Thursday, 27 December 2007

The amazing crab-man

Idiosyncratic, crab-like and with extraordinary powers of concentration, Shivnarine Chanderpaul is in the midst of a quite phenomenal streak of form. He has scored at least 50 in each of his past seven Test innings - equalling the world record - but, more incredibly still, he has top-scored for West Indies in every of those innings.

Chanderpaul's batting seldom invites gushing tributes. He is not, and would never claim to be, any sort of stylist. But, as the unique way in which he marks his guard - with a bail - demonstrates, he has no qualms about not doing things by the coaching book. Almost uniquely amongst batsmen with comparable records, he virtually eschews the V as an area in which to score runs. His trigger movement may look bizarre, but it has helped him establish one of the finest defensive techniques in the world today. As importantly, he is the most phlegmatic of players. As if in a cocoon, he is content to leave balls indefatigably without seeming the slightest bit concerned. But he is invariably ruthless with loose balls outside off stump and with anything on his pads, flicking the ball to the legside boundary with tremendous placement.

How does one ruffle him? His technique occasionally leaves him susceptible to losing his balance early on in his innings. Over his 105-Test career, he has struggled relatively speaking, in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, averaging between 29 and 35 in each country. But, as he demonstrated today in his 253-ball vigil against a powerful pace-bowling attack, Chanderpaul is a better player than ever before now; his improved pull-shot makes him more comfortable dealing with pace bowling. Another weakness, oddly for a man for whom concentration has been so fundamental, has been his ability to convert 50s into centuries. But, much like another resourceful left-hander, Graham Thorpe, as his career has gone on Chanderpaul has learnt the art of conversion. He is now onto 17 Test centuries, though it would have surely been more had he not been handicapped by the perennial brittleness of the West Indian tail. But to his great credit, and unlike other players who place such a premium on their wicket, Chanderpaul is able to play a more expansive game when surrounded by tailenders.

At 33, Chanderpaul is in the form of his life. His sequence of epic innings in England defined the series in a manner almost unheard of for a man on the losing side. He averaged a scarcely believable 12 hours between dismissals. Chanderpaul is a certainty to be one of Wisden's Five Crickters of the Year - and a worthy candidate for Wisden's Leading Cricketer of the Year for 2007. He has indisputably raised his game after the retirement of Brian Lara, and should now have greatness in his sights. And, happily, it seems some of his team-mates are beginning to follow his lead.

Saturday, 22 December 2007

England Series Ratings

For the first time since 2001, England have suffered a second consecutive series defeat after being comprehensively outplayed by Sri Lanka. Here are the series ratings:

Alastair Cook 7
After a double failure in the first Test, there were real fears over Cook's susceptibility to Chaminda Vaas with the ball. However, he made vital contributions in three of his last four innings, including scoring England's sole century to help save the Galle Test, and has made startling progress for a man not yet 23.

Michael Vaughan 6
During his sublime 87 in the second Test, it felt as if we were watching the '02/03 version of Vaughan. Yet, thereafter, he continually fell to lapses in concentration, and his failure to push on mirrored that of his side. His captaincy was probably below par, though he was handicapped by his lack of bowling firepower.

Ian Bell 7
Two terrific innings in the first Test served to illustrate Bell's technical prowess and promise as a Test number three. But he has reached the stage when he must only be judged on current performance. Too often, he fails to score big for someone with pretensions as a number three.

Kevin Pietersen 4
A mixture of bad umpiring decision, brilliant deliveries and simply poor form saw Pietersen end a series without a 50 for the first time. There are suspicions of fatigue but expect a reinvigorated Pietersen to do much damage in New Zealand.

Paul Collingwood 6
A series of innings that can be described as 'gritty' and 'worthy' produced no score higher than 52 - ultimately, Collingwood is probably a number six rather than number five. His bowling was under-used but effective.

Ravi Bopara 2
Three consecutive ducks says it all. As predicted, Bopara was not ready - with bat or ball - for a Test debut. A baffling selection at number six as his bowling is no better than Collingwood's, Bopara will have a long wait before his next Test.

Matt Prior 6
Very hard to rate, Prior was something of a revelation with the bat, displaying a maturity in shot selection and capacity for playing Murali many thought beyond him. But his keeping has serious flaws - many feel he is worse than Geraint Jones ever was - and no amount of runs will change this fact.

Ryan Sidebottom 5
Sidebottom was unlucky with decisions and dropped catches - again - and endured a disappointing series, although he should still play in New Zealand. His batting, however, was superb - he faced more deliveries than Kevin Pietersen and worked out a method to combat Murali, indicative of a man making the most of his talent.

Steve Harmison 7
In tough conditions, Harmison displayed heart and new-found consistency and was even able to generate tremendous bounce at times. Considering the circumstances, there is no doubt he emerges with his reputation enhanced.

Matthew Hoggard 7
Excellent in the first Test, when he gave a timely reminder of his nous in all conditions, Hoggard was below par in the final game. His quality is beyond doubt; but, worryingly, he keeps breaking down.

Monty Panesar 4
An immense disappointment, Panesar is going through something of a crisis and has work to do to trouble top-class batsmen.

Stuart Broad 4
Faced one of the hardest debuts imaginable, but Broad at least displayed the ability to bowl for long spells with good consistency. Noticeably, his economy rate was 1.5 less than Anderson could manage.

James Anderson 2
Bowled horribly in the first Test, and the feeling is that he may never make it as a Test player.

The Verdict
The simple truth is England were beaten by a side superior in batting and bowling. They showed no little fight, but it is especially frustrating that England were unable to close the gap in the field, where the bowlers were continually let down. With two series wins from eight, England patently have much work to do in all areas.

Friday, 21 December 2007

The England Diagnosis: Bowling and Fielding

What can England do from here? (Click here for the batting diagnosis)

Matt Prior batted with gumption and no little skill in the series, making two excellent half-centuries. However, his keeping looks like it may never be good enough: he has now missed nine chances in 10 Tests, a success ratio of just 72%, around 10% worse than Geraint Jones. Add to this the problems caused by his positioning behind the stumps, leading the slips astray, and his failure to convince keeping to Monty Panesar and England have much to consider. They would have hoped for a 'keeper who could average close to 40 with the bat and keep to a competent level. Prior looks like he may be able to do the former but should probably be dropped for his keeping, as Simon Hughes has suggested. Who should replace him, if indeed he should be replaced? How long have have you got?

England's fielding in this series was worse than for some time, with two of the side's best fielders, in Bell and Collingwood, disappointing in the slips, and few bright spots elsewhere. The importance of a reliable cordon is easy to forget; but England have lost Messrs Trescothick, Flintoff, Strauss and Giles, four excellent close fielders, without replacing them. The solution is not easy to find but, clearly, must work must be done on the close fielding before the New Zealand tour.

England only bowled Sri Lanka out once in the series although, considering the shoddy catching and unhelpful conditions, there were mitigating circumstances. The biggest concern was Monty Panesar, who was a huge disappointment for the second consecutive series and may not be an automatic selection for much longer if Graeme Swann continues to excel in the limited-overs game.

Of the seamers, it may now be time to dispense with the perennially frustrating Test version of Jimmy Anderson, while Stuart Broad may is not quite be ready yet. Ryan Sidebottom should be dropped based on his series average of 63, but he was supremely unfortunate yet again and should be effective in New Zealand. Meanwhile, Matthew Hoggard confirmed he is England's most resourceful seamer with his supreme spell on the series' opening day, while Steve Harmison cut out the extras, proved his desire, and will almost certainly start the next Test. The man who deserves a recall is surely Chris Tremlett; though unimpressive with the white ball, he claimed 13 wickets at 29 against India and possesses tremendous bounce and good consistency.

What should England do from here?

The England Diagnosis: Batting

In many ways, whether England manage to save the 3rd Test is irrelevant. If they are able to do so, it will be in large part due to the rain that has engulfed Galle, and will not in any way disguise their patent faults. Though they fought on more-or-less equal terms with Sri Lanka for large parts of the first two Tests, ultimately no one can deny they have been out-batted, out-fielded and out-bowled by Sri Lanka (even discounting Murali). They are now ranked fifth in the world. After two series wins out of eight, England must now accept they have regressed alarmingly since their golden run on 2004/05. What can they do to improve, or is it simply a case that the best England have are not good enough?

Excuse me for harping back to my perennial cause celebre, but when Mark Ramprakash was ignored for this tour I wrote that "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?" Peter Moores has shown a worrying tendency to support promising 'kids' who have not proved up to the task - Luke Wright during the World Twenty20; and Ravi Bopara here, whose much-hyped 'x-factor' constituted a penchant for being dismissed for a duck.

As Australia constantly prove, the only game you need worry about is the next one, and England's inability to score hundreds is crying out for someone possessing the depths of concentration and capacity for longevity of Ramprakash at the crease. To date, England have scored 10 fifties but no centuries in this series. Even if they go some way to rectifying that, the stat illustrates England have a lot of perfectly competent Test batsmen, but cannot make the big scores that Messrs Sangakkara and Jayawardene batted England out the series with. Curiously for a side in the midst of such a slumber, there is probably only one man - Bopara - for whom the axe is around the corner.

Ian Bell often looks in supreme form at the crease, as he did in the first Test, while failing to really capitalise. As such, he has not yet making the runs to justify batting at three. But with Kevin Pietersen being unfortunate with umpiring decision and snorters alike, and with Vaughan's innings consistently ended by impetuosity, there has been no one to grind the Sri Lankan attack into the dust. Calls for a recall for Andrew Strauss should be laughed off given his form in the past 15 months. That would leave Ramprakash, in an ideal world, to replace Bopara and move up to number three, with Pietersen four, Bell five and Collingwood at six and Owais Shah, once again, next cab-off-the-rank. Most likely, that top six would score big against a Kiwi attack top-heavy with medium-pacers. Whether they could consistently make first innings scores of 400 against the sterner Tests that await, however, would have to be doubtful - but do England have anyone else?

Friday, 14 December 2007

What now for the 3rd Test?

England’s surprisingly easy passage to drawing the 2nd test must give some heart to the team looking to come back from the disappointment of the first. But for the freak dismissal of Michael Vaughan and a couple of “unfortunate” decisions to remove Kevin Pieteresen and Ali Cook, England could have been looking at a formidable first innings score of their own. However, on a slow and dead pitch, only Murali was the only bowler likely to cause major problems and England saw him off with relative ease.

The pitch at Galle will be an unknown quantity. This is the first game at the ground since the Tsunami and its behaviour will be interesting to see. England need to win to square the series, in the same situation as in India two years ago, where Shaun Udal surprised everyone and gave Andrew Flintoff his greatest moment as England captain.

There is a case for looking at the second spinner in the party this time round too. Monty Panesar has had comfortably his most frustrating series in his short England career and is struggling to gain control over the batsmen let alone look threatening. Graeme Swann should during the ODIs that he is an attacking spin bowler and in a game where England need a positive result, he may be a short term solution. He would also bolster the batting, which could be important as I would also drop Stuart Broad from the team that played the 2nd test if Matthew Hoggard is fit to return.

The other change I would make is to replace Ravi Bopara with Owais Shah. I initially supported the inclusion of Bopara as I felt his bowling would be a crucial extra dimension. However, Vaughan has been so reluctant to bowl him that his inclusion over Shah does not seem warranted, as Shah is clearly the superior batsman. However, Bopara has done enough to suggest that there is a big talent there, and Paul Collingwood should be beginning to feel under some pressure for his place in the side.

My team for the 3rd test

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Vaughan reaffirms his innate class

Michael Vaughan's extended absence from the England side caused many to wonder why on earth he remained the official skipper, and whether he would be able to stomach another Test. Yet, in his eight Test since he returned after 18 months out, he is now averaging 52. And it would have been higher still but for today's freakish dismissal.

Vaughan returned at number three; due to Andrew Strauss' problems, he had to be moved up to opener for this series. Reunited with the position from which he produced his stupendous run of form in 2002/03, his superb play today brought back memories of this run: the characeristically disdainful pull of the front-foot; the peerless off-side driving; and the dexterity against spin. It also put to bed all doubts over whether Vaughan can captain and open the batting. Together with Alistair Cook, he added England's first century opening stand for 15 Tests. It would be wise if the two are afforded the opportunity to allow their partnership to blossom.

The decision to resign the ODI captaincy has been vindicated too: England have shown real improvement under Paul Collingwood in games Vaughan's knee could have done without. His single-mindedness in returning to international cricket, and performing so terrifically, bears resemblance to that of Sourav Ganguly, similarly written off. For a player who times the ball so imperiously and possesses such palpable class, the England skipper's Test average of 43 is at least five runs too low. If he carries on playing with the ablomb that characterised his 87, however, that will only improve - so long as Vaughan refrains from indulging in his penchant for the freakish dismissal.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Harmison must play

Realistically, Matthew Hoggard will miss the next Test; and probably the third too. Patently, England have no real choice: they simply must recall Stephen Harmison. Goodness, we all now how erratic he can be. But he the one quick Sri Lanka will genuinely fear.

After his nightmarish Ashes series, Harmison had an indifferent, though improving, series against the West Indies. Thereafter, he has mixed injuries with some blistering domestic form for both Durham and the Highveld Lions in South Africa. After his traumatic time there in 2004/05, he deserves much credit for returning there to prove his Test match readiness, taking 13 wickets in just two games. Even though his bowling was awash with wides and no-balls, perhaps his attitude has changed for the better. Reports suggest he has been terrific in the Sri Lankan nets.

James Anderson was narrowly preferred to Harmison for the Kandy Test but was awful, lacking penetration and leaking runs. Ryan Sidebottom was also disappointing, but at least he reined in the runs; after his outstanding return to international cricket, particularly during the ODIs in Sri Lanka, he doesn't deserve to be dispensed with yet. That just leaves the last place, to go to either Stuart Broad or Graeme Swann, depending on the conditions. Both would aid England's tail.

Whatever the criticisms that can be thrown at him, Harmison possesses pace and bounce, necessities for a side needing a win to draw level in the series. Were he to wilt in the last two Tests, there would be a very real case for ending his Test career. Before that, however, he must be given the chance to help his country when they have their backs to the wall on one of cricket's toughest tours. He has talked the talk. Now Harmison must walk the walk, and prove he can be a match-winner once more.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Bell not quite there yet

Ian Bell is on the verge of being an excellent Test batsman for England. He has hit four 50s in consecutive innings. The problem, alas, is he invariably fails to go on, a victim of a loss of concentration, a loose shot or, as today, a slight misjudgment. Nonetheless, when the agony of England's narrow loss begins to clear, he can reflect on probably his best Test to date: two excellent, and deeply contrasting innings. But ultimately it was all in vain.

Bell displayed immense powers of concentration during his five-hour vigil. Admirably, he is developing the ability to bat at completely different tempos depending on the match circumstances: he scored at a strike-rate of 35 in the second innings, against 66 in the third. Anyone who can top score in both innings in Sri Lanka clearly possesses immense class and mental resilience. Promoted to number three, however, Bell needs to be making match-defining contributions: which means 150s.

He was on the verge of playing a match-saving innings of wonderful quality before Muttiah Muralitharan was transformed into lethal new-ball bowler. Matt Prior will also feel sickened at having failed to complete the match-saving job but, after his first innings pair, he responded magnificently. Undoubtedly, this was his best international innings to date, infinitely greater than the rather facile runs he plundered against the West Indies.

From reducing the hosts to 42-5 on the opening day, this was a game that gradually slipped out of England's grasp. Primarily, the fault lies with the batsmen, who failed to display the necessary ruthlessness to secure a first innings lead in the region of 150 and succumbed fatally to Chaminda Vaas in the second innings. The two Essex men are of particular concern: Alistair Cook's problem against left-armers may need rectifying out of the side; 'all-rounder' Ravi Bopara was Paul Collingwood's inferior with the ball and, despite some fine shots, lacked solidity at the crease; Mark Ramprakash or Owais Shah would have been more worthy picks. Borderline selection James Anderson, meanwhile, justified my concerns over his place in the side and will surely now be dropped.

In this match, England were ultimately beaten by the better team. Sri Lanka are far from infallible, especially with Sanath Jayasuriya having retired, and their batting line-up has real areas of weakness. After a valiant recovery from 90-5, England will have hopes for the rest of the series. But, unless England can find an answer to Sri Lanka's twin totems, Muralitharan and Kumar Sangakkara, these will only prove fleeting.