Wednesday, May 29, 2013

England criticized for failing the nostalgia test

In the wake of England's 2-0 test series win over New Zealand featuring two crushing victories, one would expect superlatives, praise and congrats galore. In stead, we have the cricketing punditocracy especially England's finest in the commentary boxes, criticizing captain Alistair Cook and the team for negative tactics - both while batting in the second innings, and bowling during the Kiwis chase which was nothing more than a victory lap in reality.

Now, I get that both the traditionalists and the doom-mongers alike seem to believe that test cricket is truly only at its best when captains are attacking. That love for attacking cricket also now seems to be a benchmark for defining the greatness of a winning team. Memories of the great Australian and West Indian sides of the past are based on their much lauded aggressive intent, and I would say rightly so.

However, constantly comparing the good test teams of today with the all-conquering teams of the past can at times be a disservice to the excellence of cricketers efforts in the present day. One of the most ubiquitous sentiments shared by aficionados of all sports, is that setting standards and then comparing them across eras and generations is a futile effort. Somehow though, this debate rears it head more prominently in the British press across a wide variety of sports. Just winning simply isn't enough, there is almost more appreciation for the noble defeat.

Let's have some perspective, by breaking down exactly what transpired at Headingly:

  1. England won the 2nd test by 247 runs. Let me spell it out. That's two hundred and forty seven runs more than New Zealand.
  2. The first day was completely washed out, and half of the final day was washed out. So that's a 247 run victory in three and a half days.
  3. In the first innings, Joe Root scored a scintillating century at a strike rate of 62, Jonny Bairstow an aggressive half-century at a strike rate of 64.
  4. England bowled out New Zealand in 43.4 overs in the first innings with Graeme Swann taking 4 wickets in 10 overs, and Steven Finn taking 3 wickets in 12 overs.
  5. England then scored 287 for 5 in the second innings at a faster run rate than they did in the first innings, 3.77 compared to 3.57.
  6. Alistair Cook scored another century as captain at a fair clip of 68.42, and the two Yorkshire tyros Root and Bairstow hit aggressive twenty's at a rate of 127 and 118 respectively.
  7. While attacking intent is indeed necessary to take twenty wickets outright, Hamish Rutherford and Ross Taylor played freely irrespective of the field settings, to score 42 and 70 respectively. It is easy to say that a defensive field allows batsmen to settle, but in the modern game ultra-attacking fields also allow batsmen to settle through scoring boundaries. 
  8. England did take longer to bowl out New Zealand in the second innings. However, can a true fan of test cricket genuinely lament Graeme Swann bowling thoughtfully and deceptively for 32 overs and get six wickets? I would argue it made the game so much more enjoyable watching Swann work so hard to get his ten-wicket haul for the match, and the Black Caps batsmen desperately try to draw the game.
  9. None of England's leading bowlers conceded more than 3.5 runs an over. What has been the English bowling attack's single biggest strength in their ascent to the upper echelons of test cricket was clearly demonstrated in the fourth innings of the match, and is probably going to be their key strategy against Australia as well.
  10. Despite being clear favourites for the Ashes, England cannot take it for granted that the Australians are just going to turn up and roll over. Ashes cricket is usually intense combat, and  I would argue that at least two matches might go down to the final session. Experience at winning a time trial like the one surpassed at Headingly can come in handy during the Ashes.
So the stats, facts and outcomes all clearly point to one conclusion - England played extremely well and also quite aggressively to win the second test against New Zealand. Alistair Cook and his men should be commended and lauded for a job well done, rather than being criticized for failing to meet nostalgic standards set by the demanding English cricketing punditocracy. I will leave the last word to the English captain:

"There are lots of different ways of attacking - you don't always have to crowd the bat.
"There are many different ways of skinning a cat." 
"But as a captain you are judged on your results. The result vindicates the decision."
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