Thursday, 4 June 2015

Teams From Downunder Taunting England

McCullum's men hunt as a pack
The England v New Zealand series, just finished, is one half of the pointer to how the Ashes might play out in England and Wales during July and August. The other starts today at Roseau, on the other side of the world, when the West Indies play host to Australia.

For the Kiwis, this was a continuation of their rise in Test cricket under the aggressive captaincy of Brendan McCullum. Admittedly, looking like an aggressive leader when your immediate predecessors were the ultra conservative Ross Taylor and the most boring Test cricketer of all time, Dan Vettori, wouldn't have been hard but McCullum has done a splendid job. New Zealand have only lost two Test series in ten since McCullum took over the captaincy in rather controversial circumstances from Taylor at the start of 2013 and those two series losses were in the first three series in which he led. In his first innings as a Test skipper, his side was dismissed for just 45 at South Africa's slaughterhouse at Newlands and he lost both Tests of that series by an innings. Since then, his no holds barred aggression and the very blokey team building he has washed through his side have been behind seven series without a loss and only three Test losses in the last seventeen.

Little wonder New Zealand has climbed the rankings, slipping to 4th with the drawn series just finished but on the same points as India who are in third. Its quite a log jam from 3rd to 7th, with five Test sides separated by just three points.

During that time, McCullum has put his bat where his mouth is, scoring more than 1900 runs at nearly 49, compared to a batting average in the mid thirties before his rise to the top job. In the process, there has been a Test best 302 against India at home, a double century and a 195 also in the land of the long white cloud and an another double, this time in UAE. A fifth century was also at home and there in lies a story. As was shown in the World Cup final and again over the last two weeks in England, away from his slow pitches in New Zealand, McCullum isn't as good (48 compared to 31).

Kane Willimson
It has barely mattered, because just as he struggles on foreign pitches, the batsmen to emerge during this time has been Kane Williamson, seven of his Test hundreds coming since McCullum took the coin toss and six of them overseas. His 132 at Lords upstaged a glorious display of class the day before by the next England captain, Joe Root.

As much as the speed at which they score runs has surprised opposition teams in the last two and a half years, it has been New Zealand's seam attack which has delivered them Test victories. Trent Boult and Tim Southee are the best new ball attack in world cricket and that's saying something when you look at both the South African and Australian attacks. What they lack in pace and bounce they more than make up for in ball movement and a dogged line. No one moves the ball more deceptively back to the right hander's off stump than Southee.

Their win at Headingley was emphatic, despite good form from Alastair Cook and supporting hands by Adam Lyth and Jos Butler in alternate innings.

For England, only Cook was consistent with the bat and even though Stuart Broad was equal leading wicket taker with Boult, they came at an exorbitant four and half an over. Ben Stokes has emerged again in time for the Ashes with lots of runs in a Botham-like performance at Lords but he was ordinary at Headingley. Mark Wood made an encouraging start at first change but Jimmy Anderson, despite becoming the first English bowler to pass the 400 wicket mark, was nothing more than tight. Moeen Ali and Joe Root were unconvincing bowling spin and Stokes is just too expensive.

England's middle order, so chock full of talent, was again exposed and has a habit of either getting big runs or collapsing when put under pressure when the top three fail. Early success by the likes of Mitchell Johnson, Ryan Harris is almost assured and with a hungry Josh Hazelwood lurking at first change, England will have to look to building partnerships and not leave the job to individuals.

Adam Voges receives his Baggy Green
from Brendon Julian
Australia, for their part, hit the West Indies with only one first class game under their belt, which did much for Shaun Marsh, Adam Voges and Hazelwood but little for the rest. Most of the squad have played only the rare first class game since they drew against India without the grunt of Johnson to upset the Indians at Sydney in early January. Ryan Harris won't return until England after another long lay off because of knee troubles but any weakness in his knees is more than compensated for by his big heart. Starc, after his stella World Cup, will take the new ball with Johnson and Hazelwwod and Siddle will vie for the third seamers spot. The youngster is the better of the two, on the upswing at the same time as the older Victorian is in decline. Had Harris been available for the Caribbean, Siddle would have stayed at home.

Given the injury to Chris Rogers and timely century from Marsh, the Australian batting line up takes on a totally different look from that Sydney Test. Gone are Rogers and Joe Burns, with Michael Clarke returning and Adam Voges - the second best batsmen of the last few Australian summers - to debut at Roseau at the age of 35. Marsh will open with Warner, Voges will bat at five with Shane Watson to follow. Steve Smith, after a wonderful summer, earns the right to bat at three ahead of Clarke. Lyon will retain the spinners spot but he is finally under pressure, with the fast tracked leggie Fawad Ahmed, breathing down his neck. English susceptibility against leg spin will have been in the minds of Rod Marsh and his fellow selectors.

Jermaine Blackwood
The Windies, after being unable to beat anyone but the lesser lights of Test cricket for the past five years, pulled off an exciting win against an embarrassed England at their last outing and whilst the inevitable dropping of Shiv Chanderpaul has caused controversy, the emergence of Jermaine Blackwood more than makes up for it. They have a handy batting line up, with Blackwood, Marlon Samuels, a resurgent Kraig Braithwaite and Jason Holder all making hundreds against England and Darren Bravo also having his moments but it is their erratic bowling that lets them down. That's where Australia will capitalise and should dominate despite four months without serious cricket, Harris' absence and a reshuffled batting line up.

All of which makes for an interesting and much closer Ashes series than might have been thought to be the case, nearly eighteen months ago.