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A good team, not a great one yet – Langer

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Australia’s coach Justin Langer wore a rueful look on his face as his players lifted the urn at The Oval, having lost to England by some distance in the final Test and so failed to win the series. Having set out upon a gruelling twin tour of the UK for the World Cup and the Ashes, he witnessed a pair of strong and successful campaigns without either fully satisfying.

With the benefit of a few moments’ reflection, Langer reckoned that while there had been great improvement in the Australian team over his 16 months in charge so far, there would need to be a greater level of ruthlessness if they are to graduate from World Cup semi-finalists and Ashes retainers to consistent series and tournament winners.

“It’s something we’re getting better at, how we back up after a win,” Langer said in reference to how the Edgbaston and Old Trafford victories had been followed by a draw at Lord’s and defeat at The Oval. “That probably comes with the maturity of the group as well. It’s ok to fight back when you are underdogs and it’s one of those Australian things – we love the underdog tag. To fight back from a tough loss is admirable and I said how proud I was with everyone for that.

“But also over the last couple of years we haven’t necessarily performed at our best after a win. Really good teams do that. We didn’t do that too well after the first Test at Lord’s. We didn’t do it after this Test. There have been some Test series over the last couple of years where the team hasn’t been able to. I think that’ll be part of the maturity of our side. If you probably think about it, the way we were in this series, we aren’t a great team yet.

“We are a good team, we are a maturing team. We have got some great players in it. But we’re aspiring to be a great cricket team. You got to work hard and get consistent results to achieve that. That comes from experience and learning how to win. That comes with players individually getting more experienced and the team working together. Those sort of things evolve I think. I think back to the start of my career, in 1993, we had some senior players but we didn’t necessarily win all the time. And that we learnt to do through Steve Waugh’s era. We learnt to be ruthless but we also had seven or eight great players and a number of very good players and a couple of good ones like me. But that takes time to develop and evolve.”

Something that Langer will have to balance coming home from England will be how the Test team will have perhaps three spots settled in the batting line-up for the home summer, but also how to pick David Warner back up after he was thoroughly beaten by Stuart Broad across this series. Warner was not alone as a struggling left-hand batsman at the top of the order, but he is the one player in that group who possesses a career record suggesting that it was a temporary problem rather than a defining one.

“I think, talking frankly, he let Stuart Broad get into his head and he thought way too much about it,” Langer said. “I’ve seen it before, even with the great players, every now and then they have a series – and I’m talking about the all-time great players – they have a series where…I remember Gilly (Adam Gilchrist) with Andrew Flintoff, I remember seeing Steve Waugh sit on the team bus in South Africa and the guy had been a run machine for so long, he got out just before stumps and I, in a sick sort of way, thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen.

“I didn’t think great players had lean runs. I used to have lean runs all the time but even great players have lean runs and I’m sure David – we know he’s a very good player, there’s no question about that – but he had it tough, particularly against Stuart Broad. I used to have it against Murali (Muttiah Muralitharan) and I couldn’t solve the issue and it’s so hard when you try to problem solve and then you’re in the middle of a big series trying to solve the puzzle.

“In this instance I don’t think David solved the puzzle, and he’ll be first to admit that, he’ll probably be very relieved he gets on the Qantas flight in a day’s time and doesn’t have to face Stuart Broad for a while I reckon. But he is certainly, there’s plenty of upside still to his batting. I’ve learned over a long period you never write off champion players, it doesn’t matter what sport, you never write off champion players. They tend to come good, don’t they? So he’s had a tough series, no doubt about that, but he’s also a champion player so usually with champion players they get a bit more time to come good.”

Langer was gratified by the displays of Steven Smith, Marnus Labuschagne, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon, while also appreciating how Matthew Wade had battled his way through the trials of the series to notch a pair of book-ending centuries. “We cut to the chase, I thought our bowling throughout this series was absolutely world-class. I think we talked throughout about the maturity and healthy group of fast bowlers that we were able to have on the park,” he said. “The bowlers were brilliant. Nathan Lyon as well and the way they all stepped up at different times.

“But we didn’t bat well enough. I said this at the start of the series that the team that bats well will win the series. I said it consistently enough and we didn’t bat well enough. That’s the truth. I mean Steve Smith was obviously outstanding. What a pleasure to watch. He’s a brilliant young man but what a pleasure to watch him bat. I thought the development of Marnus was exciting. He worked so hard. He’s a bit in the Steve Smith mould of the players that you love to see do well. He worked so hard.

“The way Matthew Wade scored two centuries in this series, obviously including today. We talked about him knocking so hard to get an opportunity. He did that and then to back up with two Test centuries in an Ashes series showed great fight and great skill. I loved Matthew Wade’s footwork. But we certainly fell short in other areas and we need to work on that.”

In addition to ruthlessness, Langer had a simple goal based on what he had seen in England in 2019 – find a batting line-up that will better capitalise on the current riches in Australia’s bowling stocks. “With this exciting fast bowling group we’ve got, if we start batting well we’ll win a lot of games of cricket,” he said. “We go to Australia to play two pink ball Test matches, against two good sides in Pakistan and New Zealand, two day-night Test matches will be exciting.

“There’s a real challenge for young Australian batters, the ones who want to step up and score lots of runs and work hard on their footwork patterns and techniques and ability to score runs it’s a pretty exciting time. That’s a big challenge.”



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Somerset docked 12 points for ‘poor’ pitch in Championship decider

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Somerset will start the 2020 County Championship season on minus 12 points after an ECB disciplinary panel ruled that the pitch prepared for their title decider against Essex at Taunton was ‘poor’.

In a rain-affected game that Somerset had to win in order to overtake Essex, 21 wickets fell in 148 overs, of which 17 were to spin. A Cricket Discipline Committee panel ruled that the pitch demonstrated ‘excessive unevenness of bounce’ at Lord’s this afternoon, thus giving it a ‘poor’ rating.

Somerset accepted the charge that the pitch was correctly rated poor, but denied that it was not the best quality pitch they could have prepared. The panel struck down their objection, thus handing the club a 24-point deduction, though 12 of those have been suspended.

Somerset have two weeks to appeal the decision. A club statement said that they would “await the full report from the Cricket Discipline Commission before considering our next course of action”.

The club have pushed the bounds of the ECB’s regulations in recent seasons. In 2018, they escaped a penalty for their surface in a Championship match against Lancashire which finished in two days and was found to have “demonstrated excessive turn”. But while the ECB’s Cricket Discipline Commission did not penalise Somerset, they did warn that “the club should expect any proven breach of ECB’s pitch regulations in future to result in a points deduction”.

Somerset recently appointed a new groundsman, following the departure of Simon Lee – whose final game in the role was the Essex fixture – to the Ageas Bowl. Coincidentally, they have appointed Scott Hawkins, who was deputy head groundsman at Chelmsford for several years, and more recently worked at La Manga in Spain.

While Lee’s pitches came in for criticism from some quarters – Angus Fraser, Middlesex’s director of cricket, claimed the wicket for a relegation clash against Somerset in 2017 was “doctored” and “a disgrace” – the club’s hierarchy thought highly of his ability to prepare a pitch to their specifications.

Essex registered their frustrations with the pitch at the time. Head coach Anthony McGrath said the wicket had “turned from ball one and some deliveries have gone through the surface,” while captain Ryan ten Doeschate said he had “been stressing the severity of how bad that pitch is… they’ve really taken a risk here by producing this wicket, but I’m sure we would have done as well.”

The decision raises the question as to what might have happened if Somerset had won the game in question. They would have overtaken Essex, but not by more than 12 points, thus leaving open the possibility that the destination of the Championship would have been decided in a committee room at Lord’s, rather than on the field.

It also confirms that Somerset’s off-field position is far from ideal going into 2020: they are currently without a chairman, a chief executive and a chief operating officer, though there have been recent contract extensions for Jack Leach and captain Tom Abell.



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Liam Livingstone chooses County Championship over IPL in bid for England recall

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Liam Livingstone has decided against entering the upcoming IPL auction in a bid to return to England’s Test squad by impressing in Division One of the County Championship.

Livingstone, who is yet to win his Test cap but was part of the squad for the New Zealand series in 2017-18, played four games for Rajasthan Royals last season, but has left the franchise by mutual consent and will not put his name forward for the 2020 edition of the tournament.

While it is two years since his only taste of international cricket – a pair of T20Is against South Africa in 2017 – Livingstone is still only 26, and hopes that a strong start to the Championship season will put him back on England’s radar.

“I loved the experience of playing in the IPL,” Livingstone said, “but I have decided to put a renewed focus on first-class cricket next summer.

“I am committed to improving my game in all formats and I still have hopes of playing Test cricket; the best way to achieve that is by impressing in Division One.

“I hugely enjoyed being part of the County Championship side last season. The lads played some exceptional red-ball cricket and I am optimistic about what we can achieve together moving forward.”

After a lean 2018, in which he scored just 336 Championship runs at 24.00 and failed to reach 50 as Lancashire were relegated from Division One, Livingstone enjoyed a better first-class season in 2019 after relinquishing the captaincy, making 599 runs at an average of 46.07.

“To have Liam available for the start of the season is welcome news,” said Paul Allott, Lancashire’s director of cricket. “He is a senior member of the changing room and undoubtedly improves our side in first-class cricket.

“With an enhanced focus on County Championship cricket in the early months of the 2020 season, we need to ensure we hit the ground running on our return to what will be a competitive Division One. Liam’s availability will help us to achieve this.”

Livingstone will be available to play for Lancashire for the whole of the County Championship and T20 Blast seasons, though will miss the One-Day Cup due to his commitments in the Hundred. He was widely expected to be picked early in the draft for the tournament by Manchester Originals, but was instead snapped up in the first round by Birmingham Phoenix.

Livingstone is currently playing in the Mzansi Super League, South Africa’s domestic T20 tournament, and has entered the draft for the Pakistan Super League. He will also appear in the Big Bash as one of Perth Scorchers’ overseas players, signalling that his hopes of making England’s squad for next year’s T20 World Cup are still alive.



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‘I want to stop being the one who is vulnerable’ – Sam Curran

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Sam Curran says that his objective during England’s Test series against New Zealand this month is to “stop being the one who is vulnerable”, after appearing to have kept his place in the side for Thursday’s first Test at Mount Maunganui ahead of his rival allrounder Chris Woakes.

In a promising start to his Test career, Curran has averaged 30.05 with the bat and 29.00 with the ball in 11 Tests, and was named Man of the Series in his maiden summer against India in 2018 after a series of gutsy displays, particularly in the first Test at Edgbaston, where he set up a tight victory with four first-innings wickets and a vital 63.

However, his twin roles of fourth seamer and No. 8 batsman offer little in the way of job security. Curran has been dropped on four occasions already in his career – including for the first four Tests of this summer’s Ashes – with his obvious aptitude for the cut-and-thrust of Test cricket unable to protect him on the occasions when England have needed to change their team balance.

“There was [frustration],” he admitted, “but the team was in a good place going into the Ashes. I was in all the squads, so that was a confidence booster. At the same time you’d love to be playing, and as the series went on you’re itching to get out on the field.”

But now, with James Anderson still missing from England’s ranks while he recovers from a long-term calf injury, Curran’s ability to swing the new ball, allied to his left-arm line, appears to have tipped the balance for the selectors, as they prepare to field a side containing three other right-arm seamers in Stuart Broad, Jofra Archer and Ben Stokes, alongside the left-arm spin of Jack Leach.

“I think anyone looking at the balance of the side can see that is pretty obvious,” Curran said of his perceived battle with Woakes for the one remaining place in the side. “I think if I do get the chance, it is about nailing down my spot in the side and stop being the one that is vulnerable.

“That is my responsibility and whoever gets the spot, if it is me, has to take the opportunity by getting runs and taking wickets and contributing to the team. If I do get the nod, hopefully I can go well and contribute with both bat and ball.

“As an allrounder I look up to someone like Stokesy and the way he contributes with the bat up the order and he takes wickets when he bowls and that is what I aspire to do. As long as I’m helping to win games for the team then I’m happy.”

Curran had some limited success during a tough three-day warm-up against New Zealand A in Whangarai ahead of the first Test, claiming three second-innings wickets on a pitch which Archer described as “probably the flattest I’ve played on in my life”, to give England hope of forcing a win before a late-order rally shut up shop for the hosts.

And while he has been in New Zealand for a month already during the T20I series, he said the chance to hone his technique with the red Kookaburra ball had been a useful exercise in spite of the hard yakka, especially given that his lack of pace was exposed in his last overseas Test, against West Indies in Antigua earlier this year.

“Yeah, it was nice to get out there with a red ball in a first-class game with a bit more on it,” Curran said. “It was nice for the bowling group to be put under pressure against some of their good New Zealand batters and I thought they played well.

“I think any bowler who bowls with a Kookaburra is going to say they prefer the Dukes but you’ve got to learn somehow,” he added. “If you look at the scores in New Zealand domestic cricket there are a lot of hundreds scored but you never know, in cloudy conditions the scores could get lower.

ALSO READ: Sibley deserves his Test chance – Rory Burns

“We can’t predict what the wicket is going to be like next week until we get up to the Mount and we’ll come up with plans. It is a great learning curve for me, but I’ve made some strides in this game and come up with a few different options so I’m pretty confident.

One of those options will be to come round the wicket and create an angle into the many right-handers in New Zealand’s top order.

“It’s not necessarily new to me, I do do it quite a bit in county cricket,” he said, “but probably more overseas where the ball doesn’t swing as much. Trying to get the batsmen to play a lot more coming by round the wicket, it is just about finding different ways.

“It is a new thing for me to bowl with a red ball in New Zealand so I’m still learning, but I thought it came out better than it did in the first warm-up game so I’m feeling pretty confident going into next week.”

Curran will have a number of familiar faces around him in the first Test, including his Surrey captain Rory Burns, now established at the top of the order, as well as his former Surrey academy team-mates Ollie Pope and Dom Sibley, who is set to make his Test debut.

“I joined the Surrey academy at 14 and that is when I played against Cranleigh where Popey was, and Sibbers was at Whitgift,” Curran said, “so I played against them all the way through the academy days until we got into the first team at Surrey.

“It is a nice little friendship we’ve got going and I know Popey and Sibbers’ parents are coming out as well so it will be special to see so many familiar faces.

“I think it makes it a bit easier to be playing with guys you’ve grown up with. International cricket is international cricket but when you’re playing with your mates and you’re standing in the field with guys you’re familiar with, if things are going badly you can kind of laugh it off and stay positive because you’re playing with mates and that’s good fun.”



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