Monday, 30 October 2006

Pietersen’s brilliance provides some solace

England’s Champions Trophy campaign was eminently forgettable. They went into the tournament with low expectations; they endured two meek defeats before Kevin Pietersen’s typically destructive 90* brought them a win that was near-futile: England were already out and the fringe players fighting for World Cup berths did very little. Still, played three won one sounds less depressing than played three won none.

Talking of depressing, Steve Harmison’s performances in this tournament were just that. Australia must be hopeful of inflicting damage on him come the Ashes. His replacement against the West Indies, Jon Lewis, may not have pace but he is adroit at bowling with the new ball in one-day cricket. Although he should not be trusted later on in the innings, Lewis – as he showed yesterday – can bowl his 10 overs straight through.

James Anderson bowled egregiously against the West Indies, but his showings in the previous two games are testament to the fact he is a very good one-day bowler. Playing Harmison and Sajid Mahmood in the same side is surely too risky. Mahmood – who dismissed Adam Gilchrist, Ricky Ponting, Ramnaresh Sarwan and Brian Lara in the tournament – clearly has all the attributes required to be a fantastic fast bowler. But, even given the calm head Mahmood displayed in steering England home, I would prefer to see Stuart Broad play alongside Lewis, Anderson and Andrew Flintoff in a four-pronged seam attack.

Flintoff’s five overs were not particularly good, but at least he is back bowling with 25 overs until the Ashes begin. However, his performances with the bat in the Champions Trophy displayed a lack of common sense, a trait of so much of England’s batting in this form of the game.

The belligerence of Pietersen’s hitting is well known; he is certainly England’s most significant one-day player. So his match-winning innings – his first ODI fifty in nine games – hardly told England anything they didn’t already know.

Andrew Strauss and Ian Bell both played extremely well until both were dismissed for 50. Bell is developing into a fine player in both forms of the game, though he is probably best at number three rather than opening. With a fully fit and on form Marcus Trescothick, England’s top six - Trescothick, Strauss, Bell, Pietersen, Collingwood and Flintoff – looks reassuring.

The problem, however, concerns the players who follow them. Against the West Indies, England’s batsmen at six, seven and eight – Michael Yardy, Jamie Dalrymple and Chris Read – all failed to do what they should be best at – finishing the innings.

Dalrymple, though he has scored just 35 runs in his last four one-day innings, has done well in his 14 games to date, and is probably a better option than Ashley Giles. His 10 overs yesterday encapsulated the subtlety and quick thinking that has characterised his ODI bowling at this level.

Yardy’s idiosyncratic technique does not look up to the demands of international cricket; the fact he was picked for England with a List A career batting average of just 20 rather epitomises the lack of coherence in England’s ODI selections. His bowling has proved generally economical so far, but the contempt showed towards it by Dwayne Bravo may well have ended his World Cup hopes.

Read, after doing so well against Pakistan in the two Tests he played last summer, has batted diabolically for the one-day international side. The slower ball that dismissed him yesterday may even have repercussions for England’s November 23rd encounter at Brisbane.

England currently have more pressing concerns than attempting to rectify the inherent problems in the one-day side. But Duncan Fletcher, as unconvincing as the one-day coach as he is dexterous doing the job in Tests, does appear to have got one thing right: England, when they have everyone fit and at their best, do stand a genuine chance of winning the World Cup. But, should they suffer a few injuries, their chances don’t even bear thinking about.

Monday, 23 October 2006

Time for a re-think

After yet another abject performance from the England One Day International team it is time for the England management to totally rethink their one day line-up and game plan before the 2007 World Cup.

England have looked absolutely clueless in eighty percent of their one day games over the last few years, clueless about their starting eleven, their batting order and the way in which to go about batting fifty overs and scoring a competitive total. They have then consistently failed to defend totals or confine the opposition to a gettable total when fielding.

First things first, the choice of Andrew Flintoff as captain over Andrew Strauss was the wrong one. Flintoff, having just returned from injury, should be searching for form and fitness and then focusing on batting, bowling and slip-catching. He should not also be thinking about captaining his side. Strauss meanwhile proved himself to be a very able captain during the summer, who was growing into the job and seamed to have more ideas than Flintoff.

As captain Flintoff creditably hauled his side to a draw in India, but his England side were also held at home by Sri Lanka, whilst Strauss managed a 3-0 quashing of Pakistan at home. In the one day arena Strauss got off to an uncomfortable start against a top one day outfit in Sri Lanka but then masterminded a resurgence against Pakistan without a number of key players including the talismanic Flintoff.

Strauss rose to the captaincy with his performances on the pitch and he has looked the most dependable in India so far, while Flintoff has failed to live up to his hefty reputation, which has perhaps become over-inflated since the latest Ashes series. In the last 21 ODIs, going back to the start of the NatWest Series against Bangladesh and Australia last year, Flintoff has averaged just 27.41 with the bat, scoring only two fifties in those 17 innings.

This is not the average of a number three batsman and certainly does not warrant his current reputation as a destructive one-day player in the vein of Mahendra Dhoni, Adam Gilchrist, or Kevin Pietersen. With his bowling, he is still of course a world class all rounder, but he should not be batting higher than five, whilst also doing three jobs, let alone four.

Andrew Strauss should be the captain in Michael Vaughan’s absence as he leads from the front with his performances and history shows that he raises his game when captain of both England and Middlesex.

Now to the composition of the team. Ian Bell has had a good year in the side and deserves to open alongside the destructive Marcus Trescothick who is England’s only destructive opener outside of Matt Prior and Mal Loye, one of whom should perhaps have been in India in Tresco’s absence. This opening partnership would provide England with a balanced left-hand, right-hand combination capable of taking on the world’s best bowling attacks.

At three would come Andrew Strauss, the captain, anchoring the team, looking to consolidate any early loss, or in the case of a good start to work the bowlers around outside the power plays. At four would come Kevin Pietersen, to work the spinners around and maybe hit some lusty blows in the middle overs.

Strauss and Pietersen would though be interchangeable so that if the run rate needed to be lifted Pietersen could be promoted. Fluid line-ups are a key component in one day cricket as India have notably shown with the successful fluid movement of their entire batting order over the last year.

At number five would come the second half man Paul Collingwood to ensure that England bat out their overs and also to manoeuvre the field to keep the scoreboard ticking over. Good middle over players who can rotate the strike are key in one day games and Strauss and Collingwood with the power of Pietersen are surely the men for the job, all good manoeuvres of the ball and players of spin.

At number six would come Andrew Flintoff, who again could be interchangeable with Collingwood if the situation demanded. With this ordering of the front six, the power players, Trescothick, Pietersen and Flintoff, would be dispersed throughout the order so that the touch players, Bell, Strauss and Collingwood, could build innings and tick over the middle overs ensuring that England are not bowled out cheaply by going too hard too early.

With this order Flintoff would hopefully be at the crease for the final fifteen overs which is where he is needed to attack. In the Australia match in the Champion’s Trophy the perils of bringing in all the power players too early and going too hard too early were plain for all to see.

Following Flintoff would come Jamie Dalrymple who has demonstrated that he is capable of unleashing in the latter stages. Proceeding Dalrymple would be the wicket keeper, a subject of keen scrutiny for all. The contenders for this position are Geraint Jones, Chris Read, Matt Prior and the long-term option, Steven Davies.

My personal choice would be Matt Prior who can be a destructive force in one day cricket. His wicket keeping is acceptable and he is still young; his averages are higher than those of his rivals. He has also not really had that much of a chance in an England shirt, having only played ODIs for England in Pakistan and India, where few England players performed.

This batting line-up and order would give England a solid platform with the ability to both consolidate and attack as required. Furthermore, Flintoff, Dalrymple and Prior could prove to be an effective lower order striking trio if used in the correct positions and game situations.

Next we have the remaining bowlers, none of whom you would want to see batting before the final five overs at worst. In the majority of cases where bowlers come in much earlier than the forty-fifth over in one day cricket the game is already lost. Therefore I do not subscribe to the theory of picking Michael Yardy over Monty Panesar.

Panesar has proven himself to be the best spinner in the country, capable of match-winning spells of spin bowling. Whilst Yardy was economical against Australia what was needed was an attacking spin bowler to compliment Dalrymple and take wickets. Monty is this man and would be my number eleven and I feel that he has probably lost out to Yardy on this occasion because of Flintoff’s current inability to bowl.

James Anderson has proven himself to be a very effective one day bowler throughout his career and covers most bases with his ability to swing the ball at the start of the innings negating the need to play Jon Lewis simply for his new-ball skills.

Andrew Flintoff is possibly the best fast bowler in the world and comfortably covers the hit the deck fast bowler base. That leaves Stephen Harmison, Simon Jones, Sajid Mahmood, Stuart Broad, Liam Plunkett, Chris Tremlett and Jon Lewis fighting for the final seam bowling spot, if fit.

My long-term pick would be Stuart Broad for his line and length bowling and ability to bat. At present though he is not ready and Chris Tremlett would be my man for the hard bouncy West Indian wickets. Mahmood unfortunately proves to be expensive far too often, although he is showing glimpses of potential once again.

Stephen Harmison is a real worry and has never taken to the white cricket ball, whilst he has also suffered a worrying loss of form in the longer format of the game as well. Meanwhile it is doubtful as to whether or not Jones and Plunkett will be fit for the World Cup.

In the event of a seamers’ wicket being served up Dalrymple could be sacrificed for either Jones or Mahmood. My ideal one day attack would therefore be Andrew Flintoff, James Anderson, Chris Tremlett, Monty Panesar and Jamie Dalrymple / Simon Jones.

I have overlooked Ashley Giles as I believe that he should focus on being the second spinner in the test arena in order to prolong his career and also because at one day level Dalrymple can effectively do the same job as Gilo, in terms of being economical and scoring more runs. Dalrymple also offers a contrasting bowling style to Monty.

It is of course also doubtful as to whether Michael Vaughan should continue his uninspiring one day career to the detriment of his wonderful test career and hence he has also been overlooked.

Therefore when all are fit and available I would like to see England line up for the 2007 World Cup as so:

Marcus Trescothick
Ian Bell
Andrew Strauss (c)
Kevin Pietersen
Paul Collingwood
Andrew Flintoff
Jamie Dalrymple
Matthew Prior (wk)
Chris Tremlett
Monty Panesar
James Anderson

12th Man: Simon Jones

In the wings: Sajid Mahmood, Stuart Broad, Ed Joyce, Steven Davies.

Chris Pallett

Saturday, 21 October 2006

Common sense in short supply

At 83-0 after 18 overs, England were in real danger of actually scoring something akin to a competitive total. But the controlled aggression that had built such a fine platform was soon replaced by a bizarre fusion of tentativeness and occasional spurts of aggression. The result was a typically depressing collapse and, ultimately, crushing defeat.

This game’s effect on the Ashes will probably not be more than negligible. The continued inadequacies of the ODI side, however, do not bode well for the World Cup.

England, though they are the eighth best one-day side in the world, often plan as if they are the best. A prime example was the sudden urgency of Ian Bell after the game’s first drinks break. He was probably simply following flawed instructions, but his tame dismissal, after he had begun so well, proved the start of the rot.

England, clearly, were focused on taking advantage of the second batch of Powerplay overs. Admirable as this was, they should have realised that 250 would have been an excellent score on the surface. England were going at four and a half an over – more than adequate; asking the openers to change tactics was sheer lunacy. And, even more bafflingly, Bell, rather than Strauss, who was assertive in the ODIs against Pakistan, took the lead.

Promoting Kevin Pietersen to number three did not pay off; he was undone, by the impressive Mitchell Johnson’s classic two-card trick. But at least the decision to promote Pietersen hinted at flexibility in the England camp, and awareness of the necessity to give their best batsman ample time to score a hundred. Andrew Flintoff followed him, and showed a lack of clear thinking when trying to hit the lively Shane Watson out the ground.

Thereafter, Australia, as they do, turned the screw. Intriguingly, it was Johnson and Watson, rather than Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee, who caused the most damage. England, at least, took to McGrath early on – and he did not do enough to dispel the notion he has declined a crucial little.

One could only pity the redoubtable Paul Collingwood. He has proved himself before in Indian conditions and has 100 ODI caps – yet he still suffered the ignominy of batting below the unconvincing Michael Yardy, a similar type of player but simply not as good. For the second game in a row, Collingwood’s knock was a lesson in crisis management.

For a few overs, it looked as if England might actually be able to defend their threadbare total. Sajid Mahmood’s raw but explosive bowling accounted for Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting, and went a little way to explaining the continued omission of Jon Lewis, so impressive against Pakistan. James Anderson, meanwhile continued his return from injury and bowled with control and penetration.

Steve Harmison, who is supposed to be leading this attack, most certainly didn’t. For the second consecutive game, he bowled like a clueless club tearaway. Harmison did not use the new ball, so he could not use that as an excuse. He badly needs to refind his confidence before the Test series begins.

As expected, England have failed to progress to the semi-finals. Not only have they been beaten by two better sides; they have displayed a lack of common sense and, with the bat, have largely been the victims of their own downfall. Clinging onto the positives – Bell looking infinitely more assured than when he last played the Aussies, Strauss making runs and the bowling of Anderson and Mahmood – will only get England so far. The truth is their one-day side continues to be a joke.

Wednesday, 18 October 2006

Selectors’ flawed logic one of many problems

With depressing inevitability, England immediately subsided against India at the start of the Champions Trophy campaign. Though a spirited bowling effort restored some pride, they never, after collapsing so abjectly to 27-4, had any realistic chance of victory.

And so, it would appear any confidence gained from consecutive victories over Pakistan has been eroded. India won the toss, and sent England into bat; but skipper Andrew Flintoff admitted he would have batted regardless.

India’s young bowlers Irfan Pathan and Munaf Patel utilised the uncharacteristically seam-friendly conditions adroitly; yet that hardly excused the sheer inadequacy of England’s batting.

Ian Bell fell to a dubious lbw decision; Flintoff, somewhat irresponsibly, swiped to leg – he missed, and suddenly England were 11-2. For the umpteenth time, the side were unable to make any sort of use of the Powerplay overs, and were fighting in vain to cling onto hopes of a respectable score.

It would not have made a difference, but England were up against it before things had even begun. Over the summer, Ian Bell’s performances at number three in the one-day side were full of class and flexibility. Having finally solved their dilemma at three in the shorter format of the game, England bafflingly promoted him to open. The difference between batting at three at opening is a subtle one but it is a difference nonetheless; and are Andrew Strauss and Bell really the men to take advantage of the fielding restrictions?

The logical, common sense option would have been to promote Flintoff to open. If he bats at three, he will either come in towards the end of the Powerplay overs, so have less time to exploit them or, as against India, will come in when England have lost an early wicket.

Because the selectors want to refrain from having Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen after one another, Michael Yardy, playing his third ODI, was promoted to number four; he failed. Kevin Pietersen, England’s best one-day batsman, was therefore shifted to number five, where he rather predictably ended England’s final hope of salvation with a soft dismissal, trying to run the ball to third man.

As a result of the selectors’ confused logic, England’s top five is currently different in four ways to the line-up Duncan Fletcher are co doubtless envisage for the World Cup; namely, the absent Marcus Trescothick and Strauss opening, followed by Bell, Pietersen and then Flintoff.

But what are England going to do if Trescothick’s woes do not end, as I suspect. Well, rather than continue their re-jigging of the batting line-up, they should use Mal Loye, whose sweep of the quick bowlers could cause such havoc in the Powerplay overs, as an opening batsman. I am not against the idea of Flintoff being used to exploit the fielding restrictions in one-day cricket. But his current use at number three seems neither here nor there and is surely not the answer.

However, talk of the batting order is futile until some basic common sense is applied by England’s batsmen. As well as Pietersen, who was certainly guilty in this instance but will doubtless hide behind his unsatisfactory excuse of “that’s the way I play”, Chris Read’s attempt to hit Harbhajan Singh out of India rather encapsulated England’s brainless and aimless batting display.

Sadly, flawed logic was not applied merely to the batting order. Jon Lewis, so impressive with the new ball against Pakistan, was discreetly omitted, further proof that Fletcher and co do not really rate him.

Steve Harmison’s opening overs invariably challenge scorers and boundary fielders alike; his shambles of a new-ball spell today was no different. He did, at least, return to take the wicket of Sachin Tendulkar, but the fact remains that Harmison creates more nightmares for England supporters than for the opposition. James Anderson picked up two wickets on his international return; Jamie Dalrymple also took two when the end was nigh. But there has seldom been a more one-sided match which ended only in a four-wicket victory.

England, for all their positive words before the tournament began, must now beat Australia and then West Indies to qualify for the semi-finals. The selectors’ flawed logic is just one of many problems.

Saturday, 14 October 2006

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer?

Shane Warne and Kevin Pietersen, two of the most charismatic competitors in the modern game, go head-to-head again this winter in one of the most eagerly anticipated Ashes contests in history.

Australia are of course determined to regain the famous old urn, which they surrendered to the better side in England just fourteen months ago. England, meanwhile, are looking to retain the Ashes in Australia for the first time since Mike Gatting’s side achieved the feat twenty years ago.

The Pietersen-Warne battle turned out to be one of the highlights of the 2005 Ashes and it will no doubt prove to be so again. However, there is no hint of ill-feeling between these two steely competitors, far from it in fact.

Since Pietersen’s move to Hampshire in the close season before the 2005 campaign Warne and KP have become good mates on and off the field. No other cricketers grace the front and back pages quite as much as these two in either country. They are both great showmen on and off the field and the media rightly love them, but Warne’s friendship with Pietersen has attracted criticism from former Australia captain Kim Hughes who thinks that the chumbyness of the Australian team contributed to their defeat.

When Pietersen made his move to Hampshire following his heroics for England in the ODI series in South Africa, he was not in the England Test match squad. That was soon to change though, in no small part because Pietersen was demonstrating an ability to read Warne’s magical bowling in the nets at Hampshire.

Pietersen’s combative and aggressive qualities were seen as necessary attributes for possibly the most fiercely contested competition in cricket, but it was his ability to play Shane Warne that the selectors valued most. England have often succumbed to Warne’s wizardry in the past with batsman often showing a worrying lack of judgement against the Australian legend. Images of Ian Bell padding up to the great one at Lords leave cricketing fans the world over cringing in their seats.

From the moment KP arrived at the Rose Bowl, Warne was alert to the threat which the young former South African posed to Australia that summer. As we all know Warne is usually a good judge of a player and he genuinely believed that KP had the class to become one of the world’s best in both forms of the game. As the Ashes series neared the two became close friends and Warne, along with the majority of England fans, was disappointed when Pietersen was not named in the England squad to face Bangladesh at the start of the summer.

Still, Warne believed in KP, so much so that he eyed him up as his 600th Test wicket and it would be fair to say that Warne’s experience and support proved invaluable to Pietersen in his battle to work his way into the England Test squad at the rather unfortunate expense of Graham Thorpe, when perhaps it was in fact the young rookie Bell who should have made way. Pietersen went on to offer invaluable advice to his England team mates on how to play Warne the psychological sledger; essentially you have to play the ball and ignore him, or you start to believe that you really are as bad as he persistently tells you!

Warne needs no introduction. With the most Test wickets in history, Shane is in a class of his own, but it is debatable as to whether or not the great one still has the magical fingers that he once possessed. Warne’s 2006 county season, by his own extremely high standard, was a little below par. His ability to bowl the googly has seriously receded due to a long-standing shoulder worry and he is perhaps not quite the threat that he once was.

However he is undoubtedly still a wonderful bowler and he often saves his best for the big stage and can even be a threat with the bat as he showed at Old Trafford last summer. His slip catching is also superb. During the Australian summer he was still at his fluent best with the ball, terrorising the West Indian and South African batting line-ups and he will be looking to continue his fantastic Ashes record.

Meanwhile Pietersen has experienced fluctuations in form over the winter and during the English summer. Critics suggest that his attacking instincts may be his downfall in the return series in Australia and Warne will be looking to exploit his friend’s liking for cow-corner, with Brett Lee no doubt eager to throw in a few bouncers for good measure. But it was KP’s aggression which makes him the player he is and which helped England to victory in 2005.

Whatever the uncertainties about the pair’s form leading up to the Ashes, there can be no doubting that both will once again play a serious part in deciding the outcome of this latest Ashes contest. Similarly you can be certain that there will be a friendly drink when the dust settles. Let us hope that Warne is buying, having congratulated Pietersen on an Ovalesque innings once again.

Chris Pallett