Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats

Rather than re-hash the standard pre-season forecast that can be read elsewhere, I thought that, for a  change,  it might be more enlightening to apply a standard business model when evaluating the team’s prospects in advance of the 2017 (although I acknowledge that for many of us we’ve already heard enough management-speak during the past winter, thank you very much)

Strengths

On the pitch the strength is clearly in the seam bowling. Ball (who after last season’s exploits must be considered the no.1 bowler at the captain’s disposal), Broad (nothwithstanding the fact that he has not appeared in a winning Nottinghamshire team since 2013), Pattinson, Gurney,  a slimline Fletcher (ahem…), Wood, and Hutton, are a high calibre group of bowlers, who  together with the youngsters, Kitt and Blatherwick, ought to be capable of winning a substantial number of games for Nottinghamshire, as long as the wickets are not too benign. However, anyone who has watched four day cricket at Trent Bridge in recent seasons will know that this has not always been the case. I can’t be the only one who finds it amusing when certain media commentators, who clearly only visit the ‘Home of Cricket’ (© Graeme Swann) when there is international cricket being played, waffle on about ‘green seamers’ being the norm here. How many bowler friendly pitches have been prepared at Trent Bridge in the last three seasons? Not many.

The wicketkeeping berth is also well provided for. There is one last hurrah before the departure of Read (what will summers be like without him?). Riki Wessels performed better that expected, if truth be told, as his deputy last year (although it did deprive the team of its best outfielder), and we have the prospect of watching the genesis of Tom Moores hopefully lengthy Trent Bridge career. At least small children should be safe from having to view Taylor’s wicketkeeping for the forseeable future…

The team also has bags of experience in both batting and bowling, which ought to count for a lot in the coming season. Outsiders must look at the group of players available at Trent Bridge and wonder how they managed to get relegated in 2016. Of course they didn’t get to see some of the performances…

The team should also benefit from a new Head Coach. Having twice previously coached teams to County Championship wins, his record is beyond dispute. It is not intended as a slight on Mick Newell, but he’d done the job for  12 years and must have grown stale, something  which I’m sure was transmitted to the players. Paul Franks, appears to have made a fine start to his coaching career and will hopefully prove to be an able assistant, supported by Ant Botha and James Pipe. Certainly, ‘The General”s commitment to the cause is beyond question.Paul-Franks-UAE-Cricket

Weaknesses

A Masters degree is rocket science is not required to see that the batting, and in particular, positions 3-6 were the biggest source of problems in 2016. Rather worryingly, the personnel appears unchanged for 2017, so we must hope that the poor performances which were endemic last year are rectified by the players themselves, or that Root and Moores have progressed enough to replace those who under-performed. It is not unreasonable to expect that Wessels can get his career back on track after a terrible season in 2016. Hopefully, last year was just an aberration. Taylor is in the last year of his (allegedly very remunerative) contract. His performances in the second half of 2015 and during 2016 were underwhelming to say the least. We’re given to understand that he returns 10kgs lighter and more determined. We have to hope that what’s at stake for him drives him to improve his performances.

I suspect that I’m the only one who feels Michael Lumb’s best cricket, in the County Championship at least, is behind him. Similarly Greg Smith has never convinced in red ball cricket. Samit? Well, Samit’s just Samit, isn’t he?

I’ve previously written in this blog of my belief that the size of the squad is too small, and once again, nothing has been done to address this. In 2016, no First Division county had a smaller squad, and for the second winter running, no signings have been made from other counties. Long gone are the days when Nottinghamshire could be considered to be poachers of the prize talents of their rivals. In 2016, the team were actually quite fortunate with the relative paucity of injuries. How few points would have been gained had they had an injury crisis doesn’t bear thinking about.  Already Mullaney’s early season injury leaves a gaping hole at the top of the order and, as it stands, Nottinghamshire appear less able that most to cope with a combination of the demands of international cricket and the number on injuries which are an inevitable consequence of the wear and tear of county cricket.

The lack of a front line spinner capable of dismissing quality batsmen, has long been an issue, and it will be again this year. Many fingers will be crossed that the seamers will be able to do most of the damage. Plus ça change…

Opportunities

Having such a small squad does present opportunities for young players to establish themselves. The prime candidates to do so being Moores, Root and Kitt. Obviously Jake Libby will start the season as the first choice in the opener’s berth. Equally, once again it seems that Matt Carter’s opportunities will be limited to matches away from Trent Bridge. Expect Libby to make appearances in the 50 over team for the first time, and for Luke Wood to make more appearance in this competition too.Jake Libby

The injection of youth also should improve the fielding of the 50 over and T20 teams. For a few years now, the Outlaws have been one of the weaker fielding sides around, a situation which has been partially masked by performances with both bat and ball. In the T20 in particular, the Outlaws have been often shown up. Fletcher, Gurney,  Taylor and Lumb are all poor fielders for one reason or another. Broad, Hales and Ball are average at best. You cannot hide that many fielders in a T20 game.

The team may also benefit from the move of Alex Hales to no.4. Personally, I feel that no.5 would be better, but the move has a certain logic. Everyone is aware of his frailties outside the off-stump. Equally, everyone is also aware of his talent and ability to take a game away from the opposition. If his attitude is right, he could help to provide the missing middle order runs.

It does, for once, feel that the club have got the overseas births right for this year. The retention of Dan Christian for the T20 Blast was a no-brainer, even allowing the fact that his bowling is quite hittable at times. His power and experience are invaluable. Whilst many of us would have loved to see Imran Tahir re-appear in the T20, the fact is that he just didn’t take wickets when required in the County Championship last season. It will be interesting to see if he fares any better for Derbyshire. The recruitment of the Indian-born Kiwi, Ish Sodhi, looks a sound one. Leg spinners are very productive in this form of the game and he has a good record, taking his wickets at a low average and with a low economy rate. James Pattinson too, has the potential to be a match winner in the first half of the season. There aren’t many 90mph+ bowlers knocking around in Division Two.

Threats

On paper, Nottinghamshire look to have a good chance of bouncing back straight from Division Two. I’m not as confident of this actually happening as the bookmakers, who are offering very  short odds. Nottinghamshire have a talented yet brittle squad, and international call-ups are bound to affect them more than probably any other side within the Division. Hales, although persona non grata in the Test set-up, is still a certainty for both forms of white ball cricket. Broad is in the reverse situation. Ball is on the fridge of both teams, but  may yet be available for more of the season that seems apparent at the moment, if Mark Wood can stay fit and available for England.

I suspect that it was always the Nottinghamshire’s intention to play no more than two of Broad, Ball and Pattinson in any one Championship game anyway, however the ECB’s statement on player availability has effectively made the decision for them in the early games. James Pattinson’s fitness record is not great, so how many games he will play is anyone’s guess. Given the fitness record of Messrs Siddle and Bird, I suppose that we should be thankful for small mercies.

The expectation that Nottinghamshire will bounce back will be high, however the Second Division looks stronger that it has done for a few years-amongst the teams one would expect to finish in the top half anyway. Sussex appears to be second favourites, and have a strong bowling attack. Similarly, Durham’s bowling attack has historically been too good for most First Division batting line-ups, so if they can keep Rushworth and Onions out on the field, then few will be able to cope with them and you can expect them to make early inroads into their penalty deficit.  Kent’s strength is in their batting and they’ll be driven on by last year’s near miss. There was probably no team in the country more enjoyable to watch than Worcestershire’s youngsters last year , and I expect Leicestershire to continue their improvement too. They appear to have recruited cannily. You can say what you like about the ethics of the recruitment of South African fringe players into County Cricket, but there’s no doubt that Leicestershire, Sussex, and a few others are stronger for it.  

Call me a pessimist, but I’m predicting a 3rd place finish…

Rob Collins

Comings and goings?

Alex Hales

Whilst some may point to this season’s disappointing results down to a lack of quality within the squad, for me, as the 2016 season has progressed, the one factor which has been increasingly obvious is just how unsustainably small the squad is. Not only has it been shown to be far too small to mount a title challenge, it has also been too light on numbers to keep the threat of relegation at bay. Let’s have a look at the facts.

Up until the recent match against Hampshire, Nottinghamshire have used a total of 18 players in the County Championship this season. Three of these have been overseas players. When you additionally factor in that Broad and Hales have been England regulars, and that young Matt Carter is not, rightly or wrongly, considered for selection for most matches (just two appearances this season), then you are left with a situation where, in effect, 12 players have been competing for the remaining 10 places open to domestic players. This is even before the Test selection of Ball, and the injuries to Hutton and Read are added into the equation (and let’s be clear about one thing-Nottinghamshire has been very fortunate to escape with such a relatively light casualty count this year). These circumstances would be challenging enough even for a squad consisting of proven, high quality, county performers. Of course we have seen this season that the squad is actually the antithesis of this description, lacking as it is, both the required ability and mentality in crucial areas. It is true that you could add in Luke Wood to the squad outlined above, however the management had decided not to select him until this point at least, whether that be for reasons of injury or preference.

Whilst  on the subject of young players, it does seem that there is an inherent conservativeness in selection policy at work here. The management have always shown a preference for experience over youth over the past decade, however as criticism of the Director of Cricket has mounted, so it appears that he has withdrawn into his shell even more and has decided to stick with what he knows. Under more enlightened leadership, the injury to Chris Read , for example, would have provided the ideal opportunity for either Tom Moores or Tom Keast to play in the T20 Blast. Instead the gloves were taken by a combination of Brendan Taylor and Riki Wessels. Wessels is a reasonable wicketkeeper, but deprives the team of one of their two best fielders. Taylor’s wicketkeeping ? Well, let’s just say that it’s best not viewed by small children on a dark night…

As a comparison, I’ve looked at the number of players selected by the nine Division One teams in the County Championship this season. I’ve excluded overseas players from the totals, and also included the number of players who have played two, or fewer County Championship matches, largely because they can be considered ‘fringe’ players, in brackets. What it reveals is that only Somerset (no England players) and Middlesex  (1 England player) have a first team squad as small as this.

Durham 20 (3 played 2, or fewer, matches)

Hampshire 18 (2)

Lancashire 18 (4)

Middlesex 15 (1)

Nottinghamshire 15 (1)

Somerset 15 (1)

Surrey 17 (0)

Warwickshire 16 (2)

Yorkshire 18 (3)

It’s against this background that various player acquisitions have been mooted for 2017, however the optimism that a proven batsman, or two, to fill in the gaps at the top of the order would be acquired, has quickly dissipated. The club initially confirmed that they had made an approach for Warwickshire’s Varun Chopra who was known to be leaving Edgbaston at the end of the 2016 season, before suddenly dropping out of the running without explanation. Clarification was soon at hand, when it was announced that Chopra preferred a return to his cricketing alma mater of Essex than a move to the East Midlands. Durham’s Mark Stoneman was also one who piqued the interest of many a county, and became available due to a combination of personal ambition and the financial problems at his current county. As it happens, I believe that in Stoneman’s case, it was the desire to achieve England recognition which was the predominant driver of his move. The fact that it was Surrey who has secured his services should not come as a surprise. Recent changes passed by the ECB allow Surrey and Middlesex to have a greater salary cap than that of the remaining 16 counties, which of course gives them extra bargaining power in the competition for player acquisition (just don’t get me started on the iniquity of this…). It should also be no surprise that Surrey have also reportedly approached Durham about Scott Borthwick, another rumoured target for Nottinghamshire.

Personally, I would have welcomed any of these players to Nottinghamshire, with the proviso that opportunities should not be denied to the promising players who we have. I believe, for example, that Jake Libby may have what is required to succeed as an opening batsman, however he needs to be given the opportunities in the first team to develop.

The fourth name linked with Nottinghamshire, but less heavily, is the Surrey batsman Steven Davies. A fine player, no doubt, however the fly in that particular ointment is that the motive for his imminent departure is a desire to take up the gloves again. Of course Trent Bridge is not exactly lacking in options in the wicketkeeping department, so it is hard to envisage Davies taking up that role in the short term. In the longer term of course, there may be implications for the two young keepers at the club-Toms Keast and Moores-if the Davies move were to happen. Already there are undercurrents that one or the other may be getting itchy feet because of a lack of opportunities. The signing of Davies would surely send negative signals to the two young men and hasten the departure of at least one of them. It is, however, more likely that Davies ends up elsewhere. Somerset is mooted as the most likely destination.

Steven Davies

Of course there are those of a lower profile who may be available. Warwickshire’s Laurie Evans is one example. What added value, however, would a 28 year old with a first class average of under 35, bring to Nottinghamshire? The same goes for Phil Mustard. A more interesting, and adventurous choice would be Nitish Kumar, the 22 year old Loughborough University batsman and offspinner. Kumar, a Canadian international, is chasing a county contract after recently being acquired by the St.Lucia Zouks for this year’s CPL. Sure, his acquisition would be more of a gamble, but the potential rewards may  be greater in the long term. Gambling, however, is not in this Director of Cricket’s modus operandi.

The cricket media has also written plenty of the possible departure of Alex Hales, so I don’t propose to add too much, other than to say that it is rather mystifying why he would consider leaving at this stage in his career. After all, he will almost certainly receive a central contract from the ECB, so he wouldn’t be paid by Nottinghamshire in 2017 anyway. Money, therefore, can’t be an issue. He’s also playing at The Home of Cricket (copyright Graeme Swann), so facilities and environment should not come into it either. Of course, he insists that he wants to remain at Trent Bridge, which is to be welcomed. However, there are obviously other issues involved, perhaps his previously stated desire to play in the IPL. We’ll just have to wait and see.

The Director of Cricket has also stated that decisions  will be made soon on the futures of Greg Smith and  Sam Wood. I don’t feel in appropriate to discuss too much the employment situations of these two players, neither of whom, irrespective of ones opinions of their ability, could be accused of lack of effort or commitment. It’s not enjoyable to ruminate on the possibility of anyone being out of a job. Rumours abound that the  Elstone-Carter career path may be  followed by at least one of the pair however (incidentally, it is an indictment of the management that five years after his debut, no-one is really any the wiser as to whether Sam Wood has what it takes to make it as a cricketer)

A recent interview on the BBC’s ‘Stumped’ podcast with new Zimbabwe coach Makhaya Ntini also suggested that Brendan Taylor may be one of several former Chevrons (no, I didn’t realise they were called that either) who he wanted to entice to return to international cricket. I don’t envisage this happening. The state of the finances of Zimbabwe cricket, and the low standard of play, do not make this likely. The neighbours and local police also take a dimmer view of their cars being commandeered for the purposes of sleep, I understand…

 

Rob Collins

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Forgotten Notts-No. 1 Mohammed Zahid

 

The fastest bowler we never saw

The late 1990’s were not a great time to be a  follower of Nottinghamshire CCC. Gone  were the glory years of Rice, Hadlee, Randall, Hemmings, French and Broad pater. In their place were some vestiges of those glory days (Robinson, Evans, Pick ),  a collection of honest…er… well, to be frank… county journeymen (Metcalfe, Archer, Oram, Bowen) and those enjoying their cricketing salad days (Franks,Read, Afzaal).

Indeed in 1996 only the winless Durham had ended the season below a poor Nottinghamshire side. Spirits were further dampened by the news that injury would prevent Chris Cairns from resuming his position as the overseas player for 1997. The close season , however,  bought the promise of more potency in the form of one Mohammed Zahid, whom  it was announced, would be Nottinghamshire’s overseas player for the following season. I can’t say that I recall knowing too much about him initially. In those pre-internet and pre-Sky (well, it was for me) days, we had to rely on obtaining odd snippets of information from whatever source we could, and beyond some vague recollection of hearing about his sensational test debut, there was precious little.

To describe his Test match debut as being sensational is, for once, not mere hyperbole. Called into the team after the visiting New Zealanders had beaten a Wasim and Waqar-less home side in Lahore,  his eleven wickets in Rawalpindi enabled Pakistan to level the series with a victory by an innings, and to date, has only been surpassed by four others making their Test bow (that Jason Krejza was one of  the select four should not diminish the achievement). What set Pakistani pulses racing though, was not the number, rather the modus operandi. Bowling lightening quick and straight deliveries, he trapped eight New Zealanders LBW, clean bowled a ninth, and had a tenth caught behind in a Man of the Match performance. Today, only poor quality footage survives on You Tube:

 

Pakistan followed this with a visit to Australia to take part in a One Day International tri-series  with the hosts and the West Indies, which further enhanced his reputation. The stories, whether apocryphal or not, are that Brian Lara and Carl Hooper considered him the fastest bowler that they had ever faced. In a day-night match  at  Brisbane in January 1997, Zahid had Lara caught behind. Wisden wrote:

The talking point of the night, however, was the stunning Australian international debut of stringbean Pakistan pace bowler Mohammed Zahid. In a Test-style confrontation, he captured the Gabba crowd’s attention by livening up Lara with speed and lift and eventually snared him with a snick behind.

For Nottinghamshire, Zahid seemed to fit the bill. A young, hungry, high velocity bowler who would give their attack a potency which no amount of medium-fast seamers could match. On a tour of New Zealand with the Pakistani under-19 team, he had been ‘unofficially’ clocked as breaking the 100 mph barrier ‘a few times’. Wicketkeeper Moin Khan is quite unequivocal in his belief that Zahid was the fastest bowler he ever kept wicket to, including Shoaib Akhtar. Shoaib himself, no stranger to self-promotion, seconds Moin’s opinion. Some say he was the fastest bowler of all time. And he was bound for Trent Bridge.

A less successful tour of Sri Lanka followed however, and the alarm bells began to ring for Nottinghamshire when he broke down during the second Test in Colombo, due to bowling whilst injured,  under the less than enlightened captaincy of Rameez Raja. As a consequence, he arrived at Trent Bridge in 1997 with what was soon diagnosed as a stress fracture. In an interview given in 2009 with cricistan.com , he heaped praise upon the care and support he received whilst at Trent Bridge, in stark contrast to that he received from the Pakistan Cricket Board, who were less than keen to pay for his medical treatment. It soon became apparent however, that the man who was probably the fastest bowler in the world at the time, would not be appearing for Nottinghamshire any time soon.

And of course, he never did. When it became clear that he would be unable to fulfil his contract, Nottinghamshire recruited Nathan Astle from Lancashire League side Accrington as a locum. Nottinghamshire reached the heady heights of thirteenth position that season, and never went back for Zahid. Whether a fully fit Zahid he would ever have been able to complete a 17 match County Championship season seems highly doubtful in any case. County Cricket was no place for the physically or mentally fragile. For Zahid himself, the limelight shone only too briefly. A Test match career which you could, in number of Tests at least, literally count on the fingers of one hand, and an ODI career, which would only necessitate the additional removal of one sock, and it was over.  He later settled in England after marrying an Englishwoman and continued playing and coaching in and around the Liverpool area. Of course, just like on his Test debut, he can still be appreciated on You Tube…

 

Cricistan interview (2009): https://cricistan.com/threads/an-interview-with-speed-demon-mohammad-zahid.63/

Dawn.com interview (2011): http://www.dawn.com/news/667912/in-the-blink-of-an-eye-my-career-went-past-me-mohammad-zahid

Rob Collins

 

 

 

 

 

School report

The performances thus far  in the County Championship, can at best be described as mixed. After the initial victory against Surrey, Nottinghamshire have struggled to score runs in  quantities sufficient to allow the team to be press for victory in the competition, that much is obvious. The top of the order has once again been shown to be flaky, and the middle order has been unable, on many occasions, to extricate the team from the hole that has been dug for them.Harry Gurney

The bowlers have performed better, with special praise reserved for Jake Ball and Harry Gurney, however even here the remainder of the bowlers have struggled at times, which has necessitated Gurney appearing in every game bar one in 2016. Luke Wood has been entirely absent from the team, although to what extent this has been due to his persistent back injury, and to what extent it is due to just not being selected is unclear. Communication from Trent Bridge is not always what it might be. Brett Hutton’s performances have fallen somewhat below their 2015 zenith too. A case of second season syndrome perhaps. There have been recent more promising signs however, that he is returning to form.

There have, of course, been mitigating circumstances this year. In practical terms the absence of James Taylor should not, in truth, have been felt too much. He would have been largely absent from the team anyway due to international commitments (although the runs he would have scored in his fleeting appearances would have been welcome). It is impossible however, for those of us who watch from the stands to know to what extent the psychological effect that his retirement, and more pertinently the circumstances of his retirement, have had on the squad. It is inconceivable, in my eyes, that some members of the squad have not been adversely affected by it. Gurney, for one, has known Taylor since they played junior cricket at Loughborough Town. Whether this emotional response has directly affected performances is hard to tell.

I’ve  written recently about the under performance of the overseas players, and I won’t labour the same point again too much here, except to say that Jackson Bird’s performances, in the five of the scheduled ten games that he actually appeared, could best be described as, to use Colin Graves favourite adjective, mediocre. Additionally, the absence of Chris Read for four Championship matches has once again laid bare how much he is relied upon. What are we going to do when he retires?

Chris Read 2As a result of the performances, the ‘R’ word has been muttered for some time around Trent Bridge, however I’m pretty confident that Nottinghamshire will not be in the second division next year.

The tightness of the division is one reason for this. As we approach the final stretch, only two teams have won more than two games in the division, and four teams have just a single win each. Indeed, at the start of the last Championship game against Lancashire, the deficit from Nottinghamshire to the top of the table was a mere 28 points. A broad rule of thumb is that a points tally of an average of ten points per game is usually sufficient to see the retention of first division status. Thus, in all probability, one more win plus a succession of reasonable draws would suffice. I suspect, however, that survival is likely with fewer than 160 points this year. Be that as it may, I still expect Nottinghamshire to break that barrier anyway. The recruitment of Imran Tahir is already looking like a canny piece of business, and I would expect him to be a crucial factor in at least a couple of matches between now and the end of the season. In fact, if he can remain fit (and let’s not forget that he is 37), a finish in the top half of the table is still not beyond the realms of possibility.

Whilst two games have been lost by comfortable margins, others have been somewhat closer. We can all play the game of ‘What if?’, but I don’t think that I’m going out on a limb in suggesting that Hampshire would likely have been defeated at Southampton had the captain not sustained a hand injury. Similarly, victory could, and should, have been achieved against Warwickshire at Trent Bridge, given the circumstances of the match, and the narrowness of the defeat-53 runs. Winning just one of these two matches would have left Nottinghamshire comfortably ensconced in mid-table.  Victories in both would have left the team in third place, and eyeing up a title challenge. It indicates just how narrow the margins between success and failure can be.  For those of you who are  a glass half-empty type of person, it is telling that the bottom two counties, Hampshire and Surrey, have each achieved their sole victory of the season against Nottinghamshire, and, for those of  such a pessimistic nature, it is also worth noting that they have yet to play against each other this year.

What this season has clearly shown however, is that the squad lacks depth, particularly in the batting. When batsmen lose form (or have never been in form in the first place) they are able to maintain their place because of the lack of pressure from those outside the first team. If an average above 40 is considered a minimum requirement for a top six batsman in the County Championship, then only  Taylor and the seldom seen Hales have reached this target from these positions in the batting order. Patel averages a shade under 40 whilst Lumb, Wessels and Mullaney’s averages are barely above 30. Not satisfactory at all. What’s more, both Jake Libby and Greg Smith average fewer than Brett Hutton in the first division. It’s been a rare winter in recent years when the club had failed to augment the squad, however there were no acquisitions in 2015/16 and it’s obvious that the squad short in certain areas.

On the positive side, after a somewhat uncertain start, the form in white ball cricket has been largely good. Qualification for the quarter finals of the T20 has  been assured, for which we owe Lancashire’s George Edwards a particular vote of thanks. Again, Tahir has been a crucial factor, imbibing the team with enthusiasm and experience, in addition to his wicket taking abilities and parsimonious bowling. As I write, the standings, if maintained, could well produce a home tie against Middlesex, Surrey, Essex or Sussex. As much as I would like us to get revenge for last year’s 50 over semi- final defeat (and, let’s be frank, everybody dislikes Surrey, don’t they?), a quarter-final against either of the top two in the Southern Division,  Gloucestershire or Glamorgan, may be preferable, notwithstanding their current excellent form in the format, even if the tie involved a road trip. I’m not sure that any of us could  cope emotionally with another home quarter-final.

At the half-way stage of the Royal London Cup, Nottinghamshire lie in fourth place and a Quarter-Final is very much achievable. On a personal level, I missed the remarkable home victories over Northamptonshire and Warwickshire, due to being on holiday. Never mind, I’m sure another 400+ score is just around the corner…ahem… Those victories were so impressive that it seems almost churlish to bemoan the away defeat to Durham which followed. At the start of the year, I predicted that this was the most likely competition to provide success for the team, and even though the team now lacks the 50 over talents of James Taylor, that is still my contention. We shall see.

Rob Collins

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gamini Goonesena, Ceylon’s polymath

Gamini Goonesena

This is a version of an article first published on Cricinfo’s The Stands a couple of weeks ago:http://www.espncricinfo.com/thestands/content/site/thestands/genre.html?genre=451

One  of the most entrancing stories of world cricket during my lifetime has been the rise and rise of Sri Lankan cricket. Their successes appeal to the romantic in us all. That such a small, seemingly idyllic, teardrop shaped island in the Indian Ocean has, since its elevation to Test Match status in 1981, produced a conveyor belt of small batsmen with superb technique allied to  visible spirit, nous and courage, is remarkable in itself. In the last generation however, this has been allied to some of the most entertaining, idiosyncratic and entrancing bowling the world has ever seen, from Malinga, Herath and of course Murali.

In their pre-Test incarnation of Ceylon, Sri Lanka produced a cricketer who has been somewhat overshadowed by these cricketing giants of recent years. Little remembered, yet he played county cricket  for 12 seasons for Nottinghamshire, on and off,  with much success-Gamini ‘Gammy’ Goonesena. I was too young to have seen him live, and only recall his contributions as a summariser on Test Match Special on early Sri Lankan tours of England, nevertheless a cursory examination of the record books reveals an impressive all round cricketer, who may just have been one of the best cricketers that the island has ever produced and whose contribution bears a second examination.

He was highly skilled leg-break bowler with excellent control of length and line, honed by endless hours of practice. Ritchie Benaud recalls that he was ‘a big spinner of the leg break and had a decent top-spinner and googly’. As a batsman he was a meticulous and organised predominantly back-foot player, if not exactly prolific. Nearly 700 first class wickets and nearly 6000 runs are, however,  a testament to his all-round abilities, as is the fact that he achieved ‘the double’ twice. In fact he was probably the best player ever produced by Ceylon. His captaincy was said to be outstanding too. His team-mate Ian Pieris claims that his charismatic captaincy was ‘head and shoulders above his contemporaries in England at a time when there were captains in the counties such as Peter May , Colin Cowdrey and Cyril Washbrook’.

Gamini Goonesena (2)

A leg-spinner of some repute, Goonesena registered to play for Nottinghshire in 1952, along with a fellow leggie, the Australian Bruce Dooland, but was unable to play until the following year due to needing to serve the required qualification period. As it was, Notts had to share his services in his early years in England anyway, because, like his more recent fellow countryman Kumar Sangakkara, his talents were not confined to the cricket field. Although he had originally headed to England in his early twenties with the aim of becoming a  pilot at RAF Cranwell, this idea was abandoned  and a place at Cambridge University  to study law beckoned instead. Whilst obtaining his law degree, he became the first Asian to captain Cambridge (Ted Dexter was his vice-captain), and in 1957, with his side struggling at 80-4, he hit 211, which remains the highest individual innings by a Cambridge batsman in the varsity match, and is still the only double hundred made by a Sri Lankan at Lord’s. His partnership of 289 with Geoffrey Cook also remains the highest seventh wicket partnership at Lord’s in first class cricket. After taking four wickets in Oxford’s second innings Wisden reported ‘…Goonesena by reason of his splendid batting and his bowling in the second innings, was the match winner…. The Cambridge captain and his men received the ovation they deserved as they left the field’

searchGoonesena had only taken up leg-spin  because, as he wrote in his 1959 book, Spin Bowling, ‘I was the smallest boy in my form at school and it wasn’t much use trying to bowl fast- the bigger boys could do it so much better and more successfully’, yet his career produced 674 wickets at 24.37. He had played first class cricket in Ceylon, however did not have experience of playing in English conditions, unlike Dooland, who had played in the Lancashire Leagues for four years. Although at first he struggled to adapt, Goonesena achieved the double in 1955 (1380 runs and 134 wickets) and 1957 (1156 runs and 110 wickets). He also became the only man from either Oxford or Cambridge to have scored 2000 runs and taken 200 wickets, a feat which will, of course, now never be equalled. A peripatetic childhood had taken  him from Ceylon to Kenya, before returning to Ceylon where he starred for Royals in their classic rivalry with St.Thomas, the second longest uninterrupted cricket rivalry in the world,before heading to England in his early twenties, appearing as a professional for Notts and as an amateur for Cambridge.

His wanderings continued and later took him to Australia where he played for New South Wales, mostly as a locum for Richie Benaud, helping them win the Sheffield Shield in 1960-61, and grade cricket for Waverley in Sydney (as did his son),whilst off the field he worked for  Ceylonese Embassy and the Ceylon Tea Board. In his later years he used his acquired knowledge and experience to represent Sri Lanka on the ICC and to manage the Sri Lankan team on their 1982 tour of India.On the international scene, he also captained the nascent Ceylon in 1956 in an unofficial test against India, taking seven for 69, and  against Pakistan and an International XI.

All round cricketer, law student, businessman, diplomat, cricket administrator, wannabe pilot, and manager, Goonesena was both a trailblazer and a Renaissance man for Sri Lankan cricket.

Rob Collins

 

 

 

Who needs an overseas player?

Jackson Bird

Warning:this article contains the liberal use of statistics.

I was watching our line and length Australian test bowler, Jackson Bird, bowl in the recent home game against Warwickshire. Although his performance  was somewhat overshadowed by Big Luke Fletcher in the first innings, he bowled pretty well, if truth be told. He put the ball in the right areas, got some movement early on, and generally deserved his three wickets. In the context of the match, he was relatively economical too. If he had been an ordinary, reliable county seamer, his performance would have been marked as very satisfactory. Of course he’s more than a county seamer; he’s our overseas player for, nominally at least, the first ten games of the season, and as such, his bar is set at a somewhat higher level than that of his team-mates.

Watching Bird bowl set me thinking about the requirements for a top class overseas player, and how the Nottinghamshire recruits have fared in recent years, because when casting my mind back I was struck by what seemed to be a consistent under- performance from those recruited to this position, from wherever they came.

Now, I think that it is fair to say that the overseas player is recruited in the expectation that he will be a match winner. Of course, only the very best can consistently fulfil this expectation. As Nottinghamshire supporters we have been somewhat spoiled in this regard, having had, in my opinion, the most influential overseas player, in terms of performance at least,  in the last forty years (with the possible exception of Mushtaq Ahmed in his Sussex years). I refer, of course, to  Sir Richard Hadlee. If it is unrealistic to expect the overseas player to consistently win County Championship matches almost single-handedly, as Hadlee did, then I don’t believe that it’s unreasonable to be able to look back at the end of the season and expect that the designated overseas player has contributed in a major way to at least a couple of County Championship victories. Whilst other qualities, such as being a good team man, and being a positive influence on the younger players are also requirements, the acid tests are, of course,  performances on the field as evidenced in centuries and five wicket hauls, so let’s have a look at how our overseas players have performed in this respect in recent seasons.

As bowlers have predominated in filling the overseas birth in recent years, let’s have a look at them first. Consider it for yourself  for a moment. When was the last occasion that the overseas player took five wickets in an innings in the County Championship? Can you recall? Well, of course Jackson Bird hasn’t taken a ‘Michelle’, but to be fair, he’s only played four matches. 2015 saw Vernon Philander, Ben Hilfenhaus and Imran Tahir share the berth. None of them managed to do it. Neither did Peter Siddle nor James Franklin in 2014. Nor the great Andre Adams in 2007 (it is seldom recalled that  Dre was first recruited at the tail end of the 2007 promotion season as the overseas player, after David Hussey was called up by the Australian selectors, before being able to play as a non-overseas player from 2008 under the Cotonou Agreement). So who was the last overseas player to take five wickets in an innings for Nottinghamshire? Believe it or not, the answer is Stuart MacGill, who took seven wickets in the Essex second innings at Southend in 2004. Yes, that’s right, twelve years ago.

 

Now if I was to play the part of the devil’s advocate, I might be tempted to argue that a five wicket haul in a single County Championship innings is not an easy target to achieve, and of course to an extent it isn’t, however the list of non-overseas players who have achieved it between MacGill’s performance in 2004 and now, is extensive: Greg Smith, Mark Ealham (5 times), Ryan Sidebottom (5), A.J. Harris (3), Graeme Swann (2), Charlie Shreck (11), Mark Davies, Mark Footitt, Darren Pattinson (6), Samit Patel (3), Stuart Broad (5), Andre Adams (16), Luke Fletcher (3), Andy Carter, Gary Keedy, Matt Carter, Ben Hutton (2), Harry Gurney (4), Jake Ball (2). Apart from reminding us just what an underrated bowler Charlie Shreck was, this list shows, according to my calculations, that there have been 73 instances of five wickets in an innings since MacGill’s performance. Not one of them from the overseas player.

Stuart MacGill

Now let’s turn to the batsmen. The last century by an overseas player actually occurred in the last match in which a recognised overseas batsman appeared for Nottinghamshire- David Hussey’s century in his final County Championship appearance, a drawn match against Somerset in 2013. The devil is, however,  in the detail. This was the only Championship hundred in a season where the overseas berth was shared between Ed Cowan and Hussey. In the previous season, Adam Voges had hit one century, in a drawn game at Uxbridge, and in 2011 a combination of Voges and Darren Bravo didn’t score a single one. Even in the Championship winning season of 2010, only one of the three centuries scored by an overseas player, an early season hundred for Hashim Amla against Kent, led to victory. This was the last occasion on which an overseas player scored a match winning hundred for Nottinghamshire in the County Championship.

So, in total, in the five and a bit years since Nottinghamshire won the title in 2010 the figures for  overseas players are:

Championship centuries:2

Championship ‘five for’s’:0

Neither of the two centuries scored led to wins.

As a comparison, in the same period Jeetan Patel alone has taken five wickets in an innings 12 times for Warwickshire, and has scored 2 centuries.

Clearly, our overseas players have underperformed in recent years. Taken individually, their performances may not be exactly poor, but neither have they hit any great heights either. Why is this?

Well, there are, of course, difficulties in recruiting a high quality overseas player. For any player with the ability to play international cricket, the opportunities are now boundless and never ending. The proliferation of T20 leagues, together  with the merry- go- round of Test, ODI and T20 international cricket means that the lure of county cricket is not what it once was. Why would a player commit to a season of county cricket, even if he was able to, when greater financial rewards are available elsewhere for a fraction of the commitment? For an international cricketer, the idea of a full county season now belongs to a bygone age. International commitments mean that only a fraction of a season can usually be countenanced. Even if Tests or ODIs are not being played, players are either at training camps or being rested.

The tightening of visa restrictions by the Home Office also presents a further problem, reducing as it has the number of  players who may be eligible to play as an overseas player. Unlike 2004, if a 26 year old David Hussey became available in 2016, Nottinghamshire would not be able to sign him because of his lack of international experience.  The current criteria for overseas players means that that they will only be able to obtain a visa if they:

a)    Have played test match cricket in the previous two years or

b)    Have played at least 15 ODIs/T20Is in the previous five years or

c)    Have a central contract or

d)    Have played at least five test matches in the previous five years, and still be eligible for their country

Hussey, as an ’up and coming batsman’ in 2004 would not have satisfied any of the above criteria.  A natural consequence of the reduced supply of overseas players, as any economist will tell you, is that those who are available, are able to demand increased salaries in order to play in England. Thus we end up with the situation where, rumour has it, that Brendan Taylor is the highest paid player on the books (not an ‘official’ overseas player, I know) because his agent is able to take advantage of the limited supply of available high quality overseas players.

In theory the changes negotiated by the ECB with the Home Office,  together with financial incentives offered by them to counties to field  young, home grown players, both of which  were intended to create more opportunities for England-qualified players,  should also  increase the standard of imports, and hence the standard of county cricket. However I’m not entirely convinced. Players arriving for 6 or 7 matches in a season can surely contribute in only a minor way to a team’s performance. A corollary of such an arrangement is that they will not possess similar levels of motivation as their team mates. They cannot possibly do so. They do not have the same investment in the team, and the same interest in that team’s success or failure.

It’s pretty clear that the ideal overseas player is one who just manages to fulfil the visa requirements, yet at the same time is unlikely to represent their country again,  is not regarded as a T20 player, and will not , therefore be flying off to various leagues in exotic locations. These are few and far between. The aforementioned Jeetan Patel is one. Now in his eighth season at Warwickshire, has only played 10 test matches for New Zealand since being recruited, and none in the last three years. The metronomic Steve Magoffin, after 5 successful seasons at Sussex is another example of the ideal overseas signing, notwithstanding the fact that he is now a British citizen.

So where does this leave Nottinghamshire? Given that a Patel/Magoffin is hard to come across, could Nottinghamshire actually benefit from not having an overseas player at all? In the short term, this is questionable, however in the long term, unless you can attract a player who is both a proven performer and is likely to be able to play a full season, I can see the benefit of doing without an overseas player in the County Championship at least (I do feel that an overseas players are a necessity for One Day and T20 cricket however, where they are much more likely to be match winners, and where their presence can boost attendances). The performances of Bird, Siddle et al., have not been significantly better than that of our home grown bowlers, and certainly not by a sufficient amount to justify their acquisition on a high salary, in my opinion. This would free up an additional place in the team for a young player to play in the first team and develop. As I don’t get to see second team cricket, I  couldn’t tell you if the likes of Ben Kitt of Jack Blatherwick  have what it takes to make it in the professional game, and I wouldn’t dream of asserting that they could directly replace a test match bowler immediately, but surely they would have a better chance of making it if given the opportunity? Sometimes you just have to give youth a chance, as Worcestershire, in particular, are doing at present. Sometimes, as Charlotte Edwards has recently found to her cost, some players rely on senior players too much and they hide behind this seniority, which in the end hinders their own development, and does neither party any favours.

Rob Collins

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

André Russell and the moral dimension

There was no doubt much delight in many quarters when it was reported that an agreement had been reached for the Jamaican all-rounder André Russell to be the second overseas player for Nottinghamshire in the T20 Blast this year. He would be, after all, a marquee signing for the county. Unquestionably one of the world’s foremost T20 cricketers, he is a double World T20 winner, this year’s victory following on from their win in 2012. This agreement is, however, far from concrete,  pending as it is the result of an independent disciplinary panel hearing  of the Jamaica Anti- Doping Commission (JADCO), appointed by its Chairman, the wonderfully named Kent Pantry. The initial hearing of this panel took place before the recent World T20 tournament , however the date when a verdict will be reached and disseminated is, as yet, unknown. Russell faces a ban of up to two years if found guilty.

Andre Russell 2

Now, I have never been asked to take a breath test by the police, however if I was asked to do so and refused without  a ‘reasonable excuse’, then I could be arrested. Quite right too. André Russell has missed his mandatory drug test not once, but three times within a year. Now, I don’t want to pre-judge the result of the panel, given that the evidence has not been made publicly available, and of course everyone has a right to defend themselves, however am I alone in being distinctly uneasy about Nottinghamshire’s proposed new recruit? Why are we even considering signing someone who flouts the ICC’s anti-doping code  in such a manner? This is, after all,  a club who have won numerous awards and received many accolades in recent years for the extent and the level of their community involvement via the Community Trust. Nottinghamshire members will also have heard the Chairman and Chief Executive express the desire for the club to continue their progress in attracting a new and more diverse audience to Trent Bridge, particularly families, on countless occasions. This is, of course, a laudable aim, and it has clearly worked to a certain extent, for the crowds at T20 cricket are the largest outside of the capital.

Yet who, if the signing proceeds, will all of these families be watching and cheering? Not only the batting exploits of a Hales or Patel and the white ball wizadry of a Gurney and Fletcher, but the all round game of someone who may have effectively failed a drugs test. I have always had a distaste for the phrase ‘role model’, loaded as it is with racial connotations, however the question must be asked, is this guy we want as a ‘role model’ for our children?

Now there are two schools of thought here. The first one  is that if Russell is found not guilty, or is found guilty but is handed a lesser sentence, such as a suspended sentence or a warning, then we should have no qualms about welcoming him to the county as a wonderful addition to the  T20 squad, and support him as we would any other player. He is, after all, a fine fast bowler,  a powerful hitter and is ideally suited to the format. In addition to his two World T20 wins, he has helped Sydney Thunder win the Big Bash and Islamabad United win the Pakistan Super League in 2016,  Comilla Victorians win the Bangladesh Premier League in the previous year, Kolkata Knight Riders  win the Indian Premier League in 2014, and  Jamaica Tallawahs  win the Caribbean Premier League in its first incarnation in 2013. In short, if there is such a thing as T20 fairy dust, he has it in abundance.

Underpinning this view is the belief that morality has no place in sport.  Or to put it another way,  if he can perform to such an extent that he is able to bring that elusive first T20 title a little bit closer, then the club should certainly sign him. This view, however,  is to me at least, rather Machiavellian. The fact that his capture increases the chances of T20 success, is not sufficient, in my opinion, to warrant acquiring his services. There are now many sports in which the end now appears to justify the means (just look at the skullduggery, deceitfulness, and downright cheating that occurs at most levels of professional football). Cricket should not be one of them.

The second school of thought is that any kind of guilty verdict, whatever the sentence, must preclude him from appearing from Nottinghamshire on moral grounds alone. The T20 competition is essentially aimed at families, and to turn a blind eye to such misdemeanours, is in effect to condone his behaviour. Personally I would go further than that. I don’t think we should sign him even it turns out that he has ‘only’ missed two of his three tests in question. Now, there are of course pitfalls in introducing  morality into such decisions. I’m not so naive as to believe that it is so straightforward. Life is full of grey areas; rarely is it black and white. Those who remember the BBC TV series ‘Yes, Minister’ will recall the well intentioned Jim Hacker M.P. attempting to introduce ‘The Moral Dimension’ to Government policy. Unsurprisingly, the law of unintended consequences soon came into play, as the inconsistencies and non-sequiturs of public policy making frustrated his well intentioned attempts. I believe however that the club owe it to the Membership to at least have certain standards in this sphere.

images.jpg

With regard to the offence with which he has been charged, although no-one is suggesting that Russell has taken any illegal substances, it is important to keep in mind the fact under the ICC’s Anti-Doping Code, which is World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) compliant, three missed tests within any twelve month period equates to one failed test. Article 2.4 of the ICC’s code states:

‘…any combination of three filing failures and/or missed tests…committed within a twelve month period…shall constitute an anti-doping rule violation…’

It is important to the integrity of any sport that such non-compliance measures exist. As any fan of athletic knows, athletes must now, under World Anti- Doping Agency Rules, notify the relevant authorities where they will be for at least one hour each day, so that they are available for testing. If the testers turn up, and they are not present, then that is counted as missing the test. Last minute changes can be notified to the authorities by calling a hotline, or sending a text. In short, there is really no excuse for missing a test, unless you possibly have something to hide.

Perhaps the most high profile athlete to have fallen foul of this infraction is the British 400m runner, Christine Ohuruogu, who received a year long ban from her sport in 2006/07 for missing three doping tests. Despite it being clear, in the words of the head of the Chair of the UK Sport Committee who conducted her hearing, that there was ‘no intention of infringing the anti-doping rules’, (for one of her tests she changed plans because her  track session was double booked with a local school sports day) she still remains, in the eyes of sports fans, tainted by her ban, despite being an Olympic Gold medallist and double World Champion.

Of course it may be that the decision on whether or not to employ him is quite straightforward. If he is completely exonerated or alternatively given a lengthy ban, then Nottinghamshire will feel that in effect have no decision to make.I have to admit, though, that I find it quite soul destroying that Nottinghamshire, or any county for that matter, are even considering signing such a player. It would seem to run contrary to the vision of a club that, as well as being  a commercial enterprise, aspires to put something back into the local community. Just give me Carlos Brathwaite any time.

Rob Collins