Angus Fraser, Middlesex’s director of cricket, has insisted that a uniform spread of good cricket wickets remains the best way to develop Test-class cricketers, in spite of the difficulties that England encountered in spinning conditions on their tour of India this winter, where they succumbed to three heavy defeats at Chennai and Ahmedabad.
After dominating the first Test at Chennai in the most batsman-friendly conditions of the series, England had few answers to India’s spin duo of R Ashwin and Axar Patel for the remainder of the campaign, as the pair finished with 59 wickets between them across the four Tests.
Nor could England find a batsman able to thrive on those later surfaces to the same extent as either Rohit Sharma or Rishabh Pant. Each scored a century, in the second and fourth Test respectively, to put both contests out of reach, as England in reply managed a highest total of 205 in seven innings.
In particular, the conditions that England faced in the final two Tests at Ahmedabad, where they slumped to defeats in two and three days respectively, drew comparisons with the situations that many sides face when visiting Taunton in the County Championship – or “Ciderabad”, as it is colloquially known, due to the dominance of spin at the venue.
But Fraser, who once described the pitch for Middlesex’s relegation-sealing defeat at Taunton in 2017 as “dreadful”, believes that it is the disciplines learned by batsmen and bowlers alike on good surfaces that lay the foundations for success in tougher circumstances.
“All pitches need to produce good cricket, that’s the starting point,” he said. “Batsmen need to bat on surfaces that they can trust, so that they can play their shots and they’re not fearful that there’s a ball coming around the corner with their name on it, and therefore think, well, I’ll be aggressive and try and make it pay until that ball comes along,
“And bowlers have got to bowl with discipline. They’ve got to learn to be accurate, as well as spin the ball or bowl with pace, and they’re going to learn those skills by playing on good surfaces.”
Earlier this month, the ECB agreed to increase the number of points available for a draw in the County Championship from five to eight, in response to an appeal from Joe Root, England’s captain, for counties to be incentivised to make their games last longer.
And Fraser said that he welcomed that change, particularly in light of the retention of the three-group format for this year’s County Championship.
“A result of [two-]divisional cricket is the fact that people are willing to roll the dice. If we’ve got seven home games, if we can win four and lose three, it’s better than winning two and drawing four and losing one, or whatever it might be. And I don’t think that mentality produces decent cricketers.
“The conversation we have with Karl [McDermott], our groundsman, is a very short one – just produce the best pitch you can. I want Lord’s to be a good surface, not one where it’s all over in two-and-a-bit days and where 180 is a decent score.
“You can’t get funky with pitches. We’ve turned up at some grounds, historically, and there’s saucer-shaped areas outside off stump on the spinners length that look completely different from the rest of the pitch.
“To me that’s a very short-term look at things. If we’re trying to produce decent cricketers, we want to play on good surfaces and we want to encourage groundsmen to produce those, rather than compromise by asking them to produce something completely in favour of the home side.”
Fraser did acknowledge that the existence of pitches such as Taunton’s could provide players with an insight into the sort of extreme conditions that were encountered in Ahmedabad this winter, and he commended the club on producing both of England’s current first-choice spinners, Dom Bess and Jack Leach.
However, he reiterated his view that such an approach was merely a short-cut, rather than a solution, to England’s problem of producing enough Test-class spin bowlers to compete in overseas conditions, and cited Bess’ struggles this winter as an example of the lack of grounding he has been offered, despite his opportunities to play.
“We get on well with Somerset despite the odd spat,” Fraser said. “As a county we fully respect what they’ve achieved.
“When I first came to the Middlesex position, it was to achieve what Somerset are doing, and compete all competitions on a regular basis. But if you look at the Somerset experiment, how many Somerset batsmen are in the England squad?
“The real positive for Somerset is, yes, they’re providing England with two of their spinners, including Dom Bess, whom I picked as an England selector. But, not that I’ve spoken to the coach, but Bess got dropped because they were worried about his discipline. And the fact that he bowled too many bad balls.
“The Indian spinners were able to exploit those pitches, but I’m sure they play on a lot of flat pitches that don’t offer the spinners a lot of help too, so that they have to bowl with the discipline that’s required.
“The Somerset surface angle is one that is often mentioned when you look at an Ahmedabad situation, but has it has it provided England with the cricketers that have allowed us to go to India to win a series?
“I’m not having a go at the situation there, I’m just looking at it logically, in the same way that playing on a green seamer at Lord’s might give a false account of a fast bowler. If it’s been an overcast summer, such a player is then likely to get exposed at Test level, because they’re playing on flatter pitches against better batsman.”
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket
County Championship 2021 – Tom Westley seeks uplift after ‘strange’ start to Essex’s twin title defence
Halfway through the group stage of the Championship, and Essex have got it all to do. The defending champions are currently fifth in Group One – albeit only 15 points off a top-two spot – and in need of a run of good form in order to make sure of qualifying for Division One when the competition splits. If Tom Westley, Essex’s captain, had been hoping a return to Chelmsford would spark an uplift after two defeats and a draw on the road, then a washed-out first day against Derbyshire only served to dampen the mood.
Westley admits it has been a “strange start” to the season. Having scored 490 for 9 declared in their opening game, only to be held to a draw by Worcestershire, Essex then recovered from being skittled for 96 by Durham to defend their manor in the manner to which most observers have become accustomed – scrapping hard in the second innings to post a target of 168, and then defending it ruthlessly on the back of another Simon Harmer ten-for.
But defeats at Edgbaston, by seven wickets, and Trent Bridge, by an innings, either side of another stalemate away to Worcestershire have left Westley puzzling over how to get what he views as “the best team in the country” playing like they can.
“Things definitely could be going a bit better,” he tells ESPNcricinfo. “It’s been quite challenging, a bit disappointing for the standards that we set at Essex. We’re used to winning lots of games of cricket, which hasn’t been the case this year. Halfway through, still a lot of games to be played and the group is tight – if you win a couple of games all of a sudden you’re right back up there.
“It’s been quite strange, in that we’ve been bowled out for less than 100 twice, and we’ve also got 500 twice. We haven’t been able to piece the whole game together with bat and ball. Certain games we’ve batted really well and bowled not as well, and in other games we’ve bowled well and not batted well. Which is the crux of cricket, I suppose.
“It’s immensely frustrating not being able to piece it together. It’s been a reminder of how hard four-day cricket is, especially when the some of the surfaces have been either way – very flat or [doing a bit]. It’s a strange start for us.”
Nevertheless, and despite the bleak scene through the rain-spattered windows of the Scrutton Bland Premier Suite, Westley remains visibly chipper, confident that Essex’s recent history suggests they are more than capable of turning things around – before the loss to Warwickshire, they had gone two years and 21 first-class games without defeat, winning 14 of them.
“The spirits have been quite good around the place, considering how poorly we’ve started by our standards,” he said. “We have been so used to winning, sometimes you get a bit expectant of that. Many factors go into not winning, I think this is probably the first time in a few years when we’ve had more than one or two guys a little bit struggling for form – which can happen.
“But we’ve got to be mindful that when it does turn, and we start playing our best cricket, I firmly believe we are the best team in the country so there’s no reason why we can’t get on a roll. We’re a team that have shown in the past that once we do get on a roll, we can go on for a long period of time. That’s what we’re focusing on.”
Of the players who have struggled so far, perhaps of chief concern is Jamie Porter, the spearhead of the attack, who has so far managed just six wickets at an average of 65.83; meanwhile, batting stalwarts Alastair Cook and former captain Ryan ten Doeschate have managed one hundred and one fifty between them.
But while there has been some rotation of the bowlers in an attempt to manage workloads, and Essex expect to lose Dan Lawrence imminently to the England Test bubble, there is no mood to make wholesale changes. “Form is temporary, class is permanent,” Westley says. “That is the message that we say in our changing room. You don’t become a bad team overnight, you can’t forget all the hard work and success we’ve had in the last four-five years.”
Westley does admit that questions will be asked if Essex can’t hustle their way into Division One, and thereby keep alive their twin defence of the County Championship and Bob Willis Trophy. The visit of Derbyshire, winless and bottom of Group One, ought to represent a chance to burnish their credentials once again, though it may need some canny captaincy reminiscent of the Keith Fletcher era to pull off victory in the equivalent of three days (or fewer, given the weather forecasts). Just don’t tell the Chelmsford scriptwriters it can’t be done.
“It would be a huge disappointment if we don’t get into that top division, especially given the success that is expected of us at the club. But I’m an optimistic, positive person. I believe we are the sort of team that can win the next four games and then you look back and think ‘Oh, what was the issue?’ But we have to do that first. It would be bitterly disappointing but, if for whatever reason we don’t make that, it’s our own fault and we’ve got to accept that.
“It’s frustrating, losing a day to the rain isn’t ideal when you know you have games to win. And because we’ve lost the toss, it probably makes it a little bit harder to win while batting first. But I think the script that Essex generate for themselves over the last few years, you never know what’s going to happen.”
Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick
Recent Match Report – Kent vs Sussex Group 3 2021
Fast bowler confirms bid for full fitness is back on track after fiery opening gambit at Hove
Sussex 51 for 2 trail Kent 145 (Leaning 63; Robinson 3-29, Garton 3-65, Archer 2-29) by 94 runs
When Jofra Archer last played a first-class match at Hove he was not a World Cup winner nor had he played in an Ashes series. The game took place in September 2018 and was memorable for the final first-class centuries of both Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell. Trott’s hundred satisfied the technicians; Bell’s pleased the aesthetes and brings them comfort still. Archer had played 10 IPL games for Rajasthan Royals and was plainly England’s next big thing. But his four late wickets against Warwickshire hardly disturbed the universe and certainly nobody gave a monkey’s what he did with his fish tank apart, one assumes, from the fish. The age of aquaria had not yet dawned.
That era is upon us now, though, and so Archer is perhaps fortunate that he is based in Brighton, where other-worldliness is an asset and where shredding your finger cleaning up after your piscine pets is something that could happen to anyone. Even more than Britain’s metropolises this city is a shrine to the outré and the baroque. Archer is thus an extraordinary cricketer in a city filled with extraordinary people and maybe he enjoys the camouflage, even if such concealment is not always available. The news that he had recovered sufficiently from a right-elbow injury to be named in Sussex’s squad for this game against Kent brought extra photographers and journalists to the County Ground and in the first half an hour of the day we could all see why.
In Archer’s third over Daniel Bell-Drummond was beaten for pace and bounce; the catch went very fast to second slip where George Garton made it look laughably easy. Next over, though, Archer over-pitched and Zak Crawley helped himself to four runs past wide mid-on. We settled down for a duel between a couple of England’s Test cricketers, only for it to end two balls later when Crawley could do nothing with sharp lift and movement off a length except nick the ball to Ben Brown.
“Usually I bowl to Zak n the [England] nets and I have done that quite a bit,” observed Archer when our day’s cricket was done. “Obviously, you’re never out in the nets so it was good to get him out here, with umpires.”
Thereafter, though, the bowler upon whom some Ashes strategies may rest blended into the background of what became a fine day for Sussex. He bowled two spells of four overs and then one of five that was bridged by rain. The speed and steepling bounce will have reassured the selectors but Archer bowled no better than Ollie Robinson, with whom he may yet open England’s bowling in a Test match during this most unpredictable of seasons. Robinson nags at a batsman’s technique much as an abscess might plague the nerves beneath a tooth; extraction is often the inevitable consequence.
Such relentless discipline appeals to England’s selectors and Robinson was more responsible than anyone else in Brown’s attack for Sussex dismissing Kent for 145 on a cloud-strewn, shower-threatened day when the decision to bowl first cannot have required much thought. In the over after lunch he bowled Jordan Cox through the narrowest of gates for 24 and then returned in the evening to have Kent’s top scorer, Jack Leaning, taken at slip by Aaron Thomason for 63 when nibbling at a ball outside the off stump. “More of a chomp than a nibble,” observed Sam Keir, Sussex’s Media Executive, a man with a good memory for confectionery. One saw his point. It was a thickish edge.
By then, though, Leaning’s studious, three-hour innings had become an exercise in damage limitation. In the morning session he and Cox had piloted their side to 68 for 2 only to see such comparative affluence frittered away by the haemorrhage of five wickets for 42 runs in the afternoon. Cox was the first to go but that misfortune was followed by the loss of three batsmen in the space of 15 balls. Garton took two of the three and may even have benefitted from his irritating habit of mixing many distinctly good balls with occasional dross. The saddest departure was that of 20-year-old Tawanda Muyeye, whose maiden first-class innings lasted just eight balls before Robinson’s third leg-before appeal against him in the same over received a grim assent from David Millns, a decision with which Muyeye could have no complaint.
And the debutant had at least got a run to his name, a distinction not shared by Darren Stevens, who flashed at a wide one. The same error was committed in excelsis a few overs later by Marcus O’Riordan and both edges were taken by Thomason at first slip. The showers returned and Kent took tea on 113 for 7. Jack Carson picked up a couple of cheap wickets to end the innings but even that skill adds to a spinner’s growing reputation. Adil Rashid could tell Carson that.
Having been assisted by the relatively dry weather during the bulk of the day, Sussex were helped by the return of bad light when 14.3 overs remained to be bowled. At that stage Brown’s batsmen had reduced the deficit to 94 runs but only for the loss of Tom Haines who feathered a catch behind off Stevens and Thomason, whose booming drive off Nathan Gilchrist was snaffled by O’Riordan at cover point. It was a careless end to what had been a pleasing three sessions for Thomason and his team but Brown would have settled for this state of affairs this morning, when the captain of Sussex arrived at the ground on his scooter and saw a tiny murmuration of starlings feasting on grubs in the wet earth.
Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications
ICC consider expanding T20 World Cup to 20 teams
Change of attitude from governing body with shorter form seen as vehicle for growth
The T20 World Cup could be increased to include 20 teams as part of the ICC’s attempts to develop the game globally.
While the 2021 tournament, currently scheduled to be played in India, will still feature 16 teams, ESPNcricinfo understands there are plans to increase that number from the 2024 edition. Current thinking suggests that version of the event will feature four groups of five teams in its opening phase.
The ICC has long seen the T20 format as a vehicle for the game’s expansion and there has been previous talk of such an expansion. The ICC have already confirmed their plans to increase the number of teams in their women’s competitions.
But the move sustains a notably more inclusive recent approach from the ICC across formats. This is also likely to involve an increased number of teams (from 10 to 14) in the 50-over World Cup, a more positive attitude towards participation in the Olympics and talk of a return of the Intercontinental Cup (albeit with a different name).
It is, perhaps, the move to increasing the number of teams in the 50-over World Cup which provides the most revealing insight into the changing mood of the ICC. In recent years, the ICC cut the number of teams in the 50-over World Cup (from 16 in 2007, to 14 in 2011 and 2015 and 10 in 2019) arguing that broadcasters preferred the streamlined format with the probability of fewer one-sided games.
There is, however, understood to be a growing appreciation of the need to balance long-term global development with the monetary value of short-term broadcast deals. It may be relevant, too, that since the powers of the ‘Big Three’ were rolled back in 2017, the influence of other nations has grown.
All these subjects have been discussed in recent Chief Executives’ Committee (CEC) meetings and, though no firm decisions have been taken, there has been a notably more positive appreciation of the benefits of this expansion from the more powerful Full Member countries. Indeed, it is understood that the subject of the Olympics was raised at a recent CEC meeting by the ECB’s Tom Harrison. The BCCI have also recently signalled their desire for involvement, albeit with the caveat that they will not tolerate interference from the Indian Olympic Association.
The Intercontinental Cup has, in the past, provided an opportunity for Associate ICC nations to play a good standard of first-class cricket. It is likely, however, that the revamped tournament, which will almost certainly carry a different name, might provide opportunities for at least some of those nations to play more Test cricket. That could well mean more nations being permitted to play the format and might effectively introduce a second division in Test cricket.
A return of cricket to the Olympics would provide a financial and publicity boost to areas of the global game which have traditionally struggled for both. While the most influential ICC Full Members have, in the past, resisted such a move as it would reduce their window for bilateral series, there is a growing appreciation of the benefits of inclusion in the event. An ICC sub-committee has been set up and will report back to the CEC. Ian Watmore, the ECB chair, is on the sub-committee and is known to be a supporter of cricket’s inclusion in principle, believing it will help develop both the men’s and women’s game globally.
As a result, there is a growing likelihood of inclusion in the 2032 event (which is likely to be held in Brisbane) and a possibility of a bid for the 2028 version (which is scheduled to be held in LA). The number of teams involved and the version of the game to be used remain undecided, though there is growing support for exploring the T10 version, which would probably allow more nations to be involved and enable the event to be included within the small window available.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo
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