Ashes 2010: Hughes’ Talk of England as #1 is Premature

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Less than 82 Days Until The Ashes…

Subash Jayaraman, the brain behind the excellent The Cricket Couch blog takes a detailed look at Simon Hughes’ recent assertion that England will be the best test team in the world before not too long. A contrast with India, the present number 1 side, proves to be quite illuminating.  Maybe Simon should slow down!

At the end of the second test of the recently concluded farce of a test series (in light of the allegations and suspensions) between Pakistan and England, Cricket commentator and prognosticator extraordinaire Simon Hughes laid down a list of ten reasons why England will be the number one test team in the world. From the assured leadership of Andrew Strauss and no non-sense handling of Andy Flower to maintaining the shine on the ball and technology like spin vision, Hughes has put together this list to enlighten us on how superior the management and technological assistance available to the English test team is compared to the other test sides of the world, and hence, England will be Numero Uno. If only it were that easy, Simon.

The all conquering Australian sides of the ‘90s and first half of ‘00s were indisputably the best test team in the world. No two ways about it. But with the retirements of stalwarts such as Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Justin Langer, Mathew Hayden, Adam Gilchrist and the vital cogs like Jason Gillespie and Damien Martyn as well, Australia was severely crippled and dropped more than a few notches to be in the neighbourhood of their competition. There was no one dominant team with South Africa and India both vying for the spot, and Sri Lanka and England within shouting distance. It got a bit crowded at the top with five equally matched teams.

India, the current number 1 test side, made its long and steady climb to the top of the test totem pole, on the back of some of the finest cricketers the game had ever seen: Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Virender Sehwag and VVS Laxman. Not to mention the myriad moving parts that kept the engine chugging along through the ups and downs, like HarbhajanSingh, Zaheer Khan, etc. After the humiliation of a 3-0 down under in 1999-00 (which was famously predicted by the BCCI secretary of that time Jaywant Lele, no less), the Indian test side went through some serious transformation with an aggressive and brash Ganguly taking over, and John Wright stepping in as the coach.

There are some similarities with Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower taking over the England test team after the Kevin Pietersen-Peter Moores debacle in 2009, but the similarities end there.  The Indian team’s achievements were driven by a great middle order, a murderous opener, a work horse spinner and mercurial pace bowlers. As much as Simon Hughes wants us to believe that the camaraderie, spit-and-shine by Collingwood and ESP vision of the machines are going to propel England to the top, it is the players out on the field – their abilities, experience in absorbing pressure and delivering over and over again, that is going to make it for them.

Let us compare England’s performance from January 1, 2007 (when they hit a low during the 5-0 whitewash in Australia) and India from January 1, 2001 (after their spanking at the hands of Aussies, as well).

It looks like England has a win/loss ratio of 1.81 in the 47 tests they played in the 31 months span which puts them at a much better pace than India’s (1.61 in 9.5+ years). Surely, England is destined for the top spot.

When you discount the minnows Bangladesh and Zimbabwe (England did not play Zimbabwe in the post 2007 period), England still holds a comparable margin in the win/loss ratio (1.45 to 1.28).

But if we dig deeper, since the WI teams that England faced during the recent years were ready to crumble faster than you can say poppadom, and the Pakistan team that blew hot and cold (frigid with their batting) and God knows what else, it paints a different picture. It shows that England has lost more test matches than they have won. It bears pointing out, however, that of the eight wins in this period, two came in the all important Ashes ’09 (for the Poms anyway) and one in South Africa.

In all fairness, England has beaten WI, Bangladesh and Pakistan as they were expected to. You can only play whom you are scheduled to play. In that sense, they have been efficient. Before you jump at me with drawn out knives as to why I did not discount India wins against WI and Pakistan, it is because India last played WI in 2006 (and that was inWI and they won the series thanks to gritty captain knocks by Dravid) and the last time Pakistan played India they had stalwarts in their middle order (Inzamam, Younis and Yousuf).

Okay, Okay. You won’t listen. So here it is: India’s performance against all test sides excluding Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Bangladesh and West Indies, and it is way better than England.

It is not the author’s intention to poo-poo all of England’s accomplishments, but to slow down Simon Hughes who seems to be in a rush to put England on the pedestal. Even in the recently concluded Pakistan test series, there were spectacular batting collapses from England and they were saved by Matt Prior in couple of occasions, and Jonathan Trott and Stuart-freaking-Broad in another. Sure, they were facing Mohammed Aamer and Mohammed Asif, two of the very best pace bowlers in world cricket (for how much longer, we do not know) but the English middle order did not put up much of a fight.

Most certainly England is a great fielding side. They almost always take the catches that come their way and some more. Indian fielders are known for their lack of athleticism but the test matches are won in the slip cordon and when Kumble and Harbhajan are bowling, at short leg and silly point. The Indian team has more than adequate catchers who can be trusted to take the straightforward catches.

The dominant Australian sides not only pummelled their opposition when they were playing at home, but were superior even while away. They had the bowlers and more importantly, beef in the middle order that could get the runs in all conditions. The current Indian test squad is similar to that, although not as dominant. Let us look at the records of India and England in away matches for the periods we have been discussing. This reinforces the knowledge we already had that England’s middle order cannot even hold a candle to India’s.

For a team to be considered seriously for the number one spot, they ought to win matches abroad on a regular basis. Cricinfo has done expose` on bowlers’ performances home and away, many times over and I am not going to compare bowling attacks of teams. Jimmy Anderson has become the leader of the English pace attack with Graeme Swann’s offspin being the ace in the hole. In my opinion, England’s performance in the Ashes and moving forward is going to be dependent on the fingers of the 31-year old Swann, more than any other bowler in the England squad. Swann needs to be able keep batsmen quiet, attack and take wickets as well (while providing jolly good hilarity on twitter about his cat).

As the lone bowler remaining in the playing XI, from the 2007 Ashes 5-0 beat down and having the experience of played in Australia, let us look at Jimmy Anderson’s effectiveness when he is away from the home conditions which favour his bowling a great deal.

Anderson’s strike rate increases by 17 deliveries and the average 12 runs per wicket when he is away from English conditions, with best match bowling figures of 8/161 coming earlier this year in Cape town where Graham Onions hung for dear life. His economy rate suffers too.

In comparison, Zaheer Khan, as expected, does better away from India with his 10-fer coming in the series clinching win at Trent Bridge in 2007, jelly beans notwithstanding. Anderson averages 13 runs more per wicket and takes 21 deliveries more than Zaheer Khan to get that wicket, while on the road.

We have seen the English middle order struggle with linchpin Pietersen dropped from ODI and T20 to work on his game. There is a rumble by David Green at “Reverse Sweep” even preferring Ian Bell over Eoin Morgan for the 6thbatting spot. Alistair Cook is a walking wicket. Andrew Strauss is not in form. Collingwood, as everyone says, is a fighter and a born nurdler, and the next test England play will be during the last week of November in Brisbane.

England is still very far away from becoming that number one test side. They need to sort out the middle order, hope that the pace bowlers can perform outside England and provide Swann the support, and all this while trying to keep tweetersen in line and the Ashes hype and glare every 18 months or so. Let them retain the Ashes first. Oh, did I mention that England will be without their talismanic Ashes hero, Freddie Flintoff? Good luck with all that.

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