Monday, 21 August 2006

Do England still need Darren Gough?

It is undoubtedly true that Darren Gough is his own biggest fan. But the ODI series against Sri Lanka illustrated the inadequacy of those playing instead of him. Liam Plunkett, Tim Bresnan, Kabir Ali and Sajid Mahmood played 14 games between them; each went for over 7 an over.

Of course, the causes of the first three names were aided by their supposed batting prowess, and Duncan Fletcher’s desperation for numbers eight and nine to be capable batsman.

However, Gough could be the bowling all-rounder England are looking for. He was once considered an adequate test number eight; he made two half exhilarating half centuries in his first 10 tests. Yet, thereafter, his batting subsided. Indeed, the abiding image of Gough the batsman is selfishly slogging to leg and walking off with an enormous grin on his face.

But the Yorkshireman has been transformed as a batsman. He has averaged 57 in the Championship this year, including two fifties. In one-day cricket, meanwhile, Gough has enjoyed success as a pinch-hitting number three.

While his batting has surely convinced the selectors that he is good enough to bat at number nine – or eight at a push – it is his bowling that will ultimately decide his fate. Gough has done well in the Championship, averaging 28. He was somewhat disappointing in the C & G Trophy; but in the Pro40 competition, he has played three games and taken seven wickets at just nine.

His inclusion in the 30-man squad for the Champions Trophy was no surprise, in that he is undoubtedly amongst the best 30 one-day players in England. But it suggested that Duncan Fletcher has forgiven Gough’s decision to go onto Strictly Come Dancing rather than tour with England in Pakistan, and may now be willing to recall him.

Although he has done very well with the new ball in limited overs cricket for Essex, Gough was seldom able to take wickets with it during his last spell in the side. But his nous and skill at the death was still apparent. If he is to play again, he will surely be required to bowl during the middle of the innings and at its end.

Gough is a bubbly and enormously self-confident character. He would bring great experience to the side and could prove a terrific asset to the side until the end of the World Cup; equally, others could learn much from both his skill and temperament. However his constant grumbling over not being selected does raise a vital question. Namely, could he handle being a ‘squad player’, something he has never been for England? Would Gough moan – and perhaps damage team morale – if he wasn’t selected?

The bowler’s current murmurings of discontent are surely partly justified, in that many of the men selected above him are palpably not international class. Yet, though he may well merit a squad place, we must not fall into the trap of believing the 35-year-old is the answer to all of England’s one-day woes. For his displays last summer against Australia were very disappointing indeed.

Even so, Darren Gough is well worth a recall. It should be clear within a few games whether or not he still has something to offer; and it would be prudent to make those games against Pakistan so, if nothing else, England can eliminate him from their World Cup plans. What England do not want to do is continue experimenting with youngsters, in the hope they will prove up to the task, then return to Gough come the World Cup. Having reinvented himself as a bowling all-rounder, the talismanic figure could yet have a glorious swansong and further illustrate the mediocrity of many of those selected ahead of him.

Saturday, 5 August 2006

The Overseas Dilemma

The ECB this week took the decision to restrict the number of overseas players back to just one per county side from the 2008 season onwards. This is a good move by the ECB and is part of a two-pronged strategy to increase opportunities for English youngsters in our domestic game.

When the overseas player quota was increased to two a few years back the underlying theory was to increase the quality of the domestic game for the spectator and provide the young English talent coming through with more experienced overseas professionals to learn from.

Unfortunately though, there has proven to be a lack of overseas players willing or indeed able to devote their time to English domestic cricket. A pertinent example of this declining quality would be Dan Cullen at Somerset, who despite his potential, has failed to live up to his reputation as Australia’s answer to replacing Shane Warne. He was in fact discarded from the Somerset team after only a handful of unsuccessful appearances, for which he collected a hefty pay packet.

The desired quality of overseas player is simply not sustainable throughout the two tiers of top-flight English domestic cricket. There basically are not enough quality overseas professionals to go around and the resulting average-to-good overseas players found in many sides simply take up a position in the team which could otherwise be filled with young English talent, at lesser financial cost.

In Hampshire’s current match with Kent, Dominic Thornely, though contributing well, is in the team at the expense of the emerging Chris Benham who has shown potential to succeed at First Class level. It ultimately comes down to obtaining a comfortable balance between success and opportunity though. Benham still gets opportunities in Hampshire’s team and Thornely brings some additional success with the ball and his speed of scoring.

However, it is very doubtful as to whether Thornely will still be at the club next year and this proves to be the pet peeve of many a supporter and veteran of the county circuit. Why develop a good, but not outstanding overseas player, who will not be here next year, when you can develop one of your own for less?

Supporters like to know that their players are committed to their clubs, but it is hard to claim commitment and attachment when a player spends only one season at a club. This is not to question the determination and effort put in by overseas players who spend just one season at their chosen counties. However, players like Shane Warne, Stephen Fleming, Mushtaq Ahmed and a host of others, who are contracted to their clubs on a long term basis and even Captain them, are naturally more committed to that clubs long term success and the development of the players they play with. The quality of these players is also second to none.

Reverting to the old system of having one overseas player per county side will prove beneficial for our domestic game in the long run. An experienced professional will still be on hand to attract the crowds and nurture our youth at each county and there will be more quality overseas players to go around, enhancing the quality of overseas player at each club and therefore the impact of that player on the county and its accompanying players. Meanwhile, our youngsters will get more opportunities to develop in the bread and butter game that is county cricket.

The second part of the two-pronged strategy was revealed last year, with the announcement that the ECB would be attempting to curtail the number of Kolpak players playing in our domestic game. Kolpak players are players of a foreign nationality who are though recognised as domestic players and not therefore subject to the overseas restrictions. They become Kolpak players by either holding an EU passport, or by living in a country which has an associate agreement with the EU, providing the player in question has not played for their “home” nation within the last twelve months.

Although European Law prevents restrictions on Kolpak players, there is nothing to stop the introduction of financial penalties payable by clubs who play them. The ruling brought in by the ECB states that nine English qualified players must be fielded in every game, or each team will be obliged to pay a fee for each non-England qualified player in excess of the two allowed per game.

The financial penalties came into effect this year but the fees are currently insignificantly small and so clubs have continued to play their Kolpak players. However, from next season, 2007, the fees will start to increase to £1000 per player per First Class game and £250 per player per List A game. The penalties will rise again for the 2008 season.

Therefore, by 2008, counties, under the current plan, will be able to field one overseas player and one Kolpak player in their sides. They will then have to pay significant and unsustainable amounts of money to field anymore Kolpak players in their sides, hopefully ensuring that at least nine England qualified players will take to the field for each domestic game and also ensuring a higher class of Kolpak player. Some will still question the wisdom of having Kolpak players in our domestic game, yet this has benefits as well as drawbacks.

The benefits are that these rules will still allow players like Kevin Pietersen, Sean Ervine and Jonathan Trott to come to England and play out a four year residency period so that we can reap the benefits of playing these players in our international team, as some have the quality and commitment to succeed, as Pietersen has shown. These rules will also still allow unfortunate players, who are victims of circumstance, to continue their careers in county cricket so that they don't disappear into obscurity, the Flower brothers being obvious recent examples.

This new system will work well. Kolpak players will not be priced out of qualifying through residency to play for our country if they desire to do so and are good enough. Quality players who can not play in their own countries because of unfortunate circumstances can still wow the crowds in England and boost quality here. Finally, there will be more opportunities for our own youth players, who will still have the opportunity to learn from an experienced and quality overseas player. Of course counties will not be obliged to have more than one non-England qualified player, or any in fact, but the opportunity will still exist to harness this imported talent which can improve our national team and national game.

Chris Pallett

Thursday, 3 August 2006

The hardest man in cricket

Northants fan Philip Ellis analyses the implications of Kepler Wessels' departure from Wantage Road

Although the downfall of coach Kepler Wessels has disappointed many at Northampton, the general consensus was that he had taken the club as far as he could under the current fiscal regime and that uncompromising leadership style had outlived its welcome. We know he was a hard case and revelled in that image; any player who crossed ‘Keps’ felt his roth. Apparently he was reported three times to the Players Union by bullied players. In fact the ‘alleged’ instigator of the vote was none other than the player’s rep in Ben Phillips, surprising many at the ground. David Graveny himself, along with the top PCA union rep, was at the game against Essex when he was fired to allegedly warn Wessels over his conduct. The coach, fearing the sack, was about to ask for an extended contract to force the issue.

The big poser that is Graeme Swann was first out of Wantage Rd under Keps tenure after one season too many, apparently the coach pulling him aside on day one of the South Africans reign and enquiring if it was true that he could do impressions. Swanny replied that he could indeed do some famous voices. ‘What would you like—maybe a Bruce Forsyth!’, the unsuspecting Swann did chirp. Wessels snarled back that if he ever did one of him then he would snap the off-spinners spine in half. That’s was the way Wessels ran the ship.

The now departed Jeff Cook- an Aussie Kolpak-also suffered Keplers iron fist when he finally scored a hundred for Northamptonshire on a pancake wicket at Wantage Rd-his first for three years-Wessels following him up the pavilion stairs with the death nell of ‘it it doesn’t matter how many f*****g hundreds you score for this club because you will never play for it again. The guy did not suffer wimps and slackers. But once the club was hit by a serious fraud and the income dropped, he never had the budget to buy the players that would bring us his brand of success. Ironically the club is now playing like he batted!

The player vote did happen and it was a ratio of about 3:1, although ive heard it was more like 14 to 2 for him to go. It was noticeable that on the day after his ‘amicable’ departure (he got all the money plus no tax on the remaining year and a half on his deal), the players that were against him ate their lunch in the dressing room whilst a conspicuously small table of players remained in the canteen, all murmuring with a distinct Southern Hemisphere twang!—the Steelboks versus the Steelbacks, if you like.

The ‘Capes Crusader’ (David Capel) has taken up the reigns until the end of the current season at Wantage Road, denying he knew anything about the downfall that many feel he engineered. A stonking reverse in the Pro40 against Notts, who flipped us out of the Twenty20 quarter-finals last week, started the renaissance with a superb win on Sunday, Lance Klusner taking the winning four wickets for his old boss. The administrators of the club, also facing big change when the chairman leaves next year, have tried their hardest to kill this story stone dead. Two men who have benefited are batsmen Rob White and Stephen Peters, playing like Bradman now the atmosphere has lifted.

Leg-spinners can be watch winners

Colin Croft analyses the handful of leg spinners hoping to give Duncan Fletcher a nudge

England fans could have been forgiven for blinking back their disbelief last Saturday as the burgeoning talent that is Monty Panesar spun England to a dramatic victory against Pakistan in the Second Test. His five victims were not tailenders either, mopped up cheaply on the boundary as they slogged away their wickets in a match long since lost. No, he bagged the entire top order, minus stand-in opener Kamran Akmal, including such renowned players of spin as Mohammed Yousuf and Inzamam-ul-Haq. All this from a finger spinner for heaven’s sake, a supposed dying breed in Test cricket since the emergence of a certain bleached blonde Australian sent coaches worldwide scuttling off looking for a wrist spinner who could rip the ball a few feet rather than a few inches.

Of all cricket’s wide variety of skills, the dexterous art of leg spin bowling perhaps remains the most difficult to purvey, let alone to master. The emergence of a young wrist-spinning prospect commands immediate attention, but also generates tremendous pressure on the individual.

Ask Ian Salisbury or Chris Schofield. Salisbury burst onto the first class scene with 87 wickets in 1992 and was soon elevated to the Test team. But five wickets on debut against a strong Pakistan side sadly proved to be the highlight of an unfulfilling international career, as each big spinning leg break was followed by a long hop that disappeared to the boundary, eventually followed by Salisbury’s confidence. Schofield was centrally contracted for 2000, but after two wicketless Test outings and rumblings from the Red Rose County about a dislike for practice, he has tumbled rapidly into obscurity.

With the rapid emergence of a genuine slow left arm specialist in Panesar, it might now seem that the hunt for the fabled match winning leg spinner has suddenly become less of a cricketing holy grail. How ironic therefore that a handful of aspiring leg spinners are currently striving to make an impact on English First Class cricket.

Yorkshire’s Mark Lawson made his first class debut in 2004, following some promising performances for England Under 19’s and amid the usual hype that surrounds young leggies. But despite taking 5-62 on a turner at Scarborough, he has managed just 8 First Class matches as more senior colleagues, notably Richard Dawson, have done the twirling for the Tykes in recent seasons.

At just 20 years old, Lawson still has time on his side but ironically he could now be in danger of getting upstaged by a county colleague. On 21st July this year, Bradford born Adil Rashid returned an amazing 6-67 to bowl Yorkshire to an innings victory over Warwickshire. Clearly not satisfied with taking a wicket with his 8th delivery during the first innings, Rashid stunned the watching crowds by ripping out six of the top nine batsmen in the second. Not a bad effort for an 18-year-old on debut then.

Astonishing? Almost as much as the fact that Rashid had in fact been picked to bat at number six, following consecutive hundreds whilst opening the batting for the Second XI. He bats in the top six for England Under 19’s too. Having reportedly started bowling spin at the age of ten, Rashid could have a big future in front of him and his sessions with Australian bowling guru Terry Jenner, mentor to the incomparable Shane Warne, will doubtless help him on his way.

Another contender who can also boast batting potential is Simon Marshall of Lancashire. With height on his side at 6’ 3” and an action likened by some to Anil Kumble, Marshall also already has a first class ton to his name from his Cambridge University days. Scores of 39 versus Derbyshire and 47 off 25 balls against Durham in the Twenty20 cup this season offer further evidence of his batting ability. 12 wickets at an average of 15.5 and an economy rate barely above a run a ball, in a competition which renders most bowlers mere cannon fodder, completes the all round package.

Despite managing only two County Championship appearances thus far, another young leg spinning hopeful turned this years Varsity Match into something of a one man show. Nottingham born Mike Munday carried Oxford University to victory with match figures of 11-143, bowling almost 60 overs. His 49 first class wickets at an average under 30 speak volumes of a 21-year-old still learning so difficult an art. Whilst the short boundaries at Somerset’s Taunton ground may not be to an aspiring spinners liking, with Ian Blackwell injured and Dan Cullen’s stay proving a short one, Munday’s chance may come late in the season.

So whilst we marvel at Monty, a handful of members of cricket’s rarest club are waiting in the background. Let us hope they can be nurtured and that perhaps one or more of them can live with the burden of expectation successfully enough to become the next English spinning sensation.