Friday, June 20, 2003

Cricketing update

I will get to today's game between England and Pakistan later in the post.

Firstly, though, the Australian squads for the forthcoming matches against Bangladesh were announced. As the selectors have indicated would be the case, there is no experimentation or pulling of punches due to the low quality of the opposition. (I have one caveat about that, which I will discuss at length in a moment). Australia have announced full strength sides for both the tests and the one day matches. Steve Waugh will continue as test captain for at least one more series, as expected. (Given that he had the second highest average of any Australian batsman in the series against the West Indies, he couldn't reasonably be dropped, and the selectors probably didn't want to drop him anyway).

For a squad of 13, Australia selected seven batsmen (including wicket keeper Gilchrist) and six bowlers (four seam bowlers and two spinners). This tends to suggest that they intend to continue the side balance they used in the West Indies of six batsmen and five bowlers. Martin Love appears to be the reserve batsman, and which bowler will miss out is hard to say and will probably depend on the conditions. (The complication is that the two bowlers most likely to miss out, Bad Hogg and Andy Bichel, are both good team men, quality players, and useful batsmen). Some thoughts on the balance (which is the caveat I mentioned).

When playing test cricket, it is generally considered asking for trouble to play with fewer than six top notch batsmen. Obviously you need one wicket keeper. If these players are specialists, then you have four spots left in the side to fill with bowlers. The Australian approach has traditionally been to choose the best six batsmen available, the best wicketkeeper, and the four best batsmen.

In England, however, there has been more of a tradition of looking for an all rounder: a player who can both bat and bowl. This will alllow them five batsmen, a wicketkeeper, and five bowlers, with one player in both the batting and bowling columns. This is fine when you have a very good all rounder: someone who would likely be able to earn a place in the side as both a batsman and a bowler. In the late 1970s and for most of the 1980s, England did have such a player in Ian Botham, so this obviously worked fine for them. However, when England do not have an all rounder, they tend to see the situation as abnormal, so they select an all rounder who is not really of test standard as either a batsman or a bowler. In the last ten years, England have selected a lot of players like this, without much success.

This strategy means that England are used to having five bowlers, however, and when they do not have an all rounder, they have a bit of a tendency to replace the all rounder with another bowler, rather than another batsman. (In recent years they have done this and had batsman Alec Stewart keep wicket, to bolster the batting). Australians tend to frown on this, as they believe it makes the batting too weak. However, when Australia were weak in the 1980s, the English press spent a lot of its time expressing its bafflement at Australia only playing four bowlers. Australians were generally baffled by this bafflement, and thought that the problem was more that the four bowlers selected were not bowling well.

In recent years, there has been a trend throughout world cricket towards wicketkeepers who were also good batsmen. Prior to about 1970, this was not generally done, and wicketkeeping ability was considered paramount. (No Australian wicketkeeper had scored a test century before Rod Marsh did it in the 1970s). From the 1970s, though, the batting ability of the wicketkeeper has always been taken into account. Each regular keeper seems to have been a slightly better batsman than the one before. Somewhat amazingly, present Australian wicket keeper Adam Gilchrist is one of the best batsmen in the world, as well as being a wicketkeeper.

This did give Australia more flexibility with selections, but until this year they didn't use it. They selected six batsmen plus Gilchrist, spinner Shane Warne, and three seam bowlers. Warne was so good that one spin bowler was adequate, and McGrath, Gillespie and Lee were plenty in the seam bowling department. So four bowlers were enough.

When Australia lost both Warne and McGrath in the West Indies, they decided to take advantage of their strong batting lineup and play one fewer batsman to bolster the bowling. They played five bowlers (either two spinners and three seam bowlers, or one spinner and three seam bowlers) throughout that series. This worked reasonably (although to be honest I five bowlers without Warne was nowhere near as effective as four bowlers including Warne). The selectors did not have to drop a batsman to do this, as Damien Martyn was out injured.

Which is where we are now. The selectors can either continue with five bowlers, five batsmen, and Gilchrist, or they can go back to four bowlers (in which case deserving players, probably Brad Hogg and Andy Bichel, miss out). If they choose to stay with five bowlers, then either they have to drop a batsman or not select Damien Martyn when he is fit. As Damien Martyn definitely does deserve to be selected when fit, they have a bit of a dilemma. For now, they seem to have avoided the situation by declaring that they will give Damien Martyn more time to recover from his finger injury by not selecting him for the tests (although they did select him for the one day games). This looks like a bit of an evasion to me. I would prefer to go back to four bowlers, six batsmen, and Gilchrist as soon as possible. As it is, the hard decision is being avoided, at least partly because it doesn't matter due to the quality of the opposition. This perhaps is pulling a punch, although only a small one.

The one day side is essentially the side that won the world cup and the series in the West Indies, with Damien Martyn back in for Michael Clarke. Martyn's selection is "subject to fitness". Presumably Clarke will come into the side if Martyn fails his fitness test.

In actual games of cricket being played, England are romping home in the second one day game against Pakistan. Pakistan batted first, and James Anderson took four wickets and had quite a remarkable morning. He took a wicket with the first ball of the match, and he later finished off the Pakistan innings by taking a hat trick. In between Gough and Flintoff bowled well. The only resistance was Yousuf Youhana, who was 75 not out when Pakistan were bowled out for 185 after 44 overs. This is one of those situations where the tail really let their side down. With a player of this quality still in, Pakistan could have managed an excellent score if only someone could have stayed in at the other end. However, nobody did. Kudos to Anderson for removing the tail in such a situation.

Martin Trescothick came out blazing with the bat, and scored 86 runs of 57 balls before being out in the 12th over with the score 1/109. The innings essentially won the match. It's a shame he didn't get the extra 14 runs for a century, because that would have been a quick one. As it is, the England team have lost a couple of extra wickets, but are now crusing home. As I write, they are 3/165 off 20.3 overs. I am not expecting them to have much trouble scoring the 21 runs they need to win of the remaining 29.3 overs with 7 wickets in hand. This will be a very good win for England, who are looking a good side. My expectation is that England will win the third match and the series at Lord's on Sunday.

Update: England took another nine balls to win the match ending up with 3/189 off 22 overs. A very good win for them.

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