto the scene quickly too, taking wickets in Test Cricket from the off at a respectable average of around 30 but wound up ending his career at the age of 28. One hopes Bishoo doesn’t wind up the same way as Dinanath Ramnarine but there’s always a fine line between success and failure.

Though he may be new to Test Cricket he looked like he belonged there for years. That’s the wonderful thing about watching someone new and exciting making the world stand up and take notice: the fact that everyone wonders why on earth they weren’t there all along.

Indeed Devendra Bishoo, the new hope for West Indian cricket, looked like he could have been here for years. If he carries on like this he could potentially end up doing just that, which is no bad way to start.

Ian Bell: England’s man for all forms of the game

It’s one of the oldest phrases in the book, but what the hell: “Like a fine wine, Ian Bell seems to get better with age.”

At the moment England can’t get enough of Ian Bell, Ashes centurion, slayer of the Australians, now nicknamed “The Terminator” by Shane Warne and recent match-winner of their latest tour game against the Prime Ministers.

Certainly this is a far cry from the hellish experience he suffered four years ago in Australia where one felt he was surely being pushed to within one step of a breakdown such was his torment at the hands of a mighty fine Australian outfit.

Yet that was a different Ian Bell, certainly compared with the authorative, commanding batsman who now regularly accepts centre stage for England though who is rarely afforded it.

Indeed after two years of middling success and a constant barrage of criticism over a whole range of things such as his inability to score a ODI hundred, his inability to score a Test century on his own, and his ability to find such weird ways to get himself out when well set, perhaps now the time finally has come to accept Ian Bell for what he has finally become.

Because he is now probably England’s best batsmen, perhaps in any form of the game. Sure Kevin Pietersen has the extravagance and ability to dominate even the best bowlers, but his double century not withstanding he has still to regularly hit big scores consistently to match up to his talent.

Cook and Trott may have the numbers-Cook the most runs recently, Trott the highest average-but neither particularly dominates. They both set themselves up, to nudge and to nurdle-more to infuriate a bowler than to cow them. Strauss is now more of a dasher-a more dominating and better batsman but not quite as effective a run scorer as in his early days in Test cricket.

All the while there is Bell who in a sense fits the bill of all.

Certainly style is not a problem, as he has a game the purists dream of. His cover drive is nigh on glorious, all high elbow and a lovely fluid movement of the bat while he also sweeps like the best of them.  He now dominates bowlers, not in a Jacques Kallis powerful kind of way, but more through cashing in on poorer balls, threading eye of the needle drives around the park and forever looking to move his feet to come down the track to spinners as if his name were Sachin and he came from India.

Yet he has coupled this with a stick ability that makes him respected. Lest we forget that it was Bell who kept Collingwood company for much of his rearguard action in South Africa, that it was he who played lone hands to keep England competitive when they were down in Perth and in Brisbane.

The question now for him is what next. Exciting times these are for England’s Test number six. One would venture a place at number five in the World Cup will beckon, though don’t be too surprised if a move to open comes about if Davies fails to hit his straps.

He has played that role with moderate success before but he is more than capable of playing it better now as he keeps the scoreboard ticking, can clear the boundary if needed and plays both seam and spin well-something which neither Davies or Kieswetter can state confidently.

Then there is the Twenty20 team. Bell hasn’t been part of that for a long time, but stated after his ton for the tourists against the Prime Ministers XI that he fancied a bit of T20 for England. So here’s a mad idea-make him captain once Collingwood eventually retires and slowly but surely integrate him into the team.

His batting easily surpasses Collingwood, he has captaincy experience with Warwickshire and appears to thrive on it, and his ground fielding-though not Collingwood-esque-is still probably amongst the best in the world-a vital part of T20 cricket.

In Test matches, he’ll almost certainly take on the number five position-as a key pivot in this England team-and may ultimately end up back at number three where he so wants to be in a couple of years.

One wouldn’t doubt him to do it, because after years of struggle things finally look like their paying off for Ian Bell, who now surely must be England’s man for all forms of the game.

The wonder of “The Wall”

Some batsmen have certain characteristics which define them. Tendulkar it is a touch of class with every stroke-particularly the cover drive. Kallis has a more bullish approach, a raw power which eminates with every hit, while Ponting is a tenacity akin to bloodymindedness which makes every stroke a sign that he will not be dominated.

While most opt for aggression, the one thing which you could say about Rahul Dravid is solidity. His game is not built for aggression, he hardly seems the sort who has an aggressive bone in his body. Even in his post-match interviews he comes across with the kind of non-confrontational, articulate air normally the preserve of politicians.

But for a man who plays a game which conjures up various metaphors about life and death, his game has always been about calmness and common sense, about survival before risk and almost always about total dedication to the cause.

Perhaps that is why I’ve always warmed to him. He’s never been flashy, not a showman or narcissist cravenly hogging the spotlight, he has always been the man for the lesser role, akin to that played by a straightman to a comedian.

Some batsmen go out seeking to make headlines, Dravid does anything but. While others in this Indian team, the Sehwags, the Tendulkars and the Laxmans, have flourished with greater style and to greater applause, Dravid’s role has always been about the greatest effort and the greatest effect for the team.

Hence why the news that filtered through about his latest century against New Zealand was so welcoming, not because of the runs that he scored but the confirmation that if anything “The Wall” as he is known was still intact, still capable of scaling heights which were once so easy.

For a man who makes every innings an effort, a struggle for survival, it can’t have been easy watching the very things you pride yourself on, solidity and doughty defence being so easily breached as he struggled scratchily for runs and any semblance of form.

But this innings, this century, was a throwback to those better days when even the finest could spend days on end driven to the point of despair in trying to penetrate his defences and provide a platform for another mighty Indian total.

More importantly though it was simply a riposte for all the critics, all those calling for his head, aiming to bring down the curtain on his long and distinguished career in favour of something new and exciting but unproven and untested.

Surely Dravid deserves better and will certainly get better as the critics have to wait a little while longer.

In truth, while India may not need him as much as they once did, it would surely be folly to discard him so quickly. Granted his age and recent form are against him, but the old maxim remains as true as ever: form is temporary, class is permanent.

In a team full of strokemakers, full of star names and attractive batsmen, Dravid’s role is often understated and devalued. As Frank Keating once described the great English batsmen Ken Barrington: he is “the solid trellis which allowed the Fancy Dans to parade their blooms”.

Dravid plays that role perfectly in this Indian side, opting for stoic defence to allow his partner to flourish at the other end as Dhoni did against the Indians.

In an era of Twenty20 cricket he is perhaps out of step with the needs of the modern generation, but then Dravid has always been an anachronism, a classical batsmen playing in a very modern world.

Perhaps that’s the brilliance of him. That in a cricketing world which values showmanship and image above all else, he has shown that age-old qualities can still thrive in the modern game.

That is his gift, the wonder of “The Wall” encapsulated. His values are ancient, but they are indisputably important in Test cricket-a game which remains remarkably unchanged despite all that has gone on around it-and something which India continue to value and rely upon.

It is this which makes him unique and important to this Indian team. While tougher challenges may lay ahead for him with South Africa around the corner, if anyone can deal with a challenge it is the man who will forever go down in cricketing folklore as Rahul Dravid, “The Wall”.