Tuesday 26 November 2013

Finn: England's missing paceman

Cricket doesn't often offer much for adrenaline junkies, but when fast bowlers find fast pitches, it's intoxicating. Pace is the most visceral and unforgiving part of the game. Weakness against spin can be tolerated as a technical failing; falling to pace is invariably a moral problem.

It was Mitchell Johnson's pace that made the first Test the most pulsating Ashes match since 2005. Until Jonathan Trott's departure from the tour, the post-match talk was all about the unique challenges real quick bowling presents. Curious then, that England's fastest bowler – Steven Finn – was entirely absent at the Gabba.

Finn is not quite as explosive as Johnson - his orthodox action means he'll never feel quite as raw - but he's equally volatile and just as potent. Like Johnson he was spotted early, promised much but never seemed settled. And like Johnson his reputation belies his record.

From 23 Tests Finn's strike rate is 48.3, better than James Anderson and Stuart Broad by 10. His average (29.40) also shades England's senior bowlers. He was England's highest wicket taker in the tour matches leading into the first Test but also their most profligate. And therein lies the problem for the selectors. England deem Finn too pricey for their parsimonious preferences.

Yet it is interesting to contrast Finn's development with England's Gabba standout, Broad. Finn made his debut an equally willowly quick in Bangladesh three-and-a-half years ago. Since then he has added bulk to his body and speed to his bowling but has been dropped six times. Some of these were horse-for-course changes where England preferred a second spinner. But many were not and they speak of enormous instability.

It took Broad less than two years to play the same number of Tests and by his own acknowledgement he had to learn on the job. Unlike Finn, he was allowed to. Broad has been dropped for poor form only twice in his Test career. At the equivalent stage to Finn he had 23 less wickets at an average – 36.14 – that was much worse.

Part of the reason Broad was allowed to develop in the team was the presence of a fourth seamer. Andrew Flintoff played in 10 of Broad's early Tests which meant if Broad had a shaky day his overs could be found elsewhere. After repeated batting malfunctions it is unfair to focus on the bowlers, but England miss a fourth seamer. Not just to free Broad and Anderson up, but maybe most significantly to allow Finn to develop.

England's obsessively detailed management has been well documented and their devotion to professionalism has undoubtedly lifted standards. But while they focus on the marginals, Finn is quickly becoming their biggest failure.

He has all the attributes of an outstanding fast bowler. His second-innings spell at Lord's against South Africa last year was every bit as devastating as Johnson at the Gabba and before his difficult Ashes outing at Trent Bridge in July he troubled New Zealand's batsmen.

It's unlikely Finn will be recalled at Adelaide. England are desperate for the steadier Tim Bresnan to return. But genuine pace is a rare commodity. Finn might soon prove more expensive out of the team than he would in it. 

Sunday 17 November 2013

Piercing the hot air - Sachin's 38

It was tough trying to wade through the torrent of saccharine sentiment. Of course it had to be like this, the entertainment industry loves instructing people how to feel.

Cricket, ever more so, is no exception. Though the Test format is less malleable to the banal storytelling of marketeers, Sachin Tendulkar's final Test was an easy sell.

And boy they sold it. Cricinfo was bursting with Sachin, while Twitter was melting from tedious twos-and-fros between those lauding Sachin and those taking the piss.

Tendulkar's final Test innings (and with that shambolic West Indies outfit it was always going to be his last) was a massive occasion. It was just that being told over and again how important the man and the moment were made me numb.

I understood why so many said so much. I've long been struck by the gloriously earnest instinct in India for both sentiment and categorisation. Tendulkar's career and retirement tapped both. His many feats meant he was No. 1 runscorer, No. 1 century-maker, No. 1 match-player. And having watched him live his entire adult life as a champion on the pitch, people had every right to feel emotional.

So I did not belong with the curmudgeons grumbling about the quantity of the coverage. It is just that I could not engage with it. The noise - visual, aural and mental - that cluttered Tendulkar's final moment made me immune to it.

But it just so happened that I was home when the moment came. Cricinfo told me Murali Vijay was out and that the crowd had erupted. The only video coverage I could get was through my mobile. A small screen pathetically at odds with the occasion.

The sound of the crowd as he sped out the middle, the chaotic slog-sweep to get off the mark, the half-volley stroked through cover. That punch drive down the ground. Of his 15921 Test runs, the 38 he made that evening must count among his least significant.

But those 20 overs were among the most dramatic I'd seen. As was always the way with Tendulkar, the guff was cleared aside to make way for the sport.

It was 20 overs that snatched the moment from the promoters and returned it to the fans. For that I #thankyousachin.