With the 2011/12 cycle of fixtures well under way, we take a look at the progress or otherwise of each team thus far:
Bangladesh: Starting to become a real cause for concern within cricket. Over a decade since their introduction to the top echelons of the game, development remains minimal with familiar problems to the fore in their recent crushing defeats to Pakistan. Poor shot selection remains a key problem amongst the top order, irrespective of which batsmen are preferred, and there remains little variety and indeed quality in the bowling – while Bangladeshi pitches retain less spice than a chicken korma, there seems little prospect of any quality seamers rising through the ranks and while the endless procession of slow left-armers can periodically bottle up the opposition, especially if they happen to be playing for England, they’re unlikely to win games. Were it not for the admirable Shakib Al-Hasan and Mushfiqur Rahim, there would be precious little positive to take from recent events. They’re currently making a strong case to be demoted back to the Associates, though this remains unlikely while they remain staunch allies of India (who don’t reciprocate this support with hosting them in a series) within the ICC.
Zimbabwe: Good to have them back in the ranks. A return to the halcyon days of the late 90s with the Flower brothers, Heath Streak, Murray Goodwin, Alistair Campbell et al is still some way off but there are at least the green shoots of recovery. Brendan Taylor is an accomplished batsman and would make a good case for a role in many other teams, particularly in the limited overs formats, while Tatenda Taibu is still his familiar combative self. The domestic scene also appears to be showing signs of life as the likes of Phil Mustard have arrived to play as overseas stars. The political situation within the country is still less than satisfactory and the fear that cricket may succumb to internal pressures is ever-present, but for now this has been an encouraging start to their second attempt at the international game.
West Indies: It’s taken quite some time – indeed, over the last decade, every time we’ve speculated that they’ve gone as low as they can, they’ve surprised us by sinking even deeper – but maybe, just maybe, a corner has been turned. Results remain less than spectacular but there appears to be a suggestion of two things much lacking in Caribbean cricket this century; application and fight. They are currently giving the world champions a run for their money away from home and although comparisons between Darren Bravo and one BC Lara are premature, there is a striking similarity between the two, not least statistically at the respective stages of their careers. Kemar Roach and Kraigg Braithwaite both have spectacularly silly names and exciting skills while Marlon Samuels has finally found his niche after years of wasting his undoubted talent. A conundrum exists with captain Darren Sammy; while he appears to be a good leader of what has often been a fractious and fractured dressing room, on the pitch he is by some distance the weakest of the pace attack and a limited batsman at best. Few sides can afford a passenger, as Gavin Hamilton and Gareth Batty will tell you.
Pakistan: Covered a week ago here, the upcoming Test series against England promises to be an intriguing one.
New Zealand: A terrible recent Test record (4 wins in 29 games) showed no signs of improving in Brisbane as poor batting, anodyne bowling and laughable catching contributed to a heavy defeat. One wonders how Ross Taylor can be a credible captain when he’s playing such ludicrous shots as led to his dismissal in the first innings. The top order collapsed on both occasions leaving Danny Vettori in the familiar position of holding the whole team together, going as far as opening the bowling in the first innings. What New Zealand will do when he eventually calls it a day is anyone’s guess. A lack of regular cricket clearly harms them as huge gaps in the schedule leave the players short of experience at the top level.
Sri Lanka: Another team going quickly backwards. Tillakaratne Dilshan’s captaincy appears sub-par and he seems to have gained the job more by default than anything else. The team is struggling to move on from the retirements of Vaas, Jayasuriya, Muralitharan and (from Test cricket) Malinga, with the replacements short on quality. Worse is set to come with Dilshan, Kumar Sangakarra and Mahela Jayawardene all also entering the twilight of their careers. Where once England approached a tour to Sri Lanka with trepidation, this spring the biggest fear will be that the pitches prove to be so lifeless as to negate the prospect of a result. There appears to have been an Australia-esque complacency in nurturing youth while the stars of the last decade flourished, leaving them now with a vacuum of talent only filled with players patently unfit for the international stage.
Australia: Annoyingly, they’ve started winning again. Fear not, they still have glaring weaknesses throughout the team, but wins are wins and breed confidence, no matter how substandard the opposition. Pat Cummins, James Pattinson and Nathan Lyon have all made encouraging starts to their international careers, which leaves the likes of Doug Bollinger, Ben Hilfenhaus and Comedy’s Mitchell Johnson facing at the very least a long spell in the wilderness. Michael Clarke has made an assured start as captain and Shane Watson’s late bloom into a credible cricketer continues, when he is fit, at least. However, there are still major issues. Skittish half-centuries cannot sustain Ricky Ponting forever as his career long Achilles heel of being trapped in front becomes more of a trademark, Usman Khawaja has yet to prove that he can make much more than a pretty 20 or 30, Phil Hughes continues to provide the laughs in the absence of Johnson, Ryan Harris cannot stay fit and Brad Haddin’s place remins under scrutiny after a poor tour of South Africa. Such issues are the hallmark of a team in transition, which is a rung or two up from ‘crisis’, but we will know more after they have played India at home.
South Africa: Remember them? Amazingly they found the time in their busy schedules to play some Test cricket last month. Wildly fluctuating fortunes in the ludicrously short series with Australia were endemic of such a prolonged break from cricket as several players looked severely undercooked. The major talking point was the introduction of Imran Tahir to the attack, with South African spinners being of the defensive variety for the vast majority of the last 20 years. Tahir is as South African as Kathy Beale but provided typically South African returns and it remains to be seen how he will integrate into the team; he is an accomplished performer in first-class cricket but never came close to breaking into the Pakistan set-up previously and perhaps there are good reasons why. His batting and fielding are of the Monty Panesar variety so all the stress is on his bowling…with that pressure, can he cope? Dale Steyn remains far and away the world’s best bowler and it’s a crying shame that we don’t get to see him as often as we should. Roll on next summer.
India: It was always likely that they would bounce back from their winless humilation last summer and so it has proved to be the case. Sachin Tendulkar’s wait for the most contrived milestone in cricketing history continues to dominate the headlines, though more worthy stories are the emergence of R Ashwin and Umesh Yadav, who provide a much needed boost to the attack and hopefully the permanent banishment of serial buffoons Harbhajan and Sreesanth. Virat Kohli looks like the real deal and will surely get his chance to cement a place in the Test side in Australia; a tour which has the air of a valedictory one for VVS Laxman. The victories over the West Indies have not been convincing but then this was never a convincing number one outfit – they are far and away the best one day team in the world but with that form of the game continuing to become an afterthought in the minds of many, they must concentrate on moving to the next generation of players in a manner which will allow them to continue to challenge the best.
England: Little to be learned from a one day series defeat in India that was as predictable as it was mundane. The Test team remains comfortably the best in the world with the only question mark as to the first XI being the long-term identity of the number six batsman. Eoin Morgan should flourish on the flat pitches of Abu Dhabi but his real test will come next summer against the extreme pace of Steyn and Morkel. Tim Bresnan has picked up a minor injury but he’ll be keen to recover quickly – lose your place in this pace attack and you’re not likely to get it back for a while, even if you have won every single one of your ten Test matches to date.