Monday, October 30, 2006

The Consistency of Bad Mash.

One win, two defeats; a glorious run chase and two abject batting surrenders; a victorious but pitiful bowling display and two determined, but ultimately failed, entrenchments in the field. How to sum up England's Champions Trophy? Brittle bottlers, naive greenhorns, spirited try-hards, or just plain crap?

A cursory reflection on England's recent ODI history conjures up an image of patchy form - and a closer statistical look does little to unmuddy the waters. Since the last World Cup (pretty much when they began planning for the next one) a win percentage of 48 from 80 games is only fractionally lower than the historical 50% that sums up the team's crushing mediocrity in this form of the game (see cricinfo) . This drops to 44% from the last 60 games before plumetting to 34% and 26% through the last 40 and 20 games, respectively.

However, in this time players like Pietersen and Bell have emerged in the batting line-up, averaging 59.28 and 41.9 respectively; the only other modern batsmen to play a significant number of ODIs (ie. more than 5) and average in the forties is Nick Knight with 40.41 (Chris Broad averaged 40.02 between '87 and '88 - but that was pretty much the middle ages as far as the ODI chronicles go). Marcus Trescothick, 37.37, a regular other than when non compos mentis, has more ODI centuries (12) to his name than any other English batsman - although admittedly this is less than a third of Sachin Tendulkar's total.

With the ball, Jimmy Anderson, 78 @ 27.11, and Flintoff, 109 @ 24.89, can stand alongside Bob Willis's 80 @ 24.6 and Botham's 145 @ 28.54. Even the last of Goughie's 234 @ 26.29 came during the fallower half of England's performances since 2003.

Paul Collingwood's 32.54 with the bat and 38.38 with the ball are backed up by his excellent fielding (56 catches put him fourth on the list), placing him realistically only behind Beefy and Freddy in the all-rounders list (although Phil DeFreitas's 115 wickets @ 32.82 derserve a mention).

Of course, the phrase 'lies, damn lies, and statistics' finds it natural habitat amongst this sort of analysis - but beneath the farrago of misdirection resides the feeling that a collection of good players are repeatedly missing their lengths.

In the last four years, England have made their way to the final of the Champions Trophy (2004), ending their 14 match losing streak against Australia along the way by chasing down 260 for the loss of only four wickets. Their record against the World and ICC Champions since then is won three, lost four and tied one (including the Natwest Series final in 2005). They have beaten every one of the top nations apart from New Zealand (last victory in 2002), and unearthed players of quality, Strauss and Mahmood (fingers crossed) in addition to the aforementioned Bell and Pietersen.

In fact, the positive blips on the readout almost obfuscate the abject return of one win in four over the last couple of years - enough to have Fletcher still intimating a late run at the World Cup. It's fair to say our poor luck with injuries has been limiting; but the lack of continuity in strategy, batting order (Pietersen has batted at numbers 3, 4 and 5 in the last four ODIs; Bell playing as ersatz opener) and bowling attack (Harmison, Plunkett, Anderson, Mahmood, Lewis, and Broad have all had a go at opening the bowling in recent games) is more to blame. It seems that for all Fletcher's vibrancy and leadership in Tests, he is decidely short on short-game tactics.

All that number crunching leaves me grasping for conclusions (pretty much where I began then). The win over the Windies was impressive, but the game was meaningless. With the surfeit of fixtures in recent years, maybe overkill is a problem - but we can't blame that with other countries playing the same if not more. It seems that until we focus on the one day game as a valid form of contest - rather than a feeder environment for the Test side - we will continue to be also-rans; and that means coaching players to adapt their mentality for the type of innings required (how many times have we blown easy run chases by trying to blast our way to the total from only half the overs?), working on bowlers' rythms and lines (both at the death and during power plays), and fostering an atmosphere of confidence and invention. Until then, all the promising tyros, rough diamonds and honest journeyman we can pack into a touring party won't be enough to bring a consistent, a careful and deliberate, period of success.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

One Day; Who Knows?

England needing to beat Australia on Saturday to prolong their interest in (one might say distraction with, for all the respect we seem to accord the one-day game) the Champions Trophy, Duncan and Freddie must be hoping something clicks. After a dismal few years in the short form, a couple of spirited victories at the tail-end of the summer over Pakistan and a convincing pummelling of a Rajasthan XI had perhaps raised the expectation level a mite too high - although, given that we were finalists in the tournament last time out, we should probably be aiming to be there or thereabouts again.

With the classic 'bits-and-pieces' roles filled by the somewhat nuggety Collingwood, the doughty Dalrymple and deceptive Yardy, I had begun to harbour the hope that the side had achieved a degree of balance... however, then India roughed up the top order and we were effectively back to the drawing-board (although it was two of those gritty three that turned out to be top scorers, sandwiching KP in between.)

I'll have my fingers crossed against the Aussies, but won't be holding out too much hope. The drawn final of the one-day series in 2005, prior to the Ashes, was held to have had a significant bearing on the series, particularly on England's powers of self-belief, but I don't think they need such a fillip this time round. The players know they can stand toe-to-toe with Australia in the Test arena, and I don't expect a negative result in a second-rate one-day trophy's group stage to alter that. Would be nice to give them a good dusting though...