Tuesday, 6 March 2018

SA need to assert themselves

There is no doubting Australia dominated the opening Test of what should prove to be a most captivating battle between them and South Africa, even if the numbers through the gate do not depict what is undoubtedly a highly-anticipated clash.

The additional bonus is that we are treated to a series of four Test matches, which are not common place these days in an era where schedules are being devised with the intention to decrease the amount of Test cricket. With a four-Test series it allows individual battles to develop as the
teams learn about technical and mental deficiencies, players poke and prod at opponents hoping to identify and exploit any kind of weakness with which to pounce and use against them in the upcoming Tests. That this Test ignited almost immediately intimates that Australia may have premeditated such a theory and reminds South Africa they cannot afford to be as
passive as they were at various times throughout this Kingsmead opener. That Australia wanted the stump microphones turned down so you couldn't detect what was being said is a strong indicator they were planning on hitting the hosts hard.

The David Warner and Quinton de Kock altercation was a regrettable incident. Warner is never shy at initiating a word or two with the opposition, especially when they are under extreme pressure, de Kock will have felt the strain following a poor run of form resulting in South Africa opting to include an extra batsman at six, consequently dropping de Kock back down to a more familiar spot in the order. The content of the exchange will largely remain unknown, with claims that each player resorted to personal insults, something Warner is no stranger to.

Nathan Lyon effected the final act of the run out of the hugely-important AB de Villiers in the second innings before petulantly dropping the ball onto de Villiers, an act that may have provoked a more hostile response from other players, de Villiers impressively managed to keep his emotions in check.
You wonder if a more fiery character, such as a Ben Stokes for example, would have been quite so understanding, or indeed whether Lyon would have acted in that fashion in the first place!

That run out also saw Warner barking helpful words of encouragement in the direction of the highly- impressive Aiden Markram, perhaps the catalyst for the antics later on that day between Warner and de Kock. 

Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazelwood have also all been exceptionally vocal, they sense this South African batting line-up can be brittle, are prone to more than the odd collapse so are heaping further pressure onto them. 

This Australia side are a supremely confident group of players, and why shouldn't they be. The Ashes performances strengthened the belief they had in themselves if they can get their strongest bowling attack fit and out on the pitch consistently. They know they can bowl any side out in the world twice which in turn offers confidence to the batsmen. Not that Steve Smith or David Warner are struggling for confidence, while the returning Marsh brothers are feeling much more at home in Test cricket these days. 

However, verbal intimidation or mental disintegration, or whatever you wish to call it - some even refer to it as 'bullying' - has to be stood up to. South Africa need to meet this aggressive approach head on, that isn't to say they need unleash a torrent of expletives that will only hit them in the pocket and see the award of demerit points or suspensions, but they need to demonstrate they are up for this challenge, in fact, that they want this confrontation and they cannot be intimidated. Currently, they are perhaps too accepting of the Australia behaviour, maybe the de Kock incident will fire them up. 

South Africa have determined and inwardly-tough cricketers, no doubt, but a number of them appear generally quiet mild-mannered individuals and you wouldn't want any forced aggression that they wouldn't be comfortable with. As a team they need to announce themselves in this series. Back in 2005 when England were clear underdogs (unlike South Africa in this series) the importance was clear - they had to stand in the faces of the great Australian side and let them know they weren't there to lie down. 

The first chance England had they all climbed into Matthew Hayden, Simon Jones and Paul Collingwood led the charge and others followed. It wasn't distasteful or crossing the line, it was a sign of intent, they were not going to be intimidated, they obtained Australia's attention, they simply meant business. 

South Africa need to show a similar act of defiance. The partnership on the fourth day between Markram and de Kock was as competitive a period as South Africa showed throughout the Test - but that came at a stage when the Test had all-but certainly drifted away from them. 

As the series rolls on to Port Elizabeth South Africa will need to put down an early marker. Upsetting David Warner is neither against the rules nor particularly difficult - but it is a worthwhile attempt to distract him, same for Steve Smith. This isn't about petty name calling, this is about South Africa not taking a backward step, showing unity in battle (in a cricketing sense), making the two Australian batsmen feel alone out in the middle and like they're up against 11 players. They have a high quality bowling attack to create or relish in this kind of environment. 

Intense cricket between these two nations is not something new, they have history, in 2014 current South African captain Faf du Plessis likened Michael Clarke's Australia side to 'a pack of dogs' as they rounded on him when the batsmen went to pick up the ball to return to the fielding side. Du Plessis needs to instil some mongrel into his side if they are to avoid being walked over in this series. 

Ultimately the side that plays the better cricket consistently will decide the outcome in this most intriguing clash - but in a series of small margins any slight advantage could be crucial. How can the future of Test cricket be in doubt ?

Lawrence injury adds to Essex batting concerns

As Tom Westley edges closer to a full recovery following his finger injury back in December while on tour in Australia with the England Lions, another Essex batsman has been struck down with an injury to a similar area.

Daniel Lawrence has been ruled out of the remainder of the England Lions tour of the West Indies with a fractured hand picked up during net practice ahead of the Lions third Test against West Indies 'A', where Lawrence was expected to make his first appearance of the series.

It was supposed to be a winter where Westley, 28, pressed his claims for a recall to the England Test side, but while fielding against a Queensland Select XI disaster struck. Surgery was required and a  three-month lay-off meant he never travelled with the Lions to the Caribbean  a tour where he will have been keen to impress and show his talent following a period in the Test side where he encountered one or two technical difficulties.

Despite his examination during the English summer, Westley could still have considered himself unfortunate to have missed out on the Ashes squad; he didn't conclusively accept the opportunity he was given in the Test side, nor did he look utterly out of his depth and with no obvious or outstanding candidate to replace him perhaps some favourable selection consistency could have seen him retain his place.

In order to get more Test matches for England Westley will now have to display evidence that he has overcome the issues with playing across his front pad without losing what is an obvious strength in playing through the mid-wicket area. He needs time at the crease which he has been denied this winter due to the unfortunate injury.

On the plus side for Essex, the man that signed a new two-year deal in October will know exactly what he'll need to do when the season gets underway to recapture England's attention and that is score heavily for his county. A man with a point to prove can be a dangerous proposition.

Daniel Lawrence is a batsman of undoubted potential, this Lions trip was to be another stage in his development. He was unfortunate to miss out on the starting XI for the opening Test of the current series in Jamaica; scores of 2 and 35 in the warm-up game against a Jamaica XI weren't enough to convince the selectors to include him ahead of Worcester's Joe Clarke who made a second innings 87 in the warm-up fixture to pip Lawrence to the spot.

If Lawrence is not quite in the running for being 'the next cab off the rank', he's certainly working towards that group of contenders. In Essex's Championship winning season last year, only Nick Browne scored more than his 761 runs which included three centuries. In terms of temperament, 20-year old Lawrence could make a case for already being there, he has the discipline to bat unflustered for long periods but this hand injury is indeed an unwanted setback meaning he'll also miss the one-day series against West Indies 'A'. The full extent of the injury or recovery time required is yet to be confirmed but it may be a race against time to prove his fitness ahead of the start of the County Championship. 

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Meaker aims to hit the ground running

Surrey's Stuart Meaker is a bowler that generates plenty of pace, at 29 hopes of an England Test call-up diminish with each niggle; the injuries are considered simply part of the job for a quick bowler but he’s had worse luck than most in this area. Consequently he is ideally suited to short bursts to protect his body and to ensure he can maintain the high speeds and intimidatory spells that marked him out as England’s next genuine quick bowler during his formative years. Following recent career decisions from Adil Rashid and Alex Hales, you may think you know what’s coming next...but you'd be wrong.

Meaker isn't heading off down the one-day glamour route but instead he has signed for New Zealand side Auckland Aces for the whole month of March in a bid to get some overs in competitive first-class cricket under his belt. Auckland will be hoping it will improve their chances of topping the Plunket Shield table, they currently sit third and Meaker will be available for four of their five remaining  games including a big clash at home to second placed Central Districts. A successful period and he should be ready to hit the ground running when Surrey get underway on 20th April against Hampshire at the Oval.

The opportunity arose on the back of a recommend from team-mate Sam Curran who represented Auckland in their T20 competition (Super Smash) that concluded in January this year. 

It's a brave move from both Surrey and Meaker by opting for an intense month of first-class cricket just weeks before the season begins, this  for a player that has been hampered throughout his career with various injuries. He has averaged just under eight County Championship games a season for Surrey in the last five years and Surrey will hope if he is more cricket-hardened then they will reap rewards in terms of him maintaining fitness and gaining  improved consistency with his performances.

Pace bowlers will inevitably pick up strains and twinges along the way, but a fully fit and firing Stuart Meaker can be such a useful weapon for Surrey and they surely believe this is an opportunity to try and get the best out of the Surrey quick.

Last season was tough on the whole for Meaker; his 21 wickets came at a cost in excess of 41 per wicket and while it's generally accepted that the quick bowler may at times be expensive, his strike rate of a wicket near enough every 10 overs must be improved upon in 2018. 

With that in mind a month blowing away the cobwebs and roughing up a few batsmen in the Plunket Shield seems like ideal preparation in what could be a big year for Stuart Meaker. 

County Championship Exodus Continues

Adil Rashid initiated the path for county cricketers to turn their back on first-class cricket for their counties and sign a strictly white-ball only contract. Nottinghamshire's Alex Hales has wasted no time in following Rashid down this route signing a one-day cricket only contract to the end of the 2019 season.

It seems that opinion is divided on this and maybe it's a generational thing to think that shunning the first-class game shows a disregard for what is the most challenging and testing format but ultimately one that surely gives most satisfaction when you achieve success. Perhaps it's easier to quit than continue the demands of the County Championship and force your way back into England's plans. This would require demonstrating less attractive skills such as consistency, discipline, patience in a less glamorous environment than the packed houses that T20 cricket and certain 50-over fixtures bring. 

Both respective counties, in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, are willing (if not entirely happy) to offer these specialist contracts to their players as they don't want to lose what they both bring to their limited-overs side. With a national focus on the upcoming World Cup in 2019, it seems England have given their approval for players to sacrifice their inclusion in the first-class squads to work on their skills to help England claim the World Cup on home turf. 

An improvement in one-day skills for Hales and Rashid (if their performances are enhanced by this choice) should open the gates for more lucrative opportunities. You certainly can't blame players for attempting to maximise their earning potential, it's just difficult to see how they can do so by not playing the game. They will have the chance to rest the body and I'm sure obtain mental relaxation that comes with a spell away from the game.

Realistically, they could ultimately end up getting paid more for doing less work ? So in theory it sounds like a logical step. Many county players and pundits have taken to social media to condone the decision the players have taken and fully understand why they are doing it but the overriding concern is for the first-class game itself. It would be unfair to say that limited-overs cricket is the easy option; the formats still require huge amounts of skill whatever your discipline is, but you can see how it may be more appealing. It's akin to being the weekend parent that allows you to do all the fun stuff with the kids rather than setting the daily parameters and principles which is fundamentally crucial to their development.   

What irks me is that these are not players at the dying embers of their careers; Hales is 29 years old and Rashid turned 30 in the last week and both could conceivably still forge Test careers. Whether England have told Rashid, or Hales, that Test selection is unlikely and they are looking at alternative options, the heavy weight of runs or wickets for your club presses your claim for a spot more than anything else. Hales is a top or middle-order batsman and Rashid on his day a match-winning spinner, England are on the lookout for players to nail down such spots in the Test side! 

It is also a touch late in the day to be informing their clubs they wish to play no part in the County Championship. One can only think that the club have been made aware of their intentions for some time but delayed the announcement or the finishing touches to the contracts have taken some time. 

There remains a concern and a likelihood that there are more to follow, but for most County Championship supporters they will be hoping sense prevails. The one man that you would expect to opt for a contract containing similar conditions is Eoin Morgan, but this week he has stated his desire to start the County Championship season with Middlesex. Morgan's last first-class appearance came back in July 2015 where he bagged a pair against Somerset, so he has effectively, without signing a contract or making an announcement to confirm, temporarily retired from that form of cricket to an extent. Until this season of course, providing he gets selected. 

Whichever side of the fence you sit on for this debate, one thing is clear and that is that the ECB must do their utmost to preserve and even improve the attraction of the County Championship. The competition has to remain relevant during these changing times, the product on offer should be sufficient to be able to market its captivation and importance but if the quality of the product starts to deteriorate further then things will become much more difficult. 

Rashid shuns first-class cricket

It seems a strange time to take a break from first-class cricket in order to focus on white ball cricket for the 2018 season, and perhaps beyond, but that is the decision that Adil Rashid reached and announced to the cricket world last week. 

Firstly, if Rashid has completely lost the passion and interest for the longer game then there is clearly no point, from a Yorkshire perspective, to continue selecting him for the Championship and making him play if his heart is clearly not in it. Only Rashid will know if this is the case and it's difficult therefore to say he's making a mistake. It is however still a huge surprise to me that he's made this decision. 

He has failed to be signed by an IPL franchise, which would have clashed with the start of the Championship, nor has he been picked up by a Pakistan Super League side for another T20 tournament that concludes on 25th MarchSo he will effectively be twiddling his thumbs (he's been on enough England tours to realise how frustrating that can be) following the one-day leg of the tour in New Zealand until the start of June when the domestic 50-over competition gets underway. 

I personally don't see what he hopes to gain by not playing four-day cricket, or any competitive cricket at the start of the season. Surely he can only develop so much in the nets or on the practice wickets and even though the Championship schedule is hectic he could have made time for some specific one-day cricket training if he wanted that to be his primary focus. I'm sure Yorkshire would have preferred a compromise rather than completely rule him out as a viable option for the County Championship. 

It is a shame for the Championship as a spectacle to lose a player of this obvious talent with both bat and ball. It is a shame for Yorkshire to lose an important player who will have been integral to their plans in four-day cricket  this season. It is even a shame for batsmen looking to develop their skills against quality spin bowling and they would certainly have been tested by the Yorkshire twirler.  

It may be that he feels hard done to by his inconsistent selection for England in the Test match arena, never really feeling like the main spin bowler in the team and that uncertainty and lack of trust placed in him has festered into his performances and thus produced the inconsistency that we've seen from him. He was England's top wicket-taker during his last series in India back in 2016 when he took 23 wickets but couldn't stop England slipping to a convincing 4-0 defeat. He hasn't been seen in a Test shirt since and has now watched as Mason Crane has nudged ahead of him in the pecking order. But with Crane still very much developing as a bowler and Moeen Ali coming under pressure following his dip in form during the Ashes, with the right attitude and level of performance Adil Rashid could certainly have put himself back in the mix, he is still only 29 years of age after all!

Perhaps the England selectors and skipper and club team mate Joe Root just do not see Rashid as a first-choice Test cricketer. They may have detected this lack of interest in the longer-form developing recently and have opted for alternatives to take the side forward in the future. The bizarre decision to select Liam Dawson ahead of him at the start of last summer was an unnecessary kick in the guts for Rashid. While you can understand any annoyance Rashid may have felt from that selection it should surely serve as a motivation to work harder, find that consistency in the longer form and prove the selectors wrong. 

The leg-spinner's Test record of 38 wickets at 42.78 does not demand selection. Even a first-class bowling record of over 35 does not do justice to a player that has his ability, but the fact he averages 33 with the bat in first-class cricket means he is a very useful multi-dimensional cricketer. 

I find it difficult to compute that a player ever selects 50-over cricket and T20 cricket ahead of first-class cricket and the golden ticket that is Test cricket but Rashid clearly doesn't share the same sentiment. In some countries the disparity in pay can dictate a focus on short-form cricket but in England the players are generally very well recompensed. There are continued murmurings that the likes of Jos Buttler and Eoin Morgan could consider following a similar path and I sincerely hope this is not the case, certainly for Buttler who I'm certain still has plenty to offer both Lancashire and England in the longer format. 

I guess the other case in point is whether Yorkshire should have accommodated his request to be considered solely for one-day cricket ? Loyalty to his years of service for the club may have been a consideration and the hope he will soon change his mind and return back to the four-day fray could also be behind their thinking. He is also a key player in Yorkshire's white ball teams and has found consistency in these formats much easier to come by and so Yorkshire will be exceptionally keen to retain his services for their attack on the one-day competitions. 

Time will tell if this sets a precedent for further players to follow suit and sign one-day contracts with their counties, I for one hope this is very much an exception rather than becoming the rule. 

Wagner to return to Chelmsford

Having made such an impact in 2017, both on and off the field, Essex have re-signed New Zealand international Neil Wagner for 2018.

The 31-year old will link up with his old team mates in May, following the early season spell of Australian Peter Siddle who is available to Essex for the first five County Championship matches. Wagner’s contract currently expires at the end of July, however, there is the option for Essex to extend his stay, should they receive the green light from the New Zealand Cricket Board.

While Jamie Porter and Simon Harmer rightly grabbed the headlines for their exploits last season, Wagner was typically aggressive, wholehearted, and demonstrated his uncanny knack of making things happen when a game appears to be drifting.

Essex, and new head coach Anthony McGrath, know exactly what they’re going to get with Wagner; a serious competitor, a bowler not afraid to concede runs in search of vital  wickets, a man willing to sweat buckets and put the hard yards in during any given game and has the added bonus of creating
some useful footmarks for off-spinner Harmer to bowl into. A ploy that worked wonderfully well in 2017.

He can also deliver sustained spells of hostile bowling; content banging the ball in half way down and skidding the bouncers on rarely wasting his energy as his accurate bumpers invariably find their target. The bonus of being a relatively ‘small’ quick, in bowling terms at least, is that the ball tends
not to fly through harmlessly above head height but constantly asks searching  questions of the batsman. It was this mode of attack that rendered West Indies helpless on the opening day of the recent Test series at Wellington in December when Wagner ran through the tourists to record his Test best figures to date of 7-39.

His 31 wickets for Essex last season came at 35.32 in the Championship, but it’s his Test record that really catches the eye; he currently has 144 Test scalps at 27.87 in 34 Test matches, in 2017 he took 36 wickets for New Zealand at 25.47.

Essex have a player familiar with the surroundings and just as important with county cricket and English pitches. Short-term contracts dictate that a player needs to instantly hit the ground running, and there is no good reason why Wagner shouldn’t. His initial contract encompasses just three County Championship matches and a plethora of Royal London one-day games and of course a block of T20 cricket, so all being well I am sure Essex will hope to extend that contract to include more four-day games in the rest of his stay at Chelmsford.

There are bowlers around who may possess more skill with the ball than Wagner, perhaps even the man he shared overseas duties with last season - Mohammad Amir - but character can sometimes be even more crucial to a club and Wagner possess this by the bucketload. 

Monday, 5 February 2018

Eagles swoop for Siddle

Underwhelming. That was my initial reaction when I read my Twitter feed and saw the announcement I had been eagerly anticipating; the unveiling of Essex's overseas player for the first five County Championship matches of 2018.

Without thinking about the bigger picture or reasons as to why it may actually be a shrewd signing, I must confess to being just a little nonplussed. Why was this my overriding emotion ? Let me first of all say that Peter Siddle has been a very fine seam bowler over the years, he has produced when his country has needed him, to play 62 Test matches for Australia and take in excess of 200 Test wickets (456 first-class wickets and counting) at an average of under 30 speaks volumes for the quality Siddle has possessed over the years.

However.....he is now 33 years old and a catalogue of back problems over the years has inevitably seen his bowling lose some of the spite that made him a more effective tool. In this season's Sheffield Shield, Siddle has taken five wickets at 75.20 in the four game he's played, albeit at a reasonable economy rate. Now the pitches, as we saw in the Ashes, can be somewhat flat, but I'm sure Siddle has been wicketless too frequently with the new ball for Victoria's liking.

It is only a short stay for Siddle but the games do come thick and fast, can his body stand up to the  regular cycle of fixtures he will be expected to fulfil while he's here ? The five Championship games he's been signed for all start on successive Friday's and depending on his workload he may need a break at some point.

I also thought, and this really isn't Siddle's fault, that Essex would opt for another left-arm paceman like last season, the twin overseas signings of Mohammad Amir and Neil Wagner worked exceptionally well in terms of creating rough for the spin threat of Simon Harmer. Of course they brought much more to the club than creating favourable conditions for Harmer but it was a welcome benefit to their actions and a successful ploy for Essex.

So they were all my initial doubts. Then as I read through supporters tweets, there were plenty of people clearly delighted with the announcement so I began to think of all the positive things he would bring to the club.

The main benefit in my opinion is his experience and the assistance he can offer the young quicks at Essex. Jamie Porter, who is not an entirely dissimilar bowler to Siddle, save for the extra pace Siddle used to bowl with in years gone by, must be rubbing his hands at the thought of picking the big Victorian's bowling brain. Not just Porter, but Sam Cook, Paul Walter, Aaron Beard, and the academy lads will be queuing up for hints and tips, both technical, tactical and mental.

So it's important he is the right kind of character in order to impart his wisdom willingly and Siddle comes with big wraps from the likes of Darren Lehmann, who Head Coach Anthony McGrath quizzed for the low down using the useful Yorkshire connection.

As well as his wealth of experience in Test cricket, Siddle has experience of English conditions, featuring in Ashes series over here and also playing a season with Notts back in 2014 where he took 37 wickets at 31.48 in the first division of the Championship. He did sign a two-year deal with Notts for 2016 and 2017 but had to pull out of both seasons due to injury.

Despite not having much success with Victoria so far this season he has been economical and you expect him to be miserly for Essex with the additional wicket-taking threat that comes with playing on the greener tracks here in April and May. When he is fit he will run in all day if allowed, never one to shirk the hard yards I expect Siddle will be an exemplary role model, not just for the young quicks but all the players at the club.

It may be that Siddle makes a bigger impact off the field in terms of helping develop the young bowlers, showing them and explaining what it takes to reach the very top and the essential hard work that needs to be put in. For all the positives that Amir and Wagner brought, their ultimate focus was succeeding for their countries, and some may say so it should be, but Siddle will have no other focus other than what his new employers want from him in the short time he will be there. It's unlikely at this stage of his career that he will win a recall to the national side, though stranger things have happened.  

So what is my reaction now to the overseas announcement ? I expect Siddle to be reliable on the pitch, consistent and hard working. He's a competitor, a winner, but I think Essex will potentially reap long-term gains from this short-term contract due to his influence and help in developing the local lads. He's a solid choice and I expect his performances to be consistent if not explosive and match winning but should Porter win us a game or any of the lesser experienced bowlers you can guarantee Siddle will have played some part in it.

SA need to assert themselves

There is no doubting Australia dominated the opening Test of what should prove to be a most captivating battle between them and South Afric...