England Highlights: The 2014 XI

English cricket lives in interesting times. Many bloggers, commentators, and journalists have documented the many ills encircling the English game, and the many lows of 2014 have provided much material for mastication. To close the year, therefore, as a sort of metaphorical cricket-pudding, here, are eleven sweet moments of the year for the English men’s team.

  1. 28 February: Lumb hits the first England ODI debut ton for 41 years

    The last time England had a century from a debutant, Edward Heath was Prime Minister, and ODIs numbered 2. Lumb joins only eight other players on this surprisingly short list, which now includes two English players but only one Australian. At 34, it was an undoubtedly late-career debut for Michael Lumb, but he wasn’t about to squander his long-awaited chance in the spotlight.  His 106 on a tricky Antiguan pitch deserved a team win, which did not transpire, although at least the series was later secured. With Hales and Ali England’s probable openers in the future, it’s unlikely Lumb will play another ODI, but with the healthy average of 55, he can leave with head held high.

  2. February–March: Root warms England up in the Caribbean

    After an Australian winter of discontent, this son of York basked in the glorious Caribbean summer. After losing the first ODI from a winning position, England bounced back, thanks in no small part to Root’s top-order wickets. It was the third ODI, though, when Root’s batting came to the fore. Struck on the hand while on 7, he rejected the dressing-room advice to retire. In true plucky-youngster style, he dosed up, dug in, and drove on to 107. England had finally started to win again.

  3. 27 March: Alex Hales stuns Sri Lanka in the World T20

    ‘Hi, I’m Alex Hales. No IPL bid? Seriously?’ There’s no evidence that Hales feels any animosity for being overlooked in the IPL auction, but this innings—possibly the standout innings of the tournament—will have caught the attention of franchise owners from Bengaluru to Brisbane. Malinga and Mendis meant nothing to Hales, as his 116* powered England to an unexpected victory, and kept them alive in the competition.

  4. 31 May: Jos Buttler sends the England record for fastest ODI 100 over deep mid-off

    Signs of Buttler’s talent had been apparent for a while—most notably when he took 32 off a Wayne Parnell over—but for many, he was a promising young keeper-batsman who could inject some needed fire into the lower-order. Then came Lord’s. England were dead in the water. Buttler promptly exploded with 121 off 74. It wasn’t enough to see England home, but it showed Buttler to be much more than a closing-over cameo chancer.

  5. May–August: Moeen Ali out-spins subcontinental teams

    Even amongst his staunchest supporters at New Road, few would have predicted that Moeen Ali would have met with such success against the two international teams that play spin best. India’s attempt to go after him comically backfired, as they gifted wicket after wicket. Sri Lanka fared better but Moeen still nabbed Sangakkara with a beauty. Twenty-two wickets—two teams’ worth—against India and Sri Lanka combined: an excellent return for the insultingly dubbed “part-time” spinner.

  6. 6 July: Andrew Flintoff returns to the Red

    Rarely these days does domestic cricket catch the attention of the general English public. Precisely because of this rarity, however, the return of Fred has to be seen as a positive development for English cricket as a whole. Doubts over his fitness and ability were dispelled as he came close to seeing Lancashire to the T20 Blast title. Regardless of one’s county allegiance, a successful celebrity cricketing comeback has to be cheered.

  7. July–August: Cook starts Test resurgence

    If there is one player England want in form for the 2015 Ashes, it is Alastair Cook. In a line-up that is brimming with youthful enthusiasm, they nonetheless need a figure of his resilience. It was therefore heartening to see signs that he was recovering his touch after a torrid 2013. Scores of 95 and 70* at Southampton, plus 79 at The Oval suggest that he may be finding his way back. A head cleared from all the one-day frippery may work wonders.

  8. July–August: James Anderson averages more than Virat Kohli

    It would have been hard to say which would have been the more risible pre-series prediction: that Kohli wouldn’t reach 40, or that Anderson would hit 81. Not only were both statements true, Anderson at 22.40 outstripped Kohli’s meagre return of 13.40. It was the icing on the cake after his run-in with Jadeja at Trent Bridge, and ample compensation for his last-day tears at Headingley.

  9. 7 September: Eoin Morgan out-stares MS Dhoni in Battle of the Icemen

    Having reignited his form with a 36-ball 71, to close out the match Captain Morgan had another difficulty, in the shape of Dhoni. Morgan held his nerve, set his field, and Dhoni, who normally wins this sort of game in his sleep, couldn’t take India all the way. It was a feel-good end to the summer, and meant that England edged India 5-4 across all formats.

  10. 10 December: Woakes becomes the first England bowler with two ODI 6-fers

    In a squad with several fast bowlers all vying for World Cup places, all started unremarkably and then most lifted their game, meaning that Jordan, Woakes, and Finn all ought to travel to Australia and New Zealand. It was Woakes, however, who provided the standout performance, dismissing both the Sri Lankan legends Sangakkara and Jayawardene, along with four other batsmen, to yield six for 47. Strangely he missed out on the Man of the Match award, losing it to Joe Root: yet another example of bowling achievements being undervalued in relation to batting achievements, perhaps?

  11. December: James Taylor seizes his chance

    With senior players Bell and Cook sitting out the game in Columbo, Taylor swiftly caused sparks to fly. For too long the nearly man of English cricket, 2014 was the year when he forced the selectors to pick him through sheer weight of runs. Back to December: his 90 was followed by 68 in England’s victory in Pallekele. His approach to running between the wickets demonstrated his belief that two is better than one.

  12. [Carrying the drinks] 20 December: England get the ODI captain they need

    An off-field decision provides the twelfth man for this XI. There’s late cheer mixed with sorrow as the right man gets the job at the expense of a good man. The sense is that, however, England now have a fighting chance in 2015. New Year? No fear.

DRS: power to the players, not the umpires

The pitch at Trent Bridge was so lifeless that it almost succeeded in even deadening the interminable drone about DRS that always seems to accompany any high-profile series. With England—India, though, DRS is always a handy fallback topic, thanks to the BCCI’s continued intransigence on the subject. N Srinivasan stated in December 2012 that “We don’t believe the technology is good enough”. With the increased powers that the BCCI has in the ICC, the cry of the casual, unsuspecting fan on Twitter that the ICC should force the BCCI to accept DRS is laughable.

Nevertheless, there is some talk that India may be coming round to the idea, although naturally not officially. The BCCI’s increased power may, curiously, encourage them to engage in some goodwill gestures. They now have the money; they can afford to be generous, and bask in the glow of their magnanimous actions. We’re not “a bully”: look at how reasonable we are in being willing to listen and yield to the rest of the ICC on DRS.

A key point is that accuracy of ball-tracking has improved drastically since its inception. Mike Selvey, a self-described sceptic, has been won over by this. Martin Crowe, who expresses the opposing view well, has not.

Both Crowe and Selvey suggest, however, the possibility of beneficial changes to DRS. Crowe is unconvinced of the accuracy of the predictive path, and would prefer abandoning that part of the system. Selvey, by contrast, is impressed with the apparent accuracy of current technology, and toys with the possibility of taking the DRS away from the players and into the hands of the third umpire. Furthermore, it has been suggested that this may provide the BCCI with a way to save face, should they feel it necessary.

Those who view a player-initiated review as essentially a whitewashed form of dissent may welcome a removal of such power from the player. I am afraid, though, I do not share Selvey’s view that moving the power to review from players to the third umpire “has some merit.” I view it as a terrible idea, for at least three reasons.

1. Umpires would have no function in LBW decisions

If the third umpire were to check every LBW decision, there would be absolutely no point to the on-field umpires even knowing the LBW law. You would have the curious situation wherein the umpires standing in domestic first-class cricket would need greater skills than those in the international game.

2. The game would run even slower

We already see virtually every run-out decision referred to the TV umpire. This is an acceptable use of time, since they are relatively rare, happening perhaps once every few hours. Yet LBWs are inherently much trickier to judge, so in due course, in an attempt to avoid criticism, on-field umpires would end up referring all but the most blatantly obvious LBW appeals.

Over rates, already low, would worsen, as the game stops every time the ball hits the pads, for the third umpire to confirm that it was, indeed, not out, on most occasions. Test cricket does not need any further reduction in pace: quite the opposite.

3. Player dissent would increase

Let us suppose that, in order to mitigate the above two disadvantages, the system is set up so that not every decision is referred; rather, the on-field umpire can choose whether to refer it or not. The result? Players will simply attempt to coerce the umpire into referring decisions that they think are borderline. (I have a recollection that trials of this system yielded precisely that outcome, but have been unable to find the details.)

In a slightly different set-up, during 2012 a third-umpire intervention system was tested out in Australia, with the TV umpire having the power to overrule a decision if he considered it controversial. It was scrapped mid-season, with the players unhappy with what was perceived as inconsistency and confusion over its application. Daniel Brettig reported that players would hang around on the field, hoping for an overrule, which had a knock-on impact on the rhythm of the game.

We come back to what the DRS is intended to remedy: the “howler”. Selvey rightly asks how one is supposed to differentiate between a howler and a non-howler. Where does one draw the line? Selvey sensibly indicates the absurdity of attempting to decide which decisions players may or may not review, on the basis of a sort of volume of howl. Players should be allowed to squander their reviews. Yet this does not mean that the third umpire should be given the option of overruling, as discussed. Players should be miserly with their reviews, and only use them up if they genuinely believe a blatant error has been made. Any blame for a poor decision thus remains on the players, not the umpires. Crowe goes so far as to call for the number of challenges in Tests to be reduced from two to one.

In conclusion, however, Selvey’s article made me reconsider one point that I have previously been pretty firm on: the question of whether an “umpire’s call” verdict should use up a player’s review. As it happens, I am still of the opinion that it should. Yet Selvey’s experience indicates that the margin of error is much less than I envisaged, down to about one millimetre. This suggests that “umpire’s call” verdicts are much less doubtful than might be thought: a clip of a bail is still a clip.

If the corresponding uncertainty has therefore been reduced, one of two things should be done: either 1) leave the system as it is, but dramatically reduce the yellow “umpire’s call” zone to reflect the actual accuracy of the projection, or 2) allow teams to re-use their review, since their referral has been shown to be justified. I would opt for the former. To do so, however, requires confidence in the accuracy really being as high as the manufacturers, hardly disinterested parties, claim it is. Stringent, transparent, independent verification is needed for confidence in the system.

It remains to be seen what the BCCI will do, if anything, as regards DRS. As stated earlier, there may be little political need for them to change. In search of good PR, though, we might see them make a popular decision.

Chris Read: the next England captain?

If it were awarded by a Twitter vote (“FAVE for Cook / RT for Bell”), there would be no question that Alastair Cook would not retain the England captaincy. Give it to Bell, is the popular cry. Hand it to Root, is the refrain of a smaller contingent.

Cook, of course, is safe, at least for the moment. The ECB have invested too much to discard him, and his determination, one of his positive leadership qualities, will prevent any imminent resignation: he will continue, for better or worse. We should, at least, be grateful that there is some consistency in assigning the captaincy these days, unlike in previous decades.

Meanwhile the natives are restless. Twitter citizens will continue to trumpet the perceived merits of Bell, Root, and even Broad.

There is, however, one name that has been largely absent from such speculations: Chris Read. A name that was mentioned more than once in the build up as a possible replacement keeper for Prior. But captain? Surely that’s a bridge too far.

It is, admittedly. The ECB have moved on from the days of parachuting in experience, preferring to train and nurture younger players on the job: an approach that, by and large, has been successful. Introducing a player knocking on the door of 36, more than seven years after his last Test, would smack of desperation on the part of the ECB: anathema to their current PR policy of ‘nothing to see here’.

Yet Chris Read’s appointment wouldn’t be as mad as it might first seem. These are unusual times. England have a uncommonly inexperienced team. Aside from Cook and Bell, none of the top 6 have played twenty Tests, and three have played fewer than five.

Firstly, Read now has tremendous experience as a county captain. Despite having received what many might consider a raw deal from England, considering his obvious talent, he has proven himself a tough individual who can cope with life’s knocks. After being essentially discarded by the national team in the aftermath of the calamitous 2006-2007 whitewash, he applied himself to his performances at Nottinghamshire, with great success. In 2010, he guided Nottinghamshire to the Championship title, which led him to the accolade of being named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year. At the same time, his batting, regarded as a weak point, grew stronger, to the point where his first-class average from 2009 to 2013 is a healthy 38.45. Incidentally, Matt Prior, the incumbent, only averaged 35.70 in the same period.

Secondly, he would have little pressure to perform with the bat. He would come into a strong England batting line-up, where his main contribution would be expected to be with the gloves, not the bat. At the same time, he’d give England the chance of some feistiness at No. 7, which they have grown accustomed to from Matt Prior. Yet any runs he scored would be a bonus, not the measure by which his success would be judged. Unlike Cook, he wouldn’t need to be concerned about having to lead by example with the bat. With England batting deep, he could even drop down to No. 8 or 9, and give some lower-order stability.

Thirdly, he would have both knowledge of and, one would hope, backing from a key senior player: his Nottinghamshire teammate, Stuart Broad. Broad is not renowned – perhaps unfairly – for being easy to manage. Not only would Read know how to get the best out of him, but additionally a Read-Broad combination as captain and vice-captain could provide a strong axis around which the team could revolve and be steered. Keeper, strike bowler, batsman: with their joint experience of the key roles, together they could gain the feel for conditions that is so important for on-the-field tactics.

Chris Read won’t be given the chance to do any of this. England are looking firmly ahead, and who can blame them, with talent such as Buttler’s waiting in the wings? Read will therefore not get into, even just as keeper rather than captain, what is currently a mediocre international side. Funnily enough, though, he will get into a dream team. Tomorrow he’ll walk out at Lord’s to take his place in a stellar line-up: keeping for Brett Lee and Saeed Ajmal, batting in the same order as Brian Lara and Rahul Dravid, and working with some guy called Tendulkar.

It may be the last time he gets to show off his skills to the cricketing world at large. England’s loss may be MCC’s gain – just as it’s been Nottinghamshire’s.