Thursday, 29 November 2007

Does Anderson deserve to play?

With Steve Harmison having bowled only 16.3 overs in the warm-up games, it seems highly likely James Anderson will play in the First Test. But he would certainly be fortunate to play.

A pace attack of Anderson, Matthew Hoggard and Ryan Sidebottom has some variety - Sidebottom is a left-armer; Anderson is faster and skiddier; while both Hoggard and Sidebottom can bowl canny 'cutters'. However, it patently lacks a taller bowler which, considering Kandy has the most life of any of the three pitches, could hurt England.

Stuart Broad is surely more deserving of a spot in the final eleven than Anderson, who remains too inconsistent. Broad was far more effective in the victorious one-day series prior to the Tests. And he has shown himself to be fearless at international level, with the strength of his temperament confirmed by his fantastic riposte to suffering the ignominy of six 6s from Yuvraj Singh. Moreover, the maturity of his international batting to date, including twice seeing England to victory with vital innings, means he is the only one of the bowlers, save for Graeme Swann, who could do a good job at number eight.

Fletcher-esque thinking? Perhaps. But runs from the tail are undeniably vital and, in a situation where two bowlers are hard to separate, must count. With Matt Prior yet to convince at number seven, and the trio of bowling certainties ultimately no better than number 10s, England simply must be pragmatic. If they fail to be so, 250-4 could turn into 300 all-out with series-losing regularity.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Is Australia Too Good?

The Australian cricket team are as frustrating as they are brilliant. Dominant for as long as many of us can remember, they have surpassed the West Indies of the 80’s and their longevity amazes us all. From Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh’s great sides of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, featuring players such as O’Donnell and Hughes in the attack, Jones and the Waugh brothers batting, to the current Ponting era. Amazingly Waugh’s side’s 16 test winning streak is now under threat just 6 years after it was set. Gone are so many, in are some super players, and improved include the skipper, Ricky Ponting. So we can all sit in amazement and watch the Aussie makeup change, but still remain dominant, almost unbeatable. Or if we support the other test nations, or even the game of cricket, we are reduced to leaning back on our chairs, and muttering to ourselves about how we wish it was the golden years still.

So the burning question on everyone’s tongue is; Are the Aussies too good? By too good, I mean that they are simply so good that action needs to be taken, as no one seems to be able to beat them. For one thing, their upcoming series against India will likely say a lot about just how good they are, India have traditionally matched up well on the Aussies, and are the team that the Australians would want least to be chasing their record against. But after so many wins in a row, many of them comprehensively, against the likes of South Africa, England and Sri Lanka – three very decent sides – can Australia be conquered? Especially at home, they are a formidable outfit.

As I asked before, as good as they are, is there a need for action to be taken? Are they truly just too good that something needs to balance the teams out? John Buchanan seems to think so, ironically just one series after he retired as coach of the team, spearheading them to all but 2 of the tests in the current streak, not to mention all the world cups and other various wins along the way, Buchanan has evidently decided that suddenly, Australia are so far ahead of the competition, that the rules of changing nations need to be relaxed, so that cricket becomes, essentially, a franchise system with the tag, ‘international cricket’ being virtually unnecessary. Personally, this writer feels that Buchanan is missing his old job and the attention, and that his idea is an absurd way to turn cricket into a money game.

Let’s face it, the only think worse than Australia’s dominance is the dominance of money in European soccer. Owners such as Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich, Manchester United’s Malcolm Glazer and Ramon Calderon (of Real Madrid) – to name just 3, could all team up to solve world hunger, poverty and fund the cures for major diseases – but instead their money goes to unbalancing the tables so much that the clubs that have players who actually want to play for their club due to locality are left struggling in lower leagues. If cricket allows itself to become a franchise system, teams such as India who have and make billions of dollars (and the turmoil that they could help solve is much closer to home than the British and Spanish managers) would dominate, leaving other countries in their wake, which was the problem in the first place. Upcoming leagues such as the Indian Premier and Cricket Leagues will emphasize the growing trend at playing for money rather than pride in a club, and perhaps even nation for those banned from participating in the ICL.

To make such a big call, such an important decision, would be fairly premature I believe, and Australia will be changing a lot over the next few years as more veterans bow out, and the search for new youngsters continue. Changing nationality rules would merely create further problems, and do little to solve the current ones. And if all else fails, at least we can see a true dominant team that has been made up of natural, home-grown, ‘organic’ talent.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Panesar's chance to step up

Monty Panesar has already had an incredible impact on English cricket in his short tenure as an international player. In just 20 Tests he has taken 73 wickets @ 30.80, just shy of four per match, and already has six 5 wicket hauls and one 10 wicket haul to his name.

Like all top spinners he is seen as both a strike and stock bowler, able to bowl attacking spells as well as long containing spells. His concentration and economy rate of under 3 runs per over make him a captain's dream, perfectly suited to any stage of a match.

To have achieved so much so quickly is remarkable in a young player who was a student just two years ago, yet one suspects there is much more to come. As he embarks on his first Test series in Sri Lanka Panesar can go head to head with Muralitharan in the great man's own backyard. On pitches that will surely take spin Monty can move up a level and show that he too is destined for greatness.

His record against Sri Lanka, albeit in only one three match Test series, is impressive. Bowling less than a hundred overs Panesar prised out 10 wickets @ 21.00, conceding just 2.11 runs per over. His victims included Tharanga (twice), Sangakkara (twice) and Jayasuriya, all of whom he will encounter at Kandy in a few days.

After suffering a poor series (by his standards) against India recently, Panesar needs to show his class by utilising the conditions in Sri Lanka to his advantage and proving, once again, to be one of England's major weapons. It is on these potentially tricky away series that players can enhance their reputations and I fully expect Panesar to do so.

Shah, not Bopara, should bat at six

The question of who should bat at number six for England in Sri Lanka straight choice between a pair of wristy Anglo-Asians, Owais Shah and Ravi Bopara, though one feels Mark Ramprakash would have been more likely than either to score a hundred on tour. Bopara is the 'three-dimensional' choice: in addition to his batting, he is a fine fielder and a useful change bowler. But it would be risible to suggest Bopara's bowling is of the potential to change a game; his first-class average of 49 illustrates as much while, in England's ODI side, Paul Collingwood's presence often means Bopara does not have to bowl at all.

So unless England are guilty of real muddled thinking, the Bopara-Shah dilemma will be resolved simply by whomever the selectors believe will score more runs. Shah is a richly talented stroke-maker who has finally established himself in the one-day side. He is in his prime now; his confidence is high; and if he will ever truly 'make it' as a Test batsman it probably must be now. His superb 88 on debut in India last year was indicative of a man with the qualities to succeed in Tests. Bopara has immense promise but has flattered to deceive in the one-day side, his World Cup 52 withstanding. The time is now to see if Shah, for so long marked out as a future England star, can thrive as a Test batsman.

Tomorrow: Harmison, Anderson or Broad?

Monday, 19 November 2007

How can New Zealand get better?

New Zealand remain a reasonably competitive outfit in the limited-overs game, where their band of hard-hitting batsmen and the impact of star bowlers Shane Bond and Damien Vettori ensured two semi-final finishes in this year’s World Cups. In Test matches, however, they have regressed alarmingly. Memories of the combative side assembled by Stephen Fleming, able to draw in Australia, India, Sri Lanka and win in the West Indies, have long since faded.

Fleming has recently been replaced by Daniel Vettori though, given the quality of the side at his disposal, it is hard to overly blame him for a pair of innings defeats in South Africa.

New Zealand’s Test attack is desperately lacking in penetration when bereft of the superb, but perennially injured, Shane Bond. Vettori is a canny cricketer and fine ODI bowler, but his Test average of 38, discounting the minnows, illustrates the fact he is nothing more than a competent Test spin bowler. Elsewhere, Chris Martin can be useful in favourable conditions. But, as Jacques Kallis will testify, on flat pitches when Bond is either not playing or not at his best, the Kiwis possess a desperately unthreatening attack.

Their batting line-up is perhaps worse. Stephen Fleming is a solid Test performer, while Scott Styris is also a reasonable performer. Ross Taylor has shown immense promise in one-dayers but that is more or less that. The biggest problem, clearly, is the lack of quality opening batsmen.

New Zealand perform remarkably well for a country with such a small population in which cricket is not even the national sport. Their domestic game, as such, is probably as good as it realistically could be, though it must be depressing for fans to see Hamish Marshall and the international underachiever Craig Spearman performing well in county cricket at the expense of their international career. Financially, ODIs and Twenty20 games are much the more lucrative. But, as Vettori pointed out after their meek defeats in South Africa, to improve New Zealand simply must play more Tests. In their last 30 months, they have played 10 Tests against major opposition. Unless this is rectified, they could well find themselves slipping past the West Indies into eight spot in the Test rankings.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Australia v Sri Lanka Ratings and Thoughts

So the first test is wrapped up with an Aussie innings victory, the Lankans fought to make it to the 5th day, but in the end Brett Lee was too much for them (or at least their tail), and Australia claims another scalp in its winning streak of 13 tests in a row. The Aussies also haven’t lost one for 15 matches, since the 4th Ashes test in England, a mighty feat that is just 3 short of Steve Waugh’s mighty side’s world record.

Sri Lanka looked poor, with miniscule contributions from their top order, Marvan Atapattu and Michael Vandort the only ones getting 50’s all game for the Sirils (Mahela Jayawardene choked on 49). Not that they don’t have a decent excuse – of course this was their big chance to unsettle the already unsettled Australians. But never mind that, perhaps it’s the name, rather than the team, that are so great? I’ve always believed that youth won the 2005 Ashes series. Far from the battle scarred English sides that couldn’t get near the Aussies for so long, these players had nothing to lose and everything to gain, and confidence was merely higher. Mitchell Johnson was good on debut, but he’s still no Glenn McGrath, not yet. Even Stuart MacGill, as great as he is, is not Shane Warne. Yet the Aussie side looked as formidable as ever.

Still, the Sri Lankans have a chance to regain some pride, and halt the Aussie’s charge towards another record. They’ll most likely have Kumar Sangakkara back, their star wicketkeeper/batsman, and perhaps the selectors and coach will halt their nonsensical policies and bring back Lasith Malinga, the slinging quick who, to be honest, would likely have been their best paceman had he played. Australia has no selection dilemmas at this stage, all of their batsmen looked fresh and were on song, and their bowlers were solid as well, MacGill will probably be more settled after his 200th wicket, and Johnson will have lost whatever jitters he may have had previously.

And finally before I do the ratings, I’d like to say that I wholly agree with Terry Jenner, if Muralidaran is going to break Warne’s record, he should be tested under match conditions. I am not accusing him of anything, but it seems only fair that someone who could be regarded as cricket’s greatest ever bowler some day, certainly it is either him or Warne, should have his controversies officially put to rest. Maybe Aussie fans will even tone down the no ball calls!

So my match ratings:


Matthew Hayden: 7/10 – Were it not for a brash shot, Hayden would have made his 50 and probably cruised towards a century, he looked like his break had benefited him greatly, and was playing superbly for most of his innings.

Phil Jaques: 8.5/10 – An outstanding maiden test century, was coping with the bowlers well and will learn from his first encounter with Muralidaran, and should be able to pick the doosra better.

Ricky Ponting: 8.25/10 – Failed to make a century, but looked exquisite at times, playing all the right shots and seeming to cope with Murali quite well at times. His decision to enforce the follow on was a brave one, and one that Australians have traditionally shied away from.

Mike Hussey: 8.5/10 – A fantastic century proved his class after some poor form in the one day arena since The Ashes, Hussey looked skilful as ever, showing an improvement many of us didn’t expect he could be capable of at his current level.

Michael Clarke: 8.75/10 – Clarke is continuing his growth from a pup to a fully grown dog, with added maturity in his innings, and some real skill and class. His century was fantastic coming off poor form in One Day International cricket, but showing that he is a force to be reckoned with in the future, and that his Ashes series was no fluke.

Andrew Symonds: 7.5/10 – Looked impressive and continued his newfound test mindset that he showed after Damien Martyn retire last year, giving Symonds a new, crucial chance at a test berth. He shone then, and is shining once again, his cameo role in the side as a batsman yielding a quick 50, and his bowling picking up a couple of wickets, including opener Marvan Atapattu in the 2nd innings.

Adam Gilchrist: 7.5/10 – Didn’t get to bat, but held 6 catches and allowed through just 4 byes, proving that he is still a world class wicketkeeper, even at his ripe old age of 36.

Brett Lee: 8.75/10 – I have never been a huge Lee fan, but his devastating bowling destroyed the Sri Lankans in the first innings, and cleaned up the tail in the second, taking 8 wickets for the match (4 in each innings) in a consistent and fairly economical spell.

Mitchell Johnson: 7.75/10 – 4 wickets on debut, generating some great movement in the air and off the pitch, and looking very impressive for a 26 year old in his first ever test. Looks like developing into a real force in years to come.

Stuart Clark: 7.5/10 – Just 4 wickets but as usual was the consistent, economical force, providing Australia with its answer to retired Glenn McGrath. I was surprised to see him first change rather than opening bowler with Lee, but he made the most of his chances and looked impressive all the same.

Stuart MacGill: 7.5/10 – Worked his ass off all game to get his 200th wicket, and finally managed the feat, but only 2 wickets was disappointing, and even though he deserves another crack, he will need to lift his game to hold off fellow veteran Brad Hogg.

Sri Lanka

Marvan Atapattu: 5.75/10 – One of just two Sri Lankan men to score 50 in the match, but a pretty poor performance overall. Also took a catch to give Dilhara Fernando a not-so-much deserved wicket.

Sanath Jayasuriya: 4.25/10 – Gave his team very little batting, scoring 7 and a half (considering the circumstances) respectable 39 in the 2nd innings.

Michael Vandort: 6.5/10 – A great 82 in the 2nd innings showed plenty of promise and improvement from his 1st innings duck, fighting the Australians and helping force the game into a 5th day. One of the best Sri Lankans.

Mahela Jayawardene: 5/10 – Scored an important 49 in the 2nd innings, but overall it was a disappointing game from the skipper who will need to lead his side well at Hobart to give them a chance.

Thilan Samaraweera: 4/10 – Incredibly disappointing, scoring 13 and 20, and looks set to make way for Kumar Sangakkara if he is fit for the Hobart Test.

Chamara Silva: 5.25/10 – A couple of fighting 40’s (one was 43) made the maturing youngster look alright, joining the battle well, and shying him away from at least some of the blame.

Prassana Jayawardene: 4.75/10 – Looked fairly good behind the stumps, getting two stumpings and wasn’t fantastic with the bat, but we’ve known that he isn’t quite Sangakkara in that aspect. Should still keep his spot ahead of Samaraweera if Sangakkara is back.

Farveez Maharoof: 4/10 – Did very little with the ball, as did his fellow pacemen, fought a little with the bat, but overall disappointed and a wicket or two would’ve helped the team’s cause.

Chaminda Vaas: 4/10 – Took the only wicket for a batsman on less than 50 runs, but nothing spectacular from the veteran left arm pace bowler. One who could be forced to make way for Lasith Malinga if Tom Moody’s comments regarding his 1st test dilemma are to be believed.

Dilhara Fernando: 3.75/10 – Tom Moody’s assurance that Fernando was the first paceman to be picked for Sri Lanka added some credibility to Marvan Atapattu’s claims regarding the clown selectors. A wicket complemented his ordinary bowling, and would be lucky to keep his spot for Malinga in the next test.

Muttiah Muralidaran: 7/10 – Bowled quite well, a shining light for Sri Lanka in that aspect, but could’ve done a lot more with some decent support, and without it he was over bowled and could not manage more than 2 wickets, but he did manage to get on top of the batsmen at various times, and was certainly the Sri Lankans’ best bowler – not that it’s a surprise.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

The Dominance Continues, or Shane Who?

In 3 days one can get over early week blues, one can receive an interstate package, a house can become as dirty as it was before the cleaners came, and the Australian cricket team can put any doubts over its capabilities to rest.

In the space of just 3 days, I can barely remember the excitement of seeing Shane Warne roll over his shoulders preparing to come into the attack, or the amazement at Glenn McGrath’s figures, or even the sheer enjoyment of watching Justin Langer play another classy stroke. This void has been quickly filled with excitement at a new Australia. Not all the players are young guns, but the player’s surviving the not-so-aptly titled, ‘Dad’s Army,’ of the 5-0 Ashes victory, are refreshed, and many of the middle aged players have grown in maturity.

Already, Sri Lanka is on the ropes, at 2/80 in their following on 2nd innings after a brilliant performance from the Aussies with both bat and ball. It began with new opener Phil Jaques’ maiden test century, and continued with shows of improvement and increased maturity from Ricky Ponting, Mike Hussey, Michael Clarke and Andrew Symonds. The middle order continues to improve, and with no shakeups since the New Years Test between Australia and England, they appear to be ready to help out the less settled opening pair with solid contributions.

The bowling attack was always going to be an interesting and exciting one to watch, and they did not disappoint, bowling out the Lankans with ease, Brett Lee spearheading the attack with his typical pace and flamboyant style, and taking full advantage of the conditions, despite the fact that they were beginning to improve. Mitchell Johnson looked impressive on debut, opening the bowling with Lee, with great pace and swing causing trouble for the Sri Lankan batsmen, and Stuart Clark was dangerous and accurate as ever. Stuart MacGill, the new spinner, battled hard and despite only one wicket, MacGill seems to still be a good bowler. On the other hand only Muralidaran seemed to contribute, and he was over-bowled to the extent that his two wickets could not do too much.

The match seems to be ready to be wrapped up tomorrow, with Sri Lanka ruing their decision to play ‘Give me a tonking’ Fernando ahead of ‘Slinger’ Malinga. As for the controversial Jayasuriya decision, it looked out to me. Sri Lanka have bigger issues than that, as does their coach Trevor Bayliss, who might be missing the relative calmness of his old job in Sydney by the end of this series. Much awaits to be seen tomorrow, with the Aussies, who have in the past struggled with the follow on decision, attempting to fnish things a day early.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Dhoni's time will come, but Kumble is the right man for now

At 37, Anil Kumble could appear a slightly regressive choice as the new Indian Test skipper. But after 118 Tests, no one could dispute the fact he has earned his chance. Mahendra Singh Dhoni has started impressively as limited-overs skipper, but he is 11 years Kumble's junior; there need not be any rush to award him with the top job.

Kumble has taken 566 Test wickets, an extraordinary feat. Yet his number of Test hundreds - one, in his 118th Test - is almost more revealing. For it illustrates his fierce pride and relentless desire to improve his game. If he can imbue this into his younger team-mates, then there is every reason to believe India can build on their impressive series win in England. Their next two series, at home to Pakistan and away to Australia, will be nothing if not arduous. Kumble will need all the cricketing experience and nous he possesses, along with an egalitarian temperament - for, at some time over these seven Tests, undoubtedly, India will be faced with a real struggle. Equally, his appointment offers a clear signal that, in the longer format of the game, the older guard are still very much required.

For the first time, India will embark on life with separate captains. While this could cause friction between the two skippers, there is surely too much mutual respect between Kumble and Dhoni for this to occur. India are right to utilise the vast skills of Anil Kumble - a thinking cricketer and the consummate professional - as they approach two high-octane series.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

MacGill's chance to shine

Stuart MacGill is nothing if not an intriguing cricketer. He is renowned as a difficult character, prone to mood swings and outbursts. He's one of the most intelligent cricketers around. To many, his is a face that doesn't quite fit. Yet it was telling that, when Australia toured Zimbabwe in 2004, only MacGill refused to go.

MacGill is not Shane Warne, but he does great justice to the leg-spinners' art. Watching him is always a delight. Certainly, there is a greater sense of human fallibility than with Warne. MacGill is prone to bowling horrific long-hops although, as Alec Stewart will testify, these sometimes prove lethal. There is a perception that he can be rattled, and this holds some truth, but beware. MacGill being MacGill, a ripper is never far away.

If anything, he gives the ball even more of a rip that Warne, spinning it prodigiously and possessing a googly to rank with the very best. He has a strike-rate higher even than that of Warne. Almost paradoxically, Warne's superiority to MacGill lies in the less-than-glamorous fact of consistency. Still, MacGill has already claimed 198 Test wickets - only 12 Aussies have more - in just 40 games. He is unfortunate that Australia have so often been reluctant to use two leg-spinners. Interestingly, when they have, MacGill has regularly outperformed Warne.

At 36, MacGill may be past his best. But connoisseurs of leg-spin will hope he is chosen ahead of Brad Hogg for the series with Sri Lanka and, freed to be the sole Aussie spinner, can enthrall with his mix of wrong'uns and rank shockers for a while yet.