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Failure in Asia

Failure in Asia

This feature was written by Rich Dickinson

Another tour of Asia, another resounding defeat. ODIs in the subcontinent have not been something England have relished recently – in 39 matches in bilateral series’ over the last 11 years in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka England have won 10 and lost 29. Of these 10 victories, half have been by the slenderest of margins (16 runs, 2 runs, 5 runs, 6 runs, 2 wickets) and could very easily have gone the other way. The bottom line is English players are poorly equipped, technically, for one-day cricket in Asia – and this is not something that will change overnight, any more than it has changed in the last decade. Noted commentators observed, in the recently-concluded series and the previous one in 2008/09, how the very underlying fundamentals of batsmanship in England are not geared for success in Asia – at least, not success which will match that of Asian batsmen themselves. It will take at least a generation to change this. The good news is, the subcontinent is only part of the picture in World cricket – and the next World Cup there isn’t due for at least one generation. What is needed in the here and now is not humiliated introspection and calls for heads to roll, but a rational look back at how those involved have performed. Here is one shot at such an assessment.

Alastair Cook: a modest tour for Cook as a batsman, as he sandwiched impressive scores of 60 (off 63 and 61 balls respectively) to start and finish the series with three failures (0, 3, 10). But given his excellence last summer (where he scored 467 at 58.37, with a hitherto almost unimagined strike-rate of 95.89), some amount of comedown was almost inevitable. It remains the case that he has been something of a revelation in his second coming at ODI level and there is no reason to suspect he cannot be a rock (and, better still, a cannon) at the top of the order for the next three-and-a-half years and beyond. But as a captain, the impression, first garnered in the summer, that he is rather tactically naive in the shorter game firmly remains. Cook’s use of his bowlers was unimaginative, and he often seemed unaware of how to get the best from them. There is a limit to what you can do as captain when your seamers lack direction and your one bowler who can usually keep a good measure of control is out-of-sorts as Graeme Swann was after the opening game, but Cook needs to learn more, and to do better than he has so far. He has plenty of time to do so. He would also do well to try to keep a lid on his team’s aggression. MS Dhoni’s comment about playing in “a social atmosphere” was a cleverly worded criticism – for all that passion enhances the game as a spectacle, as Graeme Wright once put it “cricket is not meant as a war substitute”. Venom is fine as long as it is mixed with chivalry – but in spite of the protestations of Cook, and Andy Flower, that they struck an acceptable balance between the two in this series, the booing which greeted Cook at the presentation in the final match, from a sparse crowd, firmly suggested that others perceived things differently.

Craig Kieswetter: to this correspondent, it seems almost unbelievable that there is serious question over Kieswetter’s place in the side in the immediate future. His untidy wicketkeeping was indeed cause for some concern and a series as error-strewn as this cannot be repeated regularly. But the very fact that it has attracted the attention it has shows it up as an exception rather than part of the rule. Until this series, when pulling on an England shirt, Kieswetter’s glovework has been perfectly acceptable, and there is no reason to believe it will not continue to be. But he has appeared in all 15 of the serious ODIs which England have played since the end of last winter’s World Cup, and averages just under 34 at a strike-rate of 103 in that time. Additionally, he has demonstrated at the domestic level that he has it in him to be both consistently destructive and consistent in spite of his destructiveness. In this respect, Kieswetter is a batsman of the type England have never, once, in the 40 years they have been playing ODIs, been lucky enough to possess (only his team-mate Marcus Trescothick has ever come close). Rare talent without immediately outstanding performance can be frustrating, yes, but such a situation calls for patience and level-headedness in selectorial circles, not cut-throat hot-headedness. If, as was the case in the 2010 summer, Steven Davies was banging down the door then there might have been some temptation to change. But Davies had a poor season last summer and Kieswetter is thus head-and-shoulders above his competition. To even countenance the idea of bringing in Philip Mustard or John Simpson or going back to Matt Prior or Tim Ambrose, or giving the gloves to Jonathan Bairstow, would be little short of madness.

Jonathan Trott: another good performance (he averaged 50.50 in the five matches, striking at a leisurely but hardly tardy 79.84), another series concluded with as many questions as answers. It is unlikely Trott is ever going to satisfy everyone, but the fact that he is the best number-three in one-day cricket in the country (and, what is more, the best one-day number-three they have had for a good many years), as he has been for a considerable amount of time now, remains beyond dispute. The questions are likely to remain, for his style of play is unlikely to alter, but as long as he, and his team-mates, remain unruffled by them then it should not be a problem.

Kevin Pietersen: as was the case at the end of the 2010/11 series in Australia, and the World Cup, and the series against Sri Lanka, and the home one against India (in which he did not even play), Pietersen’s future in ODIs remains up in the air. There is no question that, over the course of the last ten months, he has not managed to regain a firm grip on the ODI place he lost, justifiably, at the end of the 2010 summer. Yet in that time, batting in the middle-order, he has averaged 31.42 at a strike-rate of 87.82 – figures disappointing for a player of his calibre, but hardly dreadful, as they had been in 2009 and 2010. There were surer signs than ever in India that the grasp of how to play a ODI innings (which for four years 2005-2008 he so clearly possessed to a standard no previous England batsman had ever attained) was returning to him. The feeling that a breakthrough (or a re-breakthrough if that is more appropriate) is just around the corner continues to linger. To dispense with him when the next ODI series in Abu Dhabi rolls around would seem to defy all logic.

Ravinder Bopara: after suggesting, for the first time, that he might finally have gotten to grips with ODI batting last summer, this was a huge step back for Bopara. 80 runs at 16 in the five matches, in which time twice at best did he shape to play a significant knock, made it pertinent for the first time to ask whether he truly has what it takes at the top level. Never did he look out of nick – he just found ways to get out, whether that be playing around innocuous straight balls or chipping simple return catches. And yet, it could also be argued that singling him out would be grossly unfair, seeing as the performances of Cook, Kieswetter and Bairstow were similarly underwhelming. And this is still just the second time in his career that he has been given a full series with the chance to bat in the top-order (the only previous time being in 2008 against New Zealand). To hang a man based on the fact that he has been unable to play unfamiliar roles (lower-order slogger and opening batsman), the only ones in which he has had an extended run, which would be what dropping Bopara now would amount to, would be unfair in the extreme. Time must be running out for him, but there should still be some sand in the hourglass yet. His talent is too obvious for anything else to be acceptable.

Jonathan Bairstow: the familiar trait of over-excitement in relation to the ferocity of hitting power claimed its latest victim when Bairstow got the call last summer. That 21-ball 41* got him onto this trip, and the familiar thud back to Earth ensued. Bairstow averaged 12.25, rarely even looking like staying at the crease for long – he faced just 82 deliveries all series. Eoin Morgan should have recovered from his shoulder operation for the series in Abu Dhabi, and for Bairstow’s sake it must be hoped that he takes the spot back and the pressure off him. Provided Bairstow gets the chance to go back in full to domestic cricket next summer we should then find further evidence of his suitability or otherwise for one-day cricket (where he currently averages under 30 for his county). Right now, there is little evidence of such suitability, but he is 22 years old and the time to be testing him at the top level is not the present.

Samit Patel: whisper it, but the penny might finally have dropped. Not the penny in Patel’s pocket that he could just have a shot at a decent international career if he gets into shape – it seems that that dropped a good few months back – but the penny in the selectors’ that Patel is a potentially useful hard-hitting batsman and nothing more than a part-time left-arm fingerspinner. That sensational 43-ball 70*, and the useful 53-ball 42 in the preceding game, showed what he could do with the willow once a situation finally presented itself where he had a decent chance of showing it – something for which he has been waiting for over 3 years. And his bowling was innocuous, as it has been on 16 of the 17 occasions he has sent the willow down in his ODI career to date. Including that extraordinary 5-41 against South Africa his career record against serious teams is still dreadful, conceding 5.84-an-over at an average of 39.75; excluding it, it is 6-an-over, 54.09. The days of him being picked as a fifth bowler should, hopefully, now be over – but even if he cannot force his way into the top six with Cook, Kieswetter, Trott, Pietersen, Morgan and (presently) Bopara around, he is a considerable quality first-reserve.

Tim Bresnan: it was the sort of series that Bresnan’s ODI career has been made-up of – poor mixed with just-about-acceptable. 10-66-1, 7-41-2 and 7.2-62-2 were followed by 10-40-0 and 9-36-1. Since October 2009, when he became a fixture in the side (he has missed games only through injury in the ensuing two years), he has played 35 games against serious opposition, conceded 5.48-an-over and averaged 41.37. The fact that he is regarded as a senior player with a record like that is a sorry commentary on the state of English one-day bowling at the present time – and, clearly, to leave him out of the side any time soon would achieve nothing positive. But with bowlers as profligate and un-penetrative in the side the batsmen are always going to be under pressure to score an awful lot of runs. And for someone normally relatively mild-mannered, the fact that so many of the unsavoury on-field incidents which occurred through the series seemed to involve him was rather a surprise.

Graeme Swann: after a familiar sequence played out in the opening game – Swann outperforming the rest of the attack by a country mile – the events of the last four were a resounding disappointment. Whether the fallout from the publication of his autobiography, or the persistent and silly criticisms from the commentary-box which, essentially, insinuated that he was too much of a coward to bowl in the Powerplays, affected him will never be known, and given the phlegmatic character of the man must be regarded as unlikely. Like Bresnan, his on-field attitude left a little to be desired, though in his case it amounted more to unrealistic expectations of his own fielders than anything directed at the opposition batsmen. Given his own clumsiness when the ball came his way, too, it looked incongruous. But the most disappointing aspect was his roundly poor bowling in the second and third games (as well as his omission from the fourth on a deck which would have suited him perfectly, and the poor handling of his overs in the fifth). Swann is rightly regarded as a very fine ODI bowler, but his propensity to follow six or seven excellent performances with two or three very poor ones, which has become a recurring trend in his still relatively short career, seems likely to put paid to any hopes of him joining the likes of Andrew Flintoff, Darren Gough and Alan Mullally in the very top bracket. Mind, some better handling from the captain would help. For all the talk of the best bowlers having to be man enough to bowl at the hardest stages of the innings if they are to be regarded as, well, man enough, one of the foremost principles of captaincy is to get the best from your best players. Swann, most of the time, offers real control (and his threat is not diminished) when he has four or five fielders out and the batsmen are looking to accumulate, while with just two or three out, or with the end of the innings approaching and the slog on, he becomes hittable just like the rest; all of the rest, however, are so inaccurate the vast majority of the time that even with five men on the boundary and in the middle of the innings they routinely struggle to contain.

Steven Finn: after the first two games of this series, Finn had played 7 serious ODIs, conceded 5.67-an-over and had an average of 64. He made his debut in Australia last winter only because of a plethora of injuries and the fact that he had remained in the country at the end of the Test series; the fact that he was picked in the ODI squads last summer came as a considerable surprise to everyone. But his performances in the last three games – where he took 10-44-2, 10-45-3 and 10-47-2, were not merely a revelation but one of the most unexpected ones of recent times. Finn demonstrated hitherto unimagined control, and his height and whippy arm meant that even on unresponsive decks he was difficult for the batsmen to get on top of, just as the likes of Angus Fraser, Andrew Caddick and Flintoff have been in the past. His previous performances, at international and domestic level, suggest a lending of caution to the thought that he is now poised to suddenly morph into the next incarnation of those three. But when Anderson and Broad return in Abu Dhabi, where Bresnan and Swann will presumably keep their places, he now unquestionably deserves the fifth bowler’s slot. What happens next is in his hands – and, given he is still just 22, if it is still not his time yet then there is plenty more opportunity down the line.

Scott Borthwick: if Borthwick had been taken on this tour without playing, it would have been possible to see some good coming of it. A tour with a full side (especially a tour of India, with the chance to soak-up its unique atmosphere) can be a useful thing for a young cricketer when it comes without the impossible challenge of bowling to top-class batsmen in the full glare of a full international. But sure enough, and predictably enough as well, Borthwick was bafflingly picked instead of Swann in the fourth game and duly carted for 59 off 8 wicketless overs, on a turning deck what is more. He stands now exactly where Adil Rashid stood two-and-a-bit years ago – a promising 21-year-old wristspinner with no little ability with the bat, who everyone is waiting eagerly to see if he can ultimately amount to a high-quality Test bowling all-rounder. And then as now the England selectors demonstrated their failure to understand something that is not, really, rocket science – unless you are a once-in-several-generations talent (i.e., your name is Shane Warne or Muttiah Muralitharan), wristspinners and one-day cricket simply do not mix. And even Warne and Muralitharan were not excelling in ODIs at 21 years of age. Borthwick, like Rashid, has a poor record in domestic one-day cricket, where he is not an automatic choice for his county. What on Earth he was doing on the plane to India is anyone’s guess. The fact that Rashid had been over-burdened was promptly recognised and he has so far played just four ODIs, one due to injury; hopefully, the realisation that Borthwick has been likewise will be similarly prompt. Whether either Rashid or Borthwick amount to useful bowlers in the longer game remains to be seen – but they will not be helped by being tested in ODIs. Nor will it help England’s ODI prospects, in the immediate or longer term.

Jade Dernbach: in many respects it was hard not to feel sorry for Dernbach as you saw him caned mercilessly around the various parks. But to this correspondent, the sense of near-inevitability was overriding. Dernbach simply had nothing to recommend his call-up to the ODI side – a domestic economy-rate of over 6-an-over suggested a tight line and length is not his strong-point, something which has been unequivocally confirmed in his 12 serious ODIs to date. The low average suggested that maybe he had it in him to be cleaning-up some wickets even while he went around the park, but the overriding impression, given his limited ability to swing and seam the ball, has to be that it is merely the changes of pace which has caused him to take such regular wickets at domestic level. And, well-disguised though his slower deliveries are, the reality is that at international level much more than that is required to cause problems. Nonetheless, the selectors do deserve some amount of commendation for the fact that, having picked Dernbach, they have given him a pretty decent run. This has allowed it to become fairly clear that his bowling in its present state does not come up to requirements, and the fact that he was finally axed for Stuart Meaker with two games remaining in this series was a telling indictment. Whether Dernbach can go away and add to his repertoire remains to be seen, but given that he is already 25 going on 26 he has limited time to do so. One thing is for certain – without firm evidence of improved accuracy the selectors would be foolish to bring him back.

Stuart Meaker: with Meaker, it was as familiar a story as it was with Borthwick, Finn, Dernbach, Chris Woakes, James Tredwell, Ajmal Shahzad, Graham Onions, Rashid, Monty Panesar, Michael Yardy, Alex Loudon, Jamie Dalrymple, Liam Plunkett, Chris Tremlett, Kabir Ali, Alex Wharf, Sajid Mahmood and James Kirtley… to name only those who have played in the last 8 years. Bowler (mostly young bowler, young bowler who might well have shown some promise in the longer game; occasionally batsmen who is picked as a spin bowler), picked after the latest injury or self-destructive sequence, with a modest domestic record, who duly, briefly, becomes a bit-part player then disappears. What happens next with Meaker, as with the other most recent names in that list, of course, remains to be seen, but the omens of his domestic record are even less promising than most of them – economy-rate over 6, average almost 40. The fact that any of them have been selected, however, reflects on the deeper malaise – it has been a very long time since England have been blessed with a crop of capable, never mind excellent, one-day bowlers. The line being led by Anderson, Bresnan and Broad, all with career economy-rates over 5-an-over, paints a damning picture. It is difficult to produce such things when the only domestic cricket you get lasts a mere 40 overs. If the ECB scrapped the 40-over league in favour of a decent-length, properly organised 50-over competition then England’s prospects of developing some ODI bowlers of note would be markedly enhanced. But this is not a new suggestion: Michael Atherton, for example, made it in 1996, and many others have since. If it has been resisted for so long, for so little good reason, then the prospects of it happening any time soon surely remain remote.

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