Sunday, 28 October 2007

The end for Dravid?

India's selectors have an unenviable task. Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid are a trio whose place in Indian cricket history has long since been assured. The problem, however, is it is unlikely even one will make the 2011 World Cup.

England are prone to having clearouts after each World Cup, immediately talking of 'planning for the future'. However, Australia refuse to countenance such seletorial upheavel. Matthew Hayden and Brad Hogg are both 36, but they remain integral parts of their ODI side. They will not play in the next 50-over World Cup, but Australia insist on picking their best side to win games and series in the meantime.

In continuing to pick the Big Three in one-dayers since the World Cup, India have made it clear their priority is to pick their best possible side. The problem is that, unlike for Australia, results have been poor. Conversely, when the trio were left out of the Tweny20 World Cup, India were victorious.

Officially, Rahul Dravid is now being 'rested' for the one-day series with Pakistan. Patently, this is because he has scored 88 runs in his past 10 ODI innings. His solidity, experience and class are still apparent but, after giving up the captaincy recently, he could surely do with a break to prepare himself for the Test series with Pakistan.

If the recalled Virender Sehwag does well in the one-dayers in the meantime, Dravid's ODI future will look increasingly uncertain. Nearing 35, he may consider retiring from ODIs. Slowly, India must look to replace their Big Three in 50-over cricket, or risk losing all three simultaneously sometime soon. Currently, Dravid is by far the most expendable.

Moreover, Dravid has hit just one fifty in his past six Test matches. A semi-retirement, along the lines of Shane Warne, could reinvigorate him and prolong the Test career of a man who, unquestionably, has played more match-winning innings in the five-day game than any other Indian. In one-dayers, some attention must be played to the future. But in Test matches, India certainly need Dravid back to his best.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Powers of selection put to the test

Gideon's Cricket World has kindly agreed to play a series pitting my first and second XIs from my Greatest Test XI, which I selected over the summer, against one another.

The teams are as follows:
1st XI: H Sutcliffe, L Hutton, DG Bradman, WR Hammond, GStA Sobers, *Imran Khan, +AC Gilchrist, MD Marshall, SK Warne, CEL Ambrose, M Muralitharan.

2nd XI: JB Hobbs, *SM Gavaskar, GA Headley, BC Lara, RG Pollock, KR Miller, +LEG Ames, RJ Hadlee, AK Davidson, DK Lillee, WJ O'Reilly

The series will be played at five different venues in five different countries: Cape Town, Lord's, Barbados, Mumbai and Melbourne.

Anyway, visit Gideon's Cricket World to see how the series pans out!

Friday, 19 October 2007

Right on Strauss; Wrong on Ramprakash

England's squad for the series in Sri Lanka contains neither Andrew Strauss nor Mark Ramprakash. In his past six series, Strauss has only averaged over 40 once. Signs point to opposing sides having worked out his minimalist game. They are, increasingly, denying him the opportunity to cut and pull, and so reducing his scoring possibilities dramatically. Moreover, he seems mentally fatigued, having gone from one failure to the next. Even a month playing in both second divisions for Middlesex did not see an upturn in form - although, because his slump has gone on for so long, it looks more than just a temporary dip. The puzzle is not why he is omitted; it is why England saw fit to award him a lucrative central contract.

Ramprakash, conversely, did everything that could have been possibly required to show he is physically and mentally ripe for a return to Test match cricket. In the last three seasons, he has averaged 75, 103 and 101. Yet, astonishingly, he is being omitted, showing that past failings (more than five years ago) and age count for more than current form. David Graveney mentioned the dexterity of Owais Shah and Ravi Bopara against spin; but Ramprakash, with his perfect balance and the concentration to amass huge innings, including 266* against Mushtaq Ahmed at Hove, would simply be likely to score more runs than either in Sri Lanka. England are a mid-table Test side; are they really in a position when they can afford to refrain from picking their best XI in the hope of building for some mythical date in the future?

Of course, Shah is a worthy selection. Bopara, though, is lucky in the extreme. He has tremendous promise, and did well in the World Cup, but he only averages 30 to date in ODIs for England (with a strike-rate of just 70), and did not cover himself in glory in the recent series. Maybe he's being picked for the extra bowling he offers - but a man who averages 48 with the ball at county level is hardly likely to pick up anything more than an occasional wicket at Tests.

The bowling selections are totally predictable but, with the possible exception of Chris Tremlett, no bowlers can feel unfortunate not to have been selected. It is wise that Steve Harmison will have to prove his fitness playing two first-class games in South Africa; he should not waltz straight back into the side. Unless England play both Graeme Swann and Stuart Broad as part of a four-man attack - which is unlikely - their tail will have an unwelcome fragility to it, making it essential Matt Prior proves the doubters wrong at number seven.

Michael Vaughan will return to opening, which is surely the correct decision. Ian Bell, despite having a poor series against India in the Tests and struggling alarmingly (at three) in Sri Lanka, is rather fortunate to be promoted to number three. It would have been more prudent, surely, to use a truly specialist number three who is batting even better than Graham Gooch did at the same age. Either way, this is looks like a series England would be happy to draw.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Welcome back to the cricket

September rolls by so fast these days. Footy fever hits the sports mad country that is Australia, with two sides shedding their choking tags in two different codes. And as September finishes, October begins. It is a predictable transition, sure. But with the usual changing of the months, comes a different phenomenon. Whilst all year, Melbourne fans pretend to not care about the Storm, and Sydney fans protest no interest in the happenings of their Swans, it all changes in October. Gone is the local rivalries, the sport rivalry of Rugby and Football, and in is the national sport, the one that never stops, and the one that unites its nation behind one mighty force.

You can scarcely miss the taking down of goal posts, and the uncovering of cricket pitches. It’s tough not to see the big barriers, the regular ground maintenance, and the putting up of sight screens. Some groan, some moan, and some sniff at the sweet smell of leather, willow, and fresh grass.

That’s right, cricket is back down under. The mighty world champions return home from India victorious once again (what’s new?) to gear up for ‘the biggest summer yet’ (a tired cliché, but it’s hard not to agree, who isn’t excited after all?). An entrée of Sri Lanka, a big meaty dish of India, a touch of New Zealand, and the tri series with the first two that always seems to fill you up more than you want it to. It’s all on offer this summer, and it’s not all either. There’s the state cricket, the youngsters and has-beens, all in the most competitive domestic competition in the world. And of course, there’s that familiar sound of willow hitting leather as the nets start to fill up, as young and old gear up for another season playing for their club, and that pain in the shoulder as bowlers start tossing them down for the first time since January.

Of course, the world champions, Australia, are gearing up for their attempts at staying the dominant force that they have been for so long, with the challenge of stopping Muthaiah Muralidaran from breaking Shane Warne’s world record on Shane’s home soil, and of course trying to keep their perfect unbeaten record, stretching back to the 2005 Ashes Series.

It won’t be easy though, with legends Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Justin Langer and Damien Martyn all gone, and injury niggles to Shaun Tait, Shane Watson and Nathan Bracken marring their ODI tour of India. So who is stepping in, and can the Aussies keep their amazing test form up?

Matthew Hayden’s new batting opener, and Langer’s replacement, seems to be a two horse race at the moment, with a few outsiders pressing claims as well. Phil Jaques, the long awaiting apprentice, and Chris Rogers, the new challenger but long time performer, are the two top contenders, and the only specialist openers challenging at the moment. Jaques has long been the obvious choice, but a stunning 2006/07 season from Rogers made selectors think twice about this tough dilemma. Jaques had an outstanding Australia A tour, Rogers too was solid, and ultimately it appears to be down to the two Pura Cup matches they will have to impress selectors before the big first test at Brisbane against the Lankans begins. The first match saw the points go to Jaques, one year Rogers’ junior, with Rogers failing in both innings, and Jaques chalking up a well timed century and a half in the second innings making up for just 13 in the first. Of course, there is always Victoria’s best Brad Hodge, looking for a creative way back into the test side after his controversial (and oh-so anti-Victorian) dropping just two tests after a double century, or even all-rounder Shane Watson, who, like Hodge, is without First Class opening experience, but, also like Hodge, has done so in One Day cricket, and is talented with the bat, but Watson is also very injury prone.

With the batting order looking fairly settled, it appears that the next headache for Australia will be who to select in the place of the great Glenn McGrath. The new ball seems certain to be thrown to the Stuart Clark-Brett Lee pair, with the third paceman set to cause a real dilemma for selectors. Mitchell Johnson has been hard to ignore after his annihilation of the Indian batsmen in the ODI series, whilst Shaun Tait’s world cup and late Pura Cup form are also impressive. There’s the more experienced Nathan Bracken, without a test match in a while, and the young swing bowler Ben Hilfenhaus, all staking a claim as well. Stay tuned to the domestic skies is what I say, because there seems to be a cut throat round coming up for those players et al.

Then there’s perhaps the toughest choice of all: The new spinner. Shane Warne is irreplaceable, no doubt about it. Even at the ripe old age of 37, he was still spinning his way past batsmen on a regular basis, and remains the greatest spinner, if not bowler, of all time in many people’s books (including my own) and there are no very obvious replacements at this stage. Youngsters in the frame include Dan Cullen, whose disastrous last Pura Cup season should keep him out for the moment, Cullen Bailey, quite the opposite, from zero to hero last year, and of course there are is the old but gold Stuart MacGill Warne’s long time second, but still one of the best spinners in the world. There is even speculation that one day specialist Brad Hogg could be a good choice, but his lack of results on the FC field for WA makes it an unlikely one.

So many decisions, so much excitement and enjoyment to be had! Ah yes, cricket is back.

Tonight Matthew - I'm going to be David Graveney

As the Rugby World Cup Final approaches, the minds of those who deal with all things sporting could be forgiven for wandering away from the job in hand. With this in mind, I will save David Graveney and co a hard day at the office by picking the squad for Sri Lanka for them. No need for thanks, David, although tickets for Lords next year wouldn’t go amiss.

I have picked a squad of fifteen. It’s a short tour and players shouldn’t go on tour just to carry the drinks.

Seven batsmen to fill the top six spots in the order. Five of them are no-brainers and have contributed to the most stable middle order that England have had since the days of Gatting, Gower, Lamb and Botham. This means no place for International underachiever Mark Ramprakash. Owais Shah’s performances in One Day cricket indicate that he is becoming comfortable at International level. Andrew Strauss has gone potential England captain to under threat for his place in the squad. He edges out Rob Key on the basis that Strauss has just had his longest break from cricket since joining the England ranks. Mental fatigue looked to be one of Strauss’s problems last season and he has enough behind him to encourage patience from the selectors for one more series.

Matt Prior is the player in possession and despite worries about his abilities with the gloves, he is also the best batsman of England’s wicket-keepers. In the absence of Andrew Flintoff this will be crucial as he may need to bat at 6, if England go with five bowlers. On a short tour, the reserve wicket-keeper is around for cover in case of injury. Therefore, a like-for-like replacement in Tim Ambrose will be taken. This means no place for England’s best wicket-keeper, Chris Read, but having made the decision about running with Prior, he should be given a fair chance.

In the past, bits and pieces players have been picked as pseudo all-rounders. However, in this part no all-rounders have been chosen as there are none, other than Flintoff, who are International class. The rest of the squad has been chose to reflect this. It is likely that England will play with six batsmen and four bowlers. However, Vaughan, Pietersen and Collingwood can expect a fair amount of bowling as support to the main four bowlers. If the team moves to five and five, then Graeme Swann or Stuart Broad will bat at number 7.

Spin Bowlers
As only two will be taken, they pick themselves. This means no place for Adil Rashid, who will spend a more useful time playing cricket with England Lions rather than watching the test team

Pace Bowlers
Only four pace bowlers will be taken and with three likely to play in the test team, all will play at some point during the series. When fit, Matthew Hoggard has been England’s best bowler for the past two years. Ryan Sidebottom and James Anderson showed their progression during the summer and with their experience of the One Day series should give control. The fourth bowler is Stuart Broad who is a different type of bowler and has the ability to bat higher up the order than Chris Tremlett or Steve Harmison, which will be critical in the absence of Flintoff.

Therefore the full squad for the Sri Lanka series is:

Michael Vaughan (Capt)
Alistair Cook
Andrew Strauss
Kevin Pietersen
Ian Bell
Paul Collingwood
Owais Shah
Matthew Prior
Tim Ambrose
Monty Panesar
Graeme Swann
Stuart Broad
Matthew Hoggard
Ryan Sidebottom
James Anderson

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

No excuses left for Clarke

After years treading water at Surrey, Rikki Clarke has left for Derbyshire. Perhaps surprisingly, he has immediately become their captain. Though only 26, he has already acquired plenty of county experience. What he has conspicuously failed to do, however, is convince that he has the desire, consistency and relish for responsibility to lead a first-class outfit.

But there is only one way to find out. Having been involved at Surrey since the age of nine, leaving could not have been easy, and he deserves credit for moving out of the comfort zone that appeared to have afflicted him there. He has moved to a much less fashionable county; their fortunes will in large part be dependant on how he performs.

Clarke’s talent is undeniable, but first-class averages of 23 and 42 (the wrong way round) constituted a dire final season at The Oval. With the bat, he has the potential to – and should – bat at four in county cricket, enabling him to build innings and not, as often the case at Surrey, find himself with the tail early on. His bowling reaches good speeds in the mid-80s but his inconsistency is such that he has never taken more than 22 first-class wickets in a season – and Surrey have often not trusted him to bowl his full quota of overs in one-day games.

This appears a good move for all three parties. Surrey have ridden themselves of a sometime bad influence in the dressing room (if thr rumours are to believed), and freed funds to be used for other players, led by star signing Mohammad Asif; Derbyshire have secured a player rich in talent who currently averages 38 with the bat in first-class cricket. Clarke has thrown himself into a situation where responsibility is unavoidable. He will hope the change of scenery will catapult him back into the England set-up in time for next winter’s overseas tours.

If you're interested in writing a season review for your county or writing on anything cricket-related please email cricketingworld(at)

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Yorkshire 2007 Season Review

After the surprising turnaround in fortunes last winter, from the depths of Chris Adams coming and going, Michael Lumb leaving and Antony McGrath trying to walk out, to the return of Darren Gough and Martyn Moxon persuading McGrath to stay and Jacques Rudolph to join, most Yorkshire fans were quietly optimistic about the new season. Certainly in Rudolph and Younus Khan, there was the potential for big runs from the middle order.

Also, with the strange set up to the English summer and the domination of the World Cup at the start of the season, Matthew Hoggard was available for a much greater chunk of Yorkshire’s games than he had been previously. This meant that the three main strike bowlers – Gough, Hoggard and Jason Gillespie could boast well over 700 test wickets between them. Backed up by England Lions tourists, Tim Bresnan and Adil Rashid, this looked to be a deep batting line-up and a useful bowling attack.

Indeed, consistency was a key to the season. In the Championship, eleven players played in at least ten of the matches, with only Hoggard and Gough not going on to make a century during the season. However, only Jacques Rudolph scored over 1000 runs for the season. Of the five main bowlers, all took more than 20, but no-one got more than 40. Therefore, while Yorkshire were missing a Ramprakash or Di Venuto with the bat, or a Gibson or Mushtaq with the ball, the effort was very much a team one and the make up of young talent (Joe Sayers, Rashid and Bresnan), old pros (Craig White, Gough and Gillespie) and established stars (McGrath, Younus, Rudolph and Hoggard) is a good mix to move the county onwards.

Overall, Yorkshire still finished in the same place as last year. However, the journey was very different and there is huge promise for next season

In the One Dayers, consistency certainly wasn’t the watch-word. Yorks didn’t threaten promotion in the Pro 40 nor look like qualifying from the Friends Provident. Reaching the quarter-finals of the 20:20 was a shock and probably more a feature of the weather.

Highlights of the season
Essentially the first half of the season showed Yorkshire playing to a successful formula. Joe Sayers, in particular, would set a platform for the more explosive middle order to build upon and with Bresnan coming in at 8, the team batted a long way down. This would then set the platform for bowling the opposition out twice. Starting by winning three of the first four championship matches, Yorkshire were comfortably top of the table, and stayed there or there abouts up to the penultimate week.

Low Point
The Champioship showdown with Sussex was a huge disappointment. The loss of form of Sayers and White, Younus and Gillespie being called back to International duty and Gough pulling out injured at the start of the game meant that much of the consistency had gone from the team. Inzamam looked to be a good replacement, but didn’t get to grips with the situation. Michael Vaughan seemed in holiday mode after a tough test series and even at the time, the selection of Imran Tahir made no sense to anyone. The only positive out of the game was another 50 for Andy Gale, who will have a bigger part to play in the team next season.

Player Ratings
Joe Sayers
- a breakthrough season for the Limpet. Reminiscent in so many ways of Geoff Boycott, he was the platform around whom the rest of the batsmen played. His aim now has to be to do it for the whole season 7

Craig White – Once a bowling all-rounder, now an opening batsman. Next season is likely to be Chalky’s last and he will probably see less and less action in the Championship. A great servant over the years, but a poor season by his standards 5

Antony McGrath – From want-away to vice-captain, a fine season after a slow start, although Mags will be disappointed at just missing out on 1000 runs 6

Younus Khan – The big scores were expected, the leg-spin bowling wasn’t. Almost single-handedly forced a win against Sussex at the start of the season which would have had a huge impact at the end. A real team man who seems rejuvenated by his season if his recent performances for Pakistan are anything to go by 7

Jacques Rudolph – A controversial signing, but just the type of Kolpak player that should be coming over as he raised the standard of those around him. Solid if not spectacular, he was the stand out one-day player as well as top scoring in the Championship 8

Gerard Brophy – A huge improvement after a disappointing 2006. Useful runs and solid behing the stumps. Also an effective pinch-hitter in the limited over stuff 6

Adil Rashid – Following his break-though with the ball last season, this year he showed he could bat as well, scoring nearly 800 runs and still finished up as the leading wicket taker. His bowling tailed off as pitches became less spin friendly following the rains, and the emergence of Graeme Swann should put back any international call-ups for the time being. However, it was another season than showed more than just promise. 8

Tim Bresnan – Over 500 runs at nearly 40 with the bat plus a century for the England Lions and 34 wickets at 32 with the ball adds up to another excellent season for Brez, who despite having been around for ages is still only 22. On the fringes of the England One Day squad, next season could be a big one for him 7

Jason Gillespie –He created a lot of pressure for his fellow bowlers but only 23 wickets during the season is a disappointing return for the overseas bowler 5

Matthew Hoggard – Started the season like a train and was a big factor in Yorkshire’s flying start to the season. Less effective when he returned after teh test matches, he's still England’s best bowler and good to have around when fit and firing. 6

Darren Gough – The expectations were for the occasional glory day, plenty of missed matches and reminiscence about how good he was first time round. In reality, he took two 6-fers and 37 wickets at just 23, while only missing two games. His captaincy was almost as good as he said it would be and he has to take a lot of credit for turning the club around 7

The Others
Michael Vaughan played in 6 matches, but was a waste of a place after the test series had finished, when he probably needed to rest.
Deon Kruis played when Hoggy didn’t and only managed 8 wickets in 6 matches
Amjad Shahzad was the next quick bowler in an turned in some promising performances. He is likely to feature more next season
Andy Gale played five games but was a One Day regular. Again he’s likey to feature more next season, with his fifty against Sussex showing what we can expect.

Player of the Season
Tricky. As I said at the top, it’s currently a team without stars and the contribution came from everyone. Runner up is Jacques Rudolph, who showed that there would be runs without Darren Lehman. However, the winner is Adil Rashid for his all round effort.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

England ODI Ratings

Here is how England's players rated in their 3-2 win over Sri Lanka:

Alastair Cook 6
Cook played the decisive innings in the fourth game, scoring a fine 80. However, as shown by his series strike-rate of 57, doubts remain over his ability to score at a run-a-ball on flatter pitches.

Phil Mustard 5
Though he only averaged 18, at least Mustard scored his runs at an excellent rate - 10 runs per 100 balls more than any other top seven players on display - in testing conditions to give England good starts. His glovework was excellent, too, but overall he probably did not do enough to displace Prior.

Ian Bell 2
A top score of 25 was a huge comedown after Bell's superb series against India. He has now gone nine games without a ODI 50, but, aided by his fine fielding, his place is not under immediate threat.

Kevin Pietersen 6
Pietersen struggled on the slow and tracks, often getting out when trying to force the pace, but scored a crucial 63* to seal the series. Will undoubtedly benefit from a rest now.

Paul Collingwood 7
Collingwood was excellent as captain, imbuing his work ethic and combativeness upon the side and utilising his bowlers cannily, although at times he underused the front-line seamers during the middle-overs. With the ball, he used his variations to great effect, reaffirming that he is good enough to regularly bowl his 10 overs. He played two important gritty innings, but failed three times, and only averaged 17.

Owais Shah 6
His 82 at Dambulla was the highest score by any batsman in the series, testament to his unorthodoxy, wristiness and dexterity against spin. Elsewhere there was a series of failures, including a mad swipe in the third game - but also the wicket of Sangakkara.

Ravi Bopara 4
At times Bopara appeared almost a playing 12th man, contributing no innings of note at seven - either failing in a crisis or surviving in hopeless causes - and not bowling at all in the first three games. Under pressure for his place.

Graeme Swann 8
An outstanding return to the side. Swann was ebullient throughout, turning the ball appreciably, displaying excellent one-day nous, fielding excellently and playing two vital cameos at number eight. A terrific all-round package at number eight, he has emerged, for now, as England's No 1 one-day spinner and, surely, the No 2 in Tests.

Stuart Broad 8
Broad responded magnificently after suffering the ignominy of being hit for six sixes in the Twenty20 World Cup. He displayed increased guile with the ball, with his slower-ball being much improved, and claimed at least two wickets in every game, although he had his share of good fortune. To top it all, his 20* in the third ODI was the second time he has taken England home in two months, testament to his batting aptitude and all-round temperament. How long until he plays his first Test?

Ryan Sidebottom 9
A quite phenomenal series. Sidebottom bowled with tremendous control and subtlety, proving very difficult to get away even when there was no swing. He deserves to play the first Test against Sri Lanka. His average - 14 - and economy rate - 3.4 - show why he was named Man of the Series, while he also helped England to victory in the third game.

James Anderson 5
After such an impressive few months, Anderson regressed somewhat here. Though still reasonable, he was too inconsistent and lacked the guile of his opening partner.

Monty Panesar 6
Panesar did well in his solitary game, but the overall ODI package offered by Swann is much greater.

The Verdict
It was a low-key series, certainly, and not played on typical one-day wickets, but that should not detract from a superb result for England; most fans would have probably accepted a 3-2 defeat at the start of the series. On admittedly helpful wickets, their bowling was superb, with Sidebottom and Swann outstanding. Conversely, England's one-day batting remains a worry; once again, the top three are a cause for major concern, while Pietersen's best one-day form has deserted him since the World Cup. Even allowing for a pair of thrashings, there are real signs that England are improving as a one-day side.

Will Flintoff play another Test Match?

The news that Andrew Flintoff will almost certainly not play again until the summer of 2008 hardly constitutes a shock. But, once again, it raises the question: will Andrew Flintoff play another Test for England?

By next summer, he will have missed no fewer than 13 consecutive Tests. He will still only be 30. But, after the plethora of injuries and operations, it will be an old 30. It is increasingly hard to envisage Flintoff rekindling the joie de vivre of 2004-05. Will he really be able to bowl 20 overs a day in Test?

The answer is probably no. He is a tremendously wholehearted bowler; but the downside of this is Flintoff puts huge strain on his ankle. His action, as Allan Donald claims, is flawed in that his front foot does not come down straight enough. Flintoff recently said “I'm happy with my action”. He seems very reluctant to make any major changes to it, with which he has claimed 348 international wickets. But he has to try in his extended lay-off – otherwise, even if he does return, it will not be for long. As Glenn McGrath has illustrated, however, it can be done.

Flintoff has often spoke of his desire to be a batting all-rounder. In truth, his bowling has long since been more important than his batting, which has disintegrated rapidly of late - he has simply forgotten how to build an innings. Even if he was fully fit, England could barely countenance batting him at six in Test matches. In ODIs, as he showed against India, Flintoff’s worth is still completely beyond doubt. After his latest setback, he will contemplate limiting his international future to the limited-overs game only.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Ramps poised for England recall?

Regular readers of this site will be well aware of my great admiration of Mark Ramprakash, and my calls for him to return to the Test side. Happily, the calls are growing ever louder, with Mike Selvey suggesting today he may well be selected for the Sri Lanka tour.

We know he's failed in Tests before. And we know he's 38. But, would Australia obsess over his age and past failings (an irrelevance to winning cricket matches)? Or would they pick the best possible side to win in Sri Lanka?

A number of Aussies - including Damien Martyn, Matthew Hayden and even Steve Waugh - have done superbly after being recalled. Their selectors seem unconcerned by age - for how long have they been labelled 'Dad's Army'? - and just get on with the business of winning. And that is what England now need to do, ending their ridiculous obsession with a) youth and b) the Ashes. Besides, come 2009 Ramps would actually be younger than both Graham Gooch and Alec Stewart were when they ended their careers.

In averaging 100 over consecutive seasons, an unprecedented achievement, especially with England's Test batting far from convincing, his case is irrefutable. And, as well as being more mellow, the crucial fact is that he is actually a better player, technically, than when he last played for England in 2002, having improved his trigger movements to give himself near-perfect balance. His dexterity against spin, as he showed in scoring centuries off Mushtaq Ahmed and Shane Warne, would be invaluable in Sri Lanka.

It is risible to suggest there are six better batsmen in the country. That is all that should matter.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

England’s finest

Now that Tim has selected his World XI, which included Wally Hammond, it seemed the right time to publish this article I wrote a while back on the great man.

There are many great things that can be said about Wally Hammond, but perhaps the finest compliment he can be paid is that he was a truly modern player, whose Test career bears comparison with those of much more recent vintage. He played 85 Test matches, a staggering number for a Test cricketer of his era, and nearly half of them were away. This meant that Hammond experienced conditions in all the Test playing countries of the time, except India, having to adapt his technique to the numerous challenges this presented. That he succeeded so spectacularly is testament to his ability and strength of character. In fact, he registered the then world record Test score of 336 not out on a tour of New Zealand.

It is worth noting that the great Don Bradman only played Test cricket in his native Australia and in England, with 37 of his 52 Test matches being against the old enemy. It is a shame that he, and so many of his contemporaries, were unable to tour India, New Zealand, South Africa and West Indies, the other Test playing nations at the time. Of course, those nations were still establishing themselves as International cricket sides, but they included some wonderful players, including George Headley, the great West Indian batsman, who sadly only played 22 Test matches.

The term great is bandied about far too freely when discussing Test cricketers, but in Hammond’s case it is not only justified, but demands to be used. As Hammond excelled in all aspects of cricket I have broken his Test career into different areas. This means I can give each part of his game closer scrutiny and make a better attempt at doing justice to his cricketing legacy.

The batsman

From an early age Hammond had the rare combination of ability and temperament. He honed his technique in order to deal with all types of bowling, but also worked out how he would play in different conditions and against different attacks. On his first tour of Australia, in 1928-9, Hammond decided that he would profit best by aiming to score most of his runs in the V between extra cover and midwicket, largely abandoning the pull and cut shots he played so well. The policy paid huge dividends, with Hammond scoring an astonishing 905 runs in the five match series at an average of 113.12. Such astute thinking and forward planning was the sign of a master batsman, who understood his own game as well as the game as a whole. And he was only 25 at the time, with many more years to perfect his batting.

It is no surprise then that Hammond’s career average in Tests was an outstanding 58.42, that he compiled 7249 runs in his 85 matches and struck 22 centuries along the way. Six of his three figure scores were double hundreds and one was that magical 336 not out. In a career spanning 19 years Hammond rarely had any lean seasons, the exception being 1934, when he inexplicably failed against the Australians in England. In addition to numerous good years Hammond had two outstanding seasons – 1933, when he averaged 103.77 in 8 Tests, and 1936, when he averaged 161.25 in 4 matches.

Proof, if more were needed, of Hammond’s supreme ability is shown in his averages away from the familiar pitches in England. At home he averaged 50.06 in 44 matches, but away he managed 66.32 in 41 Tests, scoring 4245 of his 7249 Test runs. This says something for the variation in the quality of the pitches in England over Hammond’s time as a Test player, but says more about his talent for adapting to new conditions and bowlers. Only the West Indies, playing on their lively home pitches, evaded Hammond’s mastery. His low average of 25.00 in four matches in the Caribbean, without a 50 to his name, shows how well the West Indian bowlers must have bowled. Though he would not excuse himself, part of the reason for his lack of success on that tour must have been that it followed his loss of form at home in the preceding Ashes series. Even the greats have occasional lows. It is that they bounce back to even higher heights that makes them great.

The position which a batsman takes in the batting line-up is often crucial in determining their success or failure. Some batsmen are natural openers, others prefer to bat at 3, others at 4, etc. Hammond, it seems, could bat anywhere, but achieved his greatest success at 3, perhaps the most important position in any batting line-up. The number three batsman comes in when the opening stand is broken. This can, of course, happen after the very first ball of an innings or after hours with a big score already on the board. A number three must be prepared to face the new ball, the old ball, the spinners, in fact almost any circumstances.

At number three Hammond averaged 74.78 in 37 matches, scoring 14 of his 22 hundreds. This is an exceptional performance and one cannot help but wonder that even his brilliant career might have been better had he not moved down to 4, 5 and even 6 at times. It is also worth mentioning that he opened the innings in three Test matches and averaged 78.75, notching up a century and two fifties.

It is for all these various aspects of his prowess as a batsman that Hammond is often grouped with the elite of Test batsmen, a small group who not only scored runs, but changed the way others approached the task, innovating in both technique and temperament.

The bowler

Those who saw him play suggest that Hammond could have made much more of his bowling than he did. It has been said that on occasions Hammond was the fastest and most hostile of bowlers, who could tear through the opposition. That he did not do this more often is probably partly because of the responsibility of being the top batsman in the side (and captain for 20 Test matches) and partly because of the physical strain it would have taken to bowl more than he did. What we are left with is the intriguing prospect of Hammond the bowler. A few glimpses of what might have been and a very good return for a part-time bowler.

For the record Hammond took 83 wickets in his 85 Tests at the handy average of 37.80. To back up the suggestion that he could rip through a Test side he took five wickets in an innings twice, including the exceptional best bowling figures of 5 for 36. Add to this his economy rate of just 2.36 runs per over and a picture is formed of a great Test batsman, who probably bowled within himself, but who occasionally rose to the heights of a specialist bowler.

The fielder

Hammond was exceptionally athletic and said to be naturally gifted at any sport he chose to play. This was never clearer than in his incredible skill as a slip fielder, where his poise and superb reflexes saw him pouch 110 catches in his 85 Tests. I have read that he had no equal in the slips, taking most of the chances that came his way, whether they were sharp catches or thick edges that looped in the air. It seems Hammond was adept with both hands and capable of timing his movements to give himself the best opportunity to get to the ball. It must have been a great pleasure to see him diving around in the slips, especially for the bowlers, who knew those safe hands would make the most of their efforts.

The captain

Taking on the captaincy just before and just after the war, Hammond led England in 20 Test matches, spread over six series, though the last of these was a one-off Test in New Zealand. Although he only tasted defeat on three occasions, all against Australia, two of those losses were in losing the Ashes series in 1946/7 in Australia. The three series Hammond won as captain were all 1-0 against lesser opponents. It was a sign of the times that 13 of his 20 Tests in charge were drawn.

It is fair to say that Hammond was a good, if not spectacular, leader, who could not quite inspire England to beat their old rivals, the Australians. He was, however, captain in that most memorable of Test matches at the Oval in 1938, when England levelled the series with an incredible win by an innings and 579 runs. Two records were set by England in that match, which stood for many years – the highest individual Test score of 364 by Len Hutton and the highest team total of 903 by England in their first and only innings. It was Hammond’s first series as captain and one which I’m sure he was proud of.

The legacy

There is little doubt that Walter Reginald Hammond was one of the best Test cricketers ever to grace the sport. I would go as far as to say that he is England’s greatest ever Test player. A cricketer who excelled in all the disciplines of the game in a career that spanned nearly twenty years. That he achieved what he did in spite of losing six of his best years to the Second World War is amazing. There is little doubt that he would have been the first player to play a hundred Test matches and, perhaps, scored 10,000 Test runs in the process. As it is Hammond’s record remains one of the best in the highest form of the game and his legacy was to inspire those England players who had played with him and those who followed after him.

Mavericks make it good

Owais Shah and Graeme Swann are a pair of cricketers who, after showing huge early promise, never found favour under Duncan Fletcher. They are now both 28, have both matured and, in Peter Moores, have a coach more sympathetic to their gifts. Both were at the forefront of England's victory today.

Shah seemed destined to be a player who never fulfilled his palpable batting talent, but he has emerged in one-day cricket under Moores. In nine innings in 2007, batting between five and seven, Shah averages 47. Although he either opens or bats at three for his county, his gift for improvisation, wristiness and flair, alluded to his fine technique, make him well-suited to the 'finisher' role. His 82 against Sri Lanka today was a masterful display of how to adjust to slow wickets - something others in the England side, including Kevin Pietersen, would do well to learn from. The feeling, certainly, is Shah is a man nearing his prime, and he could soon find himself a regular in the Test side too.

Swann, meanwhile, was a controversial selection ahead of Monty Panesar, picked for his three-dimensional gifts. Yet he has undeniably vindicated the faith. Spinning the ball hard - as when dismissing Tillekaratne Dilshan today - Swann appears a bowler of superior one-day nous to Panesar. Equally, his lower-order batting has proved very effective: he has a sound technique, as his first-class average of 26 illustrates, can play some unorthodox shots but also work the ball around and scamper hard when required. In short, the overall one-day package he offers is greater than that of Panesar, as good a Test bowler as he is.

The upshot of it all is Swann, as I have previously advocated, is now very likely to tour Sri Lanka as the second spinner for the Test series; and Shah will probably be on the trip alongside him. Duncan Fletcher did an excellent job, but two players who will have shed few tears to see him go are, happily, reinvigorated under Moores' stewardship.