Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Australia: The Way Forward

There can be no doubt now that Australia's period of world dominance is over. Having lost their first series on home turf in nearly two decades, to one of their traditional rivals (and some might say whipping boys) South Africa, following its loss to India abroad, Australia's seemingly endless period of victory after victory, with barely a loss to be seen, has ended. Finding itself down 2-0, with one more test Australia needs to not lose in order to save its number 1 world ranking, the result brings to the forefront a boring and tired side, and changes that selectors must make in order to give Australia any chance of coming back.

The only thing stopping one from saying that Australia is not the best cricketing country in the world anymore is the selectors' obvious mistakes. They persisted with an out of form Matthew Hayden and Andrew Symonds, and even picked the latter through injury which ruled the all rounder out of bowling his medium pacers, and hampered him in the field. Their unresponsiveness to the problem of Australia's pace attack is also worrying. From their pathetic performance in failing to bowl South Africa out for less than 400 in the second innings, the selectors' only change was to replace one mediocre off spinner with another (Jason Krejza out for Nathan Hauritz).

Meanwhile in domestic cricket, the top 3 runs scorers for the Sheffield Shield are all currently or have been opening the batting, with Michael Klinger on 900+ runs already after half a season, the ever consistent Chris Rogers still scoring runs for what must be the 5th season in a row, and 19 year old excitement machine Phil Hughes doing magnificently in a poor NSW side. All 3 are capable of replacing Hayden, so one wonders why the selectors have not only left him in the side for the 3rd test, but even went as far as to say that they didn't expect him to retire, rather they felt he could play a role in the future. Furthermore, the selectors' continual recycling of Andrew Symonds can only be interpreted as either incompetence or a need to please sponsors putting Symonds' mug on their products in regular ads during the cricket. Symonds' selection after a handful of games in domestic cricket for Queensland, of which he failed to score a single 50 and had an average only a bowler would be proud of, was wrong enough in itself, but his continual waste of chances and the selectors' failure to respond is just as bad. Even injured ahead of the Boxing Day test, the selectors left out an in form Shane Watson for Symonds.

On the bright side, selectors have brought in a new face to the team, with Symonds finally unable to take his spot, in comes Victorian Andrew McDonald, a genuine all rounder who averages 46 with the bat and 24 with the ball this season. McDonald, at 27, has been named in extended World Cup and Champions Trophy squads, but his selection is almost as surprising and sudden as it is deserved. A key part of Victoria's undefeated season this year, it is pleasing to see selectors finally select an inform 'youngster' rather than recycling older players.

Another key inclusion to the squad is Doug Bollinger, who was unlucky to play no cricket on Australia's tour of India despite being in the squad throughout, who will battle with Ben Hilfenhaus for the spot vacated by Brett Lee's injury. One hopes that the selectors will persist with one of the two swing specialists ahead of Lee, whose recent form has been poor, pace down and penetration almost nonexistent. Meanwhile there are other options too, such as the inform Dirk Nannes, whose breakthrough county season for Middlesex has been followed up with him the leading wicket taker for the Shield, despite missing one match through injury, and being taken out of the attack by umpires for an entire innings after bowling three consecutive full tosses (two of which were beamers). Nannes is almost a slower Jeff Thomson or even Shaun Tait, reckless and unafraid to hurt batsmen, but also picking up wickets. Nannes even knocked out batsman David Bandy with a lethal bouncer just last week.

Australia's key to success from here on lies with its selections. Australian selectors can no longer afford the luxury of giving veterans 'just one more chance' to perform. If Australia does not respond accordingly, it will find itself blown out of the water, and perhaps even lose the Ashes in 2009. A new year dawns, and with it a new era of cricket. Can Australia survive atop the world rankings? Only time, and selectors, will tell.

The new stars of 2008

The cricketing year ended with Australia in disarray, South Africa and India on the up and everyone else failing to move significantly, especially Pakistan, who didn’t play a single Test match.

New Year is the perfect opportunity for sporting lists, and here are my selections of players who have made notable breakthroughs in 2008:

Hashim Amla (South Africa)

Dale Steyn has been the star with the ball and Graeme Smith the biggest influence through his runs and captaincy, but the biggest strides have been by Amla, who finished the year as fourth-highest Test runscorer.

He hinted at what was to come at the end of 2007 but this year found true consistency, scoring notable hundreds in India and England. An elegant player, he, along with AB de Villiers, adds the panache that compliments the resoluteness of Smith, Neil McKenzie, Jacques Kallis and Ashwell Prince – the most productive batting line-up in the world.

Mitchell Johnson (Australia)

A rare individual highlight in what turned out to be a disappointing year for Australia. Johnson made an immediate impact for the Baggy Greens, taking 11 wickets in his first three Tests at the end of 2007 and has not looked back since. Only Steyn took more Test wickets this year.

Injuries to Brett Lee and Stuart Clark have left him as leader of the attack and he will be one of the first names on the team sheet as Australia contemplate their rebuilding job.

Gautam Gambhir (India)

Gambhir endured a stop-start career between 2004 and 2007 but has been a revelation since returning to the top of the order against Sri Lanka in July. He scored 1,134 Test runs in 16 Test innings in 2008, finishing off with three tons and three fifties in his last eight knocks.

His opening partnership with Virender Sehwag is the most exciting in any form of cricket and the reliable platforms the pair set will be a key component of India’s assault on the number one ranking.

Ajantha Mendis (Sri Lanka)

The most exciting spinner since Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan broke onto the scene in the mid-1990s. His array of offspinners, googlies and flippers delivered at medium pace are nearly impossible to read, as 26 wickets in three Tests and 48 in 18 ODIs testifies.

Choosing breakthrough players for Pakistan and England is difficult due to their respective inactivity and closed shop selection policy, so honourable mentions go to Sohail Tanvir and Stuart Broad for maintaining the promise they showed in 2007.

West Indies have relied so heavily on Wisden Cricketer of the Year Shivnarine Chanderpaul that other contributions have been minimal, but Brendan Nash’s successful debut bodes well for the continuation of Windies’ recovery next year.

Jesse Ryder made an impression in the wrong way after making a fine start to his international career in February. His subsequent rehabilitation has been uplifting for those who enjoy watching a chubby sportsman compete at the highest level, although his appearance and occasional destructive strokeplay belies a vastly talented and elegant batsman.

Bangladesh have endured another terrible year and look set to finish with eight Test defeats and one draw. Their solitary ray of hope has been left arm spinner Shakib Al Hasan, who produced enough runs and wickets against New Zealand, South Africa and Sri Lanka to suggest the Tigers have a genuine all-round talent in their midst.

Written by Philip Oliver, a sports writer who blogs about cricket betting.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

England series ratings

Here are the series ratings for England's 1-0 defeat in India - although the ludicrous brevity of the series makes such an exercise somewhat tricky.

Alastair Cook 5
Two fluent half centuries - but he didn't pass 52 in four completed innings. His conversion rate, so impressive at the start of his career, is becoming progressively more worrying.

Andrew Strauss 9
So criticised by this blogger, Strauss produced what should have been a career-defining performance in the first Test, but was badly let down by his team-mates. Strokeless he may seem at times, but while he is so tight in defence and so adept and nudging the ball into spaces, his place is assured.

Ian Bell 2
When is enough enough? Infuriating to his core, Bell has the technique and range of shots to score 8000 runs at 50. But, now, the best thing would be to drop him - from both formats. If he is hungry enough he will return, like Steve Waugh, more battle-hardened.

Kevin Pietersen 7
Captaining was difficult, and he has received criticism for the in-out fields used in the first Test, enabling the spinners to be milked with minimal risk-taking involved. But he will be a better captain for the expereince, while his 144 was majestic.

Paul Collingwood 6.5
Another century evoked the 'gritty Northerner' cliches once more. Some doubts linger, but his willpower is unquestionable. But what, exactly, has happened to his bowling?

Andrew Flintoff 8
Yet again, Flintoff bowled better than the figures suggest, suffering through dropped catches and dodgy lbw decisions. But, at long last, he managed a Test half-century - and a cultured one at that.

Matt Prior 7
Quietly very effective - which is seldom something that can be said of Prior. His keeping looks to have improved since his horror series in Sri Lanka a year ago, while he remains a very good Test number seven.

Stuart Broad 5
Did a sound job in very difficult circumstances. Despite the mediocrity of his record, is now an automatic selection.

Graeme Swann 7
Easily out-bowled Panesar to finish as England's leading wicket-taker. Displayed much more attacking intent and ability to think on his feet (and for himself) - and deserved a lower average, but for some ill-fortune. Shame about the batting though.

James Anderson 4
Bowled skillfully at times in the second Test, whilst claiming scant reward. But overall his was a miserable tour.

Steve Harmison 4
Harmison disappointed in the first Test, save for one fine spell, but deserves to play in the West Indies.

Monty Panesar 4
A miserable series, showing a complete lack of improvement since making his Test debut in India three yeras ago. Infact, his record on the sub-Continent and against sides other than New Zealand and West Indies is distinctly mediocre. It would be a brave man who bets on Panesar playing the first Test in the Caribbean.

The Verdict
Fundamentally, England were beaten by a superior side. But they can take heart from faring a little better than Australia. Ultimately, a two-Test series can simply never satisfy.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

What Did We Learn From That Then?

I’ll leave others to do their marks out of ten, but there are other issues that the Test part of the tour have thrown up.

1. Two tests is too short for a tour. Both teams were settling into what could have been a highly competitive series. The first test had one of the finest run chases in history (although not the finest of the last month, bizarrely). The second had a tightly fought draw, which could have been much more interesting had India wanted to make it so.

2. England’s persistence with players is paying off. Strauss and Collingwood both paid back the faith that the selectors had in them during the first test. Both have been teetering on the edge of losing their places, but with three very gritty innings, they got England into a winning position in the First Test. Ian Bell should take comfort from this, although it is only 5 tests since his 199 against the team that is now widely believed to be the best in the world.

3. Alistair Cook needs a long chat with his mentor Graham Gooch. His fifty and out habit is becoming both embarrassing and a problem for the team. I suspect it may be linked to the want to turn him into a One-Day player, or that Andrew Strauss is not the quickest of scorers at the other end. He needs to learn to be patient and build the big innings that England need of him.

4. Kevin Pietersen needs to think more as the captain. His spat with Yuvraj, entertaining as it may have been, nearly cost him his wicket at the start of an excellent hundred. Targeting a player is a well worn tactic, but given Yuvraj’s performances, it is likely that it only spurred him on.

5. England’s bowlers need to learn from history. Or at least have talked to those who have done well on the sub-continent. All out pace isn’t the answer and Flintoff apart, they didn’t pose a threat in those conditions.

6. Matt Prior will be England’s wicket-keeper for the Ashes series. Tidy enough behind the stumps despite the testing conditions and a good 50 in the first test. He looked at least a match for Dhoni in the two matches if not better

7. Monty Panesar may not be England’s spinner for the Ashes series. He was comprehensively out-bowled by Graeme Swann, who must be considered the number one option when England revert to one spinner. The emergence as Swann as an attacking force should also dampen the cries for Adil Rashid to be rushed into the test team.

8 England need to remember how to win matches. In the last two series against SA and India, they have played the best two teams in the world at the moment and have not managed to capitalise on their periods of dominance. At Lords and Edgbaston, England were in winning positions but couldn’t see it through. Likewise in Chennai. They need to discover a ruthless streak and a Plan B.

Overall, and reverting to Vaughan-speak, England can take a lot of positives out of the test series, while being disappointed in the result. After the pounding in the One-Day series and the uncertainty about the security implications, they probably should have won the decisive first test. India are an excellent side, probably second in the world on current form. England have a lot to work on before the Ashes series, but the nucleus is in place.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

The new Christmas number one

In future decades, cricket historians may view December 21 2008 as the day when the era of Australian dominance, which had begun almost fourteen years previously, ended. Losing (and convincingly) in India was one thing - but Australia had suffered defeat there even during their 2001 peak. But failing to defend 414 in a home Test - at Perth at that - feels like a seminal, epoch-ending moment. And it was some failure - Australia were completely thrashed, three-quarters of their bowling attack utterly impotent. Sports pundits are more prone than most to hyperbole, but on this occasion it really does seem justified.

Many have recently rushed to claim India as the world's best side, following winning three and losing none of their last six Tests against Australia, and then exhibiting the confidence and skill to chase down 387 against England with consummate ease. Yet the argument does not stand up to close scrutiny. Sandwiched between their two series with Australia was a scrapped 1-1 draw at home to South Africa and then a 2-1 defeat in Sri Lanka. It seems a little premature to label them number one yet, though the startling recent progress of Gambhir, Sharma and Mishra suggests that they soon could be the world's best side.

Yet just now it is South Africa who have the most right to claim themselves as the new number ones, having so spectacularly defeated Australia on their home patch. It feels like the ultimate knockout blow. And it has been a long time coming - South Africa have won eight of their last nine Test series, including victories in England and Pakistan. Even in the exception, the draw in India, they did themselves great credit, especially in the light of Australia's woes there.

Two of South Africa's recent wins must rank amongst their ten finest of all time. In the remarkable run-chases at Edgbaston and Perth, Graeme Smith led from the front, compiling two masterful fourth-innings hundreds. After his two double centuries against England in 2003 he went five years without reaching 70 against either England or Australia. But with these two centuries in 2008 Smith has proved he is much more than a flat-track bully. Both innings were characterised by a controlled aggression. Smith has mellowed since the humiliating discrepency between his words and deeds during the 2005/06 clashes with Australia. He is a towering presence in world cricket, an innate leader of men.

While there are slight doubts over Jacques Kallis's long-term form (partially allayed by a vital pair of 50s at Perth), there have been vast improvements throughout the side of late. Neil McKenzie is seldom aesthetically pleasing but invariably solid. Hashim Amla, who looked out of his depth during his entry to Test cricket, is now a superb, counter-attacking number three - and one of the game's true stylists to boot. And AB de Villiers, the boy wonder who could have represented his country in any number of sports but wasted many a promising start through recklnessness, is gaining maturity fast. His unbeaten, match-winning century suggests that, after four years in which a lack of patience prevented fulfillment of his promise, consistency may have arrived.

As apparent yet again, there is something fashionable about deriding orthodox left-arm spinners. But Paul Harris made an invaluable contribution to the victory in Perth, claiming five wickets and displaying nous, control, calm - and even the ability to turn the ball a touch. An average of 32 from 19 Tests is certainly nothing to be sniffed at, given the main attacking threat is always expected to come from the quicks. The pace trio have claimed 131 wickets between them this year. Dale Steyn's brand of devishly late reverse swing accounts for his phenomenal career strike-rate of 38; Morne Morkel is sometimes too wayward but clearly has all the attributes to be a superb Test bowler. Makhaya Ntini may not be improving at his rate, but he is playing an admirable role as the senior pace bowler, and has much nous to pass on.

South Africa, then, are clearly a formidable side. And their recent record is surely sufficient to label them the best side in the world. Officially, they will be so if they are to win this series 3-0. That is probably asking a little too much. But with such problems in their bowling attack, Australia must be tempted to try drastic selectorial action to cling on at the top.

In short, we have a new Christmas number one.

Friday, 19 December 2008

England must keep the faith, for now at least

After being dropped in New Zealand last winter many thought Steve Harmison had played his last game for England. But he responded magnificiently for Durham; and, had England recalled him earlier, the Test series against South Africa could conceivably have ended differently. Indicative of his new-found zest for playing for England, he even reversed his decision to retire from ODIs - the single act which had most enraged his critics, led by Bob Willis.

Yet in the four months since his recall, Harmison has already managed to be dropped from the ODI and Test side alike. However, it would be grossly premature to say he is in an equally grim position to in New Zealand. His performance in the last Test was respectable enough, save for suffering at the brilliant Virender Sehwag's hands (and how different the game would have been had Sehwag not been dropped of Harmison's bowling). I would have sooner dropped James Anderson, enduring yet another miserable tour.

In the West Indies, Harmison remains almost certain to play in the first Test. It was there five years ago that he begun his meteoric rise to the world number one spot. For all his faults, he remains England's most fearsome quick when at his best (save perhaps for Simon Jones). England must keep the faith, for the series in the Caribbean at least. Ultimately, Australia's opening batsmen would much sooner line up against Anderson or even Broad than a revved-up Harmison.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Johnson leader of the lefties

Mitchell Johnson continues to carry the Australian seam attack and confound the critics who write-off the Aussies' bowling strength in the post-McGrath and Warne era.

Mitchell Johnson’s stunning spell against South Africa revealed a bowler in prime form. Johnson has spent most of the last year securing his place in the Australian team but now, 15 matches into a seemingly long and successful career, he has become the leader of the Aussie attack and Ricky Ponting’s go-to seamer.

Johnson is not the only left armer at the peak of his powers. Zaheer Khan is a key part of India’s current success and has been showcasing his mastery of conventional and reverse swing throughout his team’s run of One Day and Test wins over England. With Ryan Sidebottom and Chaminda Vaas also in the top 15 of the world Test rankings, this is perhaps the golden age of the left arm paceman.

With Sidebottom struggling for fitness and Vaas nearing the end of his illustrious career, Johnson and Khan – at the front of respective Australian and Indian batteries of lefties containing Nathan Bracken, Doug Bollinger, Irfan Pathan and RP Singh - are the pre-eminent left arm seamers and two of the bowlers most likely to knock Dale Steyn off his best fast bowler in the world perch.

Khan has been attracting comparisons with Wasim Akram – the ultimate compliment for a left armer – and the England players who have consistently struggled to cope with his pace, accuracy and array of variations would be the first to acknowledge him as the trickiest seamer to face in world cricket.

Flourishing on the subcontinent is the sign of a class pace bowler and Johnson’s promising recent displays in India suggest he deserves to be considered in the same company as Vaas and Khan.

The Queenslander’s unconventional run-up and slingy action disguise a genuine swing bowler whose nippy pace often surprises batsmen. His seven wicket haul on the first day at Perth was a mixture of swing bowler’s dismissals, facilitated by his angle of attack to right handers and wickets captured due raw pace on a WACA surface that isn’t as fast and bouncy as it once was.

The current surfeit of left arm pacemen is not only good news for spinners who appreciate the rough generated by their colleagues follow-through, but also for cricket fans who like constructing fantasy cricket teams – a left-handed 11 would now give a right-handed line-up a really good game and provide the ICC with an alternative to the ill-fated World XI Super Series.

Written by Philip Oliver, a sports writer who blogs about cricket betting.

A Different View on Monty

Monty Panesar has been the subject of countless articles in the last few days. No sentient being who has ever watched an England cricket match could possibly fail to have heard the conclusions that Monty has no variations, his bowling isn't improving (if Shane Warne had royalty rights over his "same Test 34 times" remark, he'd have made another million by now) and that he doesn't take enough interest in his field placings.

Apart from being staggeringly lazy, boring and repetitive journalism, and without in any way trying to suggest that Monty had a good match or has even had that good a year, I'm not sure about these points. And I'm certainly not sure that they should be repeated as gospel truths.

I think Monty's trouble is that he has no idea whether the powers that be want him to be a strike bowler or a stock bowler. Should he be brought on to take wickets, with the risk of a few balls disappearing? Or is he coming on to tie up an end whilst the fast bowlers rotate in strike mode from the other? In my view, he started off as a strike bowler. He was too raw for anyone to expect him to tie down big name batsmen, but they recognised that he spun the ball miles for a finger-spinner. So they threw the ball to him, and told him to see what he could produce - and he produced some sensational spells of bowling that brought him some of the biggest scalps and best players of spin in the game. But then things happened to change his approach.

He was dropped in Australia for Ashley Giles, the very definition of an uninspiring, unthreatening bowler. Monty had spent nearly a year bowling in a way that caused sober analysts of the game (to say nothing of the more exciteable ones) to label him the best finger-spinner in the world. Then he was dropped for England's most important series for a long time for a guy who made a career out of holding up an end, and in some ways he has made himself into a bowler of that type.

One of my abiding memories from watching the car crash of a defeat in Adelaide was the ease with which Giles was milked for four an over on the same pitch that Shane Warne had made look like a minefield. In the same way, Monty was milked by Tendulkar and co on a pitch that actually looked like a minefield. Granted, neither were helped by their inexperienced captains, who set in-out fields rather than forcing the batsmen to take risks by hitting over the top, but the comparison remains relevant. That Test was the last Giles played and if England drop Monty tomorrow, with Swann in situ and Rashid coming through, it may be the last he plays for some time as well.

He has also had to play totally different roles in the team depending on whether he was part of a four-man or five-man attack. Specifically, in a four man attack, he was used to tie up an end so that the pace bowlers could rotate through the innings. In a five man attack, he could be thrown the ball and told to toss it up and see if he could make things happen. In the last year, he has been mostly in the hands of Michael Vaughan, a brilliant, brilliant captain, and one of my personal favourite cricketers - but he was in Vaughan's hands at the worst time, when his captaincy was on the wane. Vaughan used Panesar like Giles, and, again, Monty has responded by trying to make himself into what he perceived was wanted. This says a lot about him as a team man, but I would have preferred him to say "sod you, if you want a bowler like that then get Robert Croft out of retirement - I can actually turn the ball".

I'm not going to make a separate point out of it, because it's well trodden ground, but the same pattern is obvious when you think about Monty and ODIs. In a typical English way, with typical suspicion of unorthodox talent (parallels with Wayne Rooney, anyone?), we have turned an enthusiastic young finger spinner who can turn the ball like a leggie into a typical, dour containing bowler who looks at his economy rate rather than his wickets column to find out how well he has bowled. There aren't many bowlers who can bowl any team in the world out on a good day, and we should celebrate the fact that Monty is one of them rather than complain that he doesn't keep the runs down in the meantime. Hopefully, KP and his attacking instincts will take this approach and take Monty in a different direction.

At the same time as all of this, Monty was forced to focus on his fielding and batting instead of his bowling - again whilst suffering constantly in comparison with Ashley Giles. Hasn't anyone worked out yet that he will always be a terrible fielder and batsman, regardless of how much work he does (and his work ethic is not in question)? Thinking about his bowling, as we should, he didn't come into the team as a hard bitten county pro who had toiled for summer after summer and had learned all that he was going to learn. What he needed was a mentor, one who believed in his talent and who could nurture that talent into full bloom, his Terry Jenner. He still doesn't have that - in fact, England don't even have a spin bowling coach. Why the hell not? How can the cast of thousands that follows the team around not include a spin bowling coach? Is it therefore any wonder that Monty doesn't understand the metagame that should accompany his bowling, and hasn't developed dangerous variations? Where are the stories of him spending hour after hour with pool balls or oranges, seeing what new things he can do with them, or sitting at the feet of the greats of the game, lapping up their insights? Is he supposed to learn his trade by osmosis? If you'll excuse the flood of rhetorical questions, he has been horribly mismanaged by England.

If you want an example of this dysfunctionality, Mushtaq Ahmed was due to be appointed as spin bowling coach - why? Mushy was a great bowler and is an admirable man in many, many ways, but Monty is currently our premier spinner, and he is a finger spinner...so why are we appointing a leggie as his coach? Perhaps David Gower should teach Bell to bat left-handed, and Marcus Trescothick should work on Matt Prior's wicketkeeping. England have a terrible record with young spinners recently - Richard Dawson all but gave up spin bowling after being handled abysmally during a tour of Australia, and Chris Schofield almost gave up cricket after his experiences. Ever since the Gatting ball, we have been searching for so desperately for our own Shane Warne that it has destroyed a number of careers - so god help Adil Rashid.

As one final thought, there is one other spinner in the world who is quiet and a bit eccentric off the field, who seems born to bowl and has help from a quirk in his physique, has had no renowned mentor but has created devastating variations, has always been a rabbit with the bat and a dreamer in the field and who keeps runs down whilst taking hatfuls of wickets. But if we're now criticising Monty for not being Murali, then the world really has gone mad.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Bowling deficiencies undermines magnificent Strauss

England produced a performance of tremendous resilience, but ultimately they simply weren’t good enough. In the final analysis, the twin failures of Ian Bell, Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff were vital. But what was even more so was a lack of bowling penetration.

Monty Panesar has been under considerable pressure of late, and fourth innings figures of 0-105 will only reinforce this. Patently, he has failed to develop since his debut in India almost three years ago, as also illustrated by him being dropped from the one-day side. His record remains very respectable, but it has been boosted by relatively easy pickings against West Indies and New Zealand. And in seven Tests in the sub-continent, he averages close to 60, showing an inability to thrive when denied the bouncy pitches he benefits from in England.

If he struggles in the next Test, he will be under considerable pressure for his place, especially if he is out-bowled by Graeme Swann once more. On debut, Swann looked to attack far more than Panesar, and was unfortunate not to claim more than four wickets. If Swann can score runs at number eight in the next Test, Panesar’s deficiencies in this department will also count against him.

Andrew Flintoff was skilful and wholehearted as ever, but unable to extract much reverse-swing in the fourth innings. India were able to play him out, and score rapidly off James Anderson and Steve Harmison. Anderson is woefully short of confidence, and should be dropped for the next game. Amjad Khan, with more ability to generate reverse-swing, would be worth a gamble.

With the bat, Andrew Strauss was magnificent. So often the subject of criticism on this blog, Strauss proved his quality with two masterful centuries. Displaying solid defence and the ability to manoeuvre the ball into gaps, especially off the back foot, Strauss arguably enjoyed the best game of any English batsman since Alec Stewart’s epic pair of hundreds in Bridgetown 14 years ago. Paul Collingwood has looked so out of form for so much of the last twelve months, and yet has now managed two centuries in three games.

The failings of Pietersen and Flintoff were disappointing, displaying rash shot selection and a lack of subtlety. But one would hardly be surprised if Pietersen responded with a century next match. It was, however, odd that he did not so much as bowl an over of Collingwood or Ian Bell’s medium-pace, when the rest of the attack so clearly lacked penetration.

More worrying is Bell. His ‘breakthrough’ innings – 199 against South Africa – now feels an age away, as he has returned to his old penchant for infuriating. England would be wrong to continue to ignore Owais Shah, superb in the ODI series and scorer of 88 and 38 in his only previous Test in India. He must have greeted Collingwood’s century with more than a little frustration. After three-and-a-half-days England were in an excellent position to wrap up what would have been a phenomenal win.

A great deal of credit must be paid to the magisterial, albeit immensely contrasting, innings of Sehwag and Tendulkar. If they are to earn a share of this ludicrously short series, England need their wicket-taking threat to extend beyond merely Flintoff and Swann. The bottom line, alas, is England performed admirably – and it is worth remembering that they got closer to victory than Australia managed a few months ago - but were simply beaten, and beaten well, by a superior side.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Pressure finally off England

England return to India on a wave of goodwill, which is unlikely to change regardless of the outcome of the Test series.

It is fair to say that a lot has happened in the two weeks since India and England last met and everyone involved, for a wide variety of reasons, will be relieved when the first Test gets under way at Chennai.

The match itself is still not being talked about, which shows how significant it is that England even made the return trip to India. A result of a Test match has not been so incidental for a long time.

This, it should be said, suits England. As commendable as their return is, the convincing series defeat that surely awaits them would otherwise have been heavily scrutinised, coming on the back of home Test series defeats to India and South Africa and limited overs disasters in the Caribbean and the ill-fated One Day series that preceded this two match rubber.

Peter Moores’ position is becoming increasingly unstable, with his responsibilities as coach and power in the dressing room seemingly steadily decreasing as Kevin Pietersen’s captaincy develops. Another poor showing might have hastened the search for a successor that will start in earnest if the Ashes are not retained next summer.

However, England’s chances are not as slim as they might have been. The distraction and lack of preparation of the last two weeks has been more of a factor for the home side – the ‘close to home’ phrase used by the England camp after the Mumbai attacks should really be attributed to the Indian players – and if anyone is going to be inhibited and negatively affected by recent events, it is the hosts.

India buckled under pressure and threw away a series lead in the 2006 meeting between the teams, but they are now a more experienced and rounded team that has its eyes on the number one ranking.

England have won just two of the 13 Tests they have played against India since last winning a series against them in 1996 and in ordinary circumstances would not be expected to prevail this time around. However, extraordinary circumstances should not bring an extraordinary result and England can look forward to the rare occurrence of emerging from a series defeat with their reputations enhanced.

Written by Philip Oliver, a sports writer who blogs about cricket betting.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Aussies on the decline, or is it just another tour of India?

Much has been made of Australia's series loss to India, their first in a very long time, and the immediate speculation is of course whether Australia has lost it. No more McGrath, Warne, Langer, Martyn or Gilchrist, no more Australia? It's the question that's been asked more often than any other in cricket, but one that is perhaps a little hesitant.

The first thing to consider is that when any team loses five of its best players (although Martyn was hardly a star at the end), it's going to take some time to adjust. A half-team turnaround is difficult to manage, no matter how good the youngsters are.

Secondly, let's remember the fact that in Australia's period of dominance, they only won a series in India once. Even at home, they have traditionally struggled against the Indians, always finding it difficult to cope with their spin. Of course now, India have found themselves a pretty decent pace attack, with Ishant Sharma one of the most promising young fast bowlers in the world. All in all, it seems that Australia failing its mission impossible for so many years is not something to read too much into. The tour of India has always been Superman's kryptonite after all!

As Australia get ready to host South Africa, once again brimming with confidence at the prospect of knocking off the Australians, we stand to get our best indication of where the other challengers of the crown are at, and where the former invincibles are too. How the Aussies cope with Dale Steyn will be an interesting battle, Steyn the hottest fast bowler in test cricket at the moment, and Australia seemingly vulnerable to the swinging ball, it stands to be a contest to savour.

History has shown, however, that South African confidence can often be misplaced, for many a time have the Proteas travelled down under on a high, in form and ready to pounce, only to be sent packing home by an Aussie side too strong. Graeme Smith has made it a habit of making bold pre-series predictions, perhaps desiring to live up to his former opponents' (McGrath, Warne) arrogant reputations. Smith will be the key to his nation's success, as a captain he will need to stand up and continue his great form, and as an opener he will need to get a solid start to their innings.

With Ricky Ponting under a wrist injury cloud, only time will tell whether he has indeed lost it, and his ability to cope with Steyn will prove telling. His vulnerability against spin was always obvious in India. After all, how many great spin bowlers are there outside the subcontinent these days with Shane Warne gone? Daniel Vettori certainly comes to mind, so the Australians' victory over New Zealand (weak though they may be) will be a relief for many.

It's showtime though, as two of test cricket's best clash down under. Are Australia on the decline, or is it just another case of India-itis? Once again, only time will tell, but if South Africa can shake a monkey off their back and record a series victory down under, it may be more serious than we though.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Struggling New Zealand face up to life at the bottom

All eyes will soon be on the battle between Australia and South Africa, but a potentially more significant power shift might be occurring in a series contested between teams at the bottom of the Test rankings table.

Australia’s one-sided Test series with New Zealand represented something of a warm-up for both teams. The Aussies face a South Africa team that has designs on toppling the world number ones, whilst the Black Caps face West Indies in a more direct winner-takes-all meeting: the loser will be confirmed as the worst Test team after Bangladesh.

It is fair to say New Zealand are in a state of disarray (in Test terms at least – their prolonged malaise in the longer form of the game has had no impact on their ability to punch above their weight in limited overs cricket.)

The protracted departure of coach John Bracewell has destabilised a team that tastes Test victory on the rarest of occasions – they have only won overseas Tests in Zimbabwe and Bangladesh during Bracewell’s five year tenure.

Outspoken Kiwi legend Martin Crowe described New Zealand’s meek surrender in the second Test at Adelaide as his country’s ‘worst moment in Test cricket’, which suggests the only way is up for incoming coach Andy Moles.

Unfortunately this is not true, despite his new charges’ slide to the base of the Test rankings table. They are going in a different direction to Windies, who have been more competitive than the Black Caps since the teams’ last meeting.

New Zealand won the three match series in early 2006 by a 2-0 scoreline but have since been heavily beaten by South Africa, England and Australia, whilst West Indies’ highlights included a Test win in South Africa, a drawn home series against Sri Lanka and a competitive battle with the Aussies.

This is therefore a realistic chance for West Indies to win their first away series against a major nation since 1994/95.

Such a result would be significant for both teams. West Indies would have a tangible reward to go with the feel good factor generated by the Stanford Super Series, whilst New Zealand would be forced to embark on a rebuilding process that has been needed for some time.

Bracewell’s departure follows a rash of senior player retirements, with Stephen Fleming, Chris Cairns, Nathan Astle, Scott Styris, Shane Bond and Craig McMillan all hanging up their black caps in recent years. Moles and skipper Daniel Vettori face a tough transition period and only need to ask their opponents next month about how it feels to be Test cricket’s whipping boys.

Written by Philip Oliver, a sports writer who blogs about cricket betting.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

England ODI Ratings

It seems irrelevant given the horrific events unfolding in India, but here are the series ratings for the 5-0 thrashing India inflicted upon England.

Alastair Cook 3
Simply should not be playing ODIs ahead of Denly, Key, Solanki et al.

Ravi Bopara 6
Showed some encourgaing signs as opener - even if running between the wickets remains a safety hazard. Was the only opener to muster a fifty, so is worth perservering with.

Ian Bell 4
A miserable series, containing three failures and a delightful, but all-too-brief, run-a-ball 46. His place, too, must be under serious question.

Kevin Pietersen 8
Number three is where he should bat in ODIs, as his century showed. However, compared to Yuvraj, Sehwag and co, his destructive ability does not seem quite as impressive. It was mystifying that he should take 60 balls over his last 46 runs during his 111*, but in a tough tour Pietersen cannot really be faulted.

Paul Collingwood 3
Averaged under 17 with the bat, while his bowling was also below par. It was ludicrous that a man in such poor form should be promoted to number four, and his place in the side looks under real threat after essentially doing nothing since resigning the ODI captaincy.

Owais Shah 9
Finally, Shah has arrived. Able to work the ball into gaps, and hit powerfully down the ground, especially off spin, he was undoubtedly England's man of the series, and his 48-ball 72 almost kept England in the series. Continually moving him between positions three and six, England would be foolish if they did not recognise that his best position should be number four.

Andrew Flintoff 6
Toiled away admirably with the ball, as he does, and gave hints of his batting prowess, without ever really going on. But England must use him wisely - can they really expect him to play every international in all three forms of the game?

Samit Patel 5
Chipped in with some useful cameos coming in at number seven, but Patel, as widely expected, was found out with the ball. Still has a role to play in the side - but as a batsman who can bowl, not visa versa.

Matt Prior 3
A thoroughly disappointing series, with some keeping blunders, while even his top score (38) came far too slowly. After 33 games, he averages 22 and has a strike-rate of 73. He may be the best keeper option England have - but he certainly shouldn't be opening.

Graeme Swann 5
Bewilderingly omitted from the first two games, Swann found life tough. But he did confirm that he is a better bowler than Samit Patel, and deserves a longer run in the side.

Stuart Broad 6
Suffered at the hands of Sehwag, but who hasn't? Showed his growing maturity and will learn from the experience. Along with Flintoff, he is Pietersen's 'go-to' man when the opposition are on top.

Steve Harmison 4
He was never going to find conditions to his liking, and so it proved. But at least he managed to take the new white ball without spraying it everywhere.

James Anderson 2
A miserable series: 25 wicketless overs for 158 says it all. As his Test fortunes have waxed, so his ODI ones have waned. Too inconsistent, he must be ditched.

The Verdict
England were always going to find this series supremely tough, and so it proved. Their policy of playing only four bowlers was exposed as sheer folly; with the all-round skills of Flintoff, Broad and Swann, there is room for two relative rabbits at numbers ten and eleven. They ended the series with a completely different top three from how they started, exposing their confusion. They showed a refreshing willingness to tinker with the batting order, on the plus side, but an inflexibility after they had selected their side: witness Shah being wasted at six in the fifth game. England may have discovered a sound formula to do well at home; but, whereas Bell and Prior can work as an opening partnership in England, Harmison as a middle-innings enforcer and Patel as the sole spinner, they cannot overseas. England were too slow to adapt in India; and, simply put, lacked the players to compete.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Time to trust Shah

While England have been getting routinely thrashed on their travels through India, there has been one ray of solace. Owais Shah, for so long underperforming and untrusted, has most certainly come of age. At 30, he is sure of himself and his game; in Kevin Pietersen, he appears to have found a captain who trusts him, even if it is bewildering that Shah continues to be up and down the order, from six to three, and back again.

The statistics for Shah of late are exceptional. Since the start of the English summer, he has played 13 innings, and scored 514 runs at an average of 47 and a strike-rate of 97. With his ability to manouevre the ball into gaps aided by his phenomenal hitting down the ground, the product of supreme batspeed, Shah has established himself as one of England's two best one-day batsmen, probably second only to his skipper Kevin Pietersen.

Pietersen showed great faith in Shah and promoted him to number three for the home series with South Africa. Many felt he was better off lower down the order, where his unorthodoxy and power hitting has proved so effective, but Shah hasn't exactly failed at three during this time, averaging over 40 in six innings. However, perhaps tellingly, his two best innings at three were in much-reduced matches, suggesting he is better when he knows exactly what is required of him. The argument does not completely hold up, though, given he has batted in the top three for Middlesex for years.

Clearly, England are confused over his best position. In the second game of this series, Shah made a somewhat slow 58 batting at three. He was promptly moved back down to six, scoring a useful 40 at nigh-on a run-a-ball. In game four, with England having only 22 overs to bat, many were mystified when Pietersen moved down from three, and Shah back up there. But Shah is probably England's best Twenty20 batsman, and proved as much with a fantastic 72 from 48 balls, treating the spinners and seamers with disdain, especially with his trademark flat-batted straight drive. Had he taken England home with a century, as seemed possible, Shah would have been a hero, but he nonetheless reminded all of his limited-overs skills. So it seemed bizarre when he was moved back down to six for the fifth game in the series. He seemed unflustered, however, providing England's innings with late-order impetus en route to 66*.

England seem convinced that Shah must bat at either three or six. But this seems ridiculous. Pietersen, as England's skipper and best batsman, should bat at three. Shah, not the out-of-form Paul Collingwood, should bat at four, where his dexterity against spin and at the end of the innings can be exploited, and he can be shielded from perceived weaknesses against the new seaming ball.

Owais Shah is playing the best cricket of his career. England seemed in danger of squandering a fine, albeit sometimes infuriating talent; after scoring 88 and 38 on Test debut in India two years ago, he played only three ODIs in the next fourteen months. Most bewilderingly of all, Ravi Bopara, then with just one ODI 50 to his name, was preferred to Shah for the series in Sri Lanka a year ago. England can't keep having Shah as their spare batsman. He is in form, knows the conditions and deserves a run in the Test side at last.

Through sheer force of runs, Shah has established himself as an indispensable member of England's one-day side, one of the very few players able to take the game with conviction to the opposition. Paul Collingwood may have struck a brilliant, career-saving hundred only two Tests ago. But, given their vastly contrasting form, who would India rather bowl to in the Tests?

Monday, 24 November 2008

In praise of the batting power play

The latest ICC amendment to the One Day International playing conditions looks like being a hit with spectators and batsmen, if not bowlers.

The batting power play is cricket’s best new regulation for some time. It might not be as significantly game-changing as the expanded third umpire referral system, but its introduction represents a much-needed fillip for 50 over cricket and shows the law-makers do take spectator enjoyment into consideration.

The new system needs tinkering. There is a grey area surrounding the element of choice involved – what happens if fielding team and batting team want to take their power play at the same time?

The current convention is for the fielding captain to tag his power play onto the first 10 overs of compulsory fielding restrictions, with the batting side targeting a spell two thirds through the innings, around the time of the mandatory ball change at 34 overs.

However, a flying start by the batting team might prompt them to call for their power play at the same time the fielding captain does; whose power play it is is important, as the state of the game might be very different after 15 overs – either side might not want to choose their power play at that stage.

Bowling changes also need to be looked at. It is part of the cat-and-mouse nature of the rule for the batting team to pounce on a part-time bowler by commencing five overs of fielding restrictions; for the fielding captain to stand down a fill-in bowler at the start of his run-up in favour of his star man goes against the spirit of the new regulation.

These are mere teething problems. The meandering middle overs of a One Day innings have been instantly enlivened and a new tactical dimension is introduced. Big hitters can now reside at four and five in the batting order rather than as openers or number seven sloggers – it is the licence Andrew Flintoff has needed to play his natural game, although as Kevin Pietersen’s power play go-to bowler, he must curse the new regulation.

India’s current superiority over England might persuade them to try new batting power play tactics – as soon as possible as mentioned above if Virender Sehwag is in full flight, or at the death if Yuvraj Singh and Yusuf Pathan are new to the crease – although the ease with which teams score in the batting power play asks some interesting questions.

Why do England remain so incapable of utilising the 10 overs of compulsory power play? Why do all batsmen not play with more freedom at all times? Is limited overs cricket heading towards a full innings of fielding restrictions? These queries suggest the batting power play is here to say and not about to join the Supersub on the ICC scrapheap of abandoned regulations.

Written by Philip Oliver, a sports writer who blogs about cricket betting.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Playing a different game

India’s series-clinching defeat of England was in doubt for large portions of England’s run-chase, as Owais Shah and Andrew Flintoff valiantly hauled England back into contention. But had they seen England home it would have concealed a desperate lack of flexibility in the side’s batting – and perhaps most fundamentally, a lack of collective skill.

The decision to open with Bell and Bopara, as if it was a 50-over chase rather than a 22-over one, betrayed a complete inability of England’s management to think on their feet. Bell has shown signs of being a good one-day opener, playing second fiddle, but simply lacks the explosive hitting crucial in a match that was virtually a Twenty20.

England needed to show intent from ball one to chase down the target of 198. Instead, they mustered a paltry 21 from their first six Powerplay overs, a familiar tale. They should have done everything to ensure their best players faced as many balls as possible – obvious, perhaps, but they palpably failed to do so. Opening with Shah, alongside Bopara, and having Pietersen at three and Flintoff at four would have showed a flexibility that would have worried India. Bell’s 12 runs from 15 balls hardly constituted the flying start England needed.

Owais Shah played an exceptional innings, displaying his powerful straight-hitting and unorthodoxy: finally, he has cemented his role in the one-day side, though his best position remains the subject of conjecture. Yet had he taken England home it would only have concealed their pitiful efforts at the start and end of the innings, at their complete inability to adapt to the demands of the situation. Put simply, they appeared to be playing a different game from India, lacking firepower at the start and end of the innings and, save for Shah, Flintoff and Pietersen, the ability to hit sixes.

This side below may be the best England can muster in Indian conditions in 50-over games, although it probably still isn’t good enough:
Harmison (given that Sidebottom is injured)

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Pietersen's favouritism does England no favours

England's desire to keep faith with its players would once have been admirable; now it just makes the management and captain look incapable of making tough decisions.

England’s defeat in the second One Day International made for painful viewing. Watching the defeat, the team’s second mauling in four days, was bad enough, but the post-match interviews were the icing on the cake for England fans frustrated by their team’s performance and composition.

In the era of Team England media training and clich├ęd soundbites, Kevin Pietersen was never going to do anything other than defend his players and the team’s selection policy, but it would have been refreshing if the skipper referred in some way to the problems that seem so obvious to so many.

Darren Gough accused the England management of favouritism in their selection policy and it is hard to disagree. Tim has referred to the absurd preference for Alastair Cook over Dimitri Mascarenhas and the mystifying absence of Graeme Swann and it appears these choices are those of the captain.

Pietersen has been keen to stamp his authority on the job, and whilst his instinct and man-management have paid some dividends – notably the rejuvenation of Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison - his apparent omnipotence in selection is dangerous for those whose faces don’t fit.

A hierarchy has been established that makes objective decisions difficult and results in selection choices being based on factors other than form, balance of the team and conditions.

It is ridiculous that Swann is not playing. It is odd that Matt Prior is retained as opener despite scoring one half century in his 29 ODI innings. It is debatable whether Paul Collingwood and Steve Harmison should be in the team at all.

Sweeping changes are dangerous and it should be acknowledged that India are playing supremely well, but we all have our favourites, don’t we KP?

My team for the third ODI at Kanpur: Bell, Bopara, Pietersen, Shah, Flintoff, Patel, Collingwood, Prior, Swann, Broad, Anderson

Written by Philip Oliver, a sports writer who blogs about cricket betting.

Friday, 14 November 2008

England need Swann, amongst many things

It was as if the incredible 4-0 thumping of South Africa never happened, as England endured a humiliating loss in the first of their seven ODIs in India. England were excellent against South Africa; but they paid the price for stubbornly sticking to the formula that was so successful then. In vastly different conditions, different approaches are needed.

Most fundamentally, England blundered badly in failing to select Graeme Swann. Swann had a very good series against New Zealand in the summer, was extremely unfortunate to be dropped for Samit Patel, and his stats show he should be regarded as England's premier one-day spinner. that is not to say Patel does not have a role to play; but, despite his five wicket haul in the third ODI against South Africa, he is a batting allrounder who should be regarded as the fifth or six bowler. England need both Swann and Patel in these conditions.

Though Ravi Bopara gave a long overdue reminder of his talent, it is bewildering that there is no place even in the squad for Dimitri Mascharenhas. He offers remarkable six-hitting capacity at number eight, canny bowling that could be well-suited to these wickets, smart fielding and a shrewd cricketing brain. Mascharenhas is a fine cricketer and has already done enough to suggest he could have a vital role to play for England.

The opening partnership of Matt Prior and Ian Bell excelled against South Africa, but it feels knee-jerk to critice it so soon on the tour. But, in Indian conditions power hitting, of the sort exhibited by Virender Sehwag, is needed from the off. Prior, the supossed aggressor, may be better utilised lower down the order. But England, having injudiciously selected Cook as the reserve batsman, have few options. They must adapt to survive - select two spinners and show a willingness to tinker with the batting order.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Australia - defeated and now a little vulnerable

As many had predicted, Australia did indeed lose their series in India. In the final analysis, they were twice thrashed and shaded one of the two draws: it was a humbling series, leading many to question whether they are the best side in the world any longer. India were disappointing in their recent series with Sri Lanka and South Africa – so, if the latter can gain a draw and a win from their two up-and-coming series, they could justifiably call themselves the world’s best.

Amidst all the gloom, there were three significant positives to emerge for Australia. Off-spinner Jason Krezja made a spectacular debut in the final game, claiming twelve scalps – although his economy rate of almost five illustrates that he received plenty of stick. But a wicket-taking spinner, even one who needs to improve his control, is something Australia needed and may just have found.

Shane Watson, batting at number six, mirrored Andrew Flintoff’s role in the England side. And there were signs the enigma can replicate his limited-overs form in Tests. He found batting hard, but hinted that he is capable of Test hundreds. And his reverse-swing and control evoked Flintoff: he was Australia’s best seamer. That was not saying too much, however, as Brett Lee had a torrid time, Stuart Clark proved toothless and Mitchell Johnson struggled after a fine start. From this vantage point, England will hope to have the better pace attack come next summer.

Finally, the unobtrusive Simon Katich had a fine series, averaging nearly 50. Unlike England with Mark Ramprakash, Australia have ignored age and past Test failings to reward first-class brilliance: Katich, with three hundreds in seven Tests since his recall, is fully vindicating them. His minimalist technique and eschewing of risk, save for the very occasional injudicious shot, made him invaluable at the top, while he even displayed the ability to dominate the bowling. Just as Justin Langer transformed himself from tenacious scrapper to top-order dominator, so could Katich.

But, save for Michael Hussey, the other batting was disappointing. Matthew Hayden fought hard but appears in decline: Australia’s selectors must be tempted to select Shaun Marsh soon. Ricky Ponting faded badly after beginning with a century, ensuring his record in India remains grim.

In the absence of Andrew Symonds and a spinner in whom they could trust, Australia’s team selection and on-field tactics were more confused than for years. Cameron White, a spinner who barely bowled, batted at eight, leaving Australia with only three bona fida bowlers. And Ponting resorted to a part-timer, in Michael Clarke, too much – he bowled only eight overs fewer than White – even though Katich looked the far more threatening spinner. His over-reliance on spin on the fourth afternoon of the final Test led Allan Border to criticise him for putting pocket before country. Had he bowled his seamers instead of part-timers, the over-rate would have suffered more, as would Ponting’s pocket – but Harbhajan and Dhoni may not have been able to share a crucial hundred partnership.

Amidst all the talk of empires ending, it is worth recalling that Australia were beaten in India in 2001 too. But that series was won by Herculean, career-defining efforts from Harbhajan Singh and VVS Laxman; man-for-man, no one thought Australia the inferior side. On this occasion, they have simply been worn down by a side superior in top- and middle-order batting, wicket-keeping, spinners and even, almost incredibly, pace. That is something altogether more worrying.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Is this the end for Herschelle Gibbs?

The clock is ticking on the career of one of modern cricket's most exciting and controversial players.

Herschelle Gibbs’ axing for South Africa’s One Day series with Bangladesh might spell the end of one of cricket’s most colourful careers. Controversy has followed the explosive Cape Towner around and it would be sadly apt if an off-field indiscretion is to be Gibbs’ final contribution to South African cricket.

Gibbs will be 35 in February and cannot be seen as a long-term part of the Proteas’ plans. Dropped from the Test team in January, his hopes of continued selection for limited overs cricket hung in the balance even before his latest error of judgment, with the selectors keen to rebuild after the One Day team’s heavy defeat in England.

If this is to be the end for Gibbs, he should be remembered for his stunning strokeplay, not the ill-discipline that dogged his career, although this is not an attempt to gloss over his failure to live up to the role model status he was afforded as a representation of South Africa’s united sporting future.

It is easy to dwell on his role in the Cronje match-fixing scandal, his unseemly altercation with Pakistani fans that brought a two Test ban and his drink-related bans, but my principal memory of Gibbs will be his flawless 183 at the Oval in September 2003.

That innings was a microcosm of Gibbs’ career. He exhibited his full range of strokes, striking 36 boundaries and totally mastering the home bowling attack, but his dismissal shortly before the close, slogging wildly at Ashley Giles, precipitated a collapse that culminated in unexpected defeat.

Gibbs’ hand-eye coordination and attacking instinct made him one of the most fluent batsmen of modern times, capable of destruction that puts him in the same bracket as fellow modern-day dashers Adam Gilchrist and Sanath Jayasuriya.

However, Gibbs never utilised his massive natural talent in quite the same way as those left-handed stroke makers, hinting at the petulant and undisciplined streak that got him in hot water with the authorities.

Even his status as one of the game’s greatest ever fielders is tarnished by his dropping of Steve Waugh during the 1999 World Cup, with the Aussie’s riposte to the fielder’s haste to celebrate now in cricketing folklore.

Gibbs fans will choose another encounter with South Africa’s fiercest rivals as Gibbs’ career-defining moment.

No other player could have played the innings Gibbs did in taking the Proteas to their target of 435 in the famous One Day match at the Wanderers in March 2006. 175 from 111 balls, with 21 fours and seven sixes, was the ultimate showcase of Gibbs’ talent. A unique match and a unique player.

Written by Philip Oliver, a sports writer who blogs about cricket betting.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Laxman's time is now

VVS Laxman has long been regarded as brilliant and infuriating in equal measure. How can a player who has consistently put Australia to the sword in a manner only Lara and Tendulkar can rival in the last decade have had to endure constant speculation about his place in the side? Why has he been unable to dominate others in the way he does them?

But now, finally, Laxman has the opportunity to step out of the shadow of the fab four: to establish himself as the best batsman in the Indian side. In the last eighteen months, he averages a formidable 57, with his excellance asserting itself more consistently. And no easy runs, either: these Tests have been against Australia, England, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

Laxman's qualities are equally apparent against pace and spin alike. His expertly compiled 79 at Perth earlier this year paved the way for India's incredible Test win there. In Sri Lanka a few months ago, the fab four suffered a slow and painful death at the hands of Messrs Murali and Mendis. Laxman was by no means immune from this, but his panache and concentration put the others to shame: he averaged 43; Dravid 24; and Tendulkar and Ganguly 16 apiece.

For all Dravid's brilliant innings over the years, it is palpable that he is in decline. With Ganguly retiring after this series, India may wish to stick with Dravid for a while longer yet. But if they are to do so, it should not be at number three.

VVS Laxman is about to turn 34; he is about to play his hundredth Test match. Yet, for all that, for all his six sublime centuries against Australia, it has been a career essentially lived in the shadows of the other three members of the fab four. In large part this has been due to his infuriating tendency to get dismissed when well set. But it is also in part because he has been hidden away at number six, to often left stranded and too late to dictate the innings' tempo.

Now that must change. Laxman has shown, during his limited opportunities, that his technique and batting style are well-suited to the pivotal role of number three. The other components of the fab four have had their best years; Laxman may yet have his in front of him. After his sublime double century, India should recognise that they must entrust Laxman with more responsibility: he has scored 13 Test hundreds, and, with several years ahead of him, 20 is eminently attainable. He has developed admirable tenacity and patience tio go with his breathtaking stroke-play. Now put Laxman in the most important position - and watch him flourish.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Stanford Substandard Series

The Stanford Super Series is underway and is yet to produce the sort of cricket that its founder was expecting.

The first Stanford Super Series has only partially lived up to its billing. It has certainly been ‘Stanford’ – the benefactor has been a ubiquitous presence, swilling beer and shaking hands with anyone available – but it has emphatically not been ‘super’.

The opening two matches have both been mere warm-ups, but they did little to help the image of the event. Turgid runscoring on a painfully slow wicket and catching incompetence must have left Sir Allen wondering about the wisdom of his investment. He will not break the American market with this sort of cricket.

Low-scoring limited overs contests can be intriguing, a game of cat and mouse where skilful batting and bowling is rewarded, but the initial Stanford warm-ups were so devoid of big hitting – England managed seven boundaries against Middlesex - that they resembled the middle overs of a 50 over match.

More significantly, the matches have been as low on quality as they have been on big hitting. No amount of excuses citing unfamiliarity with the floodlights can put a gloss on the shocking standard of catching, although Middlesex and England deserve credit for being embarrassed enough at their abject displays in the field to stay on the field to practice. Stanford looked on impassively, no doubt wishing Australia or South Africa had taken up his offer.

However, the big man should not be too critical of the teams he has invited – the wicket served up for them is so lacking in pace that fluent attacking strokeplay is virtually negated, with pacemen required to do little apart from bowl straight and spinners able to maintain 50 over sized economy rates. Some of the piles of money on offer should have been directed towards the groundsman.

If the $20m match between the Superstars and England follows the trend set so far, the one interesting element of this unsavoury series, that of players buckling under pressure will be removed.

There would have been a guilty pleasure in watching someone shell a chance that cost his team the pot of gold – that pleasure will not be had if chances are going down left, right and centre.

Twenty20 cricket retains its integrity when players perform the necessary skills under extreme pressure. This series is not overflowing with integrity and is in danger of turning to a sequence of beer matches, or rather champagne matches.

Written by Philip Oliver, a sports writer who blogs about cricket betting.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Cracks in the Aussie machine, at last?

The cricketing world have been waiting 13 years for cracks in the Aussie machine to emerge. But, having suffered a humiliating thrashing by India in the second Test, real weaknesses can finally be detected.

Most fundamentally, Shane Warne and Stuart MacGill have proved impossible to replace, especially given the injury to Bryce McGain. Cameron White is a fine cricketer, but he is a batting allrounder playing at eight: as near as Australia come to a 'bits n' pieces' man, he has taken three wickets in two Tests and has a top score of 18.

Indeed, the bowling attack currently does not look able to take 20 wickets in India conditions. Brett Lee, so exceptional since the 2005 Ashes, has been too wayward, and must step up to the plate. Mitchell Johnson has, however, risen admirably to the challenge. But an attack consiting of three quicks who had never played a Test in India, and two batting allrounders - White and Shane Watson - was always going to struggle.

The batting remains powerful, though a little less so than in recent years. Matthew Hayden, with 42 runs in four innings, is fighting against the ageing process, though people said the same after his poor 2005 Ashes. Shane Watson has the ability to make a fine Test allrounder at number six, though Australia clearly miss the multifarious talents of Andrew Symonds, axed for ill-discipline. And Brad Haddin has not yet scored a Test fifty in five games, while he is leaking more byes than Australia would like.

It should not be forgotten that, even at their peak under Steve Waugh, Australia were defeated in India in 2001, ending their world-record streak of 16 Test wins. And, of course, India ended the record-equalling streak once more as recently as January. Yet, where in 2001 Australia were undone by performances of staggering brilliance by Harbhajan Singh and VVS Laxman, the feeling this time is they are losing simply because, man-for-man, they are the inferior side.

Yet while Australia look to have a less effective outfit to win in Asia than for some time, they still have two of the finest pace bowlers in the world, in Clark and Lee, and a batting line-up that can dominate anyone. They are not quite what they once were, and it would be a surprise were they to salvage something from this series. But their side is still an outstanding one - especially in the more pace friendly conditions to be found in Australia, South Africa and England, where their next challenges lie. They are still, just about, the world's best.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Home from home

A look at how Pakistan and India playing home Tests in England can help counter the prominence of Twenty20 cricket.

The battle for survival that Test cricket faces in the Twenty20 era has been well-documented. Players, administrators and supporters all hope and believe that the longest format of the game will continue to prosper, but there has so far been a lack of action in safeguarding Test cricket’s future.

Most new proposals and developments have been associated with Twenty20, although continued trialling of the third umpire referral system and tweaking of ODI power play regulations do reveal a desire by the ICC to improve the credibility of Twenty20’s rivals.

ICC World Twenty20, IPL, ICL, Stanford 20/20 for 20 (the billionaire’s marketing department had an off-day when devising that name!) and Champions League have all sprung up during the global growth of Twenty20, but steps have finally been taken to evolve the Test game.

ECB chairman Giles Clarke has suggested that England could host Pakistan Test matches in a move that would help solve Pakistan’s problem in hosting internationals. They have not played a home Test this year and have hosted just 11 Tests since January 2005.

Clarke’s proposal is not purely altruistic – any problems caused by the transformation of a Headingley green-top into a Multan featherbed to suit the ‘home’ side would be offset by the filling of ECB coffers – but it stands out as the prime example of how Test cricket can maintain its profile.

Clarke told the Wisden Cricketer that ‘Pakistan might get a better crowd in Leeds than in Karachi’ and those who have seen the team’s vocal support in this country would not argue.

Fanatical home support would encourage Pakistan to make the move and prospective opposition would have their security fears allayed; Pakistan will remain a no-go zone in players’ minds, even if security reports give tours a green light.

Pakistan have played home Tests away from home before, in Sharjah in 2002, beating West Indies twice before being hammered twice by Australia. The first defeat, inside two days after being bowled out for 59 and 53, might leave the PCB with unhappy memories of neutral Test venues.

It would not be inconceivable for India to follow suit; recent bomb blasts nearly curtailed Australia’s tour and they suffer from a similar Test apathy to their great rivals – there must be a problem when a ground is not full to watch Sachin Tendulkar attempt to beat Brian Lara’s Test runscoring record.

Dwindling Test crowds in India are partly put down to Twenty20’s popularity, which has encouraged IPL franchises to export their product in the form of overseas exhibition matches.

Such matches should not be compared to possible overseas home Tests, as the motives are very different – the IPL models itself on the English football Premier League and IPL matches at Lord’s and the Oval would be their version of the infamous money-spinning ‘39th step’ round of Premier League matches.

Cricket fans love the traditional values of Test cricket but we must not just live in hope that the most prized form of the game will survive; the authorities need to be proactive in protecting the future of the great game.

Written by Philip Oliver, a sports writer who blogs about cricket betting.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

2008 Season Review: Derbyshire

Continuing our season reviews, here is an assessment of Derbyshire’s season.

Aprils come and go and each one brings optimism that a new dawn is breaking for Derbyshire cricket. We've had more false dawns than a Tony Orlando tribute act but this year was approached with more enthusiasm and anticipation than most.

That it failed was down to a combination of factors, the main failing being the abject one that was the highly priced Rikki Clarke. His signing was heralded with some messianic status round these parts, yet by season end he was gone to pastures new. Derbyshire Second Eleven - sorry, Warwickshire - signed him as they had done Ant Botha and Boyd Rankin before.

However you try to colour it, Clarke was a disaster. He barely made a run and rather than try to battle it out, often succumbed to a "big shot" that smacked of desperation and irresponsibility. His bowling could be threatening, but he bowls two bad balls an over and cannot keep batsmen under pressure. While he caught beautifully, his other failings meant that he had to be a brilliant captain and again he showed tactical naivety. When he left the club there was little sadness among supporters and it was no surprise when his good friend Nayan Doshi followed soon after. While asserting that his departure had nothing to do with Clarke's, Doshi felt he should be in the team. The facts suggested otherwise as the left arm spinner rarely looked dangerous. While he bowled accurately in one day matches and took a 20/20 hat trick, Doshi was no problem to a batsman prepared to work it around.

Our one day season was a disaster, especially once the 20/20 campaign got underway. An early win at Headingley promised much, but the batting desperately needed an explosive overseas star. While Wavell Hinds did quite well, we were too often several wickets down for very little. This continued in the other forms of the one- day game and until we develop a strategy for the game, the feeling remains that we will continue to struggle. As soon as the run rate gets above six an over in a run chase the panic is tangible, while bowlers struggle to keep a line and length.

Yet it was not all gloom and doom. Far from it, as we had three of the best imports in the country, all of whom are re-signed for 2009. Chris Rogers made a stackful of runs and took on the captaincy, while Charl Langeveldt evoked memories of Michael Holding with his willingness to bowl at any time and do so with energy, enthusiasm and consummate skill. Wavell Hinds never produced the big innings that we awaited, but showed enough in cameos to suggest he could be a real asset in a drier summer. His wobbling medium pace accounted for several good batsmen and he was a great asset in the dressing room.

Elsewhere, Graham Wagg was again as good as any all-rounder in the country. If he worked on his batting a little more he could do even better, but 500 runs was testimony to a keen eye and flashing blade. He also took over 50 wickets with left arm seam and spin, depending on the conditions and his injuries, while fielding superbly anywhere. England Sixes recognition was deserved, but Wagg should have been in the Development Squad this winter. Name another all-rounder who has done the mini-double in the past two seasons? You can't can you? Enough said...

Jon Clare emerged like a butterfly from a winter of gym work with a new physique and had a phenomenal first season, with over 500 runs and more than 30 wickets. If Greg Smith can return from his torn bicep muscle next year as a revitalised seam bowler, we will have three all-rounders of genuine talent, as Smith played some innings of brilliance. His off spin is useful, but as a seamer he could have a big role to play in the years ahead.

Jake Needham emerged as the first choice slow bowler and bowled with good flight for a young off-spinner. Another who knows how to bat, young Needham could be another with a sizeable role in the future.

The batting, Rogers apart, was "iffy". The Australian rarely failed but while Dan Birch showed he had learned from his first season, he needs to push on next year. Steve Stubbings rarely featured after May, victim to a shoulder injury that meant he couldn't throw and the side missed his "stickability" when the going was tough. South African Dominic Telo looked composed at the crease but rarely made runs, while John Sadler was a major disappointment after a move from Leicestershire, although late-season one day innings suggested that he may yet produce the goods.

As for the bowlers, Tom Lungley had a poor year with injuries and has to produce a big season next time, while Ian Hunter was probably only re-engaged because Kevin Dean announced his retirement after a fine career. Wayne White also left and the seam bowling strength needs reinforced for next year.

James Pipe kept wicket well until a broken finger ended his season, while Tom New let no one down after moving from Leicestershire on loan. Both contributed with the bat, Pipe's demolition of Worcestershire at Chesterfield being a season highlight.

So at the end of the season there are the usual pangs of disappointment, but even more causes for optimism. Paul Borrington came from University in June to show great promise as an opening batsman, while the mercurial Dan Redfern signed a professional contract and played far better than an 18-year old really should in the last weeks of the season. With Redfern, wicket-keeper Tom Poynton and fast left armer Atif Sheikh all gaining England Under 19 tour selection, the Academy is starting to produce some real gems that should serve us well.

Fans need to temper expectation with patience. With the exception of the overseas imports, this is a young squad and the signs are that, with experience, they will make Derbyshire a side to be reckoned with.

If - note, IF - we sign another seamer this winter and perhaps another good batsman, I would quite fancy us for promotion in the Championship next year. The signing of Mark Lawson, a young leg-spinner, from Yorkshire and that of Garry Park, a punishing batsman, from Durham augurs well. The next few months will be important for John Morris, who has money to spend after off-loading Clarke, Doshi, Dean and White from the wage bill.

Six months till it all starts again. I'm excited already!

For more about Derbyshire cricket, go to my blog at www.derbyshirecricket.blogspot.com

If you're interested in writing a season review for your county (we still need reviews for Somerset, Lancashire, Warwickshire and Gloucestershire) or contributing in any way, it would be much appreciated - please email cricketingworld@hotmail.com

Friday, 10 October 2008

2008 Season Review: Sussex

Continuing our season reviews, here is an assessment of Sussex’s season.

Final Placings:
Championship – 6th
FP Trophy – 5th South East Division
Pro40 – Winners
Twenty20 – 5th South Division

This may well be remembered as the season when the most extraordinary era in Sussex’s history – that brought three Championships in five years after they had never won one before – came to an end. Chris Adams announced he was relinquishing the captaincy. While he ended with a trophy in the shape of the Pro40, there was no such luck for Mushtaq Ahmed.

It proved a season too far for one of the most influential overseas players in the history of the game. After legal wranglings to ensure he could take the field for this campaign, Mushtaq was ravaged by injuries. When he did play, the spark stubbornly failed to materialise; in six games, his wickets came at 41 apiece. But his status as Sussex’s favourite adopted son will live on.

Goodwin secures Pro40 glory
After the heady days of the past five years, this was essentially a mediocre season for Sussex. They mustered a meagre two Championship wins, conspiring to come close to relegation as they relinquished a position of complete dominance in their final game against Yorkshire. Meanwhile, they managed three wins in their Twenty20 and Friends Provident Trophy campaigns combined.

Yet domestic one-day cricket can be immensely hard to predict. Logically, Sussex were amongst the favourites for Pro40 relegation, given their dreadful early-season showings in pyjamas. But with Luke Wright, James Kirtley and Rory Hamilton-Brown restricting opponents, Sussex were able to chase down targets; indeed, they batted second in all of their games. Matt Prior, in between England duties, contributed some fine innings at the top of the order, including 137 to lead Sussex home against Somerset. The real star, however, was Murray Goodwin.

Oozing class, skill and calm, Goodwin has come as close as anyone to mastering the art of the run-chase. In the last three Pro40 games, Goodwin saw Sussex home on each occasion with superb half-centuries. The most incredible came in the final game. Chasing Notts’ 226, Sussex, as so often, left Goodwin facing a mammoth task. Needing 97 from 10 overs with just two wickets in hand, their chances cannot have been much better than 20/1. Yet Goodwin unfurled a series of big shots – not slogging, but high-class batsmanship – while Mohammad Sami played with commendable calm at the other end. Goodwin won the game with a six off the final ball: a fitting end to the Chris Adams era.

Batting struggles
Throughout, Goodwin was outstanding, as if to remind everyone that Sussex’s success was down to more than one import. With six Championship centuries, he often stood alone – the other batting was disappointing in the extreme. Adams’ top score in 14 games was 61, as he moved himself down the order in a vain attempt to find some form. Wright’s form was disastrous and no way justified his continued England ODI place, as he scored just one half-century for Sussex in all competitions. Mike Yardy battled hard and contributed some significant runs, but the new skipper should have scored a century. Chris Nash managed two in a solid season, while Carl Hopkinson and, as ever, Robin Martin-Jenkins chipped in admirably.

After being dropped by England, Matt Prior knew he had to score big runs and improve his keeping. He did both and was magnificent, fully meriting his recall. Averages of over 50 in Championship and List A cricket, whilst moving up the order in the Championship, say it all. And he played perhaps the finest innings in the Championship this season, scoring 133* out of Sussex’s second innings 212 against Steve Harmison and Calum Thorpe, with five sixes and brilliant marshalling of the tail.

Replacing Mushtaq
No one was as outstanding as Goodwin or Prior with the ball, with Jason Lewry’s 41 wickets being the most. But contributions were evenly spread, with Lewry and Corey Collymore forming a potent opening attack, Martin-Jenkins claiming a characteristic 31 wickets at 32, and Olly Rayner making most encouraging strides. The 6ft5in off-spinner was given increased responsibility after Mushtaq’s retirement, and responded with two Championship five-fers; along with leg-spinner Will Beer, he should ensure spin remains a crucial Sussex weapon.

There was embarrassment as Ryan Harris had to return to Australia without playing a Championship game. But Mushtaq was heavily involved in the signing of Sami. From the evidence of his late-season stint – his aggressive bowling, responsible batting and the way he fitted into the side – Sussex could do a lot worse than sign him up as their new overseas player.

As Mike Yardy takes the reins, Sussex are at a palpably difficult stage, with, for differing reasons, Prior, Adams and Mushtaq unlikely to contribute much next campaign. Ambitions may have to be downsized accordingly.

Player of the Season
For six Championship tons and winning the Pro40 almost off his own bat, it’s impossible to look beyond Murray Goodwin – second only to Mark Ramprakash amongst county batsmen in the noughties.

Most Disappointing Player
Dwayne Smith began with a bang in Twenty20, but he soon became the victim of perennial recklessness at the crease, lacking any selectivity. In the Pro40, his brainless batting let the side down, as he averaged just 14. Was not trusted with a solitary Championship game; providing he stays, simply must do better.

Goodwin’s last-ball six to complete an astonishing Pro40 win away at Notts, securing the title in the process. Could any other batsman on the circuit have retained his equanimity facing such a hopeless situation?

The sad shuffle into retirement of Mushtaq Ahmed. A season too far, yes, but too many he is the greatest player in the county’s history.

What does the future hold for Sussex?
Share your views on the piece by leaving a comment below.

If you're interested in writing a season review for your county (we still need reviews for Somerset, Lancashire, Warwickshire, Derbyshire and Gloucestershire) or contributing in any way please email cricketingworld@hotmail.com

Bias or Continuity?

The England selectors have come in for some heavy criticism recently. Are they casting their net wide enough?

Closed shop, private club, old boy’s network. These common descriptions of the current England squad reveal a widespread belief that the national selectors are conservative in their choices and unfairly biased towards players established in the ‘Team England bubble’.

On being elevated to chief selector Geoff Miller stamped his authority but also maintained continuity, evidenced by the axing of Matthew Hoggard and Steve Harmison and the subsequent retention of the same Test team for six matches.

Suggestions that the first choice eleven were too comfortable in their places were not addressed by the dropping of the out-of-form Paul Collingwood or Ian Bell, but rather by the inclusion of Darren Pattinson for the Headingley Test.

This decision was merely a clumsy attempt to show that any productive county player could earn a chance at national level and the selectors have since returned to a policy of blind loyalty, or continuity as they prefer to call it.

Giving players a fair chance to adapt to Test cricket is the correct policy – during the darkest days of English cricket in the 1990’s virtually any player was two bad performances away from being dropped – but the selectors must maintain impartiality.

This does not just apply to selectors’ own picks or county affiliations (and we will never know whether Tim Ambrose’s continued involvement after a horror summer is due to favourable treatment by Peter Moores or Ashley Giles, or perhaps both), but also towards the divisional structure.

The selectors rightly place more significance on performances in the top flight, otherwise there is little point in having split divisions and an apparent difference in quality. However, it could be said that it is too hard for second division players to earn international recognition.

The fact that Warwickshire and Worcestershire bounced straight back to division one after suffering relegation in 2007 suggests there is a gulf in class, although the Surrey vintage of 2008 would surely have struggled in division two.

Selectorial discussions must include phrases such as ‘he scored his runs in division one’, suggesting division two players must score and take a certain amount more of runs and wickets. Such a figure is hard to pinpoint, so selectors are more inclined to go for players from top flight counties.

13 of next year’s 19 central contracts belong to players from division one counties in 2008 and both of the most recent additions to the national squad (Ambrose and Samit Patel) ply their trade in the top flight.

There is something not quite right in the selectors’ dynamic. How can Ravi Bopara go from 12th man for the Oval Test against South Africa to out of a 15 man touring squad? He heavily outscored Owais Shah in division two this season and it is a myth that the latter is in irresistible One Day form (three half centuries in 17 knocks since his breakthrough ton last summer).

Similarly, do the selectors really see a Twenty20 future for Alastair Cook and deserving of a Stanford place? The belief persists that the selectors have their favourites and are failing to reward good domestic displays, especially in division two.

Written by Philip Oliver, a sports writer who blogs about cricket betting.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

2008 – County Team of the Season

So once again, congratulations to Durham, Warwickshire and Worcestershire, while Surrey and Kent look forward to life in a lower league (hang on – didn’t I say that would happen?). One last duty before the tremendous 2008 county season is put to bed. Following Tim’s review of the season, comes my Team of the Season. Same rules as last year: only those who win a player of the week are eligible, so Jacques Rudolph and Steve Harmison aren’t eligible for selection but Josh Cobb and Darren Pattinson are. The team also fits to county regulations with only one overseas player, although I must admit that was through merit rather than planning!

Openers - No specialist openers won a POTW this season, so the places have to go to two players who have filled in rather a lot.

1, Andrew Gale (Yorks) A breakthrough season for the young batsman, who scored a match winning century in week 2 and has been one of the reasons for Yorkshire scoring more batting points than anyone else in Division 1.

2, Vikram Solanki (Worcs) Outscored by Stephen Moore over the season, but scored big when it mattered, including 270 at quicker than a run a ball against Gloucestershire. Captained the team back to Division 1, averaged 47 and scored well over a thousand runs – a fine season.

Middle order – also available for selection were Josh Cobb, Sean Ervine, Tony Frost, Ian Blackwell and most unlucky of all, Martin van Jaarsveld

3, Ravi Bopara (Essex) Following a disappointing winter with England Bopara delivered very quickly for Essex, making POTW in week 1 and keeping that form going all season. He still looks unsure in an England shirt, being dropped for the more recent One Day matches and the forthcoming tour, but for Essex he has averaged nearly 65 and keeps Martin van Jaarsveld out of this team.

4, Mark Ramprakash (Surrey) In any other team he would be a star. In the current Surrey set up, he is so far ahead of the rest of his team mates, it is embarrassing. He couldn’t perform his heroics of single handedly keeping the team up again, but averaging over 60 and reaching his 100th hundred, he had a fine season.

5, Will Smith (Durham) The champion’s only representative shows how much of a team effort winning the title was. He started the season as Paul Collingwood’s stand in and ended up by outscoring the likes of Chanderpaul, di Venuto and Benkenstein.

Wicket-keeper – missing out were Chris Read and James Pipe

6, Matt Prior (Sussex) Like Bopara, Prior had a lot to prove after a difficult winter with England. Like Bopara, Prior answered his critics by scoring a lot of runs regularly, averaging over 50 for the season. At the start of the season, Prior was responsible for keeping the Sussex batting together as the rest of the team struggled. His keeping has reportedly improved immensely and he has been rewarded with an England recall.

All-Rounders – missing out are Jonathan Clare and Ian Blackwell (again)

7, Adil Rashid (Yorks) The final POTW, with his sole century of the season and a 7 wicket haul to kleep Yorkshire in Division 1. His bowling got better and better during the season, with 62 wickets despite the damp summer, while his batting went backwards until that last, vital innings. The England Lions tour beckons for the winter and it will be a surprise if he isn’t in the full England squad this time next year.

8, Dimitri Mascarenhas (Hants) With the loss of Shane Warne at the start of the season, Hampshire went to one of the title favourites to relegation candidates. However, a remarkable run at the end of the season, inspired by Mascarenhas, who averaged 30 with the bat and took 41 wickets at 23 with the ball, saw them as unlikely title candidates even one the last day of the season, finishing 3rd. A downside to the season was the loss of his England limited overs place, to the bemusement of everyone.


9, Imran Tahir (Hants) Of course, Mascarenhas was helped in his turning around the Hampshire season by the introduction of a spinner who looked awful in his one performance for Yorkshire last season, but took 44 wickets at 16 in just 7 games at the back end of this season. Tahir gave the team the mystery factor that Warne’s absence had taken away. It will be interesting to see how he fairs over a full season next year.

Seamers – missing out are Yasir Arafat and Ryan McLaren

10, James Tomlinson (Hants) Hampshire’s third representative in the team, Tomlinson was the top wicket taker in Division 1 and was responsible for keeping Hants in touch with the rest of the division during the first half of the season, particularly inspiring a vital win over Yorkshire, which started the Hants revival.

11, Darren Pattinson (Notts) Michael Vaughan may not have heard of him, but he’s never been that interested in county cricket anyway. Pattinson, a Grimsby born Aussie bred roofer ended up being selected for England based on some excellent early season form, leading the Notts attack in the absence of Broad and Sidebottom