Friday, February 20, 2009

It's Calypso cricket, Andrew, but not as we know it

Fortune favours the brave. He who dares wins. Just a couple of cliches that could be, and have been, applied to England's 3rd Test in Antigua. If you're feeling particularly vitriolic, you could apply them more specifically to Andrew Strauss's captaincy. In these days of instant success or failure, a lot of questions, if not criticism, will be placed at the spikes of Andrew Strauss.

But this was only Strauss's second Test match as captain proper. It was also one in exceptionally unusual circumstances, although given the Mumbai bombing-affected Tests last December, abandoning one due to the pitch being more like a beach and rearranging the next for two days later must seem like pretty standard fare by comparison. Regardless, several key decisions had to be made, and as it was England drew a Test they should have won.

The first decision was whether to make the West Indies follow on, after dismissing them for a first innings total of 285. Strauss instead chose to bat again. Was he right? England's bowlers were on a roll, there was enough time in the day to take another couple of West Indies wickets, and possibly pile on the pressure for day three. They could have knocked the West Indies all out for an innings defeat, or leaving a meagre total to chase in England's second innings.

But: Flintoff had picked up an injury. Harmison had been unwell all day. In fact the whole team had toiled admirably in the hot sun all day, and would have to do so again indefinitely the next day. Batting again, the West Indies could have posted a total some 200/250 ahead of England, leaving Strauss's men a difficult run chase and the danger of losing. And bearing in mind the last match's 51...

So for my money, it seems in hindsight that not enforcing the follow on was the right choice. By leading England out to bat again, Strauss ensured that England eventually put themselves in an unassailable position - 500 runs ahead. But one or two points stick with how he got there.

The second decision in sending James Anderson out as a nightwatchman at the end of day three was too defensive. We weren't protecting a lead because every run gained was an extra piece of the target for West Indies to have to chase, so a lower order nightwatchman was a hindrance as Anderson slowed things down - especially on the morning of day four - in Strauss's quest to reach a 500+ lead. Thirdly, there are question marks over the need to have that high a lead anyway. By giving the West Indies 450 or so to think about, a carrot dangling so to speak, they may have been inclined to go for their shots, take risks, and be more likely to go out. Did Strauss effectively price Windies out of the game to England's cost? Was he too worried about losing?

Well, really the answer is no. The Windies reached 380 - not all out, either - when trying not to take risks and score lots of runs. The ground, small and uneven, is notorious for having big run-scoring records broken on it. A lead of anything less than 500 would have been less of a carrot dangling, and more on a plate: England bowled 128 overs defending 503, and even then the West Indies only needed to score 4 an over to win against that lead. If they'd have been actually trying to score runs to win rather than avoid defeat, and especially if that target had been sub-500, who would have bet against the Windies getting there?

So we've established that Strauss's decision not to enforce the follow on was correct, the decision to declare with a 500+ lead was sensible, even if putting out Anderson slowed up the scoring. Why, then, did England not win?

There's a case to be made for the weather. England lost 75 minutes bowling time to rain, and bearing in mind England spent about 35 minutes trying to get the last wicket, it would be safe to say that with an extra 75 minutes that task would have been achieved. Of course, that is too simplistic because in the morning both Chanderpaul and Sarwan were at the crease, so it was they who would have taken up the minutes. but who's to say we'd not have rattled through them before tea, if it hadn't been for the rain?

Ifs, buts, maybes. The real truth of the matter, and the central point to this roundabout defence of Andrew Strauss, is that he is captain of a side that is not as good as it was two, three, four years ago - bowling especially. Anderson and Harmison shared just four of the 19 West Indies wickets to fall - Harmison in particular looked sluggish, bowling short and erratically for the most part. Swann is a virtual beginner in Test cricket, bowling in just his third ever Test - and he was England's keynote spinner. Broad, so useful in the second innings, remains expensive, and is only just beginning to show signs of maturing into a consistent world class bowler. Flintoff was the man to make things happen with the ball, but is short of full fitness and hasn't made a noteworthy score with the bat since returning from injury.

On the subject of batting, Pietersen's oddly subdued innings, Cook's two unconverted 50s, Owais Shah's uneventful debut and Collingwood's place-saving (career-saving?) century all went unnoticed in the excitement. No real complaints but overall, England were taught a lesson in Antigua on how to bat in the face of adversity, how to apply oneself to the task in hand and contribute to a match-saving team effort.

Cometh the hour, it was cometh the West Indies performers. England have got positives to build upon - I remain convinced that this match would have been an England victory but for the rain delay - but Strauss has got to ensure his troops are rallied, confident and prepared to win in the 4th Test.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Tweet, to who? It doesn't matter

Though Facebook was celebrating its fifth birthday this month with its 150m users, the party has been overshadowed by the spiralling stock of a rival social media platform. ‘Suddenly, it seems as though all the world’s a-twitter’, goes one of the social networking site’s snippet-like reviews. That might have been considered a premature verdict to... Read more

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Transfer window of opportunity disappoints

No takeovers, no £100m Kaka, no Robinho-style steal, no big names: 2008/2009's January transfer window was a shadow of the start of season sales. The obvious pick out of this lacklustre window is the farcical 'Robbie Keane returns to Spurs' story, the Irish whinger making a south-bound trip down the road he'd taken North only six months before to follow his 'boyhood dream' move to Liverpool. Farcical because it went against Rafa Benitez's continued assertions that Keane would continue to be a Liverpool player - though I doubt he was really as sincere as his words suggested - and farcical because the player's desire to fight for a place at Liverpool was clearly inhibited by his ego, and his desire not to sit on the bench at a top three club. Keane scored seven goals in around 28 appearances, which, given his proven pedigree in the Premiership, wasn't really good enough.

It obviously takes a player a while to settle at a new club, but Keane is nearly 30, a well-travelled and expensive forward (some £71m has been spent on the man in his career), a potent goalscorer with international experience, who did have plenty of starts for Liverpool. 28 appearances does not equate to limited chances - as Andy Gray would say, it only takes a second to score a goal. Liverpool find themselves second in the league, and in the Champions League knockout stages. It's not as if they haven't been winning games, and ergo scoring goals. He might not have played 90 minutes every time, but with Keane's experience, you could forgive Benitez for having expected a better return.

The third farcical point is Liverpool's title challenge. In Torres they have perhaps the most deadly forward in the league, but he hasn't been properly fit all season, and now has to carry the weight of the team's attack on his shoulders for the remainder. Support can come from Babel, N'Gog and El Zhar, but that's all they will be, support. Benitez maybe would have wanted to prove a point by allowing Keane to go, but he hasn't done himself any long-term favours by letting him do so with half an hour to find a replacement.

The only other major transfer of the window - Andrei Arshavin's incredibly protracted, probably dodgy, we'll turn a blind eye anyway switch to Arsenal - was verging on farce too. For 31 days, Arshavin wasn't, to paraphrase most football pundits, 'the sort of player Arsenal needed'. Then panic sets in hours before the window was shutting, and suddenly Arshavin is the player Arsenal cannot afford to miss out on, lest they fail to qualify for the Champions League. More pressing for Arsenal had surely been a holding midfielder in the Flamini role, which would allow Nasri and the returning Rosicky more freedom, and the inconsistent Diaby, Denilson and Song chance to improve. Arshavin is not going to score 15 goals coming from midfield, even though he will likely be given a totally free role behind one of Van Persie or Adebayor. Obviously the lad is top class, but his is a signing that needed to be made in August, not now, and one world class signing with four short months to make an impact might not be enough to give an inconsistent Arsenal side the necessary boost they need.

Returning to Spurs (like a certain Irishman), Tottenham continued this month's 'variations on a theme' transfer policy: the theme being ex-players, the variations being Keane, Pascal Chimbonda and Jermaine Defoe. Rumours that Ossie Ardiles and Jurgen Klinsmann were returning to White Hart Lane proved to be unfounded. Harry Redknapp, for all his transfer guile and experience, has never been in a position where resources are plentiful and the club is genuinely attractive, and Spurs were the busiest signing club in the window. After also capturing Wilson Palacios from Wigan, they had only spent a million or two less than billionnaires Man City, but Redknapp has got to do more with his usual wheeling and dealing than simply save Spurs from relegation. A top half finish is imperative now, given how close the table has been this season, but Redknapp will not have any excuses come the end of the season should they fail to head significantly upwards.

For most of the other clubs in the UK engaging in transfer activity, the credit crunch had a major impact on their plans. Outside of the Premier League, most clubs could only loan players to each other, with the occasional five or six-figure fee being splashed by a Championship team. Even Chelsea, so often the funds behind a merry-go-round of transfers, were restricted to a loan signing of the quality but inconsistent Ricardo Quaresma.

It seemed a case of two approaches in the Premier League. Spurs, Man City, Wigan and Arsenal, and to a lesser extent Hull, Pompey and Stoke, took the 'spending money to make money' path i.e. the monetary reward of staying in or succeeding in the Premiership. But for many other clubs including Blackburn, Sunderland and Middlesborough, it was more a case of keeping hold of assets already at the club - Roque Santa Cruz, Kenwyne Jones and Stewart Downing respectively - to aid their bid for survival or glory. Even in the multi-billion pound football industry, caution seemed the watchword.

But despite the economic climate and most clubs' lack of funds or willingness to break the bank, it was nevertheless a record January spend for the British transfer window: some £160m went on new players. However, for the incredible combined price paid, it will be interesting to see whether the rest of the Premier League season delivers its money's worth.