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Another year wiser?

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Firstly, apologies for such a long time between articles. I hate to keep my loyal readers waiting so long (yes, both of you). Who knew that being self-employed and working 7 days a week could be so demanding? I hope you all had a very Merry Christmas, New Year & festive season in general!!

What an amazing year of cricket has passed in 2015 as well. India are winning tests, South Africa are losing them. Australia remain the most well rounded and consistent team (so what else is new), and England remain a mixed bag, capable of fluctuating from the sublime to the ridiculous in back to back tests, as their home Ashes series showed us only too clearly.

New Zealand remain a strong prospect for higher honours and I have long been aware of their increasing strength and confidence. Pakistan always provide a good show and a seemingly never ending production line of aggressive and competent fast bowlers (and that’s before you allow for the return of Amir).

Sri Lanka have struggled, retirements admittedly playing no small part, and must rebuild. Bangladesh continue to seek consistency at the top level and the less said about the turmoil that seems to surround the West Indies camp the better. Except, what kind of cricket blog would leave it so? Perhaps the best way is to lay out a short summary and perhaps one or two New Year resolutions for each team – what they want and perhaps, what they need, as let’s be honest, they are not always the same. I understand we’re in late January already, but it’s never too late to clarify your goals and take confident strides towards them:

Australia

The team that keeps on keeping on. Even without a host of world class stars at their disposal, rebuilding never seems to take the Aussies anywhere near as long as other teams. Yes they have a fantastic work ethic, skill sets etc etc. But what actually keeps the Australian team consistently at the top, or challenging to be so, of all formats so regularly? I answer: it is that built-in belief that they have a pre-determined right, a destiny almost, to be the best. That belief drives them and removes any likelihood of a steep drop down the rankings, or run of series losses. They simply will themselves to complete, to dominate and the future looks bright under the energetic & enigmatic young captain Smith. A strong England for the next Ashes could test them at home (remember 2010/11). NYR – They want Mitchell Marsh to be their all-rounder, he must start producing more rounded performances. Maybe time to start looking for the next spinner to come after Lyon (O’Keefe looks worth persisting with). Special note: sledging isn’t always required to prove you’re playing hard, try not doing it for a series – see how it feels.

Bangladesh

Bangladesh have a great fighting spirit. They tend to fare better in the white ball formats where they are able to spring a few surprises against more favoured opponents. Take the 3-0 ODI sweep & 1-0 Twenty20 victory over Pakistan earlier in the year. I’m sure they would have liked not to lose the last two games against Zimbabwe to share the more recent series, but the fact remains they are a team that can surprise on their day. Shakib Al Hasan is a very talented all-rounder and if Bangladesh’ batsmen (not talking about anyone in particular – Tamim), can find some consistency and the hunger to graft and bat long in red ball cricket, then who knows, they may be able to make some of the closely knit ‘top teams’ a bit nervous in 2016. NYR – Self-belief & hard work. Don’t be content with the best of the rest tag, start challenging top teams more regularly and suddenly the door to more series against tougher opposition may just open which will then lead to improvement as well. Fight hard Tigers!

England

This is a strange one. I can’t think of another test team that has such potential to climb the rankings in 2016 whilst having the curious potential (some may even say tendency), to lose a game within a single session. Yes there has been rebuilding, and it seems to be progressing well. Joe Root is an exceptionally gifted batsman with a good head on his shoulders. The captaincy surely beckons for the future. They have in Stuart Broad a bowler capable of winning the game in a single spell or session also – as he has now done several times. Ben Stokes continues to impress and show what he can do. It would be a big call indeed to insinuate he is the next Beefy Botham, but he is heading in the right direction and I would say is not far off being the next Freddie Flintoff (and I mean that as a huge compliment), he can be the heart of this side for a long time to come. Cook’s achievements as captain seem to have flown under the radar, which is unfair, but he will continue to break English & overall records mark my word. Tough assignments in the sub-continent await, but for the first time in a few years, the belief might just be there to succeed. NYR – Continue to show faith in their young players (the likes of Root, Stokes, Hales, Finn & Taylor have plenty to give and are the future). The ‘fast’ bowlers to pitch the ball up more regularly. Find a way to retain intensity and hunger once a series has been decided, their fans must be a bit tired of even a hint of unearned complacency.

India

The new #1 test side in the world! True, the rankings were fortuitously shuffled by England beating South Africa, the former #1 test side, at home. India however also beat the Proteas 3-0 at home and should rightly enjoy the top spot in what is a closely fought contest between the top six teams who are separated by a mere 15 Ratings points. As I understand it, a 1-0 win or better for Australia against NZ in their upcoming series will knock India off the perch. Kohli is a young captain and an exceptionally talented batsman. He has for the first time in a long time, a pace attack worthy of the name. Rohit Sharma has looked an absolute superstar at the top of the order, and as likely to get himself out as be removed by the opposing bowler. Ravi Ashwin’s all-round talents also remain crucial to forming a well-balanced side. NYR – To combine strong batting & bowling performances in the same match, without one group always having to bail out the other. And of course, to improve their away wins record, as we all know how tough they are to beat at home. Accept that DRS is never going to be 100% perfect, but neither are umpires, and start to lead the necessary evolution of the sport instead of standing in its way.

New Zealand

New Zealand are a very exciting team in all formats and one I have thoroughly enjoyed watching during their ascent over the last few years. The batting is strong, their attitude is attacking without being reckless (the odd B Mac innings aside – but that’s just how he plays right :), and in Trent Boult & Tim Southee they have the spearheads of an attack that can trouble any opposition. Kane Williamson is at the very top (alongside the likes of Steve Smith, Virat Kohli & Joe Root) of young batting talent in world cricket. He looks capable & composed, the kind of future test captain all teams would love to have waiting in the wings. Mitchell Santner will continue to grow and impress as well I’m sure. When you think of it from a population point of view, it’s worth noting what a remarkable achievement it is that the Kiwi’s keep producing cricketers and teams of such a high level. The Blackcaps are definitely a team on the rise and every bit as capable of ruling the roost in the next few years as the perhaps more obvious choices! NYR – This is a tricky one as the attitude and talent is all there. They could certainly do with Corey Andersons continued form and fitness for that crucial all-rounder position. Opening partnerships to set a solid foundation are on the wish list too, but really there is so much to like about this team, just sit back & enjoy the ride!

Pakistan

A mercurial team if there ever was one. Able to beat the best and lose to the worst, consistency is the biggest problem for this side. I am glad Amir has made his way back into the side. Once a punishment has been served, a player’s livelihood should not be deprived to them. Five years ago he looked the goods to be one of the most promising fast bowlers going around – I hope he has retained the hunger to get there still. He has the talent to win back the hearts of Pakistan fans and indeed fans around the world with his performances. Pakistan have never struggled to produce a production line of quality bowlers. I’m not sure if the batting stocks are quite there for when Younis & Misbah finally hang up their boots, though Azhar Ali looks to have the temperament to take the young side forward. Credit should be given to Pakistan, despite all their struggles and political issues, for a team that respects their senior players, judges them on ability and not age, and has managed to build a stronghold away from home in the UAE – where all other teams dread to face them. NYR – Consistency of performance. I think they will have a strong 2016 and have as much chance of a strong World Twenty20 showing as anyone. Focus on the cricket and the rest will come.

South Africa

Any team that loses the likes of Jaques Kallis & Graeme Smith, whilst being without 2 of their premier strike bowlers, is bound to lose the odd game or series. South Africa proved in the dead rubber against England that they still have the goods. There are some proviso’s there of course. England had won the series and perhaps were unable to rouse themselves for the challenge with the series already won (this is not a new phenomenon for them after all), but don’t forgot the new captain AB de Villiers also failed to trouble the scorers for his first Test match pair. To win so emphatically without contribution from one of the worlds’ best batsman, and your captain at that, surely shows that it is not all doom & gloom. The #1 Test ranking may be gone but they have an incredible away record unmatched by any other side and some exciting new prospects on show. Temba Bavuma impressed with the bat and boy oh boy did Kagiso Rabada impress with the ball. It is early days and fans & media alike need to be mindful of asserting too much pressure on young shoulders, but the future looks bright enough for this Proteas side in transition. NYR – Selections based on merit and not a quota system (I don’t know if this exists or not, but if it does, it shouldn’t). They must find a way to get 5 frontline bowlers into their test side to relieve the pressure on having only 3 quicks (especially if Dale Steyn’s injury prone run is to continue).

Sri Lanka

Another team in a bit of transition, all teams go through it. Kumar Sangakkara & Mahela Jayawardena were class batsman and impossible to replace quickly, but talent obviously remains. Angelo Matthews, Rangana Herath and an improving Dinesh Chandimal must lead this young team forward. They have had a mixed 2015 and a 7th placed Test Ranking is probably about right for now. They certainly hit their straps well in the shorter formats and the upcoming Twenty20 world cup will give them another chance to showcase their skills. Tillakaratne Dilshan will have a large role to play with bat & ball if they are to make the finals. Matthews seems to have a good cricketing brain and the ability to get out of his team a whole that is sometimes greater than the sum of its parts. NYR – They require more consistency from their pace bowlers, especially in non-subcontinental conditions which should provide extra assistance. Continue to back the young all-rounders and talent in the squad and remain patient with the rebuilding process.

West Indies

First things first. We have to stop comparing these guys to their predecessors who dominated world cricket for over a decade. It is not a fair comparison to make and these young players cannot be expected to perform in such a shadow. With that being said, having their best players on the park would be a really good start. The prolonged exclusion of Gayle, Bravo & Pollard, along with the ‘moving on’ from Chanderpaul, have left this side inexperienced and forever fighting to settle. The WI cricket board has a lot to answer for and it’s nothing new to express that change is required there before the team can expect sustained improvement. Why Darren Sammy is not in the test side in place of one of the many journeymen is beyond me. He has good all-round skills and a clear passion to represent the West Indies. The likes of Marlon Samuels have had long enough to show that passion and it clearly appears to be lacking. The definition of madness is doing the same thing over & over again and expecting different results – so mad the WI cricket board must be. On the brighter side, Jason Holder seems like an intelligent and hardworking player. Given the best players at his disposal, it is not yet mission impossible to turn this ship around. I sincerely hope the captaincy and politics does not weigh so heavy upon his young shoulders as to hamper or shorten his career or potential. NYR – Sack the entire board and rediscover the joy for a game they used to be rather good at. Change must start at the top & reverberate through all levels. The global cricket fan wants to see a strong West Indies and the game needs it. Stop the pettiness, stop the personal agendas, pick your best team and start having fun on the cricket field again….please!

Zimbabwe

It is desperately hard for a team at the bottom to climb anywhere when they don’t get enough exposure against top opposition. I’m struggling to recall when I last saw Zimbabwe play someone other than Bangladesh or Afghanistan. In fact I’m struggling to recall their last Test match! As is often the case, inconsistency is the result of scattered and insufficient fixtures. Hopefully they can rally themselves to a good showing at the World Twenty20 and display the skills of which they are capable. Makhaya Ntini is a good choice for bowling coach and will bring with him a wealth of experience. With Brendan Taylor’s retirement and Elton Chigumbura’s stepping down as captain, there is a lot of hard work ahead for this young side but underestimate them at your peril – as several top sides, most recently Australia & New Zealand, can both attest to. NYR – More matches against more opponents – I don’t claim to know how they achieve this with the FTP being what it is, however this is the key to them improving their skills and results accordingly.

Another exciting year of cricket awaits in 2016! All three formats of the game will be on show and I am very much looking forward to several mouth-watering series ahead as well as the global silverware up for grabs. I will make a special mention to the ICC Test Ranking system – in an age where winning away from home is so hard to achieve (except for SA it would seem), surely more weighting should be given for away wins, and the whole system made a little clearer to the fans. The current system seems to provoke as much ridicule as it does acceptance.

Finally, if your much anticipated game is washed out, or over inside 3 days, I hope you will consider Monopoly Cricket Edition as a fun and worthwhile way to occupy the time before the next one! Happy New Year everybody, let’s hope it’s a cracker!!

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