Every England innings these days is served up with an accompanying dish of absolute fury from all corners at the way they go about it. It’s too slow; it’s too negative; it’s not enough; take your pick from the assorted box of gripes and groans. England are now quite good at one day cricket and this puts their supporters ill at ease: England are meant to be rubbish at it, stuck thirty years behind the rest of the world and scraping the odd win in ten by accident when the other team forgets to turn up. This new-found competency has shut off the one avenue for their anger that fans could always rely on to remain open, leaving them frantically searching for back streets down which to unleash their rage.
The current dead end of choice is the top three of Alastair Cook, Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott. Is there any justification for the abuse they cop every time they go out to bat? Is England’s recent success a fluke? Is their strategy doomed to failure? Are the many ex-pros who constantly line up to take a shot at them a bunch of unflinching morons who haven’t got the first clue about anything? You decide!
Since England moved Bell up to open and settled on this infamous top order, they have lost four games. In that period, the Warwickshire man averages 53.85 at a strike rate of 80.09. Since becoming captain, Cook averages 43.38 at a strike rate of 82.29. Jonathan Trott’s career average is 52.10, his strike rate 76.14 – and in the past year that average leaps up to 64.08. Between them they have made 11 one day hundreds. Those numbers are pretty good. It’s difficult to know what their critics want; that they don’t want these three together is obvious, but what do they actually want instead?
The ideal is presumably someone who averages 50 at a strike rate of 100+. The problem is that player does not exist. There is a myth, perhaps as a result of the rise of T20, that strike rates of 90+ are, or should be, the norm. That is simply not the case. In the history of one day cricket there are ten players with a career strike rate above 100. Only two of them – Shahid Afridi and Virender Sehwag – have scored more than 1,000 runs and Sehwag, at just a shade over 35, has the highest average. The full list, incidentally, includes such luminaries as Andy Blignaut, Rizwan Cheema and Lionel Cann. That last one played for Bermuda, in case you were wondering.
What’s more, there are only 28 players ever to score their runs at a strike rate above 90. Again, the list is not exactly chock-a-bloc with blockbuster batsmen: Ricardo Powell, Trent Johnston, Six and Out’s Shane Lee and James Hopes are just some of the names lurking within. Even fewer of those 28 are openers: beyond Adam Gilchrist, Sanath Jayasuriya and Hashim Amla, who will probably go down as three of the best players to ever grace the game, there is only Brendon McCullum, who has done it in the past but doesn’t any more, the aforementioned Powell, who was a sporadic opener and a bit shit, and Robin Uthappa who, again, did it sporadically and is a bit shit.
The point to all this stattery is that unless you are fortunate enough to have a truly great player there simply aren’t opening batsmen who will consistently slog you into a position of supreme strength (and even then it’s worth pointing out that Jayasuriya, the standard bearer for that type of opener, only averaged 32). There are two England opening batsmen hovering just below that elite 90+ list; they are Craig Kieswetter and Luke Wright, who have both been consistently hounded by supporters and subsequently ditched at the top of the order for not being good enough. Almost all teams have to make a value judgement between picking an opening partnership to build a base for later or one with a pinch-hitter who might come off every now and again. England have dallied with the latter for years without success and have now settled on the former with some degree of it, yet still that isn’t enough.
The point holds for middle order batsmen as well: Trott’s average is the fourth highest of all time. He is a fraction behind Michael Bevan, who actually scored his runs slower than England’s much-maligned number three. Of the top ten run-scorers in ODI history, only three (Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting and Jayasuriya) have strike rates above 80 and only Jacques Kallis averages above 45. Those figures put into perspective just how good a one day player Trott has been. The problem is not him but the mindset of those who criticise; who expect one day cricket to be a 50 over game played at Twenty20 pace. Wickets are far more valuable the longer the format and 50 overs is a long time – already four teams have been bowled out in the Champions Trophy while two others limped to the finish 9 wickets down. All five matches have been won by the side who lost fewer wickets in the first ten overs. Keeping wickets in hand is not a defensive strategy but a sensible one, and it’s high time England stopped getting stick for playing well.