Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Comfortably Numb

In any big organisation, you'll always find a certain number of 'time servers'. The sort of people who do just enough to keep from being fired, but who are unwilling or incapable of making the leap to a higher level.

England's current level of cricketing mediocrity - which, if you think about it, stretches back to 2005, is caused in part by the fact that they currently have six 'time servers' at the top of their batting order.

The big problem is that, secretly, management like people like this. Any big company does actually need a certain number of people with limited horizons, but who are happy to do a routine nine-to-five job with just enough reward to keep them happy.

In English cricket terms, it means that the selectors do not have to make the difficult decision of dropping anyone. They can point to the fact that Ian Bell, for example, has a pretty decent average and constantly gets good scores - sixties and seventies. The problem with Bell is that he doesn't go on and get really big scores - which is what a true test quality batsman is supposed to do.

Ask yourself, when was the last time Paul Collingwood made a really big ton? Yes, he's scrappy, makes the most of his ability, scores useful runs and is a fine fielder, but if you're going to be batting in the top six, you need to be making at least one score of 150 plus every five tests or so - not every five years.

The same goes with Lord Snooty. He did just enough in the first test to keep his job, just enough to avoid any direct criticism - a typical 'time-server' attribute. But when was the last time he scored a ton for heavens sake - let alone a big ton? Showing rare bravery, the selectors actually dropped him in the summer, but as soon as they could, and without any evidence to suggest he'd got better, they spinelessly withdrew into their comfort zone and picked him again. Based on what evidence?

Vaughan? A ton on his return last summer (against a very weak Windies bowling attack) but since then a whole series of average scores, and a whole load of constant bleating about how 'big scores are just around the corner'.

Then there's KP. There'd be an outcry if he was dropped, because he's still the one 'English' batsmen that everyone in the world genuinely fears. But it's a heck of a long time since he made any big runs - plenty of flashy fifities to keep the average up, but the growing sense that bowlers are starting to suss him out.

The current level of performance demonstrated by the top six means we win the occasional test (big celebrations all round) then lose a couple, drew a few, win another one, and so on. Sorry, that's not good enough. If we're really supposed to be the number two in the world (Vaughan's laughable comment before Saturday's debacle) then they can't afford much more than one or two defeats in a calendar year.

You don't need much of a crystal ball to see how the next eighteen months will pan out if things don't improve. We might (just) scrape a draw in this series, then maybe win on home turf against the Kiwis, before going close against South Africa. Then defeat in India, followed by a close win in the Carribbean (cue much talk of being 'number two' again after that) followed by a predictable three-one defeat in the Ashes 2009 - and we're back where we started from.

Now - I'm not suggesting that the selectors adopt a 'rip it up and start again' strategy (It was 'Orange Juice' if you're trying to remember...) but they do to do something to let the top six know that they really need to start performing properly NOW, or else they are going to be shipped out.

At the moment, everyone's far too comfortable - secure in the knowledge that if they get a forty and then a thirty, they'll keep their place - and be in good shape for another central contract when the spoils are handed out each year.


David Barry said...

I would just look at the batting average rather than looking at the number of large scores. If you average 40 and make some large scores, sure you help your team more in those innings, but you're also getting out for low scores in others. If you average 40 and don't make large scores, then you're more consistent. Overall I don't think I'd prefer one or the other.

(Of course, if you've got someone consistently making 60 or 70 but not going on with it, then there's something wrong with his mental approach, since he's losing concentration so often. But he's still valuable to the team.)

Asking for a 150 every five Tests is ambitious - between the top eight nations, the rate of 150's since 2000 is about 0.6 per Test. Since there are 12 top six batsmen in each match, that works out to about a 150 every 20 Tests for each individual.

Matthew Hayden has only passed 150 once in the last four years.

The Atheist said...

I don't know - I think England recent selectorial policy of keeping stability in the order has been generally sensible. And when a player was underperforming, like Strauss, they removed him.

Generally, I think this is a reasonable policy.

The problem is not in the selection, but in the players, and simply removing them is a rather a crude tool.

harry said...

Aaaaaah, but after his token absence, Strauss is back in, for no readily apparent reason other than "he's Andrew Strauss, thoroughly decent cove who used to score centuries at Lords".

I think you make a good point Mark.
"Class is permanent" has been the mantra which justifies the sinecures doled out to our top-order for many, many years.

Pick players to do jobs, and pick those who are currently the best at doing that job.

Two shining examples: Mal Loye should've been at the world cup, and Ramps should be in the test team.

Mark said...

Thanks to David for putting me straight with stats! Point I was trying to make was that you'd expect a top class batsman to make at least one big score in a 5 test series - not just a procession of 20s and 30s.

Problem persists in the current test - the top six can't always expect Ambrose to pull their nuts out of the fire.

harry said...

We really do seem to breed batters good enough to make blameless "middling" contributions in the 30- 70 range.

It is, of course, perfectly possible to plod along, never making a massive differencve to a match, but still averaging 40-ish (Bell I guess), or start your career with an avalanche of runs, and then get enough 30's to keep the average up (Strauss) at the level which is alledgedly the mark of a good test player.

But that isn't turning matches.

So we need our bowlers to be the match-winners, becaue the batters simply aren't up to it.

Innocent Abroad said...

Harry, it's always the bowlers who win matches. In a Test, you have to take 20 wickets. (An outstanding batting side with average bowlers won't be given many declarations!)

This is not to excuse England. As it stands, they seem to have a maximum of 350-400: to post intimidating totals (500+) does require centurions.

However, ask yourself whether you would sooner our batting or our bowling (and fielding) improved and see what answer you get.

Tony said...

I hope your bowling doesn't improve.