Wednesday, 31 January 2007

Excited of Tunbridge Wells

In the build-up to the World Cup, Third Umpire will be host to a number of preview articles. We shall also feature pieces on past tournaments, beginning here with the 1983 tournament.

From the opening day on the 9th of June to the dramatic final on the 25th June the 1983 World Cup was full of surprises. Much of this was down to the change in format, where the four teams in each of the two groups played each other twice, meaning more matches and more opportunities for upsets and fight backs. Cricket was also spread right across England and into Wales by the use of non-Test match venues for the first time. This excellent innovation gave the tournament a national appeal and led to great attendances at grounds more often used to sparse county crowds.

Unlike recent tournaments, the 1983 World Cup was very compact, with 27 matches being played in just 17 days. This meant several matches on some days and both semi-finals on the same day. I suppose this says a lot about the relative lack of planning for TV at the time, as no modern tournament would have two big games starting at the same time on the same day.

However, it made the 1983 World Cup move at an excellent pace, with the action coming thick and fast. By the time India and the West Indies took the field to contest the final cricket supporters around the world had already been treated to some spectacular action. Little did they know that the last match would provide them with such an amazing final twist.

Opening day shocks

Though England hammered 322 off New Zealand at the Oval, beating them by 106 runs, and Pakistan racked up 338 to defeat Sri Lanka, the opening day of the tournament belonged to Zimbabwe and India.

Playing in their first World Cup, the Zimbabweans, captained by the canny Duncan Fletcher, pulled off an incredible win over the Australians at Trent Bridge. Fletcher marshalled his players with the shrewd planning and tactics he has since employed as England’s coach, defending a seemingly low total of 239. As an individual Fletcher had a stunning game as well, scoring an unbeaten 69 and taking 4 for 42 to help restrict the Australians to 226 in their allotted 60 overs.

Though the Australians gained their revenge in the second match against Zimbabwe and the Zimbabweans lost both matches with the West Indies and with India, Zimbabwe were never over-awed by the occasion. In fact, they started a tradition of upsets in 1983, which they would happily continue through the next few World Cups.

India, who had only managed one win in each of the previous World Cups, in 1975 and 1979, started the 1983 tournament by beating the West Indies, who were the dominant force in both Test and one day international cricket. Having won the first two World Cups, the West Indies started as strong favourites to make it a hat-trick in 1983. India showed they could be beaten by scoring an impressive 262 against the West Indies’ fearsome bowling attack and then defending that total through the efforts of their medium pacers. It was an excellent win, built on a great all-round team performance and served as a warning that India were a more determined side this time round.

A devastating spell

In a team that could boast a bowling line-up of Andy Roberts, Joel Garner, Malcolm Marshall and Michael Holding, Winston Davis was never going to be more than a back-up player, selected to give those great fast bowlers a rest. However, against Australia on a typical Headingly pitch Davis bowled one of the great spells in World Cup history. Not caring if he was hit for five an over Davis tore into the Australian batsmen and claimed 7 wickets for 53 runs in 10.3 destructive overs.

His bowling, and the big win that it helped achieve, meant Australia would struggle to make it out of the group stage. When West Indies beat them again later in the tournament and India crushed them in their last match it was all over for Australia, who would have fancied their chances in a group with India and Zimbabwe. Such was the nature of the 1983 World Cup, where surprises were the norm.

An explosive innings

When Kapil Dev strode to the crease at the Nevill Ground, Tunbridge Wells, his team were 17 for 5 against the surprisingly competitive Zimbabweans, who were looking for another big scalp on their first appearance in the World Cup. When he left the crease, unbeaten, he had blasted his team to a healthy total of 266 off their 60 overs. His 138 ball stay yielded 175 runs, including 16 fours and 6 sixes.

It was the kind of innings that even the greats can only dream of and the ultimate testament to a cricketer who knew no fear and thrived on pressure. Not only did he drag his team almost single-handedly to a good total, but Kapil Dev was also the captain, with all the extra responsibility that entailed. Granted the boundaries were short by international standards and Zimbabwe did not have the best bowling attack, but the destructive power and exquisite timing of Kapil Dev’s stroke play was simply amazing. I doubt Tunbridge Wells had ever seen anything like it before and I’m sure they’ve never seen anything like it since. A moment of grand excitement in a quiet English summer.

For the record Zimbabwe fought hard in their innings, being bowled out just 32 runs short of the required target. Their efforts would not be forgotten, but, perhaps, lost in the tornado that visited Kent that day.

The unlikely all-rounder

With the quartet of great all-rounders, Ian Botham, Imran Khan, Kapil Dev and Richard Hadlee all playing, the 1983 World Cup threatened to produce some fine all-round performances. Yet, it was the unlikely figure of Abdul Qadir who had, perhaps, the best all-round display in the tournament, when he stood almost alone with both ball and bat against New Zealand at Edgbaston.

Bowling his leg spin with his customary wizardry, Qadir cast a spell over the New Zealanders, giving away less than two runs an over and taking four top order wickets. His astonishing analysis of 12 overs, 4 maidens, 4 wickets for just 21 runs remains one of his finest in a distinguished one-day international career. Then, with Pakistan facing defeat at 131 for 8, Qadir came in to bat and scored an unbeaten 41, running out of partners in his bid to see his team home. It was an extraordinary individual performance from a man normally considered just a bowler.

The hosts disappoint

With the advantage of playing at home, and having lost only one match in the group stage, England were expected to beat India and book their place in a second successive World Cup final. However, India had by now found a winning formula, which they used to great effect against the host nation. Using their medium pacers India strangled England’s batsmen, reducing the scoring rate and forcing mistakes.

With their opponents on the rack Kapil Dev, the Indian captain, brought himself on at the death to further reduce the run rate and finish off the tail. The tactics worked very well and England struggled to an under par 216 all out off their 60 overs. In reply India started slowly, building a good foundation before the middle order saw them home. They only lost 4 wickets in the run chase and surpassed England’s total with 5.2 overs to spare. None of England’s much vaunted bowlers could do anything about it and the hosts could only look on with disappointment as India progressed to their first World Cup final.

A one-sided affair

Pakistan’s talented team, under the astute leadership of Imran Khan, had high hopes as they took the field against the mighty West Indies. Yes they were underdogs, but they had played well in the group stage and had the players to create an upset. The problem was the West Indies were in no mood to let anything bar their way to the final. Apart from a shock loss to India in their first match they had beaten all who had stood in their way.

The top quality pace quartet of Roberts, Garner, Marshall and Holding were on top form and ripped through the Pakistan batting line-up. To Pakistan’s credit they stuck it out for the full 60 overs, refusing to be bowled out, and managed to post a total of 184. Unfortunately, it never looked enough and Pakistan, despite having some great bowlers, could not defend it. They did get Desmond Haynes and Gordon Greenidge, the great opening pair, for just 56 runs, but Viv Richards and Larry Gomes both got fifties to see the West Indies home with 11.2 overs to spare.

Richards 80 not out was destructive, as the master blaster smashed 11 fours and a six in his 96 ball innings. The West Indies had comfortably made it to their third successive World Cup final, where they would meet India, the only team to have beaten them in the tournament so far.

The dramatic finale

Facing up to the might of the West Indies India started by losing the toss. Believing that with their powerful batting line-up they could chase any total, Clive Lloyd, the West Indies captain, put India in to bat. The Indians lost Sunil Gavaskar, their great opener, early, as Roberts bowled with his customary hostility. They recovered, but kept losing wickets at regular intervals, with no batsman managing to go on and make a big score. In the end they limped to 183 all out, only using 54.4 of their allocated 60 overs. It was a bitterly disappointing score and one which they knew would be very difficult to defend, especially against such a strong batting line-up.

The West Indies reply started badly, with Greenidge being bowled for 1 by Balwinder Sandhu. They recovered to post 50 without further loss, but then Haynes was out and the rot set in. India’s medium pacers started to strangle the West Indies, as they had done with England, with Madan Lal leading the attack. He had already accounted for Haynes and when he got Richards and Gomes the writing was on the wall for the West Indies. Lloyd and Bacchus soon followed, in what seemed a procession of West Indian wickets.

But great sides do not give up without a fight and Jeff Dujon, saviour of his team so many times, came to the crease and he and Marshall put on a brave 43, guiding the West Indies ever closer to the winning total. However, Mohinder Amarnath, with his medium pace, got rid of both of them with the score on 124 and the end was near. Kapil Dev trapped Roberts lbw, before Amarnath fittingly got the last wicket of Holding in the same way. The match was over and India had shocked the world by winning the final by 43 runs, claiming the World Cup for the first time. I doubt even the most ardent Indian fan had expected such a comprehensive win over the West Indies and few would have given them a chance at the innings break. It was a wonderful end to a great tournament.

Monday, 29 January 2007

Strauss and Collingwood indicative of a wider malaise

Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood are two resilient cricketers with much international experience. Yet these two players, ostensibly amongst England’s toughest, are both in the midst of huge slumps in form and have found themselves mercilessly exposed by Australia and, lately, New Zealand. Are their problems technical, physical or mental?

Clearly, they are a combination of all three; fatigue of both kinds sets in only when performances have waned.

Strauss went into the Test series in fine form. This perhaps contributed to his incorrect belief that he had to fill Marcus Trescothick’s 2005 role in taking the attack to Australia’s bowlers from the off; hence, he got out to a number of injudicious shots when he should have been looking to build the foundations. Next came a period when he appeared to have found the right balance, and was extremely unlucky with umpiring decisions.

Yet what started out as a mere dip in form has continued apace. The excuses have gone and Strauss’ body language and confused stroke play are those of a man who has lost all faith in the methods which have served him so well. In 15 international innings down under, Strauss has never passed 50. These are abysmal stats for a man who has prided himself on his consistency since emerging so spectacularly three years ago. The only solace is, unlike in the case of Collingwood, his technique has not disintegrated, even if his cricketing brain seems to have done.

The case of Collingwood is even more bewildering. He began phenomenally in Australia; a 96 and a 206 in his first three Test innings seemed to put all doubts over his compatibility at Test level to rest. But the Australian bowlers, thereafter, nullified his scoring shots and uncovered fundamental weaknesses outside off-stump against the quick bowlers, where Collingwood’s studiousness could not hide his vulnerability.

But no one ever doubted his quality in the ODI arena, where he has over 100 caps and has saved England on many an occasion. However, save for a painstaking 43 in the first CB Series game, the Durham player has appeared dejected and bereft of all belief, as he himself has admitted. After his double hundred, an epic vigil of concentration (albeit one in which he was never able to truly dominate), expectations have weighed him down. In his last four games, he has not passed 10. Patently, he, like Strauss, is a man worn down and in need of a break.

That is all well and good. But the World Cup is seven weeks away and the duo are both essential facets of England’s misfiring batting line-up. They are also victims of England’s stubborn refusal to embrace rotation of any sort, leaving players nowhere to hide when their standards slip. England should amend this and give one – or both – a break, even if it means thrusting Ravi Bopara into the firing line. But the reality is, after the relentless beatings both have endured, it seems impossible that both will recover in time for the World Cup.

Saturday, 20 January 2007

Turning the tide?

There has been nothing but doom and gloom surrounding the England team and their woeful tour of Australia, until now. Following what from a distance appears another abject and downright pathetic performance against the hosts, England can actually take heart from two major positives, their best opening wicket stand on tour so far, between the dominant Mal Loye and out of form Andrew Strauss and the re-emergence of James Anderson as a dangerous One Day International bowler.

It may just be that England emerge from this tour in a better position to challenge for the World Cup. Even suggesting that their could be a challenge may sound laughable at present, but slowly England are realising what makes a successful One Day International side. Perhaps they are learning from the masters, Australia.

Prior to Michael Vaughan’s latest injury David Graveney stated that he was happy with a top three of Strauss, Vaughan and Bell. Distressed does not come close to describing how this made me feel. Fortunately though, Vaughan’s misfortune has been England’s fortune. Forced to give Mal Loye a shot in at least three games now, England’s selectors have found an answer to part of the puzzle. Marcus Trescothick has been England’s dominant one day top order batsman since the retirement of Nick Knight. Rather than replacing Trescothick with a belligerent like for like though, the selectors chose to open with Ian Bell and promoted Andrew Flintoff to three, which encouraged slow starts and prevented Freddie from doing what he does best, finish games.

Having realised that they were wasting Flintoff at three, England then failed to answer the problem by opening with Michael Vaughan, who one suspects would not even be in the side if it were not for the absence of Trescothick, the recent demoralising sequence of defeats and the current lack of inspired and intelligent leadership. Now, we must not get carried away. Loye scored just 36. But it was a speedy and aggressive 36, scored at a run a ball rate.

When Pietersen is restored to the side for the World Cup, with Flintoff lurking below, England will have three attacking players spread throughout their order, who sides around the world will fear.

Currently lacking Pietersen though, England are still desperately short of fire power. Ed Joyce is a classy player, full of talent, but his mental state on this tour appears frail and if one is brutally honest he is not the type of player England currently need to replace a power player like Pietersen. Joyce is a nudger and nurdler, not a player who will take a game by the scruff of its neck. Joyce’s Middlesex colleague Owais Shah would have been the closest England have to a replacement for Pietersen, but he is seemingly out of Fletcher’s good books. Joyce is more in the mould of a Strauss, a Bell, a Collingwood. England already have too many of those unfortunately.

Ravi Bopara will now surely get a chance in the rest of this series to stake his claim for a middle order slot in England’s one day team. However, ultimately there will not be room for more than three of Vaughan, Strauss, Bell, Joyce, Bopara and Collingwood in England’s one day side. Long term, the likely occupants are Strauss, Bell and Bopara. For now though, few will place Bopara above Collingwood, who has though shown a worrying deterioration in form at precisely the wrong time. It is also likely that Michael Vaughan’s leadership skills will get him the nod at the World Cup if fit, although as I have stated before I believe he should be concentrating on Test cricket afterwards, in order to prolong his career.

This could leave Strauss and Bell fighting it out for the number three/four position in England’s middle order. Strauss has occupied the role before, whilst Bell has shown that he can be a success in that middle order position, especially against spin.

Long term, many believe that Strauss should be the captain and no disagreements will be found here. He has shown time and again that he raises his game when captain and England have made a mistake in returning to Andrew Flintoff, rather than turning to his namesake, Strauss. Flintoff, in contrast to Strauss seems to wilt somewhat under the burden of captaincy and freed of responsibility he gave his best performance by far on tour so far against New Zealand.

In the wicket keeping department it appears as though the management are going to stick with Paul Nixon through until the summer, when one hopes that one of Matt Prior, Steven Davies or James Foster will get the gloves. Nixon, reminiscent of Geraint Jones with his constant verbals and tendency to average fifteen, is not the gloveman that Chris Read undoubtedly is, but his experience makes him a better option with the bat and England are now in need of quick fixes. Many though would still prefer to give one of the above trio the gloves.

One further point which is worthy of consideration is where Kevin Pietersen bats. When you look around the greatest sides in the world the best player often bats at three, just ask Rahul Dravid and Ricky Ponting. Pietersen, undoubtedly England’s best batsman, needs to bat at three in most situations. Flexibility is though a key string to a sides bow in one day cricket and Pietersen and the number four should of course be interchangeable in certain situations. With Pietersen batting at three though, England will look a far more threatening side during the power plays and it also gives him the chance to bat for the optimum amount of time. With Flintoff lurking down the order at five/six (interchangeable of course!) England would still have a power player to attack the final ten to fifteen overs. Surely it makes sense!

Earlier it was stated that England could learn from Australia and they can and should. For if England were to line up as so, their side would bear striking similarities to that of Australia and surely that is no bad thing:

Trescothick/Loye - Gilchrist (wk)
Strauss/Vaughan (c) - Hayden/Katich
Pietersen - Ponting (c)
Bell/Strauss - Clarke
Flintoff - Symonds
Collingwood/Bopara - Hussey
Dalrymple - White
Prior/Davies (wk) - Watson/Hogg/Johnson/Clark
Tremlett - Lee
Panesar/Broad - Bracken
Anderson - McGrath

Chris Pallett

Friday, 19 January 2007

Loye's cameo accentuates Joyce's timidity

Ed Joyce has an outstanding first-class average – 47 – but he does not appear fully at ease in international cricket. The stylish left-hander has been nervous and unable to impose himself over his brief ODI career. The World Cup is looming, and the explosive cameo of Mal Loye may now mean Joyce is quietly ushered out of his adopted country’s World Cup plans.

In six international innings to date (one in Twenty20, five in ODIs), Joyce has scored just 42 runs, failing to pass 13 in any innings. Moreover, he has not been particularly unlucky or the victim of brilliant deliveries. He has just appeared tentative and unsure of himself – and the opposition have ruthlessly exploited this.

The Irishman is a stylish accumulator in the Graham Thorpe mould. But there appears one fundamental difference – unlike Thorpe, there are doubts over Joyce’s mental strength. And, while people may point to Ian Bell initially being afflicted by similar self-doubt, Joyce is 28 and, in all probability, will be given just one chance to prove himself in international cricket.

He is stylistically better suited to Test cricket but, unless he can allay fears that he is mentally weak, may never get his chance. Competition for England batting places – in both forms of the game – is fierce. Indeed, many felt Joyce should not have been named in the original one-day party, and would have preferred Middlesex team-mate Owais Shah, a fiery and explosive batsman who greatly impressed on Test debut, or the idiosyncratic and highly-effective opener Mal Loye.

The latter has finally received his chance and, in scoring a run-a-ball 36 topped by a superlative slog-sweep six off Brett Lee, showed his method can prove successful in the short-term; and, unlike Joyce, he never seemed to doubt himself.

Loye dared to play his natural game, knowing he has been selected to provide early-innings impetus. One of Joyce’s problems may be that is he unsure of his task: he is an accumulator of runs, but so are Ian Bell, Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss. To compound his uncertainty, he is batting in the position normally occupied by Kevin Pietersen.

If Vaughan returns for the next game, it should be at the expense of Joyce, rather than Loye. The Lancastrian must be allowed a run opening the batting – he did enough to suggest he can thrive there in the World Cup, and England must patently find a better way to utilise the Powerplays. Strauss, Vaughan and Bell, in that order, should occupy the other top four positions until Pietersen returns. Ultimately, England should select only the two that perform best in the CB Series for the World Cup, provided Loye fares well in the remaining games. Joyce, meanwhile, can now expect to be dropped, and must seek to approach future innings with less timidity.

Wednesday, 17 January 2007

Why have England only selected Loye now?

So England have finally selected Mal Loye. Cries for his selection have risen as England’s performances have worsened. But it is worth reflecting on why the English management so patently do not rate him.

In recent years, Loye has certainly been the finest English exponent of limited-overs batting in county cricket, batting fearlessly and often unorthodoxly (as with his idiosyncratic sweep off opening bowlers), while also retaining the basis of the technique that has ensured a fruitful first-class career; he has averaged over 40 and very nearly won a Test cap in 1998.

Yet, in spite of this, England have, until it was unavoidable, avoided selecting him. Even now, there are whispers that either Ravi Bopara or Ed Joyce may open the batting alongside Andrew Strauss, which really would touch the confines of lunacy.

Vikram Solanki and Matt Prior, both players lacking Loye’s inventiveness and consistency, have both been preferred to Loye in one-dayers over the past year. England have also ‘experimented’ by opening the batting with Ian Bell. All this while ignoring the option advocated by so many county fans.

The answer to the selectors’ reluctance surely lies in both his age – he is now 34 – and their fears over whether his unorthodoxy would thrive at international level; did they view him as merely Ali Brown – a belligerent county batsman but with a ODI average of just 22 – Mark 2?

And it could even be argued that, because of his unique style, the selectors thought Loye’s impact would be greatest in the World Cup if largely an unknown quantity. But, as county bowlers grow more accustomed to his oddities as a one-day batsman, his effect has only increased. It remains ludicrous to think England opted to open with Bell and bat Flintoff at three in the Champions Trophy when their batting line-up could have remained the same has they only replaced Marcus Trescothick with Loye. While one-day caps were handed out so haphazardly, where was the harm in giving the Lancashire player his chance?

Yet, whatever the truth behind Loye’s omission to date, he certainly deserves his chance. Here is someone who has a genuine idea of how to best utilise the fielding restrictions, has experience and has proved his quality over a decade and a half in county cricket. If England, having finally called him up, continue to refrain from giving him his ODI debut, it will epitomise the lack of coherent thinking that so characterises their side.

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

Loye cannot be ignored

In the absence of Kevin Pietersen, England edged to victory against New Zealand. Yet only Andrew Flintoff was able to play in an authoritative manner; despite needing only four an over, the run rate rose to almost six by the time Flintoff played his belligerent, yet mature, innings.

The selection of Ed Joyce to replace Pietersen was puzzling in that he seems incapable of being genuinely assertive; and, with Vaughan, Strauss and Bell already making up the top three, they are already over-reliant on Flintoff to raise the tempo. The selection of Joyce is puzzling in that he is patently a better player in first-class, rather than one-day, cricket.

Is this another example of England blooding potential Test players in the one-day game? Even if they genuinely view him as a potential star in ODIs, surely they must acknowledge that his only role will be replacing, rather than complementing, the top three? Their logic in playing him appears to be to give him sufficient experience to be the first reserve in the World Cup. But, with Michael Vaughan’s hamstring injury, England will have to play novice Ravi Bopara, who bats at five for Essex, at four, and move Joyce, who has appeared nervous in averaging just 9 in his four ODI innings to date, back up to his original ODI position as opener. Bewildering, indeed.

Fortunately, England have a get-out-of jail free card at hand. They can select Mal Loye, second only to Marcus Trescothick of Englishmen in his proven ability to get the innings off to a good start and open the batting with him. Loye is 34, but he is in the form of his life and is a necessity for the World Cup, bringing the one-day experience England so palpably lack. And, which Englishman doesn’t shudder at the thought of a Strauss, Joyce, Bell and Bopara top four?

Alas, Australia is a long way away, and it would be a logistical impossibility for him to fly out there and play in England’s next game on Friday. That would be a great shame, but, fortunately, we need not worry. Loye is already playing domestic cricket for Auckland; he has played two one-dayers for them scoring 90 and, just today, a run-a-ball 34. And, intriguingly, that match-winning 90, scored from just 79 balls, came at number four. So, if England are adamant Joyce must open, they could still slot Loye in at number four, where he would at least play in a similar manner to Pietersen and allow the men around him to bat as they do when he is playing.

England’s one-day batting is too often characterised by diffidence and an inability to score sufficiently fast at the top of the innings. Loye would present an ideal solution; he is a flair player of proven class (averaging 41 in first-class cricket), while his penchant for sweeping fast bowlers is just the sort of inventiveness required at the top of the order.

Monday, 8 January 2007

Can Vaughan help England avoid total humiliation?

England notoriously fare far worse in one-day cricket than in the Test arena. So, after their ignominious whitewash, what can we expect in the VB Series? England play eight games, plus a Twenty20 encounter with Australia. Their most pressing task is to avoid becoming the first English touring side in history not to win a single game. While they should certainly win at least one of their four matches with New Zealand, there is a palpable chance that they will not win even once against Australian opposition.

Michael Vaughan has been reappointed the skipper. While some have criticised the decision for bearing resemblance to the loyalty so prevalent in England’s negative team selection for the Ashes, Vaughan is an excellent skipper who England will need in the VB Series and World Cup. His record in ODI cricket is admittedly mediocre, but, with Marcus Trescothick absent, England are in need of an experienced opener. As with Andrew Flintoff, we are far from certain about his fitness but, from afar, it is hard to argue with the reinstatement of Vaughan to the role of captaincy.

England’s top six will remain the same as in the Ashes, apart from Vaughan replacing Alastair Cook, but their bottom five will be very different. Jamie Dalrymple, a feisty cricketer who has done well to date in ODIs, should offer some lower-order stability at number seven.

Chris Read kept superbly in the last two Tests but, given that he has only once passed four in his last eight international innings, I would advocate the selection of 36-year-old Paul Nixon. Nixon is an idiosyncratic and highly effective lower order batsman in ODIs, particularly adept at playing the reverse sweep, and appears a good interim option.

The departures of Messrs Harmison and Hoggard mean England’s seam bowling will have a completely different look to it. They will surely not risk Sajid Mahmood, whose lack of control is even more significant in the shorter format, while Liam Plunkett, whose one-day economy rate is almost 6, is not yet good enough. The selectors must regret selecting both ahead of Stuart Broad.

James Anderson, who is a better bowler in ODIs, deserves to keep his place in the side as the opening bowler. Jon Lewis has hardly put a foot wrong in recent months and can now prove his effectiveness on foreign shores. The uncharacteristic slow tracks expected in the Caribbean should also suit him.

The final spot, then, looks to be between Monty Panesar and Chris Tremlett. Panesar could be very effective in the West Indies, while Tremlett is an exciting prospect who generates copious amounts of bounce with his height and pace.

The expectations of England’s performances have seldom been lower. If Vaughan is indeed fully fit, they may just cause the odd surprise, though reaching the VB Series final is probably beyond them, unless Pietersen and Flintoff hit top form simultaneously.


After Australia secured the Ashes, I compiled post-mortems on England's batting and bowling. Sadly, they remain as relevant today after England's thrashings in the last two Tests. It could have reasonably been hoped that a young side would improve as the series wore on; instead, the differences between the two sides were exacerbated.

Post-mortem (1): England's batsmen - The vast majority of what I said remains true, although Paul Collingwood, who failed to pass 30 in his past seven innings and was unable to impose himself whatsoever, now looks vulnerable. And the tail-end batting was abominable.

Post-mortem (2): England’s bowling - England's bowling remained poor in the final two games, Steve Harmison's slight upturn in form about the only positive. James Anderson's relative success in the last Test means he will be above the erratic Sajid Mahmood in the pecking order, though Chris Tremlett, Stuart Broad and Jon Lewis all have strong cases to be selected for England's next Test, against the West Indies.

Saturday, 6 January 2007

England's performance ratings

Having lost the series 5-0 at Sydney here are the marks out of ten for England's players:

Strauss - 4 Another two good starts, another two failures to progress. Again, he looked in form, but managed to get himself out when England needed big scores from him. It appears that throughout the series he has been unable to find the right balance between attack and defence, opting to play too many high risk shots and paying the price. The Australian bowlers expertly starved him of his favourite shot, the square cut/drive, and he has failed to find another way to score. Questions must also be asked of his attitude - did being deprived of the captaincy affect his game? Whatever the cause, Strauss, who batted and captained so well against Pakistan, and who has usually been Mr Dependable, failed once again at the SCG.

Cook - 3 Seemingly unable to judge what to leave outside his off stump, he was caught behind twice in this match. The Australian bowlers have had his number for most of the series and Cook has not been able to improve his technique. He will have to work on it if he is to score consistently against accurate bowlers. Though the Australian attack have been exceptional this series, particularly at Sydney, there are other Test bowlers who will have noted Cook's weakness and are ready to exploit it. A shame the young left-hander could not raise his game at the SCG, leaving England with weak foundations in both innings, as they have had all series.

Bell - 7 Batted well in the first innings, trying to give England a total that would put pressure on the Australians. It was a pity he fell short of the century his efforts deserved. In the second innings, with England under real pressure, he made an excellent start, fluently stroking boundaries. However, he played one shot too many and was unable to make the significant score that was needed. This left England in a perilous position, which they were never able to get out of. It would be unfair to criticise Bell too much for his second innings lapse, as he, unlike most of his fellow batsmen, made a score when it mattered in the first innings.

Pietersen - 5 An average performance by his own high standards, failing to convert two good starts. However, in the second innings he was left with the tail again and forced to dig in, a role which does not bring out his best. It is also clear that Pietersen played his best cricket when the series was still alive. Once the Ashes had gone he lost some of his focus and energy. In the last two matches he had the look of a man disappointed by those around him and by his own efforts to raise the team's performance. It is to be hoped that he can get over his disappointment quickly and find his old form in the one-day series.

Collingwood - 4 Showed his usual determination, but could not make a significant score in either innings. The Australians knew he would not hurt them with quick runs and were quite willing to wait for him to get out. As in the previous match there is a suspicion that his technique is not good enough against the best bowling on pitches that have a bit in them. In those circumstances a patient bowling attack knows it is only a matter of time before they get the player. Collingwood will need to either become more aggressive or improve his technique if he is to make more runs against better bowlers on faster and more difficult pitches.

Flintoff - 6 Saved his best batting performance for this match, striking his way to a wonderful 89 in the first innings. However, he threw it away when three figures beckoned and England could have got closer to 350, which would have made a massive difference to the outcome of the match. His dismissal in the second innings was a poor one, gifting Adam Gilchrist a stumping, with a lazy effort to get his foot back behind the line. It signalled the end for England and was a sad one for England's captain. His bowling was steady, without offering his usual wicket-taking threat, but his captaincy was below par, especially his field placings. Monty Panesar suffered particularly badly from this, as he was given fields which allowed Australia to milk singles, denying the spinner the chance to put pressure on them. Flintoff is an adequate captain, but should relinquish the job and go back to what he does best, being an inspirational allrounder.

Read - 4 Another fine display with the gloves, but he was brought in to bat at number seven, a task which is way beyond his ability. After showing some fight in the previous match, he reverted to type, his technique exposed by the accuracy of the Australian bowlers. Not knowing where his next run was coming from Read was a walking wicket in both innings and failed to do any better than his predecessor. The truth is that neither Read nor Geraint Jones are good enough to bat at number seven for England and a new keeper will need to be found for this summer's Test matches.

Mahmood - 3 Just eleven overs in the match and two woeful displays with the bat made me wonder why England had picked him. It was Perth all over again, except he did at least manage to take a wicket at the SCG. England's policy of playing five bowlers is just one of many errors in the series, blatantly shown up in this match. Whether Mahmood could have done better if some faith was shown in him and he had a newer ball in his hand is unknown, though he did much better at the MCG when he was given more overs. What is clear is that when the captain has no faith in his fifth bowler it would be better to strengthen the batting line-up. It is no coincidence that England performed much better against Pakistan with six batsmen and four bowlers, and that Mahmood did well as one of those four bowlers.

Harmison - 5 A decent spell from Harmison in Australia's first innings, but lacked the penetration necessary to rip through the batting line-up. Conditions should have been in his favour, but he struggled to find the right length and line consistently. Though it has been accepted that he has not been England's spearhead in this series, he should have been able to show more in what will be his last match for a while. His batting was very good - staying with Flintoff in the first innings and playing his shots in the second. Overall, though, he had the look of a player who was ready to go home, knowing he failed when he was really needed.

Panesar - 6 Bowled reasonably well considering the poor fields he was given by Flintoff. Two wickets was scant reward for his control and flight and his economy rate suffered badly, as Australia exploited the field placings, milking him for easy singles. Things could have been different for both Panesar and England if Shane Warne had been given out when he appeared to glove the ball to Read. However, it turned out to be just another example of Australia taking full advantage of a situation and England failing to create enough pressure on their opponents, as Warne blitzed 71. Panesar's improvement with the bat continued, so much so that he was given the job of nightwatchman. He applied himself well to the task, sticking around until he was run out by a superb throw from Andrew Symonds. It is clear that the young spinner has plenty of mental toughness, as well as boundless energy and a willingness to learn.

Anderson - 6.5 At last he showed glimpses of how well he can bowl, making good use of the new ball in Australia's first innings. Yet, he still served up too many poor deliveries, most of which were dispatched to the boundary, and inexplicably bowled back of a length, instead of full, which the conditions demanded and which he made his name doing. If he had been in better form and had more confidence, perhaps he would have pitched it up more and got more wickets. Either way he did a decent job of standing in for Hoggard, though I suspect the 'king of the swingers' would have enjoyed conditions immensely at Sydney. It was just another example of misfortune piling on the agony to an abject England team.