Headline: “Gunslingers shoot feet again!”

It’s fast becoming a cliché to dwell on the alleged loveliness of the Thailand women’s cricket team – or at least, or most obviously, their smile-tastic skipper, Sornnarin Tippoch. I’m going to do it, anyway, just briefly, in the knowledge that some may construe this as raw patronisation but still hoping that widespread recognition of that real of sense of a team playing their hearts out and revelling in the wider import of the occasion renders something worthwhile, here. Thailand are going all-in on this: it’s endearing, it’s proper sport.

Zoom in and on: a strong cross-wind blows across the Manuka Oval, Canberra, as the theoretically dynamic but most certainly currently vulnerable England opening pair stride out. (*Please note: I rate this current opening pair; they have quality. But there are buts, just now…)

Did I say vulnerable? Ah. Jones is out SECOND BALL – having mistimed a cut on the first. It’s a shocker. She is stumped, a mile out, failing to connect with a comparatively benign delivery from Boochatham. It maybe looked worse than it was – speaking as it did of scrambled mind – but whichever way we view it, this was another jolt of a start. England 1 for 1 after the first over, with Sciver having joined Wyatt.

Lateh offers Sciver a waist-high full bunger, which the in-form number three ruthlessly pumps to the square leg boundary, for the first four. Nerve-settler, perhaps? Not for Wyatt. Barely credibly, she slashes a drive aerially towards cover, where Liengprasert takes a fine, low catch, coming in.

Truly excellent effort from bowler and fielder but in the context, this feels more extraordinary, more notable from the England standpoint.

Wyatt had connected well enough, as is often the case with her dismissals but why strike out at catchable height? Early on? When you must feel that you owe your compadres an innings or two? When this is Thailand, with all due respect, and therefore a much-needed confidence-boost is surely on offer? When presumably the coach – even a coach who might be saying “keep believing; play your way” – must also be saying “give yourself a chance; there will be runs here”.

In short, both openers did a lousy job again.

Fully understand that it’s entirely legitimate to argue that pressure is a construct best dealt with on an individual basis and therefore either Wyatt or Jones or both might be best served eventually by simply re-doubling their commitment to ‘positive cricket’- to ‘belief’. This can be argued… but I think it’s cobblers. Their own confidence is being picked apart by poor choices and poor execution: more matters of judgement than intent. The result is (amongst other things) that Wyatt and Jones are potentially undermining the position of Sciver and Knight: there is also strongish case that there should be consequences for serial failure in the context of international sport. *Plus* good players – most obviously Beaumont – are being denied an opportunity.

It will be really interesting to see if the coach’s pride or stubbornness gets in the way of apparent common sense, on this – or what? (Not that we are likely to find out). This is rich territory.

Keightley may feel she has made an absolute commitment of some sort – she may have even given the current openers assurances that they will play, ‘because they’re the best’ and because ‘this is the way the group needs to approach things’. We can’t know. (It’s fascinating but also infuriating, for many of us, yes?) The noise around the issue is at best a distraction: I’m guessing I’m not the only one leaking energy around this.

Anyway, England are 7 for 2 as Knight walks in there. She’s an angel if she’s not cursing her lot.

Lateh follows up her wicket with two poor wides, outlining, perhaps, the mixed quality and comparatively slim top-level international experience of the underdogs: Sciver profits. The wind does seem a factor, possibly making all three disciplines a tad trickier. The pitch is true but with noticeably lower bounce, predictably, than that track out in Perth. Knight and Sciver, to their credit, settle early: England reach 45 for 2 at the end of the powerplay.

Gradually, this becomes a procession. Both batters get to fifty, before Knight absolutely explodes, unanswerably. From about the fifteenth over, the captain throws her hands at pretty much everything, connecting with an impressively high proportion. Thailand prove a little more fallible than in their opening match, bowling wider, maybe, and allowing one or two more ground-fielding errors to creep in. But they are facing two worldies building something powerful, now.

After 17 overs England are 138 for 2, with Sciver on 52 and Knight 78. Liengprasert almost claims Knight at the boundary but that swirling wind makes the grab eminently droppable; in fact two, similar potential catches are spilled over the rope. (To be fair, the second one did so much in the wind that nobody could have hauled it in – and it did go for six). The England captain is slashing and heaving now in the honourable club tradition… and getting away with it. Sciver is still playing cricket; dynamically, as is her wont.

Having moved to a 100 partnership off 79 balls, England race on to 176 with no further loss at the close, with Knight on 108 and Sciver 59. A total significantly beyond reach for this opposition, facing this England attack.

This was Sciver’s second fifty in the tournament: her skipper, out early, driving hard but insufficiently far in her previous knock, reached her century in the final over, before celebrating by clattering Suttiruang for another straight six. Little to enjoy, then, for the Thai players, other than the moment that their hugely likable captain, Tippoch, channeled Malinga by dropping her arm to shoulder height and landing one on middle. As if she needed us to love her more!

Chantham and Boochatham will face Shrubsole, with the wind heavily assisting her generally mercurial inswing: like she needed the help. Sadly for us romantics the England bowler nails the latter, lbw, facing her first delivery. Moments later huge, late swing defeats the incoming Koncharoenkai but the ball flashes down leg, beating, in its increasingly absurd arc, the befuddled keeper, Jones. A predictably challenging start for the batters but Chantam is looking the part. She will go on to make a creditable 32 before being dismissed lbw, by Ecclestone.

The issue was always going to be lack of depth, in the Thai batting line-up. So it proves, with only Koncharoenkai (12) and Chaiwai (19) making worthwhile contributions. Thailand have already offered enough: wonderful commitment and energy, outstanding awareness of this World cup as an opportunity in which to develop and yes, enjoy. Rather stumbling towards 78 for 7, today, against an experienced and luxuriously-resourced England side was neither a surprise nor a failure, however disappointed they might feel.

Sure they weren’t absolutely on it, in the field, in the way they might have hoped. But the early drama, with Wyatt and Jones departed so soon may in itself be a validatory, dare I say characteristically worthy contribution to the narrative of the whole event. But oops; that’s twice I’ve invoked romance and this is almost certainly ill-considered. I rate Thailand for their cricket, for the competitive charge that has brought them to Australia; for the additional, proper-quality cricket they have yet to deliver.

Reflecting on a substantial win and being unashamedly anglo-centric (until somebody pays me to write neutral columns, of course), I’m drawn back to the beginning: forgive me. Wyatt and Jones. They may sound like a couple of deadly gunslingers but – just now? No.

It’s not just that of late they are dropping the outstanding Sciver and the magnificently stoic Knight in the poop, time after time. It’s the manner in which this is occurring: in a word – needlessly. Wyatt typically getting caught between extra and point, before she’s ‘got going’. Jones finding a way to get out just as you sense she may be in.

All this is now BIG in the media corps: I’ve been saying for ages that as a pair, despite being genuinely talented and theoretically ideal openers, they are currently too vulnerable, too slack, too unreliable to start the England innings together.

Now I know stats may disprove almost any theory predicated upon observation – upon feel, judgement, experience – and I accept the role that recorded truths (statistics) have to play, in the modern game. Some revelations can prove vital. However, despite knowing that this will inevitably condemn me to allegations of out-of-time-ism, I confess to having misgivings about stats generally, or the use or ‘over-use’ of the stuff.

Stats can be facts but they can also be interpretative material. Coaches can be leant on, impressed or bewildered and undermined, even, if a bullish culture exists around having to ‘come over all modern’ (and use modern tech to the full). Interpretation can be flawed.

I have no doubt that there are situations where assistant coaches or statisticians, feeling the need to justify their graft (or out of arrogance, or out of insecurity), ladle on particular plans for this or that when in fact any good coach left to their own devices would simply know that Player X can or will do this, or that. And that therefore the stats are background noise – are un-directional, unhelpful, subversive,even. Cultural innovation can be necessary but maybe it can also smother the instincts, cloud the issues.

In the case of Wyatt, I wonder why somebody – presumably her coach Lisa Keightley –  can’t just say “listen mate, you’re a great player but if you get caught flashing through the covers again I’ll crap in your trainers : there’s time, even in bladdy T20, to get yourself in. SMASH THE BALL INTO THE BLOODY GROUND).

Keightley may have done this. Likewise she may have urged Jones, in no uncertain terms, towards retaining her focus. “Stop those gifts, mate”.

Pressure makes folk daft, we know that. But international players should not be daft, repeatedly, without re-engaging fundamental intelligences. Or if they are, there should be consequences.

My suspicion is that the batters and possibly the coach have simply made all of this waaaay toooo complicated – most likely by over-thinking something or everything, possibly because there are too many voices in their ears. Why not simply be positive and game-wise at the same time? Build towards extravagance? Play yourself in, enough?

 

 

 

 

The Big Dance.

So Oz fell over: or, o-kaaay, stumbled. At the all-dancing opener to a hugely anticipated T20 World Cup, in front of a crowd of 13,000-plus, the Southern Stars tripped where they had been expected to sashay in style.

India – India whom we knew were a threat, but India the ‘not-that-great in the field’ – beat them, ultimately with some ease, as a truly poor Australian batting performance degenerated into the female equivalent of a Dad Dance. Ugly-ish; un-coordinated; arrhythmic.

Those of us confined to grey, sodden West-Walian climes at least had the prospect of a helpful, brekkie-time watch. (Those of us recovering from an op’ and therefore *not actually in work* had, in fact, the opportunity to enjoy the whole whatever-it-was. And it was… what?)

It was smile-inducing, at about 7.30, Greenwich. Daft and colourful and good-natured, with some young bloke in a near-Hawaiian shirt imploring us to (you guessed it) “get up and da-ance”. I didn’t, but felt suitably buoyant, as I rushed the family porridge and swished through the weekly recycling trauma, with the front door kissing hard in the wind and the bin-men grinding ominously down the road.

Finally set, about the same time as the Indian openers, I eagerly awaited the evocative words “Molly Strano” on a loop from the various comms-peeps; for the craic, the sheer, extravagant 0z-ness of it. Molly Strano. Great name. Huge shame, for the injured Vlaminck, of course but Moll…

The game, the game, though: likely to be proper-competitive but ending with a home win – the Southern Stars being unquestionably the strongest side in the tournament and India being yes, a threat, but also something of a squad on the up, rather than yaknow, complete. India… facing Molly Strano.

Then multiple wowsers. The powerful prodigy that is Verma intercedes early, across our expectations. Strano and then Perry may not be *actually dismissed* but they are a tad stung, as the young opener clouts and cuts in the power-play. Her theoretically senior partner, Mandhana, can quietly prod away as the explosive youth bolts the innings forward: 40 for 0 off 4. Indian support going ballistic; Lanning looking a little concerned, perhaps?

But then, inevitably, Australia do their thing. Mandhana – who never got going – is lbw to Jonassen and Verma is picked up at mid-on, off Perry. The left-arm offie has turned nothing, as usual but her deadly consistency and commendable nous, combined with good length from Perry, has stalled any potential charge. Normal service.

42 for 3 becomes 47 for 3 when that other Indian Superstar, the captain, Harmanpreet Kaur charges wildly at Jonassen, in pursuit of a ‘statement’. It’s a crass error and a crass dismissal, as the ball smooths past the unsightly heave before defeating Healy’s glove… a-and dribbling back from her pad to hit the stumps. Shocker. I thought the game might have gone, right there.

Instead Rodrigues and Sharma re-build – stoically rather than emphatically, in truth. Sharma remains undefeated on 49 at the close of innings, supported by a muted 9 from Krishnamurthy. The total of 132 for 4 feels twenty short.

Rodrigues made 26 off 33 and Verma 29 from 15. In short, on a slowish but not apparently turn-tastic strip, you imagined a comparatively uninspired India behind in the game, particularly as Australia bowl and field better, traditionally. Perhaps wiser to put this the other way – that India’s fielding is ordinary and their bowling may rely on a pitch more helpful than this one. Maybe.

As Healy starts up, looking if not imperious then closer to her pugnacious best than of late, the signs are that though the Indian spinners might make this competitive, Australia will simply have too much. But hang on. Without, in my view, the visitors bowling bewildering beauties, Mooney, Lanning, Haynes, find themselves back in the pavilion. For 6, 5 and 6, respectively. Yes but this only brings in Perry, right? Perry makes 0.

Not in any way looking to denigrate a good bowling performance, here. The impishly wonderful Poona Yadav finished with 4 for 19 from her 4 overs; I loved that. Likewise Sharma and Shikha Pandey (who took 3 for 14 off 3.5) deserve bundles of credit. It’s just that The Story felt very much about a) a defeat for Aus and b) specifically, the opening up of a frailty we maybe thought this undeniably accomplished Southern Stars Posse had grown through. They were, in short, nervy and deeply vulnerable under pressure; some of them shockingly so. And this was their third T20 defeat in the last 15 days.

Healy made 51 and Gardener 34. Yet even Gardener, known for her dynamism and god-given ability to GO BIG, under pressure, rather fizzled. Take away those 85 runs and the contribution of the rest is exposed: 28 from t’other eight batters. All out, 115. Wow.

So this was an extraordinary start – many might argue an ideal start in terms of opening up the tournament. Australia will likely still go through but they will have to be positive-aggressive (who-knows, run-rate may be important) and they will probably have to beat New Zealand, as well as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Excitingly then, it’s immediately all kinds of tasty, in Group A: the Almost Unbeatables got beat. And whilst we know that theoretically T20 is the format where expectation can be brutally usurped, and we’re at some level prepared for that, the extent to which Australia fluffed/bottled or misplaced it – whatever it is – means we’re already into something that feels new. The adrenalin is pumping nicely.

When their outstanding captain Harmanpreet Kaur threw away her wicket, leaving India at not many for 3, having lost their two most essential (nay iconic) players, this scenario did not seem likely. Perry, Lanning, Healy and co with the proverbial ‘work to do?’ Surely not. Aus have way too much quality. Aus bat long and bat with intent.

Not sure anybody expects India to go on and win this at a cruise as a result of this one, relative upset – England may have something to say about that, for starters – but clearly Yadav and Verma have put delicious wee markers down. “We’re here! Come, watch us dancing.”