Saturday, 31 August 2013

Thoughts on the women's Ashes

The England women’s Ashes series has been a mix of innovation and the type of cricket that has worked well for both teams in the past.

Despite such a strong showing in the test match, particularly the bowling, Australia have stuttered their way through the remainder of the tour. Meg Lanning has been the backbone of the line-up, the only one to make any impact. At Durham, it was a tired looking team that took to the field. England were hardly storming through the line-up, the wicket was slow but not offering huge amounts of turn and Australia just crumbled. It was the performance of a team that looked shattered. After the leisurely start to the series, a four day game in picturesque surroundings, the ODI and T20’s seemed to be crammed together at the end.
The advantage of having the double headers with the men is clear; increased media interest, crowds turning up early to watch two games and the women get a chance to increase their exposure. The scheduling, however, is simply unfair. The second T20 at Southampton ended with a plane, train and automobile trip across the length of the UK to get to Durham early on Friday morning. Then to training, back to the hotel, then an early start on the day of the game – 10am slightly undermines the concept of encouraging more people to watch – would be exhausting for anyone. Even traipsing off the bus to start the game, the tourists looked, quite simply, knackered.

The format of the series has worked reasonably well. The weighting of the points is intended to reflect the importance of test cricket. In retrospect, it encouraged a draw. Neither team wanted to risk losing maximum points by gambling the state of the game. So they, to all intents and purpose, blocked it out. That aside, the rest of the series has worked well. The women have been allowed to play the two games that they play the most, and games that have the most appeal to the crowd. More test cricket would of course be preferable but realistically, when do they get the chance to play? England and Australia play the most tests, and the last time they met was in Australia in 2011. More test cricket is, at the moment, not feasible.

It is a format that could be used in future women’s series, as well as for associate countries. The sense is, however, that not all nations want to play test cricket. Let’s face it, one day cricket is more exciting, and crucially it is more financially beneficial for the players. England and Australia are the rare countries who still play tests – and even then it’s only once every two years.

England have not played without fault. The batting collapse at Lords was truly awful. An innings built around the captain Charlotte Edwards crumbled as soon as she went. The batting never truly fired throughout the limited overs series. Their innings relied on cameos. Lydia Greenway at Southampton, Sarah Taylor at Chelsmford; they played the biggest part in the T20 victories. England’s bowling, particularly the openers, has been consistently good throughout the series. The back-up seamers are a worry. Arran Brindle in particular as dispatched to all areas during the test match. The spin bowling is developing well. Laura Marsh is starting to control her length a little better, improving throughout the test. Danni Wyatt can follow up a brilliant delivery with a rank long-hop but control is something that comes with experience.

The better team won. Despite Australia claiming victory in the T20 and 50 over World Cups, they haven’t played anywhere near to the standard they are capable of. Australia ruled the test match for the majority of the game but in the limited overs, it is England who have worn the trousers.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Round one: advantage no-one?

In a game with six points at stake, it was going to take an extraordinary batting collapse or a serious spell of quick bowling to ever push for a result at Wormsley. The wicket was good; too good, in fact. There was no rough for the spinners to work with, little pace for the seamers and only variable bounce – and that is if we’re being generous.

Giving the test match a higher points ranking was always going to be dangerous. Awarding it six points highlights how important test cricket is; it is still seen by the majority of the players as the pinnacle of their career. However, the women play fewer and fewer four day matches, and by placing so much emphasis on the game in terms of points, the willingness of either side to take risks to push them into the front lessened by the day. A Sheffield Shield style points system, with points awarded by innings, would maybe work better for the future.

It seems strange given the match situation to praise Australian captain Jodie Fields for a brave declaration, but in some ways it was. After the runner arrived in the 82nd over to pass on a message from the dressing room, Fields and Osborne proceeded to put on 34 runs in four overs. Arran Brindle and Danielle Hazell suffered the most; Hazell saw two balls disappear back over her head for two respective boundaries, before Brindle’s poor line saw three identical deliveries hammered to the boundary in quick succession. Fields was aggressive from the off. After reaching her half century, she smashed 24 off the next 25 deliveries.

Her declaration in the 86th over, setting England 249 to win from 45 overs, may have seemed overly cautious. But the speed with which Fields and Osborne went about making their runs highlighted how fast the outfield was. Once it beat the infield, the ball nearly always travelled to the boundary. There was also nothing in the pitch; keeping a total down was reliant on tight bowling and although Australia generated the pace that England lacked, they were not as economical.

Elysse Perry again achieved the bounce and carry that had eluded England. Although England never looked as though they would try to chase down the target, Perry’s first few overs – fast, reasonably full with the odd short ball to keep the batsman awake – kept them in check. Quite why Australia chooses to hide Holly Ferling from the new ball is a mystery. The pace she generates is not dissimilar to Perry, yet Australia chose to go with Meg Schutt. When Ferling was brought on from the Deer Park End, her first ball took a wicket. Heather Knight hit to square leg and ran through for a quick single; Perry’s throw hit and Knight was out by a yard.

Sarah Taylor and Arran Brindle played their shots. There is hardly a shot in Taylor’s repertoire that looks inelegant. The way she handled Erin Osborne’s spin was particularly impressive, rocking back on her feet to cut her through the covers being the highlight of the spell. When Brindle fell, caught and bowled by Sarah Elliott, to leave England on 48/2, there was no sense of panic among the players. Charlotte Edwards put her disappointing first innings behind her to join Taylor in some strokeplay.

The game was in danger of drifting to a draw after yesterday’s slow going, but some smart work from England’s bowlers kept things interesting. Meg Lanning, whose bowling later on in the day was reminiscent of Lasith Malinga, except with a higher arm from which the ball was slung, was caught by Brindle after scooping a leading edge into the air off Anya Shrubsole. An unbelievable piece of fielding from Lydia Greenway then accounted for Elliott. Elliott, century-maker in the first innings, cracked a drive to Greenway at cover. Greenway fielded one handed before instantly shying at the stumps, running out Elliott by some way. Shouts of “Greenway!” echoed from the player huddle as England hauled themselves back into contention.

Jess Cameron played her shots, including smashing the first six of the match over cow corner off the tiring Shrubsole. Katherine Brunt was absent for much of the day with an upset stomach and although Shrubsole bowled consistently well, Laura Marsh claimed the final wicket, trapping Alex Blackwell LBW for 22.

Speaking afterwards, Edwards said that she was proud of the way her bowlers had come through the test match; “We came in today believing we could still win and I think we showed that in our first session. We believed we could get some early wickets, put some pressure on and maybe chase 200 over 60 overs.” 

Both she and Jodie Fields were supportive of the new structure, though Edwards suggested that maybe a change in wickets would be more beneficial. By producing wickets with more spice in them, or maybe even moving to a county ground – while there is no denying the beauty and tranquillity of Wormsley, a ground which sees cricket on a more regular basis may be more beneficial – there may be a better chance of forcing a result. 

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Slow and steady wins the race?

(Getty Images for the ECB)

There is a certain beauty in the slow ebb and flow of a cricket game. Watching a batsman grind a team down, playing themselves in and taking their time can be a real pleasure. Laura Marsh’s crawl to her half-century, the slowest in English cricket by a man or woman, from a painstaking 291 deliveries over 5 and a half hours with just three boundaries was hardly the most scintillating viewing – but it was necessary. When she reached her fifty, the ground rose to applaud the woman who had not just broken records but whose patience and graft had pulled England to safety.

The irony of the situation is, of course, that Marsh opens the batting during the T20 games. Usually the aggressive opener, Marsh arrived at the crease with England six down and struggling. Getting her head down, seeing off Holly Ferling and Ellyse Perry, the most dangerous of the Australian attack, Marsh did exactly what was needed. It might cause derision from some but Marsh along with Heather Knight have kept Australia from winning this game.

Marsh faced more balls in her vigil here than in her entire test career to date. “Naturally I do like to be a bit more positive, but I tried to be positive in defence” was her explanation of her innings. “It’s difficult (to maintain concentration) but it was really helpful to have Heather at the other end.” Asked about the Australian reaction to her innings, Marsh joked that by the end they were “all as bored as she was!” but there were some tactically baffling decisions by the tourists. 

England began the day on a high, helped by Knight’s century and Australia’s reluctance to take the new ball. Despite the turn she began to achieve last night, there was nothing in the pitch for Erin Osborne. Bringing on Perry and Ferling was particularly confusing. Alex Blackwell, the vice-captain, stated that England “forced our hand” with taking the new ball – “we were hoping to get a wicket and then take the new ball, to try and wrap up the tail.” Yet there was no swing for either, and bowling with the old ball allowed Knight and Marsh to re-establish themselves.  Why let the best two bowlers in the side tire themselves out with a ball that is doing nothing when there is a shiny red cherry sitting and waiting in the umpire’s pocket?

Knight looked settled from the beginning. An all-run two off Perry took her to 98, before a wild slash which bypassed everyone, keeper and stumps, took her to 99. Her maiden international century came in 328 minutes; a painstaking effort. She opened up following her century, again helped by a soft ball that did nothing for pace or spin bowlers. Her partnership with Marsh was the highest against Australia in tests; it ended just one short of the all-time record, with Knight run-out by Rachael Haynes for 157. Slapping the ball to cover, Knight lost sight of the ball and called Marsh through for a single, ended up way out of her ground and run out by a yard.  The pitch remained stubbornly flat, highlighted by Katherine Brunt as she whipped her first delivery off her legs for four.

Marsh remained equally stubborn, grinding her way to lunch, tea and a rain break before bringing up her half century shortly before England reached 300. She had just begun to open her arms when she was bowled by Megan Schutt for 55, another ball keeping slightly low and sneaking through her defences.  Anya Shrubsole and Danielle Hazell could do nothing but try to propel England into the lead, before Shrubsole edged behind to give Jodie Fields her first catch of the game.

England ended 17 runs short of Australia’s target, and any thoughts over Australia trying to set a large total and put some life back into the game were quickly put to bed. Although Sarah Elliott played her shots, including a full blooded pull stroke off Katherine Brunt that echoed around the ground, there appeared to be little intent to make a go of the game. Australia ended the day with a lead of 81, and barring a collapse worthy of the men’s game, a draw looks the most likely result.